Freethinking dad explains atheism to fourth-graders – Ben Kauffeld

Imagine standing in front of your child’s elementary school classroom and explaining to 30 kids why you don’t believe in God, why you don’t pray and why you don’t think there’s a heaven.

Thinking back on my own public schooling, in an environment where everyone was assumed to be a believer (typically a Christian believer) and with our almost universal hesitancy to discuss religion so as not to offend someone else, it’s pretty hard to imagine doing this. It’s what I did, though, as a guest speaker in my son’s fourth-grade class in Accra, Ghana.

I’ve been working in Ghana for a couple of years. I’m stationed here with my family. Generally, one can say that Ghana is an overwhelmingly religious country (predominantly Christian, but with a Muslim minority).

Here, as in many parts of Africa, religious faith is entwined in nearly every aspect of life and society. People commonly greet you with “God bless you,” and it’s very common to see shops with names like “God’s Grace Motor Repair” and “Blood of Christ Hair Salon.”  I’m not kidding — you can see a hundred signs like this every day.  

As you can imagine, for an atheist and freethinker, it can sometimes be an awkward environment. Since my job requires me to work closely with government and private sector organization leaders in an often high-level capacity, I generally keep my opinions on faith and religiosity like cards held close to the chest.

So when I received a request to speak at my child’s school about atheism, my first thoughts were cautionary about some kind of backlash. I decided though that I owed it to my son to stand up and speak boldly about my own “beliefs.”

My son attends a private international school in Accra. It has about 1,000 students in K-12 who hail from more than 30 countries. Most of the parents are expatriate diplomats, business leaders and wealthier “elite” Ghanaians. The school does not have a religious orientation, and my wife and I have been very pleased with how the school focuses on the holistic development of the individual.

The fourth-grade class had been studying what they call a “unit of inquiry” about human culture and beliefs. They have examined traditions and customs of various cultures, often using specific examples from the diversity of the students’ homes.

Most recently, the class started examining religion -— looking at belief systems, “sacred” texts and places of worship. Almost unbelievably to me, the school organized a series of field trips that took the kids to a Catholic church, an Islamic mosque, a Mormon temple and a Hindu temple. They had tours and presentations by the leaders.

It made me wonder how much people back in the U.S. might flip out if a teacher suggested such a comparative learning experience for their children. Anyway, my son (who has been raised in the open, freethinking, if perhaps a bit anti-religious environment of our home) thoroughly enjoyed the visits. I took a bit of humor out of his reaction that the best part was seeing giant, painted statues of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god.

It seemed fantastic to me that my son’s open-minded teacher was willing to give equal time to a nonreligious viewpoint. He was aware from my son’s unhesitant reportage about our family’s views, so the teacher invited me to be a guest speaker on atheism one afternoon.

Which is atheists’ god?

I was somewhat uncertain about what to say. This was the first time that I would speak publicly about my nonbelief. Knowing how impressionable (and perhaps how easily offended) children this age are, I felt I needed to tread carefully so as not to make an unintended attack on any child’s faith.

I did a bit of research, turning to the Internet for simple definitions and resources about explaining atheism to kids. I found some sites and videos about freethinking parenting, but I think this is an area that we as nonbelievers could develop further.  

I spoke first in general terms about whether or not atheism is a religion. For some kids, that it’s not was a hard concept to take on. Several asked up until the end of my presentation, “Now, which god do atheists believe in?”

Others were “with” the concept quickly though, and I had some expected suggestions from the kids when I asked, “What are some reasons why people choose not to believe in a god or a religion?”

One boy enthusiastically ventured that there are many gods out there and someone might not know which one is “right.” A girl said that people may have never seen a god in front of them. I agreed with the kids about these ideas and also added a bit on philosophical arguments, though perhaps not surprisingly this aspect didn’t take too much hold with a young crowd.

Then I turned to the things that atheists do “believe” in, with a caveat that there isn’t a universal view. I talked a bit about science and its ability to empower people to understand the mysteries of the universe around them on their own, without some godly explanation.

I talked about humans having rational minds and the ability to know what is wrong and right and to treat people kindly and with respect — all without needing a religion to point the way.

The most rewarding part perhaps were the 20 or so enthusiastic questions that the kids raised, along with their expectant hands. They asked about my upbringing, if we go to church, if I pray to anyone, what I think about heaven and people who have died (whew, that’s a touchy one with kids you don’t know!) and also a bit about the history of atheism.

One girl gasped in shock when I said that I don’t pray because I don’t think there is anyone to pray to. Some of the kids were also wide-eyed when I said that only a short while ago in Europe and America, and to this day in some areas, people can be attacked or murdered for saying they don’t believe in God or the prevailing religion.

When a child asked about my son’s belief, I was more hesitant, feeling concerned that the welcoming openness of this dialogue might have later repercussions for him from students with less-open minds. I told his classmates that I wanted my son to have an open and exploring mind and to make decisions for himself about what he believes or chooses not to believe. I hope that religion-focused bullying is not something he has to contend with.

At the end, the class clapped and thanked me, and the teacher expressed how great it was to have this exposure to atheism. I’m sure the kids probably moved right on to recess and sports and (hopefully) some studies or homework, but I do hope they took away a bit more enlightened and accepting view of nonbelievers and atheism.

I hope also that my son is encouraged by my own boldness to openly talk about these ideas among others, and that he is strengthened in finding his own understanding and path through nonbelief or belief, as he may choose in the days and years ahead.

FFRF member Ben Kauffeld is a Foreign Service officer with more than 20 years of experience in international development and humanitarian assistance projects.

Freedom From Religion Foundation