Volunteer of the month: Herb Silverman

  • post Type / Young Humanists International
  • Date / 30 June 2008

Kindergarten Questions for God

by Herb Silverman

All I really need to know, I learned in kindergarten was a best-selling book by Robert Fulghum. The Jesuits put it, “Give me a child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man.”

 In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins points out that following blindly what your parents or other authority figures told you may very well have had some survival benefits, because experience taught elders dangers to avoid. Of course, as we move from child to adult we need to learn for ourselves to distinguish which lessons of our parents to keep, modify, or discard.

Whatever our personal beliefs, we can’t and shouldn’t want to shield children from hearing about other belief systems. Children have questions about God. Some don’t ask them, some are discouraged or reprimanded for asking questions that make adults uncomfortable, and some are given what adults deem to be age appropriate responses. But for just about all fundamentalists, a “correct” answer for a kindergartener is equally correct for an adult. In this article, I ask ten questions (with sub-questions) that bright kindergartners have asked, thought about asking, or should have thought about. Why ten? No particular reason, since I left out more questions than I ask. So feel free to make up your own questions. I think brief discussions on such questions at a tender age could help a child eventually choose to live in a world of reason rather than a world of faith.

But before asking my ten questions, I need to give a caveat/disclaimer: Like Catholic priests, I have no children; unlike Catholic priests, I don’t pass myself off as an expert on child-rearing. However, you, I, and everybody else are experts on God. This follows from what I modestly call the

 Silverman Principle: The number of experts on any subject is inversely proportional to the amount of available knowledge on that subject.
1. Who created God?

This is the first question my Rabbi refused to answer, and now I understand why. There is no reasonable answer to give a child, or an adult. If everything has a cause, then God must have a cause. If God can exist without a cause, then so can the universe. A corollary to this question is, “Who taught God how to be God?” It’s hard to conceptualize a being that comes into existence as an instant know-it-all.

 2. What was God doing before He created humans?

Whether believers think the universe is several thousand or several billion years old, they still believe that God predates the universe by billions of years (or eternity, whatever that means). If God’s primary concern is with us, He sure waited a long time before saying to Himself (since He had nobody else to talk to), “I’m lonely. I think I’ll create human beings to mess around with.”

 3. Since we are created in God’s image, does He look or act like us?

Even children have difficulty picturing God as an old man with a white beard (a slimmed down version of Santa Claus). Trinitarians try to resolve this through the odd mathematical equation 3 = 1, which makes God human, inhuman, and ghostly—all at the same time. If God rests (sleeps?) on the seventh day, apparently the world runs just as well without his active engagement. Robert Fulghum, author of  “All I really need to know…” said in an interview for the Atlanta Journal Constitution that he once asked his Southern Baptist mother if Jesus went to the bathroom. She refused to talk about it with him. (My answer: Of course he did. That’s why we say “Holy Shit!”)

 4. Why did God stop talking to humans (me)?

If people today claim that they have regular conversations with God, we think they are crazy. Were those so-called ancient prophets also crazy? Or did they just make up stuff so people would follow them? We honor Abraham for his unwavering faith when he hears God tell him to kill his son, yet we institutionalize people who hear the same voice (and request) that Abraham purportedly heard.

 5. Why do bad things happen to good people?

Author Harold Kushner tried to answer this question, as did the book of Job. There is no sound answer if you believe in a God who is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful. To paraphrase God when He answers Job in a whirlwind: “Who the hell do you think you are to question Me? Were you there when I did all this incredible universe stuff, you puny little ignorant jerk?” Incidentally, this is the last time God talks to humans in the Bible. Perhaps even a self-righteous God recognized how lame His response to Job was, so He decided to shut up forever. (Maybe this is the answer to the previous question.)

 6. Does God ever change His mind when we pray?

Whether or not we believe everything was determined long before we were born, it seems like heresy to ask God for something he hadn’t planned on giving (like a missed field goal by an opponent). Doesn’t He already know what is best? I just can’t picture God slapping His forehead (in the image of mine) and saying to Himself (since He doesn’t speak to me), “Good point, Herb. I hadn’t thought of it in that clever way of yours.”

 7. Why is belief so important to God when He judges us?

Children are praised or punished for how they act, not for what they think. They are taught that actions speak louder than words, and I would add that words speak louder than thoughts. Wouldn’t a benevolent deity focus exclusively on our being kind to the people He allegedly loves? Is God’s ego so fragile that He confines His ultimate wrath and vindictive acts toward those who disbelieve in His existence or don’t properly worship Him?

 8. How much better is the worst person in heaven than the best person in hell?

Our binary divisions are usually quite arbitrary. People may vote when they are 18 and buy alcohol when they are 21, but they are not permitted to do either on the day before. We recognize such rules for what they are—as distinctions without much of a difference. Not so when it comes to the cutoff between an eternity of bliss and an eternity of torture. Incidentally, how could we be capable of such bliss knowing that family members and friends we now care about so much will be in constant agony for the unpardonable sin of holding different beliefs? Which brings us to the next question.

 9. Will I be the same person in heaven that I am on earth?

If I can sin on earth, but not in heaven, then I will be a different person. Who will I be? On the other hand, if I can sin in heaven will I still be in danger there of being cast into hell? If God loves us so, why didn’t He just put all of us with Him in heaven for eternity to begin with? Why do we live forever in an afterlife, but not in this life?

 10. Why are there other religions?

My neighbors on both sides stay with the “correct” religions of their childhood, and each thinks the religion of the other guy is false. After all these millennia, can’t a benevolent God help us get it right? And I won’t even get into what happens with people born in different countries and cultures.

 When confronted with problematic questions about God or any inexplicable event, people may simply scratch their heads and respond with either of two all-purpose quotes: “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.” This non-biblical passage is from an 18th century hymn of William Cowper, who was suffering from bouts of severe depression because of the notion that he had been marked for eternal damnation by a God who hated him. The Biblically-based equivalent is found in Isaiah 55:8: “God’s ways are not our ways.” But such answers lead to yet another thought-provoking question. Should our ways be more like God’s, or should God’s ways be more like ours? Who among us, if we had it within our power, would not alleviate much of the pain and suffering that we see in the world? 

Despite our best efforts, we know that a lot of adults will maintain childish religious beliefs. In such troubled times, I think we should turn with them to one of my favorite biblical passages, 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” If this doesn’t give them pause, then nothing will.

Herb Silverman:

Born in Philadelphia, Herb Silverman received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Syracuse University and has been a Professor of Mathematics at the College of Charleston since 1976. He has published over 100 research papers in mathematics journals, and is the recipient of the Distinguished Research Award. In 1990, a colleague pointed out that atheists were ineligible to hold public office in South Carolina. After an eight-year battle, Herb won a unanimous decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court, which struck down the religious test requirement for holding public office. He founded the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry in Charleston, SC. He is founder and faculty advisor to the College of Charleston student Atheist/Humanist Alliance. He is spokesperson for the S.C. Secular Council, national board member of the American Humanist Association, national board member of the Atheist Alliance International, advisory board member of the Secular Student Alliance, state board member of the South Carolina ACLU, and a member of the National Advisory Council of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.Herb has appeared in a number of debates, including one last Spring at the Oxford Union in Oxford, England on the topic: Does American Religion Undermine American Values? He has spoken at a number of freethought conferences and recently gave a sermon on “Positive Atheism” at a Unitarian Church. He has numerous articles in freethought publications. He also has a book on Complex Variables and a chapter called “Innerancy Turned Political” in The Fundamentals of Extremism. (taken from the website http://www.secular.org/board/silverman.html)

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