"Mommy, What's Satan?"

Of all the religious concepts that I've discussed with my 8-year-old daughter, Satan has been one of the toughest — partly because it seems awkward to speak of something so nasty and awful in a matter-of-fact way. But that's precisely what makes it a great addition to "Mommy, What's That?" a new series I launched last week, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas to children in a non-religious way. So here goes. Satan: The short answer:

Satan is the "bad guy" in the Bible.

The long answer:

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In the Hebrew Bible, God is the hero who wants people to be good, and Satan is the villain who tries to tempt people into being bad. (Think Batman and the Joker.) Some people believe Satan is just a fictional character. Some people believe Satan is a real being who changes forms so he can trick people into doing bad things. (Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden.) Some people think Satan is just a symbol of the "bad" parts of human beings — because no one is perfect, and everyone is bad sometimes. Some people believe Satan is a "fallen" angel who turned against God and now lives in a place called hell. You will sometimes hear people talk about "the devil" — they're talking about Satan.

Measuring the Space Between Indoctrination, Brainwashing

"I don't want to brainwash my kids with my own views. I want them to decide for themselves what they believe."                                                                           — Pennsylvania mother of three

In secular circles, indoctrination and brainwashing are used almost interchangeably. It's not all that hard to understand why. Instructing young, vulnerable children to pledge their blind allegiance to certain authority figures can, especially for the most cynical among us, evoke rather disturbing images. (Karl in A Clockwork Orange, anyone?) And because hell is so often dangled as a punishment for disbelief, religious indoctrination possesses a fear factor that seems, well, kind of mean.

Clockwork BrainwashBut, for all the sometimes-unpleasant underpinnings of indoctrination, there is a significant difference between what happens to children in CCD and what happened to Karl in Room 23. In short, indoctrination is not brainwashing. And I think that's worth talking about — because parents who blow indoctrination out of proportion will hinder their kids' ability to understand the difference between most religions and harmful cults. And I think that's important — really important — especially if they don't want to, ahem, indoctrinate their kids.

So here's the deal: The Oxford English Dictionary defines brainwashing as pressuring someone to adopt radically different beliefs by using systematic and forcible means. It often implies mind control, and other unethically manipulative methods of persuasion. Some religious sects and many cults are famous for employing classic brainwashing techniques. In his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, author Lawrence Wright touches on a number of them. He writes of policies that prohibit church members from reading articles, essays or blogs that criticize Scientology, and he describes incidents of violence, threats and systematic punishments employed by church leaders to keep members from speaking — or even thinking — ill of Scientology themselves.

Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist, has devoted his life to the study of mind control. His books include The Nazi DoctorsCults in Our Midst and Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. In the latter, Lifton lays out "Eight Criteria for Thought Reform." They are:

  1. Milieu Control — The control of information and communication, resulting in extreme isolation from the outside world.
  2. Mystical Manipulation — Experiences that appears spontaneous but are actually planned and orchestrated to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or other insight.
  3. Demand for Purity — The requirement to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. Guilt and shame are often employed.
  4. Confession — Ways to monitor the personal thoughts (“sins”) of individual members — which are then discussed and exploited by group leaders.
  5. Sacred Science — The idea that the group’s ideology is beyond questioning or dispute.
  6. Loading the Language — The use of jargon and terminology that the outside world does not understand as a means of gaining thought-control and conformity.
  7. Doctrine over Person — Subordinating all personal experiences to the ideology of the group.
  8. Dispensing of Existence — In order to be saved or enlightened, individuals must convert to the group’s ideology. If they are critical of the group, or decide to leave the group, they are rejected by all members.

It's clear that, under Lifton's criteria, few religious parents are actually brainwashing their children. They may be employing one or two of these methods — I know quite a few Catholics very familiar with No. 3, for instance, and a few Mormons familiar with No. 8, and, Oh My God, can we talk about the broad employment of No. 5?— but not more than a few, and certainly not all.

I'm not saying indoctrination is a good thing. To be honest, any degree of intentional indoctrination makes me twitchy, whether it's associated with religion or with atheism. But, after viewing Lifton's list, it's clear that what most parents are doing — on both sides of the aisle — falls far outside the bounds of brainwashing. And that, at least, is a relief.

Help Inoculate Kids Against Meanness

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I'm working on a chapter about addressing scary religious concepts  with kids — Satan, hell, the 10 plagues, that weird thing Abraham almost did to his son that one time. Basically all the rather menacing stories aimed at making people "be good." Luckily, more and more religious families are viewing these stories as myths and metaphor — which removes their power considerably — but there are still many, many families (and places of worship) who teach these things as history and truth.

Unfortunately, when these concepts come up on the playground, they can lead to awkwardness, confusion, arguments, even bullying.

Anyway, the whole thing made me  want to share with you guys something my daughter and I used to do together. She was 4 and about to enter preschool — a whole new world where I wouldn't always be able to offer my protection. I told her that sometimes kids say and do mean things, and that at some point a kid might say or do something mean to her. (I don't think I used the term "bully" — I think that was a word the schools introduced later.)

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We talked about all the ways kids hurt her feelings. Then I helped her come up with ways to handle these types of situations, and we role played some of them.

Maxine used to love to do this. I'd say things like, "Your hair is too curly" or "I hate your dress" or "I don't want to play with you." After each of these remarks, she would summon the attitude of a snotty teenager, look me dead in the eye and say "I don't care." Then she'd turn around and walk away with a swagger. She loved it.

After a while, we'd reverse roles, and she'd lob insults at me. She loved that even more.

The whole thing was very fun and funny. But it was also really effective. She felt prepared, and I felt confident she could handle herself on the playground.

Now that Maxine is 7, she still considers this her fallback strategy. When her cousin, Jack, was 3 and having some anxiety about entering preschool himself, Maxine didn't hesitate before offering up her own advice.

"If someone is mean to you," she told Jack, " just say, 'I don't care!' and walk away."

On 'Hell' and 'Evil' — and the Uselessness of Both Concepts

Dr.-EvilThere is no stronger theme in story-telling than the struggle between good and evil. And there are few better ways to drive home a point than to invoke hell as a benchmark. Think, for example, of the power behind Huckleberry Finn's words when he said, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." Mark Twain may have been an atheist, but he was a writer first. All things devil-related make exceptional literary, cinematic and poetic devices.

But out here in the real world? Oh, hell no.

When I was a news reporter, I covered hundreds of court cases, many of them criminal felony cases involving some highly depraved human beings. I've seen serial rapists, child molesters and murderers up close. I've looked many of them in the eyes.

And one of the things I've taken from that experience is how utterly goofy and useless these notions of "evil" and "hell" can be.

It's easy to see why these terms originally came about. Thousands of years before mental illness became widely understood as something separate and distinct from the soul or morality, humans needed a way to compartmentalize deeply disturbed people — to explain their behavior and to set them apart from everyone else. Not just for a while, but forever. Calling these individuals "evil" and damning them to "hell" was simply de rigueur.

But we live in a different day. Thanks largely to Sigmund Freud, we know better.

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Evil is no explanation, and hell is no punishment. Most people do disgusting, terrible things for one of two reasons. Either they have mental disturbances in their brains, or because they were taught to do disgusting, terrible things as children. Sometimes, it's both.

[Now, I'm not saying these two explanations account for every "bad" thing people do. Cheating, stealing or lying about whether you took performance-enhancing drugs can come about through any number of channels. I'm talking here about the kinds of crimes for which the death penalty was invented.]

Research shows us that, as adults, we tend to recreate for ourselves what felt familiar to us as small children. If we felt loved, valued, safe, calm, accepted, happy and confident as kids, we are very likely to have those feelings as adults. If we experienced stress, worry, criticism, dissatisfaction, instability, crime, anger, hatred, pain, violence, drug use, alcoholism or sexual abuse as children, we are likely to somehow incorporate these things into our adult lives.

So, you see, the nature of "evil" isn't some scary devil guy. That you were constantly neglected, insulted and abused when you were a child and then went to prison for rape as an adult is not some mysterious, extreme aberration in humanity; it's a natural consequence of terrible modeling.

To me, hell is a necessary threat only when parents fail to meet their obligations as parents.

9780958578349_p0_v1_s260x420When children are brought up in households that make them feel unconditionally loved, valued, important and powerful, then — short of mental problems — they won't need the threat of some scary, awful place to keep them from doing "bad" things. They will do "good" because that's what feels normal to them.

I believe, as cheesy at it sounds, that Anne Frank was right: People really are good at heart. We want to do the "right thing." It's just that we're human beings with different brains and experiences and temperaments. We're never, ever going to agree about what that "right thing" entails.

The best we can do is to show others, and ourselves, a great amount of compassion. Being a human is hard. And it's harder for some than for others.

In a way, the threat of hell — when leveled on anyone in any situation — is the opposite of compassion. It allows us to distance ourselves from those who act in unacceptable ways. It lets us see people as one-dimensional creatures. It simplifies what is too complicated to simplify. It's an easy out, and in the worst possible way.

If other people choose to believe in hell and evil and mortal sin, and to teach their kids these things, I will be compassionate toward them. They are, after all, recreating the familiar. But I strongly disagree with it. Teaching these things isn't necessary to make children "good." And it carries the potential to hurt and scare them. And remember what happens when we make fear a part of a child's life, right? Fear becomes familiar and natural to them, and they, subconsciously, look for ways to invite that emotion into their adult lives.

I know it will be a long way off, but I look forward to a day when "evil" and "hell" are only used as hyperbole, and any notions of their true existence are left to the fiction writers.

'We'll Miss You When We're in Heaven and You're Not'

Religious breaks in any family structure can be painful. People who find out beloved relatives have "left the faith" can feel heartbroken, even angry. In a survey earlier this year, I asked nonreligious parents whether they had "come out" to their own families, and, if so, whether they'd received support. About 28 percent of the respondents answered yes and yes: They were open about their beliefs, and most of their family members had been supportive. About 18 percent answered yes and no: They were open about their beliefs, but most relatives had been unsupportive. The highest percentage — 37 percent — said they were open about their beliefs to some, but not all, thereby gaining support from those who were able to offer it, and minimizing tension with those who were not. It's not a bad strategy, really, considering that parents and grandparents scorned in matters of religion can be such a vocal sort. Consider these common refrains:

We just don't understand.

What did we do wrong?

How can you be a moral person and not believe in God? 

Aren't you afraid of what will happen after you die?

Why do you hate God?

We're disappointed in you.

You don't know what you're talking about.

You're confused.

You're rebelling.

You're extreme.

You're unhappy.

You're wrong.

This is a crisis of faith.

This is a phase.

This must be part of God's plan.

You'll snap out of it. 

You're a great person, except for this one thing.

We blame ourselves.

How can you do this to us?

It's not fair.

Even if you don't believe in God, God believes in you.

You should believe in God "just in case."

You shouldn't tell people.

You've been possessed by Satan.

We'll miss you when we're in heaven and you're not. 

And the old stand-by:

We'll pray for you.

Yep, sort of covers it all, doesn't it? You've got guilt, anger, insults, incredulity, resentment, fear, disrespect and denial. Good times! The problem is that in so many families, there is no wiggle room: God means moral. God means good. God means happy. God means truth. God means heaven. And the lack of God means, well, exactly the opposite: evil, sadness, pain, ignorance and hell. With that lineup of adjectives, it's no wonder parents are so desperate to stop the backslide.

If you've heard one (or more) of the above refrains, it probably means you've bitten the bullet and shared your beliefs. And that's so very commendable, if not always pleasant. With exceptions, being honest about our lack of faith simplifies our lives and really does benefit those around us — particularly, as it turns out, our children.

'My Friend Said If You Don't Believe in God, You Go Into Fire'

My daughter was sitting next to me on the couch earlier this week, playing a game on the iPad, when she stopped and looked up. She'd remembered something that a friend had told her at summer school. "She said if you don't believe in God, you go into fire," Maxine told me.

"She did?" I asked."Oh. Well, she's talking about hell. Have you heard of hell?"

"No."

"Some people believe you go there if you don't believe in God," I added with as much neutrality as I could muster.

"Do you believe that?" she asked.

"No. I don't believe that, and Dad doesn't believe that. But some people do."

"Is it true?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Well," she said, "I don't either."

Then, back to the iPad.

This is now the second time we've dealt with the whole hell thing. The first was last year in kindergarten. Both involved very good friends of hers who meant her no harm — and, in both cases, Maxine did not seem too bothered. But I did think it would be a good time to revisit the list I published at that time — When Timmy Gets Told He's Going to Hell: 8 Tips for Parents — and to ask you guys: Have you dealt with this recently? What, if anything, did you or your child do? And was ass-kicking involved? Just kidding about that last one.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

And now for the tips.

1. Don't panic.

This is pretty much the mantra of this blog, and it's a good one to remember here. Your kid is going to have to wade through a load of shit in elementary school, which will only prepare her for the bigger load of shit she'll have to wade through in middle school until the shit piles so high, it spills over into your life during adolescence. Best to learn to chill out now. Bourbon helps.

2. Remember: Hell is a nasty word, but it's  just a word.

We tend to give hell a lot more weight than it's really worth. That's not to say it's okay to tell someone they're going to hell, but let's put it in perspective. Sally is told she's "ugly" because she wears glasses or has freckles. Johnny is a "sissy" because he can't throw a ball. Mary is "retarded" because she has a stutter. Timmy is going to "hell" because he doesn't believe in God. Each insult is just as mean and hurtful as the next — and, also, just as untrue.

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3. Consider the source.

Not all H-bombs are created equal. One thrown by an unassuming kindergartner is not the same as an assault by a junior minister at a relative's church, or talk of hell by your child's Muslim grandmother. A school incident may require no action from you (See No. 4), but if a place of worship is scaring your child, it's probably best to find a new place of worship. And if a family member is involved, that deserves a sit-down talk.

4. Follow your kid's lead.

While we parents love to impose our sage advice on our kids, sometimes the best thing to do is listen and encourage. When we steer our kids too much, or expend a lot of energy trying to fix their problems, we often send the message that they can't possible fix these problems themselves. If your child dealt with the H-bomb without becoming abusive to the bomber, she deserve major kudos. Maybe she told the teacher. Maybe she defended herself. Maybe she did absolutely nothing. Whatever it was, tell her she did a bang-up job. "Good for you!" you might say. "I love how you handled that." Or the old reliable: "I'm so proud of you."

5. Appeal to logic.

Take your kid outside. Look up at the sky. Stomp on the ground a little. Look at some pictures of space and the Grand Canyon. Then talk about this "hell" of which people speak. If it exists, where is it? A great centerpiece to any religiously complex conversation is: "Does that make sense to you?" For example: "If someone is a nice person, and only does good things for other people, do you think that person will go to some horrible place after he or she dies? Does that make sense to you?"

6. Separate the hell-talkers from the religious masses.

A great many religious people — particularly modern, progressive types — have done away with this old-fashioned notion of hell altogether; either they believe that only truly evil people go to hell, or they've abandoned the notion altogether. And even among those who do believe in hell, most are not particularly worried about whether you are going there; they're far more worried about whether they are going there. The point is, not all religious people believe your kid is going to hell; it's important your kid knows that.

7. Use it as a learning opportunity.

Hell is a super-interesting field of study, for kids who are old enough to handle it without nightmares. And treating it as just that — a field of study — helps remove some of its power. Look up Hell on Wikipedia. Read about how each religion imagines hell, and how they differ.  You might be surprised how many religions have no concept of hell at all. Talk to your child about how hell is depicted in songsmoviesartworksliterature and video games. Also, explain that many people think of hell as a condition of one's own mind; when you do hurtful, amoral things, you must then suffer the guilt and remorse and regret that goes with those decisions. (For many of us, that's a fate worse than anything the devil could do.)

8. Tell someone.

I added this one at the last minute after I read a post by blogger Steph Bazzle on Parenting Beyond Belief. Her 8-year-old son came home from school after a fellow classmate told him he was headed "down there." Bazzle ended up writing an e-mail to the principal, teacher and guidance counselor. Not a freak-out e-mail, but a heads-up e-mail. Their response? The principal called her immediately, genuinely concerned. And the school guidance counselor scheduled a tolerance course for every grade in the school. Can't ask for better than that.

‘Kids Who Don’t Believe in God go to a Very, Very Bad School’

Six-year-olds are fickle little things. In the last year and a half, Maxine has gone back and forth numerous times on the whole religious faith thing. For a long time, she divided her week up as follows: “I believe in God three days, and I don’t believe in God two days.” (I never bothered telling her there were actually seven days in the week; logic was obviously not what she was going for.)

When last we spoke about it, Maxine had decided she was both Christian and Jewish.

A few months ago, she was sitting at her kindergarten table. (You know the ones — those super-low-to-the-ground tables with those itty bitty chairs? The ones that make you want to throw up they're so cute? It was one of those.) This was around Christmas, and the eight kids seated at this particular table were talking about God. One by one, each voiced their belief in God — except Maxine, who said that thing about believing three days and not believing two days.

“But everyone in the class believes in God,” one child told her.

“No, they don’t,” Maxine countered.

And then this:

“Kids who don’t believe in God go to a very, very bad school.”

Bam.

There it was.

You want to know what’s worse than a fiery pit of hell to a kindergartner? A very, very bad school, that’s what.

Luckily for us, Maxine is already one skeptical little chick. She once heard a song on the radio called "A World of Happiness" and demanded we shut it off because a world of happiness would be wrong. "People," she insisted, "need to be sad sometimes."

So, yeah, she's not the sort of person who believes everything she hears, which may have been our saving grace during the God conversation. When she heard the "bad school" scenario, it didn't make much sense to her. And it didn't take much to convince her that the little girl at her table couldn't possibly have known the religious convictions of all 24 kids in her class.

But the whole thing stung her a little. And it stung me, too.

I’ll be devoting some of my book, of course, to dealing with this particularly sticky issue in secular parenting. What should  parents do or say when their children get told they're going to hell? What are the best ways to protect and prepare kids for this almost-inevitable scenario? Moreover, how do we counteract the negative scare tactics involved in religion without treating the entirety of religion as something to oppose or fear?

I'm eager to hear from you on this one. Have any of your children been told they're going to hell? What happened? How did your child handle it? And how did you?

 

'Troubled Youth Such as You Burn in Hell'

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During my freshman year of college, I had a roommate whose subversive sense of humor was rivaled only by my own. One day, while wandering around in a thrift store, she spotted a picture of Jesus with his arms around two forlorn teenagers. My roommate bought the picture and penned an inscription at the top.

"Dear Wendy," the inscription read. "Troubled youth such as you burn in hell. Love, Jesus."

I suppose my roommate considered herself a lapsed Catholic, and I didn't consider myself much of anything. We joked a lot in those days about how we were both destined to wind up in hell but how we weren't worried because that's where all the cool kids were going to end up anyway.

My favorite part of the picture is the pretty handwriting she used to pen the note, and the addition of the word "love." Because there's nothing unloving about telling someone they're going to hell. Not when it's the truth. Not when Jesus is saying it.

After 20 years, I don't guess I fall into the "youth" category anymore. But I'm pretty certain a good number of people still think I'm heading to the underworld— what with my decision to write a public blog about raising kids without the many comforting images of heaven, eternal life and an almighty protector walking beside us on sandy beaches.

I guess I've always assumed that, if a benevolent god did exist, such a god would not punish skeptics or freethinkers simply for being skeptical or freethinking. But I suppose it's possible that I'm wrong. It's possible that somewhere, out there, a vengeful god is waiting to send me straight to hell, to burn alongside all those other poor souls who believed the wrong way.

Then again, all you guys are probably going to be there, too. So how bad could it be?