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

By Wendy Thomas Russell | March 19, 2012 | 10 comments

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.”


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?



  1. Karen Loe says:

    My son, age 11, recently underwent an incredibly challenging “friendship” with a neighborhood kid. My son wanted SO MUCH to be friends with this other eleven year old in the neighborhood. He lives nearby, he, too, is homeschooled, and he’s eleven…
    But that other boy could NOT let it read. Almost every day my son would come home telling me how the “friend’ told him it was a “shame he didn’t believe in a loving god, Man” or “too bad you are going to hell, Man.” or “…maybe if you just knew more about Jesus, you’d understand, Man.”
    My son would come storming in the back door, angry as heck that this kid would feel it was absolutely OK to constantly disrespect him (my son) about not sharing his (friend) belief systemS.
    The friend has a mom who is Christian and a father who is Jewish. So he has several belief systems under one roof.

    Anyway, my point it, my son heard again and again that he was going to hell. My son would try talking to the kid “Can’t be just overlook our differences and be friends…” and the like, but this kid couldn’t do that.
    It was a nightmare for my son. It’s been several months since the last time they hung out together. Occasionally the neighbor will shout unkind things at my son across the yards…
    And my son, try as he might, can’t stop thinking about the “going to hell” comments and the many, many smaller slights that this kids did and said…

    My son, as a result of this, told me that he has decided to end relationships much earlier when a believer can’t deal with people who don’t believe. No sense in getting himself beaten up..

    • Oh, Karen, that is just a shame. A shame for your child, and a shame for the neighbor — since he is missing out on the friendship of your obviously awesome kid. Your son did exactly the right thing, of course. As heartbreaking as it is, sometimes the only solution is to walk away from the friendship and take a lesson with you on the way out. Your son has done both.

      That is child, unfortunately, is living in a very narrow world — a world where only what he thinks and believes are valid. You can bet your ass it extends further than religious belief. He is turning (or will turn) a lot of good people away because they don’t fit into the narrow mold he’s created. I do wonder if going through adolescence might help cure what ails him.
      In the meantime, your son is learning a valuable, if heartbreaking, lesson of friendships: Sometimes they end.

      I just hope son knows that the world is full of people who can and will give him what he needs emotionally; it’s just that this kid happens to not be one of them.

      Thanks so much for sharing this!

  2. Ben says:

    My daughter didn’t get told she was going to hell exactly, but she did feel shunned by some of her peers after a classroom discussion about evolution/creationism and the variety of beliefs in the world w/r/t religion. I did a post on my blog about it, but the basic gist of our response was to 1) ask her what she believed [she doesn’t believe in a god], 2) tell her about some of the other people who don’t believe in a god, including some of her heros like David Attenborough [she loves the Planet Earth series and some of the other things he’s hosted over the years], and 3) we told her that being able to believe whatever she wants is something that no one can ever take away from her since no one can control our minds.

    We also had a leg up with her since she’s got a stubborn streak a mile long. I thought at first that she might want to believe like her friends, but she was adamant that they were all wrong and she had zero interest in pretending otherwise. Mostly, she just didn’t want to feel alone.

  3. Elaine says:

    I’d appreciate all the tips I can get for this one. I’m sure it’s still coming. I know it is still early days but my “almost 6 year old” has decided that Jesus is not real. She’ll probably change her mind again, but I’m a little bit scared for her about what she will say in class, and what the response would be.

    The Teacher knows we are non theists, and is okay with that, and seems really good with handling things like that, so I am happy there.

    I’ve always tried to tell my daughter that everyone is “allowed” to believe in different things. And it is okay if your friend likes XYZ and you like ABC.

  4. As a gay and religious person, I get told I am going to Hell. I know it is not true. You know your child is not going to Hell. I think your confidence on that point will rub off on your daughter- it looks as if it already has. How to value religion despite the scare tactics? Look at the beauty in it. The Good Samaritan, for example, a tale of love in action. It is beautiful, whether you call Jesus your “Redeemer” or not. There is a lot of beauty in religions. For an adult, value the stories as speaking directly to your emotional being, bypassing your rational self.

  5. Rich Wilson says:

    I’ve always gone by ‘right’ is doing what you think is right, even when nobody is watching. I was updated. It’s actually doing what you think is right, even though you’re surrounded by people who tell you it’s wrong.

    I’m not sure that’s something we can teach. Or even fault our kids when they bend to peer pressure. I know it wasn’t me who erased a the extensive notes a teacher had put on the blackboard. It was the chanting over every other kid in the class.

    I think the best we can do is make sure our kids know that whatever peer pressure they face, and decisions they make, they’ve got a safe loving place to come home to at the end of the day.

  6. What a smart kid! I don’t have any children yet, and really don’t know what you would do to prepare them for something like that, but I am so, SO impressed by your daughter. People do need to be sad sometimes! She sounds like something special.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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