Therapist advises atheists to lie to their kids, pretending there’s a god and a heaven

December 8, 2019 • 9:00 am

The Wall Street Journal is of course a conservative venue, but this time it’s exceeded even the normal right-wing love of religion. The article below, by psychoanalyst Erica Komisar, is behind a paywall, but I’ll give some quotes. And judicious inquiry might turn up a copy.

Komisar’s argument is based on a 2018 study showing that church attendance and prayer or meditation are positively associated with some measures of well being in growing children. She concludes that we should tell our kids that there’s a god and an afterlife, even if we are atheists. In other words, we should lie to our kids. After all, don’t we care about their welfare? Here’s the article, which leads to a paywall:

Komar’s thesis is based on the paper below from the American Journal of Epidemiology; a free pdf is available by clicking on the screenshot.

I couldn’t be arsed to read the whole paper in detail because it’s long and tedious, but I did look it over. The authors used longitudinal data from the Nurse’s Health Study II and the Growing Up Today Study, enrolling 116,430 nurses aged 24 and 42, and, using questionnaires, assessing their children aged 9 to 14. There were three categories of “religious service attendance”:  never, less than once a week, or at least once a week.  Religiosity (actually spirituality) was measured as answers to the question, “How often do you pray or meditate?”, with answers ranging from “never” to “once a day or more”. They then correlated these measures with other measurements that, they say, indicate well being.

The authors report that going to church at least once per week was associated with greater volunteering, great forgiveness, less marijuana use, later sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners (the last three are clearly considered positive traits).  More frequent praying or meditating was associated with greater positive affect, better emotional processing, greater volunteering, a greater sense of mission, more forgiveness, lower drug usage, later sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners. However, more frequent prayer or meditation (these weren’t separated) was also associated with more physical health problems. But the authors dismiss that result by arguing that those in poorer health may pray more often. They don’t consider, however, whether more puritanical or virtuous  people might have a tendency to want to go to church or pray more often. In other words, the negative result (poor health) is assumed to drive religiosity, while the positive results are assumed to result from religiosity.

As an alert reader noted (see comment #7 below), the funding for this study came in part from A Usual Suspect:

Based on that work, Komisar simply tells everyone to pretend that there’s a god and and afterlife when their kids raise the questions. Presumably we want our kids to be better off (and use less drugs and lose their virginity later!), so why not lie?  What’s the downside? Here are some excerpts from her article:

Nihilism is fertilizer for anxiety and depression, and being “realistic” is overrated. The belief in God — in a protective and guiding figure to rely on when times are tough — is one of the best kinds of support for kids in an increasingly pessimistic world. That’s only one reason, from a purely mental-health perspective, to pass down a faith tradition.

I am often asked by parents, “How do I talk to my child about death if I don’t believe in God or heaven?” My answer is always the same: “Lie.” The idea that you simply die and turn to dust may work for some adults, but it doesn’t help children. Belief in heaven helps them grapple with this tremendous and incomprehensible loss. In an age of broken families, distracted parents, school violence and nightmarish global-warming predictions, imagination plays a big part in children’s ability to cope.

. . . [Gratitude and empathy]can be found among countless other religious groups. It’s rare to find a faith that doesn’t encourage gratitude as an antidote to entitlement or empathy for anyone who needs nurturing. These are the building blocks of strong character. They are also protective against depression and anxiety.

And so the good psychoanalyst concludes that we need to cram religion down the throats of our kids, for it’s for their own good:

Religion or spiritual practices can teach children mindfulness, a sense of physical and emotional presence necessary for mental health. No matter how active my children were when they were young, they knew when they entered our temple for services they had to calm their bodies and relax their minds. Though they complained when they were kids, and still complain at times as adolescents, they have developed the ability to calm themselves when overwhelmed.

Today the U.S. is a competitive, scary and stressful place that idealizes perfectionism, materialism, selfishness and virtual rather than real human connection. Religion is the best bulwark against that kind of society. Spiritual belief and practice reinforce collective kindness, empathy, gratitude and real connection. Whether children choose to continue to practice as adults is something parents cannot control. But that spiritual or religious center will benefit them their entire lives.

Now I’m not going to quibble with the J. Epidemiology paper, as it would take too long to scrutinize it carefully, but I invite readers to have a look if they’re interested. One thing worth looking at is whether the size of the positive effects are substantial enough to prompt one to interfere in their kids’ lives. But let’s assume that the effects are real and palpable. Should we then lie to our kids?

The idea that we should pretend that there’s a god and a life after death, even if we ourselves reject them, goes against my grain, and I simply can’t accept the idea of lying to children about such things, no matter how salubrious the lie. One could say, “we’ll discuss that when you’re old enough to understand,” but even taking a kid to church is roughly equivalent to affirming the truth of church doctrine.

So why do I instinctively reject Komisar’s advice to lie? (I don’t have kids, so the isn’t doesn’t really come up for me.)  First, if you are an atheist, your kid is going to know it, and see that you don’t practice what you preach. That might confuse the kid, and at any rate I don’t see Komar telling atheist parents to try to believe. But she does seem to be telling us that we should drag our kids to church and make them pray, which of course is bad for us atheists. After all, if our kids go to church, we have to take them there.

Further, there’s no control for other social activities that may foster mental health, like being on sports teams or clubs. It’s just religion versus no religion, yet those in nonreligious countries like Sweden probably find well being in other social activities that weren’t assessed in this study.

And what happens when the kid grows up and figures out for him/her/hirself that religion is bunk and we go nowhere when we die? They’ll not only feel cheated, but they’ll realize that you lied to them. And if you’re an out atheist, it’s even worse, for they’ll see you as an arrant hypocrite.

Finally, as I don’t want to rant at length, Komisar asserts at the end that if you’re religious as a kid because your parents lied to you, then even if you reject religion as an adult, you’ll still carry the benefits of your youthful belief. Now where is the evidence for that?

h/t: Dave

116 thoughts on “Therapist advises atheists to lie to their kids, pretending there’s a god and a heaven

    1. What’s wrong with just telling them that you don’t know. After all, hasn’t it been agreed the best religious truth is when they’re able to decide for themselves.

      1. Sadly, children of the religious do not get “I don’t know” as an answer. Those parents think they 100% do know – hence the indoctrination of the children.

      2. There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” or ” I do not believe”. My response was suggesting that kids can get the same social benefits from non religious activities. And also, even if we were to take the advice and lie to our kids.. Lying suggests that our kids would believe and benefit from whatever religion has to offer as opposed to the reality of the cognitive dissonance they would face from atheist parents who put them in a contradictory culture. Also, there is a sense that well being stems from the dogma of the religious rather than placebo of fantasy. If that’s the case then the suggestion would be to just give them hope in something supported by others in the community. No dogma necessary.

      3. I wouldn’t want to lie to my children.

        I don’t know if there’s a god or not (I lean towards not) but I am pretty hundred percent certain that, even if there is a god, all of the religions I have come across were invented by humans.

    2. Whenever I see these papers I want to know if they also tested for the positive effects of attending some kind of heavily social group gathering, similar to churchgoing only without the religious element. Like the Scouts. Because if they didn’t then the exercise is almost useless.

      Even if they did, the extent to which religion and the church is embedded in society means there really isn’t a fair control for them to use. Even joining the scouts doesn’t have the same influence and bonding strength of being part of a church. Never mind the baked-in psychological effects of intentionally excluding yourself from a large group that doesn’t look on outsiders positively.

      What I’m asking is whether these people even tried to test for whether it was the social aspects of church-going that were helping the children, or whether it was the actual belief in god that was doing it. Because if it’s the former then the most you can say as a psychiatrist is ‘tell your children to pretend they believe in god, so they can attend church, which is socially beneficial.’ Which is about as nakedly cynical as it gets.

        1. As with a scarily large amount of my information about the world, the extent of my knowledge of the scouts comes from the Simpsons.

          Still, I think it’s clear what I meant.

          1. That was true in the USA, in the 1970’s, when I participated as well.

            Almost nothing about religion. I would not have stated it religious underpinnings at the time. But that was all before the religious upsurge of the 1980’s (mega-churches, etc.)

      1. I agree. You’d have to compare with another country though as the US is a clear outlier when it comes to religiosity.

        The US donates more per capita than any other country (a huge amount of which is religious donation), but NZ comes in a close second, and our none rate is over 50% (can’t remember the exact figure) and rising fast. When a society is structured so that it is religion that is the most common binding force, as it is in many parts of the US, a result like this survey is inevitable.

        I think it’s wrong to lie to kids. I never lie to my nieces and nephews when they ask about my beliefs. My answers are ones that are appropriate for the age of the child. It works as my siblings know they can trust me with their kids.

        1. The US donates more per capita than any other country (a huge amount of which is religious donation)

          Doesn’t the US have some sort of tax exemptions for religious donations? In which case, I’d expect that the timing and value of donations would be sufficient to be very tax efficient.
          Is “tax optimisation by religious charity donation consultant” a job title in the US? Probably.

          1. NZ has those same tax exemptions, including for most religious donations, Scientology has lost its status as a religion, and there is an evangelical church that originated here that has trouble maintaining its tax-free donation status for parts of its multi-pronged invasions into trying to take over the country. (The self-appointed bishop of the church, Brian Tamaki, predicted he’d be PM for life in 2006, but has never managed to win a single seat in parliament.)

  1. I would expect such a result from the religious. They have been lying to themselves and everyone else most of their lives, why not to the kids. As a model Christian citizen they can look to Donald Trump where lying has become a necessity, an art. After all, in those list of ten commandments I don’t see anything about lying to the kids. Praise the XXXX, it must be good.

    1. in those list of ten commandments I don’t see anything about lying to the kids

      Isn’t there one line about “honouring thy father and mother”, which for most people outside the Royle Family (footnote). For most people that could only mean “believe what they tell you, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense”, and certainly not under any circumstances to disagree with them. “Please don’t hit me, Daddy” is a Biblically prohibited sentiment, and if you even think it, you’re going to suffer the torments of Hell for all eternity. That’s religion for you.
      (footnote) I bet the scriptwriters bit at that piece of low-hanging fruit at least once. But I was never able to stand watching more than a cigarette’s worth of it when it was on, so I’m not sure.

  2. “The belief in … a protective and guiding figure to rely on when times are tough — is one of the best kinds of support for kids in an increasingly pessimistic world.

    This is true and that protective figure should be a mom and a dad and a grandpa and a grandma and aunts, uncles cousins, etc.

    All those desired qualities and outcomes can be taught and nurtured without any of the
    stupidity of supernaturalism or deities.

    1. Absolutely. And discovering that those protective guardians lied to you is going to undermine all that good work.

      Of course, there’s still the Santa Claus dilemma…!

      1. Oh, Santa! Now, after nearly 70 yrs, I clearly remember my outrage when I learned, thanks to a newspaper photo of a Santa Claus convention, that it was a lie. Sure lessened my trust of both parents and society.

      2. Of course, there’s still the Santa Claus dilemma…!

        Just substitute the Hogsfather for Santa, and then celebrate the spirit of Christmas properly with the pig from the bottom of the garden, a pole axe, and a set of knives on the 24th.
        Dilemma? What dilemma?

  3. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion a lot of the time that Psychology is quackery. I am surprised that Komisar so blithely endorses lying to one’s children. That in itself often has negative effects if discovered. The ultimate issue, though, is that Komisar doesn’t see any negatives with religious belief and church membership. As we all know the “Good” lies of religion are accompanied by a greater number of “Bad” lies that can include misogyny, racism, and general intolerance to other religions. It’s just Pascal all over again.

    1. The newspaper article is written by a psychoanalyst and the research done by epidemiologists, so please don’t bash us lowly psychologists, at least not on the basis reported here. We get enough criticism as it is!

    2. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion a lot of the time that Psychology is quackery.

      As little as that? As a profession and a science, it is as necessary and useful as understanding physiology to being an effective torturer.

      I am surprised that Komisar so blithely endorses lying to one’s children.

      Why? The guy is a therapist, and makes no bones about it.

  4. OH YUCK!!! This is just so awful! Who sez you can’t raise your kids to live good lives without religion? Who sez church makes your kids better people?

    I’ve met just too many god-believers who are in bad shape to think that church and religion are a virtue.

  5. Original study funded by ….. Templeton. Difficult to get a handle on all the results, but p values don’t mean much given the very large sample sizes. If I understand correctly, they standardized the outcome variables (mean = 0, standard deviation = 1) so reported values represent change in terms of standard deviation units. Many effects were small if that is correct (.10 of a SD)?

    I didn’t see it mentioned on a quick read, but cross-cultural research indicates that relationship between religion and health/well-being varies with the religiosity of the country. Tending to be positive in more religious countries and negative in less religious countries. Would the authors argue that believers in less religious countries should lie and say there is no god?

    1. I missed that when I read the acknowledgments, for my first thought was to see if Templeton was behind this. I can’t believe I didn’t see that, but I’ll put it in the post above. Thanks!

    2. I would say that figures. An atheist telling their own kids to believe in g*d. You can’t feed that to your cat.

    3. Did they control(or whatever the word is) for whether the effect of church-going was down to social bonding or actual belief in a deity? Did they compare church-going with a secular form of socialising?
      What I’m trying to find out is what reason is there to believe that going to a church is inherently more psychologically beneficial than attending any kind of group gathering with high levels of tribal bonding?

      If they haven’t demonstrated that the benefits are specifically down to belief, then it seems completely unprofessional of the psychoanalyst to recommend tricking children into believing.

    4. The normalizing of effect size is a dirty trick often used by psychologists, economists, and even biologists to hide teh actual magnitude of the effect and make their work seem more important than it is. This is especially common and odious in clinical trails of drugs.

      1. I certainly agree that, like P values, standardized coefficients of effect size can be abused but it is a legitimate statistical tool, if used correctly. It is most often used when comparing related variables which are on different scales and AFAIK, this is a legitimate and robust practice.

        1. I agree that it serves a narrow statistical purpose; it helps answer the question of whether an effect is different from what you would expect by chance (if properly corrected for multiple comparisons). But that is the dirty trick that most “soft” scientists engage in. We don’t usually care about whether an effect is statistically significant. What we really need to know is the actual raw magnitude of the effect (with confidence intervals expressing our uncertainty in this estimate).

          Any study of this kind is virtually guaranteed to show a statistically significant result, at whatever p-value you choose, if the sample size is large enough, because the true group means in by a thousandth of a percent, and this can be detected with whatever level of significance you want, if your sample size is big enough.

          This is a pervasive error in the softer sciences, including biology and psychology. It should be called out every time we see it.

          1. “because the true group means in by a thousandth of a percent”

            >should be

            “because the true group means in natural populations are surely different, if only by a thousandth of a percent”

          2. I remember reading about some anti-vaxxers who commissioned a study (after the large population study in Denmark debunked the MMR-Autism hoax).

            The study showed no effect.

            And what was the reaction of the anti-vaxxers? Cherry-pick the data.

            They went on about how, yes, no effect was shown; but they were digging into the data because they thought an effect would be shown for a sub-population.

            Which was no surprise, since they aren’t scientists.

            You are right in that a major prop of the faux-health industry (books, classes, and, of course, supplements) is to sound sciencey. It fools a lot of people, including many who should know better.

          3. The sad thing is that the issue I am describing is common even among good scientists. In some fields it is standard procedure. This problem is not about cherry-picking the data but rather about a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of statistics in science. Most scientists don’t even see the problem.

            The poinbt is that even a properly done p-value does not tell us anything about the real magnitude of an effect, and that is what we need to know.

          4. Yes, I agree. Engineers use statistics incorrectly as well. (I have myself.)

            All a small p-value tells you (if you have a well-designed and well-executed experiment) is that “something happened:” The result was not random.

          5. “Engineers use statistics incorrectly as well. ”

            Perhaps a summary, more generally, could be that every applied area in which mathematical statistics is taught to future practitioners as a list of “cookbook recipes” is rife with incorrect use.
            But good luck trying to teach ‘the masses’ starting from fundamentals and even carefully stating theorems, much less actually proving them. As with other similar things, if you don’t know the actual hypotheses which ‘make’ these theorems true, you are quite prone to incorrect use.
            The big trouble is that in similar cases to this, and especially in medical, including psychological, with uses of statistics, there can be such direct importance to individual humans. An innocently applied useless treatment for your cancer can have a bad effect on your life, such as its premature non-existence (he drones on, stating the obvious!).
            Other instances of statistical mistakes, like some particle physicist claiming incorrectly the existence of axion particles or something, produce as the only human ill effect some later disappointment among a few of us with esoteric interests.

          6. Let me put it another way. In the study you mention, if the sample size had been large enough, the anti-vaxxers would have been able to show a highly significant effect, correctly using all the right statistics. With a large enough sample, they could get a properly-calculated p-value of 0.00001. That’s because the true values of the two group means surely differ slightly. A highly signifcamnt p-value is always attainable for almost any question, in almost any natural setting, if sample size is large enough. So that’s not what we should care about; what we should care about is the actual raw magnitude of the effect. Too many scientists keep slipping into the error of being impressed by statistical significance.

          7. You describe an important “look-out” for data presented.

            We rarely have sample sizes >230 and typically they are in the 15-50 range, depending.

            We always look at, for instance:

            Compare the means
            Compare the means to the standard deviations
            Look at a probability plot to see what the distribution looks like
            See what kind of distribution fits the data well (Normal, LogNormal, Weibull, etc.)

            Our sample sizes are never huge (too expensive to generate).

            What I find, over and over, in the pseudoscience realm, is total bullshit on the internet that completely missed the point of studies or (deliberately or inadvertently) claims the opposite of what the study showed.

            For instance the internet meme that canola oil (in the IS and EU) causes cancer.

          8. Which was no surprise, since they aren’t scientists.

            Or statisticians.
            You can be a statistician without knowing a thing about science, but you can’t be a scientist without at least some appreciation of statistics.

  6. Jeez, if you’re so worried about “later sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners,” just lie to kids about storks being the source of babies. That oughta take care of that.

    Anything in the WSJ piece regarding whether lying to kids about the tooth fairy leads to improved dentition?

    1. Surely lying about the tooth fairy would have the opposite effect – you’d want to get rid of your teeth asap, start bringing in those dollar bills.

    2. Jeez, if you’re so worried about “later sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners,” just lie to kids about storks being the source of babies.

      So … if I get this argument right … If I wanted to reverse my vasectomy for some reason, like having offspring, I should get some stork food, a large trap (storks must be pretty big birds to carry a human baby – several kilos, aren’t they?) and a tool for extracting the baby from the stork?
      I’m not sure I understand this argument. Maybe I’d be better going to an urologist?

  7. When I and my brother and sister were young my parents, who did not attend church, decided perhaps we should start going. I think they reasoned that kids need some influence to help us stay on the straight and narrow. We attended a few times but then quit. We kids made if clear we found Sunday school boring. My father said the sermons were very repetitive and ignorant.

    When my daughter was young she was raise going to Catholic Church since my wife was of the tradition. Later we quit that habit and my atheism was obvious to her. When she was a little older, she complained, asking why she hadn’t been raised to be religious. She was confronted with many religious friends who, she said, seemed to be numbingly content with belief while she had to struggle with life’s complexity. I simply told her it’s better to be truthful than to live a lie. She’s still irreligious and grudgingly tolerant of her many religious friends.

    1. ” She was confronted with many religious friends”

      That kind of touches on part of the reason why kids might be happier under some kind of religion doesn’t it? The simple fact that religion is so fucking ubiquitous makes members of the irreligious outgroup feel less like they belong.

      But that’s hardly justification for believing in god. At most it’s justification for lying about it, and accruing the social benefits in spite of one’s nonbelief. Better would be to get rid of the whole moth-eaten edifice, so that kids don’t feel left out and miserable if they’re not part of the kumbayah klan.

  8. Regarding discussing death with a child, I don’t know that this is very helpful advice. Regardless of what your answer to the question of what happens when we die is, from “I don’t know” to “We turn to dust and go away” to “We go to heaven”, it is a huge and abstract thing to try to explain to a child, and real practical advice would likely focus on framing it in a way that is appropriate for any given developmental level. What is emotionally appropriate and comprehensible to a toddler is entirely different than it is for a tween, for example. I think for any given age group, you have to consider their primary concerns (for a toddler it’s unlikely they care much where the person ‘went’, for example, they are egocentric little creatures and care mostly that they will no longer see them, regardless of the reason. A preschooler may grapple with the idea that if one person can go away, potentially anyone can die and feel anxious about this; a nine year old may be much more fretful about the fate of said person, from nonexistence to hell to not knowing.) and the level of abstraction they can handle. Suggested books / metaphors / etc. would be, I think, part of a robust discussion on talking to a child about death. Also how to deal with conflicting opinions that children are inevitably going to encounter – someone is going to say “Your grandma is in heaven” at some point, for example, and then, regardless of your beliefs, you’ll have to explain what heaven is and why some people believe in it and some don’t – again, at a level that is appropriate to the child. It’s a big topic, certainly.

    Regarding having children go to church because it builds character – I don’t understand why they put meditation on this list as if it’s necessarily religious. I think meditation is likely very beneficial to children but it can take place in a totally nonreligious context – problem easily solved, if you’re an atheist.

    1. Regarding having children go to church because it builds character – I don’t understand why they put meditation on this list as if it’s necessarily religious. I think meditation is likely very beneficial to children but it can take place in a totally nonreligious context – problem easily solved, if you’re an atheist.

      Indeed. And I can think of other character-building activities to be enjoyed that are far superior for children. Hiking, swimming, volunteering, baking, building.

      1. Yes, I’m curious as to what the outcomes studied here would look like for students who are significantly involved in sports, academics, a hobby, etc. My guess is that they would be similar.

    2. I tell all my friends’ children that when you die a giant black wolf leaps out of the moon and slowly eats you whole over a matter of weeks, and then you are jailed in its belly forever. Then I say ‘just kidding’ and ruffle their hair.

      1. Lol, nothing like the warm glow of knowing that whatever happens, your memory will live on and be discussed in a child’s future therapy sessions.

    3. Regarding having children go to church because it builds character

      [yorkshire]When Ah were nobbut a lad [/yorkshire], I used to get this “it’s character building” line hurled at me on a regular basis in the context of “why go hill-walking”. It came, in particular, from “scouting for Boys” and/ or “Army” types. I always struggled to understand how to get from being sandblasted by hail sleet and rain while flogging uphill to “being character building”. Upon consideration, I figure that it is more about discovering/ exposing one’s true character after the superficial facade has been sleet-blasted away. Which is a very different thing.
      I ignore the “discussing death with a child” section as it’s a Class III problem (from “big”, “little” and “someone else’s” classes of “problem”).

  9. It is said that we need religion (or something similar) to get over our Angst due to the universe’s lack of purpose. I can’t help wondering which came first, the Angst or the purposelessness. I suspect that the Angst was foisted upon us by religious folks for all the usual reasons — Control, control and control.

  10. If the author is correct, that lying about the existence of god is a good thing because it can be comforting, then why limit this advice to religion? Why not advocate lying about everything and anything where the lie is comforting? (Can someone please tell me that Trump is NOT the president?)

    1. In fact, why not simplify things and just assure your kids that people DON’T die. When grandma disappears one day you can just tell the kids she’s gone to live with Santa Claus at the North Pole.

      1. Clever, but it might mess with the whole avoid-danger-so-you-don’t-die thing that many parents instill in their kids.

        1. Of course, if the kids really bought into the idea of heaven, a place of eternal happiness beyond your wildest imagination, it might also mess with the concept of avoiding danger. I suppose the fact that no one really buys into that idea with any degree of certainty avoids that.

      2. Get the child in question a collection of Harry Harrison short stories (classic science fiction) – any collection as long as it includes the short form of “Make Room, Make Room”. Or, you could get the novelisation that was produced to tie in with the filming as “Soylent Green”.
        That should set the kids straight about where both Granny and Rudolph’s nose went.
        Which reminds me to go and buy some haggii.

  11. To me, prayer and meditation are very different practices. Prayer is generally some sort of one-sided conversation with a mystical/mythical being, while meditation is an exercise to experience a different way of perceiving.

    Prayer assumes that being is out there, somewhere, listening. Meditation makes no such assumption.

  12. I think I agree with Erica Komisar. There are many fantasies that we grow up with in America (Santa Claus, tooth fairy, Superman, etc.) and I don’t see the harm in it. These fantasies can add richness to a childhood.

    Eventually we outgrow such fantasies.

    The harm is in disallowing children to naturally outgrow such fantasies.

    1. The problem with religion is you are discouraged by the culture from outgrowing it. Nobody insists you believe in Santa when you’re 35 years old.

  13. Komisar’s argument is based on a 2018 study showing that church attendance and prayer or meditation are positively associated with some measures of well being in growing children. She concludes that we should tell our kids that there’s a god and an afterlife

    Well, that’s a non-sequitur if I ever heard one. Telling your kid about the afterlife /= attending church or doing meditation. Moreover, you don’t have to believe in an afterlife to do a daily meditation (though I suppose for the “church attendance” effect it doesn’t make a lot of sense to go if you don’t).

    So, even if the study’s results are legit, Komisar’s analysis of it completely misses the mark.

    An atheist parent can easily gain the benefits of the study for their kids, without lying to them, by sitting down an meditating with them for a few minutes every day.

  14. I took a quick look at the methods in the original research paper and have three comments about how the data were collected. First, the study sampled nurses in a specific age bracket, which is a non-random sample of the population, and then invited those nurses with children of specific ages to participate in the second set of longitudinal surveys (GUTS). I believe this means that the results from these data cannot necessarily be extrapolated to the general population (maybe nurses are more religious or mindful of mental health issues in kids than the general population). Second, a large fraction of participants in both the church attendance and the prayer aspects of the study were siblings. These are clearly not independent datasets as many have noted parents dragging the entire fam to church Sunday mornings. Finally, there was a lot of hand-waving about the treatment of missing data in the methods section. Various methods, like using means, were used to fix this problem. I would be more comfortable with the results if this issue had been treated more thoroughly.

    1. Regarding my first point above, I forgot to mention that nurses with kids participating in the GUTS surveys appear to be a self-selected group, which as I understand it, is a big no-no for surveys of this type.

      1. You make some good points, but I have one comment.

        You seem to object to the study design when you say

        “First, the study sampled nurses in a specific age bracket, which is a non-random sample of the population…”

        You go on further to say;

        “I forgot to mention that nurses with kids participating in the GUTS surveys appear to be a self-selected group”

        The use of nurses is a non-random sample of the population by itself, irrespective of their ages or their kids. There are few ways in which a study of humans can be a random sample of the population; the subjects must first agree to be part of the study, a choice no lab mouse gets. By definition, this is a self-selected group. Researchers must take this into account and very often stratify their data in various ways to account for the inherent non-randomness of any human subject study (I haven’t read it yet so maybe they failed to do this properly). This is one of many limitations on the analysis of human studies.

  15. I’m not sure that there’s much need to discuss death overly with kids, though we certainly shouldn’t lie about it. The fact is that kids associate death with old people, and growing old is something that happens to others. Kids can come to understand the reality of death for themselves, for example when an elderly relative dies, but they distance themselves from the concept, because it seems to be so far into the future. Lying about going to heaven isn’t quite the same as belief in Santa Claus, if only because so many people the world over believe it’s true.

    1. “The fact is that kids associate death with old people, and growing old is something that happens to others.”

      I suppose that, as a general statement, that is true.

      Exceptions: an elementary school student whose classmate dies, or whose parent dies in say, their mid-30’s.

  16. Don’t believe in the stork? Lie to your kids. The alternative is to let them know about our icky bodies.

    Incidentally, kids aren’t stupid. They know when their parents are telling them pretty little lies. I always did.

  17. I think the paper is malarky, but beside that I don’t think lying would work anyway. Kids aren’t stupid. They’d catch on to the lie very quickly because atheist parents are not going to fake a religious household just to fool the kids. If the parents are secular, the kids ate going to figure it out, lie or no lie.

  18. The references to “Church” and “Sundays” clearly indicate which category of religion the study (and the WSJ article) favor. I am disappointed that no mention was made of the
    psychological advantages for children of the spiritual beliefs of the northwest native Americans. In their belief system, animals, trees, mountains, and rivers once had the power of speech (and therefore might still,
    at least in secret). Things were changed by a demigod named Raven, who is/was sort-of human and/or sort-of avian.

  19. Erica Komisar is suffering under the same illusion that plagues behavior-change psychologists using the abomination known as “motivational interviewing”—namely, that if you say the same words as someone who genuinely cares and believes what they’re saying, no one is going to be able to tell that you really don’t give a damn and are lying through your teeth. This is hogwash for adults and even hoggier wash for kids; no one can see through hypocrisy faster than children.

    I was raised Catholic by parents who were, if not devout, at least honest about their beliefs. I later discarded much of Catholicism but have always been grateful that I had some barriers in my childhood that I could knock down in my adulthood—much as I starting out writing in fixed forms in poetry and then loosened up as I developed. Going the other direction is, IMO, much harder.

  20. Kids are smart (as many others have pointed out) and lying to them does no good in this case. If anything, it undermines their trust in their parent. Children aren’t born with an innate need for a god-belief, and they don’t need to be lied to about it. I far prefer gentle honesty for things like this.

  21. Aaaand when another kid says your kid’s version of Heaven is wrong (which is likely to happen), what then?

    And why pretend there’s a God? Why not multiple gods? Why not magic instead of vaccines? Kids hate shots, after all. Why not pretend all their homework answers are correct, no matter what they are? After all, being wrong is frustrating.

    We can have equal viewpoints, no obstacles and no pain for our kids! Candy and circuses! This author is worse than an idiot – she’s abusive. The U.S. really ought to do something about these glorified snake oil salespeople acting as “psychotherapists.”

    1. I think the writer is a ‘psychoanalyst’. Which I’ve come to think of as about as scientifically credible as people who read tea-leaves.

      Maybe I’m being unfair, but psychoanalysis seems to be unfalsifiable woo. It’s certainly produced a hell of a lot of cranks.

      1. It is. See, for example, F. Crews, M. Bunge, A. Grunbaum, and many others for literally decades who have shown the lack of anything remotely close to the truth in psychoanalysis. I regard it as the most successful pseudoscience and pseudotechnology proper of all times.

  22. Incidentally, many Jews don’t believe in an afterlife, and they’re religious.

    I can go on and on about the tragic consequences of this huckster’s column (not really a paper, no matter what she says).

  23. First of all, I don’t know what the (rather rare I think) scientifically good sociologists say–but personally I do not think that older people (such as me) are particularly bothered about the fact of their own deaths, except as it might affect a few other close people.
    So you tell your children that they will almost certainly live for a very long time, and that well before that, these concerns they have now will have largely disappeared, whether they come to believe in some religion or not (and especially if not, maybe you say??).
    ‘Dealing’ with a child with a known, soon-to-be fatal condition is of course an entirely different matter, and one I hope never arises for me.
    We should also tell them that they will be much better deciding for themselves eventually about religion, but that you hope it will be on a basis of solid fact and a scientific attitude, and not rushed into at all.
    They likely will want to know your own feelings about religious belief, at which time complete honesty is imperative IMO. But you will have emphasized as above that thinking for yourself is imperative, and to be very careful about which persons’ assertions they take to be the truth (especially crooks and dickheads who pontificate on TV!).

    On re-reading, this all sounds a bit trite and obvious to me, so sorry if it adds little to the discussion.

    I wonder whether that psychoanalyst has any data al all concerning other countries than US?

    1. My little sister was first confronted with her own non-existence when she was about two or three. She was looking at a photo of the family taken five years before and asked why she wasn’t in it. My mum told her ‘because you hadn’t been born’ and she immediately burst into tears.

      I envy you your lack of concern about death. It terrifies me like nothing else, except maybe its opposite, eternal life.

      1. I was once ‘confronted’ with a very young child bursting into tears similarly, as it happens.

        And of course the instance you mention brings to mind the not-often-enough discussion of why non-existence in the future should be so much dreaded when, especially thinking about long after there is no one there to remember you, non-existence in the past is usually no concern.

        I often regret the fact that my very original and productive Ph.D. supervisor had been killed at 59 driving home in freezing rain (black ice in UK) north of Cambridge. But then I wonder how much the regret is about him, and how much it’s about the important work he would have done later but didn’t.

  24. My mother didn’t find out that her father was actually her step-father until she was 16. She was getting her driver’s license and needed her birth certificate; on the certificate, she noticed her last name was different from the one she used. She asked her mom what was up, and was told that when she was 1, her real father left and her mother remarried a year later. Needless to say, my mother was distraught over this lie and never forgave her mother. Mom doesn’t speak about the time after she found this truth out, but I know her high school years were tumultuous because of it. I don’t and won’t have kids, but from that lesson alone, I’d advise parents to tell their children the truth, always, even if the truth is difficult. I imagine parents with adopted children have a similar challenge.

    1. That’s a pretty big lie. I’m not surprised she took it hard. I can’t imagine how I’d deal with that, but there are a handful of things that have happened to me that make me equally vehement that if I have children I will never do the same to them – like moving a child to another country at a young age. I’m sure that works for some families, and the kid’s not too bothered, but it almost broke me. I cannot imagine doing the same thing to a kid of mine, for any reason.

      Generally I’m a consequentialist, I weigh things up as they’re happening and I’m open to changing my mind; but there are a handful of events from my childhood where I just think ‘no, under no circumstances am I ever going to put a kid through that.’.

  25. A striking feature of this discussion is our own moral system. Most people whose lifework concerns the physical world—mechanics, farmers, and plumbers as well as scientists and physicians—develop a strong moral revulsion against lying (to kids or to anyone else), a consequence of engagement with the overwhelming honesty of the real world. On the other hand, my impression is that people with a different lifework—meaning political activists, TV performers, real estate developers, or individuals who combine all three of the latter pursuits—develop no code of this kind. Such people often have no sense of the difference between a factual account and pure bullshit, and for them statements are purely instrumental, regardless of their relationship to reality. The WSJ article, with its general thrust of lying or pretending for someone’s good, is directed in their direction.

  26. The WSJ article seems to ignore two sentences in the conclusion section of the research paper.

    First this one on the result: “As a further limitation, GUTS participants were mostly white, and their mothers all worked in the nursing field. Therefore, results of this study may not be generalizable to other populations.”

    So encourage your kids to go to church IF you are a nurse.

    Second this one, the last sentence of the paper: “Although decisions about religion are not shaped principally by health, for adolescents who already hold religious beliefs, encouraging service attendance and private practices may be meaningful avenues of development and support, possibly leading to better health and well-being.”

    So encourage church and prayer IF the kids are already believers.

    There is nothing anywhere about a religious answer to what happens when you die making a contribution to the health of your kids. Spending eternity in church, which is what heaven sounded like to me when I was a kid, is often not a helpful or satisfying answer.

  27. I don’t know if anyone’s pointed this out yet, but “Lie to your children – the alternative is to tell them they’re simply going to die and turn to dust” is one of the stupidest false dichotomies I’ve ever heard.

  28. Hmmm, but *just which god* and which “heaven” does it have to be? Paganism is the second-fastest growing religion in the world, and there’s a large and growing body of evidence to support the theory of reincarnation. If it’s too dangerous to tell the kids honestly “we don’t know”, then let them worship Gaia and believe in rebirth. Either of those would give the kids all the “benefits” of religion, along with better ethics than the Abrahamic religions do.

    1. “…there’s a large and growing body of evidence to support the theory of reincarnation.”

      Do tell us all about this evidence. Have you actually meet a blob of reincarnated, worm-infested flesh? Or did it arise like the phoenix from the fires of the crematorium?

      1. What’s the point of reincarnation as a reward anyway? I’ve never understood it. I’m not going to get the benefits of my good behaviour in the next life after all – those benefits will accrue to some completely different entity with, at most, some very vague, limited memories of my life.

        That entity is not me, so wherever/however it ends up in the grand scheme of things – worm or human, tramp or king – I don’t have a stake in the outcome.

  29. Mark Twain is reputed to have said something like – “I didn’t exist for billions of years and it didn’t bother me in the slightest.” The implication is that death itself should not be bothersome.

    Personally, I feel that if children are programmed to understand that death is a simple fact and that a life hereafter is not factual, they will have a more rational basis for their lives. Hopefully, they won’t waste precious time on religious non-sense?

  30. Apart from all the flaws in methods, as pointed out above, making that ‘study’ worthless, there isa pertinent detail that wasn’t mentioned.
    “later sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners” have little importance compared to: “have fewer unwanted pregnancies” or “have fewer STD’s”..
    In my -admittedly anecdotal, but still substantial- experience, those coming from a strict religious background (be it Christian or Islamic) are way more prone to the latter two.

  31. In response to the epidemiology article, a basic point there is more to life than maximizing individual happiness and well-being functions. If to be happy we adopt falsehoods which lead to decisions that make others unhappy (or to suffer) where does that get us? We have more responsibility to our children and others than that.

  32. This article doesn’t surprise me; I have seen several therapists who seemed less concerned with whether what they were telling me was true and more concerned about whether it might be useful for me to believe it. The American Psychological association’s code of ethics says the following:

    Principle C: Integrity
    Psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of
    psychology. In these activities psychologists do not steal, cheat, or engage in fraud, subterfuge, or intentional mis- representation of fact. Psychologists strive to keep their promises and to avoid unwise or unclear commitments. In situations in which deception may be ethically justifiable to maximize benefit and minimize harm, psychologists have a serious obligation to consider the need for, the possible consequences of, and their responsibility to correct any resulting mistrust or other harmful effects that arise from the use of such techniques.

    1. Principle C: Integrity

      That sounds like a recipe for litigation. Does one of the lawyers who hangs around here and (I assume) knows how to search legal case records, know if such a case has established precedent? Yet?

  33. Dealing with my childrens questions about death is much harder for me than I imagined. As is talking about religion. I never wanted to raise them as atheists, thus I tried to stay more or less “neutral”. And I asked them what they imagine things to be like. But death actually frightens and fascinates them: they see animals die, they see old people die, and they realize that sometimes children also die. And they want to know what I and other adults really think.

    When these topics first came up, I told them that while I do not believe in any gods and think we are part of earths’ circle of life, many others have other ideas.

    But most adults, especially kindergarden teachers, grandparents and so on, answer such questions with some version of deism and “death means going to some nice place”.

    I did not tell my children that this is wrong, I just told the that I believe otherwise, and that there are many different versions (your fathers thinks x, your grandma y…, the parents of Khan think z, people in old Greece or Egypt thought a and b).

    While older kids might start to doubt all stories at this point, my six year old has now developed a mixed up kind of polytheism and pantheism… Zeus and the Jesus baby and Ganesha and Isis are all real and all life is connected and the afterlife is a mixture of Dreamtopia and fairy wonderland. She wanted to be baptized at one point, but then realized that this would mean “only one god is real” :-).

    I do think that lying to your kids about your beliefs is harmful. I grew up with liberal Christian beliefs and my doubts started around age eight or nine. My parents were open about their own doubts but told me about their respective versions of faith. They took my anxiety seriously, they comforted me. That was important to my well being. Them pretending to know the truth would not have allayed my fear of nothingness and death nor would it have ended my doubts, as it was absolutely clear they believed without evidence. On the contrary, I think it would have sown distrust between us and would have made me feel not taken seriously.

  34. btw how does she rectify many religious belief against lying? Against essentially being fake in your faith and how about the cognitive dissonance the children will inevitably face?

  35. Perhaps someone could let me know if the study controls for the fact that in most societies there is pressure to conform to the most prevalent religion, and pushing against that societal pressure could have deleterious health effects.

    If that were so, the advice could more properly be restated as ‘lie to your kids to conform to your society’s most popular ideology’. Phrased like that, the advice becomes even more dubious.

  36. ” I am often asked by parents, “How do I talk to my child about death if I don’t believe in God or heaven?”” OFTEN?? I sincerely doubt that.

      1. I’ve never been asked that, but it is something I question. When my daughter asked why we die, I told her it was to make room for others to be born. I still wonder how best to approach this.

  37. The category “religion” is so broad as to be almost meaningless. Did the study distinguish, for example, between religions that teach that god is kind and those that teach “fire and brimstone”? Likewise, by adding meditation, they may be including people who are not even theists, such as many Buddhists, and even atheists (such as myself). These studies focus on very few effects. Beyond the health of the individual, what are the consequences for society at large and the planet due to the encouragement of irrationality and lying? Lastly, I am amused by conservative Christians who get excited by these kinds of studies because the studies suggest that the positive result is not unique to Christianity but applies to ANY religion.

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