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What Do Atheists Tell Their Children?

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"Dad do people really get wings in heaven?"

This is the sort of tricky post-existential question that children launch at you out of the blue. Luckily I have a mouthful of toast which gives me a moment to consider my response. I have to be careful, maybe he's heard this at school? Maybe someone in his class has just lost a relative?

I want to say "No son. No wings. Because there is no heaven or hell, no life eternal. This is it. Just you and me and hot buttered toast. The rest is just stories. Stories designed to scare you into being nice to people, but you're nice to people anyway. You're my heaven. And I'm sorry I can't be convinced I'll survive the death of my body, but, in a way, through you and maybe one day your children, I'll survive my death for as long as I need to. Through you I'll continue. And that's enough for me. It should be enough for anyone."

But I don't say this because it's pretentious and he's only five.

I swallow my toast and grin.

"Yep, the first morning you arrive you get your wings, followed by a quick demonstration, an hour of practice on the low branches, a couple of forms to fill in and then you're off! Wheeee!"

I zoom a piece of toast around the kitchen table for a moment before popping it into his laughing mouth.

Heaven.

Later, I am raking up a stubborn swamp of wet brown leaves when I hear him shout

"Dad, come quick!"

I drop the rake and run to the bottom of the garden, he's holding something.

"Look! It's asleep!"

In his hands is a dead bluetit.

Gently, I take it from him, it is weightless, it's eyes are closed.

"I think it's a bit dead son" I say "it's a bluetit - must've flown into the summerhouse doors by accident, birds sometimes do this"

He looks at the summerhouse doors, then at the vastness of the winter sky.

"Are birds stupid Dad?" he asks

I get down on my knees and say "Yes son, they are unbelievably stupid"

The bird looks peaceful, death has given it a certain nobility, we spend a little time looking at the feathers,

"It looks like a superhero Dad"

And it does, with it's tiny black eye mask and blue cape.

"It's Titman!" I say, trying to cheer things up, "Nana nana nana nana na TITMAN!"

I zoom the corpse around for a few minutes shouting "TITMAN!" and then eventually stop out of respect for the dead.

"Okay, I think it's time to say goodbye to Titman now"

We take Titman up the garden and delicately lower the corpse into the bin. We both stand over it for a moment of solemn reflection. My son looks sad so I squeeze his shoulder.

"He's in a better place now son" I say

"What, the bin?"

"No, not the bin," I say "bird heaven"

"Oh"

At bedtime, I'm just tucking him in when he whispers

"I don't think there is a heaven for birds Dad"

"You don't?" I whisper back "Why not?"

"Well birds get their wings here, while they're still alive."

He snuggles down and I watch his eyes close.

"Don't we all son," I stroke his head "Don't we all"

That night, I spend some time thinking about what we tell our children, about Heaven and God, about what happens when we die - and although I don't believe in any of it, I tell myself that, right now, it's ok for him to believe. After all, as a five-year-old, there are plenty of things that he believes in that I know aren't true. For me, the afterlife is no different to the myriad of comforting lies we tell our children everyday: lies about Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, about bird heaven and it's human equivalent. Lies told out of love, lies told to preserve the magic of childhood; I would never take that away from him, growing up is hard enough.

One day, when he's ready, I'll tell him that, for me, religion was something that disappeared when I was ready to let it go. That it went to the same place as unicorns and bigfoot, genies, mermaids and leprechauns. I'll tell him that I believe it's just the stuff of stories, stories with the power to affect how we behave and how we think, but ultimately - just stories. I will tell him my belief: that there is no eternity waiting beyond the grave - that we do not have forever. I will tell him that this is the very thing that makes life so precious. It is a fleeting gift and not to be wasted.

I hope that this freedom will give him wings of his own.

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