"I don't believe in God", my 8-year old son said to the school caretaker last week.
"Well you're going to hell then, my friend", the caretaker replied.
At home, I looked at my son, Gollum-eyed, as he told me what had happened. This was adult stuff.
Pushing potatoes around his plate, I saw his lashes were fluttering, meaning his mind was working overtime. But before I could comment, he told me he had it under control and not to say anything, please.
My son has been asking questions about God since he was four. It started during his most acute "but-why" phase. At his Catholic school in France - chosen more for its bilingual dimension than for its religious one - he heard many a biblical story cross-legged on the carpet.
David and Goliath, Joshua and the Walls of Jericho, as bloody and violent as the most ghoulish of Grimms. He got to know a God who dealt out punishments on a whim and bragged about how he created the world in total darkness. It didn't make religion sit altogether comfy with my son, it made it mean, boastful. Enter bad dreams and heaps of daytime questions.
"Chrystelle says that Jesus died for all our sins, but I haven't done anything wrong!"
To start with, I didn't realised four-year olds knew the word 'sin'. "Very, very, naughty", he explained. Maybe he knew what covetousness meant too. So we made a Sin List and a Sun List to try and map out right and wrong, and we found that a lot of stuff ended up falling in between.
Come five and six, the only guidance we gave him was to work things out on his own. So he conducted opinion polls locally, nationally and internationally, bar charted and squiggled, and came up with a 100-thought conclusion that we'd basically evolved.
Now that he was an evolutionist, he asked if he had to believe in everything they said at school. Maybe he could just pretend to believe? We said he was allowed to disagree, but he had to listen. And so he listened to the stories as if they'd been written by Julia Donaldson, tried to slot them into the realms of mermaids and talking scarecrows and the slimy trail of a snail.
But when he discovered that Jews and Muslims "peel the skin back on your willy like a banana", he turned from an evolutionist into a heathen. Messing with boys' bits? Bang out of order.
It shocked him so much that he started to rally people around his cause, holding onto his pants for dear life. When people came for supper, he systematically asked them whether they were religious or not, and if they said no, they could wear one of his handmade badges. If they said yes, he'd go and play Lego or look at them out of the corner of his eye. He overheard his little sister arpeggio the Lord's name one day in the nude and shouted "Mum! She's turning into a Catholic!"
At seven, I tried to get him to see the funky side to religion. It wasn't all about fear and punishment and penis peeling. So I took him to church so he could feel the sense of belonging to something bigger, listen to the singing, join in with the clapping, understand how religion can help and heal, but we ended up leaving because Jesus looked like a zombie nailed to his cross and the old lady with the Bible kept making clicking noises with her tongue.
"Martin said I shouldn't be at school if I don't believe in God".
It sprang from a conversation about a month ago between him, Martin and his best friend Enzo. Him and Enzo are like two peas in a pod because they share a love of Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Star Wars and chocolate mousse, and now a freshly-shared rejection of God. They'd learned the word 'atheist' and were brandishing it around the playground like a phoenix-tailed wand.
"Maybe you don't need to shout out that you don't believe, hmm?" I said after school. "Imagine if Martin told you he thought Luke Skywalker was a load of rubbish. How would you feel?"
My son made grunts with the twin ion engines of his Tie-Fighter and left the room, but his lashes had fluttered. I hoped his opinions weren't going to make him enemies.
Serious contemplation came on Monday. This was the day he found out that his favourite teacher, unbelievably cool because he makes fart jokes and juggles and plays Candy Crush at break-time, was deeply Catholic. He spent the whole evening reshuffling the stars on his bedroom wall.
Was he going to turn his back on his teacher? Or was he going to opt for the religious route like his third cousin Hugh? Could there be a slither of grey in the black and white of it all?
"How do you know God doesn't exist?" the caretaker asked my son at the school gates no later than yesterday morning.
There was some unfinished business to attend to.
"How do you know he does?" my son replied, and off he went to his favourite class.
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