Dealing with the “God” Question

An earlier version of this post appeared in the journal Humanistic Judaism, Summer/Autumn 2004. Photo credit: Landa Photography.

One of the challenges in Secular Humanistic Jewish parenting and education is how to answer students’ questions about the concept, figure, and importance of “God.” Even if the children have been raised as committed Secular Humanistic Jews, they will still have their own questions as well as questions asked of them by other children (some friendly questions, others not). And if students and their parents are relatively new to a Secular or Humanistic Jewish community, they are even more likely to be looking for answers in this area. These are challenging issues for adults to address – to translate our philosophy to a child’s language and conceptual ability is that much more difficult.

This short list of 6 FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions) on the “God” question is intended to help teachers with their students and parents with their children. Two concise answers are offered to each question – one aimed at children under 7, the other at children between 8 and 12. Just as these general questions may be asked many different ways, answers can be adjusted for specific situations. “Heaven forbid” these answers be repeated verbatim; the more they are expressed in your own words, the more convincing they will be.

One piece of general advice: It’s often both useful and helpful to ask them back, “what do you think?” By saying this you affirm that their opinion is important, and that they need to make up their own mind. You can certainly share what you believe on these questions – that is both your right and responsibility as either a teacher or a parent. So saying “we believe” something might be a less accurate answer than, “I believe this; what do you believe”? You may well agree, but “we believe” is stage 2.

The best suggestion I can offer is to be honest (one of our basic principles), to be accepting of even the most challenging questions, and to be as clear as possible. I avoid condescending answers like “weak people need it” or “we’ve evolved past that primitive stage;” we want to address the question in a clear, respectful and positive way. Every Secular Humanistic Jew, even the youngest, can understand our shared values and beliefs.

1) “Do you/we/I believe in God?”

I like to say, “I believe in you.” I can see you, touch you, hear you, and care for you. I don’t know if the idea of “God” is just an idea in your mind, or something real. Remember, it’s OK to say “I don’t know” if you really don’t know something. But I DO know that if I help you, you’re happy, and if you help me, I’m happy. So let’s look at what we KNOW, and see if that’s enough for us.

We can’t know for sure if there’s a God or not. So we focus on what we DO know – we know that being good to other people is good for them and good for us, and we know that we can learn about the world from our own experience and from other people. We don’t know if a God answers prayers, so WE have to work to make the world better so that we KNOW it’s getting better. Some people believe there’s a God, and some people believe there’s no God. We pay attention to what we can do in the meantime!

Note: You can certainly share your own perspective on the likelihood or improbability of a god and what that would mean; this answer is a “lowest common denominator” of positive Humanism.

2) “Should I pray? What do I say if other kids ask me what I pray for?”

“Praying” is another way of saying “I hope” something happens – I hope my mom comes home soon, I hope everyone gets along. Sometimes, though, hope isn’t enough – if I just “hope” that I get what I want, I can’t be sure it will happen. Sometimes we need to work to make what we “hope” into what really happens. You can tell them, “I hope and work for good things for my family.”

“Praying” is like wishing or hoping for something – the difference is that prayer usually asks someone or something else, like “God,” to make it happen. But just like wishing and hoping, prayer can’t make sure that we get the good things we’re looking for. Thinking something in your brain doesn’t change the real world. On the other hand, when WE work to make our hopes into reality, we KNOW that we’re making it happen, and we get the credit for doing it. If other kids ask you about praying, you can tell them, “I hope AND I work for good things in the world.”

3) “{kid’s name} told me that we can’t be Jewish if we don’t believe in God”

“Being Jewish” means that you are in the Jewish family. Your mom is still your mom, and your grandpa is still your grandpa, even if you have different ideas. What are some of things that we do that ARE Jewish? (holidays, songs, family names, community, foods) You see? Being Jewish is not what you think; being Jewish is who you are and what you do. You can be happy to be part of the Jewish family.

Being Jewish is like being part of a family. Just like your family has family traditions, favorite family foods, and family jokes, or your school has a school mascot and school colors, the Jewish family has Jewish food, Jewish jokes, Jewish traditions – all of those together add up to what we call “culture.” You can be part of Jewish culture in a lot of ways; some use the idea of God, and some focus on the Jewish people and what they’ve made.  Being Jewish is not what you think. Being Jewish who you are and what you do.

4) “{kid’s name}  told me that I’m not a good person because we don’t believe in God”

Being a good person is about what you do. You can do good things because you think a god told you to, or you can do good things because you want to help other people. We do good things all the time (share example), and we didn’t have to talk about God to do a good thing. What you do makes you a good person, so if you do good things, you ARE a good person.

What makes you a good person, what you think or what you do? I believe that what you DO decides if you’re a good person or not. I know people who believe in God who are nice, and some who are mean. And I know people who don’t believe who are nice, and some who are mean. If you care about other people, and you work to help them, then you’re a good person.

5) “My grandparents/neighbors/kids at school told me that my family is going to Hell because we don’t believe in God/Jesus”

Lots of people believe different things. It’s OK to believe something different from someone else–they believe one thing, and we believe something different. And you don’t have to worry about what happens a long time from now; it’s more important to pay attention to what we do today and tomorrow. You have a family that loves you and that takes care of you today. Be a good person today and tomorrow–that’s plenty!

Some people think they are right all of the time. They are sure they know exactly what happens after we die, and what we have to do now. We prefer to let everyone make up their own minds about what might happen or how to live their lives. What we DO know is that it’s very important to be a good person and to live a good life in THIS life, because it’s the only life we KNOW is real. Don’t worry about what happens in the distant future – what can we do TODAY?

6) “Why do so many other people/Jews pray to/believe in God, and we don’t?”

Lots of people believe lots of different things. It’s OK to believe something different from someone else–they believe one thing, and we believe something different. We know that we can help each other, and make each other happy, and that’s enough for us. We can say “I don’t know” when we really don’t know, and using what we DO know we can do a lot of good things. We believe in people, and that’s enough for us.

If we all thought the same thing, life would be really boring because we would have nothing to talk about! Just because a lot of people think something is right, that doesn’t mean that it’s true – most people thought that the world was flat for a long time, but today we’ve learned that it’s round. Other people have the right to make up their own minds about the idea of a God, and we can decide for ourselves. For us, it makes more sense to look at what we can know about the world instead of what we guess. And we can say “I don’t know” when we really don’t know.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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