My Skepticism and “You’ll Go Down to the Devil!”

Both my brother and I seem to have been endowed with a genetic makeup that fosters skepticism.

To be fair, I think my brother is more of a born skeptic than me: I believed in Santa Claus until I was six years old; he never did. He never believed in God; for years before declaring myself an atheist at age twenty six after reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, I waffled back and forth. I will say this, however: I did stop believing in Santa Claus earlier than most kids, at the age of six (the average age is eight). I also didn’t make the “sudden discovery” that many kids make that kills their faith: that is, I didn’t catch my parents wrapping the presents or catch them putting the gifts in the den. I simply stopped believing because I thought about it one day. Well, okay, it was after a little coaching from my brother. The Christmas of 1986, when I was six years old, was the last year that I believed in Santa Claus. My brother, nine at the time, kept telling me there was no Santa. “Reindeer can’t fly”, or “How could he get around the world in just one night?” or “How could he fit down the chimney?” or, since we lived in a house at the time that didn’t have a fireplace, “If Santa went down the chimney, he’d burn his backside in the boiler.” Naturally, I was very upset when my brother said these things to me and I refused to believe him. I honestly and sincerely believed that Santa Claus knew that my brother was being “bad” and that he would get coal instead of presents. Then the following year, when we moved to a new house (that, incidentally, does have a fireplace) I was in the basement one day looking for something when it suddenly occurred to me, “Well, of course he’s right! There is no Santa Claus! That’s silly!”

About a year after that, I began to have my doubts about God. If Santa Claus is made up, after all, then doesn’t it make sense that God is as well? Given that I grew up in a mostly secular Jewish household– Reformed Synagogue, on the high holidays only and yes, presents for Christmas– I was free to think these things. I first learned about a soul at around age seven not from any indoctrination but from reading an article in the parents’ guide portion that came packaged with my subscription to Sesame Street Magazine (oh, come on, you really think I would have just given it to my parents like a good little girl?). The article was about tough questions that children ask. One example, if I remember correctly, was about burying a dead pet rabbit in the backyard and a child asking if the rabbit is in heaven. I showed the article to my mother and asked, “Couldn’t they just dig it up and see if it’s still there?” Then my mother told me that some people believe in a soul. When she explained what it was, I remember thinking that it sounded really stupid. And chances are I may have even said, “That’s stupid!”

Around the same time, at age seven, I was attending a day camp. One day a little girl came up to me and asked, “Do you believe in God?” I answered honestly, “No.” The little girl said, “You have to believe in God. My mom says if you don’t believe in God you’ll go down to the devil.” I probably said, “No you don’t.” or “That’s stupid.” And I seem to recall that she reiterated, again, “You’ll go down to the devil.” Then she proceeded to give me this long lecture of what would happen to me if I didn’t believe in God (I don’t recall the details) which finally ended with her declaring, “And then a dinosaur will stomp in front of your bedroom window and say, ‘Yoooooou dooooon’t believe in God!'” I remember feeling terrified after that encounter. I knew that what she said sounded ridiculous. But her mother had told her these things, after all. Maybe this was something that my parents just hadn’t told me about yet.

I kept silent about this incident for a very long time, ultimately because I eventually forgot about within a few months, but initially because I was afraid to tell my parents. I was reluctant to tell them for one simple reason: I was afraid that they would tell me that the girl was right. I know now of course that this is ridiculous. Mom would have been upset that the girl’s parents were allowing their child to frighten other children, and Dad would have been particularly upset about the religious aspect of the entire matter (he’s never been a huge fan of religion). But the fear and guilt festered in me for a couple months. There were several times when it was on the tip of my tongue to tell my parents about what had happened, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The fear that they would tell me that the girl was right was just too strong. There was one time in particular that I remember being in the car with my mother. She asked me what was wrong, and I said, “I don’t want to say it.” Oddly, she didn’t press the issue.

Bottom line, for a couple months until my child’s mind moved on to something else, I lived in fear and horrible guilt over hell after one conversation with an obnoxious little girl. It didn’t matter that my parents never forced God on my brother and me. It didn’t matter that my parents said, “Some people believe in God, and some people don’t.” It didn’t matter that the concept of “hell” was never introduced in my household. This horrific fairy tale that has been keeping people frightened for millennia frightened me, a seven-year-old skeptical girl. And this fear continues to take hold of other children’s minds. As frightening as it was for me, imagine how much more frightening it is for kids who grow up in a household where the fear of hell is ingrained in their consciousness.

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