Atheist Afterlife: “The Graveyard Book”

My 12-year-old son, a self-avowed atheist, is reading “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman for a summer reading assignment. It is a story about a boy who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard.

Yesterday my son came up to me and said, “Dad, the book I am reading talks about ghosts and so it assumes there is a life after death. And even if that afterlife is spooky and unattractive, it is still comforting to me to think that there could be life after death.”

I could tell he wanted to explore the apparent cognitive dissonance he was feeling: atheists aren’t suppose to believe in spirits and an afterlife. So I said, “Wow, I think I can understand what you are wondering about. You know, it is OK to believe things that contradict each other. Your brain can handle several contrary beliefs about the same thing — it is built to do that. One belief can help you at one time and another belief can help you at a different time. Maybe neither believe is perfectly right. If there is no pressing reason to decide which is most accurate, maybe it is better to just let them be.”

I gave him an example of how the brain believes two conflicting ethical views:

  1. we should do whatever act gives the most people the best outcome
  2. our family and those we love have priority over others

Usually these two beliefs do not clash. And when our minds are forced to use both beliefs at the same time, we will often be surprised at the solution it generates without our conscious intervention. If, prior to any conflict, we attempt to build a flawless, philosophical resolution of these two views, our rationalized solution will often suprisingly fail in the crucible of life.  Our brains usually wins and our minds simply play catch up with post-hoc explanations.

All that was said in easier terms, with more examples, but I left my growing boy with the message that is OK to live with uncertainty and with contradictions — for these often offer us the greatest potential. And apparently, as my son tells me, one of the messages of the book is: “life is potential“.

Question to Readers:  What do you feel this dad’s response to his son?

Other posts about contrary beliefs:


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

14 responses to “Atheist Afterlife: “The Graveyard Book”

  1. If I remember correctly, the book is also about the importance of family—no matter how weird it is.

    Might be a useful lesson for your son 🙂

  2. Dan

    I like the response you offered to your son.

    We tend to wish for more certainty than we find. It is helpful, I think, to be more flexible in our views. I would imagine that your son would be more at ease in the long haul by getting a spacious reply like yours. Well done!

    Your response called to mind a remark I think that Shunryu Suzuki once said, “If it isn’t paradoxical, it isn’t true.”

  3. TWF

    Wow. At 12, I had already drank the religious Kool-ade. I am really impressed with how both of your kids think. (Based on this and other posts.)

    I think you are providing an excellent foundation of rational thought for them. I get the sense that even if either one of them does develop a faith in a traditional religion, they’re still going to be very well rounded, compassionate, and considerate people.


  4. exrelayman

    Might also be good to reinforce the idea (which I doubt is a new idea, considering the quality of parenting I think I see here) that the appeal or repugnance of a concept is totally tangential to whether or not it is true.

  5. I’m so glad you kind of left it open…
    I think this is key to not being indoctrinating as parents, in allowing questioning and not manipulating that by attempting to force the child’s mind into what we personally believe about something.

  6. @ David Chapman:
    I didn’t know the importance of family was part of the story — I will have to ask him. Thanx

    @ Dan:
    I tend to be decisive on issues when the outcome matters, of course. But on issues where the data is not convinicing either way and decisiveness does not seem critical, I like living in the uncertain zone.

    @ TWF:
    You’ve got it. I am fine with them being religious as long as they are “well-rounded, compassionate, and considerate people” — I would hope I am also laying the foundations for them to be inclusive.

    You have a daughter, no? Have you written of teachings with her?

    @ exrelayman:
    Of course, that is important — he actually discussed that this summer when we discussed his enterance into teenage years where ideas of self and independence will shift.

    Do you have children?

    @ warrioress
    Thanx. Have you ever written similar conversations you had with your daughter? Or do you tend to keep that private?

  7. exrelayman

    Sabio – I am a childless old bachelor. As a youth I was married and did not prove to be a fit spouse (not abusive, but not very adaptable either). I have no complaints, because I don’t have a very rosy view of where society seems headed (I do hope I am wrong), I do not see in myself much ability to be a good parent, and my passing will grieve no offspring. I am also rather socially challenged, having only one good friend in ‘real’ space as opposed to cyber space. There is not as much loneliness in my existence as one might think, as I am pretty good at being alone without being lonely.

    The sociability in your life is something I very much admire.

    Well, that was a bit more than you asked for!

  8. Nah, I like personal info — it helps to make readers more real to each other. Thanks for sharing exrelayman!

  9. Earnest

    I like your evenhandedness, Sabio. I think kids like some fluidity in what they are allowed to believe about the spiritual/religious/magical world.

    My son is reading the same book. We talked about some religious topics last night, and reincarnation came up. He currently feels there is a pretty good chance that Gandhi was a subsequent incarnation of Jesus. I asked him about his degree of certainty, and he said he was going to believe it until it was disproven. Fair enough.

  10. @ Earnest,
    You were raising your kids to be good Catholics a while back — sounds like a little more flexibility there too. 🙂 [PS, readers, Earnest is a f2f friend]

  11. Earnest

    @ Sabio: wife has recently got more verbal about how irritated she is by archaic Catholic values. There has even been some noise about switching churches. Not sure if this year will bring a new religious reality.

  12. @ Earnest,
    It will be interesting where it goes.

  13. You may also just want to remind your son that the book is a work of fiction, and its writer, Gainman, is a self-avowed atheist.

    Also, Gainman is one of my all time favorite writers.

  14. @ Tristan Vick:
    Is there some reason that you feel my son may not realize it is fiction or needs ‘reminding’? 🙂

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