Thursday, August 05, 2010

Don't fool children with fake phone calls from your god

Dear Mr. Greg Bettencourt:

I was discouraged to read, in the Taunton Daily Gazette, that children attending the St. Nicholas of Myra vacation bible school were the recipients of phone calls purportedly made by the Christian god. Perhaps the article got it wrong, and the phone calls were placed not by someone pretending to be a deity, but by someone meaning only to talk to each child about issues of faith. I'd be glad to hear that this was the case -- perhaps you can confirm, one way or the other, what the nature of these calls has been?

In view of the chance that the article is accurate, and children have been receiving phone calls from someone claiming to be a god, I wanted to write and share my concern. It distresses me to think that the trust of children might have been abused in this way. As adult citizens and parents, we are entrusted to raise our children in this reality, and not to misrepresent the nature of that reality. The consequences of failing to meet this responsibility can be severe.

One example hits us particularly close to home here in Massachusetts, that of the Church of Christian Science. Christian Scientists who misrepresent reality engender in their children the notion that disease can be cured with wishful thinking instead of medical intervention. This game of make-believe has led to suffering and death -- children become the victims of medical neglect, and those who grow to adulthood inflict the same unreality on their own children. I'm sure as someone who works professionally in a pastoral capacity, you are aware of such risks.

Children are particularly vulnerable to believe in unrealities that are made real through the collusion of the parents and teachers -- think of how common belief in Santa Claus is. But then, childhood belief in Santa Claus doesn't often factor into a person's decision in adulthood to vote for one political candidate or another, or modify the way they raise their own children. A phone call from someone claiming to be Santa Claus will delight a child without causing harm, since belief in Santa has an extremely limited scope. Belief in deities like the Christian god, however, will resound throughout life, informing decisions such as where to live, who to vote for and how to raise one's own children.

Few issues are as serious as belief in the existence of gods; surely you can educate children on the history and nature of your tradition of faith without relying on outright trickery. If there are reasons to believe in the Christian god, I should hope you introduce them to children who are of such age as to be able to evaluate that evidence for themselves, and in such a way as to ensure that their ethical intelligence is allowed to judge that evidence rather than the less rational and more emotional components of our human selves. I find it ironic that this kind of betrayal of trust would occur in the parish of Nicholas of Myra, whose special regard for children is so famous. Using trick phone calls to reinforce belief isn't near the violation of the butcher who baked children into a pie, but I think St. Nicholas would be displeased just the same.

Although it is not for me to say how best for you to live according to the dictates of your religion, I would like to observe that this form of false witness seems not only to misrepresenting reality, but also to misrepresent your own faith. The expectation that a god is accessible by phone can only lead to disappointment.

Neither theology nor the trust of children should be treated so frivolously as this article suggests they have been in the program operating under your supervision. For such reasons, I encourage you to discontinue this practice of deceptive phone calls at the St. Nicholas of Myra VBS.


Zachary Bos
Massachusetts State Director, American Atheists

CC: Kendra Miller at the Taunton Daily Gazette; Tim Goldrick of Saint Nicholas of Myra Catholic Church