“Is it because you don’t know him?”

I have 3 nieces (Big C, B, and Little C) who are each, to various degrees and in various ways, religious believers. Only Big C, the oldest of the three, at age 14, is really old enough to have a sophisticated and independent view on any kind of higher power. She knows that I do not share her belief. We have talked about it briefly, when she asked me about my lack of belief. I actually wouldn’t have told her that I didn’t believe – as I’ve said before, I try not to be an evangelical atheist. My sister was the one who told her. When Big C brought it up with me, I told her that I was willing to answer any questions she had, but beyond confirming that I was, in fact, an atheist, she honestly just didn’t seem interested in my reasons why, so we left it at that and we’ve never discussed it again. The younger two (ages almost-10 and 6) are still more or less, as far as I can tell, believers because they’ve been taught to believe. I have no interest in interfering with that. It isn’t my place. As far as I know, my middle niece, B, has no idea I’m an atheist. My brother and sister-in-law know, and if and when they want their daughter to know is up to them, unless it comes up organically at some point.

My youngest niece, Little C, is a different story.

My sister, Little C’s mother, has gradually become more and more radically Christian. She is reaching the point where it is almost pathological, to be honest. I genuinely believe there are some delusions going on there. But my sister’s mental health is not what I wanted to talk about here.

Little C is now attending a religious school (one that teaches creationism as a valid alternative to evolution), and she attends one of those Buddy Jesus churches with her mother every week. The kind of church where they appropriate and repurpose popular music and people in the congregation wave their arms in the air with their eyes closed because they’re so moved by the spirit of Taylor Swift covers. (My sister, once hoping to convince me of how cool this church was, told me that they had used a Dave Matthews Band song in one of the services. I was mostly just irritated that they had sullied a perfectly good secular song with religion – and a song written by a professed agnostic, no less.)

In any case, my point is that Little C is being indoctrinated hard. Which, whatever. Hopefully she doesn’t internalize her mother’s delusions, but that would frankly be fairly innocuous compared to some of the other delusional beliefs my sister could pass on to her. And, like I said, I have no desire to challenge her beliefs, especially at this young age. The world can be big and scary when you’re little. If believing there is a supernatural force protecting her makes her feel more secure, I’m all for it.

But, I discovered this morning, my sister has also told Little C that I don’t believe in a god.

I went out to breakfast with my family this morning, and it had been a while since Little C and I had last seen each other, so she was glued to my side pretty much the entire time. Mostly she chattered and wanted to put on my lip gloss and play with my phone, but then at one quiet moment, she sidled up to me and laid her head on my shoulder, looking up at me with her giant brown eyes. “Why don’t you believe in God?” she asked me in a tiny voice.

I was blindsided by the question, and had no idea how to answer. I still have no idea. But she was clearly very troubled by my non-belief.

I said that there were a lot of reasons, but at a restaurant for breakfast wasn’t the time or place to talk about it. That, at least, should buy me a little time to figure out what to say, I thought.

But Little C wasn’t quite satisfied yet.

“Is it because you don’t know him?” she asked. The hope in her voice was heartbreaking. I could see the wheels turning in her head, and it was immediately clear that she wanted this to be the reason, because she could fix it if it was. She’s been going to Sunday school for years, and now she probably has daily religion lessons. She could introduce me.

“No, sweetie,” I said gently. “That’s not why.”

And to my relief, she let it drop.

But I know it’s going to come up again. And I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I keep coming up against the same obstacles.

My reasons for not believing are, at best, complicated. At worst, they are pretty fucking dark.

How do you explain to a six-year-old that each person you worked with who was traumatized past the point of being able to live a functionally healthy life chipped away at your faith in a benevolent higher power? How do you explain to her the impossibility of reconciling a loving god with the knowledge that there are children born every day who will only know poverty and hunger and sickness and war for the entirety of their short and painful lives?

How do you explain to her how many nights you laid awake crying and begging a god who never answered for relief from the bewildering pain that took over your own body?

How do you explain to her that at a certain point, you had to accept the reality that either there was no one listening to your prayers, or that whoever was listening was indifferent to your pain, and if it’s the latter, then fuck him?

No, it isn’t because I don’t know God. It’s because life has led me to decide he’s not worth knowing.

I honestly hope her life never leads her to those conclusions.

So how could I ever be the one to point her in that direction?

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