An Atheist and the Tooth Fairy
I have a strange life in some ways. One co-worker had described me as "the most interesting person he's ever met" -- after initially telling me I wasn't the smartest person he'd ever met (this didn't bother me, as there are a lot of very smart people in the world. The odds are quite great that I'm not the smartest person you've ever met either). I wanted to start blogging, but if I used too much time giving background on who I am I'd never get to any "live" posts. In the future, I'll try to focus on the less typical aspects of my life and thoughts, and try to discuss topics that are somehow relevant to someone. So, here goes:
My first post comes from a problem I had to deal with this past weekend. I'm an atheist, and this particular issue comes from my oldest child. I'll call him "Superboy", for reasons that I'll make clear in a future post.
Contrary to the beliefs of many of those holding religious ideals, many atheists often face dilemnas of ethics and morality. For example, most American atheists hold that no god exists because of a "null hypothesis" form of reasoning. So, in raising children, there is often an ideal not to expose them to "magical thinking". At the same time, atheists often have an ideal not to force their beliefs on others, including indoctrination of their own children. Recognizing that children are quite malleable, the combination of these two proves to be a difficult undertaking. While preventing exposure to magical thinking, atheist parents who hold these ideals need to be very cautious in how they correct their children's thinking, or even how they have conversations with them.
Moreover, many childhood rituals involve magical thinking rather heavily.
So, the particular question that posed itself yesterday didn't actually involve gods at all. No -- it was the tooth fairy. My six-year old lost a tooth, and we were discussing what he might get on leaving the tooth under his pillow.
Now, a die-hard atheist would vilify me. I shouldn't really tell my kid a tooth fairy exists, and should set him straight right away, this person would claim. They might be right. It was actually an older cousin who brought up the fairy, but I didn't have the heart to tell my child the fairy didn't exist. Fortunately, Superboy has always had a strong ability to separate fantasy and reality.
I was somewhat gratified, therefore, when he turned to me and said:
"Of course, the tooth fairy doesn't really exist."
"Oh?", I said, interested in where this was going, "it doesn't?"
"No," he replied firmly, "because fairies don't exist."
I nodded, smiling slightly. "You're right," I said simply, feeling delving into the difficulties of proving negatives to be somewhat tangential, "But then, where does the money come from?" I was intentionally pushing him to see how much he'd considered.
"I wonder..." he said, looking at me from the corners of his eyes. This struck me as rather sophisticated for his age, suggesting he thought he knew where the coins came from without saying so explicitly.
"You're very clever," I said, "Who might have put it there? Who would have wanted a tooth?"
Though I'm convinced he's at the very least fairly certain how the money gets under the pillow, to this he simply said, "I don't know", and seemed unwilling to follow the train of logic further. So we hopped off that train, and ended up hypothesizing about the "tooth tarantulas" -- spiders that need teeth, and borrow them from children whose teeth have fallen out, replacing them with huge ungainly coins. The image of big toothy spiders running around was pretty funny, so we giggled about that for a while. In the end, it seems like even though he had a good idea of what the truth is, he preferred to remain where he is for now.
I do tend to wonder how the religious deal with this sort of thing. Clearly the tooth fairy would be a sort of occult figure, and yet I'm betting Christian parents barely give it a second thought. Of course, I do know some atheists subscribe to the idea of "family beliefs", and would happily teach their children the truth or falsehood of the tooth fairy without a second thought. For me, however, the question whether I should teach my children anything about the tooth fairy ranks right up with the question of whether I should teach them anything about gods.
Incidentally, the tooth spider left him a dollar.