Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Eli 10.2 has discovered spitballs.

The brilliant discovery that a ballpoint pen can be weaponized is a part of every boy's childhood. Spitballs, though, like baseball and newspapers, are in decline.

"Dad, watch this," he says, knowing full well that I can't, because I'm driving. Then I hear a little cannonball of paper (really a paperwad, not a spitball) ping off the driver's side window.

"You'll be picking all of those up, obviously," I say.

"Yes," he says. "There are three--no, four. I'll get them all." We drive along in a pleasant silence, occasionally punctuated by the sound of a paperwad being launched.

"Dad, what's the difference between an agnostic and atheist?" This happens more often than you might think, alternating between slapstick and high concept. It's the nature of ten-year-olds--or this one, at least.

"An atheist believes that God does not exist. An agnostic doesn't know either way."

"What are you?"

"I'm an agnostic. I believe it's unknowable whether God does or does not exist. Do you know what it means when something is supernatural?" I ask.

"I do," he says.

"God is supernatural," I say. "I cannot comprehend the supernatural. I could just say that God doesn't exist, but many things that have been proven true by science were considered impossible in an earlier time. So I don't believe that God can't exist, just that I have never seen evidence of God."

"Does it bother you that you don't know?" he asks.

"Not at all," I say. "There are many things that are unknowable. Not knowing has no negative effect on my life. I know right from wrong. I treat people with respect. God existing or not existing doesn't stop me from being or doing anything. "

We drive in silence for a few seconds.

"Religion can be very complicated," I say. "There are many different kinds of religion, and they all believe in God in different ways. And that's okay. I'm an agnostic because I believe it's more accurate. It's not a question of right or wrong. Besides, what people say they believe is not really very important. Let's say, for a moment, that we absolutely knew God did not exist. And there are two people: an atheist, and a person who still believes in God. The atheist robs convenience stores for a living. The person who believes in God has spent their whole life helping poor people and working for charity. Who would you rather have in the world?"

"That's easy," he says. "The guy who helps people."

"That's right," I say. I paused for a few seconds, trying to compress what that meant into something he would understand.

"Being right about God doesn't make you right about life," he says.

That's the single most perceptive thing Eli has ever said.

"That is the perfect way to explain it," I say. "It really doesn't matter what you believe--it matters what you do. There are people who have used the Bible to justify slaughter. They've used it to justify treating entire groups of people as less than human. But there are also people who believe in the Bible who are gentle and kind, who have devoted their lives to helping people. There are some wonderful lessons in the Bible, like the Golden Rule."

"Treat others as you would want to be treated," he says.

"That's right," I say. "Look, it doesn't matter what someone says they believe. If they treat other people with respect, and they act with kindness, that's who they are. People are what they do. What someone says they believe is never important compared to their actions. And it will be very important when you get older to trust people only based on what they do, and not what they say."

"I will," he says. "Thanks, Dad."

We drive in silence for a little while. The wind is strong outside our car, tree branches swaying mightily, but inside, it's quiet.

"I really appreciate that you think about things at a level"--I start, then feel a paperwad hit the back of my head--"at a level that most other people don't, not even grown-ups." Another paperwad hits the window. "You also have excellent paperwad shooting skills," I say.

"I know," he says. "Right?"

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