I just had a very instructive conversation over the dinner table tonight. My eldest offhandedly mentioned that the concept of heaven came up at school on the playground.
It has always been a precept of my parenting that I would not be the one to introduce these traditional religious concepts to our children. That I would, in essence, shelter them from even having to know about that stuff as long as possible. (It should be noted that this is in stark contest to my wife, who has a more standard-progressive 'all the colors of the rainbow' outlook. In other arenas, I feel the same but religion is my sticking point due to its history and divisiveness.)
So when the concept of heaven came up, and the 7 year old said "but what... IS it?" I found we had reached the point where an explanation was in order.
"Well," I said, thinking on my feet. "Some people think of it as a place where you go after you die because it makes them feel better," I said, thinking that was about as magnanimous an answer as I could rightfully give. But it was what happened next that I found so instructive.
What followed was the 7 year old and the 5 year old pontificating on what part of you would actually go to heaven.
"So does your skeleton climb up and walk somewhere?"
"I think your brain pulls itself out and has legs and arms."
"Is it like, your skin and everything?"
"ECHO-MACATION." (What? The 2 year old had to participate too. She was listening when the others we're talking about bats earlier apparently.)
What I realized I was witnessing was two young minds, unencumbered by the concept of an eternal soul, having a philosophical discussion regarding the nature of the self. Pretty heady stuff for the Tuesday dinner table if you ask me. But what I realized I was really happy about was the fact that having not pre-installed them with he traditional judeo christian software, they were essentially unlimited in their mental meanderings. I imagine that this must be one of the reasons I've always felt so strongly about not exposing them to these things, even if we tempered it with teaching from the other world philosophies, I just didn't know how to verbalized it - religious thinking is so limiting.
Watching these two wrestle with the idea of a mystical landing place after death, without the idea of the eternal soul that necessitates such a belief was so interesting because they could follow every thought down to its conclusion. I have to assume that a child told from the moment they could speak "you have an eternal soul, and that's what YOU are" would miss out on all this discovery. More importantly to me, it means they didn't have to waste time unlearning some base level assumption. They didn't have to have that moment most of us have in high school or college where they have the 'what does it all mean' moment that causes them to question everything that came before. They get to explore these things on their own (and of course, I'll be here to answer any questions that might arise).
If anything, what I now know is that sharing in the journey of these kids exploring these issues, while being totally unafraid to ask what in other circles would be heretical questions, is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything.