The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently. ~Friedrich Nietzsche
Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you. ~Robert Fulghum
Every year now there is an online event called the International Day of Protest Against Child Religious Grooming. Not only is it a horrendous freight train of a title, it doesn’t even shorten to a meaningful acronym. This is what serves as a protest against hereditary religion, which the atheists who host the event consider to be child abuse. They argue some children suffer emotional scarring being brought up in a fundamentalist religion and wave research studies about to prove it. So far it remains a cyber event, which may explain why you’ve never heard anything about it.
To some it may seem atheists believe they have the market locked on logic and reason by virtue of position, not believing in the mystical big guy with a beard up in the clouds. There is, after all, a great deal to be said for requiring some measure of evidence rather than accepting centuries outdated stories that give us warm fuzzies about our place in the universe. But many atheists can come off as intellectual snobs and, given some frictional topic of discord, sound close to being unhinged, behave overly emotional, are often viewed as driven by anger, and at moments don’t act rational at all. Which is only to say they are like any other group falling under the larger umbrella of creatures called Homo sapiens, subject to all the human frailties that go with it. (A study by the Yale Cultural Cognition Project shows we all use reason to convince ourselves we are right, even in the face of evidence that says otherwise.) That’s not to say this dichotomy is on equal footing, not by a long shot, but only to point out we’re all people. So, lets see…who else likes to tell people how to live their lives because they have the corner locked on morality and truth, and also wave about research to back it up? Sounds like the Religious Right to me.
Regardless of where on the “sounds reasonable to me” spectrum you fall, how is any ideological group going to enforce their unilateral vision of we-know-what’s-best-for-everyone’s-kids? This is where the libertarian in me comes out, because what a nightmarish totalitarian state that will be, trying to control what parents teach their prodigy. Lets not forget there are plenty of abused kids out there without the benefit of God’s guiding rod. And don’t get cozy and smug, because a government with that kind of power will be coming after some ridiculous activity you engage (or avoid) soon enough. The very act of raising a child involves indoctrinating them into certain behaviors and beliefs. Not only religious, but cultural and political ones as well. Somebody is bound to think you’re screwing it up. Maybe you’re not feeding them right, you let them ride their bike without a helmet, or, our overlords forbid, they formed their hand into the shape of a gun and “shot” someone. These absurdities already exist and happen in institutions where somebody has too much power (and likely too much time) in their hands. Like the North Carolina food inspector who said a little girl’s lunch (a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice) wasn’t healthy enough and sent it home. And what did the school substitute for this horrible lunch? Chicken nuggets. Or the 5-year-old in kindergarten who dropped his pants (under another child’s threat), and was made to sign a sexual misconduct form. Thank you so much, Dysart Unified School District, for protecting us from this potential onslaught of prepubescent deviance. When “policy” and rules outweigh common sense, it’s a good sign we have begun to take ourselves far too serious. Somebody needs to get a cluestick and beat the people who engage in this behavior repeatedly about the head.
The anti-religious grooming protesters are not without their nemesis. The Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF, http://www.cefonline.com) mission is not only to bring their kids to Christ, but yours, too. Their ministry vision is “to reach Every Child, Every Nation, Every Day.” Their purpose “is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to establish (disciple) them in the local church for Christian living.” The CEF, vigorous in its holy mission, is not without its bit of controversy, either, and has been accused of stealth proselytizing missions violating the separation of church and state in schools across the country, and tactlessly informing children of other religions they are going to hell. Never mind a child much under the age of twelve can’t think abstractly enough to truly understand the concept of God. It might as well be Santa Claus. Not much mention of parental wishes or desires here, either. Because as believers, they know what’s best for your kid and want to save their immortal souls, even if they can’t prove such a thing exists.
Each organization at its core serves its own noble purpose when understood through its worldview. One wants to save kids from out-dated superstition used to frighten and narrow their thinking, and the other wants to save them from hell. And children make such beatific, noble, innocent pawns in the battle for ideology. But despite personal reservations I might have about one’s religious beliefs or their political accord, I’m not going to be the one trying to stop you from raising a particular brand of idiot. Not unless you’re sticking them in the oven to bake or feeding them cock-a-roaches. Though roaches might be better for them than the chicken nuggets.
The protestors argue “the concept of children as the property of their parents comes from antiquity and is part of the legacy of patriarchy. Modern children are conceived as persons in their own right because the notion of one person owning another person amounts to slavery” (www.endhereditaryreligion.com). Children may not be property per se, but you try to take a child away from a mother and tell her it’s not hers, just because you don’t like the hereditary stories she’s passing along. Children may be “persons in their own right” but they’re very dependent persons. The end hereditary religion peeps argue, in reasonable enough fashion, that any decision to pick a religion should be left until the child has become a “mature adult”–whatever constitutes that. I’m thinking age 30, maybe. George Barna says, “Whatever a child believes by age 13 is in most cases what he will die believing.” (Guess I’m swimming against the tide on that count.) Perhaps the end hereditary religion people believe this as well, which would then tie in neatly to reducing religious pledges in incidental fashion. The CEF believes it, because they had it plastered across the top of a mailer I received once begging for money before it’s too late. I don’t know about the efficacy of Barna’s statement, but I imagine that somebody now is more likely to leave religion after being raised beneath it than to enter it after a secular upbringing. In the public square of debate, where this argument belongs, science and logic have been gaining the upper hand for centuries. It just isn’t going fast enough for some tastes (and is unlikely to ever be fully won).
We seem to suffer under the illusion that if we just pass enough laws, or if we just make government big enough, or implement our holy rules throughout the land–if we could just get those twits over there to cooperate with our righteous vision–then we could solve so much of our bad karma. Like the anti-abortion crowd, there isn’t much word on exactly what would be done with all the religiously abused displaced children. It’s hands in the air and, “Hey, hey! I just said I’d save the kid, not take care of them!” I suppose that would fall to some government function. Joy.
Nietzche said, “At times one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid.” And Fundamentalism thrives best when it is persecuted. Metaphysical beliefs will never be totally annihilated, that’s the way people are wired, but will adapt and renew in different ways due to discovery and cultural change. Just as it has always done. For the atheist, there is the underlying, unspoken assumption that if religion were gone things would be so much better. In so far as we no longer believe in archaic poetry as literal, sure. Outside of that, we are fully capable of sinking the ship of civilization without the iceberg of religion. The Just So secular society is as much a mythological creature as are the gods. It’s called “heaven,” and there is no individuality there.
Many atheists are also quick to ignore studies that show the benefits of religious faith. Because they can’t throw religion a bone, it’s the enemy. What benefits? As a group, religious people tend to be happier (ignorance is bliss) and live longer lives. They suffer less physical pain. They are more giving, and are less likely to panic under pressure. They are less prone to depression, anxiety, stress, and similar types of associated mental conundrums. Small price to pay, Richard Dawkins would say, to get away from superstition. But according to Nobel laureate physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg “‘it’s hard to live in a world in which one’s highest emotions can be understood in biochemical and evolutionary terms, rather than a gift from God. Instead of the big, comforting certainties promoted by religion, science can offer only ‘a lot of little truths’ and the austere pleasures of intellectual honesty. Much as Weinberg would like to see civilization emerge from the tyranny of religion, when it happens, ‘I think we will miss it, like a crazy old aunt who tells us lies and causes us all kinds of trouble, but was beautiful once and was with us a long time.’ To which (Richard) Dawkins retorted, ‘I won’t miss her at all.'” (quoted from a Newsweek article Losing Our Religion, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2006/11/09/losing-our-religion.html). But science does leave a void. The discoveries of science are amazing and the universe is beautiful (if harsh), and it provides a greater revelation than any predisposed centuries old theological imaginings. But it is a cold mother. Only our poetic vision and longing can make it anything else.
Least you of religious fervor take the benefits above as vindication of your faith, bear in mind it doesn’t matter the particular flavor of belief to get the joy-joy benefits. Those pagans and people who live down the street and believe in some other god are happier too. Happiness is not a truth meter. And there is plenty of bad that comes from religion in a diverse society, from fear and hatred of certain groups of ‘other’ people, tribalism, fear (of hell, damnation, disapproval), conditional love, and lack of access to outside information and education, all which research is showing to leave lasting ill psychological effects. This is most pronounced in cults/sects, but can also be symptomatic of harsh fundamentalism. I understand that many good things have transpired from religious faith but, along with Dawkins, I seriously doubt that it outweighs the bad. You can’t paint over life with a happy brush and make that old oil disappear. It seeps through.
The majority of my family, friends, and people I grew up with are dyed-in-the-wool believers but otherwise normal, everyday people who love their family, children, and friends like anybody else. Sure, many of us now disagree on this tale to make us feel better about our mortality, but that doesn’t make them bad people, or bad parents. I don’t know what my parents believe anymore, if anything, but I do know they love me. Tales of Noah’s ark, Adam & Eve and such as literal realities may be a disservice in this age, but not abuse. Those kids grow up to be like the people who believe Elvis is still alive. But we all live with some degree of personal delusion. We’re all on personal journeys of discovery and wonderment, and our views are bound to get spun around a few times on the trip. Religion doesn’t inherently scar children–terrible people scar children, and they don’t require religion to accomplish the task. Are there children that get abused by religious parenting? The threat of an eternal, burning fire if they don’t behave? Certainly. For some pitiful kids, a “fear of the Lord” is a very palpable, unfortunate affair. And if you happen to be beating your child with a cane to dispense some holy judgment, then likely you deserve a bit of hellfire yourself. But that isn’t an inevitable result of faith, any more than a well-balanced child is the inevitable result of secular upbringing.
So where should we turn? How should we raise our kids? Rationally we can’t turn to religion, especially those with roots in the Levant because they take themselves as serious as that North Carolina food inspector and the Dysart Unified School District. I’ll give religion the props it has earned, but talking snakes and arks full of animals need to join Zeus and Athena in a Rick Riordan young reader novel. Those are the stories now filling the creative void. Stories that set us free rather than stifling us–Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and so many others. Stories that speak to the human condition without trying to so much condition us. Why else do you think these new and revisionary mythic works have become so popular? We have always understood ourselves through stories, music, and the arts.
The rational, scholarly and scientific part of me loathes seeing those old poetic stretches of our grasp for meaning turned into literal dogma. But from my youth I have loved myth, fantasy, and horror. Because the stories aren’t real doesn’t mean there isn’t truth behind them, as in any good fable. Joseph Campbell said, “God is a metaphor.” That I find to be true. The problem isn’t that we tell our children fantastic stories to guide their development, but that once they are older the church still keeps their claws in them, teaching these stories as literal truth and historic fact. And then demand an extra 10% tithe to top it off (at least that is less than what the government takes). So unlike the hereditary religion group who say we need to wait until the child is old enough to pick a religion for themselves, to me that is just when “religion” should be letting them go. Just as we let them release Santa Claus, tooth fairies, and other nonsense. But the power of the stories, of who we are and what we aspire to be, of sacrifice, giving and moral character, can remain. Eat the fish and spit out the bones, as the saying goes. Dogmatism destroys those truths when one can’t accept the story as literal, though. That’s when society must, and will, find a new symbolism to cling. And before you enslave your child to a particular “righteous” view, remember how many times your faith and views have been wrong and forced to change in the past, whether that was in regard to science or some End Time failed prophesy. And maybe give them the room to explore that on their own without spoon feeding them your own answers as absolute.