Hey Nerdfighters! I uploaded this note to my facebook a few months ago but didn't get much of a response from my friends, and I'm hoping I can bounce some ideas off of everyone here. So, any input you have would be great. I plan to start some youtube videos this summer that relate to this topic and could use any additional points of view I can get. Well, with that out of the way, here it goes...
I've come to the realization recently that perhaps I should be thankful for my rather benign Catholic upbringing. I was never taught the fire and brimstone version of hell, nor were any of those fear-based teachings a big part of my "religious education." I see now that if my religious upbringing had been more severe, as is the case for many Christians, I likely would have remained blind to skepticism and reason, and would have believed that suspense of my credulity and common sense was a virtue which deserves respect. I was never told with much seriousness about such things as the rapture or creationism, and original sin was just a vague idea tied to Adam and Eve. My parents were not knocking down the science classroom door trying to dispute evolution, nor did we even have a family discussion about it. While I was technically raised Catholic, religion was only a part of my life on Sundays and occasional Wednesday evenings, so outside of those one or two days of the week my upbringing was mostly secular. For this I am incredibly thankful, because I now understand how detrimental a more religious childhood could have been. It is my conclusion that one must be taught the stories of Noah and the Ark, or Adam and Eve while you are a young, impressionable child, otherwise you have no chance of believing any of it as true. It is on this point that I make my plea to my Christian friends.
To current and future parents I say, please don't teach your children things that would not stand up to criticism from a skeptic. Chances are that your child is born a skeptic anyway, and when they begin to question religious teachings and the bible itself, if the best you can reply with is something like, "well it's in the bible so it's true" or, "that's just what we believe," then you are doing your offspring a great disservice. This sort of flimsy argument from authority, from fear, or even just from tradition, sets the precedent that claims need not be verified because they are held up by "faith." This attitude is detrimental in every aspect of one's life. You cannot tell your boss that your solution to a problem will work out because you "believe" that it will; you must substantiate your claim and convince others that your conclusions are well thought out and founded on facts and evidence. The only sphere in our lives where we allow unverified (and often unverifiable) claims to hold any value is in religion, and I would argue that a strong distinction and separation must be made between that sphere and what I would call the real world (Or if that's too aggressive, the secular world, where you conduct most of your life).
To current believers I would like to ask that you imagine a world where you were brought up in a different household which did not value religion in the same way as yours. Ask yourself if you would believe in the Garden of Eden or a resurrection of a dead man if you had only first heard of the claims about it as an adult. If that is too difficult to imagine, you can conduct a simple thought experiment: how seriously do you take claims made by Hindus about their God, or by Buddhists, or Muslims, Shintos, Sikhs, or any of the other dozens of major religions in the world? Chances are that you don't believe in their God, or at the very least you are not convinced by the specifics of their claims. However, I would assert that most honest Christians would agree that had they been born in Iraq they would be Muslim, or if they were born in India they would be Hindus, and you would feel that Christians are the ones with unsubstantiated claims. Is this because the amount of fact existing within religious claims differs based on which region you are born in? Or does it more likely have to do with the fact that it is merely what you were taught as a child, just as Muslims were taught of the prophet Muhammad and Hindus were taught about Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. I hope that if you are honest with yourself you will agree that what you believe mostly has to do with regional influences and what your parents decided to tell you as a child.
I share this with my friends not to attack anyone's personal views, but to hopefully encourage open discussion of this realm of our lives, which is so often pushed into a corner and protected from any kind of questioning. To those who would rather keep their religion private and who is annoyed when anyone brings it up, I ask if you believe a strong faith (if that is something you strive to maintain) means accepting your religious principles and never worrying about them again, or if your faith might be stronger if you look at it from different perspectives and answer questions and challenges. However, if you submit your beliefs to questioning and find that you simply cannot continue to believe, I hope you will experience the same feeling of freedom that I so greatly value in my own life.
I believe it is possible, though very difficult, to provide a balanced approach to religion for children. Religious education often means pure indoctrination (at least in my experience), or the presentation of religious beliefs as fact to children. It is thus essential that religious beliefs are presented to children at a relatively later age: this means no baptism, no taking toddlers to church, none of that: they must be bias-free when presented with the question of religion. A child should not be called a Christian until they are able to understand what being "Christian" entails. When presented, they must be presented as beliefs, with the difference between beliefs and facts explained clearly to them. Children will believe ardently in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, however unlikely these figures are, if they are presented to them as facts. Thus a proper introduction requires a) an introduction of beliefs as belief vs. fact and b) a proper age/maturity level.
Of course, various problems arise from this. A bias-free environment is difficult to achieve by virtue of the agent of introduction (a parent, guardian or other authority figure) and the fact that children are extremely vulnerable to appeal by authority. It is also difficult to explain belief vs. fact to a child, and fairly present a religion you engage in.
This is, of course, ignoring some of the greater problems. Many Christians have no interest in fairly presenting religion to their child: indoctrination is what they seek, and what they succeed in. Also, many Christians due to their own indoctrination view their religion as fact, not belief; they cannot teach such a distinction, unable to recognize it themselves. Lastly, many Christians will brand their child "Christian" and baptize them before they understand the significance of such a label. Thus the child grows up seeing themselves as "Christian," and only later discovering and accepting the actual tenets of the religion.
In short, I find the vast majority of religious education and upbringing to be pure indoctrination. A balanced, unbiased presentation of religion to children is not only difficult but not in the interest of Christian parents. Due to these factors, many children will continue becoming indoctrinated into Christianity amongst other religions for the foreseeable future.
I really appreciate the response, David. I agree that a proper introduction to religion would likely cause many to remain in disbelief, as they do regarding Thor and Zues. And I also see your point about the biases of those introducing the information, as well as the unintentional biases that may result in the child due to the role of the person informing them. Because of this, I think it may be more important to focus on what can be done to curtail unquestioned beliefs that persist into adult years, seeing as it may be impossible to prevent childhood indoctrination.
I have only ever had luck de-converting people who already had rather ardent doubts of their own. I simply provided the professional arguments against religion (Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, etc.) and the example of myself, showing that Atheists do not have to be militant or aggressive. In each of the cases where someone has credited me with steering them away from faith, my goal was not to convince them to think as I do, but merely to openly discuss all of the possibilities about our situation in the Universe. Given what we know about our origins and the future of our species, I simply postulated that the explanation offered by organized religion has many inconsistencies inherent in it, and even if it were consistent, it is not even a comforting story that any of us should even with to be true.
While it is my personal view that we would all be better off if religion were to decline (more than it already has), I do not go out of my way to get into arguments or to debate the existence of God with people. This is, I believe, where many Atheists go wrong in their approach to the topic. They believe that we'd be better off without religion (which is a prediction supported by some data, but not a sufficient amount to call it fact), so they try to abolish religious beliefs in individuals whenever they see the chance. This is not any way to get someone to take your point of view seriously. I find that discussing the specifics of each belief with people who are open to the topic is the most effective way to achieve the desired outcome, rather than trying to "sweep the legs" of the whole institution of religion at once.
So I pose the question to you David - what do you feel is the best way to conduct oneself in a culture that holds such a negative view towards non-believers? Also, how would you respond in situations where the topic comes up among close friends (as those are the only people I would be willing to discuss this with)?