Knowledge Problems

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Learning Religion

I am unimpressed with the manner in which religion and theology are taught, or rather to who they are taught. In particular, I am unimpressed with the traditional practice of teaching theology to children. Oughtn't educated people, religious and irreligious alike, find this practice to be very suspect?

Imagine that you are the parent of an 7-year old child. You are divorced, and share custody of the child with your former spouse. Unfortunately, your former spouse has become a member of an obscure cult that preaches a variety of apocalyptic beliefs, very different than your own mainstream religious beliefs. One day, a friend informs you that your child has been inducted into the cult and has begun attending daily classes with the cult leader, all with the enthusiastic encouragement of your former spouse. Does this bother you?

I think that you would be VERY bothered by this news. Why? Because such a young child can't possibly have the wherewithal to objectively assess the claims that they are likely to hear? Because such a young child can't possibly have the experience to know how such claims are regarded by others, or to have had exposure to competing claims? Because such a young child is predisposed to give maximal credence to the claims that are made by authority figures in their lives? Because such a young child is predisposed to give maximal credence to the claims made by a parent? Because such a young child is predisposed to think or do whatever will be rewarded by social acceptance among peers and the affection and respect of authority figures and parents? Because strong beliefs adopted during childhood may be difficult and painful to dispel or revise at a later time? Because indoctrinating such a young child is tantamount to coercion?

I think all of the above arguments have some degree of validity. Indoctrinating a young child is indeed a coercive process. A young child has no choice but to believe what they are told, especially when everything of importance to them is made to be contingent on this belief. But such utter contingency is always the case in a very religious environment. Should thinking people be upset with this state of affairs only when the indoctrination is carried out by an esoteric cult leader, but not when it is carried out within their own mainstream Jewish or Christian home? What is the essential difference? Let me offer a couple more quotes from the Joshi reader:

To my mind, the inculcation of religious belief into the young — a process that can scarcely be termed anything but brainwashing — is religion's great crime against humanity. Billions have been prejudiced in favor of one religion or another by this kind of indoctrination, and it requires a tremendous strength of mind and will to overcome it in later years. [...] One would suppose that religionists would wish their adherents to have come by their beliefs freely and of their own accord; so why do they insist that religious training begin at an age when the child is not able to think for itself and is incapable of questioning the authority of its parents or other adult figures (Joshi 2000).


If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences. With such an honest and inflexible openness to evidence, they could not fail to receive any real truth which might be manifesting itself around them. The fact that religionists do not follow this honorable course, but cheat at their game by invoking juvenile quasi-hypnosis, is enough to destroy their pretensions in my eyes even if their absurdity were not manifest in every other direction. (Lovecraft, in Joshi 2000).


Well, taking a few steps back, I'm not sure that outrage is necessarily in order. Parents have always indoctrinated their children with their own beliefs, and they will continue to do so regardless of Joshi's indictments or my own half-hearted objections. And such indoctrination will always play on a child's immature fears and desires, because that is all the child has at its disposal.

But I think there needs to be some acknowledgment of the following truth: There is a certain educational dynamic created when Professor Smith lectures to a class of 22-year-olds about the life of Jesus, and there is another, very different, educational dynamic created when Mommy cuddles her 8-year old child and lovingly reassures him that everything will be OK as long as he always loves Jesus. These are not equivalent forms of education, nor are they even in the same category.

Obvious? Perhaps. But I don't think that this gross inequivalence is registered by most religious people. One argument that I often hear in friendly discussions on religion is that if so many millions of people believe in God, then surely there must be a good deal of truth to the notion. Well, of course this is wrong in so many ways. But for just one, it implicitly compares belief in God with other beliefs that have never had the kind of reinforcement that has been lavished upon the former. Consider, for example, that there is probably a small group of people who believe that Immanuel Kant was the greatest Western philosopher of all time. And every year there are probably a few additional students who will make such an assessment after encountering Kant in a philosophy course. Should we conclude because of the huge disparity in the number of God-believers and Kant-believers that God's existence is therefore so much more self-evident than Kant's philosophical greatness?

I think before we can honestly do that, we ought to strive to level the playing field. One way to attempt this would be to instruct children about Kant at the earliest ages, telling fascinating stories about him that might excite the childish imagination, and stressing ad nauseam how he was the greatest philosopher of all time, how no one before or since could hold a candle to his wisdom, how he loved all people, how he freed our minds, etc. (And of course we should not neglect to seriously instruct the child about the unimaginably horrible fate that awaits them should they choose to believe otherwise.)

But this project is probably hopeless if we wish to retain any trace of truth in our tale. Rather, we should level the playing field by deferring any instruction about God until about the same time and place where we begin instruction about Kant. Let a 22-year old university student who has not been previously indoctrinated take one class on Western religion and another on Western philosophy, and let us then see which he or she finds more compelling, the self-evidence of God's existence or the self-evidence of Kant's greatness. If we repeated this experiment several times, I think we would see the great disparity evaporate. As Robertson writes in regard to Christianity (see Joshi 2000),

Clergy and flock alike act in the spirit of self-interested corporations. They feel that if children are not trained to accept Christian doctrines before they can reason for themselves, the chances are ten to one that they will not join any church in later life. [...] None of them dares to trust to the process of persuading grown men and women.


My point is not that Kant is greater than God. I couldn't even finish Kant's book. My point is that religious thinkers somehow always manage to overlook the many (unearned) competitive advantages that accrue to their beliefs sheerly in virtue of the way that those beliefs permeate every aspect of the child's developmental environment. Oddly, many religious thinkers seem to have convinced themselves that most people who hold religious beliefs have indeed arrived at them against all odds, through Herculean effort and heroic sacrifice. Please. In most cases, religious beliefs are first delivered with the mother's milk, and continue to be delivered without cessation throughout all of childhood and adolescence. Few other beliefs get such privileged treatment. What is finally required to produce a religious adult from a religious child is not Herculean effort, but common intellectual inertia.

In conclusion, I think that the theologians — the people who actually think about religion rather than just performing the motions — really have something to ask themselves. They tell us that one can arrive at religious truths through rational deduction, or through study of nature, or through study of self. All these endeavors require certain capacities that are characteristically present in adults and not in children. Why then not defer instruction on theological matters until adulthood, when the capabilities will be present for the successful completion of the task? Shouldn't religious thinkers indeed be embarrassed that rather than instructing and educating the most mature and most critical minds, they have chosen to coax and cajole the least competent and least critical minds?

3 Comments:

  • right on !!

    Of course, religionists will respond that bringing up a child without lesssons in in right and wrong is criminal, and teaching them morality on the basis of "the golden rule" is an unfair headstart of secular veiwpoints over religion, but....what you say is certainly true, religion clubs us over the head before we know we have one, and that exactly the way the clergy like it...

    By Blogger Ben Avuyah, at May 10, 2006, 12:39:00 PM  

  • Your observations are well put and logical. Nonetheless, parents transmit more than religious ideals to their young, as do secular parents. The conclusion of your point would be to not teach any non-academic teachings to children because that would be unfair indoctrination, to which there is no end. All subjective (including ethics and morality) is unfair indoctrination which the child cannot evaluate. Why stop at religious teachings?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Jun 27, 2006, 8:48:00 PM  

  • You are right, Anonymous. I was not trying to provide practical parenting advice. I was just pointing out that religious folk overlook the extent to which childhood indoctrination is responsible in large part for the beliefs one holds in adult life. Fundamentalists like to believe that the beliefs they hold are logical, rational, obvious, inevitable, undeniable, etc., but they fail to see the elephant in the room, which is that they would never hold these beliefs if they had not been raised on them as children. It has nothing at all to do with rationality, logic, or anything more noble than intellectual inertia.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jun 29, 2006, 9:17:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home