I would first like to say what a privilege it was for Allison and I to be speaking at the Third Annual PA Atheist/Humanist Conference alongside so many great speakers and entertainers, as well as being a part of the organizing committee. We met many amazing people and made some new friends. It was a wonderful experience for a cause we are passionate about. The show of support was very encouraging. This was our first speaking event together (and my first ever in my life). My part was on belief, and with limited time, I couldn’t really get into much detail. It’s a topic I feel strongly about and want to expand on it a bit in this blog. The main point I want to stress is that what we teach our children will affect the way they will interact with the rest of the world, and this is paramount for a promising future. This starts with what we believe as well.
There is this notion that beliefs are not to be criticized. In fact, it is even considered an insult. I want to argue here that beliefs are not sacrosanct and it is a mistake to treat them as such. Beliefs are not benign and they need to be questioned or we commit ourselves to willful ignorance and to suffering the resulting consequences without hope of bettering ourselves or our situation. We must acknowledge that what we believe can have a profound effect on others and on society as a whole in a variety of ways. They influence our behavior and our actions such as in the way we vote, what medical treatments and procedures we seek for our families, what careers we pursue, and how we view the world and treat others around us. Beliefs can have many positive effects, while others have very disastrous effects. Just look at how profoundly damaging racism, misogyny, and homophobia have been. It is for reasons like these that questioning and challenging the beliefs that shape our world is essential for us to flourish. I think that nothing is more important to continue this progress than what and how we teach our children.
As W. K. Clifford argues in the Ethics Of Belief, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Now even if you don’t fully agree with this hard rationalistic approach, we can clearly see how believing in things without evidence would make us more and more credulous, and that we would ultimately pass this tradition of credulity on to our children. We can appreciate the importance of adopting the sentiment of David Hume that “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence” as a way to avoid believing in the wrong things and falsehoods. But it is not enough to say we shouldn’t believe irrational things. Nobody thinks that they do. We don’t make a habit of believing things we don’t think are true. Therefore we must peel back the surface of our beliefs, even if they appear to be good, and take a look at what is at the core and why we hold them. Because we don’t live in a vacuum and ultimately they will have varying degrees of influence on the next generation.
This is where I find most religions to be among the most potentially harmful, and even dangerous, kinds of belief anyone can hold. The majority of them are generally dogmatic and inherently divisive in nature. The first thing we need to recognize is that religious beliefs go quite a bit deeper than just believing in something like ghosts. Even at their best, these religions make some pretty lofty (and dubious) claims that are absolute, are purported to be beyond our understanding, and are to be accepted on faith. This is why they deserve extra consideration in our critical analyses of beliefs. They create a worldview that dominates practically every aspect of the believers life. It’s more than simply holding a belief that a God exists, it’s about what we’re told, and what we tell others, about this God. There are a lot of other ideological commitments and dogmas that accompany whichever one of these religions we choose, or as most often the case, have foisted onto us at a young age.
First, to get a better perspective of how these beliefs take hold, we need to take a critical look into how religion is taught to children. In the case of Christianity, we needn’t look much further than the children’s bible and those specifically selected stories made into appealing coloring books that conveniently gloss over the horrible parts. Here we find that Moses always looks happy, they picture Lazarus springing from his grave with a smile on his face. All the animals fit on the arc comfortably and are also smiling. All the while omitting the passages that we would, by todays standards, consider shockingly immoral or nonsensical myth. This is done intentionally. After all, how could stories like Moses ordering the slaughter of thousands of people by God’s command be spun into the teachings that God is all good and merciful without a heavy dose of indoctrination? Or to ignore the fact that the historical credibility often ascribed to the story of Noah’s arc is simply absurd? It’s easier to disguise the immorality, contradictions, and inaccuracies we find when carefully selected passages are redacted in such an ingratiating fashion before being introduced to children. By the time they are confronted with these issues, they’re already groomed to accept that nothing is impossible for God, and his will is just and such a sinful world is deserving of punishment. Naturally, children seek their parents approval and respond positively to the praise they receive from reciting these passages and singing the hymns. All containing the message that God is good and is to be worshiped. They are literally taught to be sheep. This belief demands worship and obedience. They are told they must be humbly acquiescent to this God as his word is absolute, and above reproach. God is good simply by virtue of being God. The problems associated with this kind of thinking goes largely unchallenged due to this taboo we have circulated about questioning beliefs. Before long, children are making their own excuses for their religion much in the same way as the adults that nurtured this belief have. It’s a cycle of indoctrination that is designed to keep going generation after generation.
But what is it about these religious beliefs that carries such a potentiality for harm? As pernicious and undermining as these religions foundational totalitarianism is, what’s even more damaging is the way humanity is portrayed and how they ultimately foster a negative and despondent view of ourselves. I think it is in this that allows for these totalitarian doctrinal beliefs to go unchallenged to begin with. The stories like that of the fall have been a great burden on our understanding of the human condition and an insult to our most basic human dignities. But for as troubling as most of us should find the doctrine of Original sin, imagine what it does to the mind of a child. Then there’s the detrimental effects caused by the churches unhealthy views on sex and sexual identity that leads to many misconceptions and anxiety, and even self loathing. What about the damage done to their self esteem by being told that their only redeeming value, and their very self worth, is found in God? A God without which there is no redemption. They are doomed to hell unless they accept the “salvation” offered to them. To gain the favor of this God, they are told to overcome their unclean, sinful human nature by living every day according to a biblically virtuous standard that can never be achieved. A standard that itself is repressive and impractical. Their only validation of goodness as a person is in how closely they live in accordance to God’s word. Then there’s the grotesque way guilt is used to shame our children into submission. Nothing quite accomplishes this like the doctrine that we are all so fallen that Jesus had to die a horrible death because of a sin in which they are indirectly culpable of. Can we think of anything more detrimental and destructive to our children’s development?
How is it that devout believers can claim that promulgating the belief that there is no meaning to this life without God is anything but abhorrent? It is an inherent feature of the belief that is part and parcel to how it comes to dominate the believers life. We often find the life degrading belief in a greater afterlife in paradise for those who worship and an eternal torment for disobedience, along with the belief that God’s will must be obeyed above all else, behind the most extreme behaviors. This is the undeniable result of fervent religious piety clashing with reality. Early signs of the psychological consequences caused by these faith-based beliefs can be seen in the disturbing images of children in tearful prayer for forgiveness of sins they aren’t even aware they are guilty of. Pictures of a child holding a Qur’an in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. Of children in Israel cheering the bombing of Palestinian citizens. These teachings are the very foundations of fundamentalism and these images serve as proof of just how this indoctrinated irrationality manifests itself in the most disturbing ways. Yet time and time again religion is exonerated of any blame. Terms like “extremism” and “fundamentalism” are used in an attempt to distance these acts from their religious roots. But it simply can’t be ignored any longer that the same faith that served as the foundation for these atrocities, and the violence we see today, is from the same holy books used to inculcate our children.
Moderates of course, charge that this is just picking the most extreme examples, and that this is from a literal interpretation of the bible, and they’re right. But why not pick these examples? Why not look at the bible literally? But it can’t be denied that this is the brutal history these beliefs left behind, by people who professed devotion to the same God. Again, these traditions came from the same books. We will find that any “moderation” that leads us away from these manifestly exclusionary, and often brutal, traditions are ultimately rooted in the core values we find in our own inherent humanism, not in a better understanding of the holy texts. My point is, we must shed light on the possible dangers of these beliefs and ask why would anyone take the risk of exposing their children to this? But we must be honest here, many supposed moderates claim to more moderation than they actually are. We see examples of this everyday. One prime example is in the way supposed “moderates” attempt to disguise religion as science in an attempt to proselytize to our children. Over 40% of Americans deny that evolution is scientific fact and want creationism taught in schools. It is such an issue that it is affecting the way schools teach science in some states. Children are taught to disregard actual science that is contradictory to their holy book and adopt faith driven pseudoscience just to appease a religious belief. I can hardly call this moderation. And when we consider the overwhelming number of Christians that oppose same sex marriage, we can safely assume the same immoral and vile message of “love the sinner, but hate the sin” is being taught to their children. These beliefs are based solely on what the bible tells them about the nature of reality. This IS fundamentalism! It is not moderation and it is irresponsible and immoral. There is real political pressure over these biblical issues. To deny this is to ignore the problem. An exemplary case in point is the much publicized case involving Hobby Lobby. Their fight for “religious freedoms” has become their fight to oppress other people’s basic human rights and liberties. The whole religious political endeavor breaks down to an attempt to establish a Christian hegemony. The bigotry, willful ignorance, and subordination that accompany it are the very things we need to protect our children from, not embrace.
This is why our beliefs must be critically analyzed and be open for reform should new information come to light. Something religion seems very reluctant to do. If we truly value human flourishing and improving the human condition for generations to come, we don’t want our children to carry on these dogmatic beliefs. We’ll never achieve the kind of society that strives for these goals if we inculcate our children with guilt and fear, or by destroying their dignity or moral identity. To strengthen our moral character and we must first rid ourselves of the absolutism promulgated by religion. We should not be telling our children what to believe, we need to teach them critical thinking skills and how to reason. We teach them to understand the views of others and how to have open, honest dialogue. And if sincere moderates, who are motivated by the same goal of human flourishing, wish to be part of the conversation and effect real change, then they ought to be welcome. The door should always remain open to allow for a comprehensive arena of ideas. However, the dogmatic beliefs in a supernatural authority must be left out and with it, the demeaning demand of servitude and worship that only promotes the denigration of humanity. As must the idea that the bible is the authoritative final word on all ethical matters. This belief in a totalitarian divine authority is in stark contrast to the robust plurality and diversity needed for moral growth and is counter-intuitive to any ethical system where the focus is on human values. Ideologies of this kind only shut the door to conversation. History shows that when our values come strictly from a holy book, we see just how true Voltaire’s famous quote “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” can be. So the underpinning questions that need to be addressed are, what tangible benefit could possibly be had by imposing these religious beliefs onto our children that could not be far better served through secular means? How would our children be better prepared to answer the difficult moral challenges that lie ahead than to have values grounded in human dignity, respect, and reason? My answer is that there isn’t and they wouldn’t. So, given the potential for such great harm, just what reason is there to hold such irrational beliefs in today’s era? I think we’ll find that most attempts at answering this will point to childhood indoctrination. Our children deserve better because they are better than what the bible tells them, and they are capable of wonderful things due to the goodness within them. It’s our duty to help them unlock it. That’s what I believe.
 William Kingdon Clifford, The Ethics Of Belief, 1877
 David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748
 Paul Kivel, What is Christian Hegemony?, http://christianhegemony.org/what-is-christian-hegemony
 Voltaire, Questions sur les Miracles à M. Claparede, Professeur de Théologie à Genève, par un Proposant: Ou Extrait de Diverses Lettres de M. de Voltaire
3 thoughts on “Beliefs and Their Effects on our Children: An Elaboration of My Talk at PASTAH Con.”
Thanks for this post Rich. I was there in Pittsburgh. But missed this awesome talk because I was in an intense conversation with someone. But this story hits me very deeply. My grandchild and I were playing on the porch one day and it was lightning outside. He wanted to go off the porch. But I told him no and that he could get struck by lightning. He asked what would happen. And I told him he would not exist anymore. So, being raised by his religious mother, he tells me, but I will see the face of god. And, me being an Atheist, told him that there is no god. We went back and forth couple of times on whether there is or is not a god. I assured him, NO. He is 3 years old. Two days later his mother calls me and tells me that I told her child that thee is no god. To which I affirmed what I said. That’s right, I told him there is no god. She proceeded to tell me that if I continued to talk to him about my point of view on the issue that she would not let me see him. Well, I told her I am not going to lie to him if he asks. So do what you have to do. I still see him but we have not had the need to have the god conversation yet. But you can see at 3 how brainwashed he is already. And the brainwashing continues.
I just thought I’d share that story. I’ll try and keep up with your blog.
I can’t begin to tell you the damage I’ve suffered throughout my life as a result of things I was taught by fundamentalist evangelical Christianity when I was too young to tell truth from fiction. As a reasoning adult, I still suffer from fears that were implanted prior to starting kindergarten and continuing on through early adolescence.
What you have to say is really important for the future of our world. My agnostic spouse just doesn’t get why what other people believe is so important to me. I think the main difference being that I grew up with indoctrination and realize how it touches all aspects of your life. Why be concerned about the environment when this earth doesn’t matter? What about those who think its their job to help bring on Armageddon? Repeating mantras like “Lord I am not worthy to receive you but say the word and I shall be healed”, affects what you think you are worth and in turn, what you should be willing to put up with. I struggle educating my children who go to a public school with a large religious population (majority Muslim). In grade 3 my daughter was cornered by a Muslim, a Mormon and a Coptic Christian all asking here “yeah well who created the earth then”. I have tried to school my daughter not to call malarkey in religious disputes as she is the only godless child in her class and I don’t want her to be singled out and ostracized for it. We go with the “you have your beliefs and I have mine and they are my business and yours are your business”. She is not very good at putting her point across so I tried to keep it simple. We don’t have regular Atheist indoctrination sessions where she can parrot back a rehearsed series of arguments and answers, that is where religion has the advantage on young minds. I admit to taking every opportunity at play dates to poke holes in religious dogma and create questions in the minds of my children’s young friends in the subtlest way possible.
I encourage you to keep writing on this subject. I suggest you also create pieces in a simpler writing style that is more accessible to a wider audience with as many examples as possible. It would be ideal if you could go beyond preaching to the atheist choir and take it to a larger mixed audience.