September 29, 2006

Protecting our children from the god delusion

There are times when I feel my anti-religious views tend to the extreme, but then I'll read something by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and I suddenly get the feeling that I'm being downright reasonable. He often reminds me how my own opinions get tempered over time by dominating cultural norms, and how my anti-religious sensibilities are susceptible to the drift of cultural normalization.

His latest book, The God Delusion, is another wake-up call for all members of secular society who pander to those who decry the need for freedom of religion, when what we should be doing is our darndest to ensure that minds are fostered and raised such that they are free from religion.

Just this morning my son asked me a question about Mary, Jesus and God (he gets this from my ex-wife), and rather than responding with some kind of convoluted answer drawn from Christian mythology, I closed the conversation outright by saying, "Ask your mother, I don't believe in this stuff."

That's a bit harsh, I know -- I'm grumpy in the mornings; I usually deal with these issues with a bit more tack, but ultimately my message to my kids is the same: we can either choose to believe things without foundation, or we can use our capacity for exploration and discovery to prove and know those things that truly exist. Otherwise, we are susceptible to all sorts of strange beliefs. I ask my children, both of whom are under 10 but freakishly bright, do you believe in sasquatch, werewolves, ghosts, UFOs and telekinesis? And if not, why not? I try to convey to them the notion that belief in god falls under the same category of pseudoscience, fairy tails, urban legends, and mythology.

The world is complicated enough for children without feeding them fantastically bizarre stories about gods, demi-gods, heaven and hell. At the same time we as parents are responsible for nurturing a sense of right and wrong behaviour in our children without blackmailing them via the idea that their negative actions will result in reprisals from Beyond. People should act in a moral manner not because an ancient book tells them to, or because of a fear of a delusional God, but because it feels right in both heart and mind.

Indeed, as Richard Dawkins notes in his new book, teaching religion to children borders on abuse. On this point I agree. I can't help but feel that parents who proselytize their children are acting pathetically -- targeting those members of society who cannot yet formulate their own opinions or methodological frameworks that help them make sense of their world and existence. Religion deserves an R rating.

Rather, we as parents should be broadening the minds of our children as much as possible. We need to help our children think for themselves and to think critically. We should teach them that skepticism is both a value and a healthy activity. At the same time however, we need to help kids feel comfortable in exploring all the realms of culture and society that the world has to offer. It is our job and responsibility to provide our children with the requisite tools for free and critical thought.

Parents need to open doors rather than close them. Religions not only close the doors to our rational faculties and our experiential potentials, they often act as the deadbolt that locks the door tight forever.

Related reading:

Scientific Ignorance Dooms Democracy: Increasingly hi-tech nations need informed citizens, making scientific literacy a human right and scientific illiteracy a disability

Ending Biblical Brainwash: For better mental and cultural health, it's time we classified religious fundamentalism as a psychological disorder

The False Promise of Pseudoscience: Real science offers hope. Mysticism and belief in the paranormal are just plain dangerous


The neurophilosopher said...

I couldn't agree more. To impose one's religious beliefs on one's children is to indoctrinate them with a form of what anthropologists call 'magical thinking'.

When I am asked why my young son hasn't been baptised, I reply with a question: "Why should I impose on him a system of beliefs that I don't adhere to myself?'

'God' is a cop-out answer to questions that have baffled humans for millenia. It is understandable that scientifically and technologically primitve peoples in the axial age looked to a divine being to explain the cataclysmic events alluded to in the Old Testament. (I say 'alluded to' because I believe they are subjective interpretations of real events.) But to do so today is, as you say, pathetic.

Although I haven't read Dawkin's new book, I believe his main argument is that religion is outdated as a means of explaining the world. This is actually an argument he has been voicing for a long time.

This post on my blog contains Dawkins' 90 minute documentary 'The Root of All Evil', which was aired on the BBC earlier this year, as well as a 10 minute interview with him by Jeremy Paxman.

Michael Anissimov said...

I agree completely with this post, of course... congratulations on having "freakishly bright" children! The idea of having transhumanist parents is quite foreign to me.

Ryan said...

I have to question the usefulness of his comparing religious education to child abuse. Besides being obviously untrue, it actually comes off like pandering to atheists.

Otherwise I probably agree with the gist of the book and this kind of message in general. I just always hate to see 'our side' stoop to the same kind of hysterical rhetoric we expect from fanatical believers.

Dark Sided said...

Who said anybody's being hysterical? This is real psychological damage we're talking about, here. In other words: child abuse. That's not an exaggeration, nor is it hysterical.

No parent in their right mind today would seriously tell their children that if they don't behave, they will be dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night by monsters, hauled out into the dark forest, and eaten alive. Probably any child welfare agency would see that as psychologically damaging and criminal. Substitute stories of heaven, hell, crucifixion, sin, and magical beings, instead: no difference. It is indeed child abuse.

AnneC said...

I have been a fan of Dawkins for years, since discovering "The Blind Watchmaker" early in college. Honestly, I think he is saying quite a bit of what really needs to be said, and it always surprises me a bit when people accuse him of being "too harsh" -- why is it too harsh to describe reality accurately?

(And yes, I'm making the assumption here that a naturalistic description of reality is "accurate", since there is absolutely no need to invoke the supernatural in order to explain why a ball will roll down an incline or why a tree will grow from a seed -- sure, you can say invisible elves were responsible for either of these, but why would you want to? And where's the evidence?

I commend you for not indoctinating your children -- even just telling them that you don't believe in supernatural dogma can be a very powerful assist in the development of their critical thinking faculties. A lot of people I've talked to that grew up religious didn't even know that some people DIDN'T believe until they were in high school or college!

I was raised in a semi-religious household, but there were always aspects of the faith that confused me (like the Jesus is being dead for three days a sacrifice, especially when you get to live forever afterward and you were supposedly killed in order to appease your own anger, based on rules you yourself set up?).

I think that if kids have these sorts of questions, they should be encouraged to keep asking them -- rather than being told (as many are by adults in their midst) to just be quiet and not think.

Igor said...

eh... the REAL question is:

What have we got to replace a religion?

Science? For some, yes. But what about most of our fellow humans who are unable to understand even basic logic (or the multipkication table!) ?

Mr.Dawkins thinks that religion is just a meme (generally) ... With all due respect, I don't think so.

As I see it, a brain needs smthing like religion to have a satisfactory (satisfy-ing!) complete mental picture of the world. It's a kind of urge that MUST be satisfied - or the brain goes mad.

Science works for me. And my life experience tells me that science won't work for MOST of people...

Then what ?

Anonymous said...




Derek said...

Freedom from religion? Then why the ritual of yoga?

Dark Sided said...

Rituals and religion are so obviously different that an explanation shouldn't even be required. To suggest that yoga is like a religion shows a complete misunderstanding of both yoga and religion.

Tyler said...

Yoda: Different from religion I am, yes. A Jedi Knight is Yoda, not a system of belief.
Other guy: I said YOGA.
Yoda: Ah. Hear you correctly I did not.

Anonymous said...

isn't it up to how a family chooses to live? Some families bring up their children with Polygamist beliefs, Satanic Beliefs, Beliefs girls should marry girls, men marrying men, I'm sure some are brought up being abused sexually, physically, (different cultures believe different truths about physical/corporal punishment and minors marrying older men ie. arranged marriages, abortions if they are girl children etc...) why so hard on people that want to believe in God? At least this God, (and I'm assuming it's the one and only Almighty powerful God since it's capitalized...)is a "Good" God; kind, loving, giving, forgiving.... I think our world is in trouble where people no longer want a standard of what is right and wrong, who or what do we look to as our measuring stick of right and wrong? Ellen? Oprah? Dawkins? There's too much other maddening things out there to protect our children from... we should spend more time concentrating on things that really matter...This is what our country was based on Freedom to believe..