atheism, belief systems, Bible, children, education, indoctrination, metaphysics, religion, religious belief, Santa Claus, skepticism
The Christian belief in the Bible is quite unlike, for example, my current belief in “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins. Back when I believed in the Bible, I thought of it as “truth”. I also believed other books but I would think of them as good stories or as helpful information.
Why the big difference? Why did I consider one ancient text as pure truth and all other ancient texts as just stories? Why did I consider the Bible to be pure truth but other books, that I also believed to be nonfiction, were just informationally helpful?
In the Bible, fantastical stories such as a person living briefly inside of a whale, a virgin giving birth, a snake talking to people, were perfectly acceptable. Why were those fanciful stories acceptable but similar stories in other books were dismissed as myths? If I had read a story in The Blind Watchmaker that claimed a person had lived and survived inside of a dinosaur for three days, I would have been extremely skeptical. I would have asked for some serious evidence to back up this extraordinary claim. Why then, was it perfectly alright for a similar story to be in the Bible?
Some atheists will arrogantly state that they became atheist as a child when they first read the Bible. These people relate the story of how upon reading fantastical stories about talking snakes and virgin births that of course they had to discard the whole thing as mythical… as if the rest of us are just too stupid to get it.
I have a brain capable of critical analysis and I made full use of this skill when reading all but one book. Why did it take so long for me to become skeptical of the Bible? The answer to this can soon be reached once we understand that the Bible is a very significant part of a huge set of beliefs called “Christianity”.
The answers to all of these questions, I believe, can be answered by understanding what religion is and understanding how and when it is taught to a person. But first, check out this post I wrote about belief systems because I’ll be talking a lot about beliefs and belief systems for the rest of this post.
Religion is a set of beliefs that is pretty comprehensive – it pretends to explain everything from ‘why are there mountains’ to ‘how should I live my life’. Therefore, for a religious person, the set of beliefs that is his religion is almost inextricably meshed with the rest of the person’s belief system. Even changing one little belief is difficult to do because it would have ramifications for many of the other beliefs that it is intertwined with. A religion generally forms a large fraction of a person’s belief system.
Secondly, religion includes metaphysical beliefs. Metaphysical beliefs are beliefs that have to do with being and existence, and concepts such as cause and effect. Religion provides answers to such metaphysical questions as ‘why is there something rather than nothing’, ‘what was the first cause’, ‘where did we come from’, and ‘why are we here’. As such, religious beliefs become foundational to the person’s overall belief system. Individual religious beliefs become the axioms upon which the rest of the person’s belief system happily rests. To change these beliefs is almost as hard as tearing the foundation of a house out from underneath the house without disturbing the rest of the house.
The religious person suffers less from existential angst than the non-religious person because his metaphysical questions are answered. If a religious person starts questioning his own beliefs these metaphysical questions pop up and he wonders ‘well, why are we here then’. The existential angst that would be caused by unanswering these metaphysical questions is often on its own, enough of an incentive to stay with religion.
Religion is also a self-supporting set of beliefs. When questioned on one belief, the religious person can always bring out another belief that supports the first one. In this way, everything backs itself up. In logic, this is known as “circular reasoning” and it is a fallacy. In a small syllogism, circular reasoning is easy to identify and to recognize as fallacious but in a very large set of beliefs like religion, it is so easy to miss it.
Children will happily believe in Santa Claus but after learning that Santa doesn’t really exist, it is much easier for them to accept it and move on than it is for anybody to accept that their religion may not be true. Why is there such a difference? I believe it is because of the reasons I listed above. Believing in Santa is only a small set of beliefs, and it answers only one metaphysical question – ‘why should I be good’, whereas a religion is a huge set of beliefs and it answers pretty much all of the metaphysical questions.
It could also be that a child finds it easier to revise beliefs and possibly even to completely rebuild their belief system. After all, their brains are still developing and they are in the perfect stage to absorb massive amounts of information and to incorporate a massive number of beliefs.
In the previous paragraphs I explored several of the qualities of religious belief which have a direct effect on its obduracy. Now it is time to examine the methods that are used to deliver these beliefs to a person’s mind and how these methods also have an effect on its obduracy.
A baby starts off with basically an empty mind when it comes to beliefs about the nature of things. If you start with an essentially empty mind, the mind will accept the first thing that comes to it because there are no pre-existing beliefs to contradict the incoming information. For that reason, it is easy instill any kind of belief system in a child.
It is generally easier to dismiss new information than it is to revise existing beliefs so once a belief system has been established, it is very difficult to remove it even if it blatantly contradicts reality.
Most religious parents teach their children the religion starting at the youngest possible age. Long before the child learns that different people have different ideas about how things really are, long before the child learns that there are many different religions, and long before the child learns anything about critical thinking, the child is taught that its parents’ religion is the only possible truth.
Can you blame a child for rejecting other viewpoints? As the child matures, and if the parents continue to reinforce the same belief system, the belief system becomes more and more difficult to change.
The installation of a religious belief system is quite different from the installation of a secular belief system. With religion, the child is taught that not only is the religion pure truth – it is unquestionable truth. Any question that the child has that could undermine their belief system is quickly rebutted by the parents with reproachful assertions that it is evil to ask those questions. The child is admonished and sometimes physically abused simply for asking the unwanted questions.
Can you blame the person when years later he is still unable to honestly question his belief system when the mere occurrence of such a question feels treasonous and blasphemous?
To educate someone is to provide information, to provide explanations, to provide instruction. To indoctrinate someone is to provide information, to provide explanations, to provide instruction. The difference is, when someone is indoctrinated they are not expected to question what they are learning and in many cases they are not allowed to question or to critically examine what they are being taught. Someone who is being indoctrinated is not given the choice to believe or disbelieve.
Religious parents do not educate their children about religion – they indoctrinate them.
Page 28 said:
Indeed often so, but they won’t read this for fear of scary atheist flames hah! An interesting thought I have occasionally had is, instead of teaching a child both ethics and religion simultaneously, the development process entirely focused on teaching ethics first. I wonder then if a child would have an easy ability to believe in many things (especially for instance, the god of the Old Testament).
All the same, some religious parents do value the diversity of opinion, and I think their strategies could be of useful discussion to the religious. After all, the religious are unlikely to be convicted of anything from voices so tearing at their foundation (as you aptly referenced in your post). It may be hard work to instead renovate the dogmatic house they’ve built, but by no insistence will it be torn down unless taking the person with it!
I agree that ethics should be taught as being separate from religion but many religious parents believe the two to be essentially the same thing. Those parents are not going to teach their children the difference.
Page 28 said:
Many, sure. I think what I’m implying is that what’s wrong is evident, what is not evident is how to fix it, as unfortunately a tried and true “let’s lay out the logic of this” approach doesn’t work for many of the reasons you prescribed.