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Are We “Cramming Religion Down Our Children’s Throats”?

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September 27, 2010 Tags: Education

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Are We “Cramming Religion Down Our Children’s Throats”?

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

There is a strange, hyperbolic expression favored by the New Atheists: "cramming religion down the throats of children." The idea, and even the wording, appears with regularity in the anti-religious writings of people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and Jerry Coyne. Most recently we saw a lament on Coyne's blog about proselytizing down under, which he labeled "a particularly noxious specimen of religious tomfoolery" that makes him question whether "the U.S. is the worst in cramming religion down the throats of its kids."

This language evokes the harshest of images. What is a secular reader, unfamiliar with how religious children are actually raised, to think? They have never seen a Christmas pageant where dozens of happy children sing cute choruses under the direction of dedicated volunteer staff; they have not seen teenagers gathered in prayerful support around one of their friends whose little brother was just killed in a terrible accident; they have not seen older teens holding bake sales so they can raise enough money to spend two weeks in Haiti helping people in need. Instead, they must picture stern-faced parents dragging kids against their will to indoctrination sessions where they sit on hard wooden chairs until they affirm a set of beliefs in settings reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange. After years of such training, the once-open-minded children mature into narrow-minded adults who carry out the narrow-minded agendas of their parents -- oppose healthcare, gay marriage, stem-cell research, Muslims, and anything else they can think of -- and begin the process of having their own kids, with a new generation of throats down which more toxic ideas will be crammed.

I have been thinking about this charge of "cramming religion down kids throats" this week as the semester gets underway at Eastern Nazarene College on Boston's South Shore, where I have taught since 1984. I have 30 students from various backgrounds in a freshman seminar called Contemporary Questions. Most of them are from conservative Protestant traditions. I suspect that Coyne and Dawkins would nod knowingly to each other that these are indeed kids who had religion crammed down their throats. No doubt they would look with pity on my students, indoctrinated as they are already with religion, and then foolishly enrolling in a Christian college to protect their superstitions from the light of reason. And these poor, benighted students have the additional misfortune to be placed in a class taught by me.

My students don't look like this to me, however. As far as I can tell, they are all religious, to varying degrees, but their religion doesn't look harsh and judgmental as though it were forced on them. None of them seems interested in mounting crusades, bashing sinners, or signing up for witch-hunts. Whatever they had crammed down their throats, like the bland vegetables in their baby food, doesn't seem to have made them unhealthy.

The Contemporary Questions class begins with considerations of what we can know and how we know it. We are reading The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener by the famous skeptic Martin Gardner, who passed away recently. In their journals my students are reflecting on their beliefs with a new philosophical rigor. One of them wrote: "The only thing I know with clarity is that I want to love all and do whatever I can to make sure that the life I have been given does not go to waste." What a terrible thing to have had crammed down one's throat as a child!

Religious affirmations have become complex in our pluralistic age, and my students seem to get this, even as it challenges their faith. One wrote, "I am currently struggling so much about denying someone else's beliefs because mine are 'truth.'" Another noted, "I seriously struggle with the prospect that had I been raised in Saudi Arabia completely immersed in their belief system, I would be a Muslim."

These students are 18 years old and have been in college for two weeks. A month ago they were living at home with their parents, no doubt sitting on hard wooden chairs with bright lights in their eyes having religion crammed down their throats. And yet already they are wrestling, from a foundation of faith, with the world they will navigate as adults, a world that is more complex than that of their childhood.

Not long ago my daughter, a college junior, had lunch with a childhood friend. The two of them grew up in an affluent, white suburb of Boston. When the check came, my daughter suggested that they leave a generous tip for the middle-aged, obviously blue-collar waitress. After all, she said, they both came from privileged backgrounds and should be generous. An argument ensued. It seems that my daughter's friend had been raised to believe that less privileged people were simply lazy and that there was no reason to subsidize their laziness with generous tips. The affluence that she and her family enjoyed were entirely the result of their own hard work, and anyone who had less than they did was a slacker. This self-serving socioeconomic theory had, it seems, been "crammed down her throat" by her parents, who, by the way, sent her to an affluent white college where just about everyone had the same idea.

Parents put lots of things down the throats of their children -- religion, language, vegetables, ice cream, bacon, tofu, ideas of race, politics, gender and economics. This complex mix is occasionally toxic. But in the complex mixture that produces good citizens, there is no reason to single out religion as problematic. I am quite content to turn the future over to my students.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.


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beaglelady - #33011

October 2nd 2010

Another thing I disliked about the film is that the pastor feels she must get them while they’re kids.  In other words,  this stuff is so absurd that only impressionable children would fall for it,  not rational adults. I say,baloney!  She is a control freak who enjoys the power she can wield over helpless children.


Papalinton - #33027

October 3rd 2010

Hi Ben Yachov
“@Papalinton
So what is your story?

Yes, I have a somewhat differing story to tell and a differing worldview. 
To me, christians, are living in a ‘time warp’, trying so hard to hold onto a tradition that has failed them badly while at the same time trying to meet the challenges of the modern world through a book that was written by bronze-age goat-herds.

Don’t get me wrong, it will be three steps forward and two steps back, but the religious [traditional, old in mind, dark ages, medieval] will be holding hands in church as the flood of reason, fact and truth rolls quietly over them, subsuming their ancient arcane belief systems and inexorably placing them into the pages of mythical history and put back on the shelf in the library, as are all the wonderful stories of Mithras, Zeus, Wotan and Osiris. The rightful place for the bible in today’s world is to sit down comfortably, with a nice cup of coffee beside the fireplace, and read with nostalgic interest of just how far humanity has come since it was first promulgated two thousand years ago.

The common heritage that holds all humans together is their humanity, regardless of their particular stripe of religion.  That is a comforting thought.

Cheers


Papalinton - #33028

October 3rd 2010

@ Mike Gene
Which of those perpetrators of the child abuse crimes you mentioned were believers in jesus and which were atheists?  I think it pertinent to the question when one claims that the moral, ethical and spiritual tenets of one’s religion are what makes the different between a good family and a not so good family.  I wonder why the question isn’t asked at the time of interview as it would clearly strengthen your claim for religiosity?

Would be interested?

Cheers


Papalinton - #33029

October 3rd 2010

@ Mike Gene

What about the FBI Lanning Report?

I ask the question in the previous comment in the context of that report.

Cheers


Papalinton - #33030

October 3rd 2010

@ Daryl Little

Hey Daryl, what’s the distinction between,  .. “a non-believer, particularly a more strident non-believer”?

Does it have the same meaning as ... ‘a believer, particularly a more strident believer’? 

Does the distinction have any greater degree of potency?  Just curious

Cheers


Papalinton - #33032

October 3rd 2010

Hi Daryl Little
” .. Of course, they will decide, but if we let them head into that time of life without having done our level best to instruct them in the Scriptures and the Christian faith, and further to teach them that there is no life outside of Christ, we will have failed and, should they reject Christ, how have we then not contributed to their eternal condemnation?”

This is called ‘meme propagation’.  Its power comes from the intensive, and I mean intense, fear and panic driven by hysteria and anxiety through cognitive dissonance in the notion of ‘eternal damnation’.  Fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat. It is a basic survival mechanism occurring in response to a specific stimulus, such as pain or the threat of danger. The anxiety one feels for their children is a particularly powerful driver of neuroses.  Neurosis is a class of functional mental disorders involving distress but neither delusions nor hallucinations, whereby behavior is not outside socially acceptable norms.  There are many different specific forms of neurosis: pyromania, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety neurosis, hysteria (in which anxiety may be discharged through a physical symptom), and a nearly endless variety of phobias.


Papalinton - #33033

October 3rd 2010

@ Daryl Little [cont]

The effects of neurosis can involve:...anxiety, sadness or depression, anger, irritability, mental confusion, low sense of self-worth, etc., behavioral symptoms such as phobic avoidance, vigilance, impulsive and compulsive acts, lethargy, etc., cognitive problems such as unpleasant or disturbing thoughts.

The cognitive problems of unpleasant and disturbing thoughts are the characteristic form that manifests from the dissonance melded between belief of religious dogma and actuality.  Funnily enough even atheists live a long and happy life and are all the better for it.

Of course, I will say, you are in denial; to which you will reply, No I’m Not.
Oh Well

Cheers


GodsOwnDNA - #33042

October 3rd 2010

Papalinton

You say, “To me, christians, are living in a ‘time warp’, trying so hard to hold onto a tradition that has failed them badly while at the same time trying to meet the challenges of the modern world through a book that was written by bronze-age goat-herds.”

Yes, many christians wrongly hold on to tradition which may fail us, but you fail to understand that christians are called to hold onto the truth - ultimate truth and the source of it. In your view, “ultimate truth” might not even figure, and I respect that.

And I also wonder (looking at your brash assumptions) if you have ever read the bible. However, as you say, some “bronze-age goat-herds” may be responsible in writing certain portions of the bible, but let me humbly submit, that it is this very book and the Person it is about has inspired scores of people to live better lives, to do good even when they don’t get any in return, to love his/her fellow human being - even the least of them. Two names: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Go through their books, articles and speeches. If you think you find even a shade of the product of “bronze-age goat-herds” in there, you may dismiss them and the impact they had on the modern world.


GodsOwnDNA - #33044

October 3rd 2010

Paplinton

You also say, “but the religious [traditional, old in mind, dark ages, medieval] will be holding hands in church as the flood of reason, fact and truth rolls quietly over them, subsuming their ancient arcane belief systems and inexorably placing them into the pages of mythical history and put back on the shelf in the library, as are all the wonderful stories of Mithras, Zeus, Wotan and Osiris.”

Behold! Papalinton the Prophet. He/She predicts doom for all the believers. Bah! Hogwash!

Its nice to make predictions, but its only reasonable predictions which eventually make a difference.

And kids (and I’m talking about the majority of kids in christendom - not the fundie-controlled ones like those of Jesus camp) learn more in sunday school/church than just the creation story. And the literalness of the creation story has little or no impact on the other more important things they learn for example, to love your fellow human being, to respect parents, teachers and elders, to look out for the poor and weak, to be thankful, to care for the environment.

Don’t make overarching statements bordering on absolutely useless just because you HAVE to say something against religion.


Papalinton - #33045

October 3rd 2010

Hi Ben Yachov
“Now from my parent’s house up at the lake using their wifi I find over the top & slanderous accusations that I support child abuse & want to kill Beaglelady?”

Don’t take it so personally.  I’m sure you and your parents are fine people, although you seem a little god-struck.  If the god-thing is your thing, go for it.  I am happy that it provides you with the sustenance you need.
For me though, on the BioLogos site, the point is that the first step of science is doubt, which is the contravention of tradition, authority, and even sacredness - all of the hedges that enclose religion.  Observation, not authority and tradition, is to be the source of knowledge - a profoundly unreligious attitude. 

So for me, there is a deep fascination in the manner in which theists compartmentalise their system of beliefs and worldview from the scrutiny of observation [and quarantine it from investigation]  while at the same time undertake quality science.  I have great respect for Francis Collins as a scientist and as a person.  But how does a view of three frozen waterfalls make a god?  That is beautiful poetry and clearly a sign of great imagination and wonder, all perfectly natural and all perfectly human traits.

Cheers


Papalinton - #33048

October 3rd 2010

Hi GodsOwnDNA
” . but let me humbly submit, that it is this very book and the Person it is about has inspired scores of people to live better lives, to do good even when they don’t get any in return, to love his/her fellow human being - even the least of them .”

I say, absolutely correct.  But like the good samaritan, good people do good things regardless of their faith, and for some they do good despite their faith.  Just as good Muslims do good things, and they’re not even christian.  The two greatest philanthropists of all time who gave both given over the bulk of their fortunes to do great humanitarian work all over the world are both atheists, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.  The use of christianity as a definition of character is wildly over-rated. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. yes, but Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, Jeremiah Wright,  Jerry Falwell; I mean do you hold these people up as pillars of the community? 
My thesis is that religion is not always wrong.  It just has no better chance of being correct than guessing.  In other words there is no positive statistical blip that supports religion’s success rate being any different to the randomness under the law of probability.

Cheers


Papalinton - #33049

October 3rd 2010

Hi again, GodsOwnDNA
“Behold! Papalinton the Prophet. He/She predicts doom for all the believers. Bah! Hogwash!
Its nice to make predictions, but its only reasonable predictions which eventually make a difference.”

I say, Absolutely correct.  But its not doom, not in the sense of dying or being wiped off the face of the earth.  History tells that the obverse wasn’t always the case though.  Indeed, devout theologians took great delight in burning people at the stake or racking them, or just killing them in the name of god.  In fact it was an obligation under religious dogma. 

That’s the kind of prediction I make GodsO.  It is now unreligious to kill someone for heresy; unreligious to support the slave trade; unreligious to stone the adulterer.  It is [almost] unreligious to teach Intelligent Design in public schools.  For catholics it is [almost] unreligious to protect pedophile priests under Canon Law.  Even polygamy, and their edict against African descent is forbidden under Mormon law.  Yes religion has come a long way.  Religion is slowly being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21stC.  The signs are everywhere.

I am encouraged by the process although somewhat slow and stop/start but nonetheless inexorable.
Cheers


Papalinton - #33050

October 3rd 2010

Hi again, again, GodsOwnDNA
“And the literalness of the creation story has little or no impact on the other more important things they learn for example, to love your fellow human being, to respect parents, teachers and elders, to look out for the poor and weak, to be thankful, to care for the environment.”

I say, absolutely correct.  religion at least in some sense now has the good sense to teach the more important things than the literalness of creation. Love for your fellow human being, to respect parents, teachers and elders, to look out for the poor and weak, to be thankful, to care for the environment, have been human traits since time immemorial.  They are universally humanist in nature, perfectly normal emotions and actions that all human beings, and is somewhat observably shared as well by many other species on this earth.

The christianities simply appropriated them, but these characteristics nevertheless transcend all manner and stripe of theology.  They are shared by all humans, they are therefore universally humanist.  Do you realise, that if you took away all the theistic overlay, all these traits would remain.  I know because I am a testimony to the claim.  My kids are caring and sensitive as are my grandkids.


Papalinton - #33051

October 3rd 2010

Hi again, again, and again GodsOwnDNA
” ... to love your fellow human being, to respect parents, teachers and elders, to look out for the poor and weak, to be thankful, to care for the environment.”

All of these wonderful characteristics can be taught without drawing one breath of religion to cast its stinky smell over the learning process.  It’s called ‘good parenting’. 

Cheers


Papalinton - #33053

October 3rd 2010

H Martin Rizley
Earlier you wrote me a long discourse over three comboxes.  You asked some very good and heartfelt questions.
Just because I have no need for a supernatural element in my worldview does not mean I am an amoral animal, as seems to be generally accorded by theists.  Surprisingly, all those things that are good, that you attribute to the god of your choice, I attribute in a different way.  And that the common element of your belief is exactly the same common element in my belief structure, when you say,  “You see, the whole concept of morality grows out of the context of personal relationships.  Morality is essentially the duty that one person owes to another. ”  And again, like the good samaritan common decency is derived by our humanity regardless of our belief systems.  While you may wish to believe that you have no contribution to make to morality other then to live like jesus because morality is derived through scripture, I liken my strength of morality to accepting personal responsibility for the way I act and behave in forming those relationships, be it family, friends, community, nation.  [cont]


Papalinton - #33054

October 3rd 2010

@ Martin [cont]
You go to say, “That makes perfect sense if the universe has a personal origin—that is, if it was brought into being by a peronal God who made human beings in His own image.”

Martin, I wish it were different, but your statement does not stand for evidence or fact, rather it is an interpretative desire to make sense of the an inexplicable world.  And as humans we are gifted in anthropomorphising those difficult-to-comprehend existence issues and the cosmology in which we find ourselves.  And indeed, every society since the dawn of time has attempted in their way to explain. Christianity is but one form of explanatory attempt; there are literally thousands, both extant and extinct.  Because of our consciousness, humans suffer from what is termed the ‘tragedy of cognition’. Psychologically, religion appears to be a developed response and an inescapable artefact of the wiring of the brain; all humans possess the brain circuitry and that never goes away; humans can anticipate future events, remember the past and conceive of how things could go wrong - including their own death, which is hard to deal with.  [cont]


Papalinton - #33055

October 3rd 2010

@ Martin [cont]

And this suggests a clue,  that the fact that trauma is so often responsible for why adults find it so difficult to jettison their innate belief in gods.  People have to figure out a solution, otherwise they are overwhelmed by their own mortality. When natural brain processes gives a person a get-out-of-jail card, he/she takes it. It is the path of least resistance.

Martin, you also ask me,  “but if the universe to which I belong has an impersonal origin and destiny—so that personality itself and everything associated with it, including morality, belongs to the subjective ‘dream world’ that evolution has created arbitrarily in human consciousness—then on what basis OUGHT I to live a moral life?

This is a bit of a mixed bag, Martin. The universe is impersonal, as it isn’t a person per se. The personification of the universe is unlikely to have any bearing of how you live a good life.  Morality is a purely conscious human disposition and relates to how you act as a person, to other people, to other species, and to the environment that sustains you.  This is reason alone to live a moral and ethical life.

Cheers


Martin Rizley - #33163

October 3rd 2010

Papalinton,  I never suggested that you were an ‘amoral animal’ because of your atheistic views; in fact, my point was the very opposite.  My point is that it is impossible to justify rationally, on the basis of your atheism, the deep sense of moral obligation that you and other atheists feel toward your fellow human beings.  That’s what makes atheists a ‘walking contradiction;’ on the one hand, they deny a personal origin to the universe—believing that ultimate reality is impersonal, unconscious, amoral, unthinking, unfeeling, and uncaring—yet on the other, they feel a deep sense of duty (generally speaking) to treat their fellow human beings with dignity, care and compassion.  What bizarre, yet merciful, inconsistency!  You are not saying simply that you WANT to treat your fellow human beings ethically; you are saying that, regardless of your personal desires in the matter, you feel that you OUGHT to treat your fellow human beings ethically, and my question is, from whence arises this sense of OUGHTNESS?  It seems to me that there is no rational explanation for it within the framework of your worldview.  (continued)


Martin Rizley - #33164

October 3rd 2010

From the standpoint of cold, hard human logic, if ‘personality’ itself is nothing but a troubling ‘glitch’ in the electrical system of the universe—no more substantial or lasting or significant in the eternal scheme of things than the momentary sparkles created by an exploding firecracker—then it is inexplicable why you or anyone else should feel obligated to treat HUMAN personality as if it were something of great significance—something that imposes on you the deepest of moral obligations.  I would think this glaring contradiction between the stark implications of your worldview and how you actually live and feel for others should cause you to question, at the very least, whether your atheism really can account for the whole of reality, as you think it can.  You claim that my belief in God arises out of “an interpretive desire to make sense of an inexplicable world.”  But you yourself do not believe the world to be “inexplicable,” do you?  You believe that everything in the world can be explained through science on the basis of evolution—including man’s subjective feelings about the “sacred” and his religious impulse (continued);


Martin Rizley - #33165

October 3rd 2010

and in fact, you go into great detail explaining in purely naturalistic terms how such a phenomena could have evolved.  So you yourself do not believe the world is ’inexplicable;’ but you seem determined to make sense of it in a way that absolutely leaves God out of the picture.  Atheism does not provide an adequate explanation of the whole of reality, as your own belief in such things as moral duty, human dignity, and the meaningfulness of human relationships should make clear to you.    To insist dogmatically that it does, despite such undeniable ’givens’ to our human experience, shows to me that atheism is not an ‘objective’ philosophy, as its adherents insist, but a dogmatic belief held tenaciously despite the evidence, resting on the twin pillars of prejudice and shallow thinking.  From such a barren and hopeless philosophy the Lord Jesus Christ came to deliver us, and that is my hope for you, Papalinton.


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