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

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September 27, 2010 Tags: Education
Are We “Cramming Religion Down Our Children’s Throats”?

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

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.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Martin Rizley - #33166

October 3rd 2010

P. S.  By the way, I never said I believe that the universe itself is ‘personal,’ as if the physical cosmos were a living person.  I said that I believe the universe has a personal ORIGIN—God the Creator, who is behind the cosmos and distinct from it.  He is a personal being, but the universe itself is not (although it is populated with personal beings, angelic and human).

Mike Gene - #33168

October 3rd 2010


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.

Actually, that was not my point.  That point was sufficiently made.

But now that you bring this up, yes I would be interested. More informative would be lifestyle, not belief.  That is, compare a secular lifestyle with a religious lifestyle (how often one reads the Bible, how often they pray, how often they attend church, etc.).  Yet I don’t think we’d want to live in a society where the police or courts probe into our beliefs about religion, would we?

But if you are interested, there are many studies which indicate that substance abuse is a major factor in child abuse.  As for substance abuse, a very recent study notes, “The negative association between religiosity (religious beliefs and church attendance) and the likelihood of substance use disorders is well established.”

Papalinton - #33173

October 3rd 2010

Hi Martin
“But you yourself do not believe the world to be “inexplicable,” do you?  “

Oh, yes I do.  But I am happy leaving it inexplicable and exquisitely rejoice in what we as a species have found out about ourselves, all the other species and their relatedness, and our universe and marvel with anticipation how the next big discovery is going to occur.  But there are many people who are unable to, incapable of, living with uncertainty and must psychologically and emotionally find an answer [right or wrong or just made up]  to complete their worldview to make them fit comfortably in the world.  To say that we have found all the answers to our existence, the meaning of life, the construction of the cosmos two thousand years ago in the writings of a few goat-herds, at a time when every other aspect of our knowledge and capacity was at its total infancy, and that there is no need to look any further [to search for the truth]  because it was all solved 2 millennia ago is simply ludicrous, beyond reason and incomprehensible. 

You say, ..”.. shows to me that atheism is not an ‘objective’ philosophy ..”  How would you know, Martin? Your only comparator is your god-belief assessing it through a theological lens.


Martin Rizley - #33175

October 3rd 2010

I must take you take you to task, Papalinton, for being disingenous.  The fact is, you do NOT regard the world as inexplicable, for you seek to explain literally EVERYTHING in terms of naturalistic science.  You believe that the whole of reality is explicable, in principle at least, through the methods and discoveries of science.  You leave absolutely NO room whatsoever for the ‘supernatural’ in your worldview.  It is pure materialism all the way, and that is because you know that belief in immaterial, supernatural or spiritual realities is a legacy of the Middle Ages, a return to the vagaries of Platonic philosphy and ignorance-based superstition.  You don’t SUSPECT that; you KNOW that, don’t you?  But. . . how can you know that?  How can be so sure that your materialistic philosophy is sufficient to explain the whole of reality?  I will let you have the last word, if you wish, because as I said, I think you are being disingenuous when you say, “I am happy to leave the world inexplicable.”

GodsOwnDNA - #33176

October 3rd 2010


Do you really think that the natural/physical/material world is all there is and all there ever was?

Papalinton - #33186

October 4th 2010

Hi Martin
“You leave absolutely NO room whatsoever for the ‘supernatural’ in your worldview.”  There is no supernatural. By its very nature the supernatural is not natural.  The supernatural is manifested through verbalising our thought patterns and the only way we can provide explanation is by anthropomorphising because we can only use natural examples as analogy. Nothing more nothing less.  Here are some definitions of:

supernatural [adjective]
1 supernatural powers paranormal, psychic, magic, magical, occult, mystic, mystical, superhuman, supernormal; rare extramundane.
2 a supernatural being ghostly, phantom, spectral, otherworldly, unearthly, unnatural.

There is no supernatural in reality, it is simply a word to describe our capacity for imagination and the immaterial process of thinking.  Anything more is just a stream of consciousness straight from the top of your head and including the dandruff, if you are referring to the raft of christian cults.

Sheesh Martin, you have to grow up and mature to adulthood shortly, surely?


Papalinton - #33187

October 4th 2010

@ Martin   [cont]

Further to what I have written earlier Martin, those who hold mystical or theistic beliefs may have no conception of supernatural phenomena, but might perceive the scientist’s natural laws, on their own, as being subnatural [which I guess you do]. To explain something using natural causes and excluding supernatural causes is to naturalize it.  To explain something as resulting from supernatural causes is to supernaturalize it.

Supernatural themes are often associated with paranormal and occult ideas, suggesting the possibility of interaction with the supernatural by means of summoning or trance [as in prayer]. In secular societies, religious miracles are typically perceived as supernatural claims, as are spells and curses, divination, and the afterlife. Characteristics for phenomena claimed as supernatural are anomaly, uniqueness, and uncontrollability. Thus, the conditions in which such phenomena are thought to manifest may not be reproducible for scientific examination.

As I say Martin, theology has a DNA pattern far closer to the occultic and to mythology than philosophy, history or indeed science.

Put the book back on the shelf until you can handle it without falling into a trance.


Papalinton - #33188

October 4th 2010

Hi GodsOwnDNA

How are you doing?
“Do you really think that the natural/physical/material world is all there is and all there ever was?”

Hell no.  We have imagination, thoughts, emotions, and we have cognition and consciousness.  These are not material, but they can manifest as such in the way we react to them.  They are immaterial but they are natural.  As I say, the supernatural is simply anthropomorphising our thought patterns.
Take god, for example, there are theologians who are now flogging the idea that god is all that we think and feel, that consciousness is godliness.  How is god defined?  The word θεὸς “Theos” (God) in the major Liddell & Scott, et. al., Classical Greek Lexicon published by Oxford University Press: “God is defined by the deities of ancient Roman and Greece. As such, the Greek Classical textual tradition links “God” directly with the Classical Gods and not with the Christian pagan god Yahweh. When Rome left the Gods that had made them great and became Christian, the mighty Roman empire began its decline until it was sacked. It was Christianity and its god that ushered in the Dark Ages at the end of this great Classical period.”

So there you have it, GodsO


Papalinton - #33190

October 4th 2010

Hi again GodsOwnDNA

To follow up,  “.. the mighty Roman empire began its decline until it was sacked. It was Christianity and its god that ushered in the Dark Ages at the end of this great Classical period.”

If we are to learn the lessons of history, perhaps we should be drawing parallels with the inexorable decline of the USA [with all its religious accoutrements]  and the shift of world power to China, a not so god-stricken country.  Religion, and particularly the christianities, carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.  This occurred when the Roman Empire fell,  the might that was once Europe is now simply getting on with its business without theism, and I suspect the albatross around the neck of the USA will slowly grind it down to a ‘used-to-be’.
Once we move away from humanist thought, we as a people are simply strangled by the dead hand of religion.

One thing for sure, I refuse to be a lemming.


Benyachov - #33191

October 4th 2010


I’ll ask again.

So what does your bluster have to do with you seemingly accusing me of supporting Child Abuse & wanting to kill beaglelady again?

I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe.

PS hint-Beaglelady gets it.

Papalinton - #33193

October 4th 2010

@ Benyachov
Hi Ben
Bbbbbluster,  bbbbbbluster,  is that all you think I write?  Sheesh, and I thought I explained myself well.

All my bluster is in response to all your bluster.

“I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe.”  Of course, you don’t; never have never will.  You live in a little theistic fart bubble in which all the answers to your existence,  you world and your cosmos, have all been worked out two thousand years ago by a bunch of goat-herds, sitting out in the boiling sun, in the desert, sweating their asses off.  You really do relate, don’t you?
Wonderful neanderthalic thought patterns in a modern primate.  But don’t worry, Dr Darryl Ray, wrote a book about it.  It’s called ‘The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture’.  And there is a cure.
I commend the study to you.


Daryl Little - #33209

October 4th 2010


I hear what you’re saying. and I get why you’re saying it.

Trouble is, those effects of neurosis just aren’t there. I don’t expect you to believe that, but there you go. (As you say, you’ll claim that I’m in denial, I’ll say I’m not and we’re at a stalemate. Fair enough.)
Understanding, as the Bible teaches, that God is sovereign over all things and in control of every little thing that happens in this world, allows me to be concerned for my kids and understand that I have a responsibility that I cannot avoid, but at the same time to realize that it’s not all on me because God is working in my kids lives just as surely as He’s working in my own, and yours as well.

The whole stridency thing simply relates to the idea that many people honestly don’t give a rip what I teach my kids and some, like Dawkins and Hitchens think I’m a child abuser for teaching them truth. Most people, I expect, would land somewhere in between the two.

I don’t expect you to understand why I wrote what I wrote, and that’s fine, it was directed at believing parents, not at unbelievers.

In any case, I do hope that someday your eyes will be opened and you’ll repent and believe in Jesus for your only hope of salvation.

GodsOwnDNA - #33251

October 4th 2010


How did the universe come to be? Did it have a finite beginning? According to your assumption that there is nothing other than the natural, would you believe also that matter is all there is and ever was? If you do, how can you be so sure?

Jon Garvey - #33278

October 4th 2010

@Papalinton - #33190

‘To follow up,  “.. the mighty Roman empire began its decline until it was sacked. It was Christianity and its god that ushered in the Dark Ages at the end of this great Classical period.”’

Is that from Gibbons? We used to have a first edition of “Decline and Fall” in my local Cathedral Library, where I spent many a happy afternoon off.

But you neglect one minor point - the Roman Empire didn’t choose between religion and non-religion, but between Christianity and Pagan religion. Gibbons is notorious for his particular view (which included a rather rosy view of the Empire’s virtues, and an understandable lack of knowledge that the Dark Ages were far from dark, it seems to me) but you’re putting words in his mouth if you conclude he’d advocate a religion-free state.

Papalinton - #33279

October 4th 2010

@ Jon Garvey
No, no. The quote comes straight from:
Liddell & Scott, et. al., Classical Greek Lexicon published by Oxford University Press


Papalinton - #33284

October 4th 2010

Hi DarrylLittle
You say,  “In any case, I do hope that someday your eyes will be opened and you’ll repent and believe in Jesus for your only hope of salvation.”

How can I believe you?  I have a good Muslim friend, a gentle family, who tells me otherwise.  When I was in Thailand, I had a wonderful Thai workmate who says the only source of light necessary is Buddhism.  And my neighbour 6 doors up is unequivocal that Hinduism [he’s a Shaivist] is the oldest and the truth.

So to make absolutely sure, are you teaching your kids the right one? Are you sure you are not condemning your children to eternal damnation? I understand [I am told] Islam is the latest and most recent revelation from god which Muhammad received that god pointed out clearly the falsity of christianity otherwise Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Ethiopia,Sudan, Israel, north Africa, the area known as the cradle of human civilisation, where god appeared to humankind, is a testament to the truth.  The export of a false religion to America does not make a religion true.

I simply don’t like the way theist arguments are leading the world, especially after 9/11.  Religion carries the seeds of our own destruction.

Papalinton - #33289

October 4th 2010

Hey GodsO
You ask me,  “How did the universe come to be? Did it have a finite beginning? According to your assumption that there is nothing other than the natural, would you believe also that matter is all there is and ever was? If you do, how can you be so sure?”

I can only answer that honestly:  I don’t know.  But what I am pretty certain about is neither do you.  And with my skeptical hat on, I am pretty certain a bunch of bronze/iron age goat-herds and fishermen didn’t know the answer either.

In respect of matter being all there is and ever was - hell no.  We are only in our infancy in discovering the reality of things.  There is matter and there is [for want of a better description] nothing;  comprising of ‘dark matter’,  of ‘dark energy’, of ‘quantum fluctuations’, and at the quantum level matter pops in and out of nothing.  As theists like to claim, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. 

GodsO, beyond this, to extrapolate a god is simply, to fill that gap in knowledge is precisely what those goat-herds did all those years ago.  And even with the fantastic advances in human knowledge, the gap is inexorably closing but nonetheless, a gap remains, and that is where the goat-herds’ god hides.


Papalinton - #33295

October 4th 2010

@ GodsO [cont]

With the surety of your religion why do you bother with science, GodsO?  You’ve got all the answers you need.  You’ve had them for two thousand years.  When you have the one true book that maps the past, the present and the future of humanity, be happy for your gain.  You are streets ahead of me in foretelling my family’s future.  I’m just a dumb old person lost in the netherworld as your book tells you, and as your book tells the other 5-6 billion people on this earth.  There is no doubt you are the chosen one.

In the beginning there was the WORD - at the end just a CLICHḖ.

GodsOwnDNA - #33304

October 5th 2010


You could have just stopped at “I don’t know.” How can you be so arrogant in claiming that none others know? Christianity has a lot to do with personal revelation. It is as much a personal revelation as it is a corporate one. Christ died for everyone and he reveals himself as the risen savior in a very personal way. And it is that personal revelation we hold on to. As someone once said ” I don’t offer you christians, I offer you Christ.”

I respect the fact that you choose not to believe. I think you should respect the fact that a considerable number of people do and for good reason.

Having said all this, are you a scientist?

Papalinton - #33314

October 5th 2010

Hi GodsO
I do respect that you believe; it is after all your life.  But to say that people believe for good reason and that jesus died for me is speculative, just as Muslims believe for good reason, or the Druidic faith in Gt Britain [which has finally been accorded genuine religion status] believe.  The Grand Druid was pleased for his flock that they are now recognised as such.  It provides much personal comfort for those peace-lovers who believe in the long and honourable tradition of Druid thought and worship.

The stripe of faith you chose is a most personal matter and should be kept private in showing respect to all others that go to make up our wonderful and diverse community.  Surely you can appreciate how important one’s personal space is? 

I didn’t stop at “I don’t know’  because context is the key to open discourse.  I’m sorry you feel that way, GodsO, because arrogance resides with those that affirm they know everything, that they have all the answers.

But christ didn’t die.  When is a death a real death when his was just a little over forty-eight hours long, from Friday morning to Sunday morning?  Not much of a sacrifice really, is it?  48 hours.

Cheers GodsO

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