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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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Jon Garvey - #33316

October 5th 2010

@Papalinton - #33279

I stand corrected - classicist priorities shared with Gibbons, though.

But your use of the quote appears misplaced. Whether Christianity caused the fall of the Roman Empire or not, it demonstrably didn’t cause its own. 2000 years later it is alive and well even in the parts of Empire that reverted to paganism (Islam being its only rival religion). It has also become the largest “faith-group” in the world (including non-religious). The seeds of downfall are taking a long time to germinate.

Contrast this with the only avowedly atheist empire that has run its course, the USSR. By your criteria atheism “caused” its fall after only 70 years, far less than Rome under either paganism or Christianity.

But if we look at the course of USSR’s atheism itself, since it fell, the figures are approximately as follows:
1987: atheist/non-religious 52-75%: Christian (all) 33% (active 22%)
2010: atheist/non-religious 32%: Christian (all) 54%. (source WEC, but you could check elsewhere)

Jon Garvey - #33317

October 5th 2010


By the way, Harry McColl on the “Debunking Christianity” website seems to have that classical Greek lexicon on his shelves as well. I never realised how many atheists were also Classicists. Is that your own field, or just a sideline?


Papalinton - #33337

October 5th 2010

@ Jon Garvey
USSR?  Communism?  Jon, be mindful of reporting the full history.  Just a quick search generally posits:

“Its implementation under Communist states generally included the institution of state atheism. However, several religious communist groups exist, and Christian communism was important in the early development of communism.”  [from wiki, which seems to reflect an overall position according to review]

And indeed the debate is far from settled as the 70 years of communism was a little more nuanced than you paint.  Because of communism’s atheism, SOME [my emphasis] have accused communism of persecuting religion. In addition, another criticism is that communism is, in itself, a religion.  In reality there was a comfortable relationship between the church and the party, albeit somewhat prickly.

But my take;  where do you think it borrowed its methodology from? From Catholicism/the Russian Orthodox Church. Stalin WAS god. Stalin’s regime was based on an irrational dogma, from an infallible authority figure, that had to be followed without question and whenever it conflicted with reality - it was reality that was wrong.

Papalinton - #33350

October 5th 2010

@ Jon Garvey   [cont]

Doesn’t that rather remind you of another form of totalitarian governance [organised religion]? Indeed he was the ‘shepherd’, the ‘father’ of the Soviet Union, he had his sheep, and he controlled life and death at a whim, pretty much as you tell us your god controls everything.

About the classical Greek lexicon definition; that’s exactly where I first saw it, on Debunking Christianity;  went for a search on the web, and presto, it was verified as a genuine source.

Incidentally, the raft of christianities has been around for some 2,000 years.  The religion of the Egyptians was around for about 3,000 years, and I don’t see too much genuflection towards Osiris or Ra lately.  So there is little correlation between time-span and veracity.

Jon, old gods don’t die; they get forgotten.  Perhaps the secular nature of Buddhism has it right after all. I’d check it out if I were you; as they say a wise investor never puts all his eggs in one basket.

History tells us all religions eventually die out ... but atheism will live on regardless of what new religion replaces the old.  And we are unencumbered by guilt and shame for being human.

I commend these thoughts to you.


Jon Garvey - #33374

October 5th 2010

@Papalinton - #33337

“USSR?  Communism?  Jon, be mindful of reporting the full history.”

Oh, right - I didn’t realise you were disallowing generalisations. Otherwise I might have pointed out some in your posts about the Roman Empire.

As it is, some might confess themselves confused by your analogy between Stalin and the Catholic/Orthodox Churches, or was it Jesus.

However, I’m sure you’re right about atheism living on regardless. The same will be true of death, whatever varieties of life evolution throws up. Whether it will have such broad influence, though, has yet to be demonstrated.

BenYachov - #33375

October 5th 2010

>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…

I reply: Well Papalinton I thought you might be one of these descent Atheist types & simply say “I’m sorry for the rhetorical excess I didn’t mean to imply you condone child abuse or murder.  But it seems you would rather channel your inner PZ Myers(aka the Fred Phelps of Atheism).

I Gotcha! Bye!

Papalinton - #33402

October 5th 2010

Hi Ben Yachov
I’m sorry you feel that way, Ben, and on re-reading my earlier comments I would not wish you to harm anyone.  My concern was the manner in which a particular criticism, beaglelady’s,  was considered as perhaps treasonous to the cause without even considering whether a genuine case of abuse was prima facie.

As I said before, I’m sure you are a fine and decent person albeit a little bit god-thingie.


Benyachov - #33407

October 5th 2010

>I’m sorry you feel that way, Ben, and on re-reading my earlier comments I would not wish you to harm anyone.

I reply:  That you are implying I would is what is offensive (i.e. I would not wish you to harm anyone).

Very offensive.

Jon Garvey - #33452

October 6th 2010

@Benyachov - #33407

Don’t worry too much about it, Benyachov. This is the guy who gets his history from Greek dictionaries and thinks that Joe Stalin learned genocide from Christian Socialism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and bears a close resemblance to Jesus Christ.

You should be grateful he doesn’t compare you to Mother Theresa.

Papalinton - #33460

October 6th 2010

@ Jon Garvey

The last christian died on the cross

Ted Davis - #36413

October 25th 2010

I just ran across this conversation, and I want to add something to it, however belatedly.  Way back up there, Papalinton said this:

“It seems certain now, from current archeological discoveries, that the town of Nazareth only came into existence after the 66-70CE Jewish War and Jews resettled out of Jerusalem.”


It happens that my brother is an archaeologist specializing in the ancient Near East; he’s presently director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in Nicosia.  With his permission, I forward his comments, as follows.

(1) The best description of Nazareth archaeologically in the first century is in Excavating Jesus by Crosson and Reed (Harper 2001). “olive presses, wine presses, water cisterns, grain silos, and grinding stones scattered around caves tell of a population that lived in hovels and simple peasant houses” p. 32 It aint grand, but it’s there.

to be continued below

Ted Davis - #36414

October 25th 2010

(part 2)

Nazareth has been continuously occupied since the time of Jesus, so excavation has been very limited. Remember, a basilica was built here in the time of Constantine so there has been a lot of activity there since!  When the new church of the Annunciation was put in in 1955, they had an opportunity to dig and found the remains of some houses, pits and industrial (olive oil probably) installation from early Roman times. ephemeral but still there. This is reported on in the Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land in the “Nazareth” article. A quick summary is given in John McRay’s Archaeology and the New Testament (Baker books 1991).
Roman era tombs with Herodian pottery (i.e. time of Jesus ) were found within a half mile of the church to the north, west, and south and indicate the size of the settlement of the village,
because they would have been outside the boudaries of the occupied town. They also of course support the idea of a settlement here.

Ted Davis - #36415

October 25th 2010

(part 3)

Recently some excavations about a half mile from the center of the town uncovered evidence of early first century vineyard towers. See James Charlesworth, “Jesus and Archaeology: a New Persepctive” in his edited volume Jesus and Archaeology (Eerdmans 2006). To summarize: some direct evidence of activity surviving under church; clear evidence of tombs and agricultural construction/terraces of Jesus’ childhood period.  This is rather good for a continuously occupied site. Any professional archaeologist will buy that as acceptable level of evidence to support the text’s claims of a town here.


Those are my brother’s comments on the Nazareth issue.  In short, one might fairly say that rumors of the non-existence of Nazareth during the time of Jesus are exaggerated.  Information about my brother and his qualifications can be found at http://www.caari.org/Staff.htm  NOTE.: He has accepted another position as of next summer, so this link won’t be good forever.

Papalinton - #37711

October 31st 2010

Hi Ted Davis

Yes I am aware of these circumstances and the authors you offer.  Stunning apologetics is perhaps the fairest description I can offer. The data they substantially use is secondary or tertiary at best.  All of these interpretations do not speak of the area as a collective large enough to be considered a hamlet or a village let alone a town during 0-70 CE.  There was certainly no big synagogue there purportedly in which jesus was involved.

Nazareth was first and foremost a jewish town occupied by the displacement following the First Jewish War [66-70CE].  Under jewish Talmudic law there was no way there would have been residences within a bull’s roar of a cemetery or burial area.  It was forbidden.  The number of koch type tombs suggests largely a burial site and certainly pertaining to a population many centuries earlier.  There was also the Roman garrison town of Japhia within spitting distance of the venerated area [variously 1.6-3.3km].  The first century historian and Roman general Josephus wrote that Japhia was “the largest village in Galilee”. He stregthened its walls in 66CE and he himself resided there for a time. 


Papalinton - #37713

October 31st 2010

@ Ted Davis [cont]

Although mentioned in the New Testament gospels [some 12 times], there are no extant non-biblical references to Nazareth until around 200 AD.  Not even Josephus makes mention of Nazareth although he describes every other town in Galilee.

The notion of “Roman era tombs with Herodian pottery (i.e. time of jesus)  is scurrilous and pure Bellarmino Bagatti and Ken Dark, who’s works have largely been debunked. 

The apologetic tradition that maintains continuous unbroken settlement at Nazareth is “wish mongering” to the core.  The archeological evidence is overwhelmingly establishing a lengthy hiatus in settlement in Nazareth from 730BCE-100CE.


Papalinton - #37714

October 31st 2010

@ ted Davis [cont 3]

The plethora of silos, cisterns, and other man-made changes does not indicate continuous habitation.  It indicates lengthy habitation throughout the three archeologically distinct eras, the Bronze Age [c.2000-1200BCE], the Iron Age [1200-730BCE], and then the centuries following resettlement of the basin [c. 100CE]  to modern times.

For eigth hundred years - from the Assyrian conquest to the First Jewish War - the ground is archeologically mute.

CAARI is only peripherally involved, if indeed there is any involvement at all, in the archeology of the venerated area and its environs.


BenYachov - #37791

October 31st 2010

Again we have Atheist(like Ken Dark) & Jewish archeologists saying A & we have Papalinton saying not A.  Whom should we believe?

As to apologetics Papalinton is just giving us the Atheist Apologetics of Rene Salm a Piano teacher turned amateur archeologist whom pretty much dogmatically written off any possibility his wild speculations could even in theory be wrong.

As Ken said in his negative review of Salm’s book.“
“A few authors have argued that the absence of first and second century textual references to Nazareth suggest the town may not have been inhabited in Jesus’ day.  Proponents of this hypothesis have sought to buttress their case with linguistic, literary and archaeological interpretations, though mainstream historians and archaeologists dismiss such views as “archaeologically unsupportable”.

BenYachov - #37792

October 31st 2010

Finally as another reviewer of Salm’s book over at Amazon points out “His archaeological discussion is brimming with quotes from and references to Galilean archaeologists Dr. Zvi Gal and Mordechai “Motti” Aviam. These two archaeologists receive rare respect from Salm. Ironically, Dr. Aviam completely disagrees with Salm’s conclusion about the dating of Nazareth. In private communications, Dr. Aviam (“a secular Jew” by his own words) has disclosed that his personal examinations of earlier and recent artifacts and the newly discovered (early) 1st century residence persuade him that the traditional site of Nazareth is correctly identified and dated. Aviam believes Nazareth was settled in the 1st century BCE, probably when Judeans settled much of the Galilee, especially the Lower Galilee, during the years shortly before and after 100 BCE. Dr. Aviam’s pointed comment to Salm and his editor was (paraphrased): I reject your conclusion of “case closed”; we don’t do science that way. “

At best all this is inconclusive which hardly qualifies at a silver bullet again the historicist NT.

If I denied God tomorrow I would still say this is just crackpot nonsense and bad Atheist Apologetics.

BenYachov - #37794

October 31st 2010

BTW I recognize the name Tim O’Neil over in the comments box at Amazon on Salm’s book.  O’Neil is an Atheist & a Historian whom I have often seen post on a few Catholic forums.  He writes “we’re supposed to ignore the total consensus of every archaeologist (mainly *Jewish* ones) who have excavated the site over some amateur with his own personal theory about Jesus’ origins (he thinks Jesus came from India) and NO credentials at all? Get a grip. Salm is a former piano teacher who has never excavated anything in his life. Ken Dark, Nurit Feig, Fanny Vitto, Richard Freund and others are all archaeologists who have excavated in Nazareth. There isn’t a single archaeologist on the planet who agrees with Salm, yet we’re supposed to believe a *piano teacher* with a kooky theory over every archaeologist with any knowledge of the site?!

This is beyond dumb, it’s simply mind-boggling. YOU are the one who needs to develop some true scepticism and recognise a kook when you see one.“END QUOTE

I’ve seen Tim make descent intelligent challenges to the Faith & I’ve seen him eviscerate New Atheist fundies including ““Christ Mythers”.  I’ve never communicated with him but I like him.

BenYachov - #37811

October 31st 2010

BTW I’d like to make a correction.  Ken Dark is not an Atheist.

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