Religious indoctrination


This post is going to be about children, faith, worship, and indoctrination. The other day a friend of mine and I were discussing this. This friend is also an atheist. He and I had the opportunity to float a river yesterday, and as is apt to happen with us, the conversation turned philosophical. He and I were discussing the questionnaire from CARM that I posted about a little while ago. Eventually, the topic turned to the idea of children in religion. This eventually got us thinking about faith and worship.

Faith and worship are central tenants of Christianity. Indeed, one cannot find salvation with God without both faith and worship. And this is where we began to think about children. Most people who are religious are raised that way; very few people become devout much later in life. As a small child, you really have no choice but to participate in the religion of your family. So why is this an issue?

There is a passage in the bible, I believe it’s in Hebrews, that essentially amounts to “God will reward those who seek Him in earnest.” The actual passage is as follows: And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

This is important because eventually my friend and I had to question how meaningful a child’s worship or faith could possibly be. If you have no choice but to participate in a religion, is your faith and worship meaningful? If you’ve never been exposed to alternative ways of thinking, or were taught to categorically only accept one way of thinking, how meaningful is your faith?
As a young child, you’re exclusively reliant upon your parents for explaining to you how everything works. That element of trust between parent and child is necessary for a child to successfully interact with the world around him or her. Because (most) parents want their children to be healthy, well-adjusted, and successful, children really have no reason to doubt their parents. Unless you come from a pretty messed up family, what child wouldn’t automatically believe whatever explanation was proffered by their parents? Take Santa, for instance. Most children believe Santa exists and that he’s the one who delivers their presents every year because that’s what their parents tell them. And they only stop believing this because eventually, at some point, those same parents finally tell them the truth about Santa.
So why should it be any different with religion? If your parents tell you that God exists, chances are that is what you’re going to believe. So when a child with parents goes to worship in church, are they really doing it out of faith in God, or out of faith in their parents? The latter seems much more likely to me. It would almost seem like a better measure of faith for religious parents to raise a child completely ignorant in the ways of the religion until the child can reason and act for themselves. If the child or adolescent can then accept that religion, would that not be the ultimate expression of faith? Because in that situation, the child or adolescent is expressing faith and worship completely out out of their own desire, belief, and self. It was not informed at all by the parents’ beliefs.
Of course, such a thing would most likely be impossible because we don’t raise children in complete isolation and they’d be bound to hear about religion elsewhere. But I think it’s an interesting thing to think about. Especially in light of new studies that show how religious indoctrination from a young age changes how children perceive reality. These studies would seem to suggest that children who are raised with religion have a harder time separating reality from fiction than their secular counterparts. This is probably why, in my opinion, religious children grow up to become religious adults: you literally lose the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality on a certain level.
So back to faith and worship. What this study shows is that children raised with religion experience psychological changes early in life. I would postulate that these changes carry over in adulthood. Either way, this would seem to me to call into question that idea of “seeking God in earnest.” How earnest can this seeking be if you’ve been psychologically conditioned for it? How “pure” can faith be if your brain has been shaped to blur the line between fantasy and reality?

14 thoughts on “Religious indoctrination

  1. Nice post. A lot of these things I have thought about and read about before. My dad always felt that religion was something that you should wait until you are 18 to choose, because it is a serious and complex decision. There are some who even posit that religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse. I don’t believe that is necessarily the case, but depending on the extremity of the parents beliefs I think that I can definitely see where psychological abuse could be a valid argument.

    As you said, kids depend on their parents to explain how things work, and so you can indoctrinate them into anything: religion, Santa Claus, that a certain race is bad, that your race is better. It’s quite frightening really just how badly parents can potentially fuck up a kid. If everybody is exactly the same as you, then it almost doesn’t matter, but in a society with diverse individuals it can be quite problematic obviously.

    An interesting thought experiment to me is imagine a child growing up never even learning about the concept of god or gods at all. Would that child, in trying to understand the world, arrive at the conclusion that there is a God. I suspect that they would not in this day and age, with all that we know about how the world works. I am fairly convinced, that our knowledge of the concept of God at an early age, gives us a faulty premise for observing the world and is on the whole, harmful. I think it’s okay to observe the world and make mistakes about the conclusions you make, but I don’t think it’s okay to tell somebody something exists that nobody has ever seen and then expect them to use it as the answer to some of the most fundamental questions we have about the universe.

    1. I, too, wouldn’t go so far as to claim religious indoctrination to be a form of abuse. Even faith healing to me, technically, isn’t abuse. Abuse implies some deliberate harm. Faith healing parents are acting with good will and the best intentions; they’re simply misguided about how to best heal their child.

      That is indeed an interesting thought experiment, and I tend to agree with your conclusion, which points strongly to a “god of the gaps” impetus for the creation of “God.”

      1. Agreed, moreover if they did conclude there was a God the mythology surrounding the presence of that being, and what the being was responsible for and the morality it had would surely be different. Of course this is clear simply because there are numerous different religions now and throughout history.

        Keep in mind though that parents mean well even when they tell their kids that the Jew is evil, or that all blacks are criminals. They think they are protecting them. Those parents about a year ago who thought prayer would heal their child thought they were doing no harm to their child, even though did harm (and to the one before it). Some parents with hit their children…hard…thinking that’s the way they learned to respect their parents, and that it’s good to knock your kid around a bit when he’s getting lippy. I think we have to focus on what the result is on the child, over whether or not the parent intended harm or not.

        Interestingly a facebook friend today (who I’m thinking of hiding as a result) put on how her kid asked her today “Why was god never born?” and “How do we know God is all powerful?” Her answer was “He is the alpha and omega. He always was, is and will be”. She was triumphant at this answer. Even though it’s complete bullshit and doesn’t really answer the question other than the fact that what she is really saying is “Well just because He is all powerful and was never born.”

      2. I can’t say I’m surprised by the mother’s circular logic…religion couldn’t exist without circular logic.

        I guess I see your point about results over intention. I still feel like there’s a gray line in there somewhere about what deserves recrimination and what doesn’t…but I can’t say for certain where that line is.

      3. I completely agree that the line is grey. I think you really can’t arrest somebody for abuse for simply the possibility of what they might do after instilling a belief system on them. For instant just teaching your child to hate Jews isn’t seen as abuse. I person can go through their whole life as an anti-Semite without causing any real harm to a Jewish person. However if they act on that hate and do harm someone, retrospectively that indoctrination is harmful. So at best indoctrination leads to an increased likelihood of that person harming another and if that leads to arrest and incarceration in a way you have harmed the child. Of course the sum of one’s beliefs and thoughts don’t derive solely from the parents either. Such ideas would have be fostered by family, community, a poor education system, etc. I am not sure some of the big wig atheists are really trying to be anything more than provocative when they say indoctrination in religion should be abuse, but hopefully the upshot of it will be for people to think twice about how they teach their children, and whether they allow their children to ask questions, and foster an attitude towards some of the more difficult questions that allows the children to search for themselves instead of giving them a canned answer that doesn’t really make any sense, but still insist that it is right!

      4. It sounds like this just comes back to education again. I don’t understand why this isn’t a higher priority in this country. Most the problems this country faces could be dealt with by a well-educated populace. Or at least a better educated one.

        On the other hand, I can hear a lot of people screaming that education itself is indoctrination. I hear that a lot from conservatives in this country, that education–especially higher education–just pushes a liberal agenda onto children to indoctrinate them into the progressive movement.

      5. Yes. I agree, that is part of the problem in this country, because so many things that are actually supported by evidence have become politicized that subscribing to those things implies you are taking a political stance. Evolution, climate change, the fact that this country was founded on secular ideals on the separation of church and state, health care, equal rights, even supporting education and higher learning itself is considered being liberal. To me subscribing to ideas that are well supported by evidence and that better society should just be considered common sense and nothing more. These kinds of things are in other countries, but sadly not here. If such attitudes towards education continue, the country will face a lot more hardship.

      6. Hopefully things will reach a fever pitch and then eventually the pendulum will swing the other way. Once the politicizing of science and education becomes tangibly detrimental to the average person in this country I’m sure things will change real fast.

  2. Wow. I’m really shaking my head on this one.

    You ask how meaningful is a child’s worship or faith if they’re exposed to Christianity or religion. Firstly, God has a tremendous love for children, and children were drawn to Jesus. The Bible speaks fondly of the faith of a child, and even refers to believers as children of God. Matthew 11:25 tells us that God has revealed things to children that he has hidden from the wise and learned. In Matthew 18:3 Jesus exalts children for their faith and humility. God even ordained children to sing praises to him (Matthew 21:16). So faith is meaningful, even if we’re raised in a Christian family.

    You seem to think that a child growing up in a Christian family has no choice but to believe in God, and they’re doing it because of the faith of their parents, not because of faith in God. First, children do have a choice, and will eventually exercise their choices, and many will leave the church and end up rejecting God. Christian parents struggle with this all the time. So there’s no need for atheists to panic, because they’ll be able to win some converts.

    It sounds like you think it’s unfair for parents to raise children to believe in God because it’s harder for atheists to capture them. And so you offer a solution that you hope would benefit atheists, and that’s that Christians shouldn’t be allowed to expose their children to religion so that they can come to faith on their own grounds and have the ultimate expression of faith! Yeah, I’m sure that advice sounds brilliant to atheists. Perhaps someday they’ll be able to enact legislation along those lines.

    Of course that idea is absurd to those of us who are Christians. We’re instructed by God to raise our children to know and love God. And doing so doesn’t make their faith any less authentic.

    Perhaps children start out believing what their parents tell them, but they won’t stay children forever. Eventually they grow up and mature, and at some point they will be able to choose whether or not God is part of their parent’s faith, or if God is who they believe in as part of their own faith.

    I don’t believe those studies you refer to demonstrate that children raised on religion have a harder time separating reality from fiction. I’d wager it’s just the opposite. There have been studies showing that non-Christians are more likely to believe in aliens, which craft and ghosts, and are more superstitious than traditional Christians. This study actually demonstrates that children not exposed to religion couldn’t identify real Biblical characters because they were never exposed to religion. It’s not surprising that they wouldn’t be able to recognize real characters. And that speaks to the failures of secular indoctrination.

    For me, personally, my faith is “earnest”. I no longer believe in God because my parents do, but because I do. And I know children who grew up in the same church that I did who are now atheists. But it’s still a Christian parent’s responsibility to instruct their children to know and worship God, and to call that into question is sad, especially when you’re not opposed to secular indoctrination. Atheists send their own children to atheist camps and churches. Why not condemn them for indoctrinating their children and suggest that they expose their children to Christianity?

      1. Yeah, I’m for real. I thought I clearly explained what five-year-old legitimately questions their faith. I said, “they won’t stay children forever. Eventually they grow up and mature, and at some point they will be able to choose whether or not God is part of their parent’s faith.” Are you still 5 years old? No, and you’ve wandered away from your parent’s faith. And that’s the point I was making. You’re now an adult who can make your own decisions. And that will also be the case for most five-year-olds existing today.

        But what have you to say about atheists indoctrinating their own children against religion, and forcing them to become atheists? Is that okay?

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