We Are All Born Atheist

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That’s right, even the zealous, the pious and the most committed of religious characters were born without any beliefs in gods. As Richard Dawkins points out in “The God Delusion”, children don’t have religions their parents do. We are born without knowledge of our culture, without an understanding of social stratification and without superstition. Children don’t inherit characteristics of social division, they are labelled with them. We ascribe them to them. They have to be learned and are invariably taught. In fact a quick search for “Christian preschool” will return a host of results for places children from 2 to 5 years old can learn about Christianity  while learning to grip a pencil, identify colours and count to 20. Hazel’s Christian Preschool  takes the view that…

“Through creative exploration and “hands on” approach, each child is supported emotionally,cognitively, physically, social growth and foundational opportunities to know God as our loving creator and friend.”

Which apparently works since one happy mother wrote:

“This is the absolute best Christian Preschool! I moved my 4 year old daughter from another Christian preschool because I didn’t feel like her faith was growing. On her very first day she started praying on her own!”

4 years old?! Also, I’m not the sort to judge grammar and spelling too harshly. I’m sure I make mistakes and typos all of the time, but then I’m not an educational institution or teacher. The Hazel’s (Hazels? hazel’s? Hazel’s?) Christian Preschool  site is filled with glaring language errors that should warrant more concern than the growth of a 4 year old’s faith.

This Religionising of children’s education is not particular to Christianity of course, but common to many religions. This quote from littlecaliphs.com makes the point for me:

“We strongly believe that early learning exposure of Islam in children will leave a long lasting impact in their life towards realizing and accepting that Allah is their Lord and Sustainer, Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) is their teacher and role model and Islam is the way of life.”

They’re right of course. If you teach children from a young age that magic and gods are real, if you reinforce the idea that specific holy books are indisputably factual, then those children are more likely to grow up believing whichever religion they have been taught.

A parent’s concern with their young child’s religious education comes, I believe, from a good place. If you think eternal torment is in store for non-believers and rich rewards for believers, then you want to make sure that your nearest and dearest are on the path to a happy ending. There’s a difficult (and upsetting) question religious parents no doubt ask themselves about what would happen to their child in the afterlife if they were to pass away. According to Islam, all children of Muslim parents who pass away before reaching puberty go to paradise. The question of what happens to children of non-believers has many answers in Islam but judgement on the matter is usually reserved. Back to the Bible, a Christian website, tackles this difficult question by suggesting that all children go to the Christian heaven by default until they are able to understand right and wrong (legally 10 years old in the UK). After the age of 10 they had better be committed Christians though. There seems to be some appreciation that young children aren’t intellectually mature enough to be judged on religious beliefs but in what sense are children who have just hit double digits free or able to make an informed decision? If they have been taught religion as fact since they were toddlers then the extent to which they are “informed” is disputable.

Regarding the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit there are no easy answers. On the one hand it seems reasonable to teach your kids about your religion if you’re a parent who whole-heartedly believes that it’s in your child’s best interest to learn about your beliefs. On the other hand, where that belief manifests in narrowly restricting a child’s social interaction, instilling intolerance and depriving educational opportunities, the implications start to look less harmless. The fact is parents aren’t formally trained in the craft of parenting and the home lives of children vary. It may be that a child’s home life is dominated  by religion but school should be a space where they genuinely can acquire the intellectual tools to make informed decisions. Nowhere should a school be teaching religion as fact or presenting one religion as superior to others. If after learning about religions as part of a broad curriculum that is centred around language, maths and science, a child grows to decide (when they are mature enough to do so) that they believe and wish to follow a particular religion, then they have made a meaningful choice. Conversely, choosing to believe the only choice you’ve been given is no choice at all.

 

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6 comments

  1. Matt S. · May 7, 2016

    Reblogged this on babelbricks and commented:
    Very good article, and very clearly written.

    The sad yet clear double standard is that many, if not most, religious parents will insist that their faith is a personal choice to which they are entitled (quite rightly, as per Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but fail to apply that freedom to their own children, when it comes to inculcating their beliefs into them. My gripe, I suppose, is that I do not believe that parents have a ‘right to raise their children as they see fit’, as this is a dangerously subjective precept that gives carte blanche to coercive and abusive practices (for the most extreme cases, one need look no further than the New Hartford parents who whipped their son to death with electrical cables last year, for wanting to leave their church) as much as it does to the teaching of socially adaptive behaviour.

    By coincidence I was reading about the matter of religious versus secular education, and came across the following from the New Zealand Secular Education Network, which includes an important distinction worth repeating:

    ‘Religious Instruction means teaching and endorsing a faith in its own right, for example the practice of Church volunteers “leading children to a faith in Jesus”. There is a significant difference between religious instruction and religious studies, [which teach] a comparative overview of the major world religions, taken by qualified teachers in a neutral manner’.

    I am all in favour of Religious Studies, as, atheist or not, religion is an important cultural component of the backdrop of humanity, and a comparative appreciation of world religions can foster a sense of connectedness and an understanding of our heritage, as opposed to the necessarily partial and exclusive teachings of religious instruction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Matt · May 7, 2016

      Yes I agree, that’s an important distinction. Thanks for your comment and reblog.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. silenceofmind · May 8, 2016

    Children are also born illiterate and savage.

    Children are born without potty training.

    Religions of all sorts teach literacy, hygiene, and social interaction.

    If we are all left as atheists from birth, civilization would shatter into a tsunami of bloody, unimaginable violence.

    Like

    • Matt · May 8, 2016

      There’s a well-known book by the social anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski called “Coral Gardens and Their Magic”, which looks at the farming practices of the Trobriand Islanders. They use a combination of agricultural practices with magical practices on their gardens. Their crops grow, but not due to the magic. Religionised education is similar.

      What’s your reason for thinking atheism results in violent blood tsunamis?

      Like

  3. Secular Detective · May 13, 2016

    Great article Matt. The ‘guaranteed paradise before puberty’ issue came up in Armin Navabi’s ‘Why There Is No God’, where he described how just before his fourteenth birthday, out of nothing but fear of failing in this life and being condemned to hellfire, he threw himself off a building (his school I think).

    Like

    • Matt · May 13, 2016

      Thanks 🙂 I’ve not come across that book before. I’ll take a look. As you’ve pointed out in your posts, beliefs have consequences. Sadly sometimes they can be tragic.

      Like

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