Beta Culture: Don’t Teach the Controversy

Thinking about some of the things Beta Culture will entail, I know education has to be an early and definite part of it.

I’ll talk about one aspect of that. We secularists have been almost frantically hands-off when it comes to the intersection of religion and children. Something you hear extremely often is the bit about “Well, let’s give them both sides and let them make up their own minds.”

I’ll tell you where I think that comes from. It comes from fear of being wrong. Of telling kids wrong things.

(And, well, fear of blowback from the godders. But if we are ever going to get over that, this is the time. There’s too much riding on this to be faint-hearted.)

Even most full-on atheists will back away from telling young people explicitly that there are no such things as gods. But we should be including that statement in every course that deals with real-world matters. It should be stated on Day One of every class.

“Everything we’ll be doing here this semester is based on this bedrock principle – that the real world exists, and that all the supernatural, goddy, mystical, fantastical stuff doesn’t. There really are no such things as gods. There are no ghosts, no demons or angels. There is no afterlife, no Heaven or Hell. No spirit mediums or psychic powers, no flying saucers or free lunch. Physics works, chemistry works, geology works, astronomy works, and it all works because reality is reality. What we know of reality, the principles and specifics of it, has been discovered by hard-headed realists who worked their asses off to figure things out.”

But we don’t do that. Because most of us don’t know that we can, or that we should. Instead we say “Well, maybe you and I don’t believe in God, but you can’t KNOW, with 100 percent certainty, that a god doesn’t exist somewhere.”

That statement right there leaves open the door to a HUGE wash of nonsense.

What we’re faced with is our own striving for perfection being used against us. We don’t want to say no gods exist because we’re not sure we can justify the statement … by OUR standards. We don’t want to slide down the slippery slope and get to where we’re as sloppy and false as the people on the goddy side of the claim.

But meanwhile, we act as if the question is wide open. We leave kids with the impression that we’re not SURE whether or not a supernatural superbeing exists. That it may exist.

Of course we’re sure. Every confident realist is totally comfortable with the idea that nothing of the sort – nothing that’s ever been described by humans, anyway – is even possible.

After all, do we think there’s a giant man with a white beard sitting on a 50-ton throne of gold somewhere in the sky? No.

Do we think there’s an actual red-skinned Devil, all horns and pitchfork and evil laugh, capering around underneath us in caverns of fire? No.

Do we think two naked people, a man and a woman, lived in a luxurious garden 6,000 years ago and spent their time having conversations with a snake? And they were the only two people alive, the first two people to ever exist on Earth? Hell, no we don’t.

Just as we KNOW there are no magic beans that will grow a stalk up into the sky and open onto the cloud-foundation of a giant’s castle, we know all of these religious fantasies are absolutely false.

We’re just afraid to say so, directly and emphatically, because we think it goes against our basic principles of absolutely accurate judgments of reality.

But look, there’s this line we’re asked to take sides on.

If we think there’s a 0.00000001 percent chance one of these supernatural suberbeings thing might exist, we can’t bring ourselves to stand on the side of the line that says “Nope, no way, doesn’t exist.”

Instead, we feel obligated to stand there saying “Okay, yes, it MIGHT exist.” Hell, we’ll even argue for its existence among ourselves, not only allowing ourselves to leave the door open, but insisting others leave the door open too. “But if you say you’re  absolutely convinced there are no such things as gods, aren’t you being just as irrational as the ones claiming they do exist?”

No, you’re not. Because there’s another position regarding that supposed dividing line, a third choice that says …

“Hell, there’s no way these things exist. No rational person would spend two minutes evaluating the non-evidence for them. You’d have to be crazy to hang there in indecision, when there are so many more important issues to deal with.”

… But that also leaves the door open, as any rational person would, for the believers to offer more evidence.

I’m not saying wait around for that evidence. Just as none of us is holding off on judging the existence of magic beans, patiently waiting for more evidence, and meanwhile saying “Well, they MIGHT exist …”

I’m saying, make the bald, emphatic statement “There are no such things as fucking magic beans, and no sane person believes there are.”

And THEN, if by some remote chance the magic bean people want to actually show up with beans, we yell out “Plant those suckers! When we can see the stalks from 50 miles away, we’ll be over here like a shot. Count on it!”

We really can say there are no gods. We can say it out loud, we can say it in public, we can say it confidently, without waffling or qualifying.

No God. No gods. Not now, not ever, not anywhere. Period. The question is closed.

What we face is a double standard. And we let it be used against us.

The double standard is that the one side can make any claim at all, with no evidence, like a teenaged writer making up elves or dragons to populate a second-rate fantasy.

But that WE, the rational side, are then expected to operate by ten-decimal-place certainty before we turn down the possibility.

Get it? There’s this fluffy, indeterminate, marshmallow domain of fantastic supernatural claims, and there’s this diamond-hard domain of physics and decimals.

An argument advanced in the marshmallow domain does not require an answer in the domain of diamonds.

They can’t expect us to hold off on deciding until THEY produce more evidence. On the other hand, we CAN expect them to deliver more evidence before we spend one more second on the thing.

If they want to argue it with us, let THEM cross over into the domain of diamonds, and produce some diamond-hard, diamond-durable evidence.

On the question of a supernatural superbeing, we should always say “There’s nothing there. The thing does not exist, and we won’t spend two seconds thinking about it. If someone says it does, if they say we’re wrong, they must damned well PROVE IT.”

And that’s what we teach kids. We don’t hold off, giving them “both sides” and then “letting them decide.” We teach it to them the same way we teach math, or physics. We teach them the facts. We teach them to CARE about facts and to laugh at silly fantasies. And we teach them starting in kindergarten.

Anything less and we become accomplices to the spreading of the lie. And damn, NOW is the time we stopped doing that.

As I see it, Beta Culture would call on all educators everywhere to begin simply telling kids the bald facts. No sugar-coating, no waffling.

“To the best of all human knowledge, this is how it is: No gods, no ghosts, no souls, no magic, no luck, no psychic powers, no supernatural, not anywhere, not anywhen. The universe just doesn’t work like that. Anyone who tells you different is lying to you.”

Beta Culture: Seeing The Brackets
A Short, Short Post on the Idea of Souls
Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois
Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth
  • stoferb

    I agree with you. In an ideal world children would learn in school to abandon magical thinking and superstition. Unfortunately we live in the real world where such a vision isn’t possible at present time. What is possible though is that children learn real science and history in school and develop rational thinking.

  • ImaginesABeach

    I never explicitly told my children there is no god, because the topic of gods never comes up in my home. I played along with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, so as far as my kids were concerned, Christmas and Easter were all about getting stuff (not too far off from most Christians, actually), and eventually they figured out that there isn’t a Santa Claus or an Easter Bunny. BoyChild extrapolated directly from “no Santa” to “no gods”. I don’t know that you need to tell kids that there is no god if you never make it a possibility.

    • Hank Fox

      SOMEBODY should tell them. Because somewhere out there they’re going to get the other side’s message loud and clear. My first college roommate was a Jesus freak from the first day. Used to actually pursue me around the room to tell me about Jesus.

      If it’s left indefinite, it leaves kids open to getting snared. I’ve known kids who were more or less agnostic but who married a goddy spouse, and ended up in evangelist territory.

      The bottom line for me is that a lot of kids would benefit from having this little bit of conceptual armor as they go out into the world, with the happy side effect that THEIR voices of doubt or ridicule, whenever the subject came up socially, would serve as an accelerant toward reaching a tipping point.

      My underlying point is that things can’t go on as they are. We have to take some drastic action — to acquire sensible new values and sane new goals, across our entire world society, and NOW — in order to survive.

  • DaveG

    You can truthfully say, emphatically, “I have no reason to believe that _____ exists,” which in our worldview is the same as saying it doesn’t exist, but isn’t subject to the epistemological null hypothesis. It also changes our perceived burden of disproof to their actual burden of proof. Strengthen the argument by reminding the godder that God is no different than all the other mythical creatures.

    I understand where your perspective comes from – speaking with certainty and yielding no ground may feel more honest and refreshing, but is it more effective? I once challenged a Bible Study group as a Starbucks was closing. We moved to the sidewalk to have a “discussion” and they all took out their AIG tracts on the Flood and Radiometric Dating and entreated me to be open minded and see the other side of the argument. I kept at it for about 20 minutes and, like Dr. Suess’ Zaxes, neither side budged. I’m quite certain proclaiming my disbelief emphatically would not have swayed them.

    People choose what to believe, and may be resistant to logic; despite my “failure”, I think actively attacking religion is a better strategy than waiting for it to die a slooowwww death.

    • Hank Fox

      Well, but you were speaking to people who were already committed to evangelism. I wouldn’t waste time on them. But I would go after every schoolchild, every young person I could reach.

      I’ve casually engaged teenagers in public spaces many times, and discovered that at least half of them were already partway to atheism on their own. Some of them have seemed grateful to be able to talk to someone about stuff they’d already figured out, but didn’t dare say.

      Heh. I was wondering recently what would be the effect if every large church congregation was salted with 2 or 3 skeptics. You have to believe that some significant fraction of those in the pews are NOT deeply devout believers, but simply shy people who feel they must keep their mouths shut, and go along with all the preaching and such for the social/cultural interaction. A few kindred spirits might embolden them to think more deeply about it, maybe do something about it.

      • DaveG

        I just carefully read your original post in its entirety, and I think you were taking it too easy on me for being a accomodator!

        I like your “mole” idea.

        Where and how do you find teenagers to talk to?

        • Linda Turnipseed

          The ‘mole’ idea sounds great! However, keep in mind that in most religious settings, there is very little two-sided conversation; most communication is one-sided – from religious leader to audience. There is very little opportunity to ask questions or express conflicting opinions.

        • Hank Fox

          Finding young people: I’ve met some at the YMCA, others at jobs I had, local cafes, in my social circle, etc.

    • Corvus illustris

      You can truthfully say, emphatically, “I have no reason to believe that _____ exists,” which in our worldview is the same as saying it doesn’t exist, but isn’t subject to the epistemological null hypothesis. It also changes our perceived burden of disproof to their actual burden of proof.

      This is really the crucial step: don’t let them get away with proof by assertion. At least in North America, the mythology of the believers credulous is most likely the biblical one. Well, for starters demonstrate that there’s a deity; now why should it be the tribal one of Jewish mythology; why should this collection of stories be any more authentic that the Theogony of Hesiod, … . This approach has actually been seen to work in practice. At the very least it exhausts their patience.

  • ik

    The privileging of the hypothesis is really the essential root of attempts to prove theism. While I am capable of being convinced that god(s) exist, I am not capable of being convinced to worship them.

    Any attempt to forestall the teaching of religion to children is an extremely powerful force against religion.

  • pipenta

    So let’s get over our hesitation here.

    Perhaps, as a public service, we should wander around places like the beach or shopping malls, with a t-shirt that reads “AMA, I’m an atheist.”

    Or maybe, at farmers markets or fairs, set up booths styled after the sidewalk offices of Lucy VanPelt, signs reading:

    The atheist is in.
    Advice 5¢

  • Decnavda

    Here’s the problem with telling them that no sane person believes in religion and anyone who tells you that God or gods exist is lying to them: It is not true. Many people who are sane by any psychiatric or legal definition are religious. Many completely honest people will tell them that God exists. You mention above that the problem with not bringing up the subject is that they will meet the godders when they leave home. The problem with your approach is that many of those people will be intelligent, good, and honest. And then it will be your credibility against theirs, and your kids have already seen that you “lied” to them. That is why telling them there is no god is different from telling them there are no fairies: They are unlikely to run into a significant number of fairy believers.

    Stick with simply saying there is no evidence. Engage with them about the arguments, and why so many of them are wrong, and what good evidence would be required to prove the supernatural. But do not force the conclusions on to the kids. Teach them how to think, not what to think. When they reach the conclusion that religion is wrong on their own, for the right reasons, they will be far more inoculated against the Jesus freak college roomie than if what they have is, “Daddy says you’re wrong.”

  • Lou Doench

    one and a half thumbs up… I just want to quibble at the edges a bit, as an atheist parent I tend to shy away from authoritarian declarations. I tell my kids what I believe and why I believe it. But I don’t want to push them into rebelling as well.

  • douglaslm

    I tell my grandchildren straight up “There is no God”. It pisses my wife and daughter off to no end. I don’t argue with them when they tell the grand kids about god, I just say that I haven’t seen any evidence for a god, and leave it at that (to ensure domestic tranquility). But, I feel the seed of doubt is being planted. Hopefully this seed will grow when the grand kids are old enough to stop believing in Santa.

  • Neil Rickert

    Even most full-on atheists will back away from telling young people explicitly that there are no such things as gods.

    No, don’t tell them that. Instead, tell them that gods are created out of human imagination, much like Santa Claus and like the tooth fairy. That should make it a bit easier for them to understand the god talk that they hear.

    • douglaslm

      This is a good idea. If you don’t mind I will use it in the future.

  • Cornelioid

    This is one aspect of how i was raised. I agree with it, and i’m glad you’re saying it.

  • mildlymagnificent

    When you’re dealing with young children, say from toddler up to 8 or 9 years, the easiest approach is to tell them that these are all stories.

    And _tell_ them that there are lots and lots of these stories. Greek and Norse and Native American gods and goddesses, Australian Dreamtime stories, the mad multiplicity of Hindu gods, pagan, fairy and similar mythological characters like the Green Man or leprechauns. And it’s perfectly OK to tell children that lots of adults believe these stories but we don’t. It’s also a good way for them to have a grounding that could give a lifelong interest in literature or anthropology or drama.

    When they’re prepared with the idea that this stuff is all fictional, they’re much better able to look at religious claims when they’re older on the “why is this different from any other fiction” basis. Asking for evidence that any given story is factual rather than fictional should come naturally. Nothing combative or confrontational required. (Provided that you’ve also done the right thing in getting them a good education.)

  • Me

    I agree 100%.

  • dd

    I am always surprised when fellow atheists tell stories that go along the lines of “so the other day my kid asked me about god and what I believe and I was all ‘oh noooo, what do I tell him/her?!’ because [insert vague excuse here about respecting other people's beliefs, rocking the boat, and /or not wanting to declare one way or the other because somehow I might INFLUENCE the kid, for goodness' sake!]”

    Why why why WHY WHYYYYYY wouldn’t you want to talk to your kid about it and teach them the skills they need to identify BULLSHIT when they see it, and to let them know that it’s OK not to go along with the crowd, and that they wouldn’t be the only ones who think “This is horseshit” when they hear it?

    If you don’t talk to them about it, they will be completely defenseless the first time some “fisher of men” or even worse, cult recruiter tries to reel them in.

    And even worse, they might think they face a choice between being alone or going along with what it seems like everyone else believes. It’s soooooo important to let them know there are other options!

    Also, I think it sets a good example – teaches them in general that a happy healthy normal human being can choose not to follow the crowd. If they can learn that it’s possible and OK to resist peer pressure, they will be armed to deal will all kinds of situations in life.

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