Earlier today, I challenged Rod Dreher’s recent post wherein he lamented the difficulties we have in overcoming our minds’ propensities for rationalizations. In that same post he had argued from the experience of his own loss of Catholic faith that the intellect was an insufficient ground for religious beliefs and that the will needed to be prioritized instead and that that was why he was raising his children to be faithful first and foremost to his newer Orthodox faith. I called this a disingenuous way to assure his children would not see the falsehood of his beliefs but instead rationalize them through their conditioned wills. In the comments section under his post, he replied as follows:
That’s not how I see it. I see it as recognizing that intellect is only a limited way of knowing, and an inferior way of knowing God (inferior to the heart, and the noetic faculties). I recognize that intellect is more dependent on will than I previously acknowledged. I wish my children’s will to be conformed toward knowing God in the most truthful way I know how, so they will have within them what it takes to hold on to their faith when and if their intellect fails, and their wills are pushing their intellects to fail for whatever reason.
If your concern was with their faltering reason, you would be concerned to rigorously teach your children how to reason. You would have them singing syllogisms and the laws of probability and playing games where they practice statistical reasoning. You would be spending their Sundays with children’s chemistry kits rather than in church.
You know how rationalization works, you know that the will is the mind and the faith’s bulwark against what reason teaches us about what we do and do not know. It is precisely because you have had a traumatic loss of intellectual faith (and trust me, I know the experience, I had one myself) that you know that your faith cannot and will not stand up to rational evidence. So it is disingenuous to say that you are protecting your children’s grasp of the truth by conditioning their will to to keep them believing when their reason cannot see reasons to. That is protecting your beliefs, it is not protecting your children’s ability to grasp truth. It is training them in how to rationalize for when they see truths that undermine their false beliefs.
Genuine concern for truth needs a will only committed to honesty, reason, and scrupulously honest reasoning to function. You are trying to tie their condition their wills to be more allied to the content of your present beliefs than to the truth itself. You want them to see any conclusion that their reason provides which contradicts your faith as a “faltering” of their reason by definition. You are defining truth as only that which one thinks when subjectively committed to your Christian God idea. That is dishonest and anti-rational. You are trying to commit your children to prejudice that will reflexively rationalize counter-evidence to your faith by training them to more deeply associate with your beliefs than with what even their reason tells them. You want all their love for you, their (obviously) loving father to be transferred to your beliefs such that it will be as alienating and existentially wrenching for them to reject your beliefs as it would be for them to reject you. You want all their family and identity associations to be so wrapped up in your tradition’s myths, symbols, and rituals that their wills are incapable of ever letting their reason reach conclusions that counter your beliefs.
I have no doubt from reading you over the past year that you are a loving guy who loves your kids. But you are not trusting them to be rational when you are conditioning them to be rationalizers who cannot overcome their will to believe with their reasons not to.
It seems to me that any parent who believes in a certain truth — either of religion, or even of atheism — would and should react the same way. I understand better now why atheists in my town have established the North Texas Church of Freethought — in part for the education of their children in unbelief. I can’t imagine that a committed atheist would be happy if his son began to believe in religion.
I too am a big believer in freethinkers organizing counter-groups for community support and shared ethical education of children because it is clear that parents yearn for this sort of thing and these religiously neutral concerns frequently lead otherwise nominally religious or outright irreligious parents to church when they have kids.
Nonetheless, the point in either case should not be to indoctrinate or condition children’s wills in “belief” or in “unbelief.” The point should simply be to teach children how to reason. Children need to learn that statements require reasons to be asserted. That claims require evidence, that public policies which affect other people need to be based on rational considerations that are publicly assessable by all those capable of rational inquiry. They need to know that traditions and their myths and rituals have no special authority by virtue of their simply being traditions. They need to know that it’s okay to disagree with their parents as long as they have reasons. If I had a daughter and one day she came to me and said she had considered the arguments for deism and was a deist or the Buddha’s arguments on the self and had come to think the self was an illusions or that she had considered Christian notions of unconditional love and thought they made for a rationally defensible ethics—I wouldn’t blink an eye. This is totally different than if she were to tell me she decided to believe on faith something her heart felt really strongly but which was patently irrational. I would be disappointed, not because of the contents of her belief, but because of the fault in her intellectual character that she would accept beliefs so irresponsibly.
And, for the record, Dale McGowen, the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, the recent book about how to parent as an atheist, written by an atheist activist, has explicitly argued against raising “atheist children.”
Richard Dawkins has argued that not only are there no Christian or Muslim or Hindu children but that there are no atheist ones either. Why? Because they are too young to have beliefs about such matters. And his Camp Quest teaches critical thinking skills, not atheism. Even Christopher Hitchens has talked about the need for children to be exposed to the world religions and Daniel Dennett has explicitly argued that every child should be exposed to all the world religions as part of their schooling. He said he’d even permit Christian homeschooling as long as this was a serious part of the curriculum. He argues that any religion that could flourish under such circumstances would likely be benign because the worst of religion thrives under enforced ignorance:
Even one of YouTube’s most vociferous younger atheists wants kids to get religious instruction:
And then there is this incredibly smart and thoughtful mom at Atheist Alliance and The Friendly Atheist and, finally, here is Richard Dawkins’s personally poignant and philosophically perfect letter to his 10 year old daughter.
Atheists are not afraid of children’s (or in my case, my potential children’s) open minds. We just want them trained to think rationally. If raised to be scrupulous thinkers, they can still find The Crunchy Con convincing and become Greek Orthodox, then sobeit. But we do not think we have to condition them to willfully reject God to keep them from becoming supernaturalists the way you think you need to condition them to willfully embrace Christianity to keep them from unbelief.
For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above. It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.