Imagine a Christianity Without Indoctrination

Suppose we re-categorized Christianity as an adult activity. It would be like smoking, alcohol, voting, driving, sex, marriage, and (in some states) pot—things that you must be mature enough to handle wisely.

How long would this adults-only Christianity survive? My guess is that, starved of its primary source of new members, it would die out within a few generations.

We all have inside us what could be called a BS Detector—that common sense that helps us believe as many true things and reject as many false things as possible. For example, present most American adults with a case for Islam or Hinduism or Sikhism, and they will be extraordinarily unconvinced in the same way that claims for miracle cures, alien abduction stories, and great deals on swamp land in Florida would typically be rejected.

As adults, we’re far better at sifting truth from BS than we were as children. And that’s why Christians must be indoctrinated as children, before their BS Detectors are mature. This is the idea behind the Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.”

(The full version ends with “… but give me the man, and he will say, ‘Dude, are you insane? Who would believe that??’”)

Getting a 50-year-old who’s never smoked hooked on cigarettes is like getting a 50-year-old who’s never heard of Jesus hooked on Christianity. It’s possible in both cases, but it’s far easier when you make the appeal early in life.

Imagine this conversation between the father of a 6-year-old child and the grandmother.

Grandma: “Little Johnny is old enough for me to take to Sunday School now.”

Dad: “You can take him when he’s 18, but I’d prefer he stay out of church until then.”

Grandma: “But 18 is too late! By then he’ll be set in his ways. He won’t accept the truth then.”

What kind of “truth” is it that must be taught before people are mature, before their BS Detectors are fully functioning? Grandma realizes that only before someone’s BS Detector is operating correctly can the beliefs of religion be put into someone’s head. This is a very poor stand-in for truth.

Many Christians will agree that Christianity needs access to immature minds to survive. But what does this say about the evidence behind the Christian claim that God exists?

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—
and you are the easiest person to fool.
— Richard Feynman

(This is a modified version of a post originally posted 9/8/11)

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The Hypothetical God Fallacy

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  • Excellent article! I have had this exact same thought before, and was glad to be pointed to this article today. I think if there was ever one single generation without religion then religion would die out in ONE generation. With the internet and information awareness of the common man that it brings about, I think it would be impossible for any adult to believe religion over science, without being insane to begin with.

    • Perhaps like me you’ve heard stories from people still in a confining religious environment who are able to use modern technology to grapple with questions that they can’t ask within their community. The person with the Kindle could be reading the Bible or The God Delusion.

  • TheNuszAbides

    Then you are proposing a thought experiment that cannot happen

    so, either you’d never heard of thought experiments before or just never found out what the term actually refers to.

  • TheNuszAbides

    you might even notice that a lot of infrastructure is somewhat different these days, Captain Sarcasm.

  • TheNuszAbides

    well, i’ve known a few parents who’ve done nothing (or the opposite of anything) to deserve any parental rights at all (and yet have retained them), but i won’t pretend there’s a consistent/reliable/worthy way to winnow such people out of the gene pool – not with such a schizophrenic spectrum of views about sexuality, marriage, etc. anyway.

  • Sagiri

    While it is true that society would fall into chaos if we didn’t attempt to teach Science and Mathematics to people, you are wrong when you say that society would fall into chaos if we didn’t teach them to children.

    The big difference between Science and Religion is that Science emphasizes skepticism and empiricism. Science isn’t about what you believe, but why you believe it. In Science, you can convince other people, even those who may not want to believe what you’re saying.

    Given someone willing to honestly listen to and understand the evidence for it, you could convince anyone of, say, Evolution, regardless of their age, because the evidence for it is overwhelming.

    Religion can’t do this. All they have are personal anecdotes, which given the fact that every religion has such anecdotes, are unlikely to be persuasive, despite how persuasive they sound to the already convinced.

    Nowadays, partially because people are unlikely to have to worry about being attacked or killed because of their religion (at least, in the First World), relatively few people convert to other religions.