Maintaining the Mystery

In last year’s post “The Default“, I quoted this astonishing concession from theist Andrew Sullivan:

I have lived with the voice of Jesus read to me, read by me, and spoken all around me my entire life – and I heard it that day. If I had been born before Jesus’ birth, would I have realized this? Of course not. If I had been born in Thailand and raised a Buddhist, would I have interpreted this experience as a function of my Buddhist faith rather than Jesus? If I were a pilgrim right now in Iraq, would I attribute this epiphany to Allah? An honest answer has to be: almost certainly.

This is the kind of honesty one doesn’t often see in discussions of religious faith. Sullivan admits, as atheists have long said, that people’s religious faith is shaped and molded by the culture they grow up in. To quote myself, “Whenever and wherever [religious experiences] occur, they are almost invariably believed to be manifestations of the local god, whichever one that is.”

From the memetic perspective, it’s understandable reasons why this happens. Religious beliefs thrive in large part because they’re taught to children, who in turn have sound evolutionary reasons for being susceptible to believe whatever their parents and authority figures tell them. Children make willing converts to almost anything, and few people shake off the beliefs they’re taught early in life. If, for some reason, there arose a fair-minded religion that only sought converts in mature and rational adults, it would rapidly be outcompeted and driven to extinction by the faiths that seek to get a foot in the door before the powers of reasoning are fully developed.

The religious practice of child indoctrination has stacked the deck against us atheists. If we’re to win the culture wars, we need to put a stop to it. For both moral and practical reasons, it’s not feasible to outlaw the religious indoctrination of children. The next best thing is to do what several of the new atheists have set out to do, as Richard Dawkins aims to do with The God Delusion: we need to engage in consciousness-raising. We should enlighten people to the evils of this practice: exposing children to one perspective and no others, keeping them ignorant of alternatives, teaching them not to question, teaching them to act as if they were faithful members of a religion when they cannot possibly be old enough to give informed consent.

Religious groups can be expected to fight fiercely against this, for the simple reason that if children were taught objectively about all the various religious beliefs, it’s inconceivable that they’d find one far more compelling than the others. What would make Yahweh or Allah stand out from Zeus or Poseidon? What would differentiate Jesus from the many other dying and rising gods of the corn? Why hail Mohammed as the supreme prophet rather than Zoroaster or Apollonius of Tyana? These questions are unanswerable unless parents, teachers and religious leaders make a conscious effort to maintain the mystery – to teach children that their particular religious belief is unique and supreme and beyond questioning.

What religions fear – what they must fear – is a fair and unbiased comparison of the options. After all, how could they ever stand out from the crowd? The idea of a “leap of faith” seems a lot less compelling once you realize that there are thousands of religions each urging you to take a leap in a different direction.

When you investigate and compare different religions critically, it’s inevitable that their pretense of mystery and authority will soon be pierced. There really is nothing substantial setting any one of them apart from all the rest. This truth is atheists’ greatest asset, and making it clear to everyone should be our mission.

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