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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Eric

    I was raised in my youth in a (very) marginally Christian household, but was exposed to other religious traditions. My mom also read us Greek mythology and explained that the appeal of these stories was that they explained things most people didn’t understand. She also pointed out that we were lucky that were lucky to live in a time that we have come to understand many of these things. The parallel between Pandora’s Box and The Fall was obvious and religion never had a chance. I decided I didn’t believe in any gods and that admitting that I simply didn’t know things rather than playing a “Let’s Pretend” game that gave me a ready answer made the wold a more interesting and mysterious place and was more likely to lead to doing something important.

    I asked my parents point blank shortly thereafter whether they believed in god. Got a double “No”, but was also warned not to share this with my extended family or with the general public as it could be dangerous. They sure were right about that. I shared my newfound disbelief with my second grade classmates. Grade A beatdowns folowed at school and a couple of the teachers looked on as two students held me down while a third beat me with a twirling baton. Those teachers thought I had it coming to me.

    I became somewhat violent and antisocial at thta time and was eventually tracked into the Special Education gulag for the remainder of the year. I call it “the gulag” because while I believe that most of us “retards” really did have genuine learning disabilities, a good percentage of us were quite bright, but troubled. The thing that cinched my diagnosis as developmentally disabled when they called in a psychologist who pointed out that I was not able to skip. Well, the reason I couldn’t was that since around my 6th birthday I had been subjected to severe abuse in the form of social deprivation as a result of my mother’s severe depression following her fathers suicide. I had no peer interaction since that time.

    I do not mean to sound whiny by describing this as severe abuse. This went on for twelve years until the day I left for college. Where you miy have memores of swimming lessions, skating at the roller rink, going to a friend’s birhday party, having a birthday party, riding your bike, taking swimming lessions, first kiss, High School dance, first date, or whatever else you might look back on. Where you have memories of your young lives I have NOTHING, pure emptiness.

    I’m just glat my mother didn’t believe in heaven. There was a day she pulled me out of school and drove me around on some back roads. She would have done an Andrea Yates on me that day if she could have.

    Oviously I turned out OK enough to get through college and hold down jobs log enough to maintain a roof over my head. I even have a gf. Not too many partners in my life, but as you might imagine, I’m quite kinky.

  • John

    So we call it “child indoctrination?” This article doesn’t sound like you are winning the battle as you’ve claimed in many articles. Actually it is beginning to sound like you want to intrude on private family life. So you want to save the children from being taught religion, or maybe supplant it with your atheistic religion. You are losing this battle, and deep down you know it. I wonder what percentage of atheists are really just agnostics? They don’t spew out the same venom as you do.

    A book I am reading puts it about right

    “And why do these prickly hypersensitive materialists defend their abstract idols with the same fervor of the religious fundamentalists? Because if humans are cut off from the spiritual plane, they will find a god to worship on some lower level, thus endowing something relative with what belongs only to the absolute.”
    (Robert Godwin; One Cosmos Under God)

    Good luck in your quest

  • John

    Don’t fight it Eric, you know what I am talking about.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Sadly John, Ebonmuse probably moderates this site, preventing me from mocking you and calling you out.

    Seriously, what happened to your much vaunted “absolute moral values”? Are children suddenly slaves that get to be brainwashed by their parents? You object to it if it was white supremesists or muslim terrorists- and yet you don’t in your case. It is because the Christian don’t do violence and when they do… definately NOT a true Scotsman.

    My favorite part is that you act as if he was advocating some sort of total social control. I’m upset- that is MY shick! What the good man is advocating is nothing less than pointing out to people that brainwashing is wrong. Yes- apparently Ebon Muse is asking people to talk to others. I know, I know- so totalitarian. What will he think up next? Rational discourse? Essay righting? DEBATING? Truely, such insanely totalitarian ideals are unAmerican compared to mindlessly obeying everything your parents cram into their head. Because that is what America is about- obeying a strong father figure without question, right?

  • Brad

    Exactly: religions shy away from genuine exploration and demonize doubt, so fighting with freethought and consciousness-raising is the only combative strategy. This reminds me of one remark by Richard Dawkins that I utterly disagreed with the second I read the line. His struggle for maximizing rhetorical wit backfired, in my opinion:

    “There’s this thing called being so open-minded your brains drop out.”

    NO! That’s not how you respond to religious leaders asking for you to be “open-minded” to believe them! The mature, real response is to say that the “leap of faith” most people make is fundamentally narrow-minded.

    These questions are unanswerable unless …

    Educated believers will predictably contend this with theological minutiae on how Jesus must be the real deal, but the fact remains that the children are not given reasons to believe, they are just given beliefs and told they are a part of some religious body. This is simply irresponsible. Indoctrination, emotional manipulation, and other fallacious “memetic” tactics are both the central nervous system and the life support of religion. Quoting Marx:

    Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

    The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

    ———

    John, what do you mean by “it”? Child indoctrination is what it is. I realize that, in our imperfect world, it is inevitable that children will get tossed about in society’s stream of beliefs and attitudes – but that is not itself license to take control of our children and dress them up however we wish. The idea of “baptism” and religious indoctrination are, at heart, irresponsible.

    As for the culture war – “winning the battle” is different from gaining uphill ground. The thing is, we’re only just starting to get the battle noticed at all.

    So you want to save the children from being taught religion, or maybe supplant it with your atheistic religion.

    Uh, wrong. Why are you putting words in our mouths? Did you actually read the article? I think you need to deal with your own persecution complex. I advise you to read the “next best thing” part of this post, if nothing else.

    You are losing this battle, and deep down you know it.

    Who are you to pretend to know what we feel, John? Are you so blind to your own arrogance? We are not losing this battle, we are just getting started! To boot: agnostics are nonbelievers.

    They don’t spew out the same venom as you do.

    If you think these writings are venom, then surely you are the “prickly hypersensitive” one here. I disagree with Godwin’s answer – the foolishness and unfairness inherent in religion is just crying for our attention, and that is why we fight.

    Don’t fight it Eric, you know what I am talking about.

    Your playground attempt at personal manipulation is infuriating. And, of course, you might just walk away still thinking you’re on the high horse fighting us rebels. Is there any justice in this world?

  • bestonnet

    John:

    This article doesn’t sound like you are winning the battle as you’ve claimed in many articles.

    We’ve gone over the statistics before, you can deny that religion is losing all you want but that doesn’t change reality.

    John:

    Actually it is beginning to sound like you want to intrude on private family life. So you want to save the children from being taught religion, or maybe supplant it with your atheistic religion.

    No it doesn’t.

    Original Post:

    For both moral and practical reasons, it’s not feasible to outlaw the religious indoctrination of children.

    A better idea than banning parents from telling their children about religion would be to simply teach science and comparative religion in school (and don’t let parents keep their kids out of it, not even if they home school) and use child abuse laws to deal with any parents that try to force their children to believe how they want (freedom from religion might need to be specifically extended to children).

    If you start restricting freedom of speech it is only by accident that you’ll ban bad speech, better to just let good speech kill it in the marketplace of ideas.

    John:

    You are losing this battle, and deep down you know it.

    So the statistics which indicate that younger generations are less religious now than they ever were indicate that we’re losing, that doesn’t make any sense.

    John:

    I wonder what percentage of atheists are really just agnostics?

    I’m an agnostic and I suspect most of the people here are.

    But that isn’t exactly surprising since an agnostic is merely someone who doesn’t know whether a god exists, the existence of ‘agnostics’ who don’t know what the term means is annoying but that doesn’t change the fact that all rational agnostics are atheists (since it is irrational to believe in something that you don’t have any evidence of the existence of).

  • Alex Weaver

    You are losing this battle, and deep down you know it.

    “I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers newly deconverted atheists in Baghdad America.”

  • Valhar2000

    To further flog the dead horse:

    I wonder what percentage of atheists are really just agnostics?

    Probably the majority; I know I am. You see, I am an agnostic atheist, as are most atheists that you read about nowadays. You may find this surprising, but only because the words “atheist” and “agnostic” do not mean what you think they mean.

  • Alex Weaver

    Eric:

    What kind of diagnosis did you wind up receiving?

  • Mr.Pendent

    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.

    Here’s some irony for you:

    My parents are high-school graduates with some trade school training. Both have done very well. They are also religious, but not fundamentalists. There are always prayers, but I’m sure they haven’t been to church in years, if not a decade or more.

    While they always supported me being godly, they never harped on the negative aspects of God–hell, the punishment for sins, etc. They always talked about the good side of God, as it were–love, a friend in Jesus, footprints in the sand, etc.

    At the same time, they never stopped me from asking questions, and it wasn’t long at all before I was asking questions they had no hope of answering–not about God or philosophy necessarily, but about science, the world, etc. Rather than tell me to shut up, or ignore me, they did what I imagine any good parent does and provided me with the means to find the answers myself.

    Over the years, this all led to me asking questions, learning, studying and so on until I finally could say that I was an atheist. So now my mother prays for me, that I will return to Jesus, but we don’t talk about it. She understands my position, and I hers, and we respect them.

    So what does this have to do with anything?

    Having grown up in the mindset (to a point) that Ebon describes here, I was able to grow out of religion due to the values and support these Christians gave me. So, while the deck is stacked against atheists, remember that it can be done, and it will be done through calm influence, caring for the religious of any age–nurturing the questions and supporting the people as they struggle to find their own answers. Which I think was Ebon’s point. :)

  • Justin

    John said,

    Actually it is beginning to sound like you want to intrude on private family life. </blockquote

    This is psychological projection. You are the one who said, two threads ago, that gay marriage and gay adoption could not be allowed. We don’t want to take Christians’ children away. What Ebonmuse and the others here are doing is purely a war* of ideas.

    *Perhaps “contest” is a better word.

  • heliobates

    @John

  • heliobates

    @John

    You are losing this battle, and deep down you know it.

    It’s like watching a blindfolded man stagger across a rake-strewn lawn.

  • John

    I stand corrected. As Ebon said in the article above,

    “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.”

    sorry

  • Wayne Essel

    If you mean by “win the culture wars” that we achieve a religiously open-minded and tolerant society, then I agree. If by that statement you mean that the society comes to an agreement upon atheism as world view, I don’t think that is possible.

    The primary assumption in both the theist and atheist world views is a leap of faith, i.e. that either eternal consciousness is the source of all that-is-or that eternal matter is the source of all-that-is. There is no absolute proof for either statement.

    Wayne

  • heliobates

    The primary assumption in both the theist and atheist world views is a leap of faith, i.e. that either eternal consciousness is the source of all that-is-or that eternal matter is the source of all-that-is. There is no absolute proof for either statement.

    Does anyone recognize this straw version of atheism? Wayne, you blindfolded me at “primary assumption”, locked me in the trunk and drove eratically for several hours at “leap of faith”, and finally dumped me in the woods somewhere with “absolute proof”.

    Atheism does not have to entail a leap of faith, and certainly not a leap of faith based on your preconceptions, since I don’t know of any atheists who hold them. Atheism can, in fact, be a refusal to leap, especially if one stirs in agnosticism as an epistemological stance.

  • NoAstronomer

    This truth is atheists’ greatest asset…

    And that is why the religious authorities are so worried about teaching science in public schools. Not so much because the schools teach the ‘truth’, but because they teach how to find a good approximation of it.

  • http://atheistthinktank.net L6

    So basically what you’re saying is “Teach the controversy!” ;)

  • Brad

    … because they teach how to find a good approximation of it.

    Or science encourages that you should find a good approximation of reality, instead of believing things based upon faith.

  • abusedbypenguins

    And then there the few of us (unfortunately I have yet to meet one) who at a young age of 6 figured out that religion is no different that santa claus, the tooth fairy, etc. and reject all of that nonsense but walk through life in the insane mine-field of religion when dealing with fellow humans who think there is something wrong because I don’ believe in god. It is beyond my comprehension how anyone could. The basic concept of religion is way to wierd to even be considered, much less taken seriously.

  • Brad

    The basic concept of religion is way to wierd to even be considered, much less taken seriously.

    From Alice in Wonderland:

    “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
    “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

  • Christopher

    “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
    “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

    Ladies and gentlemen – I give you the source of the majority of our world’s problems: people making conscious efforts to believe in the impossible!

  • Eric

    Alex. Only diagnosis I ever recieved in my sole trip to inpatient care was good old fashioned depression psychosis. Never been back. Locked doors and meds don’t suit me.

  • http://www.brucealderman.info/blog/ BruceA

    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.

    I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I’ve known several people who, after studying several religions, converted to another religion that better fit their personality. In the U.S., paganism seems to be gaining converts lately — perhaps because too many American Christians are hell-bent on destroying the natural world.

    What religions fear – what they must fear – is a fair and unbiased comparison of the options.

    I also disagree with this. The majority of the world’s religions are quite content to live alongside other religions, teaching that their way is a path, not the path. Only Islam and Christianity teach exclusivity — and only the fundamentalist varieties of those religions.

    I’m a Christian who has looked at other religions, and my church is not threatened by it. In fact, at times they have invited people of other religions to speak during Sunday School. Seeing such different perspectives on religion only enhances the mystery, at least in my experience.

  • Brad

    BruceA, perhaps we can qualify: “some religious groups”; “some religions fear”. Also note a group and “several [individual] people” are different.

    Christianity would lose most of its power quickly if there wasn’t widespread child indoctrination – and when churches lose members and money they must go after more to survive or get absorbed into the higher-up parts of the church infrastructure. I’m sure that priests would not like the idea of no more religious instruction, but rather just plain public school “world religions” classes. This would ruin the major foothold of religion, the best anchor it has for staying alive. (Or the “Holy Spirit” instead of instruction, as they might think of it.) [Note: I am not advocating banning religious indoctrination.]

    I recommend Ebonmuse’s essay Thoughts in Captivity.

  • bestonnet

    BruceA:

    I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I’ve known several people who, after studying several religions, converted to another religion that better fit their personality. In the U.S., paganism seems to be gaining converts lately — perhaps because too many American Christians are hell-bent on destroying the natural world.

    Most of those who change their religious beliefs just give up religion entirely.

    Find “People who have switched denominations or religion” at http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_prac2.htm

    There are people who study religion and end up switching to a different religion but they just aren’t significant enough to matter in a big way (except that new converts can be very zealous).

  • http://www.brucealderman.info/blog/ BruceA

    Brad -

    BruceA, perhaps we can qualify: “some religious groups”; “some religions fear”.

    Yes, if you use the word “some” (or even “many”) I’m sure it’s true. My main objection was to the categorical statement that religions “must fear” an unbiased comparison.

    Christianity would lose most of its power quickly if there wasn’t widespread child indoctrination

    Christianity appears to be losing its power anyway. No Christian denomination in the U.S. has had a net gain in converts for several years. The only churches that are growing are those that oppose birth control; their growth is from members having large families. But even that appears to be on the decline in the last couple years.

    bestonnet -

    Most of those who change their religious beliefs just give up religion entirely.

    I don’t dispute that. Again, my disagreement was with the categorical statement that if children were exposed to several religions, “it’s inconceivable that they’d find one far more compelling than the others.” Some people do.

  • bestonnet

    BruceA:

    Christianity appears to be losing its power anyway. No Christian denomination in the U.S. has had a net gain in converts for several years. The only churches that are growing are those that oppose birth control; their growth is from members having large families. But even that appears to be on the decline in the last couple years.

    Fundamentalists do seem to have a lower than average retention rate though.

    BruceA:

    I don’t dispute that. Again, my disagreement was with the categorical statement that if children were exposed to several religions, “it’s inconceivable that they’d find one far more compelling than the others.” Some people do.

    Those people will exist but I suspect they’ll be a minority (and there is still some social pressure on people to be religious even if it isn’t so much to be a specific religion).

  • abusedbypenguins

    20 years ago when I was photographing weddings, sitting in a church, synagogue, etc. looking through the viewfinder for a shot I would tune into what the minister, priest, rabbi, etc. would be saying and think to myself that no one could possibly be taking the ranting nonsence seriously and as I looked around, yes, they were taking it seriously. To this day I can not understand how anyone could. But, hey I got paid to document an event and go to a party. That was the only way to get me into a church was and is to pay me in advance. Otherwise, what would be the point? It’s too bad that the business of religion isn’t taxed like it should be. Comments?

  • MS Quixote

    It’s too bad that the business of religion isn’t taxed like it should be. Comments?

    ABP,

    I think I stand with you in the conviction that the church should remain completely out of politics. My concern is that legislating a tax on the church would give full rights to the political process.

    Then again, since much of the church is covertly involved already, and some overtly, maybe a tax levied, or a fine imposed, on those who are caught doing so would work toward diminishing political activity. Tough call. As a Christian, I would not be opposed to some kind of reasonable measure to help remove the church from political activism.

    The business angle is less clear cut. Was it the church who hired you, or the participants?

  • Brad

    “Full rights to the political process”?

    No law respecting an establishment of religion clearly means no special religious exemption from taxation, regardless of whether churches are politically active.

  • MS Quixote

    Brad,

    I am not equipped to argue your response. It may be. I’m just saying that enacting legislation that taxes the church could result in the church being an official political entity, as in “no taxation without representation”. It’s an outcome I’m sure we both want to avoid.

  • abusedbypenguins

    Wedding photography is (at least in my experience) a referral business. A newly-wed couple who really liked their photographs will show them to their friends and that was how I was hired to photograph weddings, by the individual couples. Great fun. I would show up at the church or wharever about an hour early to find out what the particular rules were pertaining to my part of the wedding. In one instance the minister told me that no photography was allowed during the ceremony, so I sat in the back and watched everyone else with disposable cameras taking photographs. The bride was livid at the minister for not telling her when they hired the church. Yet a priest told me that I was free to photograph anyway I wanted. No 2 are the same. It always amazed me how much money and effort went into getting laid.