Carole Lieberman is wrong about pretty much everything.

I felt like there were some crummy arguments getting tossed around in the HuffPo Live bit I was in the other day.  Pay particular attention to Carole Lieberman (she’s the one who looks like she’s sneaked into Delores Umbridge’s office).

So, let’s get those things hashed out.

Frank Shaffer:

He talks about how his missionary parents were liberal and accommodating to gay people.  Of course, compassion doesn’t need religion, and it shouldn’t be used as a Trojan Horse for the idea that believing absurd things is ok.  It’s not.  Have an appreciation for compassion, despise what isn’t true or what corrupts the intellect.

He says we can learn lessons from myths.  Sure, but let’s not say that makes it ok to tell children that if they don’t believe the myths they’ll go to hell.  You can learn a moral lesson from the story of Goldilocks without actually believing in a family of porridge-eating talking bears.  For the parents who would contaminate their children’s brains in that way, there should not be silence out of respect.  Respect for terrible ideas is irresponsible.

Carole Lieberman:

And here’s where the fun began.  When she wasn’t auditioning for the role of the Big, Bad, Wolf by huffing or grunting into the microphone while other people were speaking, she was saying bunch of egregiously wrong things.

“I really think children need a religion to be raised in.  It provides a backbone.  There are lots of studies that show that children who are raised in a religious home, not over-religious or over-zealous, but with tradition and certain kinds of religious practices, y’know, like going to church or synagogue, regularly.  But children who have these kinds of practices have higher self-esteem, they’re less likely to get into drugs, they’re more likely to do well in school and so on.”

On self-esteem, I’ve not read any study that said atheist teens have lower self-esteem.  Of course, even if such facts existed, it would be no more to the point than the idea that racial minorities could have lower self-esteem (and probably even lower back in the early 20th century).  Being bullied and mocked during those years (ironically, for not believing someone rose from the dead) can play hell on a teen.  So can the fear of being ostracized by one’s family if they should find out you’ve stopped believing.  The culpability of religious kids and families does not earn faith a gold star.

I can’t deny that atheists are more likely to drink and use drugs.  Of course, I believe there’s a stark difference between use and abuse of these things, and every study I find only deals with the use of these things.  I have a beer every now and again (a lot of them at conferences) and have used various drugs in the past (even in my teen years *gasp*).  I regret none of this.

But let’s talk about things that severely impact the well-being of kids.  How about teen smoking?  That is more prevalent in the most religious parts of the country:

There’s no denying that teen smoking is a problem in the United States. According to surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during 2007 and 2008, 9.46 percent of American teens were smokers [source: Hughes]. But depending on what part of the country you live in, teen smoking may be more or less prevalent. By region, the Midwest and the South lead the country in teen smokers, with 10.95 and 9.95 percent, respectively. The West, with 7.83 percent teen smokers, does a little better [source: Hughes].

Or what about teen pregnancy?  What has been firmly established is that the children of teenagers tend (emphasis on that word) to do less well socially and in-school.  And do you know what studies have shown religion helps to produce?  If you said “teen pregnancy” and “stupidly high teen birth rates” then you win the obvious Olympics.

Increased religiosity in residents of states in the U.S. strongly predicted a higher teen birth rate, with r = 0.73 (p<0.0005). Religiosity correlated negatively with median household income, with r = -0.66, and income correlated negatively with teen birth rate, with r = -0.63. But the correlation between religiosity and teen birth rate remained highly significant when income was controlled for via partial correla tion: the partial correlation between religiosity and teen birth rate, controlling for income, was 0.53 (p<0.0005). Abortion rate correlated negatively with religiosity, with r=-0.45, p=0.002. However, the partial correlation between teen birth rate and religiosity remained high and significant when controlling for abortion rate (partial – 3 – correlation=0.68, p<0.0005) and when controlling for both abortion rate and income (partial correlation=0.54, p=0.001).

Here are the states with the highest teen birth rates:

Where’s your abstinence-only education now Mississippi, New Mexico, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, and Wyoming?

If you can’t see what they all have in common, let Gallup help you out.

Hey, these look familiar…

How is religious upbringing working out for those kids?  I know!  Maybe all the atheists in those states are just having shitloads of babies…

I couldn’t help but wonder how well kids are educated in religious states, so I looked it up.  The results may surprise Carole Lieberman (but not me):

Top 10:

  1. Massachusetts
  2. Maryland
  3. Colorado
  4. Connecticut
  5. Vermont
  6. New Jersey
  7. Virginia
  8. New Hampshire
  9. New York
  10. Mnnesota

You go, less religious states.  And just to complete the point…

Bottom feeders:

  1. West Virginia
  2. Mississippi
  3. Arkansas
  4. Kentucky
  5. Louisiana
  6. Alabama
  7. Nevada
  8. Indiana
  9. Tennessee
  10. Oklahoma

Hey!  Those are most of the high teen pregnancy states!  Fancy that!  I guess Sunday school doesn’t really count as education.

Look Carole, humanity improves over time.  Look at how far we’ve come in our knowledge of science, history, math, politics, psychiatry, etc.  Why, the knowledge of a modern day five year old on any of these subjects would dwarf that of pretty much everybody in the first century.  Is it so hard to believe that our children don’t need the scribblings of a bunch of people from the first century and before in order to properly get along in the 21st?

The point is that religion, at the very least, comes with its share of societal woes that are visited upon that society’s children.  If you don’t like that teens are drinking, the solution is to tell them why drinking is bad based on its effects in reality.  It’s not to teach them that a guy rose from the dead 2,000 years ago and is watching them.  We don’t need to pretend the solution to teens making poor decisions is to make them more gullible.  We should search for ways to make kids better that don’t include lying to them.  I don’t understand why your concern for kids well-being doesn’t extend to not cramming a bunch of bullshit into their heads.

“I think the greater problem in our society is not raising children with some kind of religion.”

Yes, however will children do well if they don’t think a guy rose from the dead 2,000 years ago?  Without that fact, how will they ever wrap their heads around the idea that living in a world where people steal from one another as a matter of habit is a recipe for a dysfunctional society?  Without the promise of hell, I just don’t know how we’d get there.

“Yes, they can choose if they’re older, for whatever reason they philosophically disagree with this religion and want some other religion, of course they should be free to do that at some later point.   But being raised in a household where there’s this security, this stability of religion, is really important.”

No, being raised in a stable house is important.  There are plenty of religious homes full of unrest.  Stability merely requires a set of rules (just like in a society), and wiser rules are derived from the careful consideration of mortal minds, not from the pages of ancient books written by people who were not privy to the last few thousand years of human development.

You know what’s awesome for stability?  Knowing you can talk to your parents about anything.  Since religious teens do things like have sex at the same rates as atheistic teens (they’re just less likely to do it responsibly), and since being a slave to your biology and otherwise being human is often seen as a personal failure in religious homes, you can see how religion might hinder the relationship between parent and child.

“I disagree vociferously and am surprised at what people are saying.”

The presence of people who won’t just nod when you say wrong things…it can be tough.

“Children need to have some sense of where they came from in order to have stability: what their parents believe, their grandparents, the history of their tribe is, and so on.”

Why does this require children believing in religions chock full of impossible claims like someone living in the belly of a fish for three days?  You can tell your children about the family’s history.  You can even tell the your ancestors were Christian without also telling them they must abandon their checks against gullibility to believe a Canaanite Jew rose from the dead or else they will burn for all of eternity.  Do you see the difference?

Teaching your children how to think, rather than what to think, doesn’t not prohibit anybody from teaching them about the family’s traditions.

“There’s nothing wrong, and it’s very important to have that sense of belonging.”

What if I told you that the sense of belonging that comes with knowing your family’s history could be achieved without believing ridiculous stories about someone walking on water?  Would that just blow your mind?

“There’s certainly also nothing wrong with believing in the ten commandments and teaching your children things like thou shalt not kill or thou shalt not commit adultery.”

What about the one that says you can’t have any other gods?  What about not working on a particular, arbitrary day of the week?  I think there’s certainly a great deal wrong with those.  What’s more, do you know what the punishment in the bible is for breaking the commandments?  Do you know what believers were ordered to do to those who believed in other gods, made graven images, used the lords name in vain, worked on the Sabbath, failed to honor their mother and father, and committing adultery?  I’ll give you a hint: it’s not “give them a hug”.

But Lieberman didn’t mention any of that.  Instead, she went with “Don’t kill people” the one that is slapping-you-in-the-face obvious to pretty much everybody without it being chiseled into stone.  This type of cherry-picking is like saying “here’s a triple scoop bowl of mud and sand, but look: there are a few sprinkles on top so now the whole thing is delicious!”

So while it’s not bad to teach your kid that killing is bad, you don’t need a book bursting at the seams with instructions to kill people in order to get that point across.  What’s more, the idea that killing is bad can be conveyed without also suppressing a child’s critical thinking abilities.

“And, y’know, I think it’s the idea of leaving children without any religion whatsoever that…what happens in this world where there are terrorists and economic calamities and people die, and all of a sudden atheists find religion when someone close to them is dying…”

I actually think it’s the other way around.  It’s like Sam Singleton says in response to hearing that there are no atheists in foxholes.  There’s actually no religious fundamentalists in foxholes.  When a soldier gets shot, the first word out of their mouth isn’t “Preacher!” it’s “Medic!”

When prayer doesn’t solve our problems it’s religious people who rush to the secular products of mortal minds for comfort and aid.  Oh, I’m hungry and prayer didn’t put food in my belly?  Hey you!  Farmer!  How do you make so much food and can you show me?  And then you thank god, rather than the farmer, for answering your prayer.

If prayer worked, human beings would have no need for innovation.  But in the absence of gods, our hope is derived from our ability to solve problems and our tendency to work as a team and to care for one another.  So yes, kids (and adults) need comfort.  But genuine hope comes from seeing the world as it truly is and working to bend it in our favor.  The hope of religion is empty – it’s the practice of thinking everything is already alright, or that someone else will make it alright if we just believe the proper absurd stories.

Let our children find solace in our power to make things better ourselves.

“I absolutely do [feel ganged up on].”

Try not saying stupid things.  It’ll help.

“I think if you want to teach your children is things absolutely happened in terms of your religion or this is where your family came from, the tradition we believe in, and you celebrate various holidays with them and, in terms of the terrorists all I was saying is it’s a very scary world and it’s even more important now that children have something they can believe in, some tradition they can believe in.”

You can believe your family has a tradition without also believing it dates back to a talking snake.  To mangle your child’s brain so that they can ditch Santa Claus but still keep believing in the talking snake into adulthood is not tradition, it’s abuse.  It’s denying them the ability to properly map out reality, which keeps them from experiencing its beauty in full as well as from being able to operate in it wisely.  Without the influence of religion people wouldn’t be able to believe they supported equality while actively opposing equal rights for gays.  They wouldn’t be able to believe they were helping a sick child recover by praying rather than by calling an ambulance.

Failing to see the world for what it is can have enormous consequences, and it’s a great deal of special pleading to insist that this is what is required for kids to “have something they can believe in.”  What a cynical, irresponsible, and deprecating outlook on life.

“And I think it’s awful, it’s a religion in a sense, to be teaching them atheism.  To teach them there is no religion or that you’re lost in this world, and studies have shown that it is very, very unhealthy.”

Again with these studies.  What are they?  I cannot find them.

And Ron Lindsey hit this nail on the head.  You can teach children how to separate good ideas from bad and teach them the tenets of the various religions without telling your kid you must believe in a particular one no matter what facts you come across that controvert it.

Christ, I hope this woman is not a practicing psychiatrist.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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