This edgy political cartoon spotlights a theme I’ve been promoting for years: the long-term solution to religious fanaticism is educating children in reality.
And this idea terrifies religious devotees who insist on their right to indoctrinate their children in religious superstitions — usually ensuring (as they well know) that these fantasies will then inform their kids’ deepest beliefs throughout their lives. As would indoctrination of rational principles, which bring the added value of actually being real.
Although the fanatics depicted in this cartoon appear to be Muslim Taliban crazies in Afghanistan recoiling from a very young girl holding up a book that says “Education,” they could be any religious zealots, including Christian nationalist evangelicals in the United States.
In fact, this particular Christian apprehension of secular education is one of the main reasons the United States has not formally ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which was enacted in 1990, with three new protocols added in 2000 and 2013.
The U.S. is the only nation among 197 U.N. member countries that has not since ratified the convention.
American opponents of the UNCRC contend that it would interfere with parents’ freedoms of religion and speech to indoctrinate their children in their faith, and would violate the sanctity of the family as characterized by the U.S. Supreme Court. Opponents also were worried that the convention would allow children “to refuse to go to their parents’ religious services or to join cults.”
However, the convention’s relevant provision only stipulates that children have their own personal religious freedom to choose what or whether to believe “without government interference,” or parental pressure.
This trepidation about what children are taught, or not, concerning religion, has a long pedigree in the U.S., as I note in my 2020 book Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the American Dream. Various blue-chip American education committees have convened since the late 1800s to discuss whether philosophy, including the teaching of reason and critical thinking, should be part of standard curricula in U.S. schools.
All panels demurred, arguing that the subject was too complex and broad for teachers to effectively teach in public schools, and too challenging to learn for students, many of whom would not go to college. So, by not embedding philosophy into school courses, the education experts, in effect, ceded philosophical authority to religion. The reason is that while kids still received continuing instruction in church and for many years even in schools, they never formally learned that alternate philosophical frameworks, such as atheism and agnosticism, existed as broadly as they have throughout history up to the present day.
So, the anxiety of religious Americans toward the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is part of a pattern of Christian theocratic assumptions in the country, in the same way that the idea of female schooling has traditionally unnerved Afghan Taliban zealots, who have actually attacked girls schools and killed pupils and teachers as acts of political and religious terrorism.
In the U.S., the South established so-called private “academies” (read: Christian academies) in the Civil Rights era so that white children could continue to be segregated from black children in schools that had been legally integrated. The practice had the added benefit of increasing religious indoctrination and subverting the rational Enlightenment ideals of equality and nondiscrimination for all that fueled the Civil Rights struggle in the first place.
Afghan Taliban and American religious zealots should be concerned about how their children are educated, because a liberal secular education free of religious indoctrination would be likely to inspire interest in reason over fantasy, and teach how to differentiate between them.
Such a critical-thinking focus — how to think, not what to think — should be instilled in students as rigorously and continuously as math and science if they are to learn how to best navigate reality going forward. Forget that Protestant Reformation gadfly Martin Luther described reason as “the greatest whore.” He was wrong. That’s supernatural religion.
Yet, as this cartoon symbolizes, teaching children to be more, how should I say it, reason-able, won’t happen overnight even if authorities choose to erect such a citadel of learning. The enemies of demonstrable truth — true believers in religion — will always be braying at the gate.