One delight of small children is that they’re willing to believe anything we throw at them. Gabby, ambulant, gesticulating stuffed bunnies and bears. Sofas as boats afloat upon a roiling sea. Coins magically plucked from a baby’s ears. Fairies in a fairy garden.
Small children are indeed credulous, and natural selection probably made them that way so they would trust protective adults and follow directions for safety’s sake.
But the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer claimed that a major reason for the success of all religions is precisely the indoctrination of credulous children. Religions do not wait until critical thinking sets in and then expose us to dogma.
In 1851, in a massive two-volume work called Parerga and Paralipomena (Appendices and Omissions), Arthur Schopenhauer spoke of religious principles being “pressed into every head in earliest youth, so earnestly, so deeply, and so firmly that, unless the mind is miraculously elastic, they remain indelible.”
Shopenhauer goes on:
As the capacity for believing is strongest in childhood, special care is taken to make sure of this tender age … If in early childhood certain fundamental views and doctrines are paraded with unusual solemnity and with an air of the greatest earnestness never before visible in anything else; if at the same time, the possibility of a doubt about them be completely passed over, or touched upon only to indicate that doubt is the first step to eternal perdition, the resulting impression will be so deep that, as a rule, in almost every case, doubt about them will be as impossible as doubt about one’s own existence. Hardly one in ten thousand will have the strength of mind to ask himself seriously and earnestly–is that true?
Children may be naturally credulous but they can also be naturally in-credulous. When children are not indoctrinated into religion as toddlers, and if they’re first exposed to religion around age nine or ten, children can find the stories of religion to be as fabulous as the Phoenix.
What do you mean he flew from Mecca to Jerusalem on a winged pony with a peacock’s tail? What do you mean he walked on the surface of a deep lake? What do you mean they eat his body and drink his blood? What do you mean God permits the mass murder of school children? Dubiety piles up in perceptive queries like these and proves kids can be natural disbelievers.
And yet Schopenhauer is right. It is nearly impossible for some people to part with the religion of their childhood. Ancestral beliefs are potent. Custom is deep. Tradition is hoary. Geography is fate. Human life is naturally conservative, being imitative.
Playing make-believe is admittedly important to early childhood, but adults should take care not to laden children with powerful ideologies that children may need to shed later in life. Better still, parents can boost and applaud the native skepticism of their darling, darling, darling nestlings.
Featured image ‘A Child’s Eye Glowing in the Evening Sun’ by PhOtoSITIVELY Illuminating