Teaching Critical Thinking to Children Doesn’t Mean Treating Religion as Valid

Teaching Critical Thinking to Children Doesn’t Mean Treating Religion as Valid October 28, 2014

Yesterday I wrote a post entitled “Why I Will Teach My Children that Religion is Nonsense“. It solicited many comments, and it seems I need to clarify. I’d like to link to three pieces that disagree with me: Wendy Thomas Russell’s Is It Possible to Be ‘Neutral’ When Talking About Religion? and 5 Reasons Not To Indoctrinate Kids Against Religion (one written before and one after my post) and Libby Anne’s Why I Won’t Teach My Children That Religion Is Nonsense, also a direct rebuttal to my post. I’d like to clarify my position here.

First of all, I don’t mean to say I won’t teach my children about religion. My expertise is literature, and I believe reading the two Bibles and the Qur’an is an integral part of any cultural education, alongside Greek mythology. This is key the though: I simply don’t grant today’s religions as much respect as I grant Greek myths. I consider history the most important human subject, and you can’t separate the study of history from the study of religion. (It doesn’t bode well for religion though). They need to understand how ideology works, and again a topic inseparable from religion. Religion has been the greatest shaping force of human civilization, alongside other tyrannical ideologies such as nationalism, so understanding human society is impossible without religion.

I also separate religion from the question of god. I would treat god like any intellectual debate, but ultimately it’s a service to religion to make the debate on religion the same as the debate on god. Religion is nonsense not because it claims there’s a god, but because it makes specific claims about that god.

I say the same about spirituality. I really wish that my child doesn’t get into spirituality, not because I find spirituality wrong or immoral, simply because I find spiritual people irritating to deal with on a personal level because most of the time they’re so positive (I completely respect people who are spiritual and keep it out of my face). But if she does, I really won’t think anything bad has happened, so I separate spirituality from religion too, and try my best to keep my personal bias out of how I answer her questions about it.

So religion is to be studied as cultural phenomena and as great work of literature and to trace their influence in people’s lives, and don’t deserve to be part of the debate about the truth, and about morality.

In a way, I’m treating religion as a historically obsolete artifact. Now many people still cling to this historically obsolete artifact, the same way some people cling to other shackles of mind, but it won’t change the truth about religion. Ultimately all justifications of teaching children about religion boils down to “but a lot of people believe in it”. For example look at this comment on Wendy’s blog:

How about the fact that, at least for the moment, a child is far more likely to run into evangelical Christians in school or among friends, than they are to run into evangelical astrology buffs. The point being, the child is likely to have questions about what they are running into, not questions about what they have not run into.

Why is this so hard to understand?

It’s not. It’s just that this is the very same reason I’m adamant to do the opposite thing. I consider religion a hegemony. The only reason good people believe in religion is that religion is hegemonic. Religion is like misogyny and racism – all part of the repressive system the world is living under and has been slowly and unaware and unintentionally overthrowing since 16th century. This doesn’t mean that religion is synonymous with racism – it only means that they are both remnants of a dying system, a system which had as much good as it had bad, but its time is passing.

I don’t know if Libby and Wendy treat Greek religions the same as Abrahamic religions or not – whether they will ask their children “But do you think Zeus really exists?” But it’s only fair that you treat both the same – as sick fictions of barbaric tribes of the past and the barbaric tribes of the present, which will be laughed at by the civilized humanity which will come centuries from now.

Now this worldview is seemingly too bleak to teach a child – and I won’t indoctrinate my child into believing my reading of history. But ultimately my aim is to ensure that she will be a step ahead of me – not a step behind me. I think Abrahamic religions are part of that “step behind”. Yes, I do want my children to learn to think critically. But I want something more for them – I want them to think ahead of their own time, I want their thinking to be truly free, not free in the rotten discourse of our time, but ahead – I want my children to be harbingers of the future and not the past.

I don’t want to boggle the thinking of my children down with dead things. Religion is a dead thing. There are far more interesting questions they can think of – ethics, philosophy, existence, the whole world is open to them.

So – this is my reply to the question of critical thinking and tolerance. I’m looking at another picture here. I don’t think of “critical thinking” as simply “entertain any idea”, but also “be impatient of vulgar and worthless ideas”. If we’re going to seriously consider the question of god, why focus on the god of desert dwellers, and not the god of Spinoza or deists? That’s a far more challenging god for me to dispute as well. If we’re focusing on tolerance, why simply focus on accepting people around us, why not have a vision of a far more tolerant future?

Now the question is this – what if my children convert to Christianity and Islam? This was also brought up repeatedly. Well, the question is how? Many Christians and Muslims are harbingers of the future. I think this is in spite of their Christianity and Islam, but as people they are fighting on the right side of the history. If my child becomes another Martin Luther King or another Mir-Hossein Mousavi, I’d be nothing but proud.

But I hope she rebels in the other direction, I hope she will find something that will make me look intolerant.

Who knows? Maybe she will be another “faitheist” (I’m using this word only because it’s been embraced by people who are it refers to, I’m not into using derogatory nicknames). Maybe she will rebel against my rabid anti-theism. And then I will be old, and I will nag under my breath that she hasn’t seen Iran and how theocracy looks like, and I will be happy inside my heart that my child will have to deal with one less ugly struggle in her life.

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