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Activism, Atheism, Christianity, morality, philosophy, Religion, science

Religious Indoctrination and an Atheist’s Moral Imperative

There are many truths about human nature that have ugly consequences for religion.  Human nature and religion form a self-reinforcing circle of irrationality. Many studies indicate that the tendency towards religiosity is an evolutionary trait.

There are several very well established reasons for this. First, we are biased towards finding patterns, even when there are no ‘real’ patterns to be found. False positives are much less detrimental to our health than false negatives. Consider an ancient human who thinks he sees a tiger in the grass. He will probably run as fast as he can from where he thinks the tiger is hiding. If there is a tiger, perhaps he will have a chance to make it to safety before he is caught. If there is no tiger, then the whole exercise has been for naught, but he is essentially none the worse for his fright and flight.

On the other hand, if there is a tiger, and the human doesn’t recognize the pattern of stripes in the grass, he will almost certainly die. So, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why humans are so prone to seeing patterns, even when they aren’t real.

Another part of human nature is the tendency to assume agency. That is, we are built to assume motive behind events. Again, the logic is perfectly clear. If a volley of small rocks comes hurtling above the treetops and lands near your encampment, it is to your advantage to believe somebody is attacking you. If there are rival humans hiding in the trees tossing rocks, you should grab your spear and get ready for combat. If, on the other hand, it is a freak occurrence, say, from a boulder falling off of a cliff and breaking into stone shrapnel, nothing has been lost by being prepared, just in case.

These two human traits go a long way towards explaining how religion might have formed. Our tendency to assume agency could easily lead us to believe that a drought was intentionally created to punish us for some transgression. If a meteor happened to cross the sky when the shaman told his story of the god who caused for the drought, the tendency to find patterns could easily kick in, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The full realization of the scientific method has gone a long way towards correcting many of our errant interpretations of the universe, but religion has been the most resistant to science precisely because it taps into our deepest feelings of self. Religion tries (and fails miserably) to answer questions of happiness, meaning, sexuality, and morality. These are quite literally the things that make us human. Recent advances in the study of human nature have given us knowledge to back up the claim that religion’s failures simply cannot be politely condoned.

In our studies, we have discovered that far from being unique in the world, humans really are like the other animals in virtually every way. If giving a rat a certain chemical causes certain changes in its behavior, giving a human a comparable chemical will cause comparable changes in the human. This much has been common knowledge for a long time, but what we’ve recently discovered is that we are not really the masters of our environment any more than other animals.  In other words, our consciousness is just as inexorably altered by our environment as any other creature’s.  It’s not some removed “soul.”  It’s a dynamic part of the natural environment.

If you repeatedly beat a dog with a stick, but only while wearing a William Shatner mask, the dog will bear a lifelong hatred of William Shatner masks.  If you repeatedly reward a puppy for sitting on command, it will sit on command for the rest of its life.  If you take a child to church every Sunday for twenty years, and teach him that God is watching him and hates it when he masturbates, he will have guilty feelings about masturbation for his whole life.

4 Generations at Church

4 Generations at Church

That last sentence probably wrinkled a few eyebrows. Clearly, some theists become atheists, so people aren’t just like dogs, right? Yes and no, as it turns out. Because humans have more brain power than dogs, and because we are much better at abstract thought, it is possible for humans to reach conclusions which convince them that their “training” was misguided and that they should no longer act the way they were trained. However, we’ve also learned that some things defy logic no matter how much we want them to conform. A sobering example is women who experience sexual trauma as young girls. Ask any psychologist and you’ll learn that a group of a hundred sexually abused girls is just a few decades away from being a group of a hundred aging women who aren’t over being sexually abused girls. Some things really do scar us for life, and even though we may rationally realize that our scars are only doing us harm, the scars remain.

In our hypothetical group of a hundred sexually abused women, we would be absolutely shocked if nearly all of them didn’t want to have a normal sex life, or to be able to think of men as something other than dangerous, or to simply have an orgasm for the first time. If they have had psychological therapy, they are almost certainly aware that logically, there’s no reason for them to continue to have deep seated emotional problems since they are no longer in a position of vulnerability. Still, they will continue to have problems. Some things that are done cannot be undone.

Religious indoctrination is a lot like sexual abuse. In fact, I believe a case could be made that it is a form of sexual abuse in some cases. Many religious denominations teach young girls that their bodies are evil, and that they are literally responsible for all the evil in the world because of Eve’s temptation of Adam.  Many girls are taught that masturbation is a sin. Young women are told that they are evil sluts if they have sex before marriage, but after marriage, they are expected to turn into willing and sexually healthy partners for their one and only life partner. If they happen to get divorced, many women believe that every sexual act for the rest of their lives will be a sin.

It’s not just young girls that suffer. How horrible must it be to have a healthy sexual appetite – for your own sex – and be taught that your thoughts and desires are abominations that make you one of the worst kinds of sexual deviants in the world? Can we reasonably expect homosexuals who were raised in fundamentalist religious households to ever have any hope of getting all of the cobwebs out of the attic? Will they ever be able to see themselves as normal and natural? 

Are these teachings the equivalent of physical sexual abuse? I don’t know. I do know that teaching girls that sex is evil can and does cause lifelong problems for women, even after they abandon religion. I do know that many gays who were raised Christian still feel that they are doing something wrong. If the effects are the same, does that make the causes equivalent? I suggest that it probably does. We can certainly cut religious parents some slack when it comes to motive. They certainly don’t feel like they’re sexually abusing their children, but does this make the abuse any less real?

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The point of this article is not to rail against religious sexual abuse of girls or gays.  Nor is it to say that sexual dysfunction is the only negative consequence of religious indoctrination.  The point is to illustrate that our scientific understanding of human nature, particularly our inability to emotionally overcome certain forms of abuse, ought to instill in us an overwhelming sense of moral initiative.

Science has given us everything we need to know. The tendency towards religion is inherent, stubborn, and evolutionary.  It will not go away.  Religious indoctrination is real and has lifelong consequences.   Conditioning works on humans just like it works on dogs and rats. If it is wrong to beat a dog with a stick while wearing a William Shatner mask, it is also wrong to teach a girl that God hates her when she enjoys sex. There simply is no excuse for anything other than outrage when we look at the billions of children who are being taught things that are not only unscientific, but demonstrably harmful.

It’s a tough hill to climb. So long as religion claims the rights to make pronouncements about morality, sex, and happiness, it will strike resonant chords in many people. Science has taught us this much. So long as our children are indoctrinated, they will bear scars for life, regardless of whether they escape religion. So long as we allow ignorance to flourish, people will have no real alternative to religion.

In my book, this sounds like a moral imperative.

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Discussion

14 thoughts on “Religious Indoctrination and an Atheist’s Moral Imperative

  1. I’ve always been an atheist, so there is little in the various discussions of the absurdities of deity concepts that I could describe as eye-opening (even if said discussions do usually turn-out to be fascinating regardless). This is one issue, however, where I really did feel like Sam Harris & Richard Dawkins had dramatically swept open a curtain for me.

    Taking children to church is sick. It’s as sick (if not moreso) as taking them to a political rally as advertising space for your political interests – yet people seem to have no conscious awareness of it. Kids do not have the faculties for being independent critical thinkers and are profoundly influenced by their parents & other adult authority figures; a ‘Christian child’ or a ‘Muslim child’ or a ‘Scientologist child’ is, in reality, just a BRAINWASHED child.

    I’ll be fair and offer that at least this is the same routine we’ve been stuck in since the dawn of civilization, wishing to mold our offspring into little clones of ourselves. Tradition is hardly a sufficient excuse, however, and this unhealthy trend would serve us best if it were left behind us as a reminder of the terrible things we USED to do.

    Hamby: “We can certainly cut religious parents some slack when it comes to motive. They certainly don’t feel like they’re sexually abusing their children, but does this make the abuse any less real?”

    Personally, I’m not interested in cutting them any slack at all. On at least SOME level, they know EXACTLY what they are doing to their kids (even if they choose not to think too hard about it); it’s why they insist on bringing them to church so early on in life. Why wait for them to reach an age where they might object to the strange crap being trotted-out as the truth when you can sit them on the pews at an age of naive obedience?

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | February 9, 2009, 11:53 pm
  2. “Religious indoctrination is a lot like sexual abuse. In fact, I believe a case could be made that it is a form of sexual abuse in some cases. Many religious denominations teach young girls that their bodies are evil, and that they are literally responsible for all the evil in the world because of Eve’s temptation of Adam”

    You paint with a broad brush. Could you enumerate some of the “many” who teach such travesties. Been a Christian since I was a teen, and I have never heard such bunk taught, and we never taught such to our kids, and I have tasted from a smorgasbord of different congregations.

    The Genesis story of Adam and Eve contains an interesting point. When God made them, He said “Be fruitful and multiply.”. The brand-new first couple were given a first instruction: Go make love.

    I will grant you that there may well be some freaks (oh, wait… the Westboro idjuts – you and I may mount the ramparts together with broken bourbon bottles against THEM!) who might have some “religious” insanity and teach their kids, but they are not teaching biblical information, but medieval cant, and are in the minority.

    A valid question is: what would you teach YOUR kids? To indoctrinate their infant naivete with a-theist opining would seem as egregious a presumption as any catechism instruction.

    Posted by The Aardvark | February 10, 2009, 3:33 am
  3. Aardvark said “Could you enumerate some of the “many” who teach such travesties.”

    Of course. Southern Baptists are among the most blatantly fundamentalist, and many individual churches teach an even more strictly literal interpretation of the Bible than is advocated by the Southern Baptist Convention. Virtually every Pentecostal denomination in the south advocates Biblical literalism and extremely repressive sexual codes of conduct. “Charismatic” is also a denomination, and includes many of the wackiest of Christians, including snake handlers, healing services, speaking in tongues, driving out demons, and other such nonsense.

    Though there are many liberal Methodist churches, the Methodist dogma itself is very repressive. Of course, there are still plenty of Calvinists around. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Church of Christ, Oneness Pentecostalism, etc, etc, etc.

    It’s good that you’ve avoided such nonsense in your own upbringing, but the lack of ubiquity in these teachings doesn’t excuse all religion for facilitating them. If you haven’t read my essay on moderate religion, you should. I don’t want to reproduce it in a comment.

    http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/2009/01/25/moderate-religion-two-lies-in-one/

    Aardvark said, “The Genesis story of Adam and Eve contains an interesting point. When God made them, He said “Be fruitful and multiply.”. The brand-new first couple were given a first instruction: Go make love.”

    You’re imposing a prolepsis on the story. The concept of romantic love in marriage is a relatively new one. The command in the Genesis story is most certainly not to go make love. It’s to go multiply. When this story was written, women were little more than property, and it was considered a man’s duty to make children. While it seems undeniable that some couples really did love each other and enjoy sex, we must not make the mistake of imposing modern standards on old stories.

    Aardvark said: “…but they are not teaching biblical information, but medieval cant, and are in the minority.”

    Two things:
    1) I hope you aren’t seriously calling your version of Christianity the “Correct Version.” If so, you desperately need to read this article:

    http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/2009/01/17/where-do-christians-get-their-morality/

    And these two:

    http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/2009/01/15/on-science-and-knowledge-part-i/
    http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/2009/01/15/on-science-and-knowledge-part-ii/

    2) Do you *know* that these people are in the minority, or are you just saying this based on your own very limited experience?

    Aardvark said, “A valid question is: what would you teach YOUR kids? To indoctrinate their infant naivete with a-theist opining would seem as egregious a presumption as any catechism instruction.”

    You are completely right. Indoctrinating a child into atheism would be as wrong as indoctrinating them into theism. Children should if at all possible not be indoctrinated into anything, and instead should be taught critical thinking and logic skills until such an age as they are capable of making articulate and reasoned judgments of their own.

    Of course, atheism is not a philosophy, nor is it a code of conduct, nor is it a practice. It is simply not believing the claim that there is a god, so it’s kind of hard to imagine something like “atheist indoctrination.” There’s no atheist church, for obvious reasons. I’ve been to a couple of atheist club meetings, and they felt more like happy hour than an actual meeting.

    Still, your point is well taken. If a person is to become an atheist, they ought to do it through reason, not manipulation. I wholeheartedly agree with you on this point.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 10, 2009, 4:29 am
  4. Actually, I should add one more thing. A child that is not religiously indoctrinated will not have to be indoctrinated into atheism. Babies are born atheists.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 10, 2009, 4:38 am
  5. Aardvark: “Been a Christian since I was a teen, and I have never heard such bunk taught”

    You expect me to believe that you have ‘never heard’ a girl having her period referred to as ‘dirty’? Or a self-righteous ‘pro-lifer’ prattling out all variety of garbage related to the greater value of a fetus over a women’s body? Or the gibberish railings of bigots regarding ‘abstinence only sex education’? I mean, what the Hell OTHER than the demonizing a child’s sexuality could the insistence that so little as KNOWLEDGE about it BE?

    If you haven’t heard it it’s only because your earmuffs are on too tight.

    Aardvark: “A valid question is: what would you teach YOUR kids? To indoctrinate their infant naivete with a-theist opining would seem as egregious a presumption as any catechism instruction.”

    Oh, I don’t know. I might try, y’know, that whole science thing?

    I hear that’s a pretty good way to inform your child.

    You might also note that there isn’t much ‘atheist opining’ to indoctrinate children with. It’s not like like there’s a dogma or creed that atheists follow – an atheist simply recognizes the absurdity of deity concepts.

    I have no need to teach a child to be an atheist; atheism is the default position. Teaching them critical thinking, science and logic is all anyone needs to do to improve the odds of a child maintaining that position.

    Aardvark: “The Genesis story of Adam and Eve contains an interesting point. When God made them, He said “Be fruitful and multiply.”. The brand-new first couple were given a first instruction: Go make love.”

    Good grief, man.

    The Genesis story is made-up. It didn’t happen.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | February 10, 2009, 4:42 am
  6. Aardvark, it’s nice to hear that you have not been exposed to such teachings. I grew up in the Worldwide Church of God, an offshoot of the 7th Day Adventists. We were taught that women were inherently worse than men. This is a big part of why women must submit to their husband’s authority – still being punished for Eve. The result of such indoctrination is women with a certain amount of self-loathing who are incapable of making decisions that benefit themselves. It’s pretty scary to watch. If you ever want to see first-hand the effects of this teaching I would suggest speaking with Adventist women and getting a feel for how they see themselves.

    Hamby, this was beautifully written. Thanks.

    Posted by AnnieT | February 12, 2009, 6:21 pm
  7. Been out of town…wow! No time to deal w/ it all (nicely and fair-handedly handled, Hamby.) But briefly this:

    (KRB)
    “You expect me to believe that you have ‘never heard’ a girl having her period referred to as ‘dirty’?”

    Only in fiction. Honest.

    “Or a self-righteous ‘pro-lifer’ prattling out all variety of garbage related to the greater value of a fetus over a women’s body?”

    Never been in the situation. Though I am pleased your mother was not as enlightened as the apparent majority today.

    Or the gibberish railings of bigots regarding ‘abstinence only sex education’? I mean, what the Hell OTHER than the demonizing a child’s sexuality could the insistence that so little as KNOWLEDGE about it BE?

    To sound like a bumper sticker, abstinence works every time it’s tried.
    Abstinence is not anti-knowledge, Kevin. it is about postponing sex until Later (marriage is customary). If I abstain, I have no risk of making someone pregnant, and no risk of contracting an STD. “Sexually transmitted” does in fact mean something. (And no that does not mean that “sex is dirty”, but sex with multiple partners who have had multiple partners is risky, yes? Even condoms break. The fact that Big Pharma is spending big bucks marketing Valtrex means that someting is getting passed around besides good feelings!

    We answered our kids’ questions. Kids tend to ask what they want to know. We did not stray outside their interest until they wanted more info down the pike. TMI has a bit of truth to it.
    ——————————-
    “Aardvark: “The Genesis story of Adam and Eve contains an interesting point. When God made them, He said “Be fruitful and multiply.”. The brand-new first couple were given a first instruction: Go make love.”

    Good grief, man.

    The Genesis story is made-up. It didn’t happen.”

    I am overwhelmed by your universal knowledge as to what did-or-did-not-happen ages ago. It is almost…god-like!

    (Sorry. A joke, and I am suffering car-lag!)

    Whether one holds it to be myth or doctrine, the story presents an attitude: Sex is good. That the foundational text of the Christian faith contains that story should indicate that at its baseline that belief system is not anti-sex. It may constrain sexual behaviors, or define a context, but it does not define it as “dirty”. A religion that DOES teach such awfulness is betraying its foundational teaching.

    Sometimes the blighter is really no true Scotsman.
    ———————–

    AnnieT, (and I am harboring no snarkiness here) there is a reason some groups are referred to as “cults” I believe that language means something. Grammar works the same whether you are reading Richard Dawkins, Deepak Chopra, or the Bible. Sadly, some people seem to think grammar and vocabulary go mystically gooey when they read a religious text – or listen to a message. The only way that horrific teaching you were subjected to can be derived from the Biblical text is to chop it up, paste it together like a movie ransom note, or have an ulterior control issue one wishes to lay over the text. I am so sorry you experienced that.
    Sad too that the teachers somehow missed the core teaching on marriage: husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it. Self sacrifice is very not-chic when your REAL issue is Control of a group, as your experience attests.

    I’ll bop in from time to time. I have a business that runs me!
    Be well people.

    Posted by The Aardvark | February 17, 2009, 5:26 am
  8. Thanks, Aardvark. I’d like to challenge you to a mental exercise. Suppose for a moment that you have absolutely no knowledge of any religion at all. That means that you have never heard of the idea of a god or gods, and you are completely ignorant of any of human history. You are a removed onlooker, perhaps an alien from another planet getting your first look at humans.

    Are you so certain that given this perspective, you’d be able to tell a cult from a non-cult? Christians in particular are quick to point out that anything that differs from their “accepted” and “correct” interpretation of their spiritual text, but to a removed observer, how are we to differentiate? Is it popularity? If so, then Southern Baptists are a cult. After all, they believe (or so says the official dogma) that Catholics are misguided at best and hell-bound at worst for the sin of praying to Mary, among other things. What about when the C of E broke off from the Catholic Church? Which was the cult and which was the truth? How about when Marcion committed his heretical notions to the public discourse?

    Is Islam a cult or a religion?

    Furthermore, I’m surprised that you can suggest a coherent interpretation of the bible, particularly a sex-positive one! It makes me question what you believe is sex positive.

    Out of curiosity, have you ever perused this site? http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theism/christianity/errancy.html

    In all seriousness, if you are prepared to demonstrate a cohesive, empirically testable “correct” interpretation of the bible, there’s a Nobel Prize in it for you. If not, you must admit that the only difference between a cult and a religion is their size and the degree to which they accept the irrational.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 17, 2009, 7:05 pm
  9. “Been a Christian since I was a teen, and I have never heard such bunk taught”

    Consider Deut. 22.28-29

    28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered,

    29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.

    Lots of Christian girls are deterred from having sex before marriage; their Christian leadership comparing it to becoming a “dirty toothbrush”. As though the total value of a Christian girl is equivalent to a toothbrush. Verses like these indicate the type of response you would have to someone using your toothbrush (i.e. pay me the value of the toothbrush and you can have the toothbrush. Note that the rest of the verse commands the raped girl to marry he rapist), not the response you’d have to someone raping a person you actually care about. While they may claim that the “Old Testament” only applies to ancient Jews, the mentality that women are property and not human beings – abjectly depicted in Deut. 22 – is still alive in the dirty toothbrush meme.

    While not exactly in the same vein as what Hamby originally wrote, it’s still objectionable.

    Posted by J. Quinton | June 8, 2011, 3:15 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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