Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Atheists: Teach the Children

vjack over at Atheist Revolution wrote an excellent challenge that we should all heed: Be an Atheist Activist in 30 Minutes a Week. If you care about the world you live in, I hope you'll read it and take it to heart.

But, I would add my own suggestion to his: Focus on children.

This is one of the best "tricks" that The Religion Virus has evolved in its arsenal of memes. In virtually every major religion in the world, religious training starts almost in infancy, as soon as a child learns to speak. Most religions advocate immersion of the child in a religious culture, such that religion permeates school, home, work, and even play.

And with good reason: Religions that have evolved this teach-our-children-young idea are immensely more successful than those that don't. Children's minds are highly evolved to soak up information, to take in all the lessons possible from their parents, because human survival relies on our incredible ability to pass vast amounts of information to our children via language. If a religion misses the opportunity of youth, it usually will miss completely.

This is borne out by the facts: Most children follow the religion of their parents, or one very closely related to it. It is rare for, say, a Jew to become a Baptist, or a Muslim to become a Hindu. If religion were truly a rational, logical choice that people made, based on an objective analysis of each religion's teachings, then one would expect that Christians would have Muslim children, Jews would have Baptist children, and Atheists would have Hindu children. But this rarely happens. Teaching religion to children is one of the most important memes in the arsenal of every major religion.

We Atheists need to adopt this same meme. Over and over, I see bloggers and authors (including me!) aiming their blogs and books at adults. But adults rarely change their beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their religion is without factual foundation and full of contradictions. When we argue with them, we're mostly wasting our time.

It's the children that are important. "Give me the boy, and I'll give you the man," is the famous quote by St. Ignatius, way back in the sixteenth century, and is more true today than when he said it.

Religions know this, apparently far better than atheists. What is the biggest battle they're fighting in America today? To keep secular teaching away from their children (and yours). Religious parents of all faiths know all too well that if their children are exposed to modern science, accurate history lessons, psychology and sociology, the child is far more likely to become a deist, agnostic or atheist.

Atheist activists need to adopt this same meme. Children must be shown, beginning as early as possible, that the world is not a mysterious, magical place full of angels and demons, with a voyeuristic god that watches your every move, but rather is a wonderful result of physical processes that are well understood. Children need to be taught the beauty of physics, the "magic" of chemistry, the vastness of the universe, and the wonderful insights of psychology and sociology.

Children also need to learn about natural ethics. They need to know there is a real philosophical foundation for humanist morals, rather than some god who merely dictates obsolete, contradictory and even horrifying laws that we're expected to obey without question.

So, take vjack's advice: Become an activist for thirty minutes a day. But focus your efforts on our children, where the future lies. Redouble your efforts to fight the teaching of creationism in school. Write letters to your newspaper in support of a modern science curriculum. When you talk to your children's friends, don't be afraid to tell them you're an atheist, in a frank and matter-of-fact manner, and be ready to answer their questions.


  1. It seems the need to teach religion to children is instinctual for some reason. Many non-religious young men and women who have enjoyed a zestful youth of pre-marital sex, alcohol, even drugs, suddenly become "transformed" as soon as they get engaged. They opt for a church ceremony and white wedding dress, and as soon as they have children, they follow some sort of pre-destined path of baptism, Sunday School, etc. Is this latent religious programming from their own childhood that only manifests when they become parents themselves?
    This is clearly evident in the perseverance of Catholic schools. Everyone who has ever been to Catholic School talks about how they HATED it. Yet, 20 years later, where do they send their kids? What is it about parenthood that makes parents embrace a religion that was conspicuously absent from their teen and pre-marital years?

  2. Great point. The value of secular public education cannot be overstated. Children must be provided with the tools for dismantling superstition and ignorance.

  3. I believe it is the fact that they must have explanations for things that were taken for granted during their youth.

    Unbiased reasoning is rare in the US. Thus, when they become older they turn to religion at the suggestion of peers/family. At this stage they also may become conservative as they try to embody their new "good values" at the expense of outcasting anyone not included in their "good values". Such ideals are passed on to their children.

    That's my hypothesis anyway.

  4. We teach our children the laws of God because we know that is what will bring our children true happiness in this life and in the next. We know this from our personal experience in our own lives and through the witness of the Holy Ghost who testifies of truth. But we don’t give up once they are adults. Adults also need to know the truth. We want all to come unto Christ and gain a testimony of the truth for themselves. I know several people who were converted to my religion (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in their adulthood. They were old enough and smart enough not to be tricked or confused, but they studied our teachings and knew they were of God. I know a lady that was a very devote Catholic, but was converted to our church when she was already an adult because she prayed that God would lead her to truth and she found a Book of Mormon along with the Bible in her hotel room. When she read it she gained a testimony of its truthfulness, and she knew it wasn’t just coincidence. The new guy in my Sunday school class is 18 and just recently joined the church and it wasn’t because his parents raised him that way, but he had good friends and eventually he wanted to know for himself. This girl in my seminary class had to try really hard to not cause serious problems between her and her mother when she decided to be baptized because that was not how her mother raised her.
    I’m a college student and I’ve taken Chemistry and will take Physics next semester. I love science, but none of the science has ever decreased my faith in God. I know He loves me and Jesus Christ died for me because He loved me that much. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). Science just makes me think how awesome God is that He knows just how to arrange all the little atoms in the little molecule in the cells that make up all living things. He knew how to make this world in its perfect balance so we could live here. Some may say it all happened by coincidence, but it’s too perfect to be coincidence. Like how our planet is just the perfect distance from the sun to not be too hot or too cold to support life. To me my religion makes perfect sense, and no one could talk me out of it, because I wasn’t talked into it. Yes I was raised in the church, but you reach this point in your teens where you don’t want to just take you parent’s word for it; you have to know for yourself if you are going to stay committed to what you know. If you just believe your parents but don’t know for yourself, a trial could come along (like the death of a loved one or loss of a job) and shake you from what you believe. Yes it is important to teach your children truth: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) However, they also have to know for themselves if they are going to commit to living their lives the way that they have been taught; otherwise when they move out on their own they’ll decide they don’t have to do what mommy and daddy have always taught them.
    I’m not saying all religions teach only the truth, but I am saying that mine is all truth. I’m not saying that some religions don’t have contradicting commandments, but I am saying that mine doesn’t. I know that there are things that are really real that you can’t see or touch. Like I know I won’t poof out of existence when I die; I know there is more, way more, after this life. God is watching over me even if I can’t see or touch Him; I know that just as much as I know that the earth orbits the sun. I know the earth orbits the sun because I can see the sun and it makes sense that the earth orbits the sun and not the other way around. Also tons of other people and scientist who spend their lives studying the sky have told me the earth orbits the sun. I know this with my brain; in my mind it makes sense. It also makes sense to my brain that God is real, but it also makes sense to my heart; the Holy Ghost has testified to my heart that God is real and His teachings are true. Sometimes your mind can be deceived (like when a magician makes things disappear and when you were little you still believed it was magic because you couldn’t see where it went or people were deceived when they thought the sun orbited the earth or someone lies to you and you believe them only to find out the truth later on), but your heart doesn’t get deceived. You don’t just have to trust your brain that can get confused (like getting the Chemistry formulas all mixed up on a test); the Holy Ghost will confirm the truth of God’s teachings to your heart, especially if you ask with a prayer of faith.
    Every action has a consequence and God commands us to do the things that will bring good consequences and happiness instead of bad consequences and sorrow. His way leads to happiness. That doesn’t mean I don’t have trials, hardship, and sadness, but God is always there to help me and His commandments bring me closer to Him; they help me become more like Him. His commandments are like guard rails to keep you safe on the highways not like fences that keep you in so you can’t be happy. They are protective fences like the kind that keep wild animals out not the kind that keep you a prisoner from having freedom. God’s commandments aren’t crazy or restrictive; they just help us reach our potential and be all that we can be and they keep us safe. He isn’t just telling us that we have to do this and can’t do that; He knows what’s best for us and wants what’s best for us.
    I hope in my life I do not ever cast out someone that doesn’t believe as I do. I have many friends who do not belong to my religion. There are lots of good people who are not of my faith.
    And proceeding with faith is most definitely not the same as blind obedience. I know what I believe and why I obey, and though I don’t know all the reasons for all of God’s commandments, I know enough to follow Him. I know He loves me and has my welfare at heart not any secret motive.

    1. Fuuuuuuuuuuuu. Holy schnit are you on fire for the easter bunny. 'Faith' is a willingness to believe in that which has ZERO evidence. The 'power' of one's faith is literally the power one has to lie to themselves.


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