It’s been a while since I tuned in to Christian radio, but I was driving around this weekend and turned on Wretched Radio with Todd Friel. Todd was bewailing the bad influence that the computer-animated cartoon VeggieTales is having on Christian kids.
Todd brought up data claimed by Ken Ham, who says that regular participants in Sunday School are more likely to leave the church and disbelieve the Bible.
On the show, Todd tied this in with VeggieTales. He made the case that:
- Sunday school tries to present sanitized Bible stories for kids, so they learn them as cutesy fairy tales rather than stories of an angry and vengeful God, by whom we need to be saved from sin.
- The cartoon offers cute little morality plays, also presenting of tidied up versions of Old Testament stories but never really inserting a Veggie Jesus into the action. Instead of salvation through grace, they emphasize things like responsible behavior and doing the right things for good reasons, rather than because the Bible said so.
I don’t know about you, but this makes me think that I ought to give VeggieTales a second look as something more worthwhile than typical brainwashing for kids.
Anyway, here’s the thesis Todd eventually got around to presenting. Kids are leaving the church in droves because they learn the Bible in a similar context to fairy tales and other childish stories. When they outgrow the fairy tales, they outgrow the Bible as well. To remedy this, kids deserve to learn the unvarnished truth. We need to see less secularization of churches in order to please their congregants, and we need to get back to teaching hard truths about how everybody deserves hell, and are only saved through grace. When we don’t deliver that, we drive our kids from Christianity.
As you might expect, I have a slightly different take.
First of all, sanitized presentations of the Bible aimed at kids, along with megachurches loaded with secular entertainment — rock music and live skit performances and “cool” young pastors — exist because people have already been drifting away from being seriously devoted to fairy tales for a long time now. They are trying to grab onto and hold people in any way that they can.
I don’t think the cuteness of VeggieTales is the problem. I think it’s an attempted solution to the underlying problem, which is that the Bible stories are childish and shouldn’t make all that much sense to grownups.
It seems to me that in generations past, people went for religious explanations because they were the best game in town. Observe how theists love to tout intellectual luminaries such as Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson as “creationists.” Easy for them to say, since both men lived well before Darwin made a naturalistic proposal to explain the origin of human life. In their time, there was simply no alternative to the default position of a designer.
It’s a lot harder to maintain this belief now, simply because a lot of scientific progress has been made in general, and most kids learn the basics of science in school. This is one really obvious reason why fundamentalists in general are so down on public schooling and opt for homeschooling at much higher rates than the general public. And it’s absolutely true that when kids go to college, they are much more likely to reject religion.
I think that Todd may be right that kids who watch VeggieTales eventually rethink their faith when they realize to what extent the show is a silly cartoon just like SpongeBob, with little basis in reality. It’s less clear to me that the problem would be mitigated if there were no VeggieTales. I would say that making the Bible palatable for children is simply a band-aid on an ongoing problem, that as we live in a more rational world, it will become increasingly difficult for fundamentalism to compete successfully for space among people’s memes.
As for Sunday School, I think this may be yet another case of confusing correlation with causation. My guess would be that going to Sunday School and rejecting religion probably share a root cause. It may well be the case that parents who encourage kids to read and learn about the Bible more (as opposed to just listening to what they’re told about it) are probably interested in educated kids in general, and education leads kids to drop their faith.