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“Let Them Make Up Their Own Minds”: Bringing Up Kids Without God

This one’s for everybody. But it’s especially for (a) godless parents, and (b) people who were brought up by godless parents.

It has to do with how to teach children about godlessness.

ArgueMy parents were both agnostics. (A fact for which I am more grateful every week… whenever I read the sad and awful stories in the atheosphere about fights and rifts between atheists and their religious families. Both my blood relatives and my in-laws are non-religious, and while of course we have our conflicts, the fact that I’m a loud, outspoken atheist blogger isn’t one of them — in fact, it’s a source of family pride.)

Making_up_your_mindBut back to my parents. My dad actually became an atheist years before I did, my mom’s been dead for a long time so I don’t know what she’d be now — but when I was growing up, they were agnostics. And when it came to bringing us up, they were very much of the “let the kids make up their own minds about religion” camp. They were pretty clear about their own lack of belief — but they didn’t teach their non-belief to us in a dogmatic way; they exposed us to a certain amount of religion (occasional church with grandparents, mostly); and they made it clear that religion was something that was up to us to decide for ourselves.

All of which I’m grateful for.

But they also did something that I now think was a mistake. I’m sure it was well-intentioned, I can understand why they probably did it; but I do think it was a mistake.

They never explained to us why they didn’t believe in God.

Talking_with_kidsWe barely discussed religion at all when I was growing up. (It’s not like it was a taboo topic or anything; it just rarely came up.) So I never really found out why my parents didn’t believe in God; what they had been taught as children, and why they left it behind. I knew they didn’t believe in God (they called themselves agnostic, but it was clearly the “you can’t be 100% sure of anything” version of agnosticism) — but I didn’t know why they didn’t. They never taught us that.

CrowleythothdeckAnd I think that left me vulnerable to woo.

I’d picked up a natural resistance to conventional religion from my parents. But I didn’t have any natural resistance to Tarot cards, to reincarnation, to synchronicity, to trickster spirits, to the idea that the Universe arranged itself to teach me lessons about life.

BreakingthespellBecause while I wasn’t taught religious or spiritual beliefs, I also wasn’t taught critical thinking about religious or spiritual beliefs. I wasn’t taught about confirmation bias; about assuming the thing you’re trying to prove; about contorted apologetics and the human ability to rationalize just about any belief; about our tendency to see what we want/ hope/ expect to see; about our tendency to see patterns and intentions regardless of whether they’re there; about the problem with ideas that not only haven’t been tested but can’t be.

CapricornAnd so while I didn’t grow up believing in God, I also didn’t grow up understanding why belief in God — or Tarot, or astrology, or free will in subatomic particles, or whatever — was problematic. It took me years — many, many years — to figure out that, “God/ the soul/ etc. can’t be definitively disproven” didn’t mean, “It’s okay to believe anything I want.”

Years wasted believing an embarrassing assortment of stupid woo bullshit.

DogmaAlas, I can’t ask my parents now what they were thinking back then, or why they did things the way they did. My mom has been dead for many years, and my dad’s stroke has left him pretty much incommunicado. But my guess would be that they didn’t want their godlessness to be dogmatic. They didn’t want us to be godless just because it was what they taught us. They wanted us to decide for ourselves.

All of which is admirable. All of which I get. I don’t think atheism should be taught to kids as if it were a fact they shouldn’t question, another true thing that your parents know and that you just have to trust. I think my parents were totally right about that.

Swimming_poolBut I also think that if you want kids to decide for themselves, you need to do more than just throw them in the deep end of the religion pool. I think that if you want kids to decide for themselves, you need to give them tools for critical thinking. I think it’s not enough to let kids make up their own minds about religion.

I think you have to teach them how to do that.

Brain_question_markBut maybe there’s a fine line here. Maybe there’s no way to teach kids to think critically about religion without teaching them to be non-religious. Maybe there’s no way to teach kids, “It’s not okay to believe an idea that can never be tested” without teaching them, “It’s not okay to believe in religion.” And if you believe in letting kids make up their own minds about religion, I could see not wanting to do that.

So I’m curious. If you’re a godless parent, how do you handle it? If you were brought up by godless parents, how did they handle it — and how do you feel about it now? This is on my mind; I don’t have kids and don’t plan to, but I have kids in my life now, and I’m starting to think about it.

Comments

  1. says

    As a new parent, these thoughts have been on my mind heavily lately as well.
    “But maybe there’s a fine line here. Maybe there’s no way to teach kids to think critically about religion without teaching them to be non-religious. Maybe there’s no way to teach kids, “It’s not okay to believe an idea that can never be tested” without teaching them, “It’s not okay to believe in religion.””
    I’m not sure that there’s *no way* to do this – the human capacity for compartmentalisation is pretty astounding. Nonetheless, from my personal experience, the two are very closely linked. Certainly, in my own life, the critical thinking skills I was taught at home and during my education are what ultimately led me to atheism.
    I would also agree with your assessment that not equipping a child with these tools to help them evaluate *any* belief or idea (not just religion) is doing them a disservice.
    I certainly plan on discussing these things in as much detail as the little Viking is interested in when she’s gotten the basics (walking, eating etc) under her belt :-)

  2. Mike Higginbottom says

    “Maybe there’s no way to teach kids to think critically about religion without teaching them to be non-religious.”
    As far as I can tell belief in supernatural beings is rooted in blind faith. All the holy book citing and historical justification for the existence of gods is just a sop to rationalist criticism. That’s not why believers believe and treating it as such is an easy way to apply critical thinking to religion but it fails to get to the heart of the matter and is ultimately a worthless endeavour.
    If we want to allow our children to have the freedom to make up their own minds about religion then we absolutely have to present blind faith as an alternative to critical thought and rationality. Unfortuately I have no idea how to do that. I think we have to turn to believers in an honest and open way to find out how we can do this for our children. The problem I’ve found when trying to do this is that none of the believers I’ve spoken to have been able to express what leads them to faith. Maybe we need to spend more time searching out intelligent and thoughtful believers and asking their opinion. Perhaps that will also be a route to our own understanding of what makes these people tick. Of course, my gut reaction is that there’s nothing that make these people tick other than ignorance, fear and self delusion. But I still maintain the faintest of hopes that one day someone will be able to explain the cause of faith to me.
    My nine year old daughter is already an atheist despite my best efforts to convince her to keep an open mind. Unfortunately I just don’t have the knowledge to provide her with arguments why she should keep an open mind.

  3. says

    I have two teenaged boys, brought up to be full of inquiry and critical thinking. They both self-identify as atheist. They have been to different churches and religious practices and events and have had a gamut of feelings–curiousity, revulsion, fun, sense of community, jealousy, confusion, sense of being left out. They make lots of Christian right jokes and see most religions and religious people as illogical.
    I think you are right that it is very hard to grasp faith later in life if it wasn’t drilled into you as an assumption in childhood. We try to substitute, though, with reminders to each other to have faith in people, that people are fundamentally good, and that we can have faith that we will find our way in the world.
    What I haven’t been able to meet, though, is the sense of connection that organized religions offer their congregations. Maybe that’s a good thing, because my kids are free of expectation and oppression–but it’s true that most people would rather have a dysfunctional family than no family at all, so I sometimes wonder if that is true of having a dysfunctional religion instead of no religion, too.
    We do have faith in Santa, however!

  4. Alice says

    “If you’re a godless parent, how do you handle it?”
    My kid is just seven weeks old, so the issue hasn’t really come up yet with him. But I have thought about it, some!
    So, here’s what I think: I’m going to tell him that I’m an atheist, and explain why. I’m not going to hide the fact that I think religion is pretty silly. I am going to make an effort to teach him the basics of the major world religions, because I think it’s important to know what’s out there — and anyway, I find religion fairly interesting in the abstract.
    I’m not worried that doing the above will prevent him from making his own decisions about religion when he’s older. After all, my own parents tried to raise me as a Christian — we went to church every week, I went to Sunday school, I taught Sunday school for a few years, I said my prayers before bed. If all that didn’t stop me from turning into an atheist, then I’m sure that my own atheist propaganda won’t stop my kid from finding his own path when he’s old enough!

  5. Sharon says

    I’ve been reading through your blog for a few weeks, and I’m really enjoying it.
    I thought I’d comment now to say I had basically the same experience growing up. Ocassional church with grandma, religion not really mentioned in the house, and I too went through a woo phase.
    I think one major difference between your experience and mine (aside from me not becoming a writer) would be that I’m under the strong impression that religion wasn’t ever covered in the house because my parents didn’t think it was important enough to bother with, and assumed that my sisters and I would come to the same conclusion. We did, but I definately think I would have been better served if mom and dad had sat me down once and awhile and talked about it. Even if it would have ‘biased’ me towards atheism.
    I probably would have avoided the woo phase, anyway.

  6. says

    Another great post, and very thought provoking.
    I’m not sure what my parents believe, it never really came up, and I certainly never got any religion at home. It’s quite strange really, because looking back my schools were fairly religious. I guess I just found it all faintly boring; also I had a voracious appetite for fiction, expecially science fiction, which might have helped my ability to recognise far-fetched tales when I encounter them!
    But I agree: I was never particularly introduced to logic (except via Mr. Spock) and critical thinking, and I think it’s really important to try and equip children (not that I have any, and it looks like I won’t for the forseeable future) with these skills in any case – and not just because of religion.
    It’s interesting to read people talking about how rational thought led them away from religion – for me the lack of belief came first. I was probably always atheist (not that I would have actually identified as such), mainly due to the lack of exposure to religion, but it was only in the last few years that I began to define that position rationally – reading books, following blogs (mainly got PZ Myers to thank for that, actually). Perhaps before then I might also have been “vulnerable to woo”, (and maybe it’s only luck that I avoided that) but in any case I was certainly vulnerable to irrational viewpoints – and even held some myself.
    My only regret is that I didn’t reach this rationalist state earlier.
    Your analogy is spot on – if you’re going to throw kids in deep end of the religion pool you’ve got to teach them to swim first :-)

  7. says

    Pt. 1:
    “Years wasted believing an embarrassing assortment of stupid woo bullshit.”
    Just a question… do you think you’d be the atheist you are today if you hadn’t gone through your woo-woo phase? Do you think you’d be able to understand the things you do about believers and theists or be able to understand atheism so clearly and come up with the things you do and articulate those ideas in the way you do?
    I’m not saying one way or the other. I’m just curious if perhaps your years of woo-woo belief weren’t totally worthless. Because, and, yeah, this is probably one of the things I do have some type of belief or faith in, I don’t think that any experience we have in our lives is totally worthless. I think there’s something to learn from everything, irregardless if something else is making us go through it to learn, or if we just happen to be going through it at the time.

  8. says

    Pt. 2:
    “I also didn’t grow up understanding why belief in God — or Tarot, or astrology, or free will in subatomic particles, or whatever — was problematic. It took me years — many, many years — to figure out that, “God/ the soul/ etc. can’t be definitively disproven” didn’t mean, “It’s okay to believe anything I want.””
    Ok, maybe here’s where the believer in me comes out, but… what’s wrong with believing in anything you want? Why ISN’T it ok? It’s one of the fundamental things our country was built on. It’s considered part of freedom. Freedom of (and I add “from” as well) belief.
    I can see why belief in God can be problematic (well, actually, I don’t see why belief in just simply the concept of God itself is problematic, but rather the belief in all the dogma and crap that the Church piles on with it), but what about the other things? How does believing in, say, subatomic particles with free will hurt? As long as you’re not being held back by dogma, as long as something isn’t hurting you emotionally, as long as you don’t hurt others with it, why not do it? You once said you were GOOD at reading tarot cards back in your woo-woo days… if it works for you and it works for others, as long as reason stays the guiding point of your life, why not do it?
    Maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe I never will. But I’d like to.

  9. says

    Not having kids (and with it increasingly looking quite unlikely that I ever will) I don’t have to deal with this issue, but I think I’d use Santa Claus and the Tooth fairy as example cases.
    I’m not really sure how my parents did it, but I always knew that Santa/the Tooth Fairy didn’t really exist. They were just made-up stories that were amusing to pretend about. Extending the same understanding to God was pretty easy.
    I toyed around with Astrology for a while, but saw through the tricks pretty quickly.

  10. John B Hodges says

    Not a parent, but I suggest:
    - Reading them stories from a variety of religions- Greek myths, Hindu tales, Native American, Norse, Christian. And fanciful tales that are labeled “fiction” also.
    - Encourage reading as opposed to TV. TV makes you stupid, reading makes you smart. This has been proven by Science, Comrades.
    - Play the board game “Clue” with them. There may be other games that foster logical skill- I’ve heard Chess players are great at “analytical reasoning.” Fantasy Role Playing games help with basic math, they may be subversive re. religion also. There is Wff’n’Proof, but I never played that, I don’t know if it makes a good game.
    Make sure they see Monty Python movies, at least “Life of Bryan”.

  11. says

    c4bl3fl4m3: “Ok, maybe here’s where the believer in me comes out, but… what’s wrong with believing in anything you want? … As long as you’re not being held back by dogma, as long as something isn’t hurting you emotionally, as long as you don’t hurt others with it, why not do it?”
    Notice all those conditions that you have on believing anything you want. You obviously recognize that false beliefs can be dangerous, which is one reason to be careful about what one believes. Now there are certainly good reasons for tolerating some false beliefs, since we have a finite amount of resources, and it is probably better to pick our battles, but there’s a big difference between tolerance for some level of false belief and a license for believing nearly anything.

  12. says

    Greta,
    There’s an old Unitarian Universalist joke:
    Q — “What’s a Unitarian Universalist?”
    A — “An atheist with kids.”
    As an atheist, I’ve been teaching the “Jewish and Christian Heritage” block with our high schoolers for the past few years in my local Unitarian Universalist congregation.
    Last year, we had a dramatization with the “first murder trial” where youth took various roles in the Cain and Abel story — Cain, parents of Cain and Abel, prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, and God. Cain, the parents, and God all were examined by the two attorneys. The verdict from the trial in our class was that Cain and God were both partially responsible for Abel’s murder.
    This year, we looked at the two creation stories in Genesis to see what messages and metaphors they contain. They also looked at how the Easter resurrection story grew with each retelling much in the same way the fish in a fisherman’s story gets bigger with each retelling.
    The ability to critically examine something is a skill that I hope they take with them when it comes to other aspects of life.
    Whether it’s the Bible or another myth, I like to suggest that the stories people tell one another are important because they allow us to learn something about the people who created the stories.
    Our youth also see that the so-called “infallible” Bible is full contradictory stories and an occasional useful metaphor through direct and critical examination. Regardless of the source of any story (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the Bible, The Simpsons, or Battlestar Galactica, etc), it may contain a metaphor that helps us understand humanity.
    This gives some important cultural information for these stories are references in popular culture and literature.
    More importantly, we don’t promote the idea that a person can “believe anything they want.” Instead, we encourage a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as a goal with the understanding that any “truth” that one discovers will be temporary and incomplete.
    As part of this religious education that is compatible with atheism, we also provide one of the best available comprehensive lifespan sexuality education programs for children, youth, and adults. It’s a sexuality-positive and diversity-affirming program that was developed with the best-available secular public-health resources for use in both religious and non-religious settings.

  13. says

    I have been thinking heavily on this topic recently, since I wrote about my son regularly bringing up his belief in God (he’s done it more times since – I’m not sure why he thinks he needs to keep announcing it). I have been diligent in not indoctrinating him. Even though I now think he’s old enough to at least hear what I think and a little of why, I have a problem.
    I have a horror of indoctrination of kids. It makes be feel like vomiting. I’m holding back heaves just thinking about all the little kids getting brainwashed now. There are tears in my eyes that are making it hard to see what I’m typing.
    In that circumstance, I’m deeply concerned about tipping over into indoctrination if I discuss it with him, and unfortunately I feel so strongly about my beliefs right now, I doubt I could avoid it in the moment, once he gets going.
    I’m considering giving him a little information on the bible (he’s never read any of it, so all his belief is second-hand). Essentially, giving him some of it to read, so he has some idea what it contains. But there again, we run into a problem – the bible is horribly violent, misogynistic, racist/genocidal, promoting of slavery… indeed, almost everything I have tried very hard to minimize his exposure to in other things!
    I don’t want to batter his new-found belief with my strongly-based disbelief. I have argued with a number of godbothering bible-thumpers (almost always at their instigation), and, while I was a neophyte originally, I can now generally debunk an ill-founded argument easily – but if I do it with him, am I just bullying a sweet kid?
    I’m really struggling with this. I want to do the right thing by him. His beliefs are his choice, but on the other hand I don’t want the fact that his friends have been busily indoctrinating him to go completely unchallenged before he has a chance to think about what’s going on, either.

  14. Kagehi says

    Well, Efrique. The one thing you might not be considering is the possibility that someone *else*, including his friends, could be indoctrinating him, simply because you won’t say anything at all about it. To make up your mind you have to have options to pick from, and a clear concept of what those options are. If you are giving him no information, including what your own view is, then his friends are probably going to be talking about belief in God, the news will, TV programs will, many books will, other authority figures that are not you will, and all he is going to get is that there is a difference, and that the people who pick not believing are not liked much by the people that believe, and are considered wrong for choosing to not believe.
    Its a fine line you walk, trying to avoid indoctrination, but the consequence of not doing anything at all about it, especially when he keeps testing the waters by constantly mentioning it, is that someone else will be giving him information instead, and you might just lose any chance you do have to try to get him to think about the matter, instead of just following the crowd. His beliefs are only *his* choice *if* he chose them, not if he just latched onto them because everyone else around him that *will* talk to him about it happens to believe as well.

  15. Ali says

    Your childhood sounds just like mine, Greta. I knew that my dad is nominally Christian (more like deist, and non-church going at that), and my mother is the staunchest of agnostics (along the lines of the old joke: What does a militant agnostic say? “I don’t know, and you don’t either!”). We were taken to church by various relatives and baby sitters. Most of my friends were religious, so I knew slumber parties would end in a church service if they were held Saturday night. I got a good background in Christianity and could dismiss it easily.
    I could not dismiss easily the woo, either. I declared myself a Wiccan at 14 and continued to “practice” off and on through 18. Mostly, I liked the monthly meetings at the UU church–lots of coffee and henna for me. I liked the mythology of it. I tried so hard to believe. This was buffered on either side with atheism (12-14 being pretty strong atheism, and I’ve been increasingly atheistic since I was 18ish). I could read tarot well, and found it nicely symbolic that mom and I owned the same tarot deck. I really wanted to believe in reincarnation, especially.
    I don’t fault my parents for their decision to raise me this way. I appreciate it, ultimately, because I’ve come to the rational perspective reasonably quickly and am quite content with my life. Mom was/is very science-y, and I think the only place she let me down was in not being critical enough of religion in a logical way. Oh, she mocked the conservative churches that filled our town, but she didn’t explain WHY she did so. I think having the why earlier in life would have given me that last tool to realize I didn’t and don’t need to pretend a religion to be happy.

  16. Ali says

    And as for kids…I’m not there yet (only 22!), but I’ve been quite firm with my girlfriend that I want our children to be raised agnostic or atheist. I have no objections to them going to churches–I think my brother, who did a lot less of the sleep-over with friends who go to church in the mornings thing than I did, is missing what is (for better or worse) cultural capital in the US–nor temples, mosques, or whatever. The girlfriend is a Classicist, so bedtime stories will likely be Greek myths anyway. I think I will try to emphasize that many people believe these things, and here is why they believe, and here is why other people think they’re totally nuts. Mom was usually pretty game to admit she didn’t know something and would look it up for us if we asked a question she couldn’t answer, and I hope to be able to emulate that.

  17. Frank says

    My father had read the bible as a child and could quote passages from the King James version, which he considered as much great literature as a book of religion. He also read and could quote great passages from H.L. Mencken, often to the detriment of religion. He was in the Army, and we would occasionally go to the post chapel for services, but never out of a sense of devotion or need.
    His basic attitude toward most things was skepticism and irony. He had a tremendous cutting wit, which he often used to deflate pomposity and ignorance, and he was not afraid of correcting people’s misquotations of the bible, Shakespeare, and other poetry that he knew. For a person in an authoritarian position in an authoritarian culture, he was amazingly unswayed by authority and was described by somebody as the only staff officer willing to argue with their commanding officer.
    Yet every now and then I would see him kneel in church and rest his head on the pew ahead of him. It surprised me and seemed out of place. My mother said that he was never certain about a belief in god, sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t. And I never heard her talk much about god until after Dad, to whom she was truly and beautifully devoted, had died.
    One of his most common statements about raising children was that everybody should learn to make his own mistakes, which was a way of saying that we should each find our own path. Neither he nor my mother, both children of Army officers, tried to push any of their children into the Army, as people usually expect. And they did not have any religious expressions in the house or attend church regularly; Christmas and Easter were fun times to be together. We were left to figure things out for ourselves. My younger brother and I tended toward the godless, my sister toward the religious. I’ve raised my children to make up their own minds, though without telling them why I don’t believe. They both tend toward the godless, though one of them did have a difficult time in high school and went to a church for about a month. The older one, in her mid-20s, made some comments about questioning her beliefs a year ago, but I have heard nothing further. They’re both well-grounded in their own ways and seem quite capable of managing the vicissitudes that will lie ahead.
    So I’m not sure that telling them why I don’t believe was necessary to their upbringing. If they had asked, I would have stumbled through something that would have probably raised more questions than it answered, much the same as I would have expected if I had asked that question of my father. He probably would have asked me questions to get me to answer for myself and given me a few nuggets to think about and to laugh over, without actually committing himself either way. His goal was to get me to think for myself, just as I want my daughters to do. And I prefer that approach.
    I hope this makes sense.

  18. says

    “Ok, maybe here’s where the believer in me comes out, but… what’s wrong with believing in anything you want? Why ISN’T it ok?”
    Interesting question, c4bl3fl4m3. I’ll probably have to write an entire post on the topic at some point: “What’s the Harm in Woo?”
    Quick answer:
    a) Of course I have the *right* to believe anything I want. I have a right to believe that subatomic particles have free will; that the moon is made of green cheese, that Jesus Christ is my personal savior and anyone who doesn’t agree is going to hell.
    But that doesn’t mean it’s right for me to do so.
    When I say that it’s not okay to just believe anything I want, I mean that I can’t do so and be honest with myself. I can’t do so and retain my intellectual integrity. I can’t do so if I’m going to be a person who thinks that good decisions have to be based in reality — the best possible understanding of reality that we have. I can’t do so if I’m going to be a person who thinks reality is more important (and more interesting) than her own wishful thinking.
    As the saying goes: You have the right to your own opinions, but you don’t have the right to your own facts.
    b) I think woo can and does do harm.
    The most obvious examples are in woo medicine: people who seek out diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions from woo health practitioners who are working on untested theories that have no basis in fact.
    But even without those obvious examples, I think woo can do harm.
    I wrote about this more in True or False? Helpful or Harmful? The Two Different Arguments About Religion. Link:
    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/11/true-or-false-h.html
    Quick summary: A mistaken idea is pretty much always a harmful idea. Just by definition. It’s the old “garbage in, garbage out” saying about data processing. If you believe a mistaken idea, you’re going to make bad decisions based on those beliefs.
    Here’s just one example: When I believed in reincarnation, I tended to treat missed opportunities rather casually. “Oh, well, I’ll do that in my next life.” I think that was an attitude that did me harm and caused me to miss many wonderful opportunities.
    You said, “as long as reason stays the guiding point of your life, why not do it?” But that’s the whole point. If reason is going to be the guiding point of my life, I can’t believe any old thing I want to believe just because I want to. That’s the antithesis of having my life be guided by reason.

  19. madaha says

    “assuming the thing you’re trying to prove”
    is called “begging the question”. My students do it all the time, and that’s one of my most frequent comments on their term papers.
    cheers

  20. says

    Kagehi,
    I have presented the fact that some people don’t believe in God quite clearly to him, and that it is a perfectly reasonable thing to believe. He also knows his parents don’t believe.
    Kagehi said: “Its a fine line you walk, trying to avoid indoctrination, but the consequence of not doing anything… is that someone else will be giving him information instead”
    Uh, that’s exactly what I said:
    “I don’t want the fact that his friends have been busily indoctrinating him to go completely unchallenged”
    I suspect you don’t have much of a feel for where my problem actually lies.

  21. MEO says

    Raised by an agnostic father, a protestant grandmother, and an unknown grandfather (never went to church, but never said if he had any beliefs), I had church until I was a teenager. But when I went to college to study anthropology, I started to see a wider world of beliefs both present day and archaic. Christian fundamentalists don’t hold a candle to the fundamental beliefs of certain tribes of South America.
    A researcher has to respect other belief systems if you they going to study them. Though using an objective eye to look an human behavior is only an ideal, I think trying to do so lead me to see that the depth of belief is the same across cultures. And just because certain belief systems where associated with cultures that became dominant, does not make those beliefs “righter” than any other. These were my first steps toward atheism.
    However, seeing how important belief is across human society makes it clear that religious belief will not soon die off. Not that more critical thinking wouldn’t help.

  22. Shannon E. Wells says

    To efrique, who said, “I have a horror of indoctrination of kids. It makes be feel like vomiting. I’m holding back heaves just thinking about all the little kids getting brainwashed now. There are tears in my eyes that are making it hard to see what I’m typing.” Seriously? Since I don’t know how traumatized you were by your upbringing, may I point out that “indoctrination” is just the emotionally loaded word for “instruction.” Do you care about the values your child grows up with? Are you teaching your child any values and emotional skills at all, like say, non-violence, empathy, kindness? Then you are “indoctrinating” your child. Are you teaching your child to believe in freedom of expression and belief? This is also indoctrination. Honestly, if you’re not teaching your child any values, you’re not doing your job. Your son may just be asserting his identity.
    Just talk to him. Ask him questions. Model the behavior you want him to have. By repeatedly bringing up his belief in God, he might in fact WANT you to argue with him. If you fear this is “indoctrination,” seriously, have the courage of your convictions – your child will see this. I don’t know how old your son is, but young kids have a hard time with gray areas, and if you don’t present him with alternatives to whatever peer pressure he might be experiencing from his friends, if YOU don’t question HIS beliefs, then you’re not really teaching him to question other people’s beliefs, are you? He may very well just blindly accept whatever his friends are telling him, just to be part of the group, and because you haven’t helped him feel secure enough to do otherwise. You are his parent, and it’s your job to raise your child, not his friends’, not their parents’, not his teachers’, yours.

  23. says

    “Maybe there’s no way to teach kids to think critically about religion without teaching them to be non-religious.”
    Think about it this way. Maybe there’s no way to teach kids to think critically about creationism/ astrology/ homeopathy without teaching them to be… let’s skip all the separate “non-whatevers” and just say non-gullible. Of course there isn’t. And I just don’t see why anyone (who is not themselves religious/gullible) would see that as a problem.
    This ridiculous over-emphasis on “letting children make up their own minds” about religion is another form of kow-towing to the protected status of religion in our culture. Are you going to let your children “make up their own minds” about hygiene? Smoking? Safe sex (when they reach the appropriate age)? Of course not. You are going to provide them with guidance, perhaps starting early with flat rules (“we wash our hands before we eat”) then moving on to explanations, discussions of harms and evidence, etc. You are going to give them the skills and knowledge to protect themselves. I think not believing claims without good evidence is right up there with not smoking and not having unprotected sex in terms of its protective value: Critical thinking is just good mental hygiene.
    Freethinking parents should not give in to this knee-jerk “any criticism of religion is automatically bad, because… you know, it’s religion, and criticizing religion is, uhm, bad…” nonsense. You cannot teach genuine critical thinking skills by fencing off religion (or any other topic) as off-limits for the application of critical thinking – because the whole point of critical thinking is that one should evaluate the evidence and reasoning before accepting ANY claim.
    Shannon Wells: Clearly there IS a real difference between indoctrination and instruction – a difference in methodology. The methods you propose – asking questions, listening, providing guidance – are the tools of instruction, not indoctrination. Indoctrination uses threats and promises, punishment for deviant thoughts/actions, endless repetition, and all the other tricks of the brainwashing trade. Watch Jesus Camp for a primer, if you can stomach it.
    That disagreement aside, I think what you said to “efrique” is basically right. By talking and listening to his child, by demonstrating the behaviors he wants to teach, he would be providing needed and valuable guidance.
    Efrique: If you are actually worried about indoctrinating your children, you have no idea what the word “indoctrination” truly means – because I guarantee you that those who actually do use indoctrination techniques on children damned well don’t worry over it! It’s good that you are cautious about the means you use to guide your child’s development, but don’t second-guess yourself into not providing any guidance whatsoever – or you’ll regret it.

  24. Fossick says

    Greta,
    I think this post was a wonderful question. It’s an issue I’ve been working on the past few years. I’m an atheist and father of three.
    This is the solution I’ve found:
    I read to my kids almost every night. This gives me many opportunities to talk to them—and it’s a whole lot of fun. I’ve read all kinds of books, including a few on critical thinking. We’ve had several good conversations about “How can you tell the difference between something that is true and something false?” This is an important concept for all areas of their life.
    I plan to review all of the major religions with them. I haven’t started doing this yet, but soon will. I’ve only explained religion in general & let them know I don’t believe. Later, I’ll explain more detail why I don’t believe & why other people find religion so appealing.
    I also think books on evolution are important. It’s good for their science background and will help explain why God is not necessary to explain why we exist.
    To me, this is not indoctrination. It’s the reverse. It’s teaching them the skills to be able to resist indoctrination.
    It takes many attempts to teach important lessons like this. I’ve watched several of my lessons sail over their heads. I just tone it down to simpler levels, or leave and address it a few months later.
    Fossick

  25. says

    If and when I have to tackle this, my plan is to talk about cognitive bias and ways our judgement fails in general, and the strengths of science, but to wait for them to start asking me before I start giving answers specifically about religion.

  26. Yogurtbacteria says

    “Maybe there’s no way to teach kids to think critically about religion without teaching them to be non-religious.”
    Honestly, I think you’re right on the nose right there. I think it’s basically impossible to teach kids to think critically about religion without teaching them to be non-religious because religion doesn’t stand up to critical thinking. It’d be like trying to teach them to think critically but trying at the same time not to “bias” them toward thinking critically.
    If any religion could stand up to critical thinking, then teaching critical thinking would not be teaching nonreligiousness. Teaching critical thinking is only teaching nonreligiousness insomuch as religion can’t stand up to critical thinking. So I’d say teach them all about how and why you think religion doesn’t stand up to critical thinking because if religion can’t stand up to it, it’s religions damn fault. If you teach them to be good critical thinkers, they’ll insist on finding out for themselves, anyway.

  27. Hayley says

    Hey Greta,
    I can’t speak as a parent, but I can speak as someone whose parent was a very vocal atheist. My mom spoke a lot more about her reasons for being atheist then my Dad ever did about being Jewish. She usually said two things: 1. When she went to religious schools as a kid and constantly questioned her teachers about God and religion they never really had very good answers for her 2. Mostly, as a child she had a hard time believing that if there were a god they would let her mom beat her and abuse her and not do anything about it. So, she could only conclude from a young age that there was no god. My mom never told us to be atheist, as much as my dad never told us we had to be Jewish. They just shared their beliefs with us as they understood them. For my Dad, it was a lot about sharing the cultural aspects of Judaism and not the religious aspects. He was very much of the school you just do certain things, because that is what Jews do. As someone who was raised by an atheist and a Jew, I can honestly say that in my entire life (I am now 35) neither one of my parents, nor any of my siblings has ever asked me about my own faith, if believe in God or anything of that nature. For me, being exposed to their beliefs and why it worked for them without being told what I should believe has pretty much allowed me to define my spirituality for myself. I would also add, that my Dad’s family was not so accepting of my Mom for not being Jewish. Also, my mom was very clear that we should feel like we were Jewish, so she did convert, but was always a vocal atheist. I would also say in some ways my dad reinforced religious ambiguity since most of his family was completely wiped out in the holocaust and I remember him wondering (similar to my mom) that if there were a god why would they allow all our relatives to be wiped out. So, in that sense we were raised with religious tolerance and an understanding that religious belief is personal and complex.

  28. says

    I have a six-month-old son, and I am trying to raise him to be a free thinker, but in my extended family, he is surrounded by passionate, convicted Christians who make every effort to indoctrinate all children they come in contact with.
    Prompted by this post, I wrote about my concerns and conflictions on my blog a couple days ago.

  29. Sam says

    Personally I am a christian, as are my parents. But there has always been the option to not go to church. Once I understood religion, I could make my own decision, and I think that that’s the correct way. By all means encourage your children to be the same religion as you, but once they’re old enough make sure that they know that mum and dad aren’t infallible, and let them make their own choice.

  30. JS says

    Two crucial remarks that I remember from my own childhood that certainly helped hone my critical thinking skills were “is that something you know, or are you guessing?” and “I don’t know – let’s go look it up.” I really cannot overstate the value of being taught that the natural response to ignorance is to seek answers and having the distinction between stuff you can prove or provide a citation for and stuff you’re pulling out of a hat made explicit (and considered important).
    I was also introduced to formal logic early on – there is a surprising number of opportunities for that if you have an ear for language. One of the most common syntax errors in many Western media is ‘everyone doesn’t X’ when in fact the newsie meant ‘not everyone does X’ – you’re bound to catch a kid making this or similar mistakes once in a while, and simply asking which one they meant (and explaining the difference if the kid asks) helps build an intuitive understanding of logic that is both a great help when it comes to organising their thinking and a useful mindset to have if they later decide to pursue a career in the sciences.
    Finally, there is an almost inexhaustible number of examples of bad logic, misreported studies, and plain mendacity in your average newspaper. Reading the daily newspaper with your kids (or encouraging them to read it on their own) both furnishes them with knowledge of current affairs and allows you to train their BS detectors. In any given week you are likely to find examples of all the kinds of wishful thinking that you mention in your post – confirmation bias, correlation mistaken for causation, begging the question (that’s particularly popular in political debates), flaky rationalisations, arguments from authority (another politician classic “but we’ve got a *study* that proves that we’re right! You can’t disagree with a *study*!”) and, of course, plenty of outright lies.
    The important point, I think, is to emphasise *how* and *where* the arguments are wrong, rather than whether the conclusion is right or not. Is it that the premises are invalid? Is the logic weak? If so, how and where? Are there unstated assumptions? In short: Deconstruct, don’t just disagree. (And that’s a good point to keep in mind even if you don’t have kids – it sharpens your own thinking too.)
    - JS

  31. 5ive says

    Firstly, I really like yer blog, thanks for helping me feela bit less alone :)
    I was raised by agnostic parents. I am very thoroughly an theist and have never had a “woo phase” (like that term, tho ).
    I think I can credit this to the fact that both of my parents are intellectuals and always helped me to think critically. My mom is a cynic and taught me to look at people critically and my dad is a chemical engineer and taught me to think about the world around me critically.
    I went to church and temple and a christian preschool (my choice, I liked the tricycles), but we didn’t really talk about religion either.
    With my own kids (9 and 6 years old) I often flounder. I don’t want to turn them against religion but I don’t want them to walk blindly into something that can cause serious distress.
    My 9 year old says he does not believe in god because my husband and I don’t. ARGH! That is exactly what I don’t want. BUT, 9 is very young for true philosophical reasoning. I do what I can to teach them to look at all sides of things and to try to think critically about things they come across in daily life.
    I really like what JS says,” “I don’t know – let’s go look it up.” I really cannot overstate the value of being taught that the natural response to ignorance is to seek answers ” and what JS goes on to say about it.
    You can teach a child to think critically about religion just by teaching them to think critically about all the other areas of life.
    Thanks again for the good blog!

  32. says

    Your blog is refreshing. I am not used to coming across post that are thoughtful and fair, keep up the good work.
    Faith in the trancendent is not woo woo, since it seems to be something mankind has been involved in from the beginning. Perhaps we respond to an invitation, a call to relationship. Just a thought.
    About tarot cards, if they work use them, if they give you insight read them, and if you can help others by using them, go for it.
    peace
    mark

  33. Misty says

    Wow, I just stumbled onto this site, and let me just say that I’m loving it. I have been wondering how to address this issue for quite some time. I look forward to reading more!

  34. says

    I’ve noticed that the magical thinking business begins in the middle teen years, especially for girls. I’m a guy but a girly guy in many ways. I got into astrolgy and ESP and all that crap when I was around 17. Younger kids have make believe and all that stuff. but the thinking isn’t really what one would call magical thinking. My sugestion…
    1. dont bring up religion at all.
    2. Be sure their schools aren’t up to any funny business. (hidden Jebus agenda)
    3. Teach them magic tricks
    4. When they go into their “why X?” bit,turn it around and ask them “why do you think X is so?”
    I have a cousin who did this with his daughter and now she (the daughter)is a marine biologist in Australia with a job that involves diving off the great choral reef.

  35. rose says

    I am an atheist (and not quite twenty, raised by my single Quaker mother, and she did teach me how to question things — at the same time she believed in Tarot cards and that something, call if God if you like, was present in everyone. I feel like she raised me with as little a bias of religion as possible, and tried to give me the tools for myself.
    My aunt is a minister (of some denomination… can’t quite remember), and my whole family was a bit scandalized when I wasn’t baptized, but unbaptized I remained, and they got over it quickly enough.
    I, as you were, was exposed to a few different places of worship over the years. My mother expressed regret that she didn’t know anyone to bring me to a synagogue, and listened me when I talked about Buddhism. When I went to Quaker meetings, the kids got to climb trees or draw with chalk or play games that had no religious connotations — just be kids. I don’t really remember what she told me when I was younger, but I’m pretty sure she treated it the same way she treated sexuality: don’t assume. Since I don’t remember the religious aspect as clearly, I’ll deviate to talk about sexuality and gender identity for a minute.
    I turned out to be straight, but through the years, starting from the first time she mentioned it and continuing when I started gushing about that cute guy who sat next to me, she would always say “partner” or “significant other” or “spouse”: never husband, or boyfriend. She bought me dolls and My Little Pony, but also cars and Legos and dinosaurs, frilly dresses and batman costumes, and gave me the courage to tell the little boy who said “You can’t be batman, you’re a girl!” that yes, I most certainly could, just watch me!
    When I asked her what God was, as near as I can remember, she explained what she thought God was, what Grandma thought God was, and that some people didn’t think God was at all. She didn’t say “I know” she said, “I think” or “to me”. She encouraged me to take a class that taught about the religions of the world, and was always open to discussions or questions. One of the few things she did tell adamantly me was that she thought that the notion of Hell was wrong and harmful. She said if there was a loving God, she couldn’t understand why there would be such a place, and if there was no supernatural being — well, there wouldn’t be a hell then either! And honestly, I’m glad she was firm on that one. I’ve seen how it messed with some of my friends heads when they were kids, and I’ve never felt that terror or the guilt the comes with Catholicism. She always encouraged questions. When I asked her if Santa Claus was real, she said asked me what I thought. I told her I thought Santa was the idea of Christmas, because it was impossible to do the things he did, and that he wasn’t a real person but that he was important anyway, because he was the idea of giving and happiness.
    She basically taught me, don’t let anyone tell you what to think! It’s up to you to look at the world and into yourself and decide.

  36. rose says

    A bit of a post-script:
    She also taught me through asking her own questions about things she doesn’t understand. She has a generally very open mind about sex, and accepts that while something might not float her boat, it could be the best thing ever for someone else.
    One day, when we were talking about sex in some context or other, she said to me, “but I really don’t get S&M. I just don’t.” And while it’s not something I have any personal physical experience in, I’ve heard about it and read about it and watched some, and I tried my best to explain my understanding of it to her, some of the experiences it gave people. And she listened. And she said, “I’d never thought about it that way,” and contemplated it for minute. Asked some more questions. Then she thanked me, and said while she didn’t quite get it still, she could see that it was a sexual preference and not a psychological issue. And I was proud of her, because she was willing to listen to the why, and accept that she had misunderstood.

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