We were always being exhorted to think for ourselves

A wonderful passage from Louise Antony’s essay in Philosophers Without Gods (a collection she edited):

As I’ve said, the reactions of grownups to my questions about religion were doubly distressing to me because of their dissonance with the principles adults were explicitly promoting in other contexts. In school, a broadly libertarian and individualistic ethos prevailed. We were always being exhorted to “think for ourselves.” In reading, we were urged to “sound out the words instead of just asking,” and in arithmetic to figure out the problems on our own. Science teachers and science books agreed heartily that curiosity is a marvelous thing, the engine of all scientific achievement. One must not take things for granted; one must always ask “why.” The best scientists, it was stressed, are the ones who see mystery in the everyday, who press for deeper and deeper understanding. In the biographies of Marie Curie I devoured, she was praised for seeing questions no one else did and for persisting in her work until she got her answers. (My mother, by the way, got me these books. She was a secret feminist. She kept the secret even from herself.) In my elementary school citizenship classes, democracy was praised as the most perfect political form because it allowed every citizen to “follow his own conscience.” My parents and teachers, counseling me about personal behavior, stressed the importance of doing what I knew was right, regardless of what other people thought. Why in religion was I supposed to dumbly accept whatever the authorities told me?

It’s a hella good question, isn’t it.

To the best of my recollection I didn’t get that as a child. I remember asking my mother a lot of questions, and I remember getting replies that pretty much agreed with the questions. She didn’t claim certainty about any of it that I remember, or talk about having “faith.” I don’t remember any dogma or any requests to stop asking questions. Maybe it’s just that I don’t remember…but honestly I doubt it. It wasn’t a faithy household.

I lucked out.


  1. MyaR says

    This really, really resonates with me. I need to go look up the rest. I figured out by second grade that religion class was to be endured — give the predefined answers and get it over with. (Also, I was at my mother’s last week, helping her sort things for a move, and found a booklet I had to make somewhere around 3rd grade around the theme of “God’s Claim and Me”. Yes, it is exactly as creepy as it sounds. I saved it in case I ever need childhood religion bona fides.)

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    You DID luck out. Some of us had the questions indoctrinated out of us before we were even able to formulate them.

    Despite my mother’s best efforts, though, I outgrew it. Shortly after I outgrew Santa Claus, actually. God and Jesus shortly thereafter joined Santa in the dustbin of childhood fancies.

  3. Omar Puhleez says

    A religion is in many ways to a human as an operating system is to a computer.

    For a religious person, the answer to every important question either lies in or is closely bound up in the religion. (Before making any big decision, one prays for guidance). A religion not only gives the believer a cosmology but an already worked out answer to every moral (and for many, political) question.

    “Think for yourself” can be seen as advice to pass over the ready-made off-the-shelf operating systems for one of one’s own design. Increasing numbers of people seem to be opting for that: certainly in the West.

  4. Sastra says

    Why in religion was I supposed to dumbly accept whatever the authorities told me?

    Often it’s because religious truths are confused with basic moral truths or values. If God is the foundation of everything including Love, then questioning the existence of God is just like questioning the existence of existence, or questioning the existence of Love-with-a-capital-L. Or, perhaps, questioning the value of Love. Religious faith entails category confusion.

    Whether or not love is a good thing or ought to motivate someone is not per se a scientific sort of question. Therefore, if you can BEGIN with a category confusion regarding what spiritual truths are supposed to be, you can insist that a child who demand better evidence for them is the one who is confused. You assume that love exists and matters and then you ask questions from that point.

  5. leftwingfox says

    I noticed this too. I did some work briefly on an evangelical cartoon a while back. The message of the two episodes were essentially “Think for yourself, be a Christian!” and “Don’t be a conformist, be a Christian!”, arrogant in their confidence that religion is the right answer.

  6. otrame says

    I remember the poor youth pastor that ran the youth group I attended when I was 14-16. He tried. He really did. In the end I quit asking questions because they made him so uncomfortable. It got really embarrassing because in the end he always had to fall back on “You just have to have faith”. Over and over again. I wasn’t harassing the guy. They were honest questions and he was a decent young man who tried his best to answer. After a while I decided that the reason he couldn’t answer my questions in a way that satisfied me was that there were no answers that actually made any sense.

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