The problem with religion-4: Corrupting the minds of children

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

I started this series with Matt Ridley’s quote: “The Asian tsunami was not an act of god but 9/11 was” and will end with it, because it says something very profound.

Religious apologists for Islam are quick to claim that the 9/11 perpetrators were not following their “true” religion, that god would not have condoned this act. But what is the basis for this claim of exemption? After all, the perpetrators themselves seemed to think that they were indeed the ones that were following the true religion. In his periodic video surfacings, bin Laden appears quite confident that he is serving god well, as is Bush when he speaks of his motivations.

What makes people do things that kill huge numbers of people in the name of god and religion?

The seeds of such behavior are often planted early, when children are young. Religious teaching is probably the earliest kind of formal teaching that children get, both from their parents and from their places of worship. They are taught that their faith and their god are the “true” ones, and that people of other faiths are wrong and their god is a false god. As a result, from a very young age, children learn in-group/out-group thinking framed in terms of religion. This lays the groundwork for more in-group/out-group thinking later in terms of ethnicity and nation.

I have written before of one example of where this kind of thinking can lead, in the tragic case of Edgardo Mortara. But in his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins provides a much more disturbing example of the effects of religious instruction on children.

(For further reading on the case described by Dawkins, see the sources cited by him: the paper Love Thy Neighbor: The Evolution of In-Group Morality by John Hartung; the paper The Influence of Ethnic and Religious Prejudice on Moral Judgment by G. R. Tamarin, (New Outlook, 9:1:49-58); and the book The Israeli Dilemma: Essays on a Warfare State, G. R. Tamarin, 1973. Rotterdam: Rotterdam University Press.)

In this extended quote I have taken from the book (starting on p. 255), Dawkins summarizes the results of what he calls “[A] horrifying study by the Israeli psychologist George Tamarin”:

Tamarin presented to more than a thousand Israeli school children, aged between eight and fourteen, the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:

Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. . . But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.’. . . Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword. . . And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

Tamarin then asked the children a simple moral question: ‘Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?’ They had to choose between A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). The results were polarized: 66 percent gave total approval and 26 percent total disapproval, with rather fewer (8 percent) in the middle with partial approval. Here are three typical answers from the total approval (A) group:

In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.

In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.

Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.

The justification for the genocidal massacre by Joshua is religious in every case. Even those in category C, who gave total disapproval, did so, in some cases, for backhanded religious reasons. One girl, for example, disapproved of Joshua’s conquering Jericho because, in order to do so, he had to enter it:

I think it is bad, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.

Two others who totally disapproved did so because Joshua destroyed everything, including animals and property, instead of keeping some as spoil for Israelites:

I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.

I think Joshua did not act well, as he could have left the property of Jericho; if he had not destroyed the property it would have belonged to the Israelites.

Once again the sage Maimonides, often cited for his scholarly wisdom, is in no doubt where he stands on this issue: ‘It is a positive commandment to destroy the seven nations, as it is said: Thou shalt utterly destroy them. If one does not put to death any of them that falls into one’s power, one transgresses a negative commandment, as it is said: Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.’

Unlike Maimonides, the children in Tamarin’s experiment were young enough to be innocent. Presumably the savage views they expressed were those of their parents or the cultural group in which they were brought up. It is, I suppose, not unlikely that Palestinian children, brought up in the same war-torn country, would offer equivalent opinions in the opposite direction. These considerations fill me with despair. They seem to show the immense power of religion, and especially the religious upbringing of children, to divide people and foster historic enmities and hereditary vendettas. I cannot help remarking that two out Tamarin’s three quotations from group A mentioned the evils of assimilation, while the third one stressed the importance of killing people in order to stamp out their religion.

Tamarin ran a fascinating control group in his experiment. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua’s own name replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7 per cent approved of General Lin’s behavior, and 75 percent disapproved. In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgments that most modern humans would share. Joshua’s action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.

I share Dawkins deep sense of despair at what we do to children in the name of religion. I recently saw the documentary Jesus Camp in which evangelical Pentecostals run a camp where young children are trained to become ‘soldiers for Christ’. Elementary-school age children are being taught to view those who do not share their narrow sectarian beliefs as some kind of enemy, by adults who are fully convinced that their own religion is right and that they are fighting for Jesus in a war with everyone else, including the ‘false’ Christians. They see themselves as being a counterweight to Muslim children being taught to be militant.

Once you concede the validity of religion, what argument can you use to say that these people are wrong? After all, they are basing the beliefs and actions on the same religious texts that apologists use. Osama bin Laden’s Koran is the same as everyone else’s. The Bible used by the children in Jesus Camp is the same as that used by Martin Luther King.

Anthropologist John Hartung, Associate Editor of the Journal of Neurosurgtcal Anesthesiology explains in the abstract of his paper why the commonly expressed justifications of religious morality, that they do contain expressions of benevolence and love towards all, do not stand up to scrutiny.

The world’s major religions espouse a moral code which includes injunctions against murder, theft and lying. Or so conventional 19th- and 20th-century Western wisdom would have it. Evidence put forth here argues that this convention is a conceit which does not apply to the West’s own religious foundations. In particular, rules against murder, theft, and lying codified by the Ten Commandments were intended to apply only within a cooperating group for the purpose of enabling that group to compete successfully against other groups. In addition, this in-group morality has functioned, both historically and by express intent, to create adverse circumstances between groups by actively promoting murder, theft, and lying as tools of competition. Contemporary efforts to present Judeo-Christian in-group morality as universal morality defy the plain meaning of the texts upon which Judaism and Christianity are based. Accordingly, this effort is ultimately hopeless. (my italics)

This is why the efforts by religious apologists to defend the virtue of religion as ultimately a source for good do not stand up to scrutiny. The sad truth is that people seem to find it much easier to use religion to do evil than to do good. As Blaise Pacal says in his Pensees (1670): “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

POST SCRIPT: Happy Birthday, Baxter!

Baxter is two years old today.




  1. Anthus says

    I’m surprised there are no comments; I’ll just ask a quick devil’s advoquestion.

    Could it not be argued that the Israeli children’s reaction to the biblical story is a result of patriotism and the “us” that is independent of religious thought? That is, we might see the same thing in atheist associations, exemplified by the “[famous figure] was an atheist!” theme, which I think exists in large part to forge a connection with a particular intellectual group.

    This even though condensing someone’s life into something as binary as atheist/theist completely ignores a large part of their actions, which is _more_ interesting, historically. It’s simply not informative-->it is a social acceptance tool.

  2. says


    It could be, except that the reasons given were explicitly religious. My point was that religion-based us/them divides are the ones encountered earliest in life and thus makes it easier to accept other divides based on ethnicity and nationhood, expecially if there is a strong overlap between religion and those other categories.

  3. Alex says

    I agree with Anthus that ethnicity could also be a factor in the children’s reaction. Tamarin’s control replaced the Jewish ethnicity but, as far as I can see, left the religious features intact. This is a variable that Dawkins should have at least acknowledged.
    Dawkins doesn’t mention the real horrifying part of the study, which was that many of the children believed that it would be acceptable for the IDF to act in the same way. The reasons given by these children were to do with expanding territory and killing their Arab enemies, but did not mention God.
    Good point made about religion being the earliest identity encountered. However, language is an earlier identity, and one people will fight over, as are family ties. I was brought up in a conventional Christian manner, but it was years before I realised that Judaism were not a subdivision of Christianity.
    I would like to know what Tamarin made of his findings but I cannot find a link to this Nerw Outlook article. Can you help me?

  4. Anil Kowshik says

    How would you view Buddhism in the context of the very revealing experiments by Tamarin?

  5. says


    I threw it in as a contrast to the huge attention paid to Obama’s association with Wright while almost nothing is being said about the fact that McCain actively sought the endorsement of Hagee,

  6. says

    I saw Jesus Camp also, and as a Methodist, I have to admit this level of indoctrination of young children was a bit concerning. I worry about undue religious pressure on young people for any faith. While religious instruction is important, I believe it has to be low pressure. This allows young minds to make their own decisions.

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