Saturday, January 13, 2007

Religious "Indoctrination"

I have been quite puzzled by the “indoctrination” accusations that atheists throw at religious parents so frequently lately.

Richard Dawkins, of course, has been the biggest instigator of this line of reasoning. He has made many statements refering to religious “indoctrination” as a form of “child abuse”. He has even signed, and promotes, a petition that seeks to ban faith schools.

The petition states that:
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Abolish all faith schools and prohibit the teaching of creationism and other religious mythology in all UK schools.

Faith schools remove the rights of children to choose their own religious, philosophical and ethical beliefs. They also sanction ethnic segregation and create tension and divisiveness within society. Schools should be places where children are given a free education, not centres for indoctrination. Creationism and other religious myths should not be taught as fact regardless of the funding status of a school. Abolishing faith schools will provide children with more freedom of choice and help to promote a fully multi-cultural, peaceful society.

If Dawkins had his way, private religious schools would be banned, and parents wouldn’t have the right to teach their children anything in regard to their own personal religious beliefs.

I decided to give this “indoctrination” accusation some serious thought and wondered how or if atheist parents share their beliefs with their children just as religious folks might. Unfortunately, most of the atheists I know personally are not what I would consider strong atheists, and many of them I consider to be more agnostic rather than atheist, but they prefer the former title.

So, where to find a child of an strong atheist? Well, I didn’t have to go far (never even left my computer). PZ Myers, biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, is a “militant” atheist who has three children. His youngest, Skatje Myers, is a junior in high school and has her own blog site where she offers some interesting perspectives on many issues.

PZ agrees with Dawkins sentiments, and he prides himself on his lack of indoctrination with his own children. So, I spent some time reading the blog entries of his daughter Skatje.

She wrote a post on the topic of religious “indoctrination“, and I questioned her further about why sharing my beliefs with my children is considered “indoctrination”, yet the beliefs held by her father had no impact on her own belief system. She responded as follows:

You could have answered your own question by reading what I wrote. I said he didn’t talk about it. I didn’t even know what religion was until I was entering middle school. Like I explained, there was a LACK of talk about these things. In fact, he still doesn’t talk about these things at home. His blog stuff is almost completely separate from dinner talk. The only time I hear his opinions on things are if I ask.

Actually, I did read what she had wrote, but I questioned it, so I asked again in hopes that she might consider her statement with a bit more thought. I don’t doubt that her father didn’t “talk” about “religion” when she was a child because he seems to strongly believe that religious “indoctrination” (or what I would call sharing your beliefs, feelings, and thoughts about life and where we came from with your child) to be a very negative thing. But, most children have many child-like questions in regard to where they came from, what happens after they die, etc., etc. Unless one is a very unique child who has no interest in these type of questions, I would assume that all parents talk about these issues with their children from time to time.

So, I was still trying to understand why “militant" atheists (a phrase she uses to describe her Dad) are so adamant that children who are brought up by religious parents have been indoctrinated, but that they themselves have had no impact on their own child’s belief system whatsoever.

It is interesting that she doesn’t seem to consider her Dad's public blog site, which he has authored for the last 5 years and where he voices all his opinions on religion and science on a daily basis, as a form of indoctrination.

Skatje is obviously familiar with Dad’s blog and even provides a link to it from her own. She’s still living under Dad’s roof, so although she may not consider herself a child at 16, she’s a young adult living under the care of her parents who has probably been aware of Dad’s blog for quite a few years now. Whether or not her Dad ever mentions his belief system to his children through the spoken word, they certainly get their fair dose of “indoctrination” from his blogsite, unless there is some sort of parent blocker on his site to ensure that she is not being influenced this way. This I doubt, because Skatje‘s views on life are almost verbatim that of her Dads, and she links to his blog, so obviously she reads it.

So, although PZ may never ~talk~ about these issue at home, his feelings about religion are every bit as potent as those that I relay to my children about my religious beliefs.

But, let’s forget about PZ’s blog for a moment, and merely consider his conversations at home. If Skatje asked Dad, through a line of questioning, where humans came from, he would probably give her a naturalistic scientific explanation. Well, most kids will eventually go further back than the birds and the bees because it’s instinctual to wonder where our beginning arose from. Again, she would probably be offered a naturalistic explanation in which life essentially arose through evolutionary processes. He would not have mentioned a first cause (in the sense of a creator being), but perhaps noted that although we don’t know exactly how something initially arose from absolutely nothing, science has always been working on that particular problem.

Now, PZ & Skatje personally feel this particular answer to be more truthful than a religious explanation, but there are many who feel that it is simply not scientific to adhere to a belief that something can arise from nothing, so they consider much more than the evolutionary viewpoint to establish the truth of these issues. They consider history, archaeology, lines of evidence for various religious perspectives and the tremendous improbabilities that life arose by mere chance.

So, it’s not that we give up and say that “God did it, so I must indoctrinate my child in this manner”. No, it’s that we have established that science may not be able provide us with all of the answers to life’s questions, so we must research other areas of knowledge as well in regard to origins. That does not mean that we stop scientific endeavor (as evolutionists are so fond of accusing us of). I don’t know of any IDist or creationist that has ever considered something as ridiculous. But, in fact, ID digs even deeper. It looks further into the problems associated with evolution and tries to make sense of them. In fact, ID promotes scientific dialogue about these difficulties and pushes science forward urging the scientific community to answer these questions and look further into the question of origins (as is currently happening at Harvard University).

Rather than not talk about religious issues with our children at all, it seems to me that it is of benefit to our children to share our religious views with them and give them religious training just as we would enroll them in school and teach them math, science, reading, social studies, etc. I wouldn’t dream of eliminating math from their curriculum just as I wouldn’t dream of eliminating religious instruction. And, the benefits of a religious upbringing are numerous.

There is certainly nothing wrong with teaching your child a specific religious belief, but personally I’d encourage them to explore all religions. In saying that, I do not endorse comparative religion courses at the universities because they often throw in myths and every other forms of “religion” in a big pot. They have just enough time to touch on various religions and myths in a semester class which is horrendously misleading, and in the end they spit out a whole new group of agnostic youth. No, if you are interested in studying various religions, you should take it quite seriously and study them in-depth, IMO.

I encourage my children to learn about other religions, and when they ask me those hard to answer questions, I often explain to them the atheist viewpoint or what other religions believe in regard to the topic. Then I provide them with the reasons why I disagree with that perspective.

And, not to worry, my children are certainly exposed to the atheist creation story as well as their own, so they are quite well rounded in that area. Public schools only offer one creation story - that of the atheist perspective. Yes, I realize that theistic evolutionists would disagree with that, but their beliefs of a divine first cause are not to be mentioned in public schools either, so we are left with a solely naturalistic perspective being taught in our science classrooms.

It’s interesting that when I asked Skatje:
Is there the possibility that one religion made have more supporting evidence for it’s claims than another?

She responded that:
At the basis of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc, there is the supernatural. No matter how many more books I read, I’m not going to find any evidence to support the existence of flying rainbow-coloured monkeys that fire lasers out of their butts.

I guess I hadn’t been made aware that either Jews, Christians, or Muslims believed in flying monkeys. But, I would have to say that I am not sure which is easier to believe - that butt firing monkeys were the first cause of our existence, or that ~nothing~ caused that first something to appear which led to our existence. Perhaps Joe Carter over at the evangelical outpost can help PZ out with an atheist creation story to tell his kids.

What happens when we tell our kids that they arose through evolutionary processes from the animal kingdom is that they have no reason not to ~act~ like animals, and this is exactly what we tell them in public school science classes.

Someone commented to Skatje that:
You then render humans as little better than animals.
Her reply was:
Did you not pass biology class? Humans are animals, sweetie.

This conversation took place on her post regarding abortion.

Being that we are mere animals, Skatje didn’t see a problem with late-term abortion:

I don’t see people’s problems with late-term abortions. Nothing has changed except it looks more like a human. That’s not reason enough to ban late-term abortions.

I see no reason why late-term abortions should be banned. The only justification I see people giving for why they shouldn’t be done is because you can take the baby out and it’ll live. But we’ve already discussed the problems with this. Taking the baby out instead of late-term abortion is not a viable solution. Thus abortion must continue.

The REASON she has a late-term abortion is irrelevant, be it because she couldn’t get one earlier, health reasons, family reasons, or because she just changed her mind.

Let’s consider those late-term abortions in which nothing has changed “except it looks more like a human”. These look like human lives that deserved to live.

I realize that this type of discussion does nothing more than spawn more arguments, but I thought this needed to be addressed. My point is that if we take secularism too far and are no longer allowed to discuss our personal religious beliefs, we are no better off than the fear of an authoritarian religious takeover of the government, which seems to be the paranoid vision that the Dawkins/Myers crowd fear.

So, IMO, the way to solve this problem of the one-sided creation story currently being taught in our science classrooms would be to acknowledge the scientific inference of intelligent design. That way, we mention no particular religious belief, yet our children are taught the very real scientific probability that our origins arose from something other than a murky pond of nothingness, and that each human life is precious.

In conclusion, after reading Skatje’s blog, I believe that one could make very good arguments that atheist’s “indoctrinate” their own children into their faith beliefs just as those who hold religious beliefs might “indoctrinate” their children. It should be pointed out that all three of PZ’s children are atheists.

[It appears that PZ has some concerns about me reading his daughter’s blog, and his choirboys are again singing his praises (read the comments). What a shame. Well, I have some concerns about him pushing his faith based creation story in our public schools.]