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« Death is Too Good for this Son of a Bitch The RantsMedia Sees Public's Stupidity, and Raises »

Indoctrination Sucks
2005.04.22 (Fri) 00:25

Angry Professor relates two sad stories of a common form of parenting that we, personally, see as psychological child abuse: what most folks like to call "indoctrination." First she tells the tale of a young boy she knows:

"Well," he says, "You know I have some problems." Problems? No, I wasn't aware of this. "It's because of when I was born," he tried to explain. "Because of what time it was and how the stars looked." I was confused. "Because of when I was born and how the stars looked then means that I worry about things a lot. I'm scared and I worry." He then told me about his fears.

This lovely, smart kid's parents and I have some fundamental disagreements concerning the distinction between fact and fantasy, and science and pseudoscience. I was afraid to ask, but I did: "Are you talking about astrology?"

"Yes," he confirmed. "You know there are people who can tell from the time you were born and how the stars look what kind of person you will be and what your problems are. Astronomers, right?"

We'd love to say that we can't believe parents would fill their children's heads with such utter bullshit, but it happens every day, in every country, to millions of children. In fact, it happened to Angry Professor herself. Here's an excerpt; please do read her original post for more details:

Our church was an offshoot of the Assemblies of God. At each of the (at least) three services I attended each week, I observed people speaking in tongues, slain in the spirit, uncontrollably laughing and weeping, and prophesying. Miraculous healings were commonplace. Frequently the mass hysteria exhibited during worship was facilitated by vigorous exercise, in the form of marching around the perimeter of the sanctuary to the point of exhaustion (in emulation of Joshua's siege of Jericho). Services lasted up to three hours. My mother and new stepfather reveled in them.

I was desperately unhappy, socially isolated in my new school (because of my strange flavor of Christianity), and I suffered from severe psychogenic stomach-aches. My doting father, an academic, watched me spiral into depression and neuroticism. He tried to discuss my mental health with my mother, who explained to him that my problems were attributable to the fact that I had not yet worked out my relationship with Christ....

...having lived through my childhood, I believe that the worst thing you can do to a child is to build up his irrational fears and thwart his critical thinking skills, and by extension, his ability to learn and grow and realize his full potential. This can be accomplished quickly and easily by physical and overt psychological abuse, or more insidiously, by religious or superstitious indoctrination. Such indoctrination is insidious because it is socially accepted; indeed, it is considered to be socially unacceptable by most people to not indoctrinate your children into your religious faith.


My young friend now believes the stars have dictated his future, and there is nothing he can do to improve his situation. I see little difference between what happened to me and what is happening to him right now. Religious or superstitious indoctrination cripples a young person's mind. It takes away a child's confidence that he can achieve things for himself and improve his condition, and leaves him fearful and helpless.

She's absolutely right — filling a child's head with superstitious (which includes religious) nonsense will hurt the child's intellectual, psychological and social development. It doesn't matter which brand of genuine 200-proof bullshit you force-feed your kids; if you're not teaching them to be carefully skeptical of any fantastic claims that come down the pike, you're setting them up to be credulous suckers for the rest of their lives. Why do you think cults are so successful at subverting young minds and pulling them into their fold? It's because, even though such young people manage to reject the particular flavor of bullshit their parents forced on them, they can't get over the need — instilled in them by their parents — to believe in some form of wacky, outrageous bullshit that "explains the world" for them.

Even the most innocent and seemingly "mild" indoctrination can have awkward — or worse — consequences. One example of this hits very close to home, for us: it concerns the son of one of our sisters. For the purposes of confidentiality, we'll call the sister "Mary," her husband "Roger," and their eight-year-old children "Stevie" and "Janey."

Roger is a very conservative Jew, who — when pressed — probably doesn't really believe in the bible or any god; he's a highly intellectual, very successful businessman. Mary was, and perhaps still is, a staunch atheist — however, more recently, she does seem to subscribe to some "Newage" beliefs. Roger and Mary are raising their children according to the Jewish faith, including celebrating the Sabbath (most Fridays) and the usual catalogue of holidays and festivals. In addition, while Janey is enrolled in a public school, Stevie attends a Jewish private school.

Stevie's Jewish private school teaches all the usual subjects one finds in elementary school, but also has Hebrew classes (there is nothing wrong with learning another language — we highly recommend it!) and traditional and biblical education regarding Judaism.

The problem came when, as Mary confided in us, Stevie's class had begun learning about evolution — but the information presented in this science class directly contradicted the information Stevie had learned from his more religious classes, where his teachers taught the Genesis creation stories as the infallible, irrevocable truth. Stevie, a very bright kid, saw the conflict and couldn't get past it — he actually told his mother that he didn't believe evolution really happened.

Needless to say, this is not the result Mary and Roger were hoping for. Despite Roger's firm conservative Judaism, and Mary's active support of Roger's firm conservative Judaism, they are very intellectual and progressive people. The fact that their son rejected the notion of evolution severely upset Mary, with whom we spoke. But like we said then: what do you expect when you send your child to a school that force-feeds him religious doctrine? If any of his teachers are intellectually honest (and interested in teaching their students facts), there will inevitably be the unavoidable conflict between the child's religious and secular lessons. (We also think it's a mistake to insulate a child in this way, anyway; all of Stevie's classmates and teachers are Jewish, which certainly doesn't prepare him to face the variety of backgrounds and cultures he'll encounter in the secular university he'll most likely attend.)

In our opinion, it is a grave disservice that a parent does to a child when indoctrinating them (or having them indoctrinated by others) with bullshit religious or superstitious beliefs. On the other hand, we do understand that parents have a natural desire for their children to believe as they do. But if you simply must cram credulous, unscientific nonsense down your child's throat, then we would argue that you also have an important obligation: to prepare your child for the real world consequences of those beliefs.

To illustrate what happens if you foist faith-based beliefs on your child but you don't properly prepare them to deal with those beliefs, we can turn to another personal example. Mary has a friend — we'll call her Ann — who is a self-professed "pagan," apparently worshipping nature and an abstract, insubstantial "higher energy" that creates and sustains the world. Hey, as we've said repeatedly, we have no problem with anyone believing this stuff — believe what you want to believe, and deal with the consequences of your beliefs. However, when you indoctrinate your children in your beliefs, you are now forcing them to deal with the same consequences, whether they are prepared to or not.

Ann has explained to her seven-year-old son, whom we'll call Martin, that they (including him and his little sister) are pagans. However, what Ann has neglected to impart to Martin is the wisdom of discretion, the usefulness of subtlety to avoid conflicts with others by not mentioning your silly beliefs to others who have presuppositions regarding your silly beliefs. We'll explain:

Martin, the seven-year-old pagan, mentioned his religious affiliation to a Christian classmate. Said Christian classmate returned home and mentioned to his Christian mother that his friend is a pagan. This Christian mother, armed with the common ignorant assumption that "pagan" means "Satan worshipper," forbade her Christian son to associate with the seven-year-old pagan any more.

See the problem? Ann, being all progressive and "free spirit-y," let her son know that he's a pagan (despite the fact that a seven-year-old has little idea of what that really means), but did not tell him that most Christians have a misconception of what that means — in her zeal to be "spiritual," she ignored the realities of the social environment: the realities that most people, indoctrinated with their own silly (Judeo-Christian) beliefs, have a strong prejudice against people who self-identify as "pagans." Is this fair? No, but it is reality. Ann ignored the reality of the situation and refused to let her son know about such "negative" feelings against pagans, forcing him to confront them head-on in an unprotected environment (the real world of social interaction with other children and families).

It's bad enough to beat your children's psyches into following in your superstitious footsteps; but it's even worse if you do that, but then fail to prepare them to face the reactions they will evoke in others. Ann has been teaching her child in her personal "spiritual" sense, but ignoring his social education.

Many intelligent kids — like Martin — can certainly grasp what it means to say "I'm a pagan," but they are still absolutely incapable of understanding how to deal with this factor in a social setting. You must prepare them for the realities they are going to face, especially those provoked by espousing your beliefs without being able to support or define those beliefs in any meaningful way. Instead of complaining about the narrow minds and stereotypes that exist after your child is exposed to them — as Ann, incidentally, did — make the kid aware of the problems he might face when the subject of his (really, your) religion comes up.

As a side note, Ann's husband seems to agree with us — he grew increasingly exasperated at her "defense" of pagan beliefs (which was wholly beside the point when you can't change the prevailing opinions of millions of other religionists), which she prattled on about when she should instead have been explaining to her son that their beliefs are looked down on and mistrusted by others. You can't live in a fantasy world where everybody's beliefs are respected when you don't live in a real world where everybody's beliefs are respected.

Of course, the sad thing is that even if you avoid indoctrinating your child with silly beliefs, you can't necessarily evade this secondary pitfall. If you don't tell your children what religion they belong to, or if you explain that they are not religious (or that they are atheists), you run the same risk Ann did by pushing her pagan silliness on Martin. Once again, is this fair? No, but it's reality. The same children whose parents reacted negatively to the "pagan" label would likely react the same way to the "atheist" label — "Don't come near my Christian child!"

Even as adult atheists, we avoid direct confrontation with those to whom we have no hope of explaining our position. Our site is not "preaching" to the good Christians who live and die by their faith — they are as lost to us as they would consider us to be, to them. Rather, our arguments and conclusions are made for the benefit of the like-minded — and those who are on the fence, who might be able to find something valuable in our reasoning.

But what can we do for our children, who might not be able to avoid such confrontations? Good question. Perhaps the best bet is to avoid indoctrinating them with anything, even if it is rational. If you simply provide information, and let your children decide their belief systems for themselves, then by the time they have the capacity to decide, they will also have a stronger grasp of the social situation — including an awareness of prejudice and religious politics.

We realize that this isn't the perfect answer either, and in fact, we doubt that there is a perfect answer to this dilemma. It seems that no matter what you do, children will never be completely prepared for the prejudices that they are likely to come in contact with. And that's okay — no one ever said that life was about being completely prepared. We all just try to do the best that we can to avoid fucking up our kids too much — we pass on important values and traditions, hopefully without harsh indoctrination or other forms of mind control, and we see what happens. At the end of the day, even if they don't share our specific beliefs, they can still be good people, and that's really what's important. To us, anyway.

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[  Filed under: % Bullshit  % Religion  ]

Comments (6)

JY, 2005.04.22 (Fri) 09:53 [Link] »

So what your sayin' is, I shouldn't have sent my kid to nursery school today in her 'Charles Darwin has a Posse' tee-shirt?

The Two Percent Company, 2005.04.22 (Fri) 10:13 [Link] »

No, we like that shirt! As we said, we're fuzzy on the right answers, but in our opinion, that shirt endorses good science, and there's nothing subjective about that.

That shirt also won't invoke prejudice from anyone except creationists — other "normal" Christians won't have a problem with it. In our experience, when it comes to creationists, you either believe as they do, or you invoke their "wrath." So, we say let the kid wear the shirt — we would, anyway. Again, this is just our opinion, and in this arena, it's far from perfect.

If you happen to live in a town where there are many creationists, then you have a problem no matter what you do, and it's a lot bigger than t-shirts. In that case, which is not enviable, you'd just have to prepare your kids for those views as best as you could. Bleh.

Now, we would probably not send the kid to school wearing one of our "Religion: A Delusion You Should Keep to Yourself" shirts, on the other hand....

Angry Professor, 2005.04.25 (Mon) 11:49 [Link] »

You raise some excellent points. As a parent I have planned to avoid all discussion of religion whatsoever with my daughter, but you are absolutely right that regardless of how I guide her thinking in this area I am going to have to prepare her for the social consequences.

Arthur C. Clarke describes a Utopian, atheistic society in his novel (my favorite) Songs of Distant Earth. I was hoping our home could be a little planet like Thalassa in a universe of superstitious bullshit. You are telling me that this is an impossible dream, and made me aware that part of my responsibilities as her parent is to prepare her for this rain of crap upon her brain.

I suppose I should be grateful. But I'm just terrified. Being a parent is terrifying, mostly.

The Two Percent Company, 2005.04.25 (Mon) 22:57 [Link] »

When we got to the part of the post where we pointed out how Ann failed to prepare her kids for the reality that they would face with regard to their "pagan" views, we realized that the same pitfall was waiting for anyone who either labeled their child as an atheist or simply didn't ever discuss a religious affiliation with the child at all. This approach certainly included some members of the Two Percent Company. We tried to come up with a valid solution, but it seemed that every option we thought of still led to the inevitable position of leaving a potentially unprepared child to deal with the reactions of others to their parents' lack of religion.

In general, we are pretty confident in our views. We feel that we spend a good amount of time weighing the alternatives and that we can generally come up with a direction that we can defend. It seems, though, that when it comes to children, all bets are off, and the answers are never quite as straightforward. Terrifying, indeed.

Jesse, 2005.04.28 (Thu) 13:25 [Link] »

As one who was raised essentially athiest, I can attest to certain prejudices against me by certain members of certain religious faiths. I was informed on more than one occasion that I was destined for hell, which might have bothered me if I believed in hell...

However, I was informed, and educated as to different religous beliefs and systems, so as to have some understanding of what many people in our society choose to follow (and that religion is a topic best avoided amongst most people).

Reading through this rant got me thinking about these things, and the questions you raise, as to what is the ideal method to raise children, so as to avoid conflict, and indoctrination and the like, and near as I can figure it boils down to the old adage, 'You can't please everyone'

With that in mind, I think it is inevitable that a childs views are going to be influenced, quite heavily, by the beliefs of the parents. Along the same lines of what a person likes to eat... It is fairly unavoidable.

On the other side of that I think it is important to try and give other points of view, and help you children to understand that they are going to potentially come into conflicts of varrying degrees over opinions and beliefs with other people, and how to deal with such situations in a diplomatic fashion.

So, yeah, I think all a parent can do, is try their best to teach there children how to think intelligently, and how to deal with, and respect, other people. And remeber, try as we might, you cannont make everyone happy... and truth be told, I'd be afraid of a world where everyone was.

The Two Percent Company, 2005.04.28 (Thu) 23:17 [Link] »

Well put, Jesse. As you said, we can never please everyone, nor would we want to. In the end, we just have to raise our kids to ask questions, to understand themselves and others, and above all to think for themselves. All we can do is prepare them for reality as best we can, and see what happens.

Since we weren't raised as atheists, we never had to experience childhood with that kind of stigma. In fact, we were raised without exception within a very lax Judeo-Christian framework, growing up among other lax Judeo-Christians, so we fit right in as kids. Maybe if we had been raised as atheists ourselves, we’d be less worried about this.

On another note, we encourage everybody to go visit Jesse's website, where you'll find a collection of fantastic offbeat art and illustration, including a wonderfully rendered adaptation of an old Grimm fairy tale. Check it out!

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