I never had kids, but if I had I would have been very worried about their mental development in the United States.
I’m an American, and our culture is saturated with Christianity—on our money (“In God We Trust”), in the broadly scattered church steeples, the Bibles in hotel nightstands, our national holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas), and the Pledge of Allegiance school children recite every day (“One nation, under God”).
These are all—and much more, as well—bequeathed by this religion, the nation’s uber-dominant faith. Some 70 percent of the populace still self-identify as Christian today, even though people in much of the West are massively leaving faith.
How children absorb Christianity
So the largely unspoken symbols and actualities of Christian faith, I believe, are absorbed thoughtlessly by American children and subtly but decisively incorporated into their worldviews as they grow up. Coupled with continuous religious programming from their parents at home, at church, and in the many subtle religious messages delivered in their textbooks and lessons in schools, these kids, inch by inch, day by day, are inevitably learning to be lifelong Christians.
They see prayers commencing meetings of elected officials in their communities. They watch their teammates perform the “sign of the cross” before a game. They constantly ingest the ever-present messages of faith on TV programs and in movies, where religion is often a central concept. They note when their governors call for days of prayer to combat tornadoes of flooding or some other natural disaster. When fervent prayers are uttered on the floor of the U.S. Congress. They watch as people die and then “go to God” at funerals.
They learn to see “religion” as natural, normal, as inherent a part of the American landscape as McDonald’s restaurants. Nowhere and never does anyone tell them religion is actually just superstition, or even encourage them to consider such a concept. So most American kids see Christians as normal and Muslims, say, as weird because of their seemingly alien religion, without understanding that both faiths derive, at least in part, from the exact same Judeo-Christian scriptures.
More importantly, they never learn to test everything, especially their religion, against factual evidence and reason. In fact, they are rigorously discouraged from doing that.
What’s the solution?
So, the question is, how do we raise American children not to be knee-jerk Christians, when church leaders and parents are already increasingly homeschooling or putting their kids in charter schools, which are predominantly Christian, to shield them from learning about anything in the real world that might dissuade them from holding fast to their parents’ religion?
The only effective answer would be un-American: to somehow limit how parents, schools, and other institutions brainwash vulnerable children with religious superstitions portrayed as facts—and also not allow the system to isolate youngsters from valid conflicting information, as religious schools do.
The ‘Rights of the Child’
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which became effective for signatory states in 1990, acknowledges parental rights but aims to protect children from abuse, exploitation or violation of privacy, including respecting their right to hold differing religious views from their parents (or none) and not to be indoctrinated against their will. It was ratified by every nation, except the United States, due to resistance of conservative Christian conservatives, and Muslim Somalia.
As a daily writer in the nonreligious blogosphere, I am constantly reminded that nontheistic bloggers are generally addressing each other, preaching to the choir, while religious people and institutions elsewhere, including the U.S. government, continue unimpeded to indoctrinate children overtly and subtly in religious ideology.
If the paradigm is to change in any substantive, not-agonizingly-slow way, it must begin with how children are educated about everything. That means developing their skills in critical thinking—objective, evidence-based challenging and testing of all ideas—as rigorously and essential to their schooling before college as math and science.
Good luck with that, right?
But the current educational and cultural paradigm in America practically ensures perpetuation of Christian faith by nonstop indoctrination of children into adulthood, and the daily reaffirmation of these ideologies that have long wafted through the landscape.
How to raise a secular kid
I am thinking of these things after reading a post by Godless Mom blogger Courtney Heard titled “My Daughter Got a Bible for Her Birthday, What Should I Do?” She advised a nonreligious reader worried about this topic that she should instill secular values in her children. Heard says she is raising her own son “with a solid understanding of what is real and what is not:
“I’ve taught him to be able to question claims that seem more outlandish, especially, but also to never fear questioning anything at all. I even urge him to examine the things I say. So, I never worry when he’s faced with a brand new book full of implausible tales. He’s far too skeptical a person to end up believing in talking snakes and humans living in the belly of a whale.”
No doubt Mrs. Heard’s son will grow up to be a rational person with a healthy skepticism toward superstitions and other nonsense. Heard seems to be doing a really good, thoughtful job raising him.
However, my worries are not about kids of secular parents but of the offspring of devout or even semi-devout religious mothers and fathers. Who will help those kids grow up not “believing in talking snakes” and the like?
How do we ensure that every American child is given the tools to rationally, not intuitively, challenge every question and mystery he or she is introduced to, especially religious superstitions, so that they can make up their own minds about their existence, free of insidious indoctrination?
The Convention of the Rights of the Child indicates we may be moving in the right direction internationally, if not so much here at home.