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If kids are the savvy, skeptical creatures that Will Gervais proposes in his recent essay, why do endless hordes of them in each generation turn into conservative American adults who uncritically worship invisible gods with zero objective verification?

And what makes these same supposedly mature folks end up uncritically adoring visible but damaged demigods on Earth, like Donald Trump?

I’m just asking.

After all, the American tendency toward worshipfulness manifestly does not just pop up in adulthood. Something clearly happens in carefree, clueless childhood that—if it doesn’t create little believers immediately—at least sets the stage for eventual divine adoration later on.

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Will Gervais: Is religion rooted in childhood gullibility?

Children’s development starts with indoctrination

Because of the apparent powerful effects of childhood indoctrination, we can’t simply dismiss as irrelevant the developmental years of concentrated religious instruction and habitual church-going most American kids are subjected to—habits of thought and action that, from all evidence, deeply embedded in their characters and rituals over time.

Yes, Gervais makes strong, evidence-based arguments that “New Atheists” icon Richard Dawkins may be wrong thinking that childhood gullibility is the cornerstone of adult religious belief.

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But what is the cornerstone, then?

There must be a discoverable objective reason for a general human tendency toward worshipfulness—religious, political, or otherwise—considering that members of our species, Homo sapiens, are near-universally worshipful, particularly regarding religious faith.

Gervais obsesses over and dismisses Dawkins’ argument that childhood naïveté leads directly to religious belief as kids absorb the dogmas and assumptions of their parents and other authority figures. Gervais seems to step past the larger issue without noticing this fact: Just about everybody everywhere believes in gods.

Gervais doesn’t speculate how that worshipful human tendency came to be. Just that it wasn’t childhood plasticity.

If not childhood gullibility, what breeds worshipfulness?

In my view and Dawkins’, the germination of faith occurs in childhood, even if we may disagree on the causative mechanism. But whether the determining factor is kids’ gullibility or something else doesn’t change the fact that most kids end up, more or less, as believers (and then, in turn, their kids, their kids’ kids, and so on).

Something unhealthy is clearly happening to those little minds, leading them to trust what they shouldn’t.

Even though Gervais’s thoughtful, comprehensive essay is fairly and smartly argued, it seems to miss the broader point that, whatever theory is espoused, we are a uniquely believing species. And that it’s no accident children almost inevitably end up believing in the god or gods of their parents—a point Dawkins frequently makes—as I did, temporarily.

My own pet theory, admittedly not expert, scientifically researched, or peer-reviewed, is that the inherent vulnerability of all human beings, young and old, to the powerful cognitive and behavioral effects of enforced authority and ritual—not the gullibility of children, per se—is the main contributing factor if not the root cause of human religiosity.

As evangelical Protestants have known for centuries and Catholics for millennia, the key to perpetuating religious belief and full church coffers is getting kids young and indoctrinating them in the ideology of their faith.

True, kids may be skeptical of a lot they are told, but, being children, they are still largely powerless to avoid what parents and other adults of authority force them to do, such as study the Bible or Catholic catechism, regularly attend worship services, learn in church-controlled schools and fraternize primarily with like-minded, religion-indoctrinated peers.

And, simultaneously, parents’ political biases seep into their kids’ minds.

Kids’ sponge-like minds absorb the fruits of habituation

I propose that just as children’s super-malleable developing brains allow them to learn, for instance, new languages—in fact, anything—faster and more fluently than adults, they are also dangerously vulnerable to the normalization and habituation effects of the faith environments and ideologies into which they’re unwittingly submerged.

And these habits of thought and behavior are generally reinforced when kids go home to parents who already embrace the faith and often strong political beliefs—and who often feel it’s their sacred duty to mold their offspring in God’s image (which is their image of God’s image).

This is how, I strongly suspect, religious beliefs germinate and flower—and, more importantly, deeply—subconsciously—embed in young psyches to become invisible, intuitive-seeming, lifelong guides. Like the ethos of blood ties.

It becomes akin to character.

Even the kids who don’t buy any of it intellectually, at some psychic level they do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have such a flood of new religious believers each generation, although the current newest generations, secular millennials, and generation-Z, are very different from those of preceding eras, especially of their parents.

According to a report earlier this year by the Survey Center for American Life, “Generation Z and the Future of Faith in America”:

In terms of identity, Generation Z is the least religious generation yet. More than one-third (34 percent) of Generation Z are religiously unaffiliated, a significantly larger proportion than among millennials (29 percent) and Generation X (25 percent). Fewer than one in five (18 percent) baby boomers and only 9 percent of the silent generation are religiously unaffiliated.

And it seems to me that the mechanics of habituated childhood religious indoctrination are similar to brainwashing youth as political partisans.

[We] can’t simply dismiss as irrelevant the developmental years of concentrated religious instruction and habitual church-going most American kids are subjected to—habits of thought and action that, from all evidence, deeply embed in their characters and rituals over time.

Netflix doc shows the powerful effect of childhood Nazi indoctrination

Of relevance to this discussion of the power of habitual indoctrination, especially among children, is Final Account, a somber and disquieting Netflix documentary I recently watched.

Interviewed in the documentary are former German extermination-camp guards, stormtroopers, soldiers, and others who are among common people who are the last surviving participants in atrocities of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust.

It is grim story-telling, reminding me starkly of the famous phrase—“the banality of evil”—coined by German-born Jewish American political scientist and philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), author of the seminal Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).

Arendt contends that indoctrinated Nazis who committed evil did not see it as evil (some survivors still don’t) because they believed Hitler’s propaganda and were protecting the purity and power of the party and their nation—just a Trump followers believe they are fighting for now-bastardized “Republicanism” and to keep America from growing ever more non-white, liberal and secular.

And habituation of MAGA GOP militancy is achieved the same way religious faith is embedded in the young, by isolated indoctrination over time—by for years corralling adults in right-wing information echo chambers (e.g. Fox News, Breitbart), where inconvenient facts and contrary notions are blocked or corrupted. Meanwhile, kids are—as they have long been—isolated in religious echo chambers of scripture, church, and authority-figure believers, where unorthodox, contrary notions are dismissed or ridiculed.

Ominously, political and religious propagandists believe what they’re doing is noble, and justify any harm to the faithful or others as necessary collateral damage to achieve an over-arching goal, such as the Jan. 6, 2022, attack on the U.S. Capitol by MAGA zealots, or, for another example, the murder of abortion providers by Catholic extremists.

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Nazi Holocaust ‘monster’ Eichmann ‘just following orders’

In 1971, Arendt wrote this about Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi officers responsible for organizing the transportation of millions of Jews and others to concentration camps in support of the Nazi’s “Final Solution,” the wholesale extermination of the Jewish people:

I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer [ie Eichmann] which made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer … was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.”

Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann’s psyche was roundly criticized by other political critics over the years who claimed that Eichmann was, in fact, a committed, virulent Nazil, not just a bureaucrat simply following orders in a totalitarian system, as he claimed at his 1962 trial in Israel for war crimes in World War II.

Still, millions died as a result. Eichmann was convicted and hanged.

German youth fancied Nazi uniforms, if not Nazism

In Final Account, one of the elderly women who as a child joined a Nazi youth group said she didn’t believe all the racist Nazi ideology but loved the brown-shirted, swastika-emblazoned unforms they were provided.

Another interviewee, an old man, also recalled his pride in wearing the Nazi-themed uniform, which he said he was instructed to wear all day every day.

“That has an effect,” he said, translated from German, admitting he is filled with terrible shame looking back at the false pride and acceptance of evil his uniform engendered.

The “effect” is a slow, organically evolving radicalism turbo-charged by a sacred sense of pride. It matters not whether, at first, you are a true believer in the dogma or not—as with the life-long evolution of religious faith among the very young.

In this sense, essayist Gervais’ view of children seems overly generous.

He explains:

“I’m asking readers to [jettison] the notion that religion is rooted in childhood gullibility. It’s time to discard this one and instead listen to the scientists who actually study these topics. They’ve done some truly excellent research over the years, and it’s well worth engaging with their work on this topic. The psychological world they’ve uncovered is fascinating—a world where children aren’t passive receptacles but are rather little skeptics and proto-scientists. This psychological world is starkly at odds with any evolutionary story of religion that relies on the assumption that kids are blindly gullible to their elders’ teaching.”

No. I suggest they are vulnerable to habituation of their elders’ authority, continuously applied, not necessarily to their ideas.

Do children have to be especially gullible to be vulnerable to the effects of religious indoctrination and ritualized habit?

I think not.

As a person raised Catholic, I recognize the deceitful process

As a person who was resolutely raised Catholic but left the fold at 17, I know something about the process of ideological conditioning over time. The strategy and tactics appear to be similar for most if not all religious traditions. I left eventually but was apparently only part of a relatively small minority of apostates in my tribe.

However, there had been a time, when I was 10 or 11, when I thought it would be grand to become a priest (after hearing a stirring Holy Name Society talk by a charismatic Jesuit who had saved souls in the wilds of Nepal—how exotic!).

That thought likely would never have occurred to me if I already hadn’t been entombed for years in the cocoon of devout Catholicism.

As a 72-year-old longtime nontheist today, I still catch myself thinking in very Catholic ways, such as reacting somewhat prudishly to physical immodesty, even though, rationally, I know that’s silly. And when I stopped going to confession in my late teens, I figuratively shielded my head for a time, thinking the heavens might collapse on me for my sinfulness (and probably still do, subconsciously).

But I relaxed somewhat when—it was a little surprising to me at the time—nothing at all happened. And the guilt then fairly quickly evaporated.

I realized I had carelessly become habituated as a Catholic without much critical thought.

That’s a commonality religious evangelists and political demagogues count on in perpetuating their brands.

The echoes of childhood indoctrination remain

So even though I don’t think I was a particularly gullible kid, I still carry around unwelcome artifacts of Catholicism in my head to this day (“Who is God? God is the supreme being who made all things.” Marriage is holy. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are real.) Certainly, I didn’t put those notions there.

So, from this vantage and having read a lot of personal accounts of the often bitter, punishing shunning inflicted on apostates, particularly acute within fundamentalist Christian and Muslim sects, it’s impossible for me now to ignore the vice-like grip these faiths have on their members—whether or not they were gullible kids or true believers later.

I felt a bit of that myself when I left the faith.

This hyper-focus on the theory that childhood gullibility does not lead to lifelong religiosity seems misdirected. We should be trying to find out what does—and fix it. Childhood vulnerability is manifestly part of it, because why would ecclesiastic leaders be so ruthlessly intent on corralling children into their faith, generation after generation. They’re not guessing about the habituating, entrapping effects of indoctrination.

If we don’t do something bold to derail this tradition, decades and perhaps centuries hence, children will continue, as always since time immemorial, to be fed lies as truths about invisible, all-powerful beings in the sky. Or about visible, flawed but charismatic beings on Earth.

And whether or not kids are gullible, most of them still will almost surely find phantoms of these habituated fantasies lurking in their minds many years hence.

That said, I know some studies show that kids aren’t all that gullible, but, honestly, I don’t see much real-world evidence of that. Children are clueless sponges, but even if they don’t totally buy what they’re taught, it can still worm its way deep into their psyches—and subconsciously corrupt their reason as adults.

The witches’ brew of ideological indoctrination, I suspect, mixes relentless habituation in childhood, and possibly a dash of cognitive gullibility, to create adult true believers.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...