Train Up a Child
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”Proverbs 22:6 (ESV)
I made an earlier post on some of the practices Christians partake in that indoctrinate themselves, things they willingly participate in to strengthen the hold of religion on their minds. The singing of songs, memorization of scripture, surrounding themselves with the “words of god” so they “mediate on it day and night,” as the scripture commands. But, the biggest part of my indoctrination came long before most of my earliest memories, and is another practice commanded by scripture.
The verse above is the way that Christians think (mostly because it’s what they themselves were taught from a very young age). And it is one of the reasons that religion is such a strong force even in our modern culture. When you teach something to a young child they will not quickly forget it. When you teach that thing to them at every possible opportunity you change the way they think and ingrain it into their minds even deeper.
This weekend I’m visiting my parents, sisters, brother in law, and three year old niece and have witnessed the indoctrination of a very young child in progress, though I first really noticed the practices in November when we were all on vacation at the beach. My niece will be three in one month, and today my father was telling her the crucifixion story. It is amazing that Christians are able to make such a terrible, bloody story sound happy.
My mother had gotten out some Easter eggs, and with them a box of “Resurrection Eggs”. Resurrection Eggs, for the uninformed, are an object lesson someone developed, as far as I know, sometime in 90s. They are the Easter equivalent of an advent calendar. 12 plastic Easter eggs, each with a small item inside to represent a part of the Easter story, opened one a day on the 12 days prior to, and including, Easter. Objects such as a cross, a nail, a spear (usually a toothpick), a rock (symbolizing the stone they rolled in front of the tomb), a bit of rope or leather (to represent the scourge), and so on. The last egg you open is empty, to signify the empty tomb on Easter morning. Often these are sets made at home by parents or Sunday School teachers, but in the past decade or so the Christian marketing sector has started selling ready-made kits.
So, my father was sitting with my niece on the sofa, telling her a bit of the story as she would open each egg. He happily told this 3 year old girl about how the piece of leather represents the scourge that Jesus was beaten with until his back was bloody, and how the thorn symbolizes the crown of thorns which was pressed onto his head. He told her about Jesus dying on the cross and asked her if she knew why he died. She dutifully answered, “To save us from sin.” He went on to explain how the soldier stabbed Jesus in the side with a spear and “blood and water flowed” and that the cloth represents the burial cloth they wrapped his dead body with when they put Jesus in the tomb. He was using the very same graphic language I have used here.
How many parents would let their toddler watch a movie as bloody and gory as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ? (If you haven’t seen this film, just think of any Tarantino film and double the gore. Most Christians were overjoyed with how closely the gore follows the story told in scripture, even if they weren’t happy about some of the liberties Mel took.) In fact, most Christian parents would never let a young child watch this film. I know my parents wouldn’t show it to my niece. Yet many are perfectly happy sharing this story with them without a second thought. My parents, like many people who teach young children at churches around the world, are very good at telling these stories in all their violent, bloody glory while making them sound like good, happy things that are perfectly normal. Yes, Jesus was beaten to a bloody pulp because of you, and then he died. But it’s all OK because he rose from the dead three days later (nothing creepy about that at all). It’s all OK because all of this was God’s plan™ from the very beginning. It is amazing how people can make these horrible things sound so wonderful.
I do not remember my early childhood very well (there are a small handful of memories before I was 5 which I remember with an amazing clarity, tiny vignettes of my early life, but nothing more) and I certainly do not remember my early indoctrination. I am sure it is similar to what my niece is receiving at this point in her life. I was probably taught the same gruesome details of the crucifixion and I probably didn’t think anything of it. I am aware that some children are traumatized by hearing these stories at such a young age, I’m surprised there aren’t far more of them. Maybe I was and just don’t remember it. Or maybe growing up with it being taught as perfectly normal makes a child’s mind more able to accept it without terror.
Children in church are taught that God created the earth in 6 days, that a talking snake and an apple ruined everything, that Noah built a boat that held two of every kind of animal (seven of the clean ones) when God decided to destroy the world, that a baby was born in a stable, and then later brutally murdered because of their sins. They are told this by nearly every adult they know, and they believe it because of this.
I know that I was taught all the little songs that Christian children learn, various bits of scripture and theology condensed into catchy nursery rhyme earworms that burrow deep into your mind forever. I know that I spent every Sunday and Wednesday in church from the earliest age, hearing the same things from every adult in my life.
I witnessed this process many times over with other children in church as I grew up, I even witnessed it, and probably helped, with my younger sisters. They were born when I was 15 so I was there for their very early years when this would have been going on. I didn’t think it so unusual at the time. Now I am sickened by it.
On a brief aside, earlier this month I had the great pleasure of seeing Richard Dawkins in Charleston, South Carolina. One of my friends (one of the ones who went through the whole pantheist stage before becoming a full-fledged, baby eating atheist) went down with me, we stayed with some friends in the area on Friday and were able to make it to the talk in time to grab good seats. Good thing we did! The doors opened at 5 and we were in by 5:10. Our seats were three quarters of the way back in the 450 seat auditorium! The talk didn’t start until 7pm. The auditorium was full, standing room only. They had maybe 75-100 people sitting on the stage (in chairs, on a bench someone found somewhere, and all around on the floor like children at a story time) and filled up three overflow rooms with a live video feed, even! Just venturing to guess I’d say there were probably over 800 people there. I’m sure many had traveled from Georgia, all over South Carolina, and North Carolina to see Dawkins.
The talk was an interview style discussion between Dawkins and Herb Silverman. Herb is perhaps best known of late for his work in starting the Secular Coalition for America, and his book, Candidate Without a Prayer. The book tells of his attempts to challenge South Carolina’s constitutional requirement that office holders sign a statement that they believe in god. First he attempted to run for governor and was denied it. When he sought legal council on the matter he was told that unless he could prove that he had a real chance of winning then they couldn’t challenge the law. Since he was relatively unknown that wasn’t likely. He then found that the law even applied to the position of notary public, and when he applied he was denied. He challenged this in the state supreme court and they found that the state’s constitution was unconstitutional in this matter. Though the law is still on the books, no one may be denied office on the grounds of their beliefs in South Carolina!
The talk was interesting, though it was obviously scripted and many of the points Dawkins made can be heard in other talks he’s given in the past. Most of the questions asked in the Q&A were nonsensical, not actual questions, or just poorly worded. Still, though, I was glad to have been able to see Dawkins in person. I decided against trying to get him to autograph my copy of The God Delusion as I had to be at church bright and early the next morning and the clocks were springing forward that night. In addition to being glad I got to see Dawkins speak, I was very encouraged to see so many nonbelievers together in one place here in the south!
Dawkins is very opposed to the indoctrination of children, and says that it should be considered child abuse to call a child a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child”. He compared it to calling a child a “republican child” or a “democrat child” (though I think there are some parents who would do so) or an “Keynesian child” which I think drives that point home even further. Sadly, many of the children, like my niece, who are called Christian children, will be indoctrinated to such an extent that they will be able to look back at their childhood and see it no differently. They may not have the ability to judge things rationally, but they do have the ability to believe something fervently, especially if it is taught to them by all the adults in their life at every opportunity. I believed these things when I was young, with all my being. I was a Christian child.
The mind of a child is inquisitive, they want to learn. Early on they begin to develop critical thinking skills through the trail and error of their play. Of course, these skills are only starting to develop and are not fully formed at this early age. The young child also accepts what the adults in their lives tell them is true. This is a good thing since it is far better for a child to learn that they shouldn’t touch the stove by being told that as law rather than learning through experimentation.
When you fill the undeveloped child mind with religious nonsense, and tell them that questioning these things is wrong then you take away the tools they are born with to question and learn. They then will likely only learn things they are told and will probably have no way to assess things on their own, skeptically.
It is no wonder so many religious people (my parents included) can buy into nonsense like young earth creation “science” and non-scientific, alternative medicine. They believe what they are told about these things and never apply critical reasoning to the ideas. It started when they were 2 and 3 years old, going to Sunday school, learning about the way Christ was tortured to save them from all the horrible sins in the life of a 3 year old. It took me nearly 30 years to escape from the indoctrination, I’m not at all surprised that some people never see the truth and find a way out.