The psychology of religion, part V
Teaching your children your religion is potentially harming them
Author’s note: Many readers who find this article are likely to be religious. This article is not a criticism of you as a human being. It is, however, a criticism of some of the things you may believe to be true without having any valid reason for doing so. Cultures, which often include a built-in religion, are psychologically powerful but often irrational. If you’re offended by this essay, I understand. If you want to go away and never come back here, that’s fine. I hope you wake up from your faith somewhere else because faith is also belief in the absence of any evidence. Please don’t proselytize. I have explored all the arguments for faith already.
Parents teach their children to look both ways when crossing the street. They tell them to look only one way when choosing a religion.
In a truly free society, it should be illegal to indoctrinate children into any single religion. Once the age of majority is reached, then by all means, use any arguments you like to convince them that your god/gods/dogma/rituals are the correct choice.
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Scientific research shows that secular humans are more morally grounded than religious people. Examples of this include the data about who helped turn the tide in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. You guessed it: non-religious activists led the way.1 The same is true of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Secularists, the data show, are less ethnocentric, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, nationalistic, and tribal than their religious counterparts.2 This is not to say that every religious person possesses all these negative qualities, or that those without religious beliefs are free of them. Rather, the data skew towards favoring the first group. Plenty of religious people are benign. Plenty are wonderful, loving folk. However, a data-driven, evidence-based lens indicates that your children will statistically be better people if you allow them to choose their own religion, or no religion.
The fact remains that people, more often than not, inherit their religious beliefs from parents or childhood mentors. There is a crucial period in which a child begins to ask questions about life and wonder about the origin of existence and, in a religious family, these questions are typically answered in a religious context. The process begins with childhood baptisms, forced participation in religious rituals from a young age, and teaching children who are too young to understand that their religion is the only correct one, and sometimes that all others will burn in Hell.
This essay is personal to me since I was raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical, missionary family. I was once slapped across the face hard enough to leave a mark that lasted a week for blaspheming the name of our family god. I was in kindergarten and heard a fellow student say, “Oh god,” which I then repeated at home, earning the hard slap to the face. That left an imprint that was far more than physical. Our family was taught to believe in a loving god who was also angry, demanding, and petty. This caused me a great deal of cognitive dissonance that didn’t fade until I understood that these myths could not possibly be literal and that I wouldn’t burn eternally in a lake of fire no matter what rules I followed, who I loved, or what my life’s work would be.
Lest you believe that I am so biased as to utterly dismiss religion as toxic, the data shows that religious factors during child development positively correlate with psychological and social adjustments. The other side of that coin is that math and science learning is affected negatively.3
Children are not sent to fight wars in most parts of the world. They should likewise not be forced to accept one true path to enlightenment before they have had a chance to examine a range of possibilities. Religious indoctrination during childhood examined through a scientific lens reveals that no religion is monolithic. Religion is multi-valent. It can be helpful to some and harmful to others. Parental religiosity is associated with less flexible caregiving due to the effects of rigid dogma. Additionally, households with literal views of religious dogma have higher parental stress rates, and higher rates of child abuse.4 Research also indicates that religiosity undermines rational parenting. Religion happens on a spectrum, so this is not the end all, be all and you may have been raised by very religious parents, accepted their worldview, and have led a joyful, meaningful, and productive life. A lot of this stuff is experienced through human subjectivity. If you did turn out to be happy and faithful, that's all the more reason to allow your progeny to choose their own spiritual path.
It bears repeating: In a truly free society, it should be illegal to indoctrinate children into any particular religion. Once the age of majority is reached, then by all means, use all the arguments you like to convince them that your god/gods/dogma/rituals are the correct choice.