Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Preparing Young Atheists for the Draws of Religion

Someone named Draconis posted the following on PostMormon:

I was talking to someone today and the subject of religion came up. It turns out that he is an atheist who has never really been taught much at all about religion. What was interesting to me is that his world view seems to be very naive, based on lack of reason to believe anything in particular. He's never given it much thought, never been too concerned about it, and only knows that he disliked Christianity because to him they are "too pushy." Beyond that, he has never much pondered the mysteries of the universe at all.

In stark contrast, while I don't necessarily disagree with his conclusions, I almost found it offensive that he reached them so callously. He's never pondered the big questions. He has never yearned for the truth. He was totally ignorant to the reasons why somebody might choose to be an atheist and instead just never chose NOT to be an atheist. In short, he has no good reason to be an atheist.

I started wondering whether part of the reason I was annoyed by his apathy and gross ignorance was due to some jealousy on my behalf. What would it have been like to be raised without the concept of some all-powerful control-freak watching over me and judging my actions and thoughts? What would it have been like to not have to break free from the chains of spiritual bondage and fight my way to freedom?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what was unsettling me was that he didn't appreciate what he had, because he'd never earned it. Most of us here know what it means to suffer in order to find our own spiritual freedom, and here this guy has never been without it and doesn't even begin to appreciate what he has.

Once I understood the reason for my feelings I was able to change them. I know that I have something he does not have. I recognize the value of my perspective because it is based on hard-won experience. I will not be easily duped in the future. I have valuable experience to back up my convictions, where he merely has a lack of convictions due to a lack of experience. That is to say, I have good reason not to believe, whereas he merely has no good reason to believe.

Here was my response:

I have been thinking of this topic a lot recently. Obama was much like the guy you described. Obama's father was raised Muslim, but by the time he got involved with Obama's mother, he was atheist. Obama's mother was raised protestant, but was basically agnostic/secular humanist throughout he adult life.

Obama spent a lot of time with his maternal grandparents. But, while living with his mom in foriegn countries he was exposed to Catholic and Muslim beliefs, but never really internalized those beliefs. In his young adult years, he aimlessly wandered a bit using some drugs and alcohol. Then, he got his education on track and earned a law degree.

It was while he was working with the poor in Chicago that he realized that the people he was helping had something he did not - a spirituality that got them through the tough times. He wanted that, too, so he studied with the Rev. Wright and was really introduced to Christ. Obama challenged the pastor a bit, but eventually acepted Christianity as true.

See, I think Obama was unprepared like so many nontheists are today. I think those of us who are atheists need to teach our kids two important things: 1) spirituality that does not stem from the supernatural, and 2) all the evidence of why we find the dogmatic religions of the world false.

My kids are very young now, but they will know why I don't believe Mormonism is true, and they will know the evidence against the Bible, thereby ruling out a literal belief in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They will be free to choose to believe what they wish and I'll take them to many different religions' services, but they will also know the evidence and logical arguments I use to determine what I think about those religions.

But, the other thing I'll do is teach my kids to experience awe, transcendence, elevation, peace, connectedness, wonder, etc, outside of the supernatural context. They will know what I believe to be the natural mechanisms at work during "spiritual" experiences. I don't want my kids to feel like this is a gaping whole in their lives that can only be filled through superstitious religion.

I know why I am atheist and am proud of the research I have done into Mormonism and Christianity that convinced me that they could not be true. I hope that I will equip my children with critical thinking skills and a willingness to thoroughly investigate any religion before they believe in it. And I want them to know how to create those wonderful and calming experiences that are traditional thought of as spiritual without having to believe in the supernatural.

I think young atheists need to be religiously literate. Religion plays too large a role in world affairs and domestic agendas for any of us to not be educated in it. I don't believe one can have a suitable, welll-rounded education and be prepared to be a citizen of the world without having some working knowledge of religion. So much of great art and literature allude to religious icons. Religion is a very real and influential cultural phenomenon even if the beliefs they are founded on aren't true.


Saganist said...

I totally agree. I hope to educate our children about all kinds of religious ideas, and to teach them to ask tough questions and seek out the answers. It seems to me that an atheist who has never had a reason to believe or disbelieve anything else is in a very precarious position, and may end up joining a random religious group just because they happen to talk to him at the right time. In many ways, I think that's kind of what happened to me. I grew up in a kinda sorta Christianish but mostly irreligious family, and we never talked about religion at all. So I wasn't prepared to encounter religious groups out in the world, and I joined pretty much every one that happened to knock on my door. I feel like I have a well-informed perspective as a result, but I'm not sure that's exactly the path I'd like my kids to have to travel.

Eve said...

A young atheist who wants to run for elected office would quickly learn that the odds of getting elected are a lot better for a Christian than an atheist, all else being equal.