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I was recently reminded of one of the many reasons that I despise the indoctrination of children. I’ll be honest; there are a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that it’s the most effective way of propagating religion. On an individual basis, I take issue with the way that indoctrination teaches the child not only what to think, but how.
A four-year-old with Catholic parents noticed my uncle’s rather impressive mustache. I think anyone would be hard pressed not to notice it. But this particular child had somehow reached the age of four without ever being introduced to the concept of facial hair, so he asked my uncle what that thing was on his face, to which he replied, quite patiently, “A mustache.” Fascinated, the boy demanded to know how it had gotten there. My uncle informed him that it grew there, expecting further questions of how such a thing was possible. Instead, the boy looked confused for a minute before comprehension dawned.
“Oh, God did it. God put it there.”
Satisfied with this answer, the boy left the room to go play with his friends and presumably go on believing that God, for whatever reason, sometimes decides to slap mustaches on old men’s faces.
My problem here is that this young boy, along with so many others like him, has been taught that curiosity is almost always met with immediate and easily-understandable answers. Why is the sky blue? Because God made it that way. Why is there thunder during lightning storms? Because God’s going bowling. Why do seagulls live by the sea? Because if they lived by the bay, they’d be bay-gulls! And, Also, because God said so.
Life is, of course, more complex than that. The sky is blue because of the way atmospheric particles scatter light. This leads to more in-depth questions, like “why do atmospheric molecules scatter the light in that way?”
To be honest, I don’t know, but I could find out if I really wanted to. I could research the question online, I could read books, I could ask a physicist. Eventually, if I asked enough questions, I would get to a point where nobody knows the answer yet. The beautiful thing is that if I still wanted to know more, I could try to find out for myself. I could get a doctorate or two and I could start looking for the next answer down the line.
Now I, personally, might not have the time, or the drive, or the resources to get these doctorates and set forth on a quest for more clues as to the nature of the universe, but there are plenty of people who do. Without them, we as a species would make very little progress in expanding our collective knowledge about the whys and wherefores of this wonderful world. I’d argue that every major stride we’ve ever made has happened because someone asked a question and refused to accept “just because” as an answer.
So for those of you that train your children in just this kind of thinking, you’re depriving humanity of future scientists. There are a few that are curious enough to break out of this mold and refuse to accept their “just becauses,” but why not give them a head start? Why not teach them from the very beginning that there are unanswered questions out there just waiting for inquiring minds to tackle them? Why not teach them that “I don’t know” isn’t the same thing as saying “I give up”? Saying “God did it” is a cop-out. Even if you insist on believing in a god that’s ultimately responsible for the world being the way that it is now, that’s no reason to just skip to the end. If you do that, you leave out all the interesting parts of quantum mechanics and higher mathematics and anthropology and medicine and psychology and history and the life cycles of stars.
I’m not saying that this is the only way, or even the worst way, that religion damages young minds. I could go on for days about teaching children hatred and fear, or the perils of magical thinking, or discouraging questions that expose the confusing and contradictory aspects of their parent’s religions. Still, I feel that the provision of a readily-available all-purpose answer is a subtle and consistent attack on a child’s inquisitive nature that slowly and steadily erodes curiosity until almost nothing remains. It’s insidious because it’s a negative disguised as a positive. It’s discouraging inquiry by answering questions; eventually, the child is going to learn that the answer is always going to be the same. Yes, some children are able to resist, to remain curious despite all attempts to the contrary, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule.
And even worse, children don’t hesitate to pass this onto their peers. I don’t think I could begin to count how many times my friends and classmates discouraged me from asking questions as a kid. I was ridiculed for wondering how we got here, because to them the answer was obvious. As I got older and my questions grew more complex, their insistence that it didn’t really matter became more urgent, and now it included a new aspect: It’s not our place as mere mortals to question why God would do something. In fact, I’ve been repeatedly informed, we’re probably not even capable of understanding the answer. God works in mysterious ways. Even now, the majority of religious people with whom I discuss “intelligent design” assert that it doesn’t really matter whether evolution happened or not, because either way, God was responsible. There’s no reason to wonder why he might have done things one way or another, because we probably wouldn’t understand anyway. They may be mildly curious as to whether creation was an instantaneous event or guided over billions of years, but they don’t feel it makes any difference to their lives, or their faith.
“God did it” is not how you raise scientists and innovators. This intellectual instant gratification stifles speculation, curbs creativity, and all in all makes the world a very boring place to live. What reason is there to delve into the mysteries of the universe if you know the ultimate answer is always going to be “God did it”? A world in which questions outnumber answers is a far more fascinating place, and one I think children would be better off being raised in.
Johanna is a member of CVA. The views expressed in this posting are her own and do not necessarily represent those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.