Saturday, December 17, 2011

Keeping Both Wonder and Curiosity

I don’t have children, nor do I feel like I understand them as well as I should, but something I think about seriously from time to time is how to raise my future offspring. Many would say there should be a base tradition to raise a child from, but I’d strongly disagree with that. Being raised strictly Christian with little to no exposure to Judaism and Islam, let alone the other religions in the Dharmic traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, for instance, stunted my religious education in general. It wasn’t until high school that I had an opportunity to look deeper into various religions and perspectives on faith, including Deism and atheism. If children are allowed to make their own decision about religion without proper education on all religions, then the inevitable choice is biased because of the limitations and social pressures that have been commonly instilled. In my case, my social isolation and help from my parents to be an individual, eventually creating deep friendships, actually strengthened me to eventually sever the bonds from my church pretty conclusively. I don’t think I’ve been there in at least two to three years now. Any time I went before was for Easter, since even Xmas was basically tossed out the window. Though now that I’ve graduated from college, I think my family is even less insistent about me going, since they realize I’m an adult and am making my own decisions. Educating children about religion isn’t all though. There’s a key mistake that many parents probably make and that is not educating their children in skepticism and philosophy as well. If you don’t have that as a contrasting influence, your beliefs aren’t well thought out most of the time even if you know a great deal about various faiths of the world. There has to be a balance between inspiring a child’s wonder at things and maintaining the child’s curiosity that makes them the best kinds of philosophers, according to Gareth Matthews’ text, Philosophy and the Young Child from the early 80s. That message still holds true today in terms of educating children about both sides of the issue of belief and nonbelief.

Education about religion is important since it’s prominent across the entire world and colors a great deal of cultural practices, literary references and philosophical arguments. Even if you yourself don’t believe any of the metaphysical, epistemological or various other unfalsifiable and irrational claims, you can still expose your child to it as a source of knowledge people draw on. Taking children to church could be done for a time. But you shouldn’t just visit churches. Any parent can give the illusion of saying they’re giving their children a varied education about religion by saying they’ve had their children visit a synagogue or a mosque or the multitude of “heretic/false teaching” churches once in their lives. My own home church did something like this, having the young members learn about Mormonism, Judaism and other “Christian” churches. However, this doesn’t constitute sufficient exposure. In the limited scope of maybe 50 miles from where the church is, you could conceivably have had these kids learn about Unitarian Universalism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and other much more foreign religions. But in the limited span of time they had at Vacation Bible School, they probably only wanted to stick with theistic religions. The very idea of multiple gods or no god/gods at all would’ve apparently been too confusing for children ranging from as young as 3 to as old as mid adolescent. We seem to do this not only with philosophy for children, but very much so with religious topics. They’re presented in such a simplistic way that when they find out there’s much more diversity out there, it throws them off and the strategy relies on a likelihood that children will retreat into the only thing they feel remotely secure in. So with a crafty psychological tactic, children could conceivably learn about such things if they go onto college in an introductory religion course, but wouldn’t stray from their native faith. If you’re going to educate children about religion, do it as comprehensively as you can with basic limits on how it progresses. You don’t want to leap into complexities of theology from the start, of course, but that should be something you’re willing to explore eventually if the child is curious or has even had actual experience that they want to tell you about. Being even remotely knowledgeable about these sorts of subjects can also smooth over potentially rough relations between yourself as an atheist parent and a child who converts at some point or another, usually post college graduation. Knowing the arguments and terminology, but also bringing up counter arguments and criticism without appearing to be an outsider can make the situation easier to pacify and adjust to a state of relative coexistence. It therefore benefits both you and your child in different ways throughout your lives to learn about religions even if you both eventually conclude that they’re nonsense.

Teaching children to be skeptical of religion, pseudoscience and the like is equally, if not slightly more, substantial because of how it enables the child to grow up and not simply believe in things by authority or faulty reasoning. Even if the child converts and believes things vastly opposed to your own, you can fall back on what you taught them, if only to moderate those beliefs by the very education you instilled in them. The child may not be able to get over the mental block that was initiated by some near death experience or other mystical encounter with the “sacred,” You may be able to make them reexamine their beliefs more critically and possibly reject them in favor of less ridiculous ones. Or if nothing else, you’ll make them realize the need to maintain  equanimity with you in terms of discussing a subject you’re not only familiar with in terms of the basic tenets of that faith, even if it’s an eclectic one pieced together, but also able to objectively examine and see whether it holds up to reason and evidence. They won’t be able to convert you so easily, if at all, since you educated them and hopefully haven’t softened in terms of practice. But you can also be much more civil than a parent who would otherwise be too harsh in criticizing the child for believing in something for reasons that you thought you communicated were illogical without showing them this directly from those faiths in question. If you realize that the child was bound to consider religion at least partially, it’s better than being excessively secularist to the sound of antitheism, opposing the very existence of religious belief even at the cost of human liberty which you also value. To teach children about science, philosophy, and other subjects of worth can be done by the educational system, but encouraging them to think critically about those subjects and engage with religious people and a religious culture such as America is something a parent is responsible for much more than any school is. It can be difficult to strike a balance here as well. Being staunchly anti religious would be counter-productive, but simply encouraging philosophy can be too weak, since a certain segment of religious believers have significant philosophical training and can twist the principles around with theological sophistry to make a person reject their disbelief rather quickly, not only because of their authority as an instructor, but because they genuinely know philosophy better than the student. A person who has cultivated understanding of both belief and nonbelief in the supernatural is better prepared for not only the world of philosophy in general, but also interpersonal relationships with people you may fundamentally disagree with in many ways, but can be friends with regardless. Most of my own friends, for instance, online or otherwise, are supernaturalists of one form or another. But our shared interests have trumped what could otherwise be a contentious subject that we rarely, if ever, bring up. A disciplined secularism is far better than one run amok with emotional baggage.

Simply educating children about religion without the counterbalance of secularism and philosophy is just as potentially bad as just teaching secularism and philosophy itself. The child could become an arrogant intellectual who regards religious people as beyond and below them, not even being polite or courteous to them in any sense because of their unjustified sense of entitlement as one who doesn’t believe whatever believers affirm as true. It would also reinforce the negative stereotype of atheists all the more if you bring up an adolescent being as fundamentalist and rigid in their beliefs as the religious people they criticize. The irony would be palpable, yet painful. You also don’t want a child to simply speak about religion as if they know about it without also being able to criticize religion for the nonsense it more often than not claims as truth. Belief in the resurrection of the dead, miraculous healings, attributing ethics and metaphysics to the divine instead of to humanity where they originated, and so many other inanities that would make most people grind their teeth in frustration. But if you comprehend where the believer comes from in their perspective about the world and how they think it came to be and its inner workings, then you’re better equipped to show them how it’s not only unnecessary to believe many of these things, but unreasonable on its face. Better conversation from both sides of this battle of worldviews starts with good education. Neither lackadaisical teaching about world religions nor rigid adherence to logical positivism will make for a well adjusted individual. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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