I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Well, not reading so much as devouring whole. I don’t agree with everything I’ve read, but I am finding my rate of agreement hovering right around 97%.
Of course, what I’d like to talk about here is part of the other 3%.
Dawkins suggests that parents should not indoctrinate their children; that they should instead give them the tools to decide for themselves, and then let them do so. I actually agree with this sentiment. Profoundly. It is my life experience with my own kids that forces me to question it, because here’s the problem: I’m finding that if we don’t indoctrinate our kids, someone else will do it for us.
Let me give you an example. My wife and I differed on whether or not to tell our kids Santa was real. I didn’t really want to; it felt, at its core, like a lie. And a lie to what purpose? The truth is already wonderful. I would explain it to my children like this, given the option:
“Your parents and your family love you, and we want to make you happy. All year we have to say ‘put that down’, ‘no’, ‘not today.’ We want to give you what you want – but we can’t, partially because we don’t want to spoil you, and partially because – let’s be honest – no one can afford everything you want. But once a year, for one wonderful day and night, we suspend those rules. Just once a year, we get to really cut loose and spoil you rotten. You may find it hard to believe, but the feeling is as great for us as it is for you.”
That’s a pretty good justification, I think, and it is unvarnished truth. I’ll never have to sit the kids down and explain, “Sorry, I lied to you about why we give you presents,” or face their wounded accusations when they find out I lied when I said we love spoiling them once a year.
But my wife felt differently; she had believed in Santa Claus growing up, and liked the wonder and mystery of it. I was willing to concede on Santa, probably, but we were still debating the best way to actually introduce the concept – I wanted to keep it kind of “some people believe…” while my wife wanted to go whole hog.
We didn’t get to make the decision. Our son came home from daycare one day talking (with absolutely no hint of doubt) about Santa coming to the house on Christmas. Abruptly, we no longer had to decide “what to tell him.” Someone else had told him for us. Now we had to decide whether to upset it, which is an entirely different calculus.
The Santa Indoctrination was unsettling, but I’m glad it happened. It opened my eyes to the fact that if we don’t teach our kids about something, the world will teach them for us. And recently, I’ve found religious indoctrination to function much the same way.
I didn’t want to tell my son there’s no God. I’m still not certain of that fact myself, though I come closer to embracing it every day. Ultimately, I wanted to lay out the facts for him and let him decide for himself.
But at age 5, he believes what he’s told. We don’t talk about God at home in any capacity (pro or con). This leaves a void in his head, which has apparently been getting filled while he is outside of the house. I’d been debating (again) what to tell him: we’ve talked about evolution, and the big bang (and he found both concepts fascinating!), and that God probably didn’t do those things. I’ve spent a lot of time teasing him with preposterous stories, then asking him, “Do you think that’s real?” so he can start realizing that he can question what he hears. But we hadn’t tackled the idea of God head on.
Until the other day, when he told me the sun comes up because God makes it come up.
It drew me up short. Here we’ve been laboring to keep God out of our discussions, to supply the real, physical reasons why things happen and why things are important, and instead of helping to ground his belief system, it left a vaccuum. I couldn’t let my son walk around sounding like Bill O’Reilly, and I couldn’t just watch this weed make its first tiny sprout in his mind and pretend it wasn’t happening.
So I sat him down, and we talked. I first explained to him why the sun actually “comes up” – how the earth turns, and while it looks like the sun is rising to us, it’s actually the earth that’s turning in space. He particularly thought it was awesome that while it’s daytime here in Minnesota, it’s actually nighttime where Andrew is. Then I asked him, “So do you think God makes the sun come up?” and he said, “Yeah!”
My grandmother was in my head at this point, smugly pointing out that all children believe in God. It is natural and right for them to do so, because they were with God not that long ago, and they know firsthand that he is real. And don’t you dare upset that, Adam, don’t you dare, because it is natural and good and right and you have no right to counter it, no right.
It was all stuff I believed myself until a few years ago, and despite how far I’ve come and how much my belief system has changed, it still nearly shut me up. Then I realized how angry it made me, because no, dammit, my son wasn’t talking about God because he’d known God – he was talking about God because his daycare provider had been telling him behind our backs that he needed to do evening prayers, and because he went to school with kids whose parents weren’t bothering to teach them science, and because I had not had the courage to sit him down and tell him the truth. And while I sat there, waffling and debating the right thing to do, the world was teaching him for me.
Religion was ingrained in me very deeply, for a very long time. It is one thing to reach a personal conclusion and radically alter my own belief structure. It is quite another to indoctrinate an innocent child with my beliefs, beliefs that I am still shaky on, that I still have misgivings about. But in that instant I decided I would be damned if I’d let someone else do the job.
So I sat him down, and I told him, “You know what I think, Isaac? I’m not sure that God is even real. I think a lot of people use the excuse of God to make other people do what they say. They say, ‘Do what I tell you, or God will send you to hell.’ Or they say, ‘Hurt that person for me, or God will send you to hell.'”
We talked about how he has family that are homosexual (“She lives with another girl”) and how people use God as an excuse to persecute them, so he could see concrete, real life examples of how “God” was used to hurt him and people he loved.
After we talked, I made a final, lurching appeal to his free will. “This is just what I believe,” I said, “and you are getting bigger now, so you’ll start thinking about stuff like this more often. You’ll have to make your own decision about whether or not God is real.”
“I don’t think God is real,” he said immediately, with the same absolute conviction he had espoused while talking about Santa Claus, and I felt simultaneously horrified and profoundly relieved. On the one hand, he was safe for the moment – hopefully he wouldn’t believe anyone who told him he and everyone he loved would be going to hell for not going to church on Sunday.
On the other hand – how terribly easy it was to persuade him! It felt like brainwashing, and left a sickening repulsion in my gut.
I’m still not sure I did the right thing. Maybe I never will be – I’m learning that if parenting is about anything, it’s about constantly doubting that you’re doing it right. I take solace from the fact that those who would indoctrinate him the other way would not, for an instant, question their decision to do so. I hope that my agonizing at least represents that I’ve given it plenty of thought.
So, Richard Dawkins, it’s easy enough to say I shouldn’t indoctrinate my children. But when you are looking at a beautiful blank slate and see someone else charging at it with a razorblade, what other option is there?