Doubtless: Religious skepticism is Greek to kids
I recently shared a very interesting breakfast conversation about religious skepticism with a 40-something Gen-Xer.
He grew up swaddled in Christian belief and had long enthusiastically embraced it (even eventually becoming a board trustee of his church), but he then lost his religious mojo completely somewhere along the long, winding road to maturity.
Although belief in invisible deities now seems wholly speculative to him at best, he regrets that his new personal unbelief seems to alienate him somewhat from some members of his family, old friends who have not lost their Christianity, and a Midwestern culture steeped in faith.
His story of gradual apostacy and a final epiphany of doubt is similar to many others I have heard first-hand over the years and in books, articles and videos. It is a story of slow awakening, and then, suddenly—ironically—of feeling “born again,” but in a world devoid of spirits.
The reason for the gradualness of this process is that in American culture students from kindergarten through high school are not methodically taught, much less encouraged, to be rigorously skeptical when assessing the apparent realities of their existence. Especially when it comes to religion. However, virtually all kids in the U.S. are vigorously, resolutely, purposefully taught practically from the cradle to envision, to believe in and to fervently worship invisible beings, specifically the deities of Christianity. But they are never taught how to question the actual actuality of these phantasms.
Educators like to talk about how they teach “critical thinking” in our schools, but if such curricula don’t include teaching students how—and giving them clear permission—to ruthlessly dissect the tenets of their own deepest beliefs (of which religion is arguably the most fundamental), they are effectively useless. So, I fear most American kids graduate from high school with years of Christian indoctrination deeply insinuated in their minds and no inclination whatsoever to question whether any of those airy ideas are, in fact, true.
My recent breakfast companion’s “epiphany,” as it were, came while reading an engrossing book by the late atheist gadfly Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He was convinced by Hitchens’ unflinching, sharply defined arguments painting religious belief as pure fantasy, which crisply answered many of his deepest questions and eased his anxiety that he might somehow be mistaken in his budding unbelief. Yet, that doubt was not reason but rather his childhood religious indoctrination still whispering in his head.
I had a similar experience myself some years ago while reading a fabulous 2004 book by historian Jennifer Michael Hecht entitled, Doubt: A History—The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. Because this expansive, venerable history of religious doubt had scarcely been mentioned throughout my American primary and secondary education, it was effectively Greek to me when I entered college. Most of my assumptions at the time, as the American system purposely but also inadvertently accommodates, were steeped in purportedly sacred Christian ideals.
The wellspring of spiritual doubt is contained in the ancient Greek philosophers’ then-revolutionary idea that perhaps gods were illusions and that the cosmos only contained matter and the physical forces thus unleashed. But the Greek project sadly fizzled and then lay dormant for nearly 1,000 years in what is now Western Europe after the cataclysmic fall of Rome. During those “Dark Ages,” knowledge decomposed in texts on neglected shelves, while Christianity acquired absolute power and authority over the masses. Ultimately, philosophy later reincarnated in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods but thereafter thrived mainly in science, not personal metaphysics.
Today, only science remains in American schools as the essential descendant of the Greeks. The epiphanies of Plato and Aristotle and all the rest that led to religious skepticism are virtually nowhere to be found before college. Why? Because parents are loathe to have their kids taught skills with which to rationally question the religion they resolutely indoctrinated them with.
In my view, that needs to change. Students should be learning how to think rationally—which is to say, philosophically, skeptically—from kindergarten on, if not before. Indeed, studies show children are natural philosophers, before religious indoctrination seems to kill the urge.