Thursday, 14 July 2011

Why it matters

When I was about ten years old the worst insults I knew were 'Jew' and 'homo'. I had no idea what either of these words meant but, if one of my peers was mean, I'd call him a Jew and if another was creepy I'd call him a homo. I remember vividly a game we played in our spare time, a variant of tag in which a tall, pretty boy chased the other kids around the playing fields while we shrieked 'homo! homo!' at him. If he succeeded in touching another boy, he was infected with homo-ness and became dirty. A few years later, when I'd understood that Jews have long been associated in Christian culture with miserliness and that 'homo' meant 'homosexual', I felt no shame at having misused these words. I felt smug about my new worldliness and my revulsion for Jews and homos deepened.
Those playground games were supervised by adults, men (mostly) and women whom our parents had charged with our education. So far as I recall, they never intervened. Never thought it appropriate to stop our game and rescue the unlucky child who had been labeled a homo. Never thought to ask us what we understood by this word. What were they thinking? What weren't they thinking? It wasn't until, as an undergraduate, I made a friendship with an openly gay man that I was forced to confront my prejudices. But for a chance encounter with a like-minded bloke in a bar in Cambridge, I might not yet have seen them for what they were. Anti-Semitism and homophobia remain ubiquitous and have resulted in contemporary times in atrocities ranging in scale from the Holocaust to the personal hell inflicted on gay men and women by intolerant societies.

Children learn with consummate ease but they forget only with extreme difficulty. Consider the simple case of handwriting. If well taught, kids pick up the basics in a matter of months and within a few years are able to record in arbitrary symbols, perhaps with a few spelling mistakes, any sentence uttered in their native language. Some children pick up bad habits, often from their parents, forming letters 'incorrectly'. If these habits are left uncorrected they can persist for life. This is hardly a big deal but nevertheless we practice correct letter formation with our kids in the knowledge that habits, good and bad, they learn now will stick. "Give me the boy until he is seven and I will give you the man."

Now I have two young children of my own. I would like to protect them from evil for as long as possible. This duty implies much more to me than keeping them away from paedophiles and other predators. Their mother and I are the guardians of the gateway to their developing minds. Childrens' minds are little engines for generating beliefs about the world. The raw materials for these beliefs are supplied by adults, specifically by the special class of adult known as teachers. Teachers therefore have a responsibility to avoid putting false beliefs into the minds of children. Parents must ensure that teachers discharge this responsibility and intervene if they do not.

Children in most schools in England no longer run around playgrounds screaming 'Jew!' and 'homo!' at one another, for which I am grateful. I am happy for my kids that they will never have to unlearn the false beliefs that Jews are miserly and homosexuals are creepy. I think this represents genuine moral progress (a large claim which I will try to justify in a future post) and is something our society should be proud of and should defend against the claims of moral relativists.

The deliberate reinforcement of some particularly vile false beliefs has been curtailed, then, but there are plenty of other false - and dangerous - ideas that we allow our children to be taught. Conspicuous among these are the tenets of the dominant religious ideology in the culture in which they are growing up. In the case of my children, this ideology is Christianity. 

My five year old son came home from school the other day and declared that "God keeps us safe at night." How did he know this? I asked. "We had to say something about night and ____ said 'God keeps us safe at night' and Miss ____ said 'That's right.'" I told Pieter that some grownups disagree with Miss ____. For example, I said, "I think that there isn't any god." "Oh yes there is, Daddy." Shot back Pieter.

Whatever our respective views on Miss ____'s beliefs, we can surely all agree that god or God emphatically does not keep us safe at night and that it is downright dangerous to teach children that he does. We would be rightly angry if our children were taught that god keeps them safe when they are crossing the road or playing with a box of matches. Why then should we smile indulgently when they are taught something equally ludicrous but less obviously life-threatening? Why should we impose on our children the burden of having to unlearn later in life, when unlearning is so hard, the false beliefs that we are quite deliberately shoveling down their willing little throats now?

In England we still permit, even encourage priests to visit our schools and teach our kids false beliefs. I suppose that I should be grateful we don't live in Ireland or Italy, where the instilling of false beliefs is far from the only thing on a priest's agenda. If these beliefs were about the correct way to form the letter 'P' then I would do what my wife advises and relax. But they are not. They concern the existence of a particular God and claims that the foundations of human morality are to be found in the word of that God, as revealed by his prophets and recorded in the Bible.

What exactly are these claims? It's tough to pin down a Christian these days but it's hard even in the Church of England, to deny that at the core of Christianity is the belief that god sent his only son to earth and caused him, after a few years of ministry, to be tortured to death in order to redeem the sins of humans dead and yet unborn. Practicing Christians remember this god/man at least once a week, in a ritual that involves drinking his blood and eating bits of his flesh. 

Let us be very clear about this. We are allowing our children to be taught that God's son had to die in mortal agony so that their sins could be forgiven by his father. And that Dad orchestrated the whole setup.

Of course, I think the evidence indicates quite clearly that god does not exist but, even if I did believe in god, why would I worship him if these are the sorts of ways he gets his kicks? More pertinently, why would I allow anyone to teach my children - too young still to argue back - to worship him?

The Bible is the core text of Christianity and is also, in part, held sacred by Jews and Muslims. To followers of all three religions it is a document to which we are meant to turn for moral guidance.

Moses' instructions to his army captains, who had been a bit sloppy in the matter of murdering the Midianites, is a celebrated example of Old Testament morality.

"Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him; but all the women-children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves."

Numbers, Chapter 31, Verse 13

Nor was Christ the loveable chap he is generally held to be. The New Testament is full of bad ideas too. Bertrand Russell pointed this out with mischievous wit in Why I am not a Christian.

"There is, of course the familiar text about the sin against the holy Ghost: Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come.  That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.

Whichever way you look at the truth of the claims made by Christians, it seems to me a grave moral error to allow these claims to be taught, as though they were beyond dispute, to young children. How can it be right that we care enough about correct letter formation to practice it endlessly with our children lest they develop bad letter-forming habits, yet are so indifferent to their moral well-being that we allow them to be taught that human sacrifice is an appropriate way to expiate sins?

This blog is my personal take on religion and its dangers. My starting point, as a human being and a father, is that religion does matter. We are allowing our kids to be taught Very Bad Ideas in ways that present them as being very good and I contend that, in allowing this, we are culpable of a crime against our children at least as great as that perpetrated by my parents and the teachers who allowed me to scream 'homo!' at a ten year old boy without confronting me with what I was saying. 

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