What If We Taught Students That Religion is Absurd?

What If We Taught Students That Religion is Absurd?

Teaching Children The Absurdity Of Religion In School

The religiosity of America fascinates me. I am intrigued by the idea of millions of people in an advanced nation believing that they have a “relationship” with an imaginary friend and believing that this imaginary friend is answering their prayers. 

In the United States, something like 76% of the population believes in God, and seventy percent of the population identifies as Christian.1 

Three-quarters of the U.S. population believes that the Bible was at least inspired by God, and 28% (more than 89 million people) believe the stories in it are literally true.2 

Why would anyone today believe that the Christian god is real or that the story of Noah’s ark is true? My goal here is to advocate that we, as a society, start an active campaign to make religion irrelevant to human civilization. In the same way that there have been active campaigns to eliminate diseases like smallpox and polio, we should start a similar campaign against religion.

The tool I propose for religion’s elimination is across-the-board education in critical thinking. But first, let’s step back for a moment and ask, How do we find ourselves in this position as a species? There are many interesting things that human beings do. 

Music, math, tools, cooking, science, engineering, art, and language all come to mind. But religion ranks up there as perhaps the most interesting. 

Religion stands out because it is so irrational and bizarre. Billions of people on this planet believe in their various imaginary beings so firmly that disagreements about religion often escalate to violence and warfare. 

We, therefore, must ask two questions: What would cause such firm, bizarre beliefs, and what can be done about them? The fact that believers are often indoctrinated from birth and immersed in a highly religious culture certainly comes into play. 

The fact that some religious beliefs are quite comforting is also a factor. For example, believing that you live on after death and get to reunite with dead friends and relatives is certainly appealing. 

If you ignore the fact that these beliefs are nonsensical from a scientific standpoint, it is easy to accept them. If you never bother to learn any science or critical thinking, it is easier still.


Why would a person believe that god is answering prayers, given the observations that anyone can make in the real world?


Let me propose another idea: The widespread belief in prayer is important to fuel the religious fire that burns inside many people. 

Tantalizing verses in the Bible encourage Christians to pray. Mark 11:24 says, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” 

Matthew 18:19 says, “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” John 14:14 says, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. 

You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” If a critical thinker ponders prayer, it is quickly obvious that prayer is purely a superstition. Any unbiased person who looks at the evidence critically can see that every “answered prayer” is a coincidence. 

After all, if we pray to God to heal an amputee, nothing ever happens, despite several verses in the Bible to the contrary. 

And if our prayer concerns an ordinary event, the outcome always follows the statistical patterns we would expect. It is not as if thousands of faithful Christians all pray and win the lottery simultaneously. 

Atheists win the lottery at the same statistical rate as praying Christians. But billions of Christians believe otherwise. How can that be? Why would a person believe that God is answering prayers, given the observations that anyone can make in the real world? 

How can the belief in the power of prayer be so ubiquitous? This is where things get interesting. A variety of biases and fallacies underpin the belief in prayer. 

The belief in prayer shows us that these mental derailments dominate the thinking process unless a person is trained in critical thinking. Then why do so many highly educated people believe in the power of prayer? 

Even if someone makes a living by thinking rationally and critically (doctors, scientists, engineers, lawyers, actuaries, and statisticians all come to mind), compartmentalization can prevent them from taking an analytical approach to prayer. 

Critical thinking is never allowed into the religion compartment. Another big problem is confirmation bias, which is the selective acceptance of new information that ignores all contradictory evidence. This explains how someone can make special notes of the prayers that work while ignoring all of the failed prayers. 

This occurs, for example, when a praying Christian beats cancer or survives a car accident. They will shout about their answered prayers to anyone who will listen. 

Survivors sometimes get tremendous media attention, as in the case of Petra Anderson, a victim of the 2012 mass shooting in a Colorado theater during a showing of the latest Batman movie, The Dark Night Rises. 

Petra survived her life-threatening injuries because a pellet from the shotgun missed hitting any of her brain's blood vessels or major structures.3 

In a blog post about the incident, the pastor of Petra’s church said that when god was creating Petra, he arranged the blood vessels in her head so that they would miss the bullet that he knew would be fired at her in the twenty-third year of her life: “In Christianity, we call it prevenient grace: God working ahead of time for a particular event in the future. 

It’s just like the God I follow to plan the route of a bullet through a brain long before Batman ever rises. Twenty-two years before.”4 Twelve other people were not so lucky, but we’ll never hear from them about their failed prayers because they are dead. 

There was no prevenient grace for them because the idea of prevenient grace is nonsense. The post hoc fallacy is another way that people can be fooled into thinking that prayer works. 

A post hoc fallacy misattributes causation. In the mind of an untrained thinker, the fact that event A follows event B means that event A was caused by event B. 

So a Christian thinks, “I prayed to God for X, and it happened. Therefore, God answered my prayer!” This fallacy combined with confirmation bias is a powerful force. Add to that the placebo effect or the regression fallacy in the medical realm, and belief in prayer can go off the charts. 

And there’s also groupthink, where a group of people compels their members to toe the line on shared beliefs—or else. 

How can a middle-class Christian believe that God answers her trivial prayers while also allowing billions of people on the planet to live in devastating poverty? Doublethink makes this possible. It allows uncritical thinkers to believe two opposing ideas simultaneously. 

The problem is that these poor thinking patterns are not limited to the religious sphere. They inevitably leak out to other activities. For example, people who lack critical thinking skills also vote. Their inability to think clearly leaves them vulnerable to confirmation bias, the post hoc fallacy, groupthink, doublethink, and many other derailments encouraged by political campaigns.

This is why society will greatly benefit once critical thinking is made a part of the curriculum starting in elementary school. Imagine this as a course title for a new compulsory high school class: “The Belief in Prayer is a Superstition: An Introduction to Critical Thinking.” 

Or what about this in middle school: “God is Imaginary: Using Critical Thinking to Understand the Real World.” Or this in elementary school: “Some Things are not Real: How to Tell the Difference.” In these classes, we would give students the critical-thinking tools they can use to separate fact from fiction. These tools will help them in many other areas of their lives as well. 

The core idea underpinning this approach to education is simple: Religion, in large part, is a side effect of ignorance. 5 Lack of critical thinking is definitely fueling the widespread belief in prayer and many other religious tendencies. 

One reason why religion generally diminishes in richer, more educated societies is that the idea of religion becomes absurd to people who are better educated. 

Once they can understand and eliminate fallacies and biases, religion looks silly to many. Anyone who removes the compartmentalization that often protects religion from critical thinking will understand that religion is filled with nonsense and impossibility. 

Religion is rife with contradictions, which makes the whole notion ridiculous to someone who exposes religion to critical thought. Therefore, to eliminate religion, our task is straightforward. 

We need to educate our children and teenagers to the point where they can think critically for themselves and can easily see and understand the absurdity of religion. 

The good news is that once someone’s brain is at this level of comprehension, a great many positive side effects occur. Life would be much better for everyone if everyone in our society is educated to the level where they understand that religion is absurd.


Marshall Brain

By Marshall Brain

Marshall Brain is the author of How God Works: A Logical Inquiry on Faith and the founder of HowStuffWorks.com. He also writes extensively on several topics at MarshallBrain.com.

Cover image by Kuanish Reymbaev on Unsplash

Read more:


  1. "America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” PewForum.org, May 12, 2015. 
  2. “Three in Four in the U.S. Still See the Bible as Word of God,” Gallup.com, June 4, 2014. 
  3. “Shotgun Pellet’s ‘Miracle’ Path Spared Aurora Victim’s Life,” USNews.NBCNews.com, July 26, 2012. 
  4. “A Miracle Inside the Aurora Shooting: One Victim’s Story,” BradStrait.com, July 22, 2012. 
  5. “Falling Away: How Education Makes People Less Religious—and Less Superstitious, Too,” Economist.com, October 11, 2014.

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