What We Can Do to "Keep" Children Atheists

What We Can Do to Help Children Become Atheists
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Our brains are compelled to make sense out of the data it receives, even if that sense is absolutely and utterly incorrect, untrue, or even delusional

There is no such thing as natural-born Christians, Muslims, or Hindus. Children are by default born as Atheists, it the elders, who indoctrinate their dogmatism into kids’ brains. But it is much easier for a child to become religious than to become Atheistic.

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This fact explains in part why there are so few of us. This article is the first in a four-part series that will examine the reasons for our scarcity. In each article, I will talk about a different stage of life. 

Here, I want to explore why religious faith or some other form of mystical, non-scientific belief is ubiquitous among the young, even if they are born into an extended family of Atheists. I will also offer some practical countermeasures we can bring against the forces of bewilderment.

Evolution

One of life’s greatest ironies is that a belief in a creator was caused by evolution. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution actually explains why there are so many creation “scientists” who despise and fear the concept of evolution, and also why there are even some real scientists who don’t believe evolution to be true and can’t even expound it properly. 

Evolution has instilled in the species Homo sapien sapien several genetic drives, among which are hunger, thirst, and reproduction. The drive relevant to this article is survival. 

To assist in their preservation, our genes have hardwired the human brain in several clever ways. Keep in mind that genes don’t plan or scheme, they just try to be fit enough to be passed on down the billions-of years-old chain that preceded them.

One of these hardwired features is that infants tend to believe anything they are told by their elders for the first three to seven years, depending on individual brain structure and development. In the early stages of human evolution, children were just as helpless and unequipped to survive as are human infants today. 

For example, if a three-year-old is told not to crawl near a cliff, but persists nevertheless in doing so, those genes will most likely not be passed on because the infant will fall over the cliff before it has the chance to reproduce. 

Evolution did not provide us with reflective or cognitive genes that express themselves much during the first years of life. 

Infants have insufficient data to conduct internal criticisms of what their parents tell them. No matter how scientifically idiotic or rationally illogical a parental statement may be, it is accepted as the absolute truth by the child. 

At some point, after a child starts to actually think and weigh evidence (between ages two and four), it may disobey a parental command but will nevertheless believe what it is told. 

Evolution also provided us with brain circuits that try to make sense of the billions of bytes of frequently chaotic sensory input we receive every day. 

This cascade of chaos is even greater in infancy because infants have no vast storehouse of experience with which to test reality against perception. The existence of these “combine to explain” circuits is evident every time we are fooled by an optical illusion or tromp l’oeil. 

Our brains are compelled to make sense out of the data it receives, even if that sense is absolutely and utterly incorrect, untrue, or even delusional. Data is not necessarily true; is merely information that may be right or wrong. 

This fact explains, for example, why computer models don’t always come up with the correct answer. The model (the programmer’s brain) is frequently defective and therefore the data (sensory input) inserted into the modeling is often wrong. 

Let’s put these two powerful evolutionary tools together to see how a belief in a god or other mystical forces came into being. 

That is, how does being hardwired to believe your parents and also being hardwired to make some kind of sense out of data lead almost inevitably to some sort of mystical belief system? 

The answer is that Evolution treats variation in data the same way it treats genetic mutations. Some genetic mutations make an organism more fit than others of its species. (Notice I didn’t use the word “fittest” here. Darwin’s theory has nothing to do with the survival of the fittest. But that’s another topic completely.) 

The evolution of the eye is a good comparison. Some billions of years ago a portion of a marine animals’ skin mutated so that it was sensitive not only to touch but also to variations between light and dark.

Animals with this mutation had a better chance to survive because the movement of food and predators nearby was detectable when beforehand it was not. 

Over evolutionary time mutations of that mutation that was beneficial towards making vision more detailed remained in the gene pool and, voila, eyes eventually evolved—not by chance, but by natural selection. 

So also with a “mutation of belief,” that is a new grouping of data inside a human’s brain. At some point in the distant past, a human formed a belief that flint produces a spark while other rocks do not because there was a spirit inside the flint. 

That belief was not counterproductive towards survival, and so remained in the gene pool for others to acquire the same belief as it was passed down from parent to child. Belief in rock with a spirit slowly evolved into a belief that people had spirits inside them also (the spiritual type, not whisky or gin). 

We may also assume that at some point in the very distant past, humans were like all other animals and had no belief in or understanding of the cosmos. A million years ago our ancestors did not question why they existed. 

Instead, as with other animals, we had genes pushing us toward survival and genes forcing us to make sense out of external data entering our brains. 

Because a tiny marine worm will move away from something that causes it pain, it can be trained to stay away from a specific part of its watery domain by the use of pain (e.g., by introducing a noxious chemical into one particular area of its holding tank). 

Like the marine worm, humans learn from experience. One of the few things that differentiate humans from other animals is the fact that our brains are hardwired for language, and we are the only species to be so evolved. 

(Apes and other animals can be taught to use symbols, but they are not hardwired to do so.) 

Once complex and subtle symbols were thrown into the mix of communication between parent and child, children could then learn not only not to crawl along the cliff, but also to believe in gods, demons, mystical events, and magic. In short, cause and effect were often reversed or ignored. 

Cause and effect is an efficient way of looking at the world only when you have sufficient correct data to use. Language imparts complex data, not necessarily the truth. 

Indeed, a belief not only does not require truth, but it is also often ablated or greatly changed by the truth…if that truth is both perceived and accepted. 

Parents, Peer Pressure, and Other Pests

Parents

After the practice of agriculture crammed us all together into cities, it became evolutionarily productive to have the entire community believe the same myths. 

This promoted a modicum of harmony necessary for a species that had evolved to live in wandering, small tribes but was now jammed together in sedentary cities. Fairy tales, folk myths, religious rituals, and religious hierarchies became part of our cultural evolutionary toolbox. 

But how is it possible that given all the scientifically supported facts we have today that we still hang on to our beliefs and myths of the distant past? One of the answers has to do with those pesky parents again. 

In my case, having read the Bible at age seven and become an out-of-the-closet Atheist with open-minded but believing Presbyterian parents, I was subjected to such movies as Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life. 

My favorite bedtime activity was being read to by my mother, and I loved The Chronicles of Narnia. All three of these are not just entertainment but also are pure Christian propaganda pieces.1

You might at this point ask, What’s wrong with Santa Claus, a fledgling guardian angel, or a benevolent talking lion that created the universe? How are these harmful to children’s minds? 

You might also ask, Isn’t it a good thing to encourage imagination, a belief that good can triumph over evil, and the idea that there is some force out there somewhere looking out for us? 

There is nothing wrong with encouraging imagination, teaching that good is a powerful force, and that there are higher authorities (of the mortal variety) that can be helpful. 

What is terribly wrong is adding impetus to the millennia-old, evolutionary process of encouraging untruthful myths as part of raising children. It is entirely possible to bring up empathetic and caring children without lying about why they should be empathetic and caring. 

Peer Pressure

Once a child leaves the crib and enters the wild world of socializing with contemporaries, the religious propaganda process takes on a new force and a new vector. 

Instead of myths being announced from on high by loving parents, they are shoved into the faces of non-believing children, sometimes literally. 

I used to be beaten up regularly before Sunday school by rural Christian youths who didn’t like people who didn’t believe and act the way they did. Children have a desperate need to be accepted. 

It’s part of the evolutionary/cultural process. If all the other children are religious, then a child will strive to be like everybody else. How many times have you heard—in real life or in the movies—a parent tells a child, “Well, Johnny, just because Tommy jumps off a cliff that doesn’t mean you should do it?” 

This line is usually preceded by a confession the child makes that he stole a candy bar from the grocery store because “Gee, Mom, all the other kids were doing it.” The sad part is that Johnny probably would jump off a cliff if Tommy did, especially if Tommy is a high-status kid. 

Wishing on a Star

Finally, we enter the world of Pinocchio and Disneyland. These two are typical of parentally-induced forces similar to Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life but which have a much more profound effect than even parenting and peer pressure. 

The Pinocchio-type forces are those that help a child internalize the lessons taught by loving parents as well as their brutalizing peers. The Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, guardian angels, and Aslan are all “visible” to the child, right up close and in their face. 

In contrast, the brilliantly twinkling star (god)2 on which Pinocchio wishes is far away and does not directly intervene to save the little wooden marionette and turn him into, guess what, a real boy. Instead, the star grants the wish by sending down a cute little on-earth angel in the form of cricket. 

This type of propaganda is actually the worst and most difficult to combat. As the child grows older he or she sees evidence that the Tooth Fairy and Santa don’t exist. 

But stars sure do, and that evening star (actually the planet Venus) shines above. It is not difficult for a child to realize as it gets older that the wishing star is really just symbolic of god, who also is far away and never in your face but who nevertheless can and does intervene to save the day…and eventually your soul. 

This is not a large leap of belief. It merely involves substituting one untouchable, unreachable celestial wish-granter for another. And god is even better because he looks like Grandpa.

How Do We Help Children Become Atheists?

We, adult Atheists, come into contact with developing minds all the time, be they our own children, nieces, nephews, grandkids, or kids of friends and neighbors. 

The key is to be ready to answer their unsophisticated, “spiritual” questions in an unconfusing way they will understand, that will not scare them with direct contradictions of their parents or peers, and that will make them think about your answer and ask you more questions (which helps them to internalize your answers). 

This sounds perhaps a bit sneaky, but keep in mind that these are the same techniques used by every church and cult since the beginning of civilization. The priest never tells the little children any of the hard-core details of the Bible (and believe me, there’s a lot of that in the Bible if you haven’t read it). 

The priest keeps the story of Jesus simple. There is no discussion of blood on the street on the way to the Hill of Skulls. There’s no Thomas Aquinas-style Twelve Proofs of the Existence of God. No. They stick to simple parables about shepherds saving sheep and so on. 

Of course, the priest doesn’t remind the kids that the shepherd is nice to the sheep only because he plans to slaughter and eat them. 

So, what are the practical things you can do in light of all this? Read as many books as you can about the bases of Atheism and the almost countless reasons why religion, mysticism, and magic are a bunch of hooey. 

Start perhaps with The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. After you read each book on the subject, re-read it and actually absorb it so you have internalized your understanding of why you don’t believe in god and can explain to a child, young adult, or anybody why they shouldn’t either. 

Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to explain things to kids like why Susie’s cute little puppy got run over by that Mack truck, or where Grandma went when she didn’t ever come back from the hospital, or even where babies come from. 

Kids have a way of springing these on you, so you actually need to think about your answers ahead of time. Read the Bible, the Koran, the Tao, and all the other spiritual texts you can to your own kids as soon as you can. Not the whole thing, five hours a day. 

Just a page or two before you read them their nightly bedtime story. Explain in simple terms what the religious story is all about. You do have to avoid reading such bits as when Lot commits incest with his two virgin daughters after his wife is turned to salt. 

Save that for discussion with your teenage kids. But, for example, the story of Noah is perfect for explaining the fact that there are flood myths in every culture since the beginning and that the Bible’s version was actually taken from a Sumerian myth over 2,000 years older. 

Reading a variety of holy scripts gets across to the young child that there is not one “sacred” book, but rather dozens and that they all tell the same basic, false stories. 

If you don’t read to your child, then monitor what he or she watches on TV, at least while at home, and also introduce them to non-Christian propaganda movies that show people acting ethically without god’s help.

A good movie for the age seven-and-over set is the old classic High Noon with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. 

Not only are there four very moral characters in this movie, but it’s also great for training purposes because Kelly’s character dumps her “Bible learnin’” in the end to do what was clearly right: kill the man who was trying to kill her husband. An Atheist just couldn’t pray for a better teaching aid. 

There are others. For the under-seven set, plug Sesame Street and its equivalent as much as you can. Don’t freak out if someday your child says he or she believes in god. 

They’ll grow out of it over time with your gentle reasoning and good examples. And speaking of…always to the extent you can in this troubled world, set a good, moral example for your children. They are eager to learn from you, and, as noted, are genetically programmed to do so.

Read the next part: 

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James Luce

The author of Chasing Davis, An Atheist’s Guide to Morality Using Logic and Science. After four years as a criminal investigator in the US Air Force Office of Special Investigations, he spent 25 years as a trial lawyer.

Endnotes

  1. Santa in Miracle on 34th Street is plainly a substitute for god. He performs miracles, carries a shepherd’s staff in the form of a cane, punishes the wicked, and saves the good. In It’s a Wonderful Life there is no metaphor. God is shown intervening on Earth by sending down a Gabriel understudy and saving the day for good over evil. The Chronicles of Narnia were written by C.S. Lewis, one of the most famous converts from atheism to Christianity.
  2. Disney always slips in a Christian message in his feature-length cartoons. Even “Jiminy” Cricket is named after an Old English slang word for Jesus.
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