Jan 28, 2009

How Religion Insults Us and We Don't Even Know It

Never before did I feel so much resentment and contempt as I watched and listened to the little old man explaining to us kids of seven or eight years old how some biblical figure - I've long forgotten who - came to believe in God and did whatever he did because of his belief and that this should matter to us in our lives; that it should matter to me. Who is this strange man to tell me that I should believe or do something because some ancient sheep-herder in a far-away desert did so? Why should I care about this, I thought. What kind of guidance is that from an adult to a curious and wondering little kid who has to learn about life? I looked around the small classroom at the other kids' faces to see how they reacted to this. Do any of them think and feel as I do? Most seemed interested; some did not seem to care. I spent most of his little lecture staring at the desktop and wishing I could go home so I could then stop feeling all this contempt for someone. I thought Christianity's control over people's lives is repulsive and wasteful, as the lecture of the little old man made even clearer to me. Instead, after he finished some minutes later, we were taken to another room in the Catholic church to listen to another "teacher."

"Do any of them think and feel as I do?" I think that was a fascinating question I asked myself then, and it is a good question to re-ask today when there is a resurgence of religious belief. When confronted with a similar circumstance, does anybody now think and feel as I then did?

It is not that one has nothing to learn from the lives of others or should not have role models. One should learn from people who do great things and live great lives, be they statesmen. businessmen, scientists, composers, or one's parents.One's life on earth has a nature - and the nature of the lives on earth of biblical figures (real or imagined) are constraints and impediments to learning what that nature is and fulfilling it. Look at what religion teaches: one should imitate Jesus, emulate the faith of Job and Abraham, live like Daniel and Esther, etc. In Islam, the Muslims' ideal is to live and be like Mohammad. Their lives based on imaginary supernaturalism are not relevant to realistic matters of being all one can: creating, discovering, producing, leading, etc. (Biblical figures did much of those kinds of things, right?) Such are the things one must do with one's life to live it well. That is the reality we are in. Mimicking a biblical figure is not a plausible substitute.

What about the matter of how does one - especially as a child - best develop and become one's true and real self? Religion is no help there. Why were those other kids in the classroom not also insulted by the little old Catholic man imploring them to "be like somebody else" - which, at that young age I realized, means to surrender one's mind to that somebody else - a somebody else who lived long ago, who believed in a God who is as real as a comic book character? Just because this little old man and others like him merely say so. How, when they have their lives ahead of them to form, did they not take offense at such a cheap and phony substitute for genuine, intelligent, adult guidance?

People are often confronted by religionists saying, "you should live like/think like/be like/do like so-and-so in the Bible," and that is something with philosophic-like importance to one's life and outlook on it. The bad thing is, that really means one should not look at reality for oneself, think for oneself, act for oneself, be oneself. Instead, says the religionist, be Abraham; be Jesus. Neglect your mind, neglect the requirements of your life in reality, look to what they did and be a second-hander imitating ancient, superstitious peasants. You are better off that way.

Why are people not immensely insulted by such exhortations, especially adults who are better able to think about such matters than are little kids? Is it because most people have a mystical metaphysics to begin with? Are their minds that lacking in independence? Do they care that little about what they, as individuals, are? Or is it something else?


  1. John Galt never existed - why, then, does he have an appeal? Ditto for reardon, Dagney, the Count of Monte Christo, and Superman. All totally fictitious. All held up by individuals and groups as exemplars. Why?
    Well, to help us see, by example, what human beings are capable of, naturally. Playing games is preparation for activities that are not recreational. Just as soldiers practice on the rifle range before going into battle, children practice social interactions in games.
    Groups, be they religious or not, use exemplars to demonstrate that yes, the ideas of that group can be lived and that those who live by them are successful. Thus the stories of George Washington being an honest child, whether true are not, give children a safe, remote example of how honesty is preferable to dishonesty in the long term.
    John Galt, etc., were used by Rand to demonstrate, abstractly, what life could be like if one lived as she envisioned. Jeremiah is held up as an example that telling the truth and facing facts is always the best course, even in the face of persecution. Etc.
    Why do we tell children to emulate people we consider great? To demonstrate to them that greatness is possible. To illuminate how moral actions lead to a superior life, and that justice is its own reward, of course.
    The ability of example to transform a young person's view of their own potential in a positive manner is why coming of age tales like Horatio Hornblower are so powerful.

    Wild guess, here - no kids, right?

  2. In principle, I agree - I don't agree that Biblical examples are irrelevant to modern life in Western society. Of any virtue or good trait there are superior examples personified in literature and history than in scripture. The experience I had was not meant to inspire me - it was meant to brainwash me.

    And I think children should be outlawed ;)

  3. C'mon, be serious. If you want to use the term 'brainwash', that is what all education of children really is; the manipulation of emotional responses to ingrain acceptable behavior. From potty training to 'inside voices', that's how you do it. Or are you aware of rational 3 year-olds? Complaining that adults wanted you to unthinkingly emulate examples when you were, say, 10 is akin to complaining about them using an appeal to authority to get you to wipe your own bum! My oldest has a tested IQ of 160-165 and I can reliably expect rationality out of him about 75% of the time now that he is 12.

    You know, I find the idea of 'kids as a thing to be avoided' very... odd. I do a lot of writing on socialization and demographics (my blogs are lousy with such) and, well - Mark Steyn is a guy I disagree with a lot, but he did say something very clever, once.

    "The future belongs to those who show up for it"

    The future of the West looks very Christian because of the, well, refusal of secular types to have many kids and their further refusal to teach them their own ideologies. When I visit my Objectivists friends I see many couple and few children. When I go to my Latin Mass parish I see many couple and many children. Statistically I know that little more than half of the children of Objectivists will be Objectivists themselves while almost 80% of the children of traditional Catholics will be Catholics themselves. Over time this is a huge effect.

  4. Okay, maybe the term 'brainwash' was a bit hyperbolic. It was Catholic indoctrination I was sent to. That's not the same thing thing as getting to learn how to do something. They were not about teaching me how to think and how to learn so I can form my own beliefs and principles. They were indoctrinating me to just accept their (Catholic) beliefs and principles. Ultimately and fortunately, it did not work.

  5. OK, fine. They weren't trying to let you form your own beliefs and principles. No more than the Athenians or the Hippies did with their kids. See, kids are incapable of forming their own beliefs and principles.

    And why is the avoidance of Catholicism 'fortunate'? It is arguably the most successful mental paradigm in human history. It is easily the longest single corporate human concept to ever have existed.

  6. Be careful of your assumptions: I very much had my own principles but knew I had more to learn about how to form them, and to learn more of them. I wanted to know how to. That is why I resented indoctrination. I could recognize it as "indoctrination" (though I did not know it by that word) in the first place, so what does that say about a kid's ability to understand a) that one must have principles; and b) that there is a right and wrong way to form them? If I could think like that at that age, so could other kids.

    How can that mental paradigm be the longest held when Oriental religions and philosophy pre-date it by a few thousand years? I don't believe Catholicism because it is false. I think much of what the church does and teaches is immoral and even reprehensible. That's why I'm fortunate my Catholic indoctrination failed.

  7. I know a lot of people who claim to be rational that Objectivists disagree with. Who is correct? I know many kids that rail about the 'unfairness' of not getting their way. I know lots of people who would never steal anything.

    That's why there are rules of logic, parents rights to control children, and police. Bluntly, your claim that you were aware is meaningless; adults in the army are indoctrinated; same with, oh, the police or any other similar corporate endeavor.

  8. Forcing a child to go to Catholic Sunday school against his will is not equivalent to an adult *choosing* to enter an insitution and "going along with the program."

    My claim that I was aware I was being indoctrinated is meaningless? It meant a lot to me - if that is okay with you. Who are you to assess my statements about my mental state 30 years ago - especially when you weren't even there? I'm supposed to take your word over my own experience? Well, that's the essence of religion, isn't it?

  9. You know, if you disagree with your parents' beliefs, even if you can prove they are wrong, it's kind of hard to leave. Especially when every other grown-up you know agrees with them. The religious are trying to hang on to you long enough that you will stick around after you are legally free, by force of habit if for no other reason, or out of social pressure. It's kind of like Stockholm Syndrome.

  10. Excellent point. Many religious people are just parasites on other minds.