I’ve felt for a long time now that atheism as we know it was a dead-end, that it was being built up as a community and an ideology but that it was really neither, that we could easily subsume it into the rubric of “critical thinking” or something like that. You can only argue against castles in the sky for so long before it becomes same old, same old. While I am happy enough that some prominent atheists are starting to look into the area of ethics, and I do think there’s some promising avenues there, I don’t think that’s enough.
I think there is one major obstacle that stands in the way of a deeper opposition to religion, and that’s childism. We all know that religion, like all social constructs, begins at home, in childhood indoctrination. And there are even a few people who will go so far, who will be so bold, as to say that extreme religious beliefs and practices (like believers in Hell, anti-vaxxers, or anti-blood-transfusion JWs) constitute child abuse. But that’s pretty much it.
We need to acknowledge that any indoctrination of children about religion, no matter how well-intentioned, represents an attack against their freedom of thought: not just extreme beliefs, but all of them, not just extreme practices, but all of them. I’ve already written an entry on that subject. We also need to look at the social and political influence of religion and how it enforces conformity, especially how religious schools make religions more credible and how they participate in the normalization of religion.
This is also connected to my complain that atheists refuse to look at culturally-enforced religious belief. Culture is one of those social constructs that is enforced upon children and, for people who believe for cultural reasons, we cannot dissociate the indoctrination of culture with the indoctrination of religion. Therefore we have to talk about culture as a social construct as well.
The indoctrination of children is predicated on the childist position that a child is a means to an end, that end being the adult they will become, and that children must be raised to be adapted to society. This is why we enforce religion and culture. We have to talk about that, too.
But childism in religion is not limited to childhood indoctrination. I think it’s reflected in a much more fundamental manner in the relation between God and humanity. Most obviously, we see Jesus telling his disciples that they must have childlike faith, associating children with purity and innocence, a standard strategy to dehumanize people. The Bible also clearly sentences disobedient children to the death penalty.
But more importantly, believers see God as the ultimate father. How do they see this fatherhood relationship? Well, they see God as the owner of all humans. They see humans as so inferior to God that humans cannot figure out what is moral and what is not without God telling them, and disobedience against God’s wishes as the ultimate evil. They see God as perfectly justified in punishing humans, up to and including genocide. This is basically the ultimate form of the Strict Father morality.
While breeders would shirk at the notion that they own their children, and don’t believe that creating a new human life implies ownership of it, childism does implicitly lead to the conclusions that parents own their children, that children are inherently inferior, and that punishing children is justifiable as long as it’s “discipline.” God as ultimate father is merely a more explicit version of childism. It is pure child-hatred laid bare as self-loathing. In this context, the exhortation that believers should fear God makes a lot more sense. After all, children who get beaten regularly and are threatened into obedience (like God does in the Bible) rightly have an overwhelming fear of their parents.
Humans are irrational and cannot make decisions for themselves. Humans have no rights towards the Father, only duties. Humans cannot claim to be equal to their Father, as the Father has all wisdom and all morality. The only proper attitude for humans to have towards their Father is humility and a desire to follow its desires. Does that all remind you of something?
I’ve complained that it seems like no one can define the word “faith” in a way that made any sense. Atheists claim that “faith” just means you’ll believe anything, but people don’t believe just anything. I would think this is a pretty obvious objection. Some define faith as a lack of rationality or skepticism. But in no case can they explain why people believe what they believe. Instead they sweep it under the rug of the word “faith.”
In his book Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer lists five reasons why people believe: consolation, immediate gratification, simplicity, moral meaning, and hope. That’s all fine, but I don’t think anyone, even Christians, would argue that faith is any of those things. Furthermore, all religions claim to provide moral meaning and hope, and yet people don’t just adopt all the religions they can find. Obviously there is a reason why they adopt a certain religion and not all others.
The answer, of course, is childhood indoctrination. The vast majority of people don’t change their religious affiliation: the most common change is of a person dropping out and becoming non-religious or non-believer (statistics saying half of people change their affiliation are highly inflated because they count Catholicism, Protestantism, and other Christian groups as all being different affiliations). What faith is really about is the fact that people who are indoctrinated in a certain religion will tend not to leave it, for many reasons (such as powerful fixed ideas and social incentives). There’s no particular reason to apply this to religion, of course, although we don’t hear people talk about faith in masculinity or faith in the upper class.
Because faith is connected to childism, it should be no surprise that atheist cannot confront it (or for that matter detect it in themselves). That’s a huge blind spot. How can we speak meaningfully about religious belief if we can’t confront how and why it starts? The same can be addressed to skeptics: how can we speak meaningfully about “why people believe weird things” when we can’t confront the source of weird belief?