Sunday, November 16, 2008

On Indoctrination / Formation

A recurring theme for me when thinking about religion is: Although it might not be perfect, are religion's methods beneficial for society?

One of the things strong atheists really seem to dislike about religion is the indoctrination of children. It is often an emotion-based argument that children should not be lied to and forced to conform to a belief system that doesn't make sense (as, for the strong atheist, religion doesn't).

I think the idea behind this is that if children are allowed free choice in their beliefs, they will choose rationally, and since in the atheist view religion is irrational, the main reason children are religious is because their parents have forced their own views on them, sheltered them from other views, etc. So the ideals of freedom of choice, protection of children and the value of reasoned thought combine to form the view that children should not be "indoctrinated" (I've also heard the word "formation" used in about the same way by the religious, so if you're religious you may want to use that instead as it has fewer negative connotations) into a religion. And examples from cults are used to show how this can be harmful.

I'm not going to try and argue against those examples - there are clearly cases where beliefs are highly irrational, and harmful to the believers over the long term, and should not be forced on anyone, least of all children. But... religious teaching can also be a teaching of a set of values, with concrete examples. And I think that's a good thing, and I wonder if perhaps that gets missed when people condemn religious indoctrination. What I'm going to do (it turns out, after writing for a bit) is go on a bit of a side-track and come back and answer this question by analogy afterwards.

Atheists frequently compare religious beliefs to fairytales. So, why do we have fairytales, anyway? They're not just about escaping into fantasy like reading a romance novel. I read somewhere recently (may have been on the conversiondiary blog?) about trying to teach children things. At a very young age, describing real life to them in all of the detail that we see as adults is just confusing. They'll latch on to a detail, and miss the real point you're trying to get across. Even adults who are poor communicators can often run into the problem of losing the important point in a sea of detail. Think of the last time you were talking to a frustrated relative or significant other, who was frustrated with one thing that happened, and saw it connected to a history of various past frustrations, and they all come up. The person they're frustrated at may or may not see all of the same connections, and will latch on to one or two things that were said, and the conversation/fight will get off track, onto a topic that is only tangentially related to the point the person was originally trying to make. As you can see sometimes in my blog, I tend to present things in a stream of detail like the above, and I'm sure it can be confusing sometimes, which is another example where simplification might help while not being 100% accurate :). Another example: When one person I was talking to saw me do the same thing with a computer problem (explaining out in detail how a forum member could use the quotation feature, with a table of different options and a step-by-step explanation of what was going on, when "To do what you want, just copy and paste this" would have sufficed), her response was "Thanks! Now I see why you make faith so difficult, too! :)".

The point I'm trying to make here is that simplifications aren't just necessary for young children, as with fairytales, they're necessary for highly intelligent adults as well, if you want to communicate well. And that makes me wonder - even though religion as traditionally taught seems like a massive over-simplification of the truth to me, might it not be a beneficial communications strategy, and the limited conceptual understanding it communicates still be better than the atheist "Don't indoctrinate your children with anything, let them choose freely" approach?

Fairytales work because the point of them is obvious and clear, and the point they make is generally applicable to everyday life. Those stories, although not true, serve an important function in that when you run into a very complex real-life situation, someone can say "remember the prince from fairytale x" and then you at least have a starting point. In a way, fairytales are an indoctrination of certain values into our children, and if we didn't have them, the children would have no direction, no particular conceptual framework which would tell them to do things we consider good rather than bad.

Progressing on from the young child, who may not have a full understanding of the difference between real and not real stories, where do you go? Once you're clear that fairytales aren't real (and "true" stories should be valued more highly), but you have that core set of concepts (bravery, selflessness, caring for others, and many other "morals" of various stories) imprinted into your thought processes and your behaviours (which I think is no bad thing) is that sufficient, can you just move on relatively easily from simplistic "childish" fairytale-based thinking to complex "adult" thinking about the incredibly complex reality we live in?

After talking to various people on forums and things for a few months now, I don't think it works. I think the progression to more and more complex thoughts, that take into account more and more factors, is something that takes time, and requires intermediary steps.

Religion (as generally taught) is more complicated than fairytales, but simpler than actual reality. Try to teach someone what "Good" means outside of the context of religious teaching, and it's freakishly complicated. People just get lost when I try to have conversations about that sometimes, or they latch onto and elevate aspects of goodness such as utility or empathy to the level of universal goodness, something that should be followed always.

I also find that religious people who have put a lot of thought into what makes things good, and what the "true" teachings of their religion are, have come to a lot of the same conclusions I have. And it makes me wonder. I know religion is effective at communicating itself between people, which is why it is so widespread. And I know it can lead to an understanding much like my own, if someone puts a lot of thought into it. So, might religious indoctrination be regarded as a valid teaching tool? A step in the direction of a fuller understanding of the world? In that case, if the religion indoctrinates people with generally sensible morals and over-simplified stories to back them up, instead of leaving them adrift in a sea of complexity without the tools to process it all, might it not be a good thing? If so, then teaching that it is true has value in that, as I pointed out a while above, once you've dropped fairytales, you're not likely to start valuing an over-simplification unless you;'re taught that it's true.

An analogy: Teach that religion is false, and you have a wall of complexity you cannot climb. But teach that thoughtful religion can be "true" in a sense, but you have to really think about it to get at its truth, and you have a staircase placed against that wall, which people can climb to successively more complicated understandings of the truth. Destroy that staircase, and people will just search for another, to bridge the gap between a fairytale they learned in childhood and a real world that is just too complicated to fully understand. The task for thoughtful people, then, is not to destroy the staircases we have, but to improve them, and direct people away from the ones (fundamentalist religions and cults) that lead to dead ends and painful falls, and then having to look at the wall again and find another staircase. So, by analogy, indoctrination may not necessarily be a bad thing, it's just putting people at step 2 or 3 of a certain staircase, where fairytales are step 1.

Still working on a response to Brian's proof of God. But this thought struck me, and I wanted to write it down before I lost it.