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.

12 comments:

paladin said...

Very interesting angle on the idea, using Fairy Tales! (G.K. Chesterton would heartily approve! :) )

kevin said...

I agree.

And I further propose that diverse religious views and theologies should be taught more in our public institutions in order to combat destructive practices resulting from religious fundamentalism. I think, by secularizing and removing religion from our schools, we've allowed religion to flourish outside of the intellectual realm. So we shouldn't be surprised that there are fundamentalists acting destructively and irrationally based on their religion. I think the obvious solution, since people practice religion whether atheists like it or not, is to reintroduce theology in schools with an emphasis on how to think about religion rather than strict "indoctrination".

Also, as you noted, mythology can convey great truth. Many "liberal" Christians view much of the Bible as mythology, yet they still find great meaning worth believing in. For example, the Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann worked to "demythologize" the New Testament message.

paladin said...

Well... I'd have to disagree with the idea that the secularization of *anything* is a good thing; and "fundamentalism" can be largely in the eyes of the beholder, after all, and the very word can be reduced to a mere epithet used to demonize those with whom we disagree.

For example: I could easily be called a "mathematical fundamentalist" for assuming, quite totally, that numbers have application to physical reality (i.e. they're not simply play-things... though they're certainly amusing! :) ). I could also be called an "historical fundamentalist" for assuming that many of those stories in the history books (such as the existence of George Washington, the Battle of Gettysburg, etc.) were all real events that happened to real people, despite the fact that I'm completely helpless to prove such by empirical experiment.

I'd also gently suggest that--in addition to any isolated cases of people growing in ethical character because of it--secularization very often paves the way for moral anarchy, as well. That simply makes sense: if there is no clear reason to believe in moral absolutes (i.e. you regress to what is merely expedient, pragmatic, approved by the current majority of voters, decreed by the current regime, etc.), then there's no clear reason to constrain yourself to ethical behavior, and you let your passions run wild (usually with disastrous results).

In Christ,
Brian

Myron said...

"fundamentalism" can be largely in the eyes of the beholder, after all, and the very word can be reduced to a mere epithet used to demonize those with whom we disagree.

It can be, but that was not my intention. By fundamentalist, I mean someone who reads the bible, has a certain interpretation of it, and believes totally that that interpretation is the one true way to view the text, and will not hear of anything else.

Agreeing that numbers have validity and are not mere playthings is like agreeing that the bible has value and is not merely a bunch of stories made up for kicks. But you can still (I'm assuming?) agree that there is legitimate debate about what some parts of the bible mean. Math is a bad analogy here, because any mathematical theorem can be proven conclusively if you assume a few basic axoims. Your history analogy is more accurate, because it is possible to believe certain things to be historical facts, and yet acknowledge the possibility that any particular interpretation of history may be biased by the views of the people writing the history books, or the historians or translators who converted them from one language to another. History is written by the victors, after all :)

A history fundamentalist would say that what's in a particular book is absolutely true, and there is no possibility it might have errors or inaccuracies, or be misinterpreted somehow by the expert historians who have summarized and interpreted it for you. I'm guessing you are not a history fundamentalist in the sense I intended fundamentalist to mean.

I'd have to disagree with the idea that the secularization of *anything* is a good thing

What about governance? Would you like to see the world ruled by theocracies?

As for your moral anarchy theory, that is precisely the angle I was attempting to get across - religious moral teaching brings order, around a set of moral concepts very similar to secular morals.

Any religion, if it wants to succeed, has to propose a set of morals that make some sense in the physical world as well as within the context of beliefs about the supernatural. So it is likely that religion can provide a structure for teaching morality which would benefit society, while proposing morals not that different from their secular counterparts. It brings order around a set of morals that makes at least the amount of basic sense required for the religion to propagate.

paladin said...

Hi, Myron!

You wrote, re: my post:

[Brian]
"fundamentalism" can be largely in the eyes of the beholder, after all, and the very word can be reduced to a mere epithet used to demonize those with whom we disagree.

[Myron]
It can be, but that was not my intention.


Sorry... I shouldv'e been more specific; I was replying to Kevin, in that particular comment (and to his specific references to "religious fundamentalism").

By fundamentalist, I mean someone who reads the bible, has a certain interpretation of it, and believes totally that that interpretation is the one true way to view the text, and will not hear of anything else.

Okay... though, for the record, I've known many Christians (myself included) who *didn't* fit that definition, and yet were labelled "fundamentalist" by someone who happened to be further to the left on the socio-political spectrum. The crime? The Christian had the audacity to assume that objective (and universal!) religious and moral truth existed at all, and were actually knowable through Divine Revelation! There are extremists on both sides of the theism belief spectrum, after all...

Agreeing that numbers have validity and are not mere playthings is like agreeing that the bible has value and is not merely a bunch of stories made up for kicks.

Somewhat, yes... but I was talking about the *actual* applicability of numbers--not just someone "shoehorning in" some otherwise objectively useless numbers... like displaying a hideous painting in order not to offend Great Aunt Helga, who gave it to us as a wedding gift; or like an uncle reluctantly hiring a deadbeat nephew out of a sense of pity or family obligation. :) Even stories that are made up for kicks can be useful, in the sense that you mean. Very few things *can't* be useful in that manner, in my experience. That has nothing especially to do with the objective reality of the thing(s) in question...

But you can still (I'm assuming?) agree that there is legitimate debate about what some parts of the bible mean.

Definitely--and the Bible itself confirms that! "[...] our most dear brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, hath written to you: as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction." (2 Peter 3:15-16) Some parts of the Bible are easily understood with minimal aid; other parts are extremely obscure.

Math is a bad analogy here, because any mathematical theorem can be proven conclusively if you assume a few basic axoims.

Just for the record: my analogy was using the *applicability* of math, and its relation to the physical world; it wasn't using the truth/falsity of this or that theorem, etc.

A history fundamentalist would say that what's in a particular book is absolutely true, and there is no possibility it might have errors or inaccuracies, or be misinterpreted somehow by the expert historians who have summarized and interpreted it for you. I'm guessing you are not a history fundamentalist in the sense I intended fundamentalist to mean.

:) You're correct in your assumption. I would only add that "fundamentalist" has been used in a much less narrow sense that you seem to be using it. (Kevin seemed to be veering a bit into the "pejorative" use of that word, and that set my mental alarms clanging.)

[Brian]
I'd have to disagree with the idea that the secularization of *anything* is a good thing

[Myron]
What about governance? Would you like to see the world ruled by theocracies?


:) Would I completely destroy your trust in me if I said "yes"?

More specifically, I'd like the world to be ruled by ONE Theocracy, not many; and I'd like that Theocracy to be under the Kingship of the King of Kings (see the Book of Revelation for details, if you don't mind wading through lots of apocalyptic imagery--a perfect example of what we discussed above, re: "difficult to understand"). But I assume you don't mean that.

In short: I would have no problem with a theocracy, provided that it was the *right* one (i.e. in harmony with reality). I'm not a "democracy at all costs" person.

Any religion, if it wants to succeed, has to propose a set of morals that make some sense in the physical world as well as within the context of beliefs about the supernatural.

I'd agree, on your key points. I'd argue, however, that many religions "succeed" by appealing to the passions of its followers, and not to their sense of self-restraint. The ancient fertility cults come to mind...

More importantly, though: my main point is that the real importance of any religion is its *truth*, above and beyond any emotional appeal, utility, or self-consistency (which is necessary, but not sufficient). The most attractive and self-consistent religion in the world won't be of much ultimate use, if it isn't actually *true*. "If Christ be not risen again, then your faith is in vain. [...] If our hope in Christ is in this life only, then we are the most pitiable of fools." (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:14,19)

So it is likely that religion can provide a structure for teaching morality which would benefit society, while proposing morals not that different from their secular counterparts.

Hm. I could only wish that were so... but the widespread secular tolerance, acceptance, and even promotion of abortion, contraception, homosexual activity, euthanasia, and other grave evils leads me to believe that Christianity proposes morals quite far removed from its secular opponents...

I didn't mean to derail your main discussion (which is an interesting one), though; carry on!

In Christ,
Brian

Myron said...

:) Would I completely destroy your trust in me if I said "yes"?

No, that was the answer I expected. You're not stupid, if you hadn't seen that implication of your position, I would have been surprised :)

Now, you want one theocracy, under your religion. Which is natural, because you believe it's true, so what you're advocating is (from your perspective) a government by the truth, for the truth. And if only everyone agreed with you about what the truth was, you could have it :)

Since they don't, what do we do? Would you advocate forcing others to believe as you do? The problem with taking that position is that the majority, who disagree with you about what the truth is, would then percieve you as a threat. And if you're willing to use force against the majority, they will be equally willing to use force against you, and your group will be annhialated. Knowing this, you can't sensibly advocate for theocracy.

In an ideal world, we would all have unbiased access to objective reality, and only the insane would disagree about the truth. Since God (if he exists) didn't see fit to create such a world (where, by the way, theocracy would be the obvious way to go if God exists) it seems to me God doesn't want a theocracy, and you'd best not second-guess Him :)

Standard response: The world isn't what God wants, the world has evil in it because of Satan/Man's sin.

Standard response to the response: But God, being all powerful, allowed that evil to exist, knew that some men/angels would sin, and create the world we see around us. Therefore, God wanted precisely this world (which is how people can still talk about things ultimately going according to God's plan), although we can't know why for sure.

Would you have deviated from the standard argument? Because by the standard argument theocracy doesn't hold up.

Re: The importance of religion is its truth, not it's utility: My position is that in a "Good" world (where the behaviours God considers good have positive effects, which is the world I believe we live in), truth and (extremely long term) utility point to the same actions.

Myron said...

Christianity proposes morals quite far removed from its secular opponents...

In practice, perhaps. In principle, not at all, because both religious and secular ethics are attempting to derive ethics from the objective truth. Demonstrate that "abortion is a horrible idea" is true objectively and you win, whether your frame of reference is secular or religious.

paladin said...

Hi, Myron!

You wrote, in reply to my post:

Now, you want one theocracy, under your religion. Which is natural, because you believe it's true, so what you're advocating is (from your perspective) a government by the truth, for the truth. And if only everyone agreed with you about what the truth was, you could have it :)

:) Guilty as charged! I'd offer one correction: it is certainly "my" religion insofar as it's the religion held by me; but I do want to make it quite clear that I don't think it's worthwhile simply because I hold it! If you like, I believe that God revealed Himself fully to humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ, and that the Church founded on Him is the custodian of all salvific truth; and I am one of the lowly and sinful heirs to that treasure.

Since they don't, what do we do? Would you advocate forcing others to believe as you do?

Absolutely not. I am called to be a child of my Father in Heaven, and *He* doesn't force anyone to believe in Him--even though He'd have every right to do so (unlike me). He honors the freedom of will of His children--through which both true love and true disobedience can spring. I can do no less... though I would say that a Christian government would certainly be entitled to suppress that which was destructive--through exhortation, rebuke, and even civil law, if necessary. (Consider that the FDA does so, even today; why is there no universal outcry against the "censorship" of cyanide-laced Tylenol, or salmonella-contaminated spinach? If the spiritual is truly "real", then it stands to reason that laws against spiritual dangers can rightfully be enforced, as well--regardless of one's emotional reaction to that state of affairs.)

The problem with taking that position is that the majority, who disagree with you about what the truth is, would then percieve you as a threat. And if you're willing to use force against the majority, they will be equally willing to use force against you, and your group will be annhialated. Knowing this, you can't sensibly advocate for theocracy.

I can't advocate for a *compulsory* Theocracy (in the absolute sense), right. But the spiritual dangers which I describe need not be derived from Christian revelation; they can be derived directly from the natural moral law (along with prohibitions against murder, rape, etc.). No imposition of Christian-specific law (i.e. Canon Law, in the case of the Catholic Church) would be involved; and, in fact, the Church expressly forbids the use of force (or any type of coercion) in "converting" others (though it'd really be "taking a prisoner of war", rather than "converting").

In an ideal world, we would all have unbiased access to objective reality, and only the insane would disagree about the truth. Since God (if he exists) didn't see fit to create such a world (where, by the way, theocracy would be the obvious way to go if God exists) it seems to me God doesn't want a theocracy, and you'd best not second-guess Him :)

:) Cute. But one point is misrepresented, in that train of thought: God will not force reality on those who willingly choose to become insane (or to set in motion forces/events which will result in their insanity). Also, Divine Revelation tells us that God considers the *lack* of a Theocracy to be an aberration--and He will not let that aberration go on indefinitely.

Standard response: The world isn't what God wants, the world has evil in it because of Satan/Man's sin.

Mostly true. There's a distinction between the "perfect Will of God" (i.e. what God actively wills) and the "permissive Will of God" (i.e. what God does not will, but which He tolerates for whatever reason(s)). God certainly allowed sin to come into the world, though He certainly didn't "will" that positively (in the philosophical sense) to happen.

Standard response to the response: But God, being all powerful, allowed that evil to exist, knew that some men/angels would sin, and create the world we see around us. Therefore, God wanted precisely this world (which is how people can still talk about things ultimately going according to God's plan), although we can't know why for sure.

Also true. I suppose you could use the somewhat cliched, but true, slogan: "God writes straight with crooked lines." Metaphors abound for this idea--some more useful that others, but all of them expressing the fact that God is still in control, and that there is no evil from which God cannot draw even greater good. One metaphor of note is the story of a little girl watching her father weave an intricate tapestry; but she was watching from the back-side of the tapestry, where she saw nothing but a gnarled mess of knots, dangling strings, and a mish-mash of clashing colours. When she complained about the ugliness (and expressed dismay that her father was making such a poor product), the father smiled, and turned the tapestry around (revealing the front of the tapestry) to show her a veritable panorama of balanced colour, lovely texture, and delicate, artistic beauty. Just so, since we look at God's plan from "the back-side of eternity", as such; we can't see how every colour, no matter how troubling it might look on its own, fits into the overall pattern and has an integral part in the beauty and perfection of the final product.

Would you have deviated from the standard argument?

I hope not! :)

Because by the standard argument theocracy doesn't hold up.

I hope I've shown how that isn't true; God would certainly be more pleased with a Theocracy which honors the reality of His Truth, but His love for us (and our freedom) leads Him to weave even the dark strands of our sin (which He would not have chosen for Himself) into a final "plan" that fits into His master work.

Re: The importance of religion is its truth, not it's utility: My position is that in a "Good" world (where the behaviours God considers good have positive effects, which is the world I believe we live in), truth and (extremely long term) utility point to the same actions.

Hm. Unless you're willing to include, in your definition of utility, "that which serves to accomplish God's Will", I think you'd have a terribly difficult time proving your assertion. Utilitarianism, so-called, treats humans like any other "things", by definition; humans are measured by the scale of usefulness (i.e. "utility") to others--and that crushes the intrinsic worth of a human person completely to dust. If, for the sake of granting an incalculable amount of health and pleasure to a vast multitude, a small (and otherwise apparently unproductive, unhappy, and "worthless") child must die, then utilitarianism swings the executioner's axe with nary a moment's hesitation. The utilitarian, when faced with a terrorist who threatens to destroy millions of people with a nuclear weapon if the utilitarian refuses to rape the terrorist's ex-girlfriend, would sadly set to the task of violating the woman--the needs of the many vastly outweighing the needs of the few, or the one (with apologies to Gene Roddenberry).

You might suggest that such conduct is unimaginable, even in a utilitarian. If so, I would ask whether the given person would refrain *because* of his utilitarianism, or because of something else? If it's the "something else" which leads him not to let good ends justify evil means, then isn't it that "something else" which we should consider as the guiding force of morality, and let utilitarianism go on its way?

In Christ,
Brian

P.S. I hope this comes out right, but: it's *so* nice to talk to someone with a long attention span! :)

kevin said...

"Well... I'd have to disagree with the idea that the secularization of *anything* is a good thing;"

paladin,
I don't see how you disagree with me. My point was that secularization of education is at least partially responsible for the flourishing of destructive kinds of religious fundamentalism (which are bad things).

"and "fundamentalism" can be largely in the eyes of the beholder, after all, and the very word can be reduced to a mere epithet used to demonize those with whom we disagree."

I don't have a problem with fundamentalism as long as it is not destructive to the rest of humanity.

charlene said...

Very nice blog.

People teach religion to their children, because they believe that religion themselves. As a parent, its your job to teach your children your values and to provide the best tools for having an effective life. I don't think any sane person can reasonably envision a parent doing otherwise. While some extreme measures such as home schooling can be cause for alarm, children certainly will over the course of time question what their parents have taught them.

Myron said...

Hi Charlene. Thanks for stopping by! :)

I actually don't have a problem with people teaching their children what they believe - as you say, that's to be expected. My post was expressing the "strong atheist" viewpoint on indoctrination, and presenting a counterpoint suggesting that the "let kids figure things out for themselves" approach might not be appropriate.

The truth is (and I think some people miss this), whether you try to let your children choose freely or not, whether you believe they should be allowed to reach their own conclusions or not, every person believes some things, and will express those opinions without even trying. Personally, I think it's important to give children a solid grounding in what you think, but also prepare them to question what you've taught them and explore for themselves. I get a little concerned when people suggest that that questioning process should be short-circuited in the interest of "proper formation" or something similar, because I've talked to enough people now who were not given a choice or exposed to alternative viewpoints, and ended up feeling betrayed and lied to when they began to question what they were indoctrinated with. But beyond that I think it's fine to give kids whatever starting point the parents think is best.

Charlene said...

You are welcome. :D

Short of home schooling your kid and locking them in the basement, I think its impossible for them not to learn to question my beliefs whether I want them to or not. I certainly would not do this. I want my kids to be independent and I want them to be able to fend for themselves in the real world.

I cannot imagine an atheist teaching their kids that "intelligent design" might hold water. Because they firmly believe in the truth of evolution, they are going to teach the reasoning that supports evolution. Obviously, there are issues which they consider open to debate and in the context of those issues, my children will be taught critical thinking skills.