16 years ago today, I wrote this in my journal:
My nephew has been saved! Last Thursday night (the 15th) he said he was tired of waiting so he prayed that Jesus would forgive him of his sins, come into his heart, and prepare a home for him. He said the prayer all on his own! I don’t think he was just saying it, either. I think he’s truly saved because he really seems to understand grace. Also, now when he prays he thanks God for Jesus, and he says he’s not afraid of the dark anymore because he knows God is there.
Thank you, Jesus, for saving us. I will be glad and exalt you!
— April 19th 1999
Dear Former Self,
It is very strange how evangelical Christians think six-year-olds are mature enough to decide whether to believe a complicated religion and accept all the baggage that comes with it. Most six-year-olds still believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. In fact, children this young believe almost anything you tell them, so how can they possibly be mature enough to decide whether there’s enough evidence to accept Christianity?
But evidence is the whole problem, isn’t it? There isn’t enough evidence for Christianity, which is why you have to have faith. If children didn’t learn about Christianity until they were teenagers, they’d be far less likely to accept it because by then they’ve developed the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. That’s why Christian parents indoctrinate their children as soon as possible. If they wait too long to tell them, their children will realize it’s bullshit.
This is how religion survives: by exploiting the credulity of children. If you pound a belief into a child’s brain while it’s still developing, that belief can become a permanent fixture that even logic and reason can’t remove. As Christopher Hitchens said, “If religious instruction were not allowed until the child has attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.”
And notice that when something is actually true, there’s no need for indoctrination. Yes, we send children to school, but that’s different. Teachers don’t make them sing songs about Darwin. They don’t make them pray to Einstein. They don’t tell them to have faith in Abraham Lincoln. And when children ask questions, they aren’t shamed for having doubts. Instead, they’re offered evidence and encouraged to research it on their own.
But when you teach children to believe in magic, you’re teaching them that evidence doesn’t matter. When you teach them to have faith, you’re teaching them that logic isn’t important. Granted, many Christians have learned to compartmentalize their religion so they can be reasonable in other areas. But not all Christians figure out how to do this, and those who don’t are far more likely to fall prey to scams, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories. That’s why you shouldn’t teach children what to think; you should teach them how to think.
Christianity delays the development of critical thinking skills in many different ways. For example, when children of Christians have a problem, they are often told to pray for guidance. But all this does is teach them to wait and hope the solution magically occurs. Problem solving takes practice, and prayer actually discourages that practice. As a result, when prayerful children grow up they’re liable to have more trouble dealing with the problems in their lives.
Instead of teaching children about one religion, parents should teach them about all the major religions. If they were told about Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, it might occur to them that humans have a tendency to invent religions. And if people invent religions, maybe Christianity was invented, too. But that’s exactly what Christians don’t want their children to figure out, so they isolate them from all the other religions until they are fully indoctrinated. And by then it’s too late.
It’s not just Christians. People of almost every religion do this. If your brother were a Muslim, your nephew would be a Muslim. If your brother were a Buddhist, your nephew would be a Buddhist. There’s no independent thinking going on here. It’s just a child believing what his parents told him to believe. Why would God accept fealty from someone who would just as easily believe any other religion? And why would he punish people with Hell for being indoctrinated with the wrong religion? It doesn’t make sense.
I know you think your nephew’s decision is a cause for celebration, but I think it’s a cause for sadness. Your nephew just turned six years old, and he’s already made up his mind about god, religion, philosophy, science, history, and morality. There’s no way he comprehends the magnitude of these subjects, yet he’s accepting very specific perspectives on all of them. This means that when he gets older and learns about other perspectives, he’ll be incapable of seriously considering or appreciating them because he’ll have already locked himself into a specific worldview. His mind was paralyzed before it even had a chance to start thinking.
— Matt, April 19th, 2015
This is part of an ongoing series called Letters to My Former Self.