Sunday, June 24, 2007

Teaching Religion

Teaching religion to children is a bad thing.

This is the second essay in a series that I have decided to write on the idea that teaching children is a form of child abuse. Yesterday, in “Religion as Child Abuse,” I argued that teaching religion to children does not count as abuse. However, this does not mean that it is not bad. Abusing children is a specific form of badness that requires some sort of maliciousness – a desire to do harm, or a disregard for the harm that would be done. All abuse is bad, but not all badness is abuse.

The argument for the thesis that teaching religion to children is bad is simple. The moral end of teaching children is to provide the children with true beliefs and good desires. Religion is full of false beliefs and bad desires. Thus, teaching religion conflicts with the moral end of teaching children.

Caveats

Before going into details, I need to present some caveats.

First, teaching religion is bad only when, and only to the degree that, in teaching that religion, one is teaching false beliefs and bad desires. In other words, I do not want to be thought of as saying that the teaching of all religion is bad because some religions contain notoriously bad beliefs (those who do not share one’s religion cannot be moral) or promote bad desires (e.g., the desire to kill anybody who does not profess the same religion). The teaching of any specific religion is bad to the degree that this specifically involves teaching false beliefs and bad desires.

Second (and this follows from the first), this implies that we can evaluate different religions according to their quality. Some religions are worse than others. The worst religions are those that teach beliefs and desires that destroy lives. A religion that introduces some mistakes around the edges of reality would be relatively benign.

Third, religion is not the only source of false beliefs. Every person holds at least one false belief, and no person has a perfect set of desires. This means that no atheist is free of false beliefs or bad desires. In fact, it is quite possible that if you take a random theist with his religiously inspired false beliefs and bad desires, and put him beside an atheist with his false beliefs and bad desires, that the atheist can be (and often is) the worse person. The real wrong here is in teaching false beliefs and bad desires, and it is something which atheists are not automatically innocent of doing merely because they are atheists.

So, my introductory statement where I explain that teaching religion is bad must be understood in the contest of these three caveats. There are degrees of badness. Different religions can be evaluated according to how bad their teachings are. Religion is not the only source of false beliefs and bad desires.

Beliefs

Tomorrow, I am going to go into the issue of teaching desires. The rest of today’s posting has to do with teaching beliefs.

I have frequently used a simple example to show the value of true beliefs. Imagine that you are thirsty, and there is a glass filled with a cool, transparent, odorless liquid on the table. If you believe that the glass contains water, you will probably drink it. If your beliefs are true, your thirst will be quenched. However, assume that your beliefs are false, and the glass contains a poison that will kill you. In trying to quench your thirst, you end up taking your own life. The way to avoid making mistakes that end up thwarting your desires rather than fulfilling them, is to have true beliefs.

Teaching What to Think

One claim that I often here is that it is wrong to ‘indoctrinate’ children. The claim is that we should teach children how to think, not what to think, and to allow children to make up their own mind when they get older.

The fact that I often hear or read this claim coming from atheists is part of my proof that an atheist can believe things that are as absurd as anything that comes out of any religion.

So, we are not going to teach children that George Washington was the first President of the United States. We are only going to teach them how to think, and let them figure this out for themselves.

We are going to quit teaching children that Helena is the capital of Montana, or that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and that the square of the hypotenuse on a right triangle is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides. We are simply going to teach children how to think, and let them decide for themselves if they want to accept these propositions.

Education requires teaching children not only how to think, but what to think. If ‘indoctrination’ involves teaching children what to think, then the indoctrination of children is unavoidable. If we want to condemn indoctrination, then we have to define it as something other than teaching children what to think.

Typically, the way most people use the terms ‘education’ and ‘indoctrination’ is: ‘Education’ is what you are doing when you are teaching children something that I approve of, while ‘indoctrination’ is what you are doing when you are teaching children something that I do not approve of.

This standard, however popular, is completely useless.

Teaching How to Think

One idea is that we can avoid conflicts over teaching children what to think by focusing instead on teaching them how to think. There are two points that need to be made with respect to this option.

First, the disputes over ‘how to think’ are just as deep, if not deeper, than disputes over ‘what to think’. In fact, one significant difference in the realm of religion is that one of them believes that ‘how to think’ involves the scientific method and logic above all else, while the other relies on revelation and divine guidance. We are not going to avoid any disputes by changing the focus of the question to one of ‘how to think’. We are still going to be fighting each other, making claims and counter-claims over which method counts as ‘education’ and which method counts as ‘indoctrination’.

Second (and this follows largely because of the truth of the first point), I would like to see a show of hands for how many people actually received a quality education in ‘how to think’ in high school. By a ‘quality education,’ I mean that the school made a concentrated effort to make their students proficient in recognizing formal and informal fallacies and in using propositional logic in a way that allowed them to use those tools in their every-day life. My guess is that there are not very many, because teaching children how to think would upset too many parents.

Anyway, my point is that we are not going to be able to move the question away from the issue of ‘indoctrinating’ children by focusing on the idea of teaching children ‘how to think’. There is as much ‘indoctrination’ in teaching children how to think as there is in teaching children what to think.

Conclusion

One of the moral ends of teaching children is to give them a brain stacked full of true beliefs, so that they can avoid the costly mistakes that come from false beliefs. This means that we are going to ‘indoctrinate’ children. It is simply impossible to avoid the task of teaching children what to believe. We can shift the focus to that of teaching children how to think, but this involves just as much ‘indoctrination’. We are not going to get out of it that easy.

One of the problems with teaching religion to children is that it involves teaching false beliefs to children. Those false beliefs are going to cause those children to grow up and act in ways that they think will lead to the fulfillment of their desires. However, they will be mistaken. They will, in fact, end up thwarting their desires. They may not know it – but ignorance of a fact does not prevent it from being true.

Those who want to teach religion to children will, of course, insist that they are teaching true beliefs, and that it is the atheist who is mistaken. Whichever beliefs are false, it is the teaching of false beliefs that is bad. It is the teaching of false beliefs that we must take pains to avoid.

We will never be in full agreement over which beliefs are true and which are false. Ultimately, what we need, is a set of principles and institutions that allow people who disagree to resolve their differences and come to a decision without descending into civil war.

I will discuss these principles and institutions in a future posting. Next, I want to get to look at the question of teaching good desires.

7 comments:

Richard Rosalion said...

I agree that an education purely on "how to think" is impractical - there are certainly some things (many things) that need to be presented as "facts", but I think it is still important to teach how to think.

We definitely need to teach our children that Sir Edmund Barton was the first Prime Minister of Australia (a fact which a lot of Australians don't even know), but also how they could reach that same conclusion themselves (e.g. by reading various reliable sources). I'm sure there are many times in our lives we've been presented with "facts", only to find out later they are wrong when we investigate things ourselves.

We definitely need to teach children the facts (what to think), but we also should encourage them to challenge things presented as "facts", so they don't just have beliefs (true or otherwise), but knowledge.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes, I agree that one important message that we should be teaching children is "At least one of the things that I have taught you is false. You need to figure out which one, as well as how many other false things there are."

In fact, this is a message that I have included constantly in this blog. "At least one of the propositions I have defended is false."

However, this is still a form of indoctrination against the alternative, "Everything that I have taught you - or everything that comes out of these books, is necessarily true." Indoctrinating children to question what we have said is a good thing, but it is still indoctrination.

Unless . . . you want to use a different definition of 'indoctrination' - something other than 'teaching children what to believe'.

Kmeson said...

I largely agree with the point that you are making (and often do... love this site). I think that it is clear that by "teaching religion" you mean teaching that a religion is true. Here in Texas as a non-believer there is another aspect of "teaching religion" which is very important. That is teaching the child to understand the beliefs of those around him/her.

If the rest of your writing wasn't so precise I wouldn't nitpick like this. :)

Eneasz said...

I'm not sure I'm interpretting this line correctly:

"In fact, it is quite possible that if you take a random theist with his religiously inspired false beliefs and bad desires, and put him beside an atheist with his false beliefs and bad desires, that the atheist can be (and often is) the worse person."

Is that saying that in the majority of cases a random theist is more moral than a random atheist? I can't contest this, I don't have any data at all to work with, but I didn't think there was any data to indicate this in either direction.

martino said...

Alonzo: "In fact, it is quite possible that if you take a random theist with his religiously inspired false beliefs and bad desires, and put him beside an atheist with his false beliefs and bad desires, that the atheist can be (and often is) the worse person."

Eneasz:Is that saying that in the majority of cases a random theist is more moral than a random atheist? I can't contest this, I don't have any data at all to work with, but I didn't think there was any data to indicate this in either direction.

This is a good point. I would like to think that in the majority of cases the atheist has less false beliefs and bad desires than a theist or that an average atheist has less false beliefs and bad desires than an average theist. But as you say Eneasz we don't have any data to indicate this in either direction, except we do know that an average atheist will lack a certain set of false beliefs and bad desires that average theist is likely to have. Still this does not mean that an average atheist might have different false beliefs and bad desires that an average theist would specifically not have.

Anyway reading Alonzo's quote charitably it is surely a truism if it only refers to a random (not average or majority) selection from both pools, which it does.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Eneasz:

No the term 'often' does not mean 'in a majority of cases'. It just means 'in a lot of cases'. And 'random' does not mean 'average'. 'Random' allows for a lot of instances that deviate quite significantly from what is 'average'.

Ultimately, I wanted to make the point that the true culprits here are false beliefs and bad desires, and that being an atheist does not make one immune from false beliefs and bad desires, and that even though a theist has at least one false belief (there exists one or more gods), that there are many theists who are better people than many atheists.

A majority?

I actually don't think that this matters. A person should not be judged by his membership in a group, but by his own qualities. If all other atheists were cruel and sadistic, I would consider it a mark of bigotry to judge me by other atheists, rather than by my own qualities.

And the same is true of any given theist.

So, I am not even inclined to make comments about 'average' atheist versus 'average' theist. Thta's like making claims about the 'average' white person versus the 'average' black person. In the realm of ethics, these types of comparisons are out of line.

Zorobot said...

"So, we are not going to teach children that George Washington was the first President of the United States. We are only going to teach them how to think, and let them figure this out for themselves. We are going to quit teaching children that Helena is the capital of Montana, or that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and that the square of the hypotenuse on a right triangle is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides. We are simply going to teach children how to think, and let them decide for themselves if they want to accept these propositions.Education requires teaching children not only how to think, but what to think. If ‘indoctrination’ involves teaching children what to think, then the indoctrination of children is unavoidable. If we want to condemn indoctrination, then we have to define it as something other than teaching children what to think."

That's a fallacy. You fail to distinguish between concrete facts (with a strong evidence base) and beliefs (with weak or no evidences bases, or an untestable premise). We can use evidence to show that George Washington was the first president of the USA. To a less confident degree, we can use evidence to show that a popular and influential figure was born around around 6BC in the Middle East and was executed around 30AD. Nobody would object to the teaching those things to children. However, I hope people would object to teaching children that the son of God was born in Nazareth, and he was resurrected after being executed. Those are beliefs that are untestable and without strong evidence, respectively.

If anyone taught my children that, I would be mightily pissed off.