The God decision

Christian parents teach their children to believe in God, atheists teach them not to. Who is doing the right thing?

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‘For what we are about to receive’. Children saying Grace, London, 1940s. Photo Hulton/Getty

‘For what we are about to receive’. Children saying Grace, London, 1940s. Photo Hulton/Getty

Michael Ruse is director of history and philosophy of science at Florida State University. He is writing Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Ever since I read Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion (2006), one thing has stayed with me above all the fiery polemics. It is an answer that Dawkins gave in the book to a question about priestly abuse of children: ‘I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.’ In the five or six years since I read this, it has disturbed me, put me off balance, to an extent that I would not have expected.

I was raised a Quaker, a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and lost my faith around the age of 20. I am as much a non-believer as Dawkins is, yet I look back on my religious training positively. We young Quakers were encouraged to think for ourselves and this was the foundation of my lifetime commitment to philosophy. The moral and social concerns of Quakers have been guides to my life as a teacher. In an entirely secular way, I see the inner light – what Quakers call ‘that of God in everyone’ – in each of my students. So I cannot see religious training as abuse. Nor is this simply because Quakers are a special case. There are Catholic beliefs, such as transubstantiation, that I could never accept, nor do I approve of every aspect of a Catholic education. But, intellectually, I am pretty small beer compared to thinkers such as John Henry Newman, the 19th-century theologian. Socially and morally, I could never measure up to people such as Vincent de Paul or Dorothy Day, whose actions were inspired by their religious beliefs.

Dawkins’s comment has led me to think seriously about the choices we make in being atheists, or theists, for that matter. Atheism, or its opposite, is not just about epistemology, that is, a question of whether or not it is true that there is no god or (Christian) God. It is also a matter of morality, of ethics: should one believe in a god or specifically in God, or should one shun such a belief? And if I believe in a god, am I abusing my children if I bring them up to believe in this same god?

The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, provides the contrast here with Dawkins. Plantinga, a Calvinist, thinks that God has given us a direct way of insight to Him. As John Calvin wrote in 1536: ‘There exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity [sensus divinitatis], we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead.’ Plantinga would say that those who deny the existence of God do so only because their thinking is corrupted by original sin.

These questions of whether one has a moral obligation to believe – or not – in God seem a bit strange. If I were to ask ‘Is there an Eiffel Tower or not?’ it seems clear that the answer is not really a matter of morality, but of epistemology, a question of knowledge. It doesn’t make sense to ask ‘Should you believe in the Eiffel Tower?’ or ‘Should you tell your kids about the Eiffel Tower?’ But the God question – to restrict ourselves now to the Christian deity – is obviously different. By and large, one doesn’t bump into God at the supermarket or see Him on the skyline in Paris. Even if He speaks to you – as apparently He did to Joan of Arc – He does not necessarily speak to me. As Joan’s interlocutors made clear, it is not proven that we should believe that He was speaking to her, or you for that matter. You might be making it up or be delusional. While we can have a consensus about whether or not the Eiffel Tower exists, you can see that there is a dimension of freedom around the God business that does demand judgment and commitment.

Here the moral dimension comes flooding in, in two distinct but related ways. First, are you morally obligated to believe in God, or to not believe in God? Second, what are the consequences of God-belief? Ought you to promote a God-view for society, and teach your children about God?

Morally speaking, ought you to believe in God or not? The 19th-century English mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford spoke of the ‘ethics of belief’: you ought to believe only that for which you have good grounds. If you have a nasty lump and, after tests, your doctor says you have cancer, and you have just had a confirming second opinion, I’m afraid you should accept the conclusion. If you are hard up and spend your last pennies on a lottery ticket, it might give you comfort to think that you will win, but you have no right to believe that. It is not just that you shouldn’t have a big spend in anticipation – that is wrong anyway because you don’t have the money. Clifford would say that you should not kid yourself in the first place. It would be wrong – morally wrong – to deceive yourself.

Now what about the God question? Here people divide. Some, like Dawkins and me, think He doesn’t exist. Others, such as the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, think that He does. People differ, but you can still come down hard on one side or the other. In my neck of the woods (Florida), most people don’t believe in evolution. I think they are wrong and that it’s not a matter for debate: they are truly, absolutely, utterly and completely wrong. Some feel that believing in God is just as clear-cut: on both sides are individuals who think the other point of view is truly, absolutely, utterly and completely wrong. I suppose if you feel this strongly, one way or the other, you know your moral duty, as Clifford would have it.

I cannot reconcile the existence of God with evil. For me, God died with Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen

What about someone like me? Can I be so certain the other side is wrong? Like most reasonably sophisticated Christians, I take the Bible as a story of how a nomadic people came to recognise and refine their notions of their Creator. One can take the Old Testament in particular as an account of growth, from infancy through childhood to adulthood, until one has the loving God of the gospels: there are problems moving from the literal and the metaphorical and so on, but they can be worked out. On the other hand, I think certain things make the existence of God simply untenable. The very notion itself is confused – the God of the Christians is an uneasy amalgam of a Greek notion of the Divine, eternal and unchanging, and the Jewish God, personal and part of daily existence. What is more, I cannot reconcile the existence of God with evil. For me, God died with Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen. Finally, I think all the stuff about faith is simply self-deception.

On the other hand, I can see why some choose to believe. Why is there something rather than nothing? I am content to say I don’t know, but others are not, and when they say there must be a reason, I think they have a fair point. Equally, I am happy to accept that consciousness, sentience just happens, even though I cannot explain it – how can a computer made of meat think? But if the believer can make sense of consciousness only by invoking a deity, I cannot stop them from doing so, nor do I very much want to. And if someone says, sincerely, that the only way they can make sense of great evil is via religion, I don’t dismiss them as stupid or insincere. A process theologian, following Alfred North Whitehead, might argue that God has emptied Himself of His power – ‘kenosis’ – so He can suffer with us. Only by seeing a grieving God at the side of Anne Frank as she lay dying can we live and make sense of this life. This explanation might be incorrect – I think it is – but I am not going to say that someone who believes it is morally wrong.

To be perfectly candid, I am groping my way forward here. But for me, belief in God would be immoral. In Clifford’s terms, I should not believe because I do not have the grounds to do so. But this does not imply that all who believe in God are immoral in their belief: quite the opposite. I am talking about people who sincerely wrestle with these issues and decide that God exists. For them it would be immoral to do otherwise. Am I being paradoxical or outright contradictory? I don’t think so. Such issues are vexed. At some level, you have to respect the integrity of those who disagree with you on the God question, when they have good grounds for their own beliefs. Of course, when it comes to the consequences of those beliefs, we might have to take a harder line, as we would if the grounds for those beliefs proved entirely unreasonable.

It would be wrong for me or another atheist such as Dawkins to indoctrinate our children with belief. I have followed this maxim myself: although I have a deep affection for the Quakerism of my childhood, I have been meticulous not to impose any of this on my five children. Equally, I think sincere Christians have a moral obligation to bring up their own children as Christians.

Here’s the rub, of course. If it were just a matter of bringing up your children as fans of Arsenal or Manchester United – or in my pathetic case, Wolverhampton Wanderers, reflecting my Midlands childhood – then no one would care much. However, when it comes to religion, it never is that simple. People want to run their own lives and those of others according to their religious or non-religious beliefs. In my society, there are major battles over gay rights, capital punishment, state welfare, the place of women in society and, above all, abortion. Everybody wants to tell others what they should or shouldn’t do, in the name of the Lord or otherwise. What people believe as a matter of their religion can impinge on society – can impinge on what I can do and believe.

We start to see that the moral dimension of belief it is not quite as simple as I have suggested. Suppose someone is a sincere Nazi, believing Jews to be evil and all of that. I obviously don’t want any children brought up that way. But does my argument commit me to defending the moral integrity of the Nazi? I don’t think so. I am prepared to accept the integrity of a Christian believer but only because I see them as taking a stand on what I judge reasonable grounds, even if those grounds do not persuade me. Anyone who is a Nazi today rejects the indubitable findings of modern genetics for a start, and so, whatever else, it is just not a reasonable position to hold. It is immoral to be a Nazi and it is immoral to bring up children as Nazis.

If Christianity means being something like a Quaker or a liberal Anglican or a Unitarian, then I for one am not too bothered by people holding those beliefs. However, let us suppose that part of your Christian belief is that gays are in some sense deviant. In the case of Catholics, their Catechism ‘reaffirms that every such inclination, whether innate or pathological, incurable or curable, permanent or transitory, is an objective disorder, an intrinsically disordered inclination’. But psychology and biology have taught us enough about the nature and origins of sexual orientation that to make this kind of claim is simply false. Let us say what seems to be reasonable, that about five per cent of people are gay. Apart from anything else, evolutionary biology says you don’t get those kinds of numbers without some good biological cause, being maintained by natural selection. So clearly and morally, I don’t think you should hold these beliefs – and I don’t think you should teach any children, including your own, these beliefs. They fail Clifford’s criteria of having good grounds.

I don’t like Catholics – or Protestants – teaching their children that gay people are ‘intrinsically disordered’ because such teaching leads to unhappiness and regressive social policies

Although I think Catholics should shun views about ‘intrinsic disorders’, I don’t see this as an essential element of their faith. Catholic thinking about sexuality is based on natural-law theory, articulated by Aquinas and going back to Aristotle, arguing that morality should conform to what is natural. Modern science makes us rethink the naturalness of non-heterosexual inclinations and behaviours and, taken in this context, it can be agreed that being gay is not only not ‘intrinsically disordered’ but quite possibly very intrinsically ordered. A gay person should love a gay person and not be caught in mauvoise foi (bad faith) pretending to be straight.

Lack of truth value is only one reason to reject religious teachings on homosexuality. I don’t like Catholics – or Protestants – teaching their children that gay people are ‘intrinsically disordered’ because such teaching leads to unhappiness and regressive social policies. Two of my students are heterosexual and are getting married: as a newly qualified notary public, I am doing the honours. Two of my students are gay: too bad if they want to do the same – gay marriage is banned in my state of Florida.

At the same time, I am wary of the state moving in on families to monitor what people tell their children. A case can be made for saying greater social evil might ensue from enforced conformity than from allowing false or even hurtful views to be propagated at home. But not everyone would agree with me. Plato, for instance, was prepared to force people to believe even false things for the sake of societal harmony. In the Republic, it is clear that Plato did believe in a god, although he was probably iffy about the Mount Olympus gods. But he thought god-belief necessary to keep order in the ideal society he was sketching. In the Laws Plato suggested that non-believers should be imprisoned, subjected to extreme thought control, served only by slaves and, when dead, buried anonymously. I think the dreadful regimes of the 20th century – Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia – have shown pretty clearly that forcing uniform beliefs on everyone causes great harm. It’s not at all clear that either uniform positive belief in God or uniform non-belief in God is necessarily good for society, regardless of whether God exists or not – or whether a belief in the existence of God is reasonable or not.

The social scientists don’t offer much definitive help. There are surveys, perhaps not surprisingly often backed by religious organisations, suggesting that religion does help in the quest for morality and keeping society humming along smoothly. One of my favourite findings (by the Barna Group in 2008) is that religious people are less given to gossiping than atheists. A little more seriously, in the US there is evidence – gleaned from tax returns – that people from states with higher levels of religiosity are more prone to give to charitable organisations, although often these are, in fact, their own churches. On the other hand, many European countries have less religiosity and greater state-supported social networks and consequent higher levels of health, longevity and the like. In other words, a state (eg New York) that endorses and enacts Obamacare might have higher wellbeing than a state that does not (eg Mississippi), even though Mississippi has both higher religiosity and charitable giving. A non-believer might be just as morally good as the believer, but prefer to contribute through taxes than through voluntary donations. One interesting finding, judged from internet downloads, is that US porn consumption is highest in Mormon-saturated Utah.

Whatever the side effects, then, it’s not clear whether we’d be better off if we were all made to believe in God, or if we were made not to believe in God. There is no simple answer, and we have to let people make choices, however much tension this might cause. Thus, I am brought back to Dawkins and to his provocative claim about teaching religion being a form of child abuse. At one level, I think he is wrong. If you have weighed the evidence and come out believing, then I would say that, morally, you should believe. But weighing the evidence means taking science and other empirical endeavours much more seriously than many religious believers are prepared to do. I’d say you have an obligation to teach your children your beliefs, thus purified, so to speak. However, if people hold religious beliefs that I consider false on grounds that should be accepted by all (like the findings of modern science), then I’d argue it’s wrong to teach those beliefs to children, and the rest of us have an obligation to speak out against what is happening.

I have spent a lot of my life on the podium, in court and in print arguing that crude biblical literalism is false and morally pernicious. Children should be taught about evolution. But this is not a call for enforced uniformity of belief. Of course, if parents are teaching their children views that could be harmful – say, that women are naturally suited to be multiple wives in a polygamous marriage – intervention might be called for. But generally one has to weigh the issues and decide. I am not about to send the thought police down to the local Baptist Church to check out their Sunday school teaching. You might decide that my thinking is flabbier than that of Richard Dawkins. Perhaps so. Or it could just be that matters are a lot more complex than he thinks and, while I might not have things quite right, I don’t have them quite wrong either.

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  • Lester

    Alan Watts brilliantly describes the attitude of modern philosophers by suggesting they would go to work in white coats if they thought they could get away with it.

    These arguments about the validity of one set of beliefs over another seem to miss the point entirely. It's not a question of measuring up the reasonableness of any specific proposal because this merely attempts to paint over the criteria for deciding "reasonableness" a dubious shade of neutrality.

    Of course there is no such thing as a natural and neutral starting point with which to measure things. There are ways of seeing things so culturally drenched that the thinker is unaware of the cultural bias and assumes the right to determine "reality" and the "truth" from their own location in the cultural/philosophical landscape.

    Dawkins does this all the time. He engages in a struggle to own and consequential partition reality from his own perspective. The arguments about the validity of the finer points from within the religious traditions he dismisses are a red-herring. He applies the "hard sciences" attitude of definable reducible non-changeable material facts to a non-definable non-reducible fluctuating intangible world of conscious perceptions. And, hence the white coat jibe, because in an attempt to gain credibility in an Academy dominated by Physics-mentality, philosophers allow this attitude to determine their own thinking.

    Shame really.

  • Bee

    Some slightly woolly thinking here – on the point about why Ruse’s argument doesn’t commit him to defending the moral integrity of the Nazi, he says that it comes down to ‘what I judge reasonable grounds, even if those grounds do not persuade me’.

    He turns to a scientific definition of what is reasonable with regard to Nazism, suggesting that contemporary Nazis (what a generalisation – all of them, really?) reject the findings of modern genetics, and so are unreasonable.

    He makes a similar point on religious people who might teach their children that homosexuality isn’t acceptable – arguing that it’s been proven by science that gay people exist with some biological cause, so it’s unreasonable to argue that homosexuality isn’t acceptable.

    The problem: this scientific reasoning completely misses the point on things like Nazism or a disapproval of homosexuality. Both of those ideologies relate to human ideas about flourishing – what is wrong with the world, what is right, and most importantly - how to lead ‘a good life’. Most Christians I know would accept that there is a biological cause for homosexuality – and would still argue that to lead a good life, gay people must resist their sexual urges, (just as they would argue you should resist selfish evolutionary urges by being altruistic). Most contemporary fascists hate people of other races on cultural as much as racial grounds.

    My point: You can’t debate or judge the objective reasonableness or morality of every position by turning back to what’s been scientifically proven to be a fact or not. And so it feels like he sidesteps the important humanist debates that couch these sorts of issues. The only answer offered is a shrug of the shoulders and a: ‘well, this is what I happen to think is reasonable, so I guess it's fine if people want to think that’.

    Ruse isn’t quite wrong, but he isn’t quite right either.

    • G

      Agreed, I found that part of the article weak.

      One should oppose Naziism not because science tells us that Jews have the same genes as everyone else, but because history tells us that Nazis have committed the most massively and all-encompassingly evil atrocities in the recorded history of humanity.

      One should oppose anti-gay bigotry not because science tells us that same-sex behaviours are natural across the phylogenetic scale, but because history tells us that anti-gay bigotry has led to exactly the same sorts of atrocities as overt racism, up to and including in the Nazi Holocaust.

      One should oppose both of those ideologies and certain others as well, not only for ontological and scientific reasons, but also for the far more obvious and unarguable consequential and historical reasons.

      • Bee

        Sure - though I was thinking more of moral rather than consequential arguments. So, even if the Nazis hadn't wanted to kill Jews but had simply used them as a scapegoat for Germany's problems at the time - it's an unreasonable position because blind hatred for any other group/individual is always unreasonable - people and cultures are a mixture of good and bad. It's also important to recognise the subjectivity of our own opinions in this - what we think of as being 'good' or 'bad' in terms of people or politics is unlikely to always be an objective truth that everyone else should sign up to. Everyone has biases and blind spots. That's why broad moral rules like 'do not kill', 'do not hate', 'be kind', come in handy.

        The same sorts of things come into play with sexual bigotry. Most religions contain at least a strand of thought that suggests compulsion is wrong - i.e. compelling others to live by your views. But this is complicated by questions of what it means to lead a good life - can a child have a fully rounded upbringing with two parents of one gender, what does it mean to lead a good life in the context of sex or partnership. Some religious people I know support gay marriage because they see it as a way of bringing 'deviance' inside moral, traditional frameworks that allow for the best way to rear children in a stable environment, and some gay friends object to this because they believe sex should be as casual as drinking a cup of coffee - other gay friends disagree and see sex as a more serious thing that *should* be contained within monogamous relationships.

        My point: it's complicated, and these are deep questions about what it means to live well, that deserve to be debated - but that can't be answered by endlessly looking for some empirical fact to answer the question for you. Everyone's answer is subjective, and that is why we need to allow for society to offer people many different answers.

        (So speaks the only religious person on this thread.)

        • G

          I quite agree that the moral arguements are important, and that they cannot be reduced to consequentialism. In general I tend to argue morals from first facts or first causes, and from purposes and meaning, and I tend to think that consequentialist arguements are over-simplified.

          The reason I turn to consequentialism with regard to Nazis is that Nazis are an instance where one needn't do anything more than that. One might do more, of course, and the more thorough the moral treatment of the issue, the better to build the societal firewall against a recurrence.

          Perhaps this could lead to a kind of moral Turing test with one question: "Explain why Nazis are evil." Any human who is not an overt psychopath should be able to answer in their own words, whether simple or complex.

          But this is getting far afield of the original subject matter of this article, so perhaps it would be best to leave it here for now.

          • Bee

            Ah, I'm with you now. I jumped to assumptions about your use of consequentialism. Quite agree with your points.

          • Ormond Otvos

            I'm not an overt psychopath, and I think you're just playing a nasty game of making anyone who disagrees with you look bad.

            The question of evil's actual existence has been argued for centuries, and I suspect some of them weren't psycho.

          • Princess

            What if you view evil as the absence of good, in the way that darkness does not really exist but it is the absence of light, and cold has no real property, but it is the absence of heat?

          • Ormond Otvos

            Well, to make that work you need to define "good" well enough to defines its absence. Have at it. Hundreds have tried. Don't forget natural disasters. Are they evil?

          • Princess

            That is true, as Bertrand Russel admitted that the only thing he could say about Hitler was that he didn't like the guy. If a person didn't have a standard, say a religious or philosophical one, I don't know. By natural disasters, you are adding intent to the definition of evil. I would say the discussion of good vs. evil is religious and philosophical, not scientific.

      • Bee

        Also, re. the argument that Nazis have committed the most evil atrocities in the recorded history of humanity - you're conveniently erasing the Middle Passage, the 20-60 million Stalin killed, and many, many more examples that implicate people affiliated with most ideologies, nations, and races throughout history.

        • G

          And the enslavement of African peoples and the genocide of Native American peoples both North American and South American, and the Cambodian genocide and Rwanda, and and and and.

          After a while, 'Never Again!' is met with so many Agains and so many Ands, that one wonders how humanity can so mindlessly keep repeating history.

          But atrocities are measured in many ways, the sheer numbers of victims being one of them. What do you say to the last surviving member of a California Native American tribe who has seen every one of his family, friends, and tribe-mates hunted down like rabid dogs for prize money? 'Twas but a small tribe, the genocide of it hardly comparable to the Holocaust in numbers, but a 100% effective Final Solution in that it erased that tribe from existence.

          For every such case that one of us can name, another of us can name three or six or twelve or a hundred more, and not one of those instances diminishes the horror of any other by as much as a millimetre.

          But what makes the Nazi Holocaust the supreme evil of all evils, was that it combined the ruthless efficiency of a fine-tuned machine with the utterly gratuitous type of depraved cruelty that one typically sees in people who have lost all contact with reality; and this, toward the deliberate and calculated end of exterminating yet another entire people from the face of the Earth. Every facet of it spits in the face of any attempt to comprehend any other facet of it, other than by invoking words such as 'evil' and 'depravity' that barely do justice to the reality.

          But the main point is that there are ideologies still alive today, that can be judged conclusively without need of any more evidence than their past 'accomplishments.' One needn't argue that this tortured or enslaved person is human, or this segregated or oppressed person is equal to that other person over there. One needn't argue peer-reviewed journal findings about genetics or neurophysiology.

          I say this as an engineer who has a deep love and respect for science, that there exist categories of human experience that are manifest and self-evident, for which the simplest of all arguements suffice: Something happened, and what it was that happened is sufficient to know what to do about it. This is true for good as well as for evil: you know it when you see it. If anything, the sheer quantity of examples only reinforces the conclusion.

          • Bee

            Very interesting argument - I agree on the whole. As you said before, we're stepping quite far away from the subject matter now, so perhaps one to flesh out further another time.

          • Ormond Otvos

            The subject matter is critical thinking, and absolute evil-calling is not very critical thought.

            Don't confuse disgust with evil. Evil is a portmanteau word, almost always misused. Eugenics was the goal of the Nazis, and eugenics is a very debatable concept.

            Hitler figured he had to do cleanup of genetic errors as well as selectively breed for the new Reich.

            There are maybe fifty million Americans who would gleefully kill every African and Asian person.

            Who's their Hitler?

          • Princess

            Yes, the Nazis were great scientists and employed the latest technology by IBM in their record keeping. You rarely hear this story.

        • scribblerlarry

          You're also leaving out the millions that the US killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a half dozen African nations in recent decades. All to make the bankers and the oil barons richer than they already are.

          Do you know how big the Nationalist Socialist Party was in the US prior to WWII? Would you like to know some of the big names who pushed for the US to join Hitler? Big names like Henry Ford! Have you ever heard of the German America Bund? (Yeah it is much downplayed now but it was a big thing before the war).

          Hitler's hatred of the Jewish people only really surfaced after he was firmly in control of most of Europe.

      • Ormond Otvos

        Nazis did bad things. To my knowledge, about fifty other groups did equally bad things, within the error bars. Americans, Indians, Muslims, Japanese, Huns, Turks, Chinese, on and on.

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    • scribblerlarry

      I do not think it correct that anyone not mentally unbalanced can sincerely and honestly examine the question of religious belief in a god (or gods) and conclude that there is indeed such a being.

      One cannot, unless mentally damaged, examine the question of one plus four equals three (1+4=3) and "reasonably and sincerely" conclude that there is evidence that this conclusion is, or could ever be, correct.

      Most people ask an improper question; They ask, "Is there a God?"

      The question they ought to be asking is, "Is there clear and compelling evidence of the existence of a God?"

      It matters not one whit if there is a god if there is no evidence of its existence. It only matters if the evidence put forward is accurate and falsifiable.


      • Princess

        How do you explain that atheists have higher rates of mental illness and suicide, and I believe lower rates of marriage and child-bearing? Yes, I believe you can possibly point to the positive relationship to a religious community's social support system. Perhaps marriage and child-bearing take a sort of faith too?

  • Jeffrey Guterman PhD

    I have always encouraged my child to think for himself on issues pertaining to the existence or non-existence of God.

    • Patchy

      And that's the way it should be, I think.

      I disagree with Mr. Ruse in that I don't think children should be taught religion at all. They should be encouraged to learn (when they are old enough and smart enough to understand the differences) about atheism and theism and make their own decisions based on their own beliefs whether to go one way or the other.

    • Earthstar

      I was raised with out religion and without atheism by parents that can be described as non seeking agnostics. Their belief was that any faith worth holding would appeal to my adult mind and not need childhood reinforcement. I chose atheism for many years, but am now deeply committed to my Buddhist practice. I will raise my own children with this understanding. They will remain free to believe whatever they find true.

  • Irrational

    I just raised my kids to be respectful to other people.
    And I also taught them, as my parents did me, to mind their own business as much as humanly possible and to avoid the topics of politics and religion while in polite company.

  • Sergio Graziosi

    As others pointed out, the discrimination between what's reasonable to believe and what is not is the difficult bit in here, and a point that invalidates more or less the whole argument.
    Different people will have incommensurately different reference points to establish "reasonableness". Ruse suggests we should use scientifically established knowledge, and I wholeheartedly agree, but I know for sure that plenty won't and that most of them will be believers.
    I would propose the following: of course parents should feel free to teach their children what is right, to the best of their abilities, and this has implication if they happen to be religious. If you remove this right, you immediately slip into a dictatorship, and we know it ain't good.
    However, at the same time, each and every kid should be taught the "common ground" view, that is the vision that we can all agree on, and it can only be what evidence shows, also know as what Scientific Knowledge. Guess what? This is what schools are for, leading to one obvious conclusion:
    Religion should never get even close to state-enforced education, and religious schools should be forbidden altogether. Sending a child to a faith school instead of a secular one deprives her/him from being exposed to knowledge on the other points of view, and is likely to deprive her/him from the right of choosing what outlook works for her/him. And that IS child abuse, it deliberately constrains freedom of thought, I can't see how this may be a good idea.
    The reverse does not apply: if a child receives a religious education from parents and at Sunday school, but also gets a secular education in regular schools, s/he will be exposed to different world-views and will have the possibility to choose.

    I do believe Dawkins was referring exactly to this kind of argument: religious upbringing is child abuse if and when it prevents children from knowing that they are supposed to decide for themselves about what to believe.
    This does not mean that we should expect parents to endorse views that they don't believe in, how could that request be considered moral? But society as a whole has the duty to make sure each member gets their chance in finding their own way in the world, the consequence is that regular-compulsory education should never, ever, with no exception, be devolved to religious organisations. If parents want to send their children *also* to a religious school, that's their right, and they should be allowed to do so.

    • Lester

      Sure, but interestingly, if people are expected to "make choices for themselves", never have their "freedom of thought" constrained and be allowed "to find their own way in the world", then paradoxically, by constructing the moral/cultural landscape in this way, you have prevented people from acting freely by limiting their possibilities and imposing your own.

      After all, the idea of "making choices" at all is based on a concept of the rational person acting in their own best interest to maximise their own potentiality - this in itself is a highly debatable concept, even by the scientific standards on which one is supposedly basing a neutral measurement.

      And "freedom of thought" is a slippery idea anchored as it is to a cultural framework that disables the true capacity of anyone to "find their own way in the world". I mean, let's say for the sake of argument that I want people to act freely, but I recognise that much of their behaviour is based on the cultural determinates of the capitalist market. I then have to accept that at some level there are base moral agreements upon which the whole edifice is built and that people are not able to escape from these cultural determinates.

      So, expecting a specific worldview based on fundamental moral agreements whilst at the same time posturing total freedom to express any world view outside of fundamental moral agreements is just pushing the agreements over the horizon and pretending they are not there.

      Or in other words, replacing one set of morals with another but pretending you haven't. And doing so because of a hierarchy of justifications but pretending neutrality. This is also a subtle form of preventing "freedom of self-expression" whilst pretending it's not.

      I'm not actually even taking a stance on the content of any belief here.

      • Sergio Graziosi

        there are two things implied in your point.
        1) that the generally accepted solution "your freedom ends where it unnecessarily constrains someone else's freedom" is not good enough. I am specifically talking of not abusing children by limiting their ability to think for themselves. The subject is tricky, but a strict "there is no possible shared reference point" does not help at all. So, I am actively exploring how to avoid giving up.
        2) That I am pretending not to force my own moral stance. I can see why it may seem so, so I'll clarify.
        I am not saying that I'm not picking sides, I am specifically saying that a scientific outlook is epistemologically better than religious ones [and that it is better because it is the one that has the highest possibility of being recognised as worthy by all the different religions]. I've written something about this here (read also the previous posts if you want to have a fair debate):

        In other words, if you accept that reality can be studied via science, and you can therefore observe that a highly prescriptive, even dictatorial, society is not good at all, then the stance I'm defending looks pretty straightforward. I may be wrong, but that's how I see it at the moment.
        You are of course free to disagree, and if that's the case, I would consider it good manners if you also wanted to try to change my mind via a honest debate.

        • Lester

          Sergio, I'm not really in the business of changing minds, but I will definitely offer you an honest and respectful debate, and I'm genuinely sorry of it seemed otherwise.

          My points were not at all about "your freedom ends where it unnecessarily constrains someone else's freedom". That's a far more political point than I was making. Rather I am saying that all positions contain within them limiting conditions, so with respect to the (Dawkins rather horrible) analogy of abusing children, there is always a limiting factor in any argument - including rational atheist ones - because there is always a shared reference point. It's just that this reference point (or fundamental moral agreements as I called it earlier) is pushed over the horizon and pretends neutrality, when in fact it is culturally biased.

          I did not mean to personalise this conversation. The thing isn't that "you" are pretending, but that the mode of argument contains the pretense.

          Regarding epistemology, I rather clumsily tried to suggest earlier that questions about "What can we know?" and "How can we know it?" are not so easily answered as a brutal materialist position suggests. Wonderful quantum physicists like David Bohm are more than happy to suggest that knowledge itself is a transient and cultural phenomena that should better be categorized as an accumulation of insights rather than hard facts that represent reality. I agree with him. Even science is symbolic. We talk about concepts that represent reality. We cannot do otherwise. To what degree one is satisfied with this is the question.

          Or in other words I don't think the argument between Empiricism and Rationalism is a clear cut as you are suggesting. Not to mention consciousness and it's relationship to "reality".

          But as I said earlier, I think these attempts to own reality and partition it off in boxes misses the point. The existence of a God is irrelevant to the discussion. The point I am making is that the content of these arguments (whether a religious or a scientific view is superior) is less important than the way the arguments are made.

          The scientific argument when poorly made morphs into scientism. Which is a shame. It pretends a solidity it cannot have. And in the case of Dawkins et al, the tendency is to reduces religious philosophy to its cheapest social manipulative tendencies whilst pretending not to be doing so themselves. Of course religion easily morphs into a dangerous means of manipulating and controlling. That's not really news. But so does Materialism when locked into a dualistic model where essentially Man himself replaces Gods as the pinnacle of power. When the idea is that Man comes into the universe rather than out of it, an arrogant destruction ensues.

          When you suggest "a scientific outlook is epistemologically better than religious ones" I respectfully suggest that there is a problem here, in that science creates the conditions for its own worldview and then fulfills those conditions according to its own ethos, and it does so excellently. As a means of understanding the appearance of material "stuff" it is wonderful. I'm happy to fly in a plane made by science. But a full conceptual understanding of reality is not about the capacity to measure things but to comprehend the complex patterns of processes and relationships that create the thing we call reality. And to weave in the elephant in the universe called Consciousness. And the only scientists claiming that understanding ALL this is an inevitability through science are the more culturally anchored materialists like Dawkins. But they do so from a position of faux-neutrality. Which as I said is a shame for both philosophical and scientific progress.

          • Sergio Graziosi

            Thanks (and I mean it).
            Seems that we agree much more than is immediately apparent, but I'll try to proceed in order.
            First of all, I do wish to personalise the conversation, and I invited you to do so precisely because we start from very similar premises but reach very different conclusions. So thanks for engaging, I do appreciate, and I need answers like yours to eventually find out what I'm doing wrong: my conclusions surprise even me.

            In a nutshell, and trying to use your own language, this is where I stand.
            Yes, every epistemological stance requires to accept some premises, that's what I recognise in your "all positions contain within them limiting conditions" and even a "fundamental moral agreement". And that's why I took the time to mention that to see my point you need to "accept that reality can be studied via science" (note: implies that there is one reality that can be studied. Also: science is intended here as empirical).

            Once you accept this premise, you can, as I do, see that all "truths" uncovered by science are approximate and provisional (I actually go as far as saying they are wrong: but they are still based on the more solid epistemological foundations that can be found.

            What I haven't written elsewhere is that the consideration above is true also because every single human being needs
            at some level to believe that reality exists, otherwise s/he won't be able to function, and this makes what can be understood empirically the kind of knowledge that can be accepted by more people overall (certainly not everyone): it requires only one basic "belief", or reference point, that is genuinely shared by most human beings.

            If you want, you can see my stance as my personal effort to correct the typical, "poorly made" scientific argument, and to my surprise, I've ended into scientism just the same (many posts afterwards). Hence my bafflement, and my need to make the argument personal to see if someone can show me
            where I'm wrong.

            Unfortunately, you haven't changed my mind, and you'll need to dissect my original positions to so, so I'm probably asking too much!

            But yes, I'm still fully materialist, as Dawkins, but we (you and me) agree on another thing: we (the ugly materialists, scientistics[?] and reductionists) can't play this game while ignoring the elephant in the universe, and that's why, besides my blog, I've submitted a paper on the big C and I am nervously awaiting for peer review. Still, in my view, the faux-neutrality that you identified can be reduced to: reality exists and it follows some rules that do not change arbitrarily. And if you avoid obstacles while moving, then you certainly seem to agree with this premise, so where is the catch?

            PS what do you mean with "the argument between Empiricism and Rationalism"? I'm not sure we are using the same language!

          • kazoo

            Science does not "create conditions for its own worldview." That is nonsense and of course the opposite of scientific purpose. Science IS empirical, religion is not. Religion has no "stuff," it has no reality (shroud of turin?), it has no proof, so why should Dawkins (or anyone) be neutral? Christians and other religious people seek and profess equality with the rational/scientific/empirical world where none exists. The only real faux-neturality is christians who want to push their viewpoint--in public schools, no less-- that god/creationism is a theory as valid as evolution. It is not true.

    • skanik


      Religious schools are different all over the world.

      Some have a morning prayer and then they are secular in what is expected

      from their teachers.

      To presume that God, if there is a God, has to dance to the

      "Scientific Matrix" as we have constructed it - is the height of arrogance.

      Atheistic Scientists - whether they wish to admit it or not - are claiming

      miraculous capabilities for the three pounds of thinking matter that lies

      between our ears.

      They still believe, though they may not realise it, that an Intelligence

      has created the Universe in such a manner that our minds may understand it.

      Thus they deny the very being Whose handiwork they seek to understand.

      • pbasch

        Well... Saying what people believe, though they may not realise it, is a tiny bit presumptuous. Saying that the Universe is 'created' in such a manner that we may understand it presupposes that we understand it, when (it seems to me) we notice patterns in it. That's quite a distance from 'understanding.' Also, humbly admitting that we can't know everything does not lead inexorably to the idea of a conscious creator beyond spacetime - it simply leads to the admission that we're guessing. With an empirical approach, we can at least test our guesses sometimes.

        • skanik

          Science is based on the belief, admitted or not, that:

          The Universe is understandable

          That the Laws of Nature are constant throughout the Universe.

          The Universe may be - in either case - or it may not be.

          Whether it is or not makes all the difference.

          • pbasch

            Whether it is understandable or not? Not to be argumentative, but I'm not sure its being 'understandable' is an article of faith. Science, as I understand it, is a process of hypothesis, prediction, test, repeat. It seems to be possible to do that, because people actually do it. You don't need to start by declaring that you believe it's possible to do it, you just DO it. As for the laws of nature being constant, yes, that's an axiom - when you learn Special Relativity, it has two givens: Speed of light is a constant, and laws of nature are constant. But, again, those aren't articles of faith that we insist are true, they are axioms which help us make sense of what we see. They may certainly prove to be wrong, and they are tested constantly. Einstein posited those two preconditions to help the math come out. He then made predictions, and there were tests (experiments) and the predictions were confirmed. So, as far as we can tell, the conditions work. Until, of course, they stop working, and then there will be a new hypothesis.

          • UWIR

            That is quite different from the belief that the universe was created by an Intelligence, which in turn in quite different from a belief in God. You're just playing word games.

    • Bee

      "Sending a child to a faith school instead of a secular one deprives her/him from being exposed to knowledge on the other points of view, and is likely to deprive her/him from the right of choosing what outlook works for her/him. And that IS child abuse, it deliberately constrains freedom of thought, I can't see how this may be a good idea."

      Given that the Western world was, until 300 years ago or so, almost entirely religious, (and that atheism emerged from this context), the idea that a religious upbringing would constrain freedom of thought is both bizarre and patronising. I have atheist friends who have entered a religion, and friends raised religious who have lose their faith.

      "Ruse suggests we should use scientifically established knowledge, and I wholeheartedly agree, but I know for sure that plenty won't and that most of them will be believers."

      See my earlier comment at the top - how do you propose using scientifically established factual knowledge to show that to dislike someone else's culture, (in the case of many contemporary fascists) is an empirically wrong thing to do? There are some questions that can't be fully answered by science.

      • Sergio Graziosi

        Bee, I'm not sure I understand!
        On your first point, are you saying that deliberately raising your children so that they don't get exposed to the diversity of belief represented in our (Western) societies is not going to change the probability of what faith they will embrace, and/or whether they will decide to embrace none? If you are, well, I can't avoid seeing your point as bizarre and absolutely unfounded. One thing is known: your parents' religion is the strongest known predictor of your own, although I couldn't find precise correlation numbers. [I would predict that the strongest correlation is observed in less diverse and more divisive societies; in some countries I believe it's illegal to change your religion, but that's another story] If you top your own family upbringing with a selective experience of the outside world, peer pressure will reinforce the world-view that has been chosen for you. Note that I've said "is likely to deprive", not that it's guaranteed.

        On your second point, I don't see any difficulty in using factual knowledge to show how prejudice about different cultures is a dangerous belief. Factual knowledge comes from historical (and plenty of contemporary) facts: if you think that random killing, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, genocide, and all that sort of niceties are in fact not nice at all, especially if you happen to be on the wrong side of it, you can easily see that labelling entire populations as 'bad' usually leads to violent conflict. But of course, you have to recognise that looking at the evidence is a good idea, if you don't, you may well remain locked in your self-inflicted spiral of hate.
        Of course there are some questions that can't be fully answered, what I'm saying is just that if you want to get better and better (= more reliable) answers, you have to engage with reality and use empirical observation to check the reliability of your 'knowledge'. If that's scientism, I'm as guilt as it gets.

        • Bee

          Hi Sergio

          On my first point – let me make it clear firstly that when I think of faith schools, I think of schools within a secular western society that are affiliated with a particular faith, and that (in my country anyway), are under an obligation to take a number of pupils not of that faith, but that have a character associated with that faith – so, saying prayers in the morning, for example. I am not thinking of a school in a theocratic country where there would not necessarily be any exposure throughout a person’s life to any other culture or religion or system of thought.

          What I am saying is that no matter what upbringing someone has within this context– what school they go to, what family they live with – people eventually come to their own individual philosophies about the universe, (and many who go on saying that they ascribe to a particular religion don’t actually – see the furore about the number of people in the UK census who describe themselves as Christians but who, people like Dawkins note, are only cultural Christians, or don’t subscribe fully to Christian beliefs).

          For an excellent case study, try Carlo Ginzburg’s wonderful ‘The Cheese and the Worms’, which describes the highly unusual belief system of a miller who was questioned and then burned by the Inquisition in 1599. His thought is a mish mash of lots of different things – yet he lived under a theocracy, and called himself a Christian.

          My point is that people aren’t idiots, it is part of the human condition to think about these things and come to our own conclusions – whatever label anyone may choose to attach to themselves.

          That said, I don’t think faith schools provide an ideal system – I’m just saying people who feel strongly about sending their kids to one should be able to without the rest of us worrying that they’ll turn out parroting everything they’ve been taught for the rest of their lives. I think the ideal system would involve a broad religious and philosophical education, skating over the world’s major religious beliefs and major theist & atheist thinkers.

          • Sergio Graziosi

            Cumulative answer...
            Point one, we are not distant, but faith schools exist because they do spread their own beliefs: if they didn't, people would not be so passionate about it.
            [For a comparison, think of advertisements: we are all smart enough to avoid being fooled by them, right? If that's so, why most companies spend so much on it? Are all of them foolish? But if we are "smart enough", and happen to work on these companies, why don't we stop the pointless waste?]
            Plus, one quantity can never be underestimated: human stupidity. No matter how low you set the bar, someone will always surprise you and do something unimaginably stupid. Give anyone enough time and the same applies to all of us, me and you included. So no, a solution that applies to the whole society and relies on people not being stupid is not a good solution.
            Plus, you'll find plenty of sorrowful stories of people raised within a given religious tradition that had a very hard time realising it wasn't for them. The reverse does not apply, nobody has ever felt dirty, unworthy or mischievous because they were thinking of stopping being an atheist. People feel awful when they realise they don't believe any more while still thinking they "should" (as moral imperative). So once again, no, allowing and favouring this sort of situation is wrong, generates more pain, reduces dialogue (every faith does imply all the others are wrong, and usually because "G*d said so" in person(!)) and favours cultural segregation, not good.
            Second point: I agree with your effort in showing that it's not so simple. But I also note that "ghettoization, inequality and other similar festering" are cases of one-sided violence, with victims and perpetrators. And sooner or later, payback time arrives.
            We are getting closer to what we disagree on: I've started by saying that you'll find it difficult to use evidence to decide what beliefs are reasonable, and get everyone to agree. That was my starting point, so I've proposed an alternative approach, and said that you may use evidence to suggest that children should be exposed to diversity at school, while their parents are free to teach them their own religion privately. You seem to have missed my original reply, and keep pointing out that it's complicated, and that therefore science can't help. I *am* saying that it's complicated, and that therefore you need our sharpest and more trustworthy knowledge tools to find a way out, and that happens to be science.
            Now: I know perfectly well that scientists usually come across as happy to over-simplify, frequently with good reason. But that's the sign of human weaknesses, and does not disproof my point: you got to look at the evidence, because "it's complicated". And you are saying exactly this, only you don't see history as a science, while I do (it is about evidence, after all). The whole embracing definition of what can be seen as scientific is described here: (something that comes close to what Sam Harris is proposing, but I still prefer my own take).
            I hope this clarifies, we are not very far at all, I think.

          • Bee

            Sergio –

            I’m afraid I can’t see much common ground between our views, though I respect the civility with which you’ve put yours forward.

            Point 1: I went to a school with a Christian character, said
            the Lord’s prayer every morning, and did not emerge from it a Christian – though I do belong to another religious tradition and I found what I learned from that school to be useful in many ways – and I think my presence there brought some welcome diversity to the other students. (Note: we still had a secular curriculum, as all faith schools in my country do, though the religious education classes slanted a little more towards Christianity I was asked to talk to the class about my religion on more than one occasion, as were a few Hindu classmates.)

            People are passionate about faith schools not because they
            see them as a way of proselytizing, or as an advert to others, but because they see them as providing a safe space for their children that upholds particular values that they share. They want their kids to be in this sort of space when young, (and as someone who went from a school with a religious character to a secular school as a teenager, which was both less studious and did little to protect us from sexual pressure, I can sort of see their point).

            I think it’s a shame that you see human stupidity as something so much more powerful than human imagination and potential. Of course people will always do stupid things – and the same people are often capable of remarkable wisdom in the right circumstances.

            And yes, there are lots of stories of people raised in a religious tradition who have a hard time moving away from it when they want to – but the opposite absolutely applies. I have atheist friends who mock and shame an old friend who became an evangelical Christian, questioning her intelligence, arguing she's been brainwashed, just as I have a friend whose family were incredibly upset at her wanting to move away from religious Judaism. Tribalism goes both ways, I’m afraid – as well as a natural unhappiness at seeing those close to you move away from things you strongly believe (or don’t believe) in. I mean, I know for a fact that your statement, ‘nobody has ever felt dirty, unworthy or mischievous because they were thinking of stopping being an atheist’ isn’t true, from first-hand experience.

            Second point – I’m afraid I don’t see how you’ve engaged
            with my comments or my point at the top at all. I’m saying more than that it’s complicated – I’m saying it’s subjective in a way that goes beyond the objective blunt truths of science. (Again, please engage directly with the points I make in my comment at the top if you respond, saying why I’m wrong there, if you think I am).

            (I also disagree that the sharpest tools at human disposal are
            scientific ones – what a blunt and absurd statement. I love science and am in awe of what scientific research has achieved, but your viewpoint is amazingly narrow. I’ll say it again: you’re missing out on the humanities. Literature,
            history, philosophy and theology offer equally important tools for for revealing, exploring and debating truths about the human experience, that this piece simply ignores, and it comes across as fatuous as a result.)

          • Sergio Graziosi

            Thanks, I always do my best to avoid unnecessary confrontation: disagreements are to be expected and should be useful, they don't need spark conflict. I'll try to keep the conversation productive, but please note that: 1. I don't have much spare time, so my replies may be sparse; 2. if I challenge your views, I don't intend to challenge you as a person, I go after ideas that I consider wrong, and think this is in the best interest of both sides.
            Your first point misses the mark on many levels. First and foremost, you are giving way too much weight to your own direct experience. This is a mistake that we all do: I've recently cited a monograph published by the CIA (!!) on cognitive biases, in chapter 10 it says:

            information that is vivid, concrete, and personal has a
            greater impact on our thinking than pallid, abstract information that
            may actually have substantially greater value as evidence

            Apparently, this sort of bias is universal: we all fall for it, even when we know we have it. Doesn't mean that we should not try to compensate it, though. In your case, it seems that it lead you into confusing the personal, self-inflicted anguish that people normally experience when loosing their faith with the social pressures that come from the outside world. I'm saying that who is taught a world view that gives moral weight to unsubstantiated beliefs (aka, faith) will almost always go through a horrible time when losing her faith, that's because the process almost always includes a phase where one is led to think "I can't believe this, so I must be a bad person". The reverse is not true, if you don't have faith, and are drawn towards it, you are changing because it makes you feel better, at least most of the times. Peer pressure and tribalism cuts both ways, I agree, but that's not my point. Second: faith schools incorporate their own value system, you implicitly point this out; people may send their children them there, even if they don't subscribe to that particular religion, because of their highest standards. Doesn't mean that the people who fund and run these schools are not trying to propagate their beliefs, they may be doing so in civilised and indirect ways, but they are still trying. Again, think about my point on advertisements: a lot of propaganda can be unobtrusive, indirect, subtle, and still be quite effective. Yes, most faith schools in the UK seem pretty benign, they need to, but that makes them more dangerous, precisely because the danger is well hidden.

            Stupidity: I'm saying that no one is immune. Stupidity afflicts all of us, and should not be underestimated. I'm not saying anything about "human imagination and potential", please be careful when representing my views. (that's a harsh way to say that I agree with "people are often capable of remarkable wisdom in the right circumstances", but it wasn't my point)

            Second point: I am not challenging your original views, because I agree! The disagreement here is probably semantic (on our differing definitions of science). To me, science is an effort to produce knowledge that can be verified. In principle it includes a lot of history, literature and philosophy. With caveats, that I've discussed here: I provide links because I understand that my somewhat unorthodox position may confuse! If it's not just a semantic problem, then you probably think that when things are too complex, one can't use scientific (evidence-informed) tools, and needs to use philosophy, or G*d forbid (!), theology. If that's the case, the disagreement is probably insuperable: philosophy is great, but can systematically lead you on the wrong path (see: and, while using theology to try to find out what's true is just blatantly illogical (see: ): if you accept the existence of supernatural forces that can arbitrarily change the rules that govern our world (miracles and the like), you are implying the impossibility of generating reliable knowledge altogether; this is because of the "arbitrary" and "supernatural" qualities; if you remove them, the supposed God(s) become part of the natural world and are therefore knowable and subject to standard scientific enquiry.

            Finally, you may also want to note that I don't see an irresolvable tension between complex subjectivity and objective/scientific "truths", this is summarised here: and is the reason why I essentially agree with your original critique of the article we are commenting.

          • Bee

            Hi Sergio,

            I appreciate the politeness, and am also setting out not to challenge you as a person but the points themselves.

            "I'm saying that who is taught a world view that gives moral weight to unsubstantiated beliefs (aka, faith) will almost always go through a horrible time when losing her faith, that's because the process almost always includes a phase where one is led to think "I can't believe this, so I must be a bad person"."

            I see how I misunderstood you at first - your argument seems to be not that tribalism/peer pressure makes going from religious-->atheist more difficult than going from atheist--> religious, but that but that the actual different internal processes do this - because faith, you believe, 'makes you feel better'.

            The trouble with this is the same flaw that affects your criticism of my drawing on personal evidence - you're not offering any broad, generalised evidence for this yourself, and so I must conclude that you are also speaking only from your own personal anecdotal experience and judgment.

            You see - I was not using my personal experience to generalise - not to say 'I went through this and so this must be everyone's experience', but to say, 'the generalised argument that you have made - saying that faith schools all proselytize - isn't true for everyone, and I know this because it wasn't true for me, (though it may be true in some cases).'

            Do you see the difference? If someone says 'all mice love cheese', it is valid for me to address that argument by saying, 'but my mouse hates it, he never touches it when I put it in front of him'. But it *wouldn't* be valid for me to say, 'my mouse hates cheese so all mice must hate cheese'. (Which is actually what I believe you were doing in the first place, by generalising about faith schools).

            Second point: I'm afraid I'm still not grasping your - as you say - quite unorthodox position, but if you say that you're in agreement with the views in my original comment then perhaps it's best if we leave it at that!

          • uk

            ("because the process almost always includes a phase where one is led to think "I can't believe this, so I must be a bad person".")

            You are wrong, very wrong... One actually feels free, what you can't believe are those people you trusted had brainwashed you to follow a so called faith, an awful lie. You don't feel bad you feel fantastic, Happy & full of love for life itself, on top of the world. No there is no feeling that you are a bad person, trust me...

          • Sergio Graziosi

            uk, you made me smile.
            Really happy to be wrong on this one, and I assume you are talking from first hand experience. I am tempted to believe you are describing the end of the journey, 'cause I'm not really sure that the first doubts can be assumed to be perceived in such a positive way from their very beginning and for most cases. But hey, each personal history will be unique, so I'm glad I wrote "almost always", leaving just enough space for you to provide a very welcome counter-example.

          • Sergio Graziosi

            despite our best efforts, I fear that we won't be able to keep chatting amicably for much longer...

            I don't have much evidence to back my point that leaving/losing a faith is often a painful path, and uk's testimony doesn't help me there (a small price, in this case!). If you don't think that people who are finding themselves unable to believe in what guided their life until the day before are facing some hard times, I can't avoid thinking that you are turning a blind eye to an unwelcome possibility.

            It gets worse: I'm saying that faith schools exist because their funders want to proselytise. Your mouse/cheese logic is correct, but even if you could find a school that does certainly not exist also for proselytism (and I don't know how you could demonstrate it besides "mine didn't feel that way"), it would be clearly an exception. In this case, I can find some evidence, but I still maintain that the burden of proof is on your side. Yes, we agree that most faith schools in the UK (and a few other lucky countries) are not openly in the business of converting as many pupils as they can, but that's a necessity: they wouldn't find it possible to justify their existence and their use of public money otherwise. This means that if they do want to proselytise, they can't do it openly.

            This is why I mentioned the similarity with advertisements: a frequent aim of marketing is making you believe that you need/want the marketed product. But if you see an ad and immediately see that it tries to trick you, it will not be very effective. Hence, most marketing campaigns will be more subtle, and try to achieve their goal in indirect, or hidden ways.
            So, the working hypothesis here is that faith schools do the same, and it's a solid hypothesis.

            1. If you believe that who doesn't follow your faith is either condemned to eternal damnation or to leading a bad, unsatisfying life; and if you also believe that G*d wants you to love all fellow human beings; then, because of this love, you will want to convert as many people as possible. And in their own interest!
            2. If you (the faith-school funder) are not completely deluded, you will know that aggressive, in your face strategies don't work too well. At least not in a society that values freedom: there are plenty of places on earth where religious coercion is the norm. Anyway, in our Western world, slow and gentle persuasion, especially if you have time, work much better.
            3. For social and legal reasons, faith schools need to be able to say that they are very open to other religions and atheists as well. This cuts both ways: if you do want to spread your own beliefs, you need to reach people that don't have them, and they wouldn't get anywhere near you if you were clearly inspired by blind fanaticism.

            For all the reasons above, one can and should predict that:
            A) religious schools are indeed maintained at least partially because of a sincere and heartfelt desire to help the poor miscreants.
            B) even if A) is true, all/most religious schools will do their best to convince the general public that A) is either irrelevant, false, or both.
            C) with some luck, some evidence in favour of A) should still be visible, because it's difficult to completely shut down a genuine and heartfelt desire completely, especially when you are actually trying to fulfil it.

            Right, so the task for me is see if I can find this evidence. I'll look at Anglican schools because they are supposed to be the most open and tolerant.
            First the Anglican mission:

            The Church of England is called, as are all Churches, to carry forward the work that Jesus Christ began in all aspects of the life
            of people in society. Jesus said to those who followed him 'As the Father has sent me, so do I send you.'
            The Mission and Public Affairs division (MPA) oversees how that calling is carried out at the national level of the Church of England in evangelism [...]

            I am surely biased, but this does look like they want people to follow the word of Jesus. They even explicitly name "evangelism", after all. This does support the point 1 above, but how could it be otherwise? It provides some strong backing to A) as well:if evangelism is part of their mission, schools are certainly a good place to practice it.
            Next is some evidence about B: do they actually explicitly say that they don't want to evangelise at their schools? But of course! Their schools FAQ has many Q&As that are clearly meant to be reassuring, one is:

            How is diversity reflected in the staffing of Church of England schools?
            Church of England schools do not only employ Christian staff. The staff teams of Church of England schools are diverse, with members drawn from all faiths and backgrounds. This diversity is what helps make church schools vibrant and stimulating. Church of England schools are rooted in the Christian commitment to the value of every individual and that extends beyond the student in the classroom to include the staff, and every member of the school community.

            All right, they are not fanatics, then! But before we take this at face value, let's look for evidence that they are actually trying to deceive us, I wonder how deep I'll need to dig. Oh, wait, the same FAQ has plenty of little telling details, for example see how it ends:

            What is important about the Christian ethos of Church of England schools?
            Church schools are rooted in the Christian tradition and are committed to providing an education system that seeks to build character and enable students to develop as whole, rounded, spiritual human beings. The ethos provides a framework for the kind of character we want our children to develop so that our schools can draw out the full potential of each child. A vital part of that ethos comes through understanding the person and teachings of Jesus Christ who is at the heart of our faith and who also provides an example to aspire to.
            The Christian values which underpin the life of the school will be experienced through worship and teaching and will be reflected in every aspect of the school's life

            I'll repeat this: the Christian values will be "reflected in every aspect of the school's life" and that's because of the "kind of character we want our children to develop".

            Now, back to our business: are you willing to say that Anglican schools do not try to spread their own holy words, don't care if their pupils share their own values, and won't try to change their minds? There may be improbable exceptions, but for the most tolerant breed that I know of my generalisation is indeed confirmed by the evidence. The real question is: why was it necessary to write all this? It is plain obvious to anyone that does want to see it.
            And that's the main point I have to make: in the best case (if one religion does happen to be true), almost all faith schools will try to brainwash the pupils (while trying not to be noticed) and will try to instil and spread false beliefs. Under these lucky circumstances (one religion is true) only one brand of schools will brainwash children trying to instil true beliefs, but we'll never know which one. Overall, the net effect will still be bad, so I don't see any justification for them. None whatsoever. And I reiterate my main conclusion: if parents want their children to receive some religious teachings, that's fine, but it should not happen within the compulsory schooling curriculum. In this way we save the right of parents to try to do what they think is best for their children, but without actively trying to make our society closer, divisive and superstitious.
            I'm sure you'll disagree, but I also doubt that I'll have the strength to keep this conversation alive. Oh well, we'll see what happens!

          • KateGladstone

            Re the assertion that nobody who stopped being an atheist has ever felt dirty or bad over that decision — incorrect: I know a couple of ex-atheists who felt PRECISELY that way over deciding to become theists of one kind or another.

          • Sergio Graziosi

            Kate, it's OK. I stand corrected. I should not have used the "nobody" word. Would you settle for:
            "people won't usually feel dirty, unworthy or mischievous because they are thinking of stopping being an atheist"?
            Apart from this (I don't think it modifies my point significantly, but do weigh in if you disagree!), I am really curious on the details of the "conversions" you have witnessed. In particular whether their anguish was caused by peer pressure or not, but everything you may be willing to add would be interesting to me.

          • KateGladstone

            The change you suggest is good. As for the motives of actual (or, often, just seriously contemplated) "conversions" from atheism to some sort of theism — about 1/3 of them owe at least a little to some combination of oeer pressure and Pascal's Wager; the rest are (as far as I can tell) the person's actually deciding that atheism was in error or was otherwise untenable or undesirable. Some cases were odd indeed — best summed up as "Well, though I still think atheism is correct, I just can't THINK atheism — or I feel better when I am pretending that atheism is correct." Two of these, I found, and find, EXCEPTIONALLY disturbing, as I can regard them only as a sort of opportunist hypocrisy about one's own mental states. These were cases of people who have chronic or recurring illnesses necessitating intermittent hospital stats. Both persons had been reared as atheists; both persons regarded atheism as factually true — but one said: "My illness, when it flares up, affects my mental state so that I am less rational than I am at other times — and when I am that less rational person, that less rational person believes there is a god and therefore prays to that god and thinks about him-her-it-whatever-they-may-be." The other said: "When I am sick, I very consciously follow devotional practices from Catholicism, including prayers to the Catholic god and saints, doing the rosary and other rituals to them, purely because I believe in their high placebo value. Then, once I am through the worst of it, I simply switch back to atheism until the next time I am hurt bad enough to go back to Jesus and Mary and company for the time being. I am in fact considering getting baptized, while mentally of course still being an atheist throughout the ceremony and afterwards whenever I am feeling well, as I assume this will make the placebo effect even more powerful."

          • Sergio Graziosi

            Kate, thanks for sharing.
            That's some clear examples of how emotional states dictate our reasoning (a). Last person can't be really regarded as theist, I guess; the second to last is truly fascinating.
            It makes sense to me though: because of (a), one could predict that (b) there would be someone/somewhere that oscillated between theism and atheism following their, pathological or not, mood-swings.
            Are this two people the same ones that feel shameful and dirty because/while they are moving towards theism?
            Thanks again,

        • Bee

          On my second point – I referred to whether you could use factual points to show that it is wrong to dislike someone else’s culture.

          You suggest that the long history of genocidal violence prompts the conclusion that it is wrong to dislike or stereotype someone else’s culture, because it ‘usually’ leads to violent conflict. But I’m not certain disliking someone else’s culture does ‘usually’ lead to violent conflict – I think it leads to ghettoization, inequality and other similar festering problems far more often than it leads to violent conflict, and I think it leads to petty offensiveness even more often than that, (I don’t have to think back far to remember someone making an anti-Semitic ‘joke’ to a religious Jewish friend of mine – someone who clearly disliked aspects of Jewish culture or of what he perceived to be a homogenous Jewish culture).

          I think people who dislike someone else’s culture are wrong
          for different reasons in different situations depending on the circumstances. Sometimes people generalise about another culture, sometimes they’re actually upset about losing their job or failing to get one and are blaming immigrants, sometimes they’re worried about their own culture and values disappearing. None of these everyday situations ‘usually’ ends in violent conflict, and yet all involve someone disliking someone else’s culture.

          My point again: it’s complicated, and of course empirical &
          scientific evidence is important and should come into play in all our public debates, but Michael Ruse tried facetiously to answer very complex moral questions with simple scientific facts in a way that didn’t really answer these questions at all, (see my comment at the top), and I don’t see the problem here as being a lack of scientific approaches or evidence. I do see a lack of humanist approaches to these tricky problems - and that includes a thorough historical approach that really engages with the wealth of historical evidence and interpretations out there - that recognise the complexity and subjectivity of these fundamental human questions.

  • Veronica

    All that really matters if you want to do the best for your children, is to tell them that we all feel the struggle within us as we try to find the reality and truth of 'what is out there / or what this all "really is" '. That reality is that none of us 'know' what that is, we either completely fall into a 'trust' situation (a religious belief system) , or try to argue for one side or the other by saying we have thought about all sides and come to such-and-such conclusion. If everyone else is like me, we have gone thru several iterations of swinging one way then back again in trying to get it 'right'. I may find a need to pray to whatever is out there/within us if I can't bear the sorrow of something, and I have done that, but there is never any answer (why won't you speak to me !!!), so that is plainly coming from our own need rather than any real conscious knowledge of what that entity is.
    This is really all very sad since I think we have a deep need to know we are here for a reason, or that what happens here has purpose, but without just trusting blindly, we can never feel satisfied. That is what the 'books' all say too - but that doesn't answer the question of -which- books does it !! In the end I am in the mind of the deists - there is something out there or we are part of something, but it is not communicating itself to us - hey you - why not let us in on the big secret, we are going nuts here trying to contact you !!!
    I recently read of children who remember past lives - which was fascinating but
    completely threw all my 'religious' structure out the window - if reincarnation is a fact, what does that say about my personal loving relationships with my children, who would be 'just other spirits' in that reality ? Way too many questions and non-answers to just accept any other human's constructed faith - we are ALL just trying to understand !!!

  • CarolStrick

    Thank goodness or Goodness there are actually scientific studies into this "what lies beyond human consciousness" question, so that mere faith—faith in the unseen; faith only in the measurable—doesn't have to be the basis for whether or not one should believe in a deity (or deities). Many studies are looking into what happens to us before life, what happens after death. How exactly is the universe made, and where/how does it not match up with established scientific law? Where are the reports of those? I should think they'd be a more sturdy basis for making these decisions.

  • Ormond Otvos

    Reminds of me of David Brooks pussyfooting around serious discussion. There's no opinion or view in this article, just a valueless iteration of the decontextualized hot points of various authors.
    Interesting that Plato, our big cultural hero, thinks atheists are anathema.

    Here's my view: binding the mind is like binding feet - it cripples a natural function lifelong. Even the best of the former Catholics think poorly, in my experience. They're almost all just looking to fill the God hole in their mind they've been TRAINED to believe exists.

    Yes, it's natural to be curious, and to get frustrated when our mind sets up a trap that makes us think we must solve, like what to do about our inevitable death. I feel sorry for the religious, like I feel sorry for a three legged dog.

    • blsDisqus

      You feel sorry, in other words, for Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galileii, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, James Clerk Maxwell, Bernhard Riemann, Robert Boyle, Gregor Mendel, Michael Faraday, William Kelvin, and Max Planck.

      • Ormond Otvos

        Yep. They were victims of their time, as are we all.

        I hope for better times, free of religious cant and war.

        Your lackey is showing.

        • blsDisqus

          Your lackey is showing.

          Now, why am I not surprised you're resorting to personal attacks, rather than actually engaging with the issue at hand - to wit, your claim that "binding the mind is like binding feet"?

          And why am I not surprised that you refuse to acknowledge plain evidence to the contrary? Isn't that rather - ahem - unscientific of you?

          And don't you think it's perhaps a bit close-minded (not to mention awfully arrogant) to believe that you and your atheist pals are greater than some of the greatest minds in history, for whom you apparently feel you're entitled to "feel sorry"?

          There's actually a name for that, you know; it's "hubris."

          • Ormond Otvos

            Hubris, eh? You use atheist as if it's a religious belief. It isn't. You want to use the far tail of the distribution to characterize all the religious, especially the ones that were smart enough not to disturb the clergy while they pursued their brilliant insights. It's only recently, in the West, that one can disavow the silliness and narrowness of religious cant, while in the Muslim countries, atheism is a capital offense.

            It's three legs all the way down.

          • blsDisqus

            Don't be daft. Most of the people I mentioned were devout; some were priests and monks; many were converts. Your personal bigotries don't actually work to change facts, you know.

            And again I note without surprise that you refuse to deal with the issue at hand. Again, you attempt to bring up completely irrelevant matters - and again you imagine your own personal opinion to be unassailable fact.

            I must say, the self-importance and self-congratulatory worldview of modern people - particularly of arrogant atheists sneering at "the religious" - never fails to astound.

          • Ormond Otvos

            Haters gotta hate.

          • blsDisqus

            You know what, Ormond? Referring to an entire group of people as "three-legged dogs," and claiming that your intelligence is superior by virtue of - of all things! - your lack of religious belief .... well, all that is actually rather offensive and in fact somewhat nasty.

            Not to mention, again, really incredibly patronizing given that 85% of the world's population is religious and 100% of its population for most of history was.

            And the passive-aggressive lifecycle of atheist "argument" - sneering at other people while claiming superior intelligence, followed immediately by claiming to be "persecuted" - has also rather grown thin.

            Try some respect for others at some point, maybe? And for God's sake read something outside the "approved" literature.

          • Ormond Otvos

            Lotta straw men there. Respect is earned, not given.

          • blsDisqus

            Respect is earned, not given.

            Another reason to prefer the religious.

            Anyway, I guess you're never actually going to respond to the issue itself, are you? I'd be interested to know why, in the face of plenty of evidence to the contrary, there have been so many fine thinkers among the religious (i.e., 99.99% of human beings who've ever lived) - when you say it just can't happen.

          • pbasch

            Just interrupting the argument here. Yes, they were more or less devout, as was their culture. And certainly, they (as far as we can tell) believed the Christian tenets. Newton, in fact, believed quite a bit more than that - he believed in astrology too. I feel free to pick among his accomplishments and beliefs which ones I think are useful/valid. I have a lot of respect for F=MA, and less for astrology.

          • blsDisqus

            And you should feel free to do that. My only point was that religious belief per se cannot be described as a fetter or a "binding of the mind"; in fact, for some of those people (Bach an obvious example, but others too) it was the very source of their creativity.

            And that is true today as well. Faith does not by definition mean that people are constrained in any negative way; most of the time it means the opposite (or nobody would do it, since it's purely voluntary today). It has no particular relevance to the intellectual life; some very smart people are religious. In fact, the body of thought developed in the Catholic Church over the centuries is rich, deep, and highly intellectually stimulating. Granted, it's not "empirical science" - but that's never what it was after.

            People who don't like religion should feel perfectly free to ignore it; what they can't do claim that all religious people are dimwits. Clearly, some people do not understand religion and what's it's about, and how it functions; from my point of view that's their loss.

          • pbasch

            Fair enough. I think there is a human tendency to claim that one's belief system is all-encompassing. We add an -ism to the belief system then - scientism, christianism, religionism... I see empirically-minded people do that all the time; reductionism. And I also see religious people do that. I know that it is exciting to think you've come up with an all-encompassing 'system' that explains everything. I think it's simplistic and immature; teenagers are especially, but not uniquely, vulnerable to that mindset (maybe because it makes them feel authoritative, as they grow up and distinguish themselves from their dumb old parents). It's also related to the cognitive illusions that lead to conspiracy theories.

          • blsDisqus

            You really said it, there. It's not only about the "system," either, I don't think - but is related to the social impulse, as well.

            We're all inveterate homers, cheering on the team and booing the opposition.....

          • UWIR

            "And why am I not surprised that you refuse to acknowledge plain evidence to the contrary?"

            There there are smart religious people is not evidence against the claim that religion fetters thought, and the fact that you pretend it is shows that you don't understand logic.

            " There doesn't, actually, seem to be any relationship at all, outside your own imagination, between "religiosity" and "three-legged dog syndrome." "

            You're just ignorant. There is a high correlation between atheism and scientific accomplishment. That you would simply declare that there is no evidence contrary to your position, without bothering to find the evidence that does exist, shows that you are the one suffering from hubris.

            "And don't you think it's perhaps a bit close-minded (not to mention awfully arrogant) to believe that you and your atheist pals are greater than some of the greatest minds in history"

            Ormond never said that he is greater than the greatest minds in history. Again, you show yourself to lack understanding of simple logic.

            "100% of its population for most of history was [atheist]."

            No, it wasn't.

          • blsDisqus

            I don't know where you got the 100% quote from, since I never said it, or anything like it. What I said was, for most of history 100% of the population was religious.

            And you're the ignorant one, I'm afraid. For one thing, there are many other areas of human endeavor outside of science. Most people work outside science, in fact.

            I think you're the one with the logic problem, my friend; all it takes to disprove a theory is one counterexample. I provided dozens - only a tiny portion of some of the religious people in history and in the present whose minds aren't "fettered."

          • Jarrod CL

            "And why am I not surprised that you refuse to acknowledge plain evidence to the contrary?"

            We can just as easily assert that they did what they did _despite_ religion, and maintain the position. You only have to read philosophy to see how ridiculously hamstrung some philosophers were by their intrinsic belief that a god must exist. Stupid, flawed leaps of logic were made because as far as they were concerned, the existence of a god was as rational a building block as 1+1=2. What might they have thought if they did not start with such a presupposition?

          • blsDisqus

            The hypothetical was: "Religion is a fetter on the mind." To disprove this statement, all I need do is show one counterexample; I offered instead the names of a couple dozen of some of the most accomplished people who've ever lived. And that short list is only a tiny proportion of the people who could possibly be included. So I'm not sure what your comment has to do with anything. The question, to me, is: why do people whose names clearly don't belong on such lists believe they have anything to say about the matter?

            Is religion a fetter on the mind, or not? That's the question at issue here. For Bach (for one obvious example), the answer is: clearly not. In fact, for Bach - one of the greatest composers who ever lived - faith was a primary, if not the primary, source of creative energy. We can say the same thing about thousands upon thousands of writers and artists and musicians throughout history and many alive today. Belief in God, in fact, may have been the motivator to understand the workings of the universe in the first place; many religious believers thought they were looking at God's handiwork. Let's not forget, either, that this idea goes at least all the way back to Aristotle.

            I won't, of course, deny that "some philosophers" have come to erroneous conclusions and made bad logical arguments; plenty of atheists do this, too. Actually I think flat-out atheism might be a larger "fetter" on the philosophical mind than religion is; atheism, after all, claims certain knowledge of something that isn't known for certain, and that hasn't been proved.

            This is all very ahistorical anyway; I mean, if Bronze age people weren't who they happened to have been, they might well have discovered a cure for cancer. But so what? Could we possibly just stick with what we know from reality as it is and has been?

  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Michael: I've considered a similar question but specifically focused on young earth creationism. Are YEC parents harming their kids when they bring them up with such beliefs? I think the answer is yes, but how much harm depends on parenting style. Roughly, I think it's not wrong for parents to let their children know what their values and beliefs are, and present these as right, but not to try to impose them. Children will (except if they're raised in extremely culturally homogeneous backgrounds) always learn about alternative ideas anyway, and often their peers will be more important anyway in shaping their beliefs. Here's the (short) article I wrote about this:

  • Skanik

    There are several questions being asked and somewhat answered in this essay.

    Is there a Creator, does that Creator take a Personal Interest in everything you do ?,

    does that Creator intervene in Human Life ?

    I have never understood why people who are absolutely sure there is no God

    and that everything in the universe arose from Chaos can look at the world

    we live in and not at least believe it is possible that there is a Intelligence

    involved in the Creation of the Universe - from Chaos only comes Chaos.

    The miseries and tragedies of life can easily lead you to believe that if there

    is a Creator - He takes no personal interest in your sufferings as such what

    difference does it make whether your worship Him or not or take into account

    those who say He has laid down Laws for Humans ? [ Unless of course their

    is an after life where an absolute Judgement will be made upon your soul -

    see Pascal's Wager.]

    Does the Creator intervene in human lives ?

    Somee people feel very strongly,

    more strongly than they believe anything else, that the answer is yes.

    Others seem to not feel the presence of the Creator at all.

    Saint Francis once said: If you wish to see the Face of God then look into

    the faces of your fellow humans and if you wish to see the mercy of God then

    be merciful to all of those around you.

    Anne Frank did die at Bergen-Belsen, but before she did she was hid by

    her fellow humans. The Allies did defeat the Nazis and put and end to the

    death camps. Humans are capable of great evils but also capable of overcoming

    those evils.

    If you allow that having a sexuality that is not the "Norm" is just one of the ways

    nature produces people then what do you say to the person who is highly deviant ?

    If they find a willing partner - no matter the age, or in the case of Polygamy - partners

    - by your reasoning Mr. Ruse - should they or should they not be allowed to

    become married ?

    Those Christians who do not believe in same gendered marriage can simply

    be opposing it because they believe the purpose of marriage is to unite

    a Man and a Woman as the Creator intended. They may have no animosity toward

    "gay" people they just believe that a marriage can only exist between a man and

    a women. If you want a Civil Union - so be it. If you want the laws/regulations for

    Civil Unions to provide what Marriage provides - so be it. We lost something when

    we made it so easy to obtain a divorce - the duty of the husband and wife toward

    each other and toward their children. Having so watered down marriage we

    no longer see the unique gift it is to humanity.

    A popular question on the College Circuit among Evangelicals a few decades ago

    was: If it were a crime to be a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict

    you - did you really live a Christian life - dedicating your life to evangelicalisation and

    works of mercy and charity ? Few of us would have passed.

    Let us suppose that you are a complete Atheist and you believe that the Universe

    just came into being somehow someway but we are essentially nothing more

    than random atoms in the void. Why should my atoms care what happens to your

    atoms save that I might have some temporal gain from engaging your atoms.

    But why should my atoms care whether the body they inhabit feels pleasure or pain

    since I shall be returned to dust in a few years.

    I think true Atheists are as rare as true believers.

    Atheists talk the talk but they definitely do not walk the walk.

    They do care about their children, they do care about morality, they hope the

    world is better for their grandchildren - but if we are just random atoms...

    doomed to purposeless paths in the void...

    That you, as a proclaimed atheist, Mr. Ruse do care about your fellow humans

    indicates that there is more to you than just atoms -

    perhaps there is an immortal soul that is you.

    Perhaps God is more profound than we can ever suppose.

    Perhaps we are supposed to do our best to alleviate sufferings and evils.

    Perhaps there are mysteries that we will never resolve.

    Perhaps it is better than humans be humble rather than proud.

    • atimoshenko

      There is an infinite number of mutually exclusive possibilities, each with a slightly-more-than-zero chance of being true. Clearly, it is impossible to believe in all of them at once. The difficult case to make is that the existence of a god (let alone of a very, very specific God - who is good, and omniscient, and creates, and judges, and desires to be worshipped, and sometimes reveals himself to some people and so on, and so on, and so on...) amid that infinite number of arbitrary claims.

      The question of motivation has also always puzzled me. Surely, we are motivated by our physiological experiences. Enjoying love is on the same continuum as enjoying warmth, which is on the same continuum as a plant growing towards the light. Or where would you identify the unbridgeable discontinuity? Of course, nothing prevents these physiological experiences from sending conflicting motivations. If you are both freezing and thirsty, do you eat the snow?

      • Skanik


        Every difficult to know what is mutually exclusive and what is not.

        We may presume they are mutually exclusive until we find a case

        showing they are not.

        For Christianity you have to believe that God intervened in Human

        History through His Son Jesus Christ.

        To the Jews/Muslims an apparent incongruity as how can the

        Almighty have a Son, let alone a Son who walks among us and

        dies for us.

  • atimoshenko

    An interesting and thought provoking article, but I would argue that the first question (is it moral to believe in God) is trivial, while the second question (is it moral to teach God to children) is not something that can be considered on its own.

    For the first question, I struggle to see how the field of ethics can function without more than one actor. If it is just a consciousness in a vacuum (or even a universe filled with inanimate objects), on what basis would that consciousness even come up with the concepts of right and wrong? In other words, beliefs (since they only affect the believer) cannot be ethical or unethical, only actions driven by those beliefs. What is the difference between a non-Nazi and a Nazi that never does or says anything to indicate that he is a Nazi? How would one even tell?

    Given, at least, the possibility of nurture having a significant effect on the general boundaries of the frame through which an individual will eventually view the world, the second question broadens to what is ethical to teach children in general. Clearly:

    (i) teaching nothing is impossible
    (ii) allowing random chance to teach is abrogating responsibility, and
    (iii) neutrality cannot be assured without omniscience

    Thus, perhaps we are left with a purely pragmatic perspective. I.e. first, it is immoral to teach children anything that would heighten their likelihood of acting immorally (but not 'believing immorally' - see above). This would reduce the question to "what is the standard for immoral actions"? But second, it would also be immoral to teach children beliefs that would lead to their lives having less satisfaction or more suffering. How one would evaluate childhood-taught beliefs against such a standard, I, personally, have no idea.

  • michel.demeester

    We did not ask our children whether they wanted to come to life. They did not choose their parents, nor their country, nor their language. Our indoeuropean language reduces our experience into objects & actions. We define words, concepts in the same manner, with the same rules, for a hammer or for a feeling. From there on, we conceive an abstract world, theories, models & ways to enforce those models onto the world. We duplicate what we believe God did : we also create a world – except that God is also part of our imagination. Other people do not even think of the creation of the world.

    Teaching music, art, mathematics …to our children is one thing. Teaching a religion introduces something more : the “existence”of a “transcendental” world – a world
    which is supra human, which is the product of our desires, of our imagination. Believing in a transcendendal world extends much further than the domain of religion : it makes us believe in a “truth”, whatever it is – ideology, such as Nazism, racism, the power of finance …. And also the power of science- but this is now sufficiently debated – ideology gives the feeling that you belong to a special bred. And makes life with the other human beings - & other living beings- much more difficult. It also introduces a lot of rigidity, at a time where we are discovering diversity & also that humanism is probably not a universal value for all mankind; we need to talk to each other & accept ways of living or thinking that are contradicting our own. In addition, the West “does not rule the waves any more” . so, we are
    compelled to listen.

    Religion does not develop flexibility, I am afraid

    • FactJunkie

      You're making the assumption that faith and religion are one and the same. That is a catastrophic error to make in a debate such as this. While I agree that many religious traditions do not allow for flexibility, I cannot agree that a faith limits people to inflexibility. In fact, in many cases, I would argue the opposite.

      Personally, while I see the definite value in raising our children to think independently, I think we miss out if we are afraid to talk to our kids about the conclusions we have come to. Kids are not as sheep-like as you think. They will grow up to think for themselves in a healthy home, regardless of your spiritual practices or lack thereof. It's an error to underestimate children.

      As for morality, I'm afraid there is likely no absolute. Consider a Christian's perspective... Imagine, if you will, that they are right. Imagine God does exist and that Jesus did die on the cross to pay for the sins of the world. What if they're right. Would the parents not have a moral obligation to teach their kids about the "grace of God"? Think about what would be at stake if they're right. (And remember, if they believe in it, this is a sure thing in their minds. Wouldn't you love your kids enough to want Salvation for them, too? You see the dilemma, now, I hope.) On the opposite spectrum, an atheist parent might not want their kids to devote their lives to something that has no real reward in our short lives. Both are operating out of concern for the best interests of their children, which is difficult to criticize. At least until it's possible to completely disprove one theory or the other. And since it is not at all possible, it remains a subjective issue.

      You and I are close to being on the same page. I believe in my kids making their own conclusions and challenging themselves on those beliefs as well. However, I don't buy into the "believe what is true for you" mantra, either. Somebody is more correct than others. We can't know who, admittedly, but simply not challenging one another while hiding behind the "it's my opinion, and I'm entitled to it" excuse is a cop-out. I believe we are not entitled to our own opinions if we aren't willing to be challenged on it, challenge ourselves, and support the stance first. I'm quite sure that's what you think, as well.

  • Guest

    RSA Looks to Elevate the Discussion on Spirituality

  • Geoff Gummer

    The problem, I think is that by denying children education in religion (not just of the christian kind, but any religious education) is then we deny our children a proper liberal education.
    I think the whole bit about evolution is a bit over done. I look at all my contemporaries whom I attended seminary with, and only a small percentage today believe that evolution is untrue. 10 years ago, perhaps, the loudest voice was the YEC creationists (who were obviously mistaken), That does not mean that they are a majority, or even representative of actual "creationists" - that is, those of us whom believe that there is a God who created order from chaos, and thus giving us this ordered universe.

  • G

    The existence or nonexistence of deities is empirically undecidable.

    The question resolves to, is it morally right to teach children or others to believe empirically undecidable propositions? As a practical matter, where should societies draw the line as to what is morally acceptable to teach, and what is not, and further, what shall not be allowed under law?

    = Teaching children to commit violence or other criminal harm against others: Clearly we can and should prohibit that. Were you to learn of a family raising their sons and daughters to be suicide bombers, you should have no hesitation to ring 999 and have them arrested.

    = Teaching children to harm others by means that are not obviously violent, such as through racism and other forms of bigotry. Using the power of law here is arguably a step too far, but clearly we should use social disapproval and disgust against the parents, and seek to educate the children otherwise, such as in school and via the media.

    = Teaching children things that are demonstrably and provably false. The obvious case is the American peculiarity of 'young-Earth creationism,' but we needn't look that far to find others with far more harmful consequences.

    Consider anti-vaccinationism and climate denialism. Anti-vaccinationism has led directly to outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, which kill innocent people including young children. Climate denialism is leading directly to consequences that scientists warn will kill tens of millions of humans at minimum, possibly billions in a runaway climate change scenario.

    Consider economic growthism. Logically it translates to the idea that one can map an infinite plane (an indefinitely growing economy) onto the surface of a Euclidean solid (a finite planet), something that is demonstrably false by obvious logic as well as empirical measurement, yet is almost universally believed as a matter of unquestioned dogma. Growthism is the underlying root cause of climate denialism, so unlike young-Earth creationism, it also has real consequences.

    = In the end, I would argue that teaching children to believe or disbelieve in deities is hardly as pernicious as teaching them to believe in anti-vaccinationism, climate denialism, or economic growthism.

    While we're at it, it is also pernicious to teach children to believe in Santa Claus, the fictitious deity of rampant consumption and spoiled behaviour that lasts a lifetime. (If you think atheists are subject to discrimination, watch what happens when your 7-year-old goes into school and informs his/her classmates that Santa Claus is a complete fiction and the presents come from their parents!)

    The trees are known by their fruits. Atheists and theists have done both good and harm throughout history. Young-Earth creationists have at worst made other people stupid. But anti-vaccinationism and climate denialism have led to nothing but preventable death and misery on an increasing scale. Those pernicious falsehoods should be opposed with the same vigour as one opposes parents teaching their children to believe that members of other races are subhuman.

  • FactJunkie

    On the other hand, simply being content to be without knowledge (or agnostic, by definition) is one thing. To take that a step further and admit that, despite that agnosticism, you choose to believe a god or Christian God cannot exist is in and of itself a faith-taken step to "believe" in atheism. Perhaps God doesn't believe in the atheist! That is to say that it is somewhat un-academic and hypocritical to criticize and consider it immoral to teach an unproven belief as fact, is it not? It seems to me that both camps are operating out of a degree of faith.

    Afterall, we are only barely scraping the surface of quantum physics, although we make the supposition that even further dimensions exist. We don't know if there is only one more dimension further, many more, or perhaps even infinite dimensions. Who's to say that an existence at those levels could not be sentient? On the other hand, who could say they are.

    My point, which is not entirely dissimilar from the article's conclusion actually, is that full-blown agnosticism is the only claim we can ever make with 100% certainty with scientifically proven evidence to back it up (or not back it up). Anything else is based on faith. Both religion and atheism. (Although, I would argue faith and religion are very separate, yet often interrelated concepts, but I digress)

    To me, what is moral is to teach your children what you believe and why you believe it, and at the same time, challenge them to think for themselves and establish and challenge themselves in their own beliefs. Perhaps concurrently, we can regularly criticize and challenge ourselves in our beliefs as well as a sort of check-in to grow with our children as we lead them. The only thing I would advise against.... is pretending to have all the answers. That is impossible.

    • pbasch

      Well, yes. I suppose that agnosticism is the only bullet-proof system. On the other hand, while I cannot claim that a god is impossible, I can certainly claim that it seems an unlikely claim based on what we see so far. I feel about a god or gods the way I feel about hobbits. I feel comfortable going about my business as if they don't exist, even though I suppose they might. Tolkein, in his introduction (or was it the epilogue) to LOTR (or was it The Hobbit) claims they do exist even today. Yet I maintain that he was writing fiction and I 'believe' that hobbits do not exist. Also elves. Which makes me 'anelfic', even though, for all I know, we'll find elves under the Greenland ice sheet. So my atheism is a statement of beliefs and likelihoods, not knowledge.

      • FactJunkie

        Well, there's a few problems I have with that outlook.

        The first one is that you are operating from the belief that if a god existed, it must think and operate within the confines of what you believe god would be like if he existed. To explain better... how often have you heard people say "if god existed, he wouldn't let bad things happen"? Or the Anne Frank thing mentioned in the article? Those people are operating from the belief that if a sentient being existed, he would prevent such things from happening. In other words, you are supposing god's greater purpose fits within the confines of what you think god should be. That doesn't make sense if we agree that -IF- he did exist, he is within a dimension greater than our own. The idea that we can delegate to a more influential dimension, and not the other way around, is a ludicrous thought, as I'm sure you know.

        Obviously, if you get that specific, it's no wonder you feel the claim might be unlikely. I believe you have to look at it, again, from an agnostic point of view. You cannot understand a) if god exists and b) what he would be like if he did.

        The second problem I have is using Bertrand Russell's argument from ignorance. That makes sense from a philosophical point of view. (He explained it as saying if you can't prove something doesn't exist, then it might! He used the example of a random flying teapot in space... can't prove it isn't there, so argument from ignorance dictates we can say it might.) It's a fun discussion topic, but while it works in your Hobbit example, it doesn't work with the Christian, or any other world religion god. In fact, it only works for the hobbit if we agree the middle earth world might exist somewhere else in the universe. Even the argument from ignorance doesn't work with the greenland example because we know enough about our planets evolutionary history to discredit that. :) (As I know you know. :p)

        The other thing to remember, is that theology is an accepted school of thought. Not "theology" in the sense of my personal or your personal beliefs. I mean the academic study of theology. And that is a vast area of study that has enough empirical thought to at the very least make it an equally plausible explanation for origin. Currently, we theorize T-0 likely had influence from something beyond quantum physics, but we are likely centuries or even millenniums away from discovering anything. I'm skipping a ton of subject material here, so forgive me, but because there is order, certain schools of thought can be accepted in saying that it is statistically equally as likely, given what we know now, that the order of the universe we know now started with something we cannot explain with luck and no conscious thought as there is that it was with conscious thought. And if one is more likely, the difference in odds is so incredibly insignificant, that a margin of error could never account for it.

        So my caution in saying you "know" that it is an unlikely claim, when in fact, it is equally as likely. It is a statement of beliefs and likelihoods to an equal degree that a faith based camp could argue. Neither have absolute knowledge, as you say, but it is an error to think your camp has a higher likelihood than another.

        Don't forget, many people far FAR more brilliant and educated than you or I side with god while others side against him. With so many incredibly educated and brilliant minds believing in a deity, I would use more caution in claiming it is so clearly less likely. Lets not mix the Bible thumping Bible belt-ers with real scholastic thinkers. Know what I'm getting at?

        • pbasch

          Thanks for the reply! Working backwards:
          Lots of smart people believe things with which I disagree. Sure, that's a bit problematic - I respect expertise and advanced degrees. But when I watch Frances Collins speak about biology and theology, he is so brisk and confident with the biology, and then gets all mushy and subjective with the religion. He just doesn't inspire the same kind of confidence, in my view. Same thing with Clayton Christensen, the business guru who is a Mormon. He did a soul-search in college and had a revelation (surprise) that the faith in which he was raised seemed 'true' to him. No question, he's smarter than I and has a greater work ethic, but I think Mormonism seems like a complicated way to run a universe, and so I think he is wrong, because he is reacting to his upbringing.
          As you say, assigning characteristics to a god is misguided. The problem of evil is solved as neatly by positing an evil god as it is by Christianity's solution (which I always found convoluted). Of course, existence is just one more characteristic...
          Theology is, indeed, a school of thought and has university departments devoted to it. If there is demand for a discipline, there will be a supply of experts, and expensive degrees backing them up. It seems to me like a very complicated comp-lit department, but where they say the texts are actually true.
          You are right (if I understand you) that calculating probabilities for unique or uncountable events is nonsense. So the word 'likely' is a mistake when discussing the origins of the universe. Nevertheless, I am basing what I think is true based on what I know, and, as far as I know, consciousness is based on computation, and computation is based on matter/energy. So a god with consciousness is made of something, and is as subject to questions of function and origin as anything in our universe.
          And, yes, I don't think we'll find elf remains under the ice, when it melts away. But, hey, who knows! Didn't they find those small protohumans (the press did call them hobbits) in Indonesia or someplace? And a lot of Icelanders believe enough in a race of little people that they interfere with construction projects to protect their supposed habitats!
          I've always loved that... can't wait to visit Iceland.

        • kazoo

          Your argument is convenient and specious: Of course one dispute the reality that there is no proof of "god" by asking why "god" should be discernible within the confines of human reality. With that kind of viewpoint, you can believe in anything and everything you want.

  • highnoon

    To be honest I have never had an issue with raising children with the believe in a God or deity. What I do object to is the teaching of religious doctrine. The reason why I do is because most religions, at least the ones I am aware of and that are most popular in the world are based on creating distinct group markers that are designed to distinguish between the believers and the non-believers, and to create a cohesive "Us vs. Them" picture. By creating this rigid group dynamic I find religious teaching morally problematic because they promote divisive thinking.
    Now I do not argue that outside of religion there is no group thinking. Given the political climate in the US at this point would suggest that in many cases with the influence of modern media the "Us vs. Them" mentality has been on the rise in all facets of society.
    While others in the comments have suggested that science cannot always be the "be all end all" basis for moral decisions, I do believe that scientific research and knowledge to me is much better argument for deciding what should be considered as morally acceptable than relying on "argument from authority" as is used in most religious doctrine. To argue that a religious text is the final and authoritative source for truth because "it says so" is actually not a reasonable argument at all to me.
    I do generally not care at all what someone believes and teaches their own children, as long as that personal believe does not enter and influence the public educational system. I do not argue against teaching religion is school, as long it is in the correct context (i.e. as a subject in a philosophical, anthropological, or historical study) I even support it as a good practice, but I certainly view it as immoral to twist or ignore scientific facts in order to promote ones own religious believe system and to place it on some "scientific" foundation that does not exist.

  • uk

    Brainwashing children with lie's is a bad thing...!

  • C

    This article references morality and immorality multiple times. If you do not believe in God, what is morality really? It is an absolute illusion. It is essentially whatever is acceptable at any particular time. With this belief system is it really immoral to murder someone?. The answer: it isn't, it is just socially unacceptable. Referring to the holocaust, why would someone of an atheist bent really care if millions of people were killed? They are really Just a large group of atoms which are ultimately meaningless.

    • James Moser

      people who think like that scare me... if you need an imaginary all powerful being created by people for control to know what it means to be moral person, then you are not a moral person, you are simply doing what your told for fear of punishment if you don't.

      • skanik


        Are you saying you have never done anything immoral ?

        If you were starving you would not steal food from a pile of

        leftovers at a rich man's banquet ?

        That the fear of punishment plays no part in your life ?

        Why not rob a bank - the FDIC will pay the money stolen

        to the bank and the Fed will just print up what is needed.

        It is a very rare person who knows what the right thing to do is,

        and to whom to do it for, and at what time and in what way

        and for what purpose - but perhaps you are as wise as the

        gods as Aristotle would have said.

        • James Moser

          Your arguments are irrelevant. How we as a society decide to live by passing rules and regulations has nothing to do with "god". But if laws were repealed that made stealing legal would I do it? No I would not, because I believe its wrong and wouldn't want people stealing from me.

        • James Moser

          This notion that people need to believe in god to know what is moral is pure bull, and quite frankly backwards. People who believe in god tend to believe that their god shares their views as to what is moral and what is not.

  • john

    "Think He doesn't exist."- in this one phrase you prove yourself to be a racist, sexist moron- no different from the monsters who for more than one thousand years used the depraved teachings of the various strands of the Judaic religions to justify Human slavery, when the Human had the 'misfortune to be black and of African origin.

    "He"- the obscene Judaic concept of god as a 'whitish' male. "He"- the racist and anti-Human teaching that only a religion based on a SINGLE, humanoid, male, 'daddy' god is valid.

    The Judaic version of organised religion is an oddity, and a purposeful oddity designed for maximum manipulation of society. The Judaic strands (Judaism, Modern Christianity, Islam) are by design the least personally spiritual of all Man's organised religions, and therefore the most centralised and empowering of the cult bodies that control the Judaic forms.

    The Judaic religions are designed for war, conquest, and subjugation.

    Dawkins is a 'death cult' ('death cult' NOT being an insult, but a fake version of atheism designed to imply the lives of ordinary people have no inherent value) atheist, but also a proud and very outspoken zionist. Dawkins never misses an opportunity to lionise Israel, and as such can be placed into the same category as similar fellow atheists like the late Albert Einstein.

    Of course, organised religion is a cancer that plagues the mind of Humanity. It is a sad fact, for instance, that you cannot rise as a significant USA politician UNLESS you claim to be highly religious, and an active supporter of Israel. The US war machine, the dwarfs the combined armies of all other nations, and yet continues to grow at an accelerating rate, is clearly understood to be 'god's' and 'Israel's' war machine.

    When the USA invades a nation, its forces (military and mercenary) are ALWAYS given total immunity, because when you are doing "god's work", every act of rape, torture and mass murder is 'scared'- just ask the Catholic Church.

    The ONLY acceptable form of spirituality is ANARCHY- ie., individual spirituality arising from an individuals understanding, thoughts and personal experiences. However, organised religions are designed to attack personal spirituality, and to promote the idea that 'religious' concepts are more valid- especially when such concepts are 'researched' by 'learned' men.


    Is there an great Invisible Pink Unicorn in the Sky, or is there not one, and... should we teach children this, would it do more harm than good, or let them sort it out as their own personal choice in what to believe?

    Invisible Pink Unicorn:

    When you couch the question this way, as so often debates of theology are, into an "either you believe in a god, or you don't" then the chance of god existing becomes half and half, either/or, or 50% yes or 50% no.

    The reality is, like the Invisible Pink Unicorn in the Sky, it is not a question of 50% yes or 50% no, but 100% no, because the whole rubbish was made up crap in somebody's head to begin with, an idiotic belief, a stupid assertion out of left field nowhere.

    There is no god. Period. There never was. End of story. It was a concept made up by some primitive man to explain a cruel and capricious world around him that was hard to survive in, because living in nature on a rock in space is hard. Why did my children die, why did my crops fail, why is it so damn cold outside? "Because god willed it so?"

    That's no kind of answer, and never was... god did this... and god does this... its a cop out. Today, in our modern world, we have a lot better answers why these things happen, because we asked questions. Your crops failed because of drought, you're children died of pneumonia, and its so damn cold outside because the Sun is at its furthest from a tilted Earth in the dead of winter.

    Stop perpetuating stupidity. Please. For thousands and thousands of years, you idiot god people keep perpetuating... this stupid... belief... with no evidence or proof at all.... other than you have a wishy washy feeling. I may have a wishy washy feeling I can fly like a bird when I jump off a roof, or faith that I can fly, but just because I do DOES NOT make it true.

    END OF DEBATE. God never existed. Humanity made him up, but he as an abstract concept has long outlived his usefulness, just like believing the world is flat. Do you want to teach your children to be stupid and believe anything that is told to them like little tools and droids, or do you want them have their feet firmly planted in reality, able to deal with all the crap the world is bound to throw them their way as they grow up? Seems like a pretty clear cut choice to me. Live in a delusion, or live in reality. Reality ain't such a bad place, not all the time, try it sometime.

    • David Kingsella

      Wow, are you smart or what? You figured this all out on your own? Your friends and family are so lucky to have someone as brilliant as you to be around.

      With all due respect, there have been many, many people smarter than you who believe in God. Why is it you atheists feel so superior to religious? Maybe because you feel you have no one to humble yourself to. Must be very sad believing that you simply one day cease to exist and that your life amounts to nothing more than yourself. Sad. I'll keep you in my prayers.

      • EKU28

        "Must be very sad believing that you simply one day cease to exist and that your life amounts to nothing more than yourself." Quite the self-centered comment. It's not like we're here procreate or anything. A good measure of a human is how well they've prepared their offspring to lead good lives. A poor measure would be how much time they've wasted trying to con St. Peter into letting them in.

    • blsDisqus

      When you've accomplished what Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galileii, Sir Francis Bacon, Gottfried Leibniz, Rene Descartes, Johann Sebastian Bach, Carolus Linnaeus, Leonhard Euler, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Antoine Lavoisier, Blaise Pascal, James Clerk Maxwell, Bernhard Riemann, Robert Boyle, Gregor Mendel, Michael Faraday, William Kelvin, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Kurt Gödel, and Max Planck - among thousands of other very accomplished and intellectually adventurous believers in God - have, please do let us know.

  • comments1980

    The premise of this article is absurd. We teach our children our beliefs within the context of our larger culture. Right or wrong evolves with cultural norms. It is equally simple to claim child abuse for teaching a child atheism as it is to teach them to follow a religious tradition. All the logic in the world, and the structured arguments that follow it, cannot change the human condition. Experience and Logic do not co-exist. We respond as best as we are programmed. We find comfort and shelter easily in that which we have learned. You cannot remove a persons perception or their belief in it, simply because you have not experienced the same thing. Religion in its purest form, and not its tyrannical form, exists to train the soul to find the easiest path to peace, freedom, love (heaven). Any morality derived from that pursuit exists to assist the masses in achieving that end at the least, and to foster an environment of civility and co-existence. It's a road map. To question the morality of providing a road map - any road map - to civility and happiness is suspect. Modern atheism is evolving into its own sort of religion. Should it succeed, and provide a pathway to train the self/soul to find a path to the greatest success and happiness achievable during life, to provide a forum or platform for civility and co-existence, and to spread its moral infrastructure to the masses, then it would be 'morally correct' to teach a child this path. The fact is, the vast majority of people on this earth, at all IQ levels, believe they have experienced God in some form or another. They believe. To question whether sharing those experiences with their children can be equated to abuse is rudely presumptuous, useless, unknowable, and frankly, authoritarian. I.E. Absurd.

    • kazoo

      You said it yourself: people are "programmed" to embrace religion and believe in "god," despite the fact that there is no proof of a "god" (and almost certainly never will be). Kids are programmed by their parents, and then many grow up and have children and program their kids in the same way, and the cycle continues. People want to believe that there is more to life than our corporeal existence, and of course they fear death. And so religion and god-belief are all very comforting. Believers want to conflate morality and religion: one doesn't need religion or "god" to find a path to peace or moral behavior. If many do, fine--but nowadays of course we have christians and religious zealots who want to turn bible beliefs into public policy--teaching creationism in public schools, etc. That is a serious problem.

  • AvangionQ

    Teaching children religion is tantamount to child abuse ~ children are hardwired to believe anything you tell them and you're abusing their nature by drilling lies into their heads. Teaching religion to children stunts their mental growth, replacing development by natural curiosity with beliefs in infinities. If you have to teach your children religion, delay until they're teenagers, as they will be sufficiently developed to understand, rather than believe anything.

  • Primmy

    Interesting and somewhat meandering piece. However, the article seems to demand its cake and then eat it. That is to say that as long as one has integrity and has come to honest conclusions about beliefs, it is incumbent on them to rear their children in their adopted/invented worldview. Interesting point. However, this is only if said children rearers have beliefs that are morally inoffensive - cue the Nazi example. Though who is the arbitrator here, who decides when a belief is kosher and when it become secular heresy? Is egalitarianism the shibboleth? There is clearly moral parameters to this discussion about freedom which have come from some unknown source of moral authority - I would love to have read a more robust defence of this.

  • luvdup

    One can be a rational, science believing human being and at the same time be a immortal and spiritual being. There are legions of scientists (alive and deceased) to prove this fact.

    I'd suggest that there is an intelligence that created the Big Bang, made up the laws of physics, and laws that govern the universe BUT doesn’t interfere with the evolutionary process.

    Something has set the universe in motion with certain laws and characteristics in place as if to see what happens. AND seeing what happens, happens to be evolution. So in a sense, that something (a God and/or intelligence) needs Darwin to exercise its plan.

    The role of human consciousness within the universe we inhabit, could use some serious study. Human consciousness cannot be placed in “psychiatry” or “psychology”. We can’t prove these things as purely scientific. Because they deal with the vagaries of consciousness that we can’t fully comprehend; that is, consciousness on purely a scientific level. It can be argued that there is a huge antidotal glacier that sort of says, “Move this way concerning this subject” enough to convince people that its “science” but it may not be (like biology).

    Sir Arthur Eddington made Einstein famous back in 1919. Eddington led the expedition that measured the bending of star light and startled the world that made Einstein famous. Eddington was a mystic who wrote a book in 1929, “Science and the Unseen World”. A book that would have not surprised anyone in the religious or spiritual arena but would have certainly contradicted what most scientists seemed to think were the basis for reality. But now with String Theory there’s lot’s of talk about other dimensions and other realms. So it’s really not that farfetched to think that there are unseen worlds – what spiritual traditions have spoken about for centuries.

  • birdmechanical

    I say that, each individual should have a set of beliefs that can withstand either the belief or non-belief of God. It could be more difficult to instill adherence to a moral framework without religious threats and incentives, but I think I would prefer to appeal to this hypothetical child's rational and intellectual capabilities.

    Also, I've been considering that if I do not fully subscribe to a religion, it would be manipulative and immoral to raise a child based on ideas I don't fully subscribe to.

  • Ash Bowie

    In the context of belief, the moral action is to believe in (and pass on to one's children) that which is most likely true. The next question is how one approaches belief. At this level, it is moral to approach questions of veracity with a rationally skeptical mind, while it is immoral to accept any claims as indisputable fact without question or epistemic humility. The core error with religious indoctrination is less about the content and more about training young minds to inhibit their natural curiosity in favor of faith and a primitive attachment to an artificial tribe of believers. The answer to fundamentalist craziness isn't simply to tell kids that religious claims are wrong, it is to teach them how to think critically, to respect free inquiry, and to cope with mystery. This is the cure not only to religious nonsense, but also to political and cultural injustice.

  • Jim

    "Christian parents teach their children to believe in God, atheists teach them not to."

    That's not correct. Atheists in general don't "teach them not to". They just teach them critical thinking skills without any dogma. The kids usually figure out the not-believing-in-God part on their own.

    • Cliff

      Plenty do though. I knew a some kids whan I was young who weren't allowed to even mention things like Christmas, angels or fairies because of their parents skepticism. They were just as bad as religious nuts and their kids were just as oppressed.

      • Princess

        I've noticed that people who grow up with atheist parents tend to become religious believers of some stripe. Children of rigid religious parents tend to either become atheists/agnostics or jettison their parent's religion for another. I read that 20% of all Americans change their religion sometime in their life, and this does not include changing from one Protestant denomination to another.

  • Stan A Stan

    I thoroughly enjoyed the perspective here. Civilization needs to begin developing constructive rules and strategies to cope with the dynamics we are seeing. Otherwise, we may be in for some horrifically challenging times - again. We should encourage thinking that contributes to the individual's sense of well-being and place in the world. At the same time, we should discourage bullying or exploitative behavior coming from any source. This is do-able. All it takes is a bit of respect for others.

  • Paul

    Two separate families. A child in each family receives a scrape to the knee. The father of one child applies a bandage. The father of the second child irrigates with hydrogen peroxide, applies an antibiotic ointment, and applies a bandage. Two different applications of medicine, each of which will now be handed down to the children's children, and so on. Through the generations the children will learn on their own and apply new better practices. These non-genetic thoughts will evolve over time. Due to slight pressures, some bad concepts will be rooted out while others will advance.

    Parents acting "morally" will pass on those concepts they think will benefit their offspring the best. Teaching atheism or theism to our children is no different from passing on secular knowledge. Any "moral" atheist will pass on the knowledge they believe will benefit their children the most. Any "moral" theist will do the same. Those beliefs or non-beliefs which lead to the greater evolutionary advantage will win out.

    It is absurd to believe in evolution without fully believing in the science of social evolution. Questioning whether it is moral for a parent to teach her child what she has personally found to bring life fulfillment is similarly absurd.

    One of the more interesting outcomes can be found in the teaching of population control. You have social evolutionary principles co-mingling with evolutionary principles. Those proponents of population control trend towards having smaller families, while obviously those against population control trend towards having larger families. Assuming both sides follow common life-styles allowing for similar longevity, those siding with population control self-select themselves out of the pool, removing themselves and their potential offspring from participating both evolutionarily and social-evolutionarily. It then must fall to outside pressures to actually curb the expansion and the social evolution of the anti-population control group.

    Other interesting case studies are found in religions that decry modern medicine and healing practices and their own evolutionary self selection.

    Assuming in the end that global life expectancy normalizes, and that population replacement ratios normalize, at some point the remaining factors controlling which beliefs or non-beliefs are best will self select. Those with the greatest life fulfillment will likely share their ideas. If the ideas have merit they will be passed along to other generations.

    Certainly social evolution advances at a much larger pace than biological evolution. Radical ideas can normalize into the entire global population in less than a few generations, while the same all encompassing spread of a genetic trait would take 1000's of generations. The industrialization of modern society and particularly the knowledge boom are excellent examples of how quickly social capacities can change and be passed down.

    Atheism and theism themselves are not new, though they each have clearly evolved over time. Many ancient concepts have not held scrutiny in light of the recent rapid social evolution. However, many have. Those that have held scrutiny have been propagated on to future generations. Morally the concepts that are perceived as benefiting offspring should be passed on to offspring.

    I have my own strong biases as to what set of beliefs are good to hand off to my descendants. If my life is happy and satisfying, and I have treated my children well - they in turn will likely adopt and later pass on a similar sets of beliefs. Am am confident enough in those thoughts that I share them with people I meet. The article author has done the same even though our foundations are vastly different.

    Believe what you will. But remember that social evolution as real as evolution.

    PS - This entire reply to this point is fit in a universe where a God doesn't exist, and where human society as a whole works towards the betterment of society - because evolutionarily it has to or else it ceases to exist. The arguments change somewhat if we re-introduce God, but only somewhat. At that point, we would simply add the outside pressures to social evolution of having a tempter, having natural corruptibility and fallibility of man, and in having the possibility heavenly endowments in the form of temporal evolutionarily beneficial blessings. Social evolution still lives on either way. I am quite content and happy with my social evolution ancestry. I will do my best to help my children be happy as well.

    • Skanik

      A tad optimistic there Paul.

      Why presume that parents have any moral influence on their children in

      today's society. The "Rap Music" that I hear in passing cars screams and

      yells about killing anyone who disagrees with you and treating all women

      as slaves. Meanwhile bright young thinkers are told they should go to

      Wall Street and become "Quants" so they can siphon off millions while

      contributing next to nothing to society.

      We live in a Society that condones/encourages free sex as often as possible.

      What will become of all these sexual progressives if a Virus arrives that

      is far more easily transmittable than the AIDS virus and far more deadly.

      Perhaps the non-progressive, non-up-to-date to all things secular families

      will win out this round of the evolutionary fight and then what will you say ?

  • dfooter

    I wouldn't worry too much about being a "flabbier" thinker than Richard Dawkins; most Christians don't think themselves flabby thinkers just because they are less militant than Terry Jones.

  • NancyVS

    I think this is a wonderful examination of parents' obligations when it comes to belief. However, as a Unitarian Universalist, I think there is another option. My atheist husband and I (a nature mystic) raised our daughter in a Unitarian Universalist congregation here in Madison, Wisconsin. We didn't impose either of our belief systems on her, but allowed her to choose her own after she had been introduced to a broad range of faiths in her religious education. I agree with you that religious education can have a positive effect even if you don't end up in your birth religion. Having an entire community that says with their actions that it's important to act responsibly and ethically is important to a child's early life. But allowing her to choose among many options for her particular belief system is also important.

  • Commander Howdy

    The essay's opening argument is whether one should teach to believe in God or not to believe in God as a definitive standpoint; I think this is wrong.

    The point zero is no belief in God: the choice to believe is the positive action; there is no choice not to believe, merely a retention or return to the status quo. By way of comparison, a child learns the logic of addition, number, syntax and so on: if one refuted such apprehensions the mind would return to tabula rasa and that would be that. There is no positive action created by not believing. Apologies if this seems like a riff on semantics but I find defining terms useful when trying to make onward arguments.

    • TomJV

      The zero point would be no conception of God. No belief in God already presumes a social being familiar with the conception of God. As such both believing and not believing are both actions (with consequences).

  • Diana

    I was raised in a not-very-but-slightly Christian family. I always resented that they had me baptised. I felt it was utterly presumptuous of them. I should have been allowed to decide for myself. However my best friend was raised in a totally athiest household and resents the hell out of her parents for raising her that way. I realized that we really need to stop judging people so harshly and accept that people are allowed to make judgement calls when it comes to this kind of thing. No ones going to get it right so do what you think is right for you.

  • David P. Barash

    It seems clear to me that it is indeed immoral to indoctrinate children into ANY fundamentalist ideology that claims to have exclusive access to the truth. In this regard, aeon readers - as well as Dr. Ruse - might be interested in the first three precepts of the Tien Hiep Order of Inter-Being, founded by Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. This approach is, in my opinion, not only deeply admirable, but perhaps unique among religious traditions; I do not know of any other perspective that announces, as its initial and founding principles, that one should not necessarily accept "on faith" any such principles, including those of the perspective in question!

    1. Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth. If you have a gun, you can shoot one, two, three, five people; but if you have an ideology and stick to it, thinking it is the absolute truth, you can kill

    2. Do not think that the knowledge you presently
    possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to
    present views. Learn and practice non-attachment from views in order to be open
    to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in
    conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to
    observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

    3. Do not force others, including children, by
    any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money,
    propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help
    others renounce fanaticism and narrowness.

    • luvdup

      Do Buddhists believe in reincarnation and/or rebirth? If so, where does the energy of reincarnation reside? Where is the [soul] stored before it physically transfers into another being/form?

  • whydyawannasaythat

    Look! This author, the readers, me and everyone who has bowel movements... know absolutely NOTHING about the nature of the universe...the whys, the wherefores, the going-wheres, etc. You (we) know nothing about whether or not there God exists - absolutely nothing. So, please...all of you deists, atheists and/or other know-it-alls...please just STFU.

  • John

    I am not an atheist, so I genuinely tried to read Professor Ruse's piece with an open mind. I was intrigued...for awhile. He lost me when equating human beings to "computers made of meat." We discard, crush, and recycle old computers. We butcher livestock. Such a low view of humanity, no matter one's religious inclinations, will inevitably and logically diminish the value of life, which is what the professor thought he was setting out to affirm.

  • Cliff

    The line about polyamory is disturbingly bigoted. Plenty of people with kids live in such relationships. How would you 'Intervene'?


    As a parent, one of my most important and serious objectives, or goals, was to raise my children to reach for their highest potential in all areas, especially academically. I hoped that a strong educational background would not only lead towards a fulfilling career but also to financial security. However, equally important to me was helping them to develop their critical thinking skills, along with empathy, creativity, self-reliance, confidence, and so forth.

    Certainly, religious indoctrination would have been contrary to my entire parenting plan. Not only is religion presented as the ultimate truth--the word of god--so no thinking needed, but it uses self-loathing, shame, and fear to force compliance. It threatens hell and damnation (or other punishments). It tells little children that they are so sinful and foul that another human being had to be tortured on their behalf or that only a few are worthy. That's plainly barbaric, ridiculous, and hardly confidence building.

    It's also not benign. When at least half of the adult population is confused between myth and scientific fact (and votes according to superstition instead of according to what is actually best for the planet or humans), religion is causing serious harm and for what reason?

  • Renee

    Couple thoughts that strike me. First, I don't think it's harmful to discuss your beliefs with your children, whatever they may be, but I do think forcing your beliefs on them and indoctrinating them is different. We should encourage our children to seek out the truth, even if that truth may make us uncomfortable and may not be what we would choose. I'm agnostic, my daughter otoh is religious. My beliefs work for me. Hers work for her. There's no need for either of us to change, nor indoctrinate the other, and every reason for us to continue our individual journeys.

    In my view the first law is do no harm. Society is not harmed by diverse views of unknowable things, as long as we don't seek to subjugate others to our viewpoint. They may see some different angle of the truth than we do. That doesn't make them wrong.

    An example that may illustrate what I'm saying is the elephant experiment. Two are blindfolded. One goes to the front end of the elephant the other to the backend. Their task is to describe what they experience so they can decide what is before them. What generally happens is they argue over each other's particulars. There's a very thick tube, the guy at the front end says. No no you are wrong, the guy at the back end says, it is very thin. They are both right, and they are both wrong. Right in what they describe, wrong in trying to limit the other's experience to their own.

    To me the attempt to describe a creator seems like it could be just such an experiment. You have 3500 religions all placed at different aspects of something bigger than a mountain, describing what they see, and they are all arguing over their own particulars.

    Let each person seek truth in their own way, and describe what they find. Value it all, so long as none seeks to do harm to anyone else, we are not hurt by this effort.

    • uk

      Well Said, I could not agree more...

      • Renee

        thanks :)

  • KateGladstone

    Your "God Decision" essay implies a question urgently needing an answer — to what extent should the decisions of people who haven't informed themselves on a topic (or who have rejected available information) be allowed to affect other people, on any area where the topic and the information matter much? In a free country (or one which strives towards freedom) it is — and should be — impossible to forbid certain adults to vote on the grounds that their beliefs are uninformed and/or incorrect. (Countries where such laws are in effect are not countries regarded as "free" by anyone who does not directly benefit from such laws.

    Consider the matter of (for instance) schools where the teaching of history and/or science is inadequate and/or incorrect, often for "faith-based" reasons. Often, the people who fund, staff, and evaluate such schools are themselves the graduates of similarly inadequate and uninformative schools At times, those citizens who are (religiously or otherwise) uninformed or misinformed on one or more crucial issues are the majority of parents (or even the majority of voters) in a given school district, election district, city, or state. In a democracy, this means that they can and will outvote those who have better information. Truth does not depend on public opinion — but public opinion plays a huge part in the selection and funding of curriculum, textbooks, and teachers.

    Note that the problem of false-to-fact schooling is _not_ limited to religious schools, or indeed to any one kind of school whatsoever.
    True, most current criticism against religiously motivated incomplete or misleading instruction (e.g., against creationism) is directed at tax-supported schools and school districts — as if homeschools and other private schools could do no wrong. However, I have met at least one homeschool graduate of voting age who had been taught that whales are fish and that atoms are indivisible.
    Similarly, in the USA and some other countries, there is an entire chain of pricey, prestigious private schools whose students are informed during biology instruction that the heart does not pump blood — blood circulates by its own motive force, or so students in the Waldorf Schools are led to believe: see

    Teaching pre-William-Harvey notions of the circulatory system, appalling and silly as it is, suggests one way of dissuading schools from teaching silliness and ignorance in lieu of fact.
    Sooner or later, some of the unfortunate children whose biology classes teach them fiction about the heart — and some of their parents and teachers — will need heart surgery: artificial hearts, pacemakers, or other surgery involving the cardiovascular system. (Recall that _all_ surgery involves the cardiovascular system if any blood is shed.)

    So here's a modest proposal:
    What if doctors and other healthcare staff, whenever treating someone who has publicly expressed a conviction that the heart is not a pump, had the legal right to withhold from such a person any treatments whose development and efficacy depend on the established fact that the heart _is_ a pump? The doctor could claim that he or she is simply respecting the publicly expressed beliefs of such a patient — refusing to harm the patient, by refusing him/her into a position that might cause psychological damage to the patient by contradicting the patient's cherished and expressed beliefs (beliefs which may be the source of the patient's income, if he or she is a teacher or administrator in such a school as I have referred to.)

    Then take this further: here in the USA, many people reject the idea of evolution — although their physicians are generally aware of the indispensable role of evolution in medical research and therefore ultimately in medical treatment.
    So ...
    What if it became accepted practice among MDs to refuse certain treatments to those patients who have gone on public record anywhere as opposing (or as teaching others to oppose) the facts and reasoning which are responsible for the existence and effectiveness of such treatments?
    How long would opposition to the teaching of evolution remain common, if it had visible consequences for one's health because some widely used and highly beneficial treatments were simply not available to those who publicly opposed the basis for those treatments' existence?

    NOTE: I am _not_ in any way, shape, or form imagining that life-saving medical treatments (or other medical treatments or scientific advances) should be outlawed for those who don't believe in the facts involved. What I _am_ advocating is this:
    doctors and other healthcare staffers should not be legally or ethically _required_ to provide medical treatments whose basis (e.g., in evolutionary biology) the patient has publicly rejected — particularly if the patient has built a publicly visible career, of any sort, wholly or partly out of such public rejection.

    For example:
    suppose that the findings of evolutionary biology lead to a pill which can confer immortality, or prevent Alzheimer's, or cure diabetes.. There would be no particular reason to offer such a boon to a person who publicly denounces the logical and factual underpinnings for the treatment's existence — yet who wishes the treatment to exist anyway!
    When a person builds a career out of publicly rejecting scientific fact, then wishes to benefit privately from the rejected information whenever it is convenient for him or her to do so — should it be anyone's legal or ethical responsibility to keep such hypocrites alive and in business?

    What I propose:
    whenever a known opponent of some well-established scientific fact is a candidate for medical treatment that depends in any way on the established fact(s) which s/he denies,

    /1/ insurance companies should be legally free to refuse to cover such treatment for the person(s) involved,

    /2/ healthcare providers should be legally free to withhold such treatment,

    and /3/ the above should apply until and unless the known public opponent of evolution (or of blood circulation, or whatever else it may be) signs a statement that s/he accepts the theory/finding/scientific model on which the treatment depends —

    such statement to be published, at the patient's expense, in every communication channel and medium (web-site, Facebook, Twitter, press-release stream, etc.) that the patient had ever used to announce or convey his/her opposition to the scientific fact(s) involved.

    Of course, the patient must have an absolute legal right to refuse to engage in /3/ — in which case, the insurer and healthcare provider must have an equally absolute legal right to engage in measures /1/ and /2/.
    If you believe the heart doesn't pump blood — you logically have no grounds for complaint when the doctor refuses to patch your pump or supply a new one.
    If you oppose (as some do) the mathematical evidence that pi is greater than three — you logically have no grounds for complaint if the doctor refuses to connect you to any machinery whose wheels and gears were calculated with a less inaccurate value of Pi. (If this means insurance won't cover your wheelchair, or the pulley on your hospital-bed traction-gear, tough. You asked for that — by asking to have the actual value of pi discounted, as far as you were concerned.)
    If you believe that evolution doesn't happen, and the newest medical breakthrough depends (like so many others) on evolutionary biology — you will just have to do without this if you happen to need it. (I admit I would make an exception for any contagious disease. Even though much of immunology depends directly on the facts of evolution, withholding treatment for contagious conditions would punish the innocent along with those guilty of potentially lethal ignorance.)

    There is an old fable about a pig in an oak forest. Every so often, searching for acorns under the cool shade of the trees, the pig would stumble over an oak root, or — worse — would find himself biting into an oak root that he had mistaken for a buried acorn. This annoyed the pig so much that he made it his life's work to bite through or uproot every oak-root he could find, so that those nasty, bitter things would present no further obstacles.
    The pig succeeded well — within a few years, he had eradicated every one of the nasty, bitter things. At last, he could dig for acorns in peace. Strange thing, though: he had found no acorns today, or yesterday, or the day before — and the sky overhead was unpleasantly hot and bright instead of greenly cool as in previous summers.

    Those who expect to harvest acorns by uprooting oaks are pig-ignorant. Those who aid and abet such ignorance — by offering the fruits of rationality to those who make a career out of extinguishing the source of those fruits — have only themselves to blame if they lose ground.

  • David Hume

    The British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey has investigated these questions in great detail and advocates teaching children all of the worlds religions, both the good and great harm they've done. A related philosophical website discussing the meaning of life is

  • Princess

    ...if people hold religious beliefs that I consider false on grounds that should be accepted by all.... The scientist doesn't see the confounding variable here? Does science always tell the truth, and more importantly, does science always lead to good? The author believes he has a right to shut down any belief that he believes is wrong backed up by science, but others who disagree don't have that same right? He isn't going to play thought police at the local church, but it would be okay if someone else does, and what if the participants didn't hide their belief that he finds offensive in the church?

    It might boil down to: Religious persons don't care what a non-believer thinks, and an atheist doesn't care what a religious believer thinks. Personal animosity or cognitive dissonance has shut the other out. I will say it is not fun to associate with nasty, mean-spirited persons, no matter their bent.

    I'm not sure the Mormon statement is accurate. Certainly what is forbidden is more attractive, and I understand Pakistan gets the most porn searches. But I believe the Mormon study took place many years ago, and there was more internet porn in that area because other avenues were disallowed.

  • Brenton

    Now what about the God question? Here people divide. Some, like Dawkins and me, think He doesn’t exist. Dawkins has stated he believes a force outside of time and space brought things into being. Dawkins just doesn't believe evidence exists to support this force as having attributes like love. Dawkins problem then is that he is with in time and space and if such a force exists that had attributes of love then it will be almost impossible for him to prove besides faith. So even if it's true God is real, which he is then with out faith Dawkins won't experience such a God. Dawkins is smart enough as a scientist to acknowledge such a force exists outside of time and space. He is just searching for another scientific explanation for it!

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