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Children are naturally curious and questioning learners. We often don’t even realize how much they pick up from the people and situations around them. Religious principles are uniquely responsible for much of the difficulty children have with understanding the world around them. Western religions, in particular, emphasize exclusivity at a time when we most need to understand and champion the connections among every thing in the cosmos so that we can bring forth the best ideas unencumbered by religious restrictions. A religion that teaches a child that specific groups of people are going to suffer eternal damnation both confuses them, and makes them fearful about many things they experience – an adult gay relative that they can’t talk to; the family next door that doesn’t celebrate Christmas; the inter-racial family down the block; the aunt with schizophrenia; the poor family with kids that are badly clothed and fed, etc.
Religious principles are used to teach children their place in the family and in society. Children are taught to “do unto others” through some form of the Golden Rule, yet they often witness adults flagrantly violating that “rule.” They are taught that “Jesus loves you”, yet can easily see that there are many who, apparently, are not loved. Or, perhaps their family religion is never quite satisfied that someone is “good enough” to go to Heaven, or who is suffering daily on earth despite the love of Jesus, God, Allah, or any other religious totem. To wield the threat of eternal damnation is not only cruel, but can also be permanently damaging. The Puritans who first settled in North America actually believed that children were born “bad” and the only way to cure them was “to beat the devil out of them.”
What effect does this have on children?
The effects are myriad – ranging from confusion, inaccurate information, being labeled as “bad”, having friends labeled as “bad”, thinking that some topics can never be discussed to the point of understanding, and questioning why adults can use religious dogma to someone else’s disadvantage without following the same rules themselves. Children’s understanding of religion is regularly cut short because the adults around them do not have a clear understanding of the role of religion in their own lives.
The most egregious examples of this occur in smaller sects where there is less oversight of what is done in the name of religion. Punishment “in the name of God” is a frequent part of children’s lives in the most dogmatic religious homes. Religion’s faith-based dogma is positioned not to provide reasons for anything – “Do not question God (or parents), or you’ll be punished.” However, even our more mainstream religious groups can also use their authority to the detriment of children – priests engaged in pedophilia, for example, or sects of LDS that engage in polygamy and child marriage – all under the threat of eternal punishment for lack of unquestioning obedience.
The curiosity that children have while young should be encouraged and celebrated as their best possible way to acquire healthy attitudes about our world. It is a curiosity that is often “trained” out of the child by fifth grade – “this” is the correct answer, or “God hates” certain things, or “God does everything for a purpose” – even when a child dies from a painful illness or parents die while the child is young. How confusing this must be for children, and they are not taught how to reconcile these things with the idea of the God they must love and obey. From its very beginnings, organized religion has been about controlling people’s behavior, and its most powerful gift was eternal life while its most powerful threat was eternal damnation. It is tremendously destructive to be told one cannot question why bad things happen or to think that there might be a better way to do something.
Our best future will come from individuals who constantly question “why”, and never accept the answer “because God said so.” Critical thinking skills must be taught and learned by every single person in order for our entire civilization to progress. Children must be encouraged to ask questions, and to expect to be taught how to find satisfactory answers in order to form a rational, realistic, and progressive worldview.
If we followed the natural development of a child’s intellectual growth, we’d focus on learning how to live in balance with Nature; learn how to empathize, sympathize and show compassion; teach problem-solving skills; and model tolerance and acceptance. Nothing should be “off limits” for discussion and/or change.
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