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Religions always plan to indoctrinate children. Teaching religion to an adult is hard work because religions are absurd and often transparently so. In contrast teaching religion to children is easy. Children are susceptible and suggestible. It doesn’t sound like far-fetched nonsense to a child, children are credulous.
The religious don’t regard telling children about hellfire and damnation is indoctrinating them before they have attained the age of reason, which it clearly is, they see it as a good thing. Making children fear hellfire is meant to save their souls and set them on the only path to righteousness. Nobody would deliberately teach their children a tissue of lies knowing them to be lies. The reason to instil fear into a child when they are too young to see that the story is farcical is never that the person doing the teaching believes that the story is farcical, the motives are always pure but no matter, the effect is the same.
Try telling an adult that God, who loves them, got angry with people doing bad things so he flooded the entire Earth and drowned almost all animals and people. Straight away they are going to spot that this is rather a petulant thing to have done. It would be mass murder on the biggest possible scale and it would result in the deaths of millions of innocent animals and children. This could not be seen as a nice story, not evidence that God was the kind of person you would want to be a member of your golf club let alone the being you wished to spend all eternity adoring. And yet children sit still and lap it all up. They don’t make the rather obvious connections between mass killing and being a bad-tempered and indiscriminate shit that any adult would when told the story for the first time. But then we tell children all sorts of preposterous things and they lap them up. There are two very good reasons for this: firstly children don’t have enough experience of life to see how crazy some of the things we tell them are and secondly a capacity to accept what figures in authority tell us is part of our make-up.
Credulity is essential in children. If we all began as blank slates from I think therefore I am we would almost certainly be dead before we had learned a tiny fraction of what we need to know. Questioning everything we are told is not a good strategy for little children. Children have to be wide-eyed and credulous so they can absorb all the lessons we need to pack into them.
Many of the things we have to teach children are very far from obvious and self evident. They learn about hunger, greed, ageing, death, learning, pain, healing and love. They have to cope with truth, lies, stories, myths, let’s pretend, cartoons, films, teasing, pets and wild animals. When we really think about the task a child has to master it is amazing that they cope so well. The reason that they do cope so well is that they have learning protocols built-in. There is no way that a formless intellect could cope with the demands of infancy as well as we manage it. Exactly how complex these built-in protocols are I believe is beyond our current levels of knowledge to fathom and it is an inherently difficult task to identify universal assumptions and spot the difference between things which are simply logical from those which betray the designing hand of evolution.
Children will listen to stories about religious themes and will not question them, partly of course because they have been told that they should not question them and their parents use the same look-in-the-eye and solemn tone of voice to warn about the wrath of gods as they do to warn them about strangers, the dangers of being run over by cars and not eating toadstools. This allows a child to be filled up with many ideas, several of which individually are silly and easy to refute but when woven into a system whose integrity is not challenged become impregnable. If people come across a religion in their teenage or adult years they can easily see how it has been made and how it operates to lie to its adherents. Other people’s religions are clearly false, show clear evidence of deliberate lies and the effects of myth and wishful thinking. People can also see how different aspects of a religion combine to reinforce the belief in the believer. But a religious trap can be built very easily and without snapping jaws if you have the patience to let the child grow inside the trap. This is by far the most common way for people to get religion. Have you seen those nauseating child evangelists? One thing I can absolutely guarantee to you is that those child evangelists were not born to unbelievers, or evangelized by children.
Children are taught the same things over and over: Jesus died for us, Jesus was sent from heaven for us, Jesus loves us, God loves us, we should fear God, good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell, not believing is a sin, God made the world, faith is good, God moves in mysterious ways, every good person believes this, Jesus was born in a stable. Around and around go the stories. You can start listening on any level at any time. It does not matter at which point you start to hear or at which point you start to take more notice and think a bit harder. If you have gone around the cycle a few times you find the ideas knitting together. If you were given the whole story as an adult in full possession of all your faculties and no particular reason to pay attention and believe the story there is very little chance you would accept it. Adults are brought into the church with miracles or seeking a way out of a terrible problem such as addiction, poverty, immigration or having their world turned upside down by contact with the wider world. The number of perfectly well-adjusted adults who take up new religions is exceedingly small. If you are perfectly well adjusted what need do you have for a religion? They either screw you up when you’re a child or catch you when you are screwed up and vulnerable.
Teaching children about hell is quite clearly emotional abuse. Many people have revealed great emotional scars caused by religious indoctrination and the fear of hell. It seems especially likely to cause trauma when it is not the child’s own fate that is being considered but the fate of other people who die. If you fall in line with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and raise the child of a mixed marriage as a Catholic you are guaranteed to cause distress. Yes my child, Grandpa Joe will go to heaven, he’s a good Catholic, but Grandpa Billy will not, he will go to the lake of fire and burn for all eternity, that is God’s plan. That is hardly likely to make for a good and happy childhood, especially if the child thinks Grandpa Billy is much better behaved and loves Jesus more than Grandpa Joe.
Fear of hell looms large in many a childhood. It is an extremely insidious notion that a god who is invisible and silent will yet punish for all eternity those who don’t believe in him. The Hebrews for all their bloody sacrificing and general barbarity did at least allow people to die and be dead. It is Christianity which first imported the notion of the underworld as a place of eternal torment from the Greek and Roman world and then subsequently turned up the heat to the max. The red hue and goatish appearance of the classical Christian Devil owes far more to the Roman god Pan than to the Satan that the Hebrews had borrowed rather late in the day from the Persians. Islam accepts the notion of hell and the devil, gives him back a variation of the Hebrew name of Satan and cutely rewrites the Garden of Eden story with this new devil in the role previously played by a talking snake. Islam decided to rewrite inconvenient bits of the Old Testament whereas Christianity used the Old Testament to endorse the New, by writing the New Testament consciously as a sequel trying to make as many connections as possible even at the strong risk of having thousands of contradictions, not least of which is the idea of the immortal soul and an afterlife which does not feature in the Old Testament at all.
Hell is a terrible concept because of uncertainty and distance in time. We as a species have developed minds which can plan short and medium term strategies quite well but whole life plans are not quite so effective. One of the explanations is that our brains are built to do what economists call discounting the future. A reward next year to compensate for a sacrifice this year has to be bigger than the sacrifice, a reward ten years off will have to be significantly bigger than one which is one year off for the same size of sacrifice or it won’t be worth making the sacrifice. Heaven and Hell are way off in the future beyond not only all the time we have in the world but also beyond the uncertainty of death. To make it sensible to sacrifice now for rewards after death or to avoid punishments the distant rewards and punishments have to be enormous. To compensate for the uncertainty of death again the size of the rewards and punishments have to be larger still. The less likely a reward or punishment becomes the bigger it has to be. I don’t think it is a coincidence that as many churches have back-pedalled on hell and have suggested that more people will make it into heaven there has been less talk about what heaven contains, other than, well, consolation and it’s quite nice, heavenly even.
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