Become like little children?
This is something I was trying to write a while back, before putting it aside for a while because I got distracted by an idea for a silly parody which seemed more fun to write. I’ve been thinking a lot about children, and how best to bring them up. No doubt I’ll post more on this subject in time.
It’s often assumed that children are naive conversion fodder who’ll believe anything they’re told. It’s true that young children haven’t developed the tools to evaluate claims for themselves, they believe lots of things before coming to realise they’re untrue as they grow up, and plenty of people have stories of how they were brought up with particular beliefs before finally rejecting their faith as an adult. But even so, I think this assumption might be an oversimplification of a rather more complex reality.
I was brought up in the church, and was familiar with the stories and ideas from an early age. But despite that, I remember my confusion on being taught about the feeding of the five thousand at school, aged probably seven or eight. I understood the story, but maybe there was a spirit of scientific enquiry already developing somewhere, because I wanted to know how it worked, and I wouldn’t let it lie. Did the bread and fish grow back every time a bit was broken off, I asked. “I suppose so” was the closest I got to an answer.
The irony is that in a complete reversal of the popular view, I stopped asking difficult questions like that as I grew up and became more “intelligent” and “sophisticated”. That’s not the sort of question you ask, you see, because it’s inexplicable. Asking such a stupid question is like passing wind in front of the Queen. It’s just not the done thing. So I learnt to accept that there were times when I couldn’t ask the obvious questions, because it’s a mystery.
I was reminded of this recently by something my five-year-old son said. “I don’t think God exists,” he said to me out of the blue. That caught me off balance a little, so I asked why he said that. “Because I talk to Him, but He never says anything.” A basic argument, but pretty good for his age, I think, and a specific rejection of what he’s being taught on Sundays. Even as he said it, it occurred to me that in a few more years he’d have learnt The Rules, been told that God talks in a special way that’s not like talking at all, and this incipient curiosity and scepticism would have been suffocated with a pillow of imagery and nuance.
That’s partly why I worry about him going to Sunday School. It’s hardly pushing fundie dogma, and even if I left the church I still can’t see any likely alternative while my wife’s still going, but every week’s likely to weaken that instinctive rebellion just a little bit more, drip by drip, until it’s gone completely, replaced by an identikit Christianity. Maybe I’m overreacting – I’d hope and expect that he’d develop beyond his current rather facile line of thought anyway – but it seems symbolic of the way his thoughts are being directed, and it saddens me.
Children may not simply believe everything they’re told (which is something of a relief, all things considered), but there’s clearly a lot of truth in the cliché: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The ideas we’re brought up with don’t completely determine our views as adults, but they frame our thoughts, putting us in a mental straitjacket from which many struggle to ever escape. How many people find that they still live with various church-related hangups many years after deconversion? I think that worries me more than children being taught any particular belief or doctrine.
I don’t want my children to grow up thinking someone else’s thoughts, even my own. They should grow up to think for themselves, and thinking about this has increased my resolve to do what I can to ensure that they have the information and freedom to do that. I may not be able to provide a completely neutral environment, but at least I can offer some thoughts and a listening ear, making them aware that people believe all sorts of strange things for one reason or another, and that they need to make their own minds up. After that, it’s up to them.