Ignoring The Moderates

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

The statement that religion "undermines development of logical thinking" is asserted with absolutely no evidence whatsoever.  All I can say is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Show us the evidence before throwing around assertions otherwise based on faith. More importantly, though, this reader obviously hasn't raised any children. I have an 18 year-old and a 15 year-old which my wife and I have raised in the church.  They are both at the stage where they are questioning and challenging everything.  The idea that I could possibly "brainwash" them into believing anything is specious.  Instead of trying and failing, I am encouraging them to think through things for themselves.  Maybe they will stay in the church, maybe they won't, but either way it will be their decision.  This pattern is so common as to be cliche.  My brother and I both did the same wander-in-the-desert thing - I returned to the church, he didn't.

Another reader adds:

I just want to dissent to one small part of this reader's e-mail.  She/He wrote, "[D]emanding that the little ones believe these often ridiculous things to be true with no logical or empirical evidence, which I am convinced undermines children's development of logic and critical thinking."

My Mom taught high school English Lit for 15 years in a high school that had a fair amount of economic diversity and a lot of racial and ethnic diversity.  One thing she found is that she could tell the kids that went to religious services from the ones that didn't.

It was easiest with her African-American students and toughest with her Asian students, with Latino and white students in between, but she could almost invariably tell.  One of the ways she could tell was their ability to see symbolism and archetypes in literature.  The students that were raised going to religious services had a much easier time understanding and gaining meaning from literature.  It didn't even matter much what religion the kids practiced - Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism.  Religion deals with symbols, myth, archetypes and believing what you cannot see.  These are intellectual skills that cross over into non-religious contexts.

How much of science depends on believing in unseen forces?  Advertising brings in archetypes and myth to convince you to buy a product.  Movies, music, and music videos use symbols all the time.

The other issue is most adolescents go through a period of questioning their religion.  They may come out the other side still a practitioner, but that period of questioning develops some intellectual muscles as well by requiring them to really examine the world they are in.

This is not to say religion is always good for intellectual development.  My Mom had to bite her tongue when a student's mom didn't want her child to read Antigone because it wasn't "Christian".  As much as Mom wanted to point out that it was exceedingly difficult to write Christian literature before Christ was born, it just wouldn't have made a difference.  Any religion that requires its followers to remain voluntarily ignorant of the world around them is highly problematic, but that actually applies to a smaller percentage of followers than most atheists will acknowledge.

Another reader:

Atheists are awfully quiet about the one historical attempt to mass-inculcate - and enforce - atheism. Of course this attempt was communism. Stalin mass-murdered up to 50 million of his own people, plus a few million non-Soviet citizens. My dear atheist brothers & sisters in Science, it's not religion that bends people to pursue curious, terrorizing, or murderous ends - it's any belief, or non-belief, taken to extremes that turns human beings into pitiless thugs and murderers. Were religious faith and religions to vanish from human kind at noon today, mankind would not be propelled or elevated to some new and Utopian age.

The Stalinist argument is a blunt cudgel. Unless any of the new atheists are advocating for state-enforced atheism, it has limited relevance. Both atheists and the faithful tend to "weak man" the other. Atheists like to focus on fundamentalists while believers tend to hone in on the angry atheist fringe. Another reader writes:

A reader of yours wrote, "Religion, unlike space explosions in Star Wars or the Lochness monster, states that it is the unalterable truth of the creator and usually stipulates that disbelief will lead you to a lifetime of torture in hell." Well, I'm Jewish, and there's very little in Judaism that is the "unalterable truth" of anything--everything in our religion has been argued over and debated for centuries, and still is. And as far as I know this is the case with all major religions. As for "a lifetime of torture in hell," Judaism posits no such thing. Though the reader gives himself a bit of a loophole with his use of "usually" there, he is clearly speaking about a very narrow element of religious culture, I would guess fundamentalist Christianity and other similar systems, and his language in no way describes the beliefs or lives of most religious people. Using such a broad brush on such a nuanced topic is what rankles me about both fundamentalist believers and smug nonbelievers: each treats all of those in the other camp as though they were represented by the smallest, loudest constituency among them. They aren't. We aren't. I respect atheism as perfectly valid, rational, and completely worthy of respect, as do most religious people I know, and as do most atheists respect faith. And I wish the angry minorities in each camp woud put down their megaphones and stop rolling their eyes at how naive and judgmental they keep assuming the other one is.