I was a Christian when I was a child. Wait, let me take that back. I was raised in a Christian home, indoctrinated in the Christian faith, and told to do what the bible says. I didn’t question any of it – I was a child in a Christian environment. But children are too ill-equipped to become a follower of any religion.
Most of us don’t shop around for religions. Whatever your parents believed, you probably also believe. If your government mandates a religion, that is probably what you believe. If your friends all share a faith, that is probably what you believe. If you were born in a different country, to different parents, you would probably have a different faith. Your God didn’t find you. You are a victim of circumstance. Probably. We’ll get to converts in a moment.
First, let’s look at an example of indoctrinating children. In countries that celebrate Christmas, a lot of children are taught the myth of Santa Claus. It’s presented to them as fact, even though we know it’s a lie. The story of Santa Claus is fantastic and full of inerrancy that even children easily pick up on (“So how does a fat guy fit through the chimney? What if we don’t have a chimney?”) but we continue to lie. We tell them that Santa has magical powers that allow him to pull off the unbelievable things he does like visiting the entire world in a night and building their toys with a legion of elves. We tell him that he has to be believed with faith because you can’t visit his home (it’s in the unreachable North Pole) or see him while he delivers his goods (otherwise you won’t get any). And it works. Children believe it, because we present it as unquestionable truth.
Eventually, the magic wears off. As kids grow older we stop lying to them, and they see the reality of mall Santas and Christmas sales. Their peers don’t believe in Santa. They realize it was all a lie. But what if they didn’t? What if we continued to teach them about Santa and his magic on a weekly basis… perhaps in a Church of Santa? What if all their friends were told to respect their faith, because it was sacred and holy? What if children were raised to believe the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was complete fact? What if children were told that anyone who confronted their Santa belief was merely testing their faith?
Children are impressionable. They are programmed to listen and learn, otherwise they’d have a much tougher time surviving. Anything we teach them will be learned and repeated. They don’t try to figure out a political affiliation – they share their parents’ views on politics. They don’t gain racism unless it is taught to them. And kids will follow the leader when it comes to religion, too.
Religious parents don’t see this as harmful – indeed, if they are to be missionaries to their faith, why not start at home? Because your children will buy it blindly. If you are religious and don’t care about children learning your faith, remember that there are many different faiths and children being raised in all of them, being led in a direction you don’t agree with either. And it’s hard to unlearn. Kids are lucky enough to disbelieve Santa because we stop peddling it once they hit a certain age.
Now to converts. It is possible to undo this learning. When a child reaches maturity (around 18 or so) they can be taught contrary opinions. It’s common for college professors to “reteach” students’ opinions and even undo propaganda (or teach new propaganda). College students are impressionable on another level… they can balance 2 beliefs and find their own. And I know that they can even come to conclusions without being prodded, as I did. Nobody taught me to be an atheist – it was just the natural path after my questions about the bible led to doubt and finally to disbelief. Why believe in a different God when the one I had worshiped my entire life no longer existed to me? I knew it was possible, even likely, to get fooled a second time. And I believed I’d been fooled without a single person pointing it out to me. I was very, very fortunate.
So now I challenge you, the reader, to do the unthinkable – pretend your faith is optional. Did you know you can actually choose a different religion, or give it up entirely? There is no faith that has you for life. I was told “once saved, always saved” but that simply isn’t true… it’s just a method for trying to retain membership (like the Catholic christening of babies, which I can’t even discuss with a modicum of kindness).
I chose to be an atheist. Once I stopped chasing false hope, stopped trying to cultivate a one-sided long-distance relationship, and stopped feeling guilty about stupid things like private thoughts I found I can enjoy life for what it actually offers. Real freedom comes with making your own choices. And if you choose to keep believing what you’ve always believed – that’s okay too. Just make sure it’s your decision.*
*I know I’m offering an easy way out. Changing your faith means changing your morals, your routines, your opinions, your life. It can make you a pariah among your family and friends. It’s not easy to make a life change. I hope you don’t just blow this off with a quick “Nope, I’m fine, thank you” just because it’s easy, and actually take the time to consider who chose your belief system.