Re: Religion and evidence

From: Ben Dawson (
Date: Thu 19 Jan 2006 - 17:02:17 GMT

  • Next message: Richard Brodie: "RE: Religion and evidence"

    On Wed, 18 Jan 2006 21:39:42 +0000, you wrote:

    >Ben Dawson wrote:
    >> A man believes he's the reincarnation of Elvis Presley. He's utterly
    >> convinced of it. He brings his two young children up to believe he's
    >> Elvis too, and demands that they address him as "The King". Every
    >> Sunday, he takes them to the local music hall and subjects them to a
    >> horrendous karaoke rendition of his favourite Elvis classics. He then
    >> offers them each a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, in
    >> commemoration of his past incarnation. He tells them that as long as
    >> they stay true and believe in the Power Of The Quiff, they'll all go
    >> to Elvis-land when they die and make some great rock-and-roll music
    >> together.
    >> It's a relatively harmless belief, just like Christianity, and just
    >> like your faith in Christianity, it's a belief that is based on the
    >> man's subjective personal experience.
    >> OK, it's a hypothetical situation (I hope), but do you think this
    >> man's behaviour is ethical?
    >Not really harmless - it's going to cost them an arm and a leg in
    >therapy when they're older . . .
    >What you're really asking, though, is whether it is ok to impose false
    >beliefs upon your children. It may not be ok but it is unavoidable.
    >We're all wrong about something, and so long as we don't know what it is
    >(or, let's face it, what the vast range of things are) we shall continue
    >to behave as though we are right, and pass it on to our children. We
    >can't help it.

    True. Parents inevitably pass on false beliefs because they do not know themselves that they are false, and yes, they can't help it.

    The difference is, though, that you realise yourself, I think, that your beliefs may be wrong. As such, I would argue that they should not be taught as truths (see below for more on this).

    >I have a cousin who has never eaten meat in her life, as her parents
    >were vegetarians long before she was born. My children eat meat and
    >always have done, because we're omnivores. Ethically, either my husband
    >and I, or my aunt and uncle, have got something wrong. Two of us are
    >imposing a false set of values on our offspring. C'est la vie.

    I don't think you can equate eating / not eating meat with the existence / non-existence of God.

    The existence of God is a true / false proposition. There is no fixed true / false answer as to whether it's right to eat meat. This is purely a matter of opinion.

    >BUT what we can do is let them know that there are alternatives out
    >there; people who believe different things. If your Elvisian secluded
    >his children and pretended, somehow, that everyone else believed in him
    >too, then we'd have moved into a different realm I feel.

    A truly awful thought.

    >> I'm not convinced that this is a very realistic view of the world, and
    >> I'm inclined to agree with Ilfryn that there is certainly some element
    >> of "programming".
    >> Again, this is going back to the assertion that people with a
    >> religious belief continually weigh up their beliefs against
    >> contradictory evidence. OK, we've heard examples of how members of
    >> this list did just that and started to question their own beliefs at a
    >> younger age, but I just don't think it is representative of the
    >> general population at all. Some people do shake off their beliefs when
    >> they hit adulthood, in light of contradictory evidence, but *many*
    >> don't.
    >No, but many don't shake of any aspect of their upbringing at all. Not
    >only their religion.
    >> Rather, I believe that people who do follow a religion are more
    >> inclined to attempt to reconcile their experiences in the World with
    >> their religion than to drop their beliefs altogether. For example, I
    >> have heard people brought up as fundamentalists saying that hurricane
    >> Katrina was sent by God as a punishment to the people of New Orleans.
    >> They are so desperate to fit their existing beliefs with what they see
    >> here on Earth.
    >> As another example, a Jehovah's witness once came to our door when I
    >> was younger. He had a conversation with my Dad and informed him that
    >> the Earth was only a few thousand years old. When my Dad disputed this
    >> by pointing out the evidence of fossil records, he remarked that God
    >> had put them there in order to fool us!
    >> This all goes back to the point that you made yourself in a previous
    >> message - that people are scared of embracing reality because they
    >> fear it may disprove their existing views. But I think it also shows
    >> that infants are more programmable than you think. A child's mind is
    >> incredibly sticky. The more garbage you throw at it, the more
    >> difficult it is for the child to dispose of it later in life.
    >But again you are (because it's what we're talking about) giving
    >examples that are purely religion-related.
    >Here's one far more ubiquitous, and in its modern form nothing to do
    >with religion: Father Christmas. (He may have been Saint Nicholas once
    >upon a time but now he's just the big guy with the goodies.) Also,
    >though less perniciously: the tooth fairy. I could rant about this at
    >some length, but will take a deep breath and not. All I'll say is that
    >this is the most bizarre cultural practice that I can think of. It's
    >not like adults themselves believe in Santa. They know they're lying.
    >But "my parents did it for us", so they do it for their children.

    They were lying?! Nooooo!

    >Ok. Enough. The point is that children's minds are sticky, yes; but
    >they grow up into less-sticky adult minds; and the things that stick to
    >them most tenaciously are not all religious.

    I take your point, and yes, many things religious and non-religious that are picked up in early life do remain into adulthood.

    I guess the thing that really concerns me is that in bringing up a child into a certain religion, you are making a significant life-changing decision for the child based on your own personal beliefs, and in doing so taking away (or at best minimising) the element of choice. It's not a matter of something as simple as eating
    / not eating meat. It is a decision that could well impact the rest of a child's life.

    As we've already said, there's no way of hiding your own opinion from the child, and as you said in another message, the child will certainly be influenced by your behaviour. But at the same time I disagree with teaching these beliefs as solid facts - because they aren't. Granted, many religious people do not accept this, but from reading your other messages, I think you are one who does.

    And yes, the child is free to review their beliefs at a later age, but as I have already noted, in many cases this simply doesn't happen. Maybe I'm wrong but I see religious belief as being a very different kettle of fish to other things you might teach children.

    To use your example, Santa Claus is an easy meme to dismiss because it so blatantly contradicts other memes. Even for children, it's an easy one to suss - I worked out for myself around the age of 7 (with some pride I might add) that my parents were pulling a fast one. For a start, the chimney was far too small to accommodate a man carrying a BMX. For these reasons of meme incompatibility, most adults do not believe in Santa Claus (although I get the impression from reading this list that there may be exceptions!).

    In my view, it's harder to dismiss a religious belief in later life because of the very nature of the meme. The key point is that there is no evidence to disprove the existence of God or that miracles happen every day. Therefore the meme remains perfectly compatible with other memes in the environment. Even if something does appear to contradict the God meme, God is such an unknown and ambiguous concept that you can always make up something to fit:

    Q: Why is there evil in the World?

    A: Because God is testing us / because God is punishing us / because God wants people to learn from their mistakes to make them better people / because God works in mysterious ways...

    None of these can be proven either way. They're all compatible with the God meme.

    What about the social advantages too, that are proffered by the meme? A religious family may well feel bonded by their mutual faith. A child may well have friends and family members who attend the same place of worship, with their religion forming a close connection between them all. It would be a very difficult thing for a person to suddenly abandon their faith, and lose those close relationships.

    It would be a very different story for something like eating / not eating meat. If a person suddenly chose to become a vegetarian, the chances are it wouldn't affect her relationship with anyone else
    (unless her Dad was a butcher or something).

    In my view, religious beliefs stick very well because of their nature. In that way, when you teach a religion as a truth, you risk ingraining the belief for good and removing a lot of choice. For that reason, my opinion is that it's not a good idea to bring a child up into a particular religion.


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