There is a level of belief that only a child can claim, and the reason is, in my opinion, truly sinister. It is recited constantly in the Jewish daily prayers that god is Omniscient and omnipotent, meaning he is endowed with infinite knowledge, power, and authority; and regardless of how many times an adult utters these words in prayer, they would fail to convince me they truly believe it. An adult would have to believe that god is watching every waking, and every sleeping, moment of life. He is watching when one is “alone.” An adult would also have to believe that their personal thoughts are not so; that god is listening to one’s private thoughts like a radio and nothing, not even the most uncontrollable and innocent thoughts, can be hidden. What makes this belief even more unattainable, is that one must believe that god has the ability and right to judge these thoughts and actions, and to condemn us all based on them. If someone were to truly believe this, they would experience an instant melt down into a world of panic and anxiety.
But a small child is another story. A small child can be made to believe these things rather effortlessly. There is no display more brutal than the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp. A large group of children are told that god knows that there are some in the group who have been sinning, and acting against god. They are told they better repent and become pure. Within seconds the world of panic and anxiety that I speak of unfolds for all to see. Each child is no doubt saying to themselves, She must be talking about me; she knows. The children proceed to lose their minds to the imposing terror as they endeavor to rid themselves of unknown sins they can’t even identify. It is here I will finally pause to assert that this is an instance, among many, of the religious proclivity toward child abuse.
As someone who believes strongly in constitutional freedoms, I understand the difficulty of drawing a line the sand to determine what parents can teach to their kids and what teachings constitute abuse. One could easily make the argument that restricting parents from sharing their beliefs with their children will lead to the classic slippery slope whereby our freedoms are slowly and unperceivedly dissolved through the same manner with which we first upset them. This idea, having almost attained the status of platitude in this case, seems on its face, reasonable; Parents should have the freedom to raise their children, free of government intervention, lest we start down a slippery slope. Legally, constitutionally, this is true. But, morally speaking, the following has occurred to me. It is the very fact that this platitude is an answer to my concerns about child abuse that serves as evidence for its dismissal regarding this particular topic. There is something funny about the packaging.
Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, explains in his book The God Delusion, that it is simply a matter of evolution, essential to human survival, that small children heed the warnings of their parents. It is how we’ve survived as a species all this time. We tell our children sternly not to do things like go outside by themselves or play with fire, and it is clear to the parent that the small child lacks a certain bold curiosity that will manifest itself as they get older. I tell my child to stay on the sidewalk and to never approach the street without being guided by my hand. My daughter has never run into the street just to see what all the fuss is about.
The religious people who invoke the slippery slope argument have exposed themselves in a certain way, in that they are trying categorizing their dogmatic beliefs as being on even ground with all the other legitimate and necessary things required for raising children. The result of this is child abuse. A religious parent or educator takes advantage of a child’s unwavering trust by diluting the teachings essential for their survival with useless and often pernicious dogma. Along with teachings such as, “don’t go in the street or you will be hit by a car“, and “don’t talk to strangers or you might be kidnapped,” the religious smuggle through teachings such as: “don’t touch yourself in certain places or you will go blind“, and “don’t eat non-kosher food or there will be a blemish on your soul.”
Early on in my doubting process, I recall being struck by a bit of popular Jewish jargon concerning the education of small children. An expensive religious education was always justified with the phrase, “they need to get that foundation.” I recall asking myself, what exactly is this “foundation?” I decided to learn hebrew pretty much on my own as a teen. I sat through one or two classes with some other adults at the local synagogue, and I flew solo from then on. Reading Hebrew is phonetically simple. Once you understand the basic concept, which will take you all of a few minutes to grasp, it is just a matter of memorizing the letters and practicing for speed. I also read the Torah with its basic commentary. I later went to a yeshiva to continue my learning of the law and spiritual concepts. Not the most difficult thing to do if you have the conviction. I was almost completely caught up to people my age who were born into the religion, and in fact, I had friends who surely surpassed those who were born into religion. So what was I missing? What was I missing because I started learning at sixteen years instead of three?
I find great insight into this question when my daughter comes home from her religious private school. She learns the basic stories of the holidays along with the stories of the weekly Torah portion. She makes cute projects with construction paper. This is not to say I am not impressed with what my daughter is able to absorb during a single day, but these basic stories and arts and crafts do not match the tuition price. They are things that I could easily tell her at home if I wanted to.
Recently she came home and told me that her teacher told her that she can’t see god because “he is just clear.” (Is she questioning her teacher’s assertion? Good girl.) As a side note, it is impossible to not wonder how an adult isn’t struck by any moral reservation while having this argument with a four-year old. However, my point is that this is the foundation that the children must receive by a certain age. The foundation is getting children to believe things without evidence, before they are old enough and smart enough to think critically. The fire burns, the lake drowns, the stranger is scary, and god is watching.
As I’ve said, the religious beliefs that my daughter learns in school are fairly basic, and don’t constitute much difficulty in teaching or understanding. Noah built the ark, the animals two by two, great flood, yada yada… The question of how these stories add up to thousands of dollars a year for kindergarten is made more urgent by the question of how much secular learning the religious endeavor takes away from the overall educational pie. In defense of my daughter’s school, the integrity of secular education is encroached upon much less than other religious schools. That is why this school was a great compromise for our family. But any time a parent gets a tuition bill for ten grand, justification for each dollar is essential, especially in a country where free education is available. It is impossible for me to ignore the truth, that most parents easily accept ten grand as the value of not having their kid sit next to a non-Jew in class, and to avoid playdates with non-Jewish kids after school. I personally know Jewish people who moved to more Jewish areas because, as they confided to me, the children are getting older and may want to play with the kids in the neighborhood. How to handle such a predicament?
This is another favorite topic of Richard Dawkins’ in both his book The God Delusion and the television series The Root of All Evil. A great many children are born in my city every year, and as assuredly as a pharmacist will separate pills with a spatula, their parents will stamp their heads according to the families accepted dogma and separate them into factions, for schooling, for social interaction, and for reproduction. The pretext for this practice is that the parents want to instill their children with pride of heritage, but the fact is, and this is perhaps exclusive to religion save for Buddhism, that the truth value of one religion is at the expense of the truth value of the other. Teaching kids that their religion is correct naturally means teaching them then their neighbor’s religion is wrong.
This is a truly evil practice by my measure. These kids will grow up and go to war with each other just as their parents did. Muslim will fight with Jew, and Christian will cynically bet on a preordained divine outcome. When will all of this stop? The answer is simple: When we finally give our children a chance. When we finally stop labeling them and dividing them. As long as this practice continues they will proceed to fight our old battles that they simply have nothing to do with. There are tribes in Africa fighting over feuds hundreds of years their senior. Why must a Palestinian child be asked to be a martyr for his parent’s cause? When will we do our children the favor of taking our stupid causes to our graves with us? When will we let them decide their own futures, their own conflicts, and how to reconcile them?
All parents are trained pharmacists. We will label our children, split them up, and teach them divisive dogma that hurts them both personally, in the form sadomasochistic love-fear, and collectively, in the form of religious war and the fruition of the long sought after end of days. The abuse starts at the very beginning, with the endeavor to lay a foundation for all of the above, long before our children are old enough to think for themselves. We must learn to identify this endeavor and its disguise, so that we may separate it from our endeavor to raise healthy children.