The views I express in this post are not shared by everyone associated with the JREF, including James Randi himself, but they will not come as a surprise to anyone who has attended a panel on parenting in which I have taken part. What brought it to mind was not the season, but rather reminders that many atheists, including Richard Dawkins, have expressed the opinion that religion "clouds the mind" or otherwise keeps people from understanding science. Not only do I disagree with this view but I think it is a bit dangerous.
Dawkins has also speculated that exposure to fiction is harmful to children. Countless people have asked me for advice because they are worried that their nieces and nephews are being taught religion or pseudoscience or that their own children might be damaged by the bible camp that they were sent to by a former spouse. I have read angry, hate-filled comments from parents about keeping their children isolated from religious ideas. I have been accused of hypocrisy because my husband and I celebrate Christmas with a visit from Santa.
This kind of dogma concerns me. Although well-intentioned, it will surely back-fire.
Decades of research into intelligence and reason has, fairly recently, revealed one clear difference between an intelligent person and an intelligent person who consistently reasons well: open-mindedness. The more open-minded person is successful at a number of reasoning tasks in which the less open-minded person fails, probably because they maintain a level of humility and uncertainty in their belief set. We learn humility from occasionally being wrong.
Religion is not a barrier to science literacy. Homeschooling children for the sole purpose of controlling the information to which they are exposed is a barrier to science literacy. Refusing to expose children to information which would provide opportunities for critical thinking is a barrier to science literacy*. This applies to everyone, not just fundamental Christians who reject evolution.
Everything we learn requires practice and we learn the most from our mistakes.
What's more, when the outcome is predictable, we learn nothing. Imagine if you played a game of "Memory" with transparent cards or played a trivia game with the answers in front of you or completed a set of math problems in which all of the answers were "50". You wouldn't learn anything except how to go through the motions, never fully understanding the concepts. You'd also lose interest.
Asking a child to learn critical thinking when you only provide accurate information is like asking them to learn to sort socks when all of the socks are the same. How can you tell the good information from the bad if all you’re ever exposed to is accurate?
Children learn to evaluate information by evaluating information of all kinds. They learn the most from evaluating information that turns out not to be true (refer to my recent posts on criticism and critical thinking for an overview). Games and exercises in books help, but they pale in comparison to real-life problems.
Years ago a friend recounted an experience with her sister and an infant niece. She noted that her sister rarely spoke to the baby and that when she (my friend) did, her sister said, "I don't know why you're doing that. She can't understand you, you know." My friend was astonished, as was I. Children learn language by making connections between sounds and objects or actions. They cannot make these connections if they never experience them. The more you talk to a child, the sooner they will understand what you say. The more they need to communicate, the sooner they will learn to talk.
A somewhat lost (in fundamentalism, anyway) Christian ideal that we can learn from is the ideal that testing one's faith should make it stronger. Indeed, if the belief is accurate, proper testing should demonstrate that accuracy. This is the core of scientific thinking; we become more and more confident of the accuracy of a hypothesis when it survives rigorous testing. When hypotheses fail, often the truth becomes obvious.
Santa Claus doesn't make kids gullible. It gives them a long list of critical thinking exercises. Throughout the years they need to make a number of accommodations to maintain their belief (something they desperately want to do for fear that the gifts will stop if they stop believing):
- How does Santa get to every child in the world?
- Does Santa visit every child? What about children who don't celebrate Christmas?
- How does Santa fit in the chimney?
- How do the reindeer fly?
- If elves make the presents, why are they sold in stores?
And so on. You don't need to lie to accomplish this (although it's arguably lying by omission). Just keep turning the question back on the child. "How do you think he does it?" If the child says, "Magic," then ask why he has to deliver the presents at all. If he has magic, then can't he just make them appear? What are the limits of this magic and why are there any limits?
Now think about when a child goes to Sunday school with a friend. Imagine Suzy comes home and asks, "If God loves everyone, why do bad things happen to kids?" If she says that she was asked to pray for someone with cancer, ask her how that prayer would help. Walk her through the logic and leave her with the problem that amputees don't grow back limbs when people pray. Let her chew on that one for a while.
I do not want to minimize the evil that is done in the name of religion or religious beliefs, nor am I suggesting that anyone allow their child to be browbeaten or "brainwashed". I am not advocating the teaching of religious principles or outright lying to them in the case of Santa and the Tooth Fairy. What I'm saying is that we should not be afraid of information, good or bad, right or wrong. Instead, we should take the opportunity to provide our children with practice in critical thinking, practice evaluating information. Provide kids with real-life problems to solve.
I'll end by telling you my own experiences in parenting. My husband and I have two boys. Ian is 11 and Connor is 14. Like most parents, we were terrified of doing it wrong. We still worry that our children will grow up to be ax murders, homeless beggars, or Republicans (just kidding, Mom & Dad). We can't help but try to mold people just like ourselves, with our beliefs and values. But most of all, we want our kids to be happy, healthy, good people when they grow up.
When Connor was born, there were few day care options in our area that were not attached to churches and the highest quality day care centers were Christian. The religious leanings of a center played very little role in our decision and we told ourselves that it was not a bad thing to learn what the majority of people our kids will meet believe. This may seem like a justification and maybe it was, but I am very glad that we made it because they ended up at a Christian center and it is doubtful that we would have taught our kids the bible stories we learned as children.
When the boys asked questions about what they'd learned, our answers were not angry rants about what is and is not true. Instead we framed our answers as, "Some people believe X and others believe Y" and encouraged them to think about the paradoxes and conflicts inherent in the teachings.
There were limits. We were done with religious care centers when the summer camp they attended began teaching intelligent design. Even though our boys knew enough science by then (at seven and ten years old) to laugh at the idea that there was no big bang, the church had become more conservative and began to treat women as servants.
It was not until Ian was about 7 that they asked us what we believe. It was then that they learned that we were atheists. It was then that they learned why we were atheists, but it was only then that they could understand our reasons.
Over the next year there were many philosophical discussions about religion, but most occurred among our boys and their friends. At the age of 8, Ian first came to the strange conclusion that there was a God, but that he did not create the universe, nor did he act upon it. That lasted a week or two, then he gave up that idea in favor of the no-God conclusion. Connor loved the myth and poetry that religion offered, but once he realized that the myths of different religions conflicted and that the meaning of life could not be found in them, he let go as well. He still loves the stories, but he sees them as legends, myths, and traditions, not truths.
Ian took another year to ask if Santa was real. This progression makes sense when you realize that he had more evidence. His grandfather, for example, saw a flash out the window of our airplane when we were on our way home from a vacation one Christmas Eve and our son was certain that it was Santa. Besides, if Santa wasn't real, where did all of the presents come from? Santa actually provides harder problems to solve.
So both of our kids grew up with stories about Santa and both learned about Christianity. In school and through friends they learned a few things about other religions. Although we have always been concerned with the reasoning behind their beliefs, they were never pressured to adopt ours. We told them why we believed that people should be treated equally, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. We described why some people are threatened by scientific ideas and why they might feel obligated to oppose science and equality. We also told them why we disagree with those people.
Today our boys are skeptics, atheists, and socially conscious kids. They are truly confused by their middle school peers – the bullying, the constant derogatory use of the word "gay", and the resistance to science that some of the kids display. Connor ran a popular Skeptics Club at the school last year and Ian is the vice president of the Gay-Straight Alliance started at his school this year. They can't keep their room clean or remember to brush their teeth in the morning, but they are intelligent, scientifically-literate humanists.
*I'd like to note here that "teaching the controversy" is not something that I advocate. While I do believe that exposing children to "Intelligent Design" is a great way opportunity to teach critical thinking, doing so in a biology class lends credibility to it and treats the so-called theory as an equal to evolution. Instead, it should be introduced in the context of a lesson in psychology or pseudoscience.
Barbara Drescher teaches research methods, statistics, and cognitive psychology at California State University, Northridge. Her research interests include perception, attention, learning, and reasoning. At ICBSEverywhere.com, Barbara evaluates claims and research, discusses education, and promotes science and skepticism.