warforchildrensmindsI had the good fortune to attend The Center for Inquiry’s World Congress in Bethesda, MD. It was a great conference, chock-full of interesting speakers (one of them was AMAZING), and I left with new thoughts and ideas. Rather than give an overview on the entire conference, I’d like to focus on the one speaker who made me say “Huh, that’s interesting” more than any other. And that was Dr. Stephen Law.

He has written many books, but the one that he addressed primarily was The War for Children’s Minds. In this book, he discusses the realities of strict, religiously authoritarian parenting vs. more liberal “let us help you figure out who you are parenting.”

The results are refreshing and encourage discussion.

Kids brought up in religiously authoritarian households were told what to believe, and constantly pressured to maintain that belief. “THIS is wrong, THAT is right, and it’s that way because that’s what our family believes.” Morality was revealed to them, and enforced.

Kids from more liberal households were left to discover morality for themselves, with parental guidance. “Let’s figure out the right thing to do here. If you eat the last cookie, you’ll enjoy it, but that means your sister won’t have any. What should you do?”

And studies show that kids from a more liberal home exhibited more universally moral behavior than did those brought up in the authoritarian households. It seems (and this was the larger theme for this morning’s session) that most of us have a built-in moral compass that’s based not on revelation of god’s will, but on something within us. Call it genetics, call it the human spirit.. whatever you’d like. I’ve oversimplified this, but for this brief overview, it works.

The interesting thing is that religion had nothing to do with it. Authoritarianism is inversely correlated with moral behavior. Bringing the kids up with religion isn’t going to make them more moral, but doing so in a liberal fashion may. And the same is true for a secular upbringing.

And here’s the thing… while many groups associated with the JREF spend time attacking religion or at least pointing out the lack of facts in many religious claims, Dr. Law suggests that religion shouldn’t be our only focus. We need to spend more time fighting authoritarianism as well.

This made a lot of sense to me. I am a “tea pot” agnostic or atheist depending on how deep of a discussion we’re having. I don’t believe that there is a god, in fact, I can’t even define the term in a meaningful way. I do believe that there could be some divine creating force that I’m unaware of, but what I am aware of leads me to believe that there isn’t. As such, I often have a hard time in the company of hard-core atheists, as they seem unwilling to reconsider their opinions. I agree with their conclusions by and large, but not their position. They have reached the hard and firm conclusion that there is no god, and that if you think there is, you’re dead wrong. This strikes me as a very similar argument to those proposed by fundamentalist religious groups. And the reason is… they’re both authoritarian.

Authoritarianism is the antithesis of science and skepticism. If you’re arguing a point beyond the available evidence, you have crossed the line from skeptic to true believer. And I think that’s what skepticism (science) is most opposed to.

Or, perhaps I completely misunderstood. But at any rate, I’m motivated to read the book and find out more of what Dr. Law has to say. And that, in my mind, is the mark of a good conference. Thanks to Barry Karr (and Randi and Sean) for making my attendance possible.