The simple truth is that babies are not religious. Babies do not leave the womb with a belief in God. When we're brought into this world, we do not know who Jesus, Allah, Xenu, or Shiva is. We are introduced to one of these characters at some point, usually during our formative years. Rarely are we ever introduced to anything beyond our chosen religion, yet isn't it interesting that we will readily and proudly proclaim our religion to be true to anyone who will listen? On what basis can a religious person claim to know the truth when they frequently don't even know the basic tenets of any other religion? This feels disingenuous.
One of the reasons why religion continues to permeate our society is because it gets indoctrinated into a large percentage of children from a very early age. Of course, no religion uses the word "indoctrinate" because of the negative connotation, but the definition certainly fits. When a parent forces his/her religious opinions onto a child, what reasonable outcome can one expect to see? If a young child will readily believe that a jolly fat man in a red suit delivers presents once a year to all the good children because Mom and Dad say so, is Jesus really such a stretch? Santa is as real a person to a child as Jesus is to an adult. Interestingly enough, both figures require belief in them as the most basic prerequisite before you're eligible to receive a gift.
Many religions force young children into commitment ceremonies like Confirmations and Bar Mitzvahs. Most even have infant ceremonies. For example, Christians baptize infants as a means of washing away ancestral sin. Jewish male infants are ritualistically circumcised. Even though it is explicitly outlawed in many Islamic countries, Muslim girls as young as 8 in Somalia undergo genital mutilation called infibulation where the clitoris and labia are carved out (often without anesthetic). The girl is then stitched up and her legs are tied together for 10 days until her flesh fuses back together. As bizarre as we might find this practice in the Western world, it is considered God's will to nearly 3 million girls every year. Many of these girls actually want to be cut as it is considered to be a rite of passage. And who says that religion doesn't have the ability to warp our minds?
The problem with indoctrinating children into a specific faith is the fact that children are not intellectually mature enough to make the distinction. They are not intellectually mature enough to make the commitment either. Children do not have adequate background knowledge to critically think through what's being presented to them, and as such are more vulnerable to wild beliefs than educated adults. When scary monsters, tooth fairies, and Santa Claus are legitimate phenomena, making the case that children are intellectually mature enough to be able to adequately think through religious stories and comprehend the potential for truth becomes a fool's errand.
Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said "And as the capacity for believing is strongest in childhood, special care is taken to make sure of this tender age. This has much more to do with the doctrines of belief taking root than threats and reports of miracles. If, in early childhood, certain fundamental views and doctrines are paraded with unusual solemnity, and an air of the greatest earnestness never before visible in anything else; if, at the same time, the possibility of a doubt about them be completely passed over, or touched upon only to indicate that doubt is the first step to eternal perdition, the resulting impression will be so deep that, as a rule, that is, in almost every case, doubt about them will be almost as impossible as doubt about one's own existence."
The brain of a child can absorb so much information with such little effort. Children frequently establish permanent neural pathways as they learn which helps explain why those who are religiously indoctrinated as children can hold onto those beliefs throughout their adult lives. It becomes much more difficult to indoctrinate an adult into a new religion. It happens, but it takes much more effort to convince an adult than a child. An adult never exposed to Christianity would likely question the talking snake or transubstantiation in a critical manner, but a young child can be convinced of such things with relative ease.
Every religion targets children just as tobacco companies had tactically done for years, and they do it for the same reason. Both tobacco companies and the church benefit greatly when they can attract young people to their product. The tactic of targeting young children isn't even a "dirty little secret". In fact, April 14th is celebrated as 4/14 Day. It's openly accepted and Christian strategists like Luis Bush preach it loudly for all to hear. Christian leaders are well aware that ~85% of all Christians make their commitment to Jesus between the ages of 4 and 14. The Barna Research Group surveys indicate that once children get past age 14, there is only a 4% chance of them becoming a Christian before becoming an adult. Once they reach adulthood, it increases slightly to 6%. The statistics are overwhelming and clearly make a case for targeting this age group. From the church's perspective, it is easy to understand why commitment ceremonies are so important. The child might not be "saved" if we wait!
Luis Bush, the author of The 4-14 Window: Raising Up a New Generation to Transform the World, has written extensively about this topic and how Christians need to take this fight directly to the "enemy". Who, you might ask, is the enemy? "While universal primary and secondary education may be considered a worthy goal, its ultimate effect can sometimes be negative," Bush wrote. "Unless the teachers and administrators are Christ followers, the world view that is taught will not transform the minds of the 4/14ers." He continues by saying "Secular education does not enlighten; rather it dims one's grasp of the 'real reality' rooted in the truth of scripture."
When we have people like this working so hard to elevate Christianity over secular education for the "real reality", is it any wonder why the United States is losing its grip as a scientific leader in our world? What is it exactly that our educators are doing wrong? Are they teaching non-Christian versions of math, history, and science? According to Bush and too many others like him, everything that we need to know about our world and our place in it was given to us 2,000 years ago. Bush proclaims in the same vein as Martin Luther that only Christian educators can enlighten us.
No parent or clergy ever encourages a child to gain a greater understanding of all religions. That would be counterproductive. The goal after all is sustainability. If children aren't indoctrinated early, the religion will eventually become statistically unsustainable. Once the child reaches an age where he/she has enough background knowledge to critically use reason and logic, the odds of converting to Christianity become next to nil. Think about that for a moment. If a child is allowed to reach maturity without religious indoctrination, the potential for belief in talking snakes and walking giants is reduced greatly. The key is to convince them of these things while young so the belief doesn't seem so strange when they become older.
Lutherans and Protestants are certainly familiar with the life and work of Martin Luther. Perhaps they are also familiar with the following quotes: "Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but--more frequently than not --struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God." and "But since the devil's bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she's wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil's greatest whore." Luther found it both convenient and virtuous to elevate faith over reason. If there was ever a conflict between the two, faith should always supersede reason.
Luther was well aware that reason and logic are the enemies of faith, except "when enlightened" as he once said "so it is with human reason, which strives not against faith, when enlightened, but rather furthers and advances it". This means that when someone says that it is neither reasonable nor logical to believe in talking snakes, they are being openly contemptuous towards God. Conversely, someone who believes that talking snakes are both reasonable and logical is using "enlightened reasoning". This premise is both moronic and dangerous. It allows a religious person to say with conviction that "their" logic is correct even when that logic is completely uncoupled from reality. Only religion can make secular concepts like reason and logic seem detrimental and out of place. If reason and logic are viewed in a bad light, believers will be less inclined to use either in their faith. The plain and simple truth is that when a child, who has not been indoctrinated, reaches a stage where they become mature enough to be able to adequately apply reason and logic to religion, they are much less likely to become a Christian, Muslim, or Jew.
This becomes painfully evident when we witness the tactics of groups like the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) which proudly boasts on their website "God has allowed us to reach over 387,000 people (70% of that number children) in more than 130 countries!" They reach these children through multiple programs including the "Good News Club" and its primary setting: public schools. I read with interest how Ray Paulson, a CEF worker for the past thirty-plus years, managed to achieve this45. He uses balloons to get the children's attention. Apparently the process of turning balloons into animals while teaching children about Jesus is called "ballooning" and Mr. Paulson is an expert at it. He's been targeting public schools as of late and says "You have to be sneaky about it." He continues, "You can't say to a kid, 'If you come to the group I'll give you a balloon,' because that's considered a bribe and can get you in trouble. But you can stand outside the school doing balloons, or have kids tell other kids about it." Is it just me or does Ray Paulson's tactics seem creepy? He's proud when he says "I've been in trouble in just about every kind of every which way! But you have to be very careful. We have an enemy. And he is real. And he is effective."
To me, this kind of tactic is appalling. I cannot fully express in print how angry I would be if someone tried to entice my children with balloons in exchange for listening to someone preach about Jesus. If you're a Christian, does the end justify the means? How would you answer that if this same creepy guy were handing out balloon animals to your child in exchange for listening to him preach about Allah and his prophet Muhammad? Would you be OK with that? Muslims - would it be OK if the topic was Scientology or Mormonism?
When asked about whether the message or methods might upset people, Jan Akam, the director of a CEF chapter in Washington, answers "The Bible tells us we don't have to worry about anything!" This answer might suffice for Bible-thumping believers, but to a non-Christian it's indicative of a narrow, religious view of the world. These tactics are deceitful and disgraceful. I know that not every Christian parent would do as CEF does, but the length that some will go to is representative of the worth of the prize. The fact that they're targeting public schools causes me additional frustration. We don't force Christians to teach science in their churches so it would be appreciated if they didn't bring their faith into our public schools.
I have no intention of telling parents how to raise their children and I am under no illusion that highlighting the reasoning behind indoctrination will sway anyone. I'd venture a guess that most Christian parents have never given it more than a passing thought. It's commonplace in many Christian households to take kids to catechism or place them in parochial schools. I'm not questioning the motives of Christian parents as I believe they are, to a great extent, honorable intentions. As honorable as their intentions might be though, it doesn't negate the fact that they are ultimately taking advantage of the child's intellectual vulnerabilities by forcing their beliefs onto the child. I would challenge any Christian parent with this: if you really believe that your religion is true, then your child will eventually find it on his/her own. Don't force it upon them. Have faith in your faith.
Even though religious indoctrination is biased and doesn't promote critical thinking, there is a fine line between it and religious freedom. Parents have the right to preach any religion that they deem appropriate even if a young child is not mature enough to fully understand the decisions that are being made for him/her. They may have the right, but that doesn't make it right. It is much more important and valuable to teach a child how to think...not what to think.