Religious Peer Pressure

One of the biggest, most pressing and most challenging concerns of Freethinking parents is that of helping their children get along in a world dominated by believers. Just how are young Freethinkers to resist the tremendous pressure to "go along to get along" with superstitious believers? The perils of surrendering to the irrational are obvious. But, on the other hand, being too assertive on behalf of facts and reason or being assertive in the wrong way with the wrong people in the wrong situations invites social ostracism, persecution and worse.

The secret to helping our children successfully negotiate these hazards, as with so many things, is to begin by realizing that it's something we have all learned how to do. That is, there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Although we always think of the fate of people such as Giordano Bruno, and obviously such people deserve recognition for their integrity and courage, many Freethinkers down through the centuries fared better. In this time, in this country and other parts of the civilized world, it is quite possible for Freethinkers to do very well for themselves. Part of what this church does is to showcase that fact.

The secret of Freethinkers getting along in a world dominated by believers is, first of all, to understand and be secure in our understanding of facts and reason. So the foundation of helping our children is first to see to it that they develop a solid grounding in the essential difference between the objective world that we all share and the inner world of our feelings, fears, hopes and dreams.

One of the easiest ways to get started on this is to familiarize them with the language and concepts of science. If they learn that science is the best way to make sense of the world that we can all perceive, they will be less likely to suppose that science can be pressed into "proving" unseen worlds of the supernatural. At the same time, children need, want and benefit from a rich fantasy life. They should not be deprived of this. Every December, for example, my own kids will probably be incorporating "baby Jesus" in their play, as they have in the past. But, you see, there's a difference between the freedom to play and the oppression of dogma. Last year, for example, the baby Jesus character was saved by Hercules and had to be spanked for misbehavior.

The next step in helping our children resist religious peer pressure is to help them understand that it's not their personal responsibility to set the world and everyone else in it right. They need to know that people believe in all sorts of silly things and that they are often very attached to such beliefs, to the point that they will get mad if anyone questions them. Some forewarning of this combined with a little experimentation will quickly show them that the best course is simply not to raise certain kinds of questions or not to do so in ways that betray their own skepticism. At least not in situations where they aren't prepared for or don't wish to incite a confrontation.

Freethinking children, no less than Freethinking adults, need to bear in mind that when someone else says something with which we disagree that there is no responsibility to explain or even to acknowledge that fact. This applies whenever others are trying to sell us something. We don't have to justify to the car dealer or the telemarketer why we're not going to buy. They're not really interested in understanding our objections anyway. They're only interested in overcoming our objections. Unless we feel comfortable in blowing them off when we know the consequences will be negligible — this is why some atheists enjoy the door-to-door proselytizers — there's absolutely nothing wrong in saying "I'm not convinced," or "I don't know," or "I don't want to talk more about that now," or "not today."

The flip side of this principle is to help our children understand that it isn't necessary for other people to agree with us in order to get along with them. We should not try too hard or take it as a personal mission to get others to understand us or to agree with our point of view. Although we are the most important people in the world to ourselves, others naturally don't see things that way. It is, of course, gratifying when others take an interest in us. But this is not something that we should necessarily expect. When it happens, it often takes time. Much of the time it never happens.

We need to teach our children how these games work and how to play them.

Another very important element of being able to get along in a world of believers is for our children to learn what believers believe, what believers think they believe, and what the traditional faith-based religions say that believers should believe. They should know something of Jewish and Christian history, the familiar Bible stories, the standard sayings of Jesus Christ, and favorite Bible verses. But they should know these things in their context and along with their crucial details, including, for example:

And Freethinking children should know the story of Jephthah's daughter, of how the Bible God commanded the killing of witches and prescribed the blood of a bird killed over running water as medicine (but never penicillin!), and that the Bible God sent two bears to attack 42 children who had made fun of the prophet Elisha's bald head. None of this need be taught as special Bible lessons. Nor should a child feel that these are debating points. This is simply imparted as useful background information in the context of educating our children about how little our ancestors of long ago really knew and what measures people once resorted to in their fear and ignorance.

Although we know that these sorts of facts can be useful when debating with fundamentalists — for those who have the time and energy to waste — our children also need to know that many believers don't consider any of these things important and may not even know about them. That is an important insight for them, and only one of many instances in which they will learn that almost everyone, including ourselves, hold beliefs that they do not fully understand the basis of. It's not necessarily that there is no basis for most beliefs or that there is no way to investigate them. But when something is investigated and it is found that there are no grounds for a belief, that fact doesn't necessarily eliminate the belief.

As with ourselves, learning to negotiate the minefields of human perceptions, belief and sensibilities is a learning process for our children. And it's something that they will not and probably cannot learn in the schools. So we must take the time and trouble to guide them, both by instruction and example, as well as creative combinations of these teaching styles. One very valuable exercise is role-playing.

Finally, as our children begin to appreciate the complexities of these challenges, it is well to explicitly remind them that they are not alone. We are all faced with the need to make some sense of it all, to find our own comfort zone, and to discover our own personal style of holding our own in and against a world that makes many demands on us, a good number of which are unreasonable demands. And here are two quotes, nutshell ideas that are worth exploring with your children:

"I am very fond of the truth, but not at all of martyrdom."
- Voltaire

"Be wiser than other people if you can. But don't tell them."
- Lord Chesteron