My first memory of having doubt about my parents’ religion was when I was 10 years old in Sunday school. The lesson for the day was about the Virgin birth.
As a perceptive 10 year old, I had some understanding of how human reproduction works, in that I understood that it took a man and a woman, and that spontaneous pregnancies are unlikely. In 5th grade, the boys in my class had 2 afternoons of “human development” courses taught by our math and science teachers, while the girls were taught separately by the reading and history teachers. The classes covered the basics, such as the changes we were certain to start noticing, such as a changing voice, body hair, and other elements of puberty.
These changes, as our teachers described them, were going to start because of a cascade of hormones that get triggered in humans as they proceed down the path of sexual maturity. In other words, there was a cause (hormones) and an effect (sexual maturity).
The evolving profile of potential biological risks (such as pregnancy) suggested that one’s behavior mattered. Condoms and birth control, along with abstinence, were strategies one could use to reduce the risk of pregnancy, which we intuitively know has enormous costs. At the time (the early 1990s), we had all heard about AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases. STDs also increased the biological costs of sex.
The virgin birth creates a logical dissonance for astute 10 year olds. Here Mary had done her best to preserve her chastity, and she still got pregnant. This is known as a non-sequitor to logically minded folks, although I’d never heard of this logical error at the time.
But the problem remained – It didn’t even occur to me that either of these competing ideas, either the facts of life or the stories in Christianity, could be wrong. So, I asked the Sunday school teacher “how do we know that really happened?”
It was a reasonable question, after all – Christianity asks small children to believe all kinds of silly parables, so they shouldn’t fault kids for pointing asking questions about Christianity’s biggest whoppers.
My Sunday school teacher replied “that’s what faith is about, Timmy”.
For the time being, that seemed adequate, and I don’t fault the Sunday school lady for not have a more coherent theological response – we were just a bunch of kids, after all. Had I been in a more conservative church during a more conservative time, I might have gotten my knuckles bloodied by a ruler…or maybe worse.
I didn’t have any major traumatic experience with my church growing up – Lutheran midwesterners are pretty moderate as church folk go.
Pew came out with a religion poll this month, and the major takeaway is that, since 2007, Christianity has been on the decline in America, while the “Unaffiliated” group saw a sharp rise
My response to this news is cautious optimism. For the entirety of Christian history, there have been very few safe outlets for the majority of people to consider honest counterpoints to Christianity. It’s a new world now, where people can watch Matt Dillahunty skewer ridiculous Christian arguments on old Youtube episodes of the Atheist Experience, or they can watch Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and the rest of the team layout reasons why religion is so unnecessary.
I would not be surprised if the trend continued, but I really expect some kind of leveling-off over the next few years. A large chunk of the unaffiliated group consist of people who are believers, but who celebrate secular values and are turned off by rigid adherence to Christian doctrine. The reason I think there’s a chance for a leveling-off to occur is because these “tweeners” are often on the lookout for more liberal congregations more accepting of their secular point of view. There certainly exists a niche to attract that demographic, and indeed, many churches attempt to cater to them.
The title of this post is “There is No Benign Religion”. I believe this, despite the fact that I had a fairly normal religious experience, and the deconversion process has also been similarly non-traumatic.
But here’s the thing: When you take smart kids, put them in a room every Sunday, and tell them to believe a lie, you’ve deranged their intellectual compass. When you tell them that if they don’t believe the lie, they’ll burn in hell at the direction of their dear leader, you’ve deranged their moral compass. When you tell them that this dear leader requires their complete and undivided love, you’ve deranged their psychological and social compasses.
The fact that so much time is spent deranging young people’s faculties means that they’ve not spent that time learning or doing something useful. This life is the only one we’ve got. There is no eternity in a celestial theme park, and the dear leader doesn’t exist. We ought to spend our time doing something useful, or at least pleasurable.
My intuition at 10 years old was exactly right, and the logical endpoint of this intuition is that the story is a lie, embellished through the decades by illiterate fishermen who were trying to convert gentiles to Christianity, until it eventually got written down, in a different language, by people who never knew anyone in the stories, after the original characters in the stories died.
As I got older, it occurred to me that if something is a good idea, it ought to be able to stand on its own, without apologetics or logical jumping jacks. The fact that religion doesn’t, coupled with the fact that it needs to indoctrinate children from a very young age tells us just about everything we need to know about it.
The good news is that people don’t seem as inclined to take their kids to church as they used to, and from my perspective, that’s the best outcome we can ask for.
There is no benign religion. They’re all harmful, because even the most moderate of them forces children to swallow the untruths they peddle while discouraging honest inquiry, and that’s bad for everyone.