Childhood indoctrination

Our beliefs are quite probably a direct reflection of early indoctrination. Individuals are most likely indoctrinated during the early stages of their moral and intellectual development. Although dogmatic, such indoctrination would appear acceptable, because revered by one's peers. An individual could thus be programmed to become anything imaginable, from a Tibetan monk to a kamikaze pilot. The power of indoctrination is illustrated by the willingness of individuals to die for contingent entities, such as religions and countries. The depth of the convictions produced by early indoctrination explains why some individuals cannot get rid of their early religious beliefs, even after learning the objective truths and the empirical methods of science.

Despite the countless contradictions produced by faith, religions permeate our culture. Most of us have had some religious education at home, from bedside stories to explicit answers to our questions. We may also have been sent to churches or temples for specific religious indoctrination, or to religious schools that teach religion as part of their curriculum. Thus, we were essentially born into a particular religion or cult, without realizing until many years later that we were not given a choice (see Chap. 3). Our religious beliefs were therefore determined by the faith of our ancestors, many of whom could not be seen as particularly knowledgeable or wise, if we look far enough back. Most individuals, however, will never question their parents' choice, because they have been irreversibly imprinted before they become aware of the imprinting, and only occasionally switch to different religions, usually of similar denominations. Besides, almost everybody will agree that parents have an inalienable right—no matter how ignorant they or their ancestors were—to decide how to educate their children; thus, early religious indoctrination is never questioned.

The reasons for being religious are taken for granted, without any need for justification. Having been born into a Catholic family, I was told many times during childhood that I should have faith in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church: trust faith, because "it is by faith that you know everything, including who your parents are, etc." Other times I was exhorted to believe "just in case", because "there is nothing to lose but a lot to gain if God exists," etc. Many years later, I learned that Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the French philosopher and mathematician also advocated a similar hypocritical attitude.

Thanks to the mobility of my family, I had the good fortune not to be regularly exposed to religion until I was almost 8 or 9 years old. As a consequence, my own indoctrination was rather superficial, and religion under such conditions is no match against plain common sense. Indeed, the plurality of religions made me wonder about how I could be sure about any of them. Much later, I realized that the problem of certainty in religion has never been solved: we cannot test whether a statement about a doctrine is true or false, partly because religious beliefs are not verifiable and partly because they are largely based on unreliable books that give contradictory statements in different chapters. Moreover, the variety of religions and religious experiences is staggering, since many of the early prophets described entirely different events. If the same phenomenon occurred in science or medicine, this would be like three different physicians diagnosing three different, but potentially fatal diseases in your sick child, and recommending three completely different treatments. Which one would you choose? How would you decide how to treat your child? Two of the doctors must be wrong, and maybe all three of them. Fortunately, this situation is rarely encountered because medicine is rapidly becoming a science, and an accurate diagnosis is generally the rule. In most cases, bacterial cultures, blood tests, X rays, and image analysis provide a reliable answer. The choice between three incompatible diagnoses is comparable to the choice of a true religion, except that the latter is a choice you have to make in the absence of any diagnostic test.

Thus, there is consensus that religion—if it is going to be second nature—has to be taught while the children are very young, beginning with toddlers. This is the reason why all major religions support day care centers, kindergartens, and elementary schools. The religious right-wing supports school prayers in staterun schools and a voucher system so that the government shares the costs for sending children to a religious school. Religious explanations can be readily taught to small children, because religious stories were conceived by primitive and naive societies, long before philosophy and science appeared. The simplicity of religious stories makes religious teaching more comprehensible to the plastic minds of developing children. By contrast, rationally taught science is often beyond their comprehension. Science requires mental abilities that develop much later; the frontal lobes are not fully developed until the early twenties [3]. Teaching science also requires qualified teachers, whereas religious stories can be told at bedtime by well wishing parents who heard the same stories when they themselves were young children.

To promote religion, religious groups—particularly the religious right-wing—also object to the teaching of self-esteem and self-reliance at elementary school. The rationale is that self-reliance could become an obstacle, because children should rely on their parents and teachers, not on themselves. There are certain abilities that are well known to be learned faster and better, or only at a very early age. This is the case of learning to speak a foreign language without an accent, hitting a ball with a bat, or playing the violin reasonably well. Learning at an early age deeply modifies the brain. We have all personally experienced and observed in others that early learning lasts practically forever. Songs, fables, myths, and religious beliefs can be imprinted in such a way that they are not forgotten, unless memories are physically destroyed by a brain disease. Early religious education is so powerful that most individuals never have the possibility of choosing whether to be religious, but assert that they have chosen to be religious, indicating that early indoctrination is imperceptible and practically irreversible.

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