Children of god

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Posted by costas on July 25, 2001 at 23:44:24:

In Reply to: The Atheist's Wager posted by costas on July 25, 2001 at 23:40:36:

Children of god
By Chris Shanahan

The vast majority of children grow up to be just like their parents. They may not look exactly like their parents, or even act exactly like their parents, but those things which we teach children as they mature and grow have a tendency to stick with them, like nothing else ever will, for the rest of their lives. Good parents raise their children to believe in God, because good parents should. Or should they? We believe that it is the right decision to make because we were raised to believe in God by our parents, and we believe that our parents did a fair job of raising us. Or did they? If we truly believe that we can only raise our children for so long before they begin to raise themselves, and that they are totally deserving of the many freedoms which life offers, then we should allow them to make their own decisions regarding God, without influence and fear of persecution. Raising a young child to believe in God instills in them an ignorant form of faith which does not result from free will and a desire to know God, but rather from conditioning received at an age of ideological vulnerability and suggestibility.

There is a reason why children, though presented by life with a multitude of religions from which to choose, tend to accept that faith which their parents accept. Why is it that no Buddhists are born to Christian parents? Why is it that no Taoists are born to Muslim parents? Why is it that no Jews are born to atheistic parents? In reality, there are Buddhists who were raised Christian, Taoists who were raised Muslim, and Jews who were raised atheist. This is because we make our own decisions regarding the religion and life-philosophy which appeals to us the most. Or do we? Most of the time, we choose the same religion as our parents, though we may take a different stance on a particular issue because it suits us better to do so. If we were raised Christian, we will probably stay Christian. We might decide that, for example, our father’s belief in a literal six-day Creation is somewhat unlikely, and, in that case, we would personally substitute a more liberal interpretation of Genesis for his conservative one. The entire point, though, is that, in essence, we remain with the same religion under which we were raised because there is a degree of conditioning involved. Certainly, we have the will to decide which aspects of a religion we do or do not like, but our core beliefs have a tendency to remain the same as those under which we were raised because those beliefs are engrained in our subconscious mind.

Many people would disagree with the above statements because they believe that they chose their particular religion because of choices they made on their own, and not because their parents impressed it upon them that they should be of that religious persuasion. People do not like to believe that they are not in control of the decisions they make and the people they become. It is for this reason alone that people would deny that any conditioning was the cause of their faith. However, a person’s conscious mind cannot be entrusted with understanding their subconscious mind, nor even their core psychological make-up, because the subconscious mind cannot be reached, to any necessary degree, by our conscious efforts at introspection and self-psychoanalysis. The average person does not understand themselves well enough, nor possess the necessary educational foundation in psychology, to know exactly why they behave the way they do, or why they believe the things they believe. A person cannot be trusted to know the true origins of their religious beliefs because such things lie in the inaccessible subconscious mind.

There are some terms which are necessary to understanding the nature of religious belief, and even a lack of religious belief. An implicit theist is someone who believes in God (or another supernatural being) because that belief is inherent within them, and it comes naturally without persuasion. An explicit theist is someone who believes in God because, for whatever reasons, they have made the conscious decision to do so. An implicit atheist is someone who does not believe in God because that lack of belief is inherent within them, and it comes naturally without persuasion. An explicit atheist is someone who does not believe in God because, for whatever reasons, they have made the conscious decision not to believe. Both an explicit theist and an explicit atheist may, for personal reasons of harmony and happiness, may be in denial, respectively, of the fact that God does not exist, or the fact that God does exist.

The human mind is not born into this world with any prior understanding or instincts. The mind possesses the capacity to transmit electrical signals, to learn by making observations, and to hold information. The fact that the brain is born virtually "empty" creates something of a problem. Humans, and even animals, are prone to suggestion and conditioning during their early periods of development. As children, we consciously desire to know the answers, and our parents desire to give those answers. We learn directly from other people, but we also learn indirectly by emulation. Children often mimic things and people in order to get a better understanding of those things and people, and they also do this because they themselves are unsure of how to behave in everyday situations. It is the lack of knowledge, instinct, and, primarily, precedent, which is responsible for curiosity, which itself fuels the initial intake of knowledge exhibited in children.

A child’s mind, lacking the experienced ability of an adult mind, is extremely prone to suggestion. Much of the learning done by a child falls under two categories: precedents of behavior and precedents of knowledge. Both of these types of precedents are entirely conditioned, though they form the foundation of our personality. Relationships with parents are those which become models for relationships with other people in life. It is in the home that children learn what behavior is acceptable and what is not, in a sense by trial and error. If we are punished for using bad language, we are deterred from using that language again. This is because we subconsciously draw an association between using bad language and punishment. And, if a child is punished enough for the use of bad language, a child will no longer use those words solely for the fear of being punished, which is a conditioned response. However, if our parents use bad language, then we get the impression that this is acceptable and just another part of the world around us. Behavior which parents teach a child, intentionally or otherwise, remains with them throughout their lives, but so does knowledge. If a parent teaches a young child that a whale is a fish, and that child lacks previous knowledge of this, he or she will believe that a whale is a fish, and will deny that a whale is a mammal when instructed of the truth by another person. With time and experience, the child will learn that a whale is mammal, and not a fish, though only if that source of knowledge (perhaps a teacher or peer) is powerful enough to rewrite the precedent. Children not only learn most of the basics of life from their parents, by observation and emulation, but they also view their parents as authorities on the way the world works. Parents are thus placed in a position of great responsibility over a child.

There is many a child’s story which tells of an animal which is born from an egg in the presence of another animal which is not of the same species as itself. Though the characters in these stories are only fictional, the hatchling mistakes the other animal for its mother because it lacks prior knowledge. All it takes to convince the hatchling that the nearby animal is not its mother is the statement, “No, I am not your mother.” This creates a precedent of knowledge: This animal is not my mother. During the twenty-year developmental period in humans, we experience decreasing degrees of suggestibility. When we are very young, though, we lack the precedents of behavior and knowledge which allow us to “reason” through situations, determining morally right from morally wrong, correct from incorrect. In his textbook, Speechmaking: Rhetorical Competence in a Postmodern World, J. Michael Sproule writes of acquired rhetorical capacity and competence.

“Here it is important to remember that the knowledge, attitudes, and skills associated with rhetorical competence are not something strictly inborn. Rhetorical competence improves with maturity and with cultivation. Because rhetorical competence grows naturally with age, you already have established a foundation upon which to build. As people mature during grade school and high school, they become increasingly able to deal with complex concepts. Twelfth graders are more successful than younger students in recalling information from a speech. Also, the older students demonstrate an increased capacity to see possibilities other than those mentioned in a speech and, thus, are better able to resist attempts at persuasion. Throughout adolescence, a person’s rhetorical capacities increase . . .” (p.52)

“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). It is more than a mere anecdote or opinion that a child will, throughout their life, continue those thoughts and behaviors which were impressed upon them by parents and other authority figures. Clearly, it has long been observed by humans that children assimilate and incorporate knowledge given to them by adults. It is doubtful, though, that many parents possess an understanding of the basics of child psychology, for, if they did, they would be more careful of what they teach their children.

Young children lack the precedents of behavior, knowledge, and experience which prevent adults from being prone to suggestion and influence. If you teach a young child that God exists and that that child should believe in God, he or she thinks the world of you, views you as an authority on the world, and will automatically accept that what you say must be truth. The reason for this is that they lack precedents of knowledge. That child will accept the existence of God as absolute truth because you have told them that it is truth, because their first experiences with, and exposure to, religion will have set a precedent for life. This is not teaching a child, but rather, conditioning a child. We often find that the concept of God is introduced into the life of a child at a time when they neither truthfully understand, nor even care, about such ideas. A child lacks the level of comprehension, only found in adults, which enables them to grasp the idea of, at the risk of over-simplifying, the existence of something which can never be seen.

“I think it would be a very long time before a child who was not influenced began to trouble himself about God and things in another world. Perhaps his thoughts on these matters would then take the same paths as they did with his forefathers. But we do not wait for such a development; we introduce to him the doctrines of a religion at an age when he is neither interested in them nor capable of grasping their import.” (Freud, 60)

A conditioned belief in God will be compounded further as a child grows to realize that the rest of the world around them also believes in God. Even if a child already believes in God, and even if they are already in their teenage years, the subconscious mind will easily observe that belief in God is the only socially acceptable religious belief. Optimism cannot deny the fact that we do not live in a society of religious acceptance and tolerance. Religious heretics and deviants are not well liked. The impression we give the younger generations is not one of religious freedom. Parental, peer, and societal pressures come together in a subconscious, collective effort to persuade a child to continue to believe in God, or if they do not already, to begin to believe in God. Society conditions us to believe in God, whether or not we know it, and regardless of whether or not we like it.

The human mind is extremely fragile, and the slightest discomfort experienced by an individual can cause unbalance and unrest. It must be remembered that being outside the social norm causes friction, and friction causes a destabilization of the mind's emotional and psychological homeostasis. We avoid anything which causes friction, such as the fear of not being accepted, because the results of friction are very much undesirable, as they cause unbearable emotional pain. In a country where the majority of people are, in the very least, religious, and the majority of those people are Christian, young adults who lack faith, or simply enough understanding and confidence to make a decision on faith, are ridiculed.

Due to the unique nature of both religion and the mind's fragile equilibrium, even a theist who has been conditioned to believe in God will find other reasons, albeit subconsciously, as they grow and mature. Once they reach a point of intellectual maturity, they may recognize any absurdity in the particulars of their faith, but they may still require their faith for emotional support. Even if God is nothing more than a concept, it is still one which helps us to overcome our fears and insecurities experienced in life. We draw emotional and psychological strength from the belief that, in this life, though we may be in pain, we do not suffer in vain, we do not suffer alone, and there will always be one who loves us unconditionally: God. I do not doubt that there have been many people who have been prevented from committing suicide by the thought that all hope is not lost, that they can endure this life, with the hope and the love they find in God.

There are many explanations, all of which are essentially theoretical, for why people believe what they believe. An implicit theist was likely to have been conditioned, while an explicit theist was likely to have found either conscious (i.e. Creation sounds more practical than the theory of evolution) or subconscious reasons (i.e. I cannot imagine life without someone, without God, there to keep me going) for believing in God, regardless of whether or not God actually exists. Though it may seem cruel or unkind, we find many explicit theists in the ignorant. Many ancient cultures explained simple natural disasters in terms of demons and spirits because they lacked the precedents of knowledge which correctly explain things such as disease, famine, and earthquakes. However, the possibility remains that, though modern society possesses more practical explanations and understandings, it could indeed be demons and spirits which are the cause of those things we experience on Earth. The problem with implicit theists is that, once it has been determined that an individual is indeed best categorized as one, it cannot be determined which of their beliefs were conditioned and which were reasoned through by the individual without influence.

Atheists are, with regards to the true source of their lack of belief, just as complex as theists and their true sources of belief. An implicit atheist is very likely to have been a person who did not experience enough exposure to, or influence of, religious thought to make an impression. An explicit atheist, on the other hand, is likely to have experienced an overexposure to religious thought and influence. Explicit atheists make a conscious decision not to believe in God, but they usually do so because of some association which has been created in their mind between God and uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and situations. Some people have a tendency to be overbearing when it comes to the religious beliefs they attempt to impress upon others, which makes for uncomfortable situations for the latter. If a child feels uncomfortable when a particular adult attempts to “teach” that child to have faith in God, that child will draw an association between the concept of faith in God and His existence and feelings of emotional pain or guilt. The child will resent the adult, reject God, and find any reason at all to deny the existence of God, even if there is clear proof of His existence.

My parents are, in my opinion, just as religious as anyone else, both being full believers in God. I am told that my father had once entertained ideas of becoming a minister, but had discarded them for other interests. When I was growing up, we went attended church services about once a month, on Easter, and occasionally on Christmas. I never thought much about religion or God because they were not major factors in my life. Being a child, I was concerned more with what bugs I could find in the backyard than what truth I could find in the Bible. It was not until I was in my early teens that, during a discussion with my father, I was told that I had intentionally not been raised religious. Occasional church services and nightly thanks-giving before dinner were parts of my parents lives, but they were not things which they had stressed in my life. My father told me that he and my mother had decided that they wanted me to be able to make my own decisions.

At the moment my father told me of his and my mother’s decision, I fully realized how much I loved and respected them, primarily because they showed that they had the faith in me to make the right decisions in life without their pressure or anyone else’s. But, because my parents believe in God, I’ve often wondered what would possess them to allow me to grow up without religion in my life. My mother attended nursing school at Washington University in St. Louis, my father attended graduate school there, my mother has what appears to me to be a good educational foundation in psychology, and I know that both of my parents are very intelligent. I can only speculate that my parents were aware that, if I was going to come to know God in my life, I would, and should, do it on my own.

My reasons for not believing in God are clear. Regardless of whether or not God actually exists, the precedents of behavior and knowledge which crystallized during my early years of development did not include the concept of God. I classify myself as an implicit atheist because I literally have no concept of God. It is something which is well within my comprehensive capacity, but which does not seem practical. I was raised with love and devotion by two wonderful parents, and I grew up to be rather strong and independent. In my mind, I had no emotional or psychological need for belief in God, and my path in life has lead me to believe that the foundations of Christianity lie upon impractical and impossible explanations of the physical world. But I still hold that God could exist, and that I may one day answer to Him.

Parents raise their children to believe in God because they have hope for their children. They believe that there is a Heaven and a Hell, and that only the believer can avoid the suffering of Hell. No one wants their child to suffer, but we should not raise our children to believe in God. It certainly would not kill the child to have been conditioned, to have had an impression made upon their minds for the wrong reasons, but the more exposure that child has to the different religions, the more frustrating it can be. They will believe in God, but not know why because that belief has its origins in precedents which lie in the subconscious mind, and which are thus unreachable by introspection and self-psychoanalysis. Children are impressionable for almost twenty years after birth, and if you teach them -- rather, condition them -- to believe in God at an early age, they will not believe in God because they have a thorough grasp of the subject matter and the situation, but because they will have known nothing else.

If a parent is going to teach a child to believe in God, then they must do so at an age when they are able to comprehend the magnitude of decisions and matters regarding the supernatural. Allow the child to make the decision for themselves, for their own reasons, and not because you think that you know exactly what they need, or that it is the right thing to do because your parents did it to you. Allow the child to gain some knowledge, some understanding of the world around them, free from persuasion, influence, and the pressure which results in conditioning. If they choose not to believe in God, or simply to construct a different image of God which is more appealing to them, then let them do so.

As parents, we are responsible for teaching our children the ways of the world, but there are some things which we should not teach them, and which we should allow them to learn for themselves. We should learn to have faith not only in God, but also in our children. We should strive to teach ourselves to have the faith in our children which tells us, in our hearts and in our minds, that they can make the right decisions in life, believe in the right things, and grow up to be the right people. We owe them that freedom. It is the least we can do for them.


Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion, the standard edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961.

Sproule, J. Michael. Speechmaking: Rhetorical Competence in a Postmodern World, second edition. Chicago: Brown & Benchmark Publishers, 1997.

The Holy Bible, King James version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984

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