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Children: Science, religion and atheism

21 June 2012, 15:47

Christians raise their children as Christians, Jews raise their children as Jews, and Muslims raise their children as Muslims, so it makes sense that atheists raise their children as atheists. Or does it?

Religions are belief systems — when you raise a child as a Christian, Jew or a Muslim, you are teaching that child that the world is a certain way, that they have a certain place in that world, and that there is a moral imperative to believing what they are being taught. This is a process of mental, emotional, social, and psychological formation based upon a complex system of beliefs, attitudes, and ideas.

Atheism, being merely a lack of belief in gods, has no parallels.

Another important issue is the fact that children are already born as atheists — they have to be taught to believe in gods and to adopt certain religious systems. If you don't tell them that they should believe those things, then you are simply maintaining the status quo. In so far as it is even possible to raise a child as an atheist, nothing further is required.

It is true that they could acquire religious beliefs outside the home and perhaps you would prefer otherwise, but there are a great deal of ethical and intellectual differences in the ways you might try to prevent it from happening — and all of it involves teaching a great deal more than mere atheism.

If, by example or design, you raise your children as atheists by teaching them to ridicule the beliefs of others, you will only be raising them to be prejudiced and bigoted. They don't have to accept or agree with or even like the religious beliefs of others, but they shouldn't make a point of ridiculing those beliefs and treating believers as if they aren't deserving of the same respect as atheists and the non-religious. This will not only save them from unnecessary conflict, it will also make them better people overall.

If you raise your children to be skeptical as a general rule, it won't be necessary to go out of your way to have them treat religious claims skeptically — they should end up doing that on their own. Skepticism and critical thinking are attitudes which must be cultivated across a broad range of topics, not just something to focus on the topic of religion but forget about otherwise. My dad raised me to question everything, research it and make up my own mind. Thanks dad. This is why I think a whole lot of things are nonsense - like homeopathy, iridology etc.

If every child were raised in such a manner, there is a very good chance that any society as a whole would be better off. However, by raising them to think for themselves rather than to automatically reject some ideas, you are allowing for the possibility that they will adopt a position on theism or religion that differs from your own. If you are a tolerant and loving parent, you won't think any less of them for that.

Children need to learn to be skeptical because they will encounter a large number of claims, ideas, and opinions throughout their lives and they can't assume that they are all true. On the contrary, most are probably false or at least partially false. The scientific method, in turn, is the best way for investigating claims, testing whether they are true or not.

Teaching skepticism and science to children isn't as easy as teaching a subject like arithmetic or history. There aren't any lists to memorise or procedures that can simply be repeated the same way every time.  In effect, what children need to do is learn skeptical, critical, and scientific habits — a way of looking at claims and reasoning through the ideas they hear about.

However, kids are natural skeptics and questioners — indeed, their penchant for asking questions about everything has driven more than one parent to distraction. However annoying this might get at times, a child's desire to question everything should be encouraged rather than discouraged. While a parent might want to appear to know everything, it's also important to be able to say "I don't know" to some of the questions. I tell my daughters that I don't know, but let's find out. Here parents can teach their children how to use various resources such as dictionaries, the web and encyclopaedias to research questions in order to arrive at their own answers.

This may in fact be one of the most important lessons for parents teaching their children to be skeptical and scientific in their approach to life. It's okay not to know an answer, but it's not okay to pretend you know the answer or to make up an answer simply because it fits in with your preconceptions. It's okay to ask questions and want to know more, but it's not okay to assume that you already know enough and having nothing new to learn or understand about the world. These are the attitudes necessary for anyone to have before they can even think about exercising skepticism and critical thinking or applying scientific methods to learning about the world.

By teaching kids about how to research questions and learn answers, whether in books or through their own experiments, you will also be teaching them many of the basics of skepticism, critical thinking, and science. Being skeptical and critical means being active and taking responsibility for what you believe, so teaching children to take responsibility for researching the answers to their questions means teaching them not to simply rely on what authority figures like you tell them. You'll be teaching them to be more independent than those who accept what they are told and move on without further comment or question.

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