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Procreating Theism

11 June 2012, 14:50

"Look at children in nursery school: a real effort has been made to teach them, later on, how to put up barriers between themselves and their classmates on the basis of gender, ethnicity and their parents choice of superstition. That is how our tragedy as a species is kept going: in the systematic perversion of our first innocence by falsehood and factionalism." A.C Grayling, Against All Gods, pp39

It is a truism to point out that one’s religious belief often reflects those of the society in which one resides. It is not an accident that most people in Saudi Arabia are Muslim, nor is it an accident that most people in the US are Christian. Our environment (and I use the term in a broad and flexible sense) more often than not informs what religion we ultimately feel comfortable adopting. Forgoing issues such as capital punishment for apostasy in many Muslim countries, I will argue from the assumption that the majority of the people who subscribe to any one religion actually want to be part of that religion, and actually believe that that religion is correct.

Does religion persist in the world because of its nature, or does religion persist because children, who have no firm beliefs of their own, are told from birth that some book contains the word of God? What would the world be like if from today children were simply not instructed in the religions of their parents? I like to think that religion, in around 30 years, would no longer be as big a problem as it is today. The idea here is that religion can be diminished.

Indeed, I think that the reason why religion persists has nothing to do with how long it has existed in human history. Nor does the persistence of religion have to do with any specific messages found in scripture – the great diversity of religions throughout the world is evidence that nearly any belief can attain religious status. Religion persists because children are taught that some religion is true; that other religions are false; and that they ought (if they wish to be good) to follow the true religion.

One’s ‘choice’ to follow some religion is informed, in the main, by their experience, and their experiences are guided not my what ‘they’ (as a self/agent) want, but rather by what their environments (and often principally their parents) decide. When parents inform such choices, therefore, whatever self-formed decision may have arisen, no longer can arise, and consequently the ‘self’s’ choice is diminished and limited.

What does ‘freedom of religion’ mean if, in most parts of the world, religious choice is not something self-formed, or formed by reason, but rather formed by certain prejudices inherited (in post-natal form) from ones parents?

In my mind, historically, the intuition of ‘freedom of religion’ was not really to give individuals freedom to ‘choose their religion’, but rather to give separate communities the security to practice their religions in peace, without the threat of persecution from rival groups. What I will call the ‘modern’ understanding reflects, I think, a reverence for individual freedom and individual choice, such that individuals should choose which religion (if any) personally suits them, irrespective of their surroundings.

Human Rights and Constitutional notions of ‘freedom of religion’ [1], therefore and unfortunately, exist ambiguously in our society today. In one reading – the historical reading – things are fine. It assumes that there simply are different communities with different beliefs, and these communities should be able to believe what they wish. This does not take into consideration how these communities (if defined by their beliefs) are sustained. They are, of course, sustained by the acquisition of children who will grow up believing as they do, and will, in turn, produce children of similar beliefs too. This revitalization process is ignored in the historical understanding.

Insofar as this is the case the notion of ‘individual choice’, and the reality that individuals are informed about their religious ‘choice’ by their communities, becomes problematic. When parents inform their children about the truth of one religion (normally their own) they diminish the ability of the child to form his own decisions. What is more – and what makes this debate very tricky – is that the child will actually ‘want’ to choose the religion of his parents. So, I am not making a statement about what a child or person will report wanting, I am making an observation about the origin of that want –where it comes from.

If freedom of choice is to mean something, it means that one’s desire to choose something must come from the self. Involved in this formulation, however, is a particular stance on ‘free will’. I define free will in such a way that the concept, if it were true, would cash-out our notions of, in this case, ‘freedoms of choice’. I, therefore, define free will as: the ability to choose, as a conscious agent, what my next mental state will be, and the ability to change, as a conscious agent, whatever mental states currently exist. I consider things like beliefs, desires, intentions, attitudes, feelings, emotions, (etc) to be ‘mental states’. If ‘I’ am unable to choose what my beliefs are, the notion of ‘freedom of choice’ doesn’t seem realistic [2].

Whatever is true about physics, and whatever is true about metaphysics and the nature of the mind and body, it is the case that we do not have the ability which I above called ‘free will’. We, as ‘selves’ merely witness what our current mental states are, and we are unaware both of ever consciously selecting these mental states, as well as the neuronal activity that underpins them. We are also, as a fact, unaware of what our next mental states will be. Where ever mental states come from, then, they do not arise from the self; and must therefore arise from some combination of our nature and our experiences.

In light of this, In order to cash-out what I called the ‘modern’ understanding of freedom of choice I will settle on a ‘compatibilist’ definition of ‘free will’. So long as our beliefs are formed by reasons, continuous with desires that promote our general well-being, we are ‘free’ [3]. Consequently it might be useful to speak about ‘informed, impartial choice’ instead of ‘free choice’. To the extent that my desires and goals are formed by reason, rather than ignorance, and to the extent that I come to view my options with impartiality rather than through the lens of irrational passions, it might be said that I am free.

Being informed about religion from birth (before I have acquired sufficient ability to reason my way through arguments) will affect my desires in the future. My future desires will reflect those of my parents, rather than what might have been ‘my own’. My future desires will therefore not be formed by the self (in the sense which is possible). If my future desires are not self-formed, then my freedom of belief is compromised. Therefore, freedom of belief is compromised whenever parents teach their children about the truth of any one religion. Freedom of choice with regards to religion is a fundamental human right. A child’s fundamental human rights, therefore, are violated through parental religious education. If we are to respect the human rights of all people equally and fairly, therefore, parents must not teach their children about the truth of any one religion.

Religion should be something that we are educated about, both at lower and higher levels. It should be like any other subject in this sense – observed impartially and criticized where necessary. We might find use for rigorous comparative religious studies, and we might do better to compare religious (deontological) ethics to other philosophical ethical theories. We ought to be given the relevant information, rather than to be taught that some certain sets of ideas are absolutely true, beyond reproach, and that any criticism of them is uncouth and perhaps evil. Religion, in other words, must be removed from its throne – beyond rational criticism – and it must be placed equally with other ideas about the world; it must become just another idea as open to, and perhaps deserving of, criticism as any other.

Given tools to analyze arguments, and given facts pertinent to those arguments, we would be more able to observe things fairly, and make our decisions from there. Instead of having non-rational responses to religious criticism, which is a product of religion becoming a part of ‘personal identity’, we would be able to decide, in some rational way, which religious edicts made sense and which did not. This does not guarantee strict atheism, and it is unclear what most people would choose impartially. I think though that it would guarantee more fair-mindedness around these topics in general.

I am sure it would also eliminate some of the very negative extremism (against gays, women, ‘infidels’, etc). I consider those to be the chief problems with religion, and what has motivated the proud stridency of many atheists. It is not so much the religious moderates that are the problem, nor is it, I should think, whether or not there was a ‘first cause’ to the universe, but it is the extremists themselves who are the problem. Extremists cannot be reasonable about various doctrines, and these doctrines (which inform their behavior) cause needless misery for much of human-kind. Were reason, impartiality and fairness, with regards to the above ‘controversial issues’, to subsume to current and persistent irrationality (which is the product of a childish adherence to ‘tradition and values’) I have no doubt that the world would become a more tolerable and tolerant place.

Given these tools of information and impartiality people might be able to exercise to a greater degree their ‘freedom’ and would to a much less degree be hampered by ideas and concepts which they did not choose, and given the chance might not have chosen. Were religious indoctrination made taboo in the household I am quite sure that the amount of religious adherents would decline, and quite sure that religious extremism would decline as well. Furthermore, given the correct education (which should be fair and informative) people would be able to make their own decisions insofar as such a feat is humanly possible. To prevent people from being able to do this is an affront on human rights, and since it begins in childhood it is an affront on children’s rights as well.

There are two problems with what I have written above that I will comment on. The first is that it is difficult to quantify or measure to extend to which any particular desire is formed by reason or formed by some community’s prejudices. It is difficult, in other words, to tell when, or if, someone’s rights to ‘freedom of belief’ are being violated. This difficulty requires that the argument be refined and sophisticated further. The second problem is that what I have written above is demonstrably not true (in all senses) for all people; many people end up holding beliefs that are divergent from the beliefs of their communities – such as me. In such instances perhaps it might be said that those people are freer, in the relevant sense, than their peers, who are restricted by their communities – and I would argue that it is with regards to those people who are still restricted by their communities that my proposals really matter.

The argument can, and I think must, be extended beyond religion. It applies equally, and in South Africa I would argue more pertinently, to issues of culture as well. It is, though, a slippery argument, and it is unclear where a respectable line can be drawn between what children can choose and what they should be given. What should be clear, however, is that if things like ‘religious freedom’, or ‘cultural freedom’ are to be meaningful, then they must mean that these are choices made by the individual, rather than by the community or the parents. Individuals must be given adequate tools to impartially decide what they believe, and this right is not achieved when these issues (particularly because they can be of great personal value) are dictated by ones parents or communities favorite superstitions and myths.


1- (Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

2- (I argue that we do not have ‘agent-causation’ free will, an account of which can be found in Endnote 4)

3- (My own formulation, above, is an admixture of other versions of compatibilism, but this reference should outline the gist of the position).

4 -

Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World” (behaviorism and operant conditioning as a thought-experiment)

Sam Harris, “The Moral Landscape” (on free will)

A.C. Grayling, “Against All Gods” (religious indoctrination)
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