Children and Religious Beliefs

David C Keenan, 12-Feb-98

The human need to understand things seems to be so strong that even in the absence of real information, rather than simply admit we donít know, we make up stories. Many of the so-called "big questions" * are of this kind: "How did I come to exist? How did people come to exist? Why does anything exist? Where was I before I was born? What happens after I die? What am I supposed to do while Iím alive?" These are religious or philosophical questions. Everyone has their favourite stories and feels better when surrounded by others who believe the same ones.

* I say "so-called" because for much of humanity, the big question is "Where is my next meal coming from".

The religious myths that get to a child first are at a great advantage. A young child will believe practically anything an adult tells them with regard to these questions, and once a certain belief has been incorporated into their world view, and other beliefs have been built upon them, it can be extremely difficult for the child to unlearn these beliefs enough to consider any alternatives. It tends to place limits on what they can think. Consider just how rare religious conversions are.

The Jesuits knew this well. "Give me the boy until the age of 6 and Iíll give you the man", or words to that effect. [What did they say and who said it exactly?]

Hereís how some other philosophers put it.

"If you begin to teach the opinions of others people before you teach how to judge of their worth, of one thing you may be sure, your pupil will adopt those opinions whatever you may do, and you will not succeed in uprooting them. I am therefore convinced that to make a young person judge rightly, you must form his judgement rather than teach him your own."

Rousseau, Emile

"No child under the age of fifteen should receive instruction in subjects which may possibly be the vehicle of serious error, such as philosophy, religion, or any other branch of knowledge where it is necessary to take large views; because wrong notions imbibed early can seldom be rooted out, and of all the intellectual faculties, judgement is the last to arrive at maturity."

Schopenhauer, "On education"

I suspect that my mother gave me the best religious start possible in the culture of her time and place. Despite the disapproval of her parents and siblings, she encouraged us to learn about denominations other than her Anglican, and religions other than Christianity. But information on other religions was pretty thin on the ground in those days, and I donít think she ever imagined that Iíd become an atheist. In fact Iím sure she didnít realise at the time, as many western people still donít today, that Buddhism, in most of its varieties, while being rightly called a religion, does not entail belief in anything even remotely resembling what most Christians mean by God (the exceptions here are some Christian mystics).

See the Religious Tolerance web site for information on over 60 religions.



The Miracle of Parenthood, by the cartoonist/poet, Michael Leunig,
from The Second Leunig, 1979, Angus and Robertson Publishers.


Now I would like to go one step further than my mother. Iíd prefer my children to be told only when they ask, and then only what could be considered scientific knowledge on the subject. Ideally, apart from that, they would be told the truth, "no one knows". But I know this is not possible. They will come into contact with too many people who will be only too eager to fill them full of their own favourite stories. And it is only natural that the child will prefer a story, any story, to "no one knows". So like everyone else Iím left with little choice but to fill them with my favourite stories. That is, those I think most likely to be true, on whatever scanty evidence.

The application of the scientific method has always seemed to me to be the only way of obtaining anything deserving of the term knowledge. This is not to say that I think that scientific knowledge is ever 100% certain. But itís the only way I know to even approach it. However it seems there are some areas that the scientific method cannot be (or has not yet been) applied to. See the appendix for an explanation of what I mean by scientific knowledge. But thereís yet another problem.

I canít just fill them with my favourite stories on these questions because my favourite stories are quite subtle and abstract. In fact they are best described as mysticism, which I understand to be both the core of Buddhism and Taoism and entirely compatible with scientific knowledge. Iím not talking about the "New Age" pseudo-mysticism that encompasses belief in things like astrology, tarot cards, I Ching etc. I consider mystical understanding to be ineffable, or not able to be formulated in words without resorting to paradox. Nevertheless these paradoxes can be very instructive. However, paradoxes are not something Iíd expect anyone under 7 years of age (to choose a number) to have much hope of comprehending. The ways in which children misunderstand and concretise abstract religious concepts are well known and are the stuff of jokes.

While attempts to put mystical understanding into words may involve many gods or one God or none, I feel that the theistic formulations are by far the most likely to be misunderstood. Look at the historical evidence. Compare, for example, the number of wars fought in the name of Buddhism or Taoism with those fought (and still being fought) in the name of Christianity or Islam. Or even just look at the lack of respect for other religions still shown by leaders of the latter two compared to the former.

I will now list a number of religious beliefs in three categories:

1. Prevalent beliefs whose non-mystical interpretation I donít I want my children confused by (and a non-mystical interpretation is the only kind they can make):

2. What I tentatively believe but donít intend to bother my children with unless they ask me, or unless it is at the last possible moment in defence against the nonsense they are bound to understand from other people, and then only as "what I currently find most believable", not as fact:

3. What I do intend to indoctrinate my children with as early as possible.

I donít expect you to agree with my categorisation of these beliefs, but I do hope you will respect it, particularly if you come into contact with my children.


1. Prevalent beliefs whose non-mystical interpretation I donít I want my children confused by (and a non-mystical interpretation is the only kind they can make):

On a non-mystical interpretation, this is just useless or nonsense. The universe is by definition "all that exists". A being is "a thing that exists". How could it help anyone to say "a thing that exists created all that exists". It would make more sense to say "the universe created itself". Or if God somehow exists "outside the universe", it is still useless, since we must then ask who or what created God etc. etc.

Frankly, who cares? The universe is here now and it seems unlikely to go away in our lifetime. I suppose this stuff was intended to impress the Jews with how powerful Jehovah was, just before he started handing down laws on stone tablets (Iíll never understand why he didnít use platinum-iridium, or something even more impressive).

Another problem with the "G" word is that he is male, which tends to make half of humanity feel a little left out. And as long as it is related to as a "person" it will have to be one sex or the other. I understand that many clergy are in agreement with me when I say that the "G" word is practically useless and sometimes even detrimental to any real understanding, even of Christian answers to these questions.

I originally intended to flesh out my objections to (the non-mystical interpretation of) each of the beliefs below. But I no longer have the heart to. So I'll just state them and leave it as an exercise for the reader.

I feel that the evidence for some of these beliefs is so sketchy (or nonexistent), and the evidence against some of them so overwhelming, that anyone who tells a child any of them as if they were facts, should be ashamed of themselves. Note that this applies even if the person telling them holds only to a mystical interpretation, since the child will naturally take it literally.


2. What I tentatively believe but donít intend to bother my children with unless they ask me, or unless it is at the last possible moment in defence against the nonsense they are bound to understand from other people, and then only as "what I currently find most believable", not as fact:

"At death the world does not alter, but comes to an end. We do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way our visual field has no boundary."

Wittgenstein, Tractatus (English translation).

Of course Wittgenstein could equally have said that you donít cease to exist at death because you never do exist, in the sense that you never are separate from the rest of the universe, and it is only ever the universe being conscious of itself. It all depends on what I mean by "me". But a young child is not to be expected to understand this, and indeed it might be harmful if they did. They are busy in the process of separating themselves from the rest of the universe (in their mind at least) in order to survive as biological and social beings.


3. What I do intend to indoctrinate my children with as early as possible.

Only two things:





What do I mean by scientific knowledge?

I take a slightly broader view than some. By scientific knowledge I mean knowledge obtained by observation with our six senses *, and logical arguments based on those observations, by people who are trained in the many ways we deceive ourselves, both in our observations and our arguments. When enough such people agree on such a thing it becomes scientific knowledge. A scientific theory, which is an argument designed to explain a large number of observations, usually leads to predictions regarding things that have not yet been observed. Further observations can then be made to test the theory.

Why do I believe in this process? I canít really say. It appears to be based on the principles "Doubt everything for as long as possible. Donít just make up stories." It has always just seemed like common-sense to me, that is, when enough trained observers have sense-perceptions in common. There is of course no way to prove it to be valid but it does appear to have had great success in the prediction department, in those areas in which it can be applied, and who, 100 years ago, would have thought it could be applied to the origin of the universe.

I agree with much of what appears on the Dharma Haven science pages , except that I believe astrology, tarot etc. have been investigated scientifically and found wanting.

* The sixth sense I refer to above, has nothing to do with any so called ESP, but is the introspective sense, with which you may be said to observe your own mental processes (not anyone elseís). The division into 6 categories is from Buddhist psychology and is somewhat arbitrary since for example, "touch" covers sensation of temperature, pressure, pain and the kinaesthetic sense (with which we sense the position of our limbs and muscle tensions). Another example of its arbitraryness: When observing oneís own emotional state it is unclear whether this involves the introspective sense or the kinaesthetic sense or both.