Monday, February 11, 2008

The Religious 'Indoctrination' of Children and Atheism

By now Richard Dawkin’s assertion that religious indoctrination of children constitutes a form of child abuse has reached broad circulation, and has found a receptive audience among some. That well may be one of those arguments that rides on the ability of audacity to quell and confuse the obvious. But often the obvious can quite disappear under societal trends conditioning general approaches. In reading the following extended quote from Peter Berger, published in the 1969, it struck me how much the reverse question was raised rather cogently regarding the nature of the implied teaching of atheism, agnosticism, or more to the point, just sheer silence, to a child, and whether not assuring a child would form a kind of child abuse. As Berger argues, cogently in my view, a child’s being reassured of order, ubiquitously administered by parents worldwide, is a kind of priestly role, one called into question by the atheist. Further, this scene of reassurance might be plausibly taken as an epitome of the human, a site replete with what we think of as most essentially human.

I am conscious that in raising this point, it might be taken as a counterblast against atheists which attacks them in general as being inhuman, or an attack on Dawkins as being inhuman, but these are not at all my intent. It is hard to avoid the sharpness of the pitch of rhetoric that the public contention has been brought to, but rather than believing ill of Dawkins, I quite suspect that Dawkins did act the part of a priest with his daughter, assuring her of order, and that the fault lies rather in the poorness of his philosophical argument and the virtue lies in his lack of consistency in living it out.

Berger mentions in this quote atheists who, based on their “stoic realism”, refused to rear children rather than to lie to them or give them the cold truth, as they saw it. This raises the question whether this is the nobler position for an atheist to take. Apparently Dawkins did not think so, having raised a child.

I suspect that my point here will be attacked by those who support Dawkins’ accusation of “child-abuse” against religious “indoctrination” on at least two fronts. For one, it will be argued that assuring a child that all is in order and that it is OK is not the same as assuring them that there is a transcendent hope. But what exactly is it if it is not? What in the merely natural world makes you think that everything is alright? And why do we choose the terms we generally do in assuring a child? Another objection that might be raised is that whether or not it is a cold thing, it is the truth, but it may not be a truth that the child is ready to comprehend, and thus the necessity for vague and unjustified assurances until they are old enough to understand. This may be the tactic Dawkins has followed, as evinced by his open letter to his daughter. Yet it seems to me that the reassurance of order was first necessary before the argument against order could commence, and this is an essential point in correctly characterizing the nature of the kind of argument Dawkins makes. Dawkins had to be raised to a degree of psychological stability based on such an “illusion” of meaning and order before he could begin to attack it. And furthermore, Dawkins professes to base his argument for atheism on science, yet in what sense can science be divorced from the presumption of order and meaning? The advance of science is and always has been by the presumption of an orderly universe. Isn’t the logical end of the road to the un-reflected stoicism of the atheist the ultimate dismissal of order and meaning, the end of science, and the rejection of what your mother told you when you cried in the darkness of the night? Here is the quote:

“Man’s propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is “in order,” “all right,” “as it should be.” Needless to say, there is no empirical method by which this faith can be tested. To assert it is itself an act of faith. But it is possible to proceed from the faith that is rooted in experience to the act of faith that transcends the empirical sphere, a procedure that could be called the argument from ordering……Consider the most ordinary, and probably most fundamental, of all- the ordering gesture by which a mother reassures her anxious child. A child wakes up in the night, perhaps from a bad dream, and finds himself surrounded by darkness, alone, beset by nameless threats. At such a moment the contours of trusted reality are blurred or invisible, and in the terror of incipient chaos the child cries out for his mother. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, at this moment, the mother is being invoked as a high priestess of protective order. It is she (and, in many cases, she alone) who has the power to banish the chaos and restore the benign shape of the world. And, of course, any good mother will do just that. She will take the child and cradle him in the timeless gesture of the Magna Mater who became our Madonna. She will turn on a lamp, perhaps, which will encircle the scene with a warm glow of reassuring light. She will speak or sing to the child, and the content of this communication will invariably be the same- ‘Don’t be afraid-everything is in order, everything is alright.’ If all goes well, the child will be reassured, his trust in reality recovered, and in this trust he will return to sleep. All this, of course, belongs to the most routine experiences of life and does not depend upon any religious preconceptions. Yet this common scene raises a far from ordinary question, which immediately introduces a religious dimension: Is the mother lying to the child? The answer, in the most profound sense, can be ‘no’ only if there is some truth in the religious interpretation of experience. Conversely, if the ‘natural’ is the only reality there is, the mother is lying to the child- lying out of love, to be sure, and obviously not lying to the extent that her reassurance is grounded in the fact of this love- but, in the final analysis, lying all the same. Why? Because the reassurance, transcending the immediately present two individuals and their situation, implies a statement about reality as such.To become a parent is to take on the role of a world-builder and world-protector. This is so, of course, in the obvious sense that parents provide the environment in which a child’s socialization takes place and serve as mediators to the child of the entire world of the particular society in question. But it is also so in a less obvious, more profound sense, which is brought out in the scene just described. The role that a parent takes on represents not only the order of this or that society, but order as such, the underlying order of the universe that it makes sense to trust. It is this role that may be called the role of high priestess. It is a role that the mother in this scene plays willy-nilly, regardless of her awareness or (more likely) lack of awareness of just what it is she is representing. ‘Everything is in order, everything is all right’ – this is the basic formula of parental reassurance. Not just this particular anxiety, not just this particular pain- but everything is all right. The formula can, without in any way violating it, be translated into a statement of cosmic scope- ‘Have trust in being.’ This is precisely what the formula intrinsically implies. And if we are to believe the child psychologists (which we have good reason to do in this instance), this is an experience that it absolutely essential to the process of becoming a human person. Put differently, at the very center of the process of becoming fully human, at the core of humanitas, we find an experience of trust in the order of reality. Is this experience an illusion? Is the individual who represents it a liar? If reality is coextensive with the ‘natural’ reality that our empirical reason can grasp, then the experience is an illusion and the role that embodies it is a lie. For then it is perfectly obvious that everything is not in order, is not all right. The world that the child is being told to trust is the same world in which he will eventually die. If there is no other world, then the ultimate truth about this one is that it will eventually kill the child as it will kill his mother. This would not, to be sure, detract from the real presence of love and its very real comforts; it would even give this love a quality of tragic heroism. Nevertheless, the final truth would be not love but terror, not light but darkness. The nightmare of chaos, not the transitory safety of order, would be the final reality of the human situation. For, I the end, we must all find ourselves in darkness, alone with the night that will swallow us up. The face of reassuring love, bending over our terror, will then be nothing but a merciful illusion. In that case the last word about religion is Freud’s. Religion is the childish fantasy that our parents run the universe for our benefit, a fantasy from which the mature individual must free himself in order to attain whatever measure of stoic resignation he is capable of. It goes without saying that the preceding argument is not a moral one. It does not condemn the mother for this charade of world-building, if it be a charade. It does not dispute the right of atheists to be parents (though it is not without interest that there have been atheists who have rejected parenthood for exactly these reasons). The argument from ordering is metaphysical rather than ethical. To restate it: In the observable human propensity to order reality there is an intrinsic impulse to give cosmic scope to this order, an impulse that implies not only that human order in some way corresponds to an order that transcends it, but that this transcendent order is of such a character that man can trust himself and his destiny to it. There is a variety of human roles that represent this conception of order, but the most fundamental is the parental role. Every parent (or, at any rate, every parent who loves his child) takes upon himself the representation of a universe that is ultimately in order and ultimately trustworthy. This representation can be justified only within a religious (strictly speaking a supernatural) frame of reference. In this frame of reference the natural world in which we are born, love, and die is not the only world, but only the foreground of another world in which love is not annihilated in death, and in which, therefore, the trust in the power of love to banish chaos is justified. Thus man’s ordering propensity implies a transcendent order, and each ordering gesture is a signal of this transcendence. The parental role is not based ona loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality. In that case, it is perfectly possible… to analyze religion as a cosmic projection of the child’s experience of the protective order of parental love. What is projected is, however, itself a reflection, an imitation, of ultimate reality. Religion, then, is not only (from the point of view of empirical reason) a projection of human order, but (from the point of view of what might be called inductive faith) the ultimately true vindication of human order. “ –Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural , (1969), pgs. 54, 55, 56, 57.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Lent Reflection: "A Secure Passage"

When you were a child, you cried out in the night at the nameless threats in the darkness, and human hands held you and assured you, “It is alright.” Is it?

Jesus, unlike the first Adam, was tempted in a desert, in the “wasteland”, in the fallen world. In no sense was he naive of, or removed from, the sufferings and pain of the creation. He might, as many do, have taken the cursed earth and the sufferings of its denizens as proof against a loving and all-powerful God. It could have been part of his arsenal in a league with the original argument opened in the garden against the goodness, truthfulness and beauty of God’s will. Neither was his response to politic with the devil and draw out debate on God’s righteousness. Instead, he responded with the superbly spare and to the point, “It is written: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:1-11) (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:17). Adam, in a garden, in luxuriance and vitality, fell to the tempter. Jesus, in barrenness and extremity of physical weakness and discomfort, kept perfect faith with the Father, in complete love and fidelity. “I and the Father are one,” He could tell his disciples.

Christ, taking the form of a servant, that is, a man, didn’t fall, though all have fallen, and he didn’t impugn God, though he was the most fully aware of the suffering on the earth, and the most fully compassionate, with an eye not in the least compromised by sin and a heart not in the least dulled to the sufferings of others. To appropriate the words from my prayer book this morning, in him no languor oppressed, no iniquities chilled, no mists of unbelief dimmed the eye and no zeal ever tired. Those who did not believe must have missed the heaven in his eyes.

He chose to walk the road of being desolated to the bitter end, which all flesh, including his, loathed, rather than to speak against God or to break faith with His Father.

This we have not done. We have not been Jesus. Whatever we have been, we have not been perfect. We have fallen. We fall. And the Father vanishes from the picture. Confronted with these two points of references, ourselves and Christ, a mistake is to think of Christ only in terms of an example and an embodiment of the Law. I might easily think of Christ’s victory in the desert over temptations merely in terms of a feat of ascetic discipline, an act of spiritual heroism. “If I am faithful in the little things then I will be faithful in the big things.” If I “think positively”, I will “think and grow rich”. “Whatever you conceive, if you believe, you will receive.” “If I have true grit, I will break these chains that bind me, like a gravitating kung fu hero with a ‘spiritual’ sticker.” That is missing the point. It is nearly missing the boat. It is density in the face of enormous grace and generosity. “Do not be like the horse or mule which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you” (Psalm 32).

The point is not merely to redouble your efforts in the “wasteland”, in the midst of pain and suffering, given such a shining example and wise guru. “For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Exiled from Eden, cursed and cursing, suffering and sinning, we are not able to storm the gates of Eden. Even if we agree to “be good” now, and we exert rare and amazing will power, which humans sometimes surely can do, the hour is late, the situation is more desperate, and darkness falls. But it is into this that Christ has come, not to mock and revile, but to hold and to heal. He has been revealed to our wounded hearts as the Way, the Truth, and the Light. He is the “new and living way”. The angels with the flaming swords tasked to bar return to the garden, until now stern, terrible and unsurpassable, will part to Jesus and you, and will look on you with joyous love.

Suffering and pain have, through Christ, become not merely the take home message at the end of a realistic movie that gives you the bite of authentic reality, that makes you feel more desolate but more real. They have become a secured passage. What we could not accomplish in Him is given (Romans 5:12-19). It is not a secular stoicism He has braced us for; it is a beating heart of warmth He has bound us to, the warmth of God’s love, cutting decisively, as one with authority, through the blurr and the blister of it all, and justifying the fragile assurance a mother gives to her child when he cries in the night. The desire of nations has come. Humanity’s hope is not a vice and a delusion but a forerunner of Christ and a signal of the transcendent. It is alright, in an astonishing reversal of the atheist’s stoic realism. It is a greater realism into which the children of man are brought through Christ and through which they are adopted, redeemed, and led home to God.