Truth is not inherited

Another recycled post, a short one this time. This was first published on this blog in April 2010.

DNASeveral religious friends of mine have, through the course of conversations, admitted that they are only members of their particular religions because that is the religion they were raised in. Because those are the beliefs their parents taught them. They recognize, or at least claim to recognize, that if they were born in another time or another place, they would probably have been followers of a different religious tradition.

For me, as an atheist, this seems like the endgame. If one’s faith is just an accident of birth, then it doesn’t reveal any special truths about the nature of reality, and one should leave that faith behind! But for some reason, this is not the reaction of my friends. They just nod and smile, and I imagine they are thinking that they are lucky to have been born into a family that knew the right religion to be.

If I were more brave, less worried about the social stigma that can come with positively advocating atheism, I would tell these friends of mine: When you say you are a member of a religious group, you are asserting that the ideology of that group is correct to the best of your knowledge. You are telling me that you agree with that group’s claims about the origins of the universe, about human consciousness and moral development, about what happens when we die, lots of claims about various aspects of reality. You are telling me you think these claims are true. But truth has nothing to do with the source of your genetic material, or the people who fed and clothed you as a child. (Surely you can think of times when your parents were wrong!) Truth has to do with what actually exists and what actually happens. Now that you are an adult, it’s high time to think about these issues and decide for yourself what you think is true. Start at the beginning, and question everything.

Like a child

You may have heard Christians heaping praise on the faith of little children. I’ve sometimes seen it with reference to this passage from Matthew 18:1-6 (ESV),

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Jesus leaves it somewhat ambiguous in his answer what the key feature of children is that makes them the greatest in heaven: is it their low status, or their belief in him?

Another passage often cited is Luke 18:15-17 (ESV):

Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Again, there’s some ambiguity — this is also invoked to justify infant baptism. But these two passages are often combined to tell adults that they should be trusting, unquestioning, even naive in their faith in Christian teachings.

So it was these two passages I thought of when I saw this ad on a blog I was reading. (Sorry for the lower image quality, it’s a screenshot from my phone.) It’s actually a GIF with a few different children’s pictures, but this is the only frame with the second line of text.

Children believe in miracles.
What if we all did?
Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.
The people of the United Methodist Church

Methodists aren’t who I think of when I think of fundamentalist Christianity. The Methodists I know are pretty mainstream, even liberal. That motto, “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors,” sure suggests that they are not the sort of Christians I usually discuss here.

And if you visit the website, the overall message is pretty solid, even I have to admit. They’re talking about welcoming a diverse congregation and helping those in need. Celebrating diversity and promoting charity are values I share. But I don’t hold those values because children do; I value those things because I’ve thought about it and decided they are good ideas.

The fact is, the emphasis on “childlike faith” is troubling no matter who advocates it. The ad text tells us, “Children believe in miracles.” Well, okay, but children also believe there’s a monster under their bed, that you have no idea they ate those cookies despite the crumbs all over their face, and that water poured from a short, wide glass into a taller, thinner glass becomes more water somehow. Kids are great, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think we should necessarily look to them as a group to figure out what’s true. They’re very much still learning how to process the world using evidence and reason.

Moreover, children don’t believe in [biblical] miracles ex nihilo. They believe in them because you told them they really happened, and they trusted you. It seems a bit backwards to glorify that belief, and to use it to justify your own. Maybe don’t teach children to believe things you think are false, eh?

This ad itself isn’t a big deal, and the website it’s promoting has a heartwarming message. But I think it’s a good illustration of how even warm-and-fuzzy liberal denominations of Christianity can contain and promote harmful memes. I’d be glad if every fundamentalist, literalist, young-Earth creationist switched denominations … but as long as we’re “rethinking church,” I think we can rethink a bit more.