An upcoming family Bar Mitzvah has triggered an advice from a relative. I should, he said, expose my son Dylan to his Jewish backgrounds regardless of what my thoughts on religion are. While acknowledging god doesn't exist and Judaism is full of bullshit, a child needs to know where he's coming from in order to establish his sense of identity. It is important because in this society we live in people classify one another by religion. Otherwise, if I don't do anything re the introduction of religion because of my own personal attitudes as an atheist, that child might suddenly decide they want to become a Jesuit priest or a Buddhist, and then I won't be able to do anything about it. I should therefore stop acting like a computer that views the world in terms of pure black and white and realize there is more to it.
We're in agreement, my relative and I, about many of the above statements. We have general agreement about the validity of religion, we have an agreement about the importance of a child establishing their identity in this world. We also agree on me being unable to stop a determined son from pursuing the further extremes of religion if that's his choice. But we're also in disagreement, a significant disagreement, which is what I want to discuss here: Should I or shouldn't I train my son in the ways of the Jew? Unlike my relative, my answer is a very definitive no. If it's up to me, Dylan would not have a Bar Mitzvah.
First I have to say that I have a big problem with the defeatist attitude my relative is displaying. Essentially, he's saying "I think religion is crap, but I can't think of anything better, so I advocate religion". I'm no big thinker either, but I can - and I hope I do - stand on the shoulders of giants. It's people like David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Daniel Dennett, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers and many others from whom I borrow ideas; and these giants seem to be able to offer me a very good alternative to the religious attitude: the rational attitude.
The problem my relative was raising is simple to specify: A child growing up in the universe needs some building blocks supplied with which to build their identity. The proposed solution is the use of religion as the free supply shop providing these tools. And I agree, the religious solution is the easy solution; but since when is the easy solution necessarily the better solution? Usually it isn't.
My solution involves two steps. The first is to teach my son critical analysis, so he can have the tools to properly analyze different options and make up his own mind as to which option is best through the application of rational criteria. The second involves exposing my son to the view of the world modern science has to offer: it's not a coincidence our house contains a multitude of books written by the likes of Hawking, Asimov, Dawkins and Sagan - several of which are aimed directly at younger readers; I'm hoping to create this exposure through these tools. Note I'm not planning on actively exposing my son to religion; he'll get enough of that, if not more than enough, from everywhere else. What I will actively discuss is religion from the historical perspective, as [sadly] it is a major effect on the way society works.
Now comes the tricky part: If I was to do my work properly, I don't see a way in which a rational person would prefer religious dogma to the view that science has on offer. Compare the two, and don't use your rose tainted glasses for a change: one offers a vision of a world dominated by a neurotic yet powerful being obsessed with power and with being worshiped, whereas the other offers an unimaginably vast universe with which we are tied through us being made of the remnants of old stars going supernova and in which all the living beings we are familiar with are closely related; a world in which we are one with the universe. The way I see it, choosing between the two is like choosing between a Trabant and a Ferrari: you'd have to be insane to choose the former over the latter.
And that's what religion does to people through indoctrination. It prevents a rational assessment of this world. Thing is, science seems to indicate that the earlier the indoctrination, the harder it is for the child to release themselves from religion's shackles later: perceptions established at an early stage of life, a stage when a human's function is to only establish their perception of the world (while being totally reliant on its parents), are extremely hard to change later when a human is meant to mostly use the formerly acquired perception in order to lead a life of their own.
Okay, so we've established that I'm not about to indoctrinate my child with religion. What if my plan fails and my child still ends up preferring religion, or - as my relative put it - goes on to become a Buddhist?
Well, shit happens. It is entirely within my child's rights to choose for his own; he's going to be the one living with the consequences. He might also change his mind later; we're all entitled to. Hell, I used to be a believer until a certain point came where I realized my belief is causing me to do the wrong things. Why should my son be prevented from being allowed to make his own mistakes and learn from them?
And as for him choosing to become a Christian priest or a Buddhist in particular: given that I don't think too highly of any religion, I don't have any particular preference for one over another. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism - they're all different versions of hot air. What reason should I have for preempting his choice of one type of hot air (Christianity, Buddhism) by filling his head up with a different type of hot air (Judaism)? If anything, I'd prefer him becoming a Buddhist; you don't see as many Buddhists running around trying to kill others because of their beliefs.
So, to sum my arguments up:
Children do need help forming up their self identity. Religion is an easy tool with which to form a sense of belonging, but it's a flawed tool due to its false premises. An alternative exists: a rational approach based on humanist values and scientific evidence.
That alternative approach is not as popular and would be tough to teach in a potentially hostile environment. By that environment I am mostly referring to the peer group my son is going to end up belonging to in school, which is probably going to be his main source of influence while at the age in which he first needs to make his mind up regarding his identity.
My son may end up agreeing with me and he may not. The choice would be up to him; I'm still going to be his father even in disagreement. I don't intend to choose an attitude concerning religion for him the same way I don't intend to choose a football team for him.
And if, just if, it all comes down to the need to feel like he belongs to a group... If that is the case, we'll both follow his favorite football team all the way.