Skipping Sunday School: Atheist Indoctrination?

Would you like to know the religious affiliations of my parents? Well, too bad. Because, get this: I don't know.

Isn't that great!


I am 29 years old, almost 30, and I have no idea if either of my parents are religious. For all the grievances I might have towards them (which, since I am using my real name here, I would rather not divulge), the single fact that I have no idea if they are religious or, if so, what religion, is the single greatest compliment I can give to them.

This is why it makes me feel a bit awkward watching the preview of the upcoming documentary, Skipping Sunday School, currently (May 14, 2010) on the front page of Atheist Nexus.

First, let me give you a quick back story about my (non)religious past:

When I was in my pre-teens, I had no idea about religion. Sure, we had "religious education" in our state-funded primary school (Yes, state-funded.). At our school, we called it "R.E.", and it was a total bludge! There was even a joke running around the school yard which ran something like this:

"Did you know God doesn't exist?"

"How do you know?"

"Because last night I asked him to flush the toilet for me, and he didn't do it."

Of course, this joke was going around about the same time as the rumours that "sex" meant a boy sticks his "doodle" in a girls "fanny" (If you are American, this does not mean what you think...), so I don't know how seriously I took it back then. After all, why would a boy put his doodle in there? ULTIMATE GIRL GERMS!

It wasn't all funny though. I remember the poor Greek kid being marginalised by the rest of us because his parents gave him a note to excuse him from the R.E. class. If you're reading this, Kon, I'm sorry. I was young and selfish and it made me feel like I fit in with everyone else.

Apologies aside, the reality is that I didn't self-identify as an atheist until my mid-20s, when I discovered (via the JREF) that "atheist" is not, as had been previously reported, a dirty word. Up until then I considered myself an agnostic.

Yeah. One of those. The way I saw it, I didn't know if a god existed or not. So how could I proclaim to know by labelling myself an atheist? I now know better, of course and, although I don't go screaming it from the rooftops, I am happy to "admit" my atheism to anyone who enquires.

Now, given my rather long-winded path to self-discovery, you can perhaps imagine my shock when I saw the preview for Skipping Sunday School. I was, literally, astonished to see such young people with such definite views about religion. They are so young! How could this be?

Granted, I only have my own personal experience as a reference point. A sample set of one is no good for any kind of statistical speculation but, unfortunately, I have not yet mastered the art of astral projection. Given these limitations, I will speculate over three possible reasons for my astonishment:

a) I am jealous that these children made a profound realisation about reality at a much younger age then I did. To admit this is damaging to my ego.

b) I am projecting my youthful ignorance onto them, and my youthful experience is not typical.

c) Their parents, knowingly or otherwise, have indoctrinated them with atheism, and I am right to be astonished.

I know that some people will object to c) on the basis that there is no "ism" in "atheism", and "how can you indoctrinate a lack of belief in... blah, blah, blah". I really don't go in for these kinds of word games; I am sure we are all on the same page here.

So my question is, which one of these do you think is applicable? Or is there another option I haven't though of?

Here is my take on the possibilities. I will update this as people in the comments change my mind, especially option b).

a) I reject this for egotistical reasons.

b) I reject this for lack of data.

c) My current tentative hypothesis.

My (admitedlly) limited experience with children has taught me that kids will basically believe whatever you tell them... at least until a certain age, at which point they reject everything you tell them. But I imagine that if I had been raised with vocal atheistic parents, I may well have arrived at atheism a lot earlier, but perhaps with a lack of understanding and (dare I say it) a degree of dogmatism.

If you accept my current hypothesis, you might argue that this is OK. All's well that ends well, right? But, I expect, that this is exact argument that a Christian, Muslim or Jew might make: Sure, I indoctrinated my kids, but it was for their own good!

I would prefer an agnostic to a dogmatic atheist. Perhaps one of the few times I would prefer an agnostic to anything.

For the record, I have no doubt that these parents have nothing but the best interests of their kids in mind. And for all the younger people who are reading this (I know of at least one who may), please don't take this as a "you're just a kid... what do you know?" kind of thing. I am just trying to relate my childhood to yours, and trying to understand how you figured out something so young which I didn't. Hmmm... maybe a) does apply after all.

I would also especially like to hear the opinions of younger people who have rejected their parents religion. This is an area in which I (obviously) have no experience.

Also, although I know they will never read this: Thanks, mum & dad ;)

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Comment by Staks Rosch on May 14, 2010 at 10:18am
I'm a new father, my son is only 14 months old and both me and my wife are atheists (although I am more vocal about it). I was raised Jewish and spent 10 years in Hebrew school. My wife was raised part Catholic and in part with a Buddhist philosophy.

We intend to raise our son with critical thinking skills so that he can think critically about the world around him. At some point, I plan to take him to various houses of worship and expose him to various beliefs. I might even have him meet with the various religious leaders so that he can ask questions. I will certainly let him know my opinion, but I will also stress that the critical thinking angle and allow him to think or himself and make up his own mind after learning some of the facts from those who believe.

I do think that most atheists are agnostics too. I don't see these two positions as mutually exclusive. Atheism deals with belief while agnosticism deals with knowledge. I don't know if there is some vague higher power out there, but I don't believe there is due to the lack of evidence. Particular deities on the other hand are merely characters in a story book and so we can be reasonably certain they are fictional (except maybe in Cartman's Imagination Land... see South Park).

I have not yet seen this film (as it is not even finished yet it seems) so I can't really make a judgment on it. But I have seen Jesus Camp and if you haven't, you really should.
In Reason,



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