The Battle for Zachary’s Brain II: Creating Cognitive Dissonance

“Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd and bloody religion that has ever infected the world.”



“Properly read, The Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

Isaac Asimov


In an earlier post -- , I referred to the battle for the religious brain of my young stepson Zachary, pitting a devoutly pan-/vanilla Christian stepmom and a follow-along lapsed Catholic dad (who joined his former wife in mocking the Pope and once refused to take communion; he’s now wearing a crucifix and going along with the program)…against a hard-core, skeptic/atheist/humanist Mom AND stepdad, who now live 45 minutes away. 


Crucial stage in cognition


Zachary is at the crucial stage at which the child starts to perceive and construct the world outside his brain and still-monstrous ego.  He decides what to believe and what not to believe, at least for now, but maybe for a long time.  He’s six and has begun the search for truth.   From us he will learn that he has his own mind and should use that to find the truth. 


B.F. Skinner observed that society attacks early, when the child is defenseless.  But Zack’s mother has promised him the truth, always, even if it’s uncomfortable and unpleasant.  There’s no Jesus, no heaven, no hell…but he’ll have to get to that awareness himself, avoiding religious programming if he’s lucky and if Team Atheist does its job.


Alternate Sunday School


According to the rules of the custody game, we get Zack every other weekend, so my wife and I had been talking about an “anti-Sunday School/Bible study” (as in “study what it REALLY says instead of spinning and whitewashing it”).  But a few days ago I awoke and walked into exactly such a thing in progress.


My wife said that Zack triggered it with a remark about how God created the world. You know how kids just blurt stuff out.  Zack had unknowingly opened the door to a protocol of carefully-prepared skepticism.   There followed a number of questions, asked quietly and Socratically, that took into consideration that he is at a time of critical development.


So, Zachary…


(1) What kind of God creates a world only to destroy it, except for ONE family. ONE righteous family in the whole world?  I don’t think so.  What a harsh judgment.  Why couldn’t God just appear and instruct everybody in morality instead of killing them all?  Besides, the world then, as  now, had many righteous people.  God’s criteria aren’t clear but his method of wiping the slate clean certainly is. 


(2) And just think of the logistics Noah faced in getting two of everything on the boat, in the light of what we now know as tens of millions of species (actually, a later priestly insertion specifies SEVEN of every “clean” animal so there’ll be enough for sacrifices - see below on the yummy smell of burnt meat).  It’s just a STORY, just as physically impossible in the real world as Santa visiting millions of Christian kids’ homes in one night.


(3) What kind of God gives tons of specific instructions for preparing a “burnt offering,” i.e., killing an animal and barbecuing it  (Exodus 23:18; Leviticus 7:13-4, 10:12-20, 19:5-7)?  The Bible makes specific reference to God’s liking the smell of barbecued meat (Numbers, Ch. 15) – and who doesn’t?  Hey, he’s just like us!


(4) This God kills 24,000 in a plague (Numbers 25:6-9), wipes out Egyptian first-born, forces the Israelites to wander for 40 years just because their scouts reported that the Canaanites looked formidable (Numbers 13-14), and tells you that you must stone a child to death for disrespecting his/her parents (Exodus 21:15, 17; Deuteronomy 21:18-21)…this God, Zachary, is he someone you should worship? 


(5) Or how about the story of the prophet Elisha (Kings 2, 2:23-5)?  God uses the disciplinary methods of…well, a six-year-old: when a gang of kids ridicules the prophet’s bald head, God sends bears to maul them.  That’s harsh!


Enough to make you cry


Zach was told the Binding of Isaac story (Genesis 22) – and it made him cry. He’s a sensitive boy. Reminds me of a cartoon captioned “Isaac in therapy.”  The kid is saying, “My father is nuts!”


This is what the truth of the Bible does: you skip all the spin, read the thing, and understand that the people who produced it were so backward and primitive, lacking any understanding of why things happen, that they AND their God do things that could make a child cry.


Much more easily attackable at this point are Santa and the Tooth Fairy.  Here Google was a great help, supplying thousands of sites with information  on how and when to tell a child that there’s no Santa.  


Why would it be all over the Internet if people weren’t concerned with it?  To Zack, the logic was unassailable. 


Truth about Santa


The foundation had already been laid, e.g., pointing to the crowds of people at Christmas time.  What are they doing?  Are they Santa’s elves?  Or parents buying gifts that Santa gets credit for?


Along with learning the truth about Santa – and Zack is almost there --- kids learn a “meta-lesson”: that adults can benignly play tricks on them and fill their lives with magical fantasy figures.  Then it comes time to drop the belief.  But adults have blown it if they don’t tell the truth as early as the child can understand it – because they’ll never be completely trusted again.  Fool me once…


And that makes a difference when we come to Super-Santa, AKA Yahweh.  The child’s mind gnaws at the questions:  Is adult belief real this time?  Or are people just going through the motions, as they did with Santa?


The truth about “belief”


The truth is complicated, but it’s a mountain each kid has to climb, unless totally brainwashed and incapable of skepticism. 


For the child capable of a kernel of doubt: Yes, adults do act as if they believe these fairy tales (in the absence of any evidence), but there’s no telling whether they actually do.


And that doubt extends to all of them.   Imagine you’re a church official or rabbi and have to concern yourself every waking moment with these psychotic fantasies and this vicious God who is a CEO from hell.  Prayers, day in and day out, never answered.  It would drive me nuts.  But the façade (if that’s what it is) must remain in place.


Lessons to come


Subsequent anti-Sunday School classes will highlight the other horrors of the Bible.   He won’t be able to handle the rough, R-rated sexuality of the Lot story (Genesis 19) right away…or the rape of Dinah, in which the sons of Jacob take revenge by killing the men of another tribe while they were recovering from the circumcisions they had agreed to (Genesis 34)!  That’s the wonder of the Bible: no matter how backward and barbaric you think they are, they always surprise you (see Deuteronomy 25:11-12).


So some wondrous, invisible thing is happening to Zachary’s neurons.   I watched him as my wife patiently asked the above questions.  Everything about his face and body proclaimed cognitive dissonance – squirming, looking away to the computer; monosyllabic, nonsensical answers.  Two different, incompatible versions of the world were being presented by two people he loved and trusted.  He could ultimately adopt only one.


I’m glad we finally got it started.  My wife told Zack to tell his stepmom that if anything he learns here is bothersome, then knock off the Christianity, and we’ll leave the child alone and let him make up his own mind.   


Somehow I don’t think she will.

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Comment by Alan Perlman on May 30, 2012 at 7:19pm

Good point.  We can introduce more exciting science stuff into his life (we have no control over what happens in the other household). 

Comment by Alan Perlman on May 30, 2012 at 6:03pm

Steph...thanks so much.  More to come.  (13 years as an English prof, 22 as an executive speechwriter.)

Comment by Steph S. on May 30, 2012 at 6:00pm
I just love your blog post! Wonderfully written. I will be visiting your website.
Comment by Alan Perlman on May 30, 2012 at 5:57pm

A prankster, no doubt.  Or maybe he's testing their faith with all this misleading evidence.  What really bothers me is that somehow $27 million was amassed for a Museum of Creationism.

Comment by Loren Miller on May 30, 2012 at 2:42pm

One more question for Zachary, if you don't mind:

What kind of god creates the world in six days, then leaves a mountain of interlinking evidence that seems to indicate that the time needed was more like 13.7 billions years for the universe and 4.5 billion for Earth?



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