Contact the author:
tuppennyprofet - at - aol - dot - com
(translate into a real email address)
Rational Religion and the Younger Generation
One of the primary uses of religion is to have something to teach the kids.
There are a lot of religions out there which have been invented specifically for the marginally religious; those of us who can't quite swallow all the cant and dogma, but still think they have to have SOMEthing metaphysical to believe in, if only to provide some moral/ethical center for their children.
Piaget taught us that children aren't just small adults. This was a radical idea to a lot of people, who (as we all do) had forgotten how confusing it is to be a child. The adult culture has a lot of complexities and abstractions that the very young central nervous system isn't equipped to master.
Just as we are responsible for keeping our curious but inexperienced children from poisoning, drowning, or otherwise committing mayhem upon themselves, we are supposed to keep them from psychological confusions and terrors.
Left to themselves, children are quite good at making up satisfactory answers and reasons for everyday problems and vicissitudes; given a secure and stable environment, that is.
Psychologists who treat (that is to say, they believe in) "multiple personality disorders" maintain that such fracturing of the psyche arises from extreme abuse, usually by a parent or other responsible party that the child is more or less forced to trust, or depend upon, however aberrant or downright evil that person's behavior.
I suspect unpredictability has about as much to do with it as the actual abuse. Not knowing what to expect is almost as bad as being tortured or molested.
Under those conditions, being treated well becomes just another form of torture; because one can never predict when the climate will change, and to what, there is no peace. These children must withdraw into entire worlds of their own creation, wherein they can eke out some measure of control.
But, if a child is sure she is loved and the folks around her are doing their best to look out for her welfare, she can handle just about anything which comes her way, including deadly illness and catastrophic loss. Part of her strategy for coping will probably include a childishly incomplete grasp of the gravity of her situation, but that's adaptive, too.
Because we adults need reasons and justifications for the negative things that happen to us, we tend to take refuge in metaphysics. Part of why we do this is the way we were raised. Our parents believed in metaphysical solutions; probably adhered to one formal religion or another; and most of our psychological apples tend not to fall very far from the tree, especially in times of stress or bereavement.
Emotional extremity is primitive time; we are running on hormones, not well-organized electrochemical neural impulses. We need God.
And we tend to make the superficially logical mistake of thinking that our children do, also.
I'm not talking to True Believers for whom their god is so central to their lives that everything they do and are begins in their concept and awareness of the deity. These people tend to indoctrinate their children early and constantly, simply as part of their way of life. And these people will simply have no idea what I am talking about, even in the unlikely event they have read this far down the column.
I address those who would join, for example, the Unitarian movement; or take up some Westernized and non-obsessive version of one of the Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, in order to "have some spiritual element in their lives"; out of a vague and undefined feeling that they ought to believe in something, even when nothing they have come across seems to make much sense.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, a group of mostly New York, mostly non-superstitious, mostly ethnically Jewish professional people started the Ethical Culture Society. This was patently NOT a religion; the people who started it were pretty aggressively non-religious. But they felt they needed some sort of a congregational environment to help them define their ethical and moral relationship with each other and to society as a whole; and perhaps, most importantly, to provide some substitute for a spiritual environment for their children.
The second thing they did was establish a school system; based upon academic excellence, intellectual freedom, and ethical behavior. (They actually have Ethics classes, like religious parochial schools have religion classes. The kids treat it all in a pretty perfunctory manner; just adults talking at them about things they often aren't quite ready to understand.)
Ethical Culture makes profound and sweet reason; for adults. I came across it 40-odd years ago on the public radio station in New York City. The Society alternated with one of the more conventional faiths in broadcasting Sunday morning "sermons." I was so impressed that when I married and had children I schemed and intrigued like any middle-class parent to get my kids into Ethical Culture schools.
(In actual practice, the E.C. schools turned out to be just a very good private educational system. The "ethics" didn't seem to make all that much of an impression on the average student; not nearly as much as the possibility of getting into a top Ivy League college. The rather iconoclastic intellectual environment DID tend to produce some healthy individual rejection of all that claptrap.)
The point I'm trying to make is that "Ethics" (capital "E") doesn't do much more to help a grade-school kid cope with the universe than God or Allah or Yaweh or Shiva. Unless the kid is way ahead of him-or-herself on the Piaget scale, those are all abstractions which just translate to the immature mind as comforting sounds; and only if the adult who is uttering them is felt to be trustworthy and properly nurturing.
This is why the Rational Religion will work as well for kids as it does for un-metaphysical adults.
The kids don't have any special machinery in their central nervous system which can differentiate between metaphysics and physical reality.
We have already established that, since we all have to depend upon an inherently unreliable interface between our personal wetware and the hardware, software and other wetware around us, in the final analysis, "Everything is metaphysics."
We can be aware of this, and still develop some concept and opinion about what is physical reality.
To a kid, everything he or she "knows" is "real." It's very difficult, if not impossible, for very young children to understand that everybody doesn't know the same realities, in the same way, that they do. In this manner, for small children, the distinction between physics and metaphysics is meaningless.
The childish confusion between God and Santa Claus is more prevalent than many devout parents can understand. If they did, they would be distressed. Be assured that it probably doesn't greatly distress the child; until, of course, she learns that Santa Claus doesn't exist, but that God is still supposed to.
(It is therefore logical and consistent that some evangelical, conservative Christian faiths are anti-Santa. They see the intellectual danger of encouraging their bairns to believe in a myth which they will eventually have to be disillusioned about.)
So what does the Rational Religionist tell the kiddies when Grandpa dies?
Tell 'em he died.
He got old, and his life ran out; and it's a perfectly natural thing. Nothing to worry about. It probably won't happen to them; or you; for a long time. If they seem to need continuity, tell them that part of Grandpa lives on in them. It's actually there; a doctor could find it in a medical laboratory, right in a drop of their blood or a snippet of their tissue. (If it's Grandma, the connection is demonstrably even stronger; all that mitochondrial DNA that can only come through the female line.)
Unexpected catastrophes are more of a problem to explain; but no more than for the conventional religionist, who must try to make a child understand how the God who supposedly protects and watches over her has somehow permitted her Mama to die in a car accident.
"Shit happens" makes more sense to a kid than most adults imagine.
Sure, all of us would LIKE to feel secure and protected from harm, but it isn't always possible. And kids - again given a supportive adult environment - are pretty much programmed by evolution to weather the rough spots.
Accidents and incidents happen; sometimes they take our loved ones "before their time." But most kids, after a little bit of adjustment and some inborn tricks of the central nervous system, won't become obsessively or paralyzingly fearful that it will happen to them.
Time heals; and it heals children most easily of all. It's part of our genetic heritage.
One of the profound weaknesses of the human mind is that it does not handle the facts of life very well; death and procreation, especially.
One of the reasons it does not is that we do not train our children to do so, from the start. We feed them myths and euphemisms, and we cripple their ability to handle reality.
It's like smoking pot, as a kid; the same effect. Keeps you from growing up and thinking straight.
Just another bad habit.