There is a strange, hyperbolic expression favored by the New Atheists: "cramming religion down the throats of children." The idea, and even the wording, appears with regularity in the anti-religious writings of people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and Jerry Coyne. Most recently we saw a lament on Coyne's blog about proselytizing down under, which he labeled "a particularly noxious specimen of religious tomfoolery" that makes him question whether "the U.S. is the worst in cramming religion down the throats of its kids."
This language evokes the harshest of images. What is a secular reader, unfamiliar with how religious children are actually raised, to think? They have never seen a Christmas pageant where dozens of happy children sing cute choruses under the direction of dedicated volunteer staff; they have not seen teenagers gathered in prayerful support around one of their friends whose little brother was just killed in a terrible accident; they have not seen older teens holding bake sales so they can raise enough money to spend two weeks in Haiti helping people in need. Instead, they must picture stern-faced parents dragging kids against their will to indoctrination sessions where they sit on hard wooden chairs until they affirm a set of beliefs in settings reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange. After years of such training, the once-open-minded children mature into narrow-minded adults who carry out the narrow-minded agendas of their parents -- oppose healthcare, gay marriage, stem-cell research, Muslims, and anything else they can think of -- and begin the process of having their own kids, with a new generation of throats down which more toxic ideas will be crammed.
I have been thinking about this charge of "cramming religion down kids throats" this week as the semester gets underway at Eastern Nazarene College on Boston's South Shore, where I have taught since 1984. I have 30 students from various backgrounds in a freshman seminar called Contemporary Questions. Most of them are from conservative Protestant traditions. I suspect that Coyne and Dawkins would nod knowingly to each other that these are indeed kids who had religion crammed down their throats. No doubt they would look with pity on my students, indoctrinated as they are already with religion, and then foolishly enrolling in a Christian college to protect their superstitions from the light of reason. And these poor, benighted students have the additional misfortune to be placed in a class taught by me.
My students don't look like this to me, however. As far as I can tell, they are all religious, to varying degrees, but their religion doesn't look harsh and judgmental as though it were forced on them. None of them seems interested in mounting crusades, bashing sinners, or signing up for witch-hunts. Whatever they had crammed down their throats, like the bland vegetables in their baby food, doesn't seem to have made them unhealthy.
The Contemporary Questions class begins with considerations of what we can know and how we know it. We are reading The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener by the famous skeptic Martin Gardner, who passed away recently. In their journals my students are reflecting on their beliefs with a new philosophical rigor. One of them wrote: "The only thing I know with clarity is that I want to love all and do whatever I can to make sure that the life I have been given does not go to waste." What a terrible thing to have had crammed down one's throat as a child!
Religious affirmations have become complex in our pluralistic age, and my students seem to get this, even as it challenges their faith. One wrote, "I am currently struggling so much about denying someone else's beliefs because mine are 'truth.'" Another noted, "I seriously struggle with the prospect that had I been raised in Saudi Arabia completely immersed in their belief system, I would be a Muslim."
These students are 18 years old and have been in college for two weeks. A month ago they were living at home with their parents, no doubt sitting on hard wooden chairs with bright lights in their eyes having religion crammed down their throats. And yet already they are wrestling, from a foundation of faith, with the world they will navigate as adults, a world that is more complex than that of their childhood.
Not long ago my daughter, a college junior, had lunch with a childhood friend. The two of them grew up in an affluent, white suburb of Boston. When the check came, my daughter suggested that they leave a generous tip for the middle-aged, obviously blue-collar waitress. After all, she said, they both came from privileged backgrounds and should be generous. An argument ensued. It seems that my daughter's friend had been raised to believe that less privileged people were simply lazy and that there was no reason to subsidize their laziness with generous tips. The affluence that she and her family enjoyed were entirely the result of their own hard work, and anyone who had less than they did was a slacker. This self-serving socioeconomic theory had, it seems, been "crammed down her throat" by her parents, who, by the way, sent her to an affluent white college where just about everyone had the same idea.
Parents put lots of things down the throats of their children -- religion, language, vegetables, ice cream, bacon, tofu, ideas of race, politics, gender and economics. This complex mix is occasionally toxic. But in the complex mixture that produces good citizens, there is no reason to single out religion as problematic. I am quite content to turn the future over to my students.