I’ll begin this diatribe by directing you to a video of a four-year-old preacher who has become a YouTube sensation: watch here.
I have a keen interest in the subject of religious indoctrination. It’s a topic that haunts me almost continually – both in its manifestation in a four-year-old preacher, in the closed opinions of many of my students, in my relationship with my brother and sister, and in the never-ending reverberations of my childhood throughout all the rest of my life: the way that early indoctrination stunted my development and shaped an individual who in many respects is incomplete and unsatisfactory.
I want to share a poignant story.
During the years 2002-04, the woman to whom I was then married was teaching at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA (I was holding forth at Drury College, over a thousand miles away). For living quarters she rented the upper floor of an old farmhouse on the edge of town, a welcome respite from Erie and Mercyhurst. The larger lower floor was occupied by a young family: Jim and Erin and their four children, aged eight, six, four and one.
Three of the children were boys; the four-year-old, little Abby, was the only girl. Jim was a student at the local optometry college. Erin was a stay-at-home mom who was homeschooling the kids. They were members of a Missionary Baptist church a few blocks away where they attended services three times each week: Sunday School and morning worship, Baptist Training Course and evening worship, and Wednesday night prayer meeting and choir practice. (During revival meetings, which occurred a couple of times annually, they attended every night.)
They were to all appearances the ideal 50s nuclear family, the family of myth and legend: smiling, clean-cut, freshly-scrubbed, polite, wholesome, devout. They drove an American car (a Chevy van).They grilled hot dogs several times a week. They were the kind of family that King George I was referring to when he famously declared that we need more families like the Waltons and fewer like the Simpsons.
On my visits to Erie to spend vacations with my wife, I often encountered the downstairs family. And I noticed a few cracks in their façade. Erin’s smile was just a little bit set and hard. The oldest boy was prone to wander about aimlessly, muttering to himself. The six-year-old boy had a noticeable cruel streak, especially apparent in his dealings with the family dog. And every night of my visit we would be awakened by the screams of a disconsolate child. The screaming would often last for hours. I asked my wife whether this was a frequent occurrence and she corroborated my impression: it happened every night of the world.
We assumed that it was the baby boy: there are, after all, colicky babies whose discomfort seems to have little to do with their circumstances. But when we asked Erin about it we learned that the screaming was that of little Abby, who was awakened every night by horrible nightmares. Neither Jim nor Erin could imagine why she was having them.
There is much about sleeping and dreaming that remains a mystery. There is a big picture, however, that has gradually been emerging ever since the founding of psychology as a field of scientific inquiry in the 19th century: our dreaming has something to do with the processing of our waking experience. Naturally I began to wonder about little Abby’s case: what was it in her waking experience that was giving her chronic nightmares? Her parents were not child-beaters. The kids encountered no harassment at school, as they were homeschooled. There was nothing threatening about the environment in which they were being raised except for one thing:
Every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night of the calendar, that little girl was being taught a worldview that is as horrible as any that can be imagined: that the world is a battlefield on which God and Satan are waging perpetual war (and this worldview was of course reinforced daily in the kids’ homeschool curriculum). Ever since the fall of man, Satan has been the de facto ruler of this world and most of the humans now living – and who have ever lived – are under his sway (or as Jesus is reputed to have said to the Pharisees, children of the devil).
The stakes for humans couldn’t be higher: either they will be redeemed by acknowledging Jesus Christ as savior and spend eternity in a paradise so splendid that words have always failed those who have attempted to describe it, or they will roast forever in a place of unspeakable torment whose horrors are likewise indescribable. In this great contest, little Abby’s soul is at stake. Her soul is a prize much sought after by Satan himself. He is always watching her, waiting for a moment of weakness, an opening that he might exploit and cause her to burn for all eternity. That was the worldview of a four-year-old who had suffered indoctrination at the hands of her well-meaning parents – parents who no doubt love her and want only the best for her, but who themselves had been similarly indoctrinated as children and who had never seen through it. It’s just like those other cycles that we decry – cycles in which families find themselves trapped generation after generation: poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence. . . .
I know exactly why little Abby was having those nightmares. I even know what their content was because I, too, had them when I was a small child – and for the same damned reason. I still remember them in all their lurid particulars. They have poisoned the well of my life.
Jim and Erin and their children were a model family: the kind of family that pastors and politicians hold up to the rest of us as object lessons in a better, uniquely “American” way. The culture at large celebrates their steadfastness, their wholesomeness, their religious faith. The culture at large sees nothing wrong with telling a little four-year-old girl that she is surrounded by demons that are waiting for an opportunity to sink their bloody claws into her soul and devour it whole. If we were a sane culture (as opposed to what I fear we are), we would instantly recognize this as child abuse and would prosecute it accordingly.
There are plenty of fundamentalist Christians who will not hesitate to tell you just how perverse your worldview is if you disagree with theirs. They will ridicule you for believing that we and all other organisms are descended from a common ancestor that lived over three billion years ago. They will fulminate against you for suggesting that our moral code arises from our collective experience instead of from an angry Mesopotamian deity who writes his laws in tables of stone. They will excoriate you for thinking that maybe – just maybe – our capitalist economic system is unjust: that all people everywhere ought to enjoy a little more nearly equal share of Earth’s bounty. They will castigate you for thinking that maybe we ought to take measures to conserve that bounty for our children. They will never give you their reasons for believing as they do: they will merely lambast you for not sharing their beliefs. In many cases I don’t even think they know why they believe as they do: they merely hate you for believing otherwise.
Well, here’s my position: there’s nothing sick and twisted in recognizing that life in all its amazing variety arose through natural processes that can be discovered through science, or that we humans have had to struggle throughout our 200,000-year history to devise moral codes that are workable and that make our experiment sustainable at least in short bursts, and that different societies – as might be expected – have developed different solutions, or in harboring the wish that all people everywhere might enjoy a life that includes a measure of security and dignity and is willing to pitch in with socialist experiments to try to make that possible, or in the protesting of the wars and corporate pillage that make it impossible and our civilization unsustainable.
But there is a worldview that is totally sick and twisted. This fact is imminently discoverable: simply divide a blank sheet of paper into two columns and set the corresponding beliefs of each side – you know the beliefs I mean – directly across from each other. It will soon enough become apparent, which worldview is sick and twisted. And the worldview of fundamentalist Christians is, I believe, the sickest and most twisted that has ever been foisted on humankind, and as long as I have a breath left in my body I’ll do everything in my power to fight that worldview, to call it by its true name, and to try to educate people out of it (if that’s possible: and I know it is, because I was educated out of it).
If the normal course of life has obtained, little Abby is now a teenager. I wonder how life has gone for her. Given her start in life, I wonder how it is going, and will go.
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