I recently started reading "Parenting Beyond Belief" (edited by Dale McGowan, but containing numerous essays from a wide variety of people, including Richard Dawkins). The general consensus seems to be that parents should not actually teach their children to be atheists but should instead teach them critical thinking skills and let them make up their own minds as they see fit. After all, the argument goes, we all know that children basically accept whatever their parents tell them, regardless of how ridiculous it may be, and if it's wrong to raise children to be Catholics, Moslems, Mormons, etc., it’s just as wrong to raise them to be atheists. And so many atheists say that they don’t care what their children believe as adults as long as they are happy and have come to their beliefs “honestly” (i.e., as a result of careful thought and not just because they were raised to believe it).
I can’t help thinking that this is setting up a false equivalency, however. Teaching children there is no God is different from teaching them there is a God in one important respect – only one of those views is actually true. To me, saying “just teach kids to think for themselves and let them decide” is as bad as the creationists who want to see “Intelligent Design” presented as a viable alternative theory in schools so that kids can “make up their own mind” about the subject. We all know that’s a bad idea since Intelligent Design is just plain wrong and has no place in a science class.
Or, to make another analogy, can you imagine a parent refusing to teach their children that smoking crack cocaine is just plain wrong and instead choosing to just explain the health risks and trust their children to make up their own minds about it? Would any parent say they don’t mind that their kid is a crack addict as long as he is happy and made a rational, considered decision to start smoking crack?
Yes, I try very hard to teach my 8-year-old son critical thinking skills. I try to teach him how important it is to have good evidence for something before believing it. I try to teach him all the ways that people can be fooled (including how they can fool themselves). I try to teach him about all the things we know about the universe that contradict the classical notions of god embraced by most world religions. But so far I have stopped short of coming out and just telling him, “There is no God.” Instead, I say that plenty of people believe in one sort of God or another, but I don’t believe this. And then I try hard to explain the reasons why I don’t believe in God. But I never just flat out teach him that there is no God, even though I know it to be true and also know it is an important thing to learn.
Partly, this is because he has lots of religious friends and family members, and I don’t want to tell him that they are all just plain wrong. But, as with many Atheists, it’s also because I am aware of the inherent hypocrisy of wanting to teach my son what I know to be the truth while complaining about other parents teaching their children what they “know” to be true.
Perhaps I’m thinking about this too hard. Presumably, if he does learn critical thinking skills and is shown that the evidence simply does not support the concept of a God, then he will have no choice but to reject the notion of God and all the hurtful consequences that go along with it. The problem is that I know plenty of very smart people who have good critical thinking skills that they apply to other areas who still have let themselves become convinced that God is watching their every action and listening to every thought.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that simply telling him there is no God will accomplish anything. But at least I’ll know that I have told him the truth.
I'm curious what other people (especially other parents) think about this matter. Is it enough to simply teach children critical thinking skills, explain why you don't believe in God, and hope for the best? Or should we also try hard to affirmatively teach them that there is no God (or, at least, that there is no valid reason to believe in God)?