My post a month ago on Childhood Indoctrination could spark a number of different posts or discussions, but I don’t want to spend too much time on it. The main point was that I had some first-hand experience on childhood indoctrination. And I think scaring children with hell like that is evil (for some definitions of evil — I can also write a post in defence of sincere but potentially misguided intentions). But let’s move on.
In August or September last year I attended a morning sermon at Stellenbosch Gemeente, which was a family service. I love Stellenbosch Gemeente, I like what they’re doing. This opinion comes from careful thought and observations of what the sermons are trying to accomplish/teach, with consideration for the context. The context is a particular culture with a particular world-view. However, that morning the children were there, and they did their “kinder geloofsbeleidenis” (roughly “children’s statement of beliefs”), complete with actions illustrating the words. I found my own reaction very interesting: I freaked out. It was largely an irrational response prompted by my subconscious, a knee-jerk reaction to something that had an uncomfortable resonance with my own bad experience with childhood indoctrination and the long process of full recovery from it.
The “geloofsbeleidenis” represented a pretty standard introduction to the standard South African tribe mythos/meh, but it still doesn’t sit well with me. It was at that point that I realised how far I’ve moved beyond our traditional theistic culture. When it comes to “adult church”, I look at what they’re doing within the context of the congregation and their pre-existing beliefs, but when I look at the children I see a clean slate, no pre-existing context. (Actually there is context: generational continuity — tribal and family identity — contemporary emphasis on individualism isn’t culturally universal.) And so I realised a couple of things about how I would like to raise my own children. (See Real Live Preacher’s Soft True Strong & You and The Memeing of Life post Anatomy of a Frequently-Asked Question if you’re curious.)
(This is a very long post, contemplating parallels between religious and secular parenting.)
Back to the SG Children Church statement of beliefs… Their statement of beliefs was not given to them as is, but rather constructed from a brainstorming session from their side. It was then organised into more or less the same structure as the “adult statement of beliefs”. As such, it should be quite representative of what they have learned in children church, and is given in their words. Let’s take a look:
Wat is dit wat ons glo?
- Ek glo dat God bestaan, al kan ek Homself nie sien nie.
- Ek glo dat God vir ons die Bybel gegee het, en dat dit waar is.
- Ek glo dat Hy vir my baie omgee en liefhet.
- Ek glo dat Hy goed is en net mooi wense vir ons het.
- Ek glo dat Hy niemand verkeerd om maak nie.
- Ek glo dat Hy sy Seun in ons plek laat doodgaan het.
- Ek glo dat Jesus weer lewendig geword het.
- Ek glo dat Hy ons altyd sal vergewe, maak nie saak hoeveel keer.
- Ek glo dat Sy hart baie groot is, vir almal om in te pas.
My translation into English:
What is it that we believe?
- I believe that God exists, even if I cannot see Him.
- I believe that God gave us the Bible, and that it is true.
- I believe that He cares about me very much and loves me.
- I believe that He is good and only has good wishes for us.
- I believe that He doesn’t make anyone the wrong way round.
- I believe that He let His Son die in our place.
- I believe that Jesus came to life again.
- I believe that He will continue forgiving us, no matter how many times.
- I believe that His heart is big, for everyone to fit in.
This is of course pretty standard Christian beliefs. And I’m clearly not “a pretty standard Christian”. In fact, the fact that this is “pretty standard” for Christians is what caused me to stop calling myself Christian in most situations. (Actually, I have called myself Christian in certain contexts recently, but then it was a qualified “liberal Christian” — referring to the teachings of Bible scholars that recognise the prophetic imagination and human imprint throughout the Bible, rather than only in the Old Testament.)
Let’s take a look at the functional value of these beliefs, comparing them to a non-theistic humanist perspective:
1. Believing God exists — The God Hypothesis
This particular point is something I’m not particularly interested in discussing on this blog, beyond what I’ve mentioned in my post On God’s Existence and Non-Existence. I consider this more of an axiomatic statement, or definition of world-view/language. Acceptance of this definition is typically useful in order to more directly connect to the rest of the stories in this particular wisdom/spiritual tradition.
2. Believing God gave us the Bible — The Bible as God’s Word
To some, this is the defining characteristic of Christianity: defining which collection of books is considered sacred. In terms of participants on this blog, I think it was Ben-Jammin who mentioned that the only thing he assumes from the “Christian” label is that it means the Christian Bible is granted a “special place” to the so-labelled. I like this definition, being broad enough to include the likes of the emerging church movement and the liberal Christian tradition, and even John Shelby Spong. The nature of that “special place” is what makes the difference between scholars considering it a defining collection of books cherished by our culture, written by humans as they were recording the story of their relationship with and understanding of their God, and literalists that create an idol of their scripture. I suppose maybe more nuanced understandings are beyond the grasp of children, and some simplifications are considered necessary? Maybe later there’s time and ability for more nuanced understandings?
This particular simplification? Personally I consider it a little dangerous. This is a point on which fundamentalists recruit, asking propaganda questions like “are you a Bible Believing Christian?” (thereby implying a literal interpretation). The typical Christian would want to say yes, and in the process may make themselves vulnerable to the fundamentalist’s particular interpretation of the Bible. So, on its own, this point could have me a little worried, but I know that I don’t know what else they are taught as children. Or as teenagers then. From my experience, I reckon if they stick around long enough to go to “adult church” at SG, they should find adequate defences against fundamentalism. I’ve also heard other Stellenbosch Gemeente members comment on instances where they hear Shofar’s teachings being the exact opposite to Stellenbosch Gemeente’s teachings (and by extrapolation, I’d include Moederkerk’s teachings, as I hear they largely share SG’s perspectives), in a discussion about how hard it is to communicate with Shofarians about religious/spiritual issues.
3, 4, 9. God cares and loves me…
Here we get to the soothing belief at the heart of traditional theism. This is a belief that is not exactly compatible with Spinoza’s God or Einstein’s God, or similar pantheistic ideas. Such alternative notions of God are often considered indifferent to human suffering. I think trying to believe “the Universe, or Nature, loves us” can be a bit of a stretch. The deist’s God could be believed to care, but what difference would it make if that God has no influence in creation? (Maybe demonstrated in the afterlife then, for deists with a belief in an afterlife…?)
“Real” Love (lacking the multiple Greek words here to differentiate adequately between different kinds) is something that is demonstrated, lived, a verb, not something that is merely stated. Acts of love, demonstrations of love, in the way we understand it, requires some kind of conscious decision on the part of the actor. (Then again, what is “consciousness” anyway?) Such a belief is much easier to achieve with an anthropomorphic God (compared to alternative notions of “God”), as that is our understanding of the idea of “conscious”. I can see how someone could choose to believe that Nature somehow cares, ascribing to it some kind of consciousness in a slightly weaker form of anthropomorphism. However, with an understanding of biology and Darwinism, which paints a rather bleaker picture of Nature’s nature, what’s left?
The functionally valuable doctrine in contemporary theology/Christianity:
We are God’s hands and feet.
The idea that we are to act out God’s love towards one another, that we are God’s representatives in this world, is sweet. This perspective does away with the need for belief in “supernatural” intervention. Note also, if “God’s love” is considered a higher ideal that we can choose to live out or not live out towards one another, this theological position could really be considered functionally equivalent to a humanist’s belief that we should demonstrate compassion to one another. Genetically speaking, we have evolved to become a highly gregarious species. Living together in large groups peaceably and cooperatively requires a sense of fairness and compassion, and we have genes that encourage this.
So, there exists a higher ideal, a guiding ideal, wherein we care about one another. This goes for everyone, being a part of what it means to be human, irrespective of whether we name the idea or ideal that encapsulates the source of our compassion “God” or not. The non-theistic humanist still believes there exists the greater ideal of “humans do care, or at least should care, for one another”.
So where lies the functional difference? Well, not everyone does care. In some circumstances, we are isolated from love and compassion. We may grow up in an abusive family, or we may be imprisoned in a concentration camp by a charismatic but evil leader. At these times, believing in humanity’s goodness/caring towards itself becomes rather difficult. This is the kind of situation where a belief in a God that cares, a belief in that ideal beyond humanity, can become something valuable to hold onto. It is the kind of belief that can help bear the burden, a belief that encourages optimism and hope, that encourages the recognition of every tiny little good thing one can notice, in the process of “seeking signs of God” in an otherwise very depressing situation.
A non-theistic humanist on the other hand, may not have such a clear separation between the ideal and the reality of humanity. In terms of the concentration camp example, hope could be found in the faith that there are humans out there that are trying to liberate you, that are fighting tooth and nail to defeat the evil, faith that they will succeed, hope that it will be sooner rather than later.
However, maybe maintaining optimism is harder when the ideal of human compassion is recognised as fundamentally human, “our own responsibility”: it is possibly easier to become disillusioned and depressed about it. How does one maintain faith in the compassion of fellow humans, when you are standing face-to-face with the evil of fellow humans? “Have faith!”? It can be done, I’m sure, even if such optimism might be easier to attain if this human compassion, love, hope and optimism is made an abstract, somewhat subconscious idea rather than an explicit conscious choice, then personified and labelled “God”. (Placing faith in an abstract notion of a higher/greater good may be easier than having to confront reality in a purely “rational” fashion. Sometimes there is a limit to how much “reality” humans can handle.)
The point? Even though belief in God is an option that isn’t available to everyone, with enough positivity the non-theistic humanist can have access to a functional equivalent: hope, optimism, and faith in the power of compassion.
5. Acceptance of the Cards You’re Dealt
The key value of believing “God doesn’t make anyone the wrong way round” is about acceptance of diversity and “flaws”. It is about loving yourself (in the acceptance way, not the narcissistic way), and it is about not looking down on anyone. Everyone is as they should be.
I’ve heard disagreements on this point, with people pointing out we’re not all equal. With that I actually do agree, in the sense that we are all unique. What I personally reject, though, is a value judgement about what (or who) is “better” and what is “worse”. For example, in my opinion an Einstein is inherently no “better” than a Forrest Gump. Einstein is only better in a particular context, like that of contributing to science, coming up with the General Theory of Relativity. I bet Einstein wouldn’t be very good at mowing lawns? The point is we all have our lives to live, our parts to play, and would do well to avoid generalised value judgements.
In one sense, this is the essence of consciousness and ethics’ triumph over Darwinism: we’ve evolved to the point where we are not mere pawns in the harsh game of survival of the fittest. We have become a very “successful” species/tribe. (Whether we will keep it that way, depends on a number of factors: we have become too “successful” for our own good, and could end up developing to the point of self-destruction.) Again, in the particular context of Darwinism, we can talk about certain traits being “better” and others “worse”, because in that context things boil down to reproductive fitness and propagation of “selfish genes”. However, I consider it evil to adopt these “value judgements” outside the context of an understanding of the mechanism of evolution.
As an example from memory, I’ve come across a famous atheist seemingly ridiculing celibacy on the grounds of its impact on the (non-)propagation of the practitioner’s genes. Such arguments are effectively encouraging us to live as slaves to our genes, nothing more. I’m sorry, that is not what humanity is. The value of humanity is not to be found in individuals’ reproductive fitness. Consider celibates taking care of orphans are propagating memes of compassion. In a cultural landscape, they are taking out the lonely suffering of orphaned children and replacing it with love and compassion. They are propagating memes that could do our species a great deal of good. (This is how I remember that particular case, but I don’t have a link to it. Whether I remember the details correctly or incorrectly, the point I’m trying to make still stands.) Someone ridiculing another’s way of life on the grounds of Darwinism-based value judgements are, in my opinion, fundamentalists. I believe in respecting people’s rights to find their own meaning in their lives. Let’s not get prescriptive. (Does that mean I have to respect the fundamentalist’s right to find meaning in ridiculing and looking down upon others?)
The question I’m curious about then: what would be a secular-parenting equivalent to teaching your children “God loves you just the way you are — did not create you the wrong way round — even if the other children make fun of your nose or your speech impediment”? Maybe somehow teaching them “there is no such thing as perfection, perfection is a myth”, or that their friends are wrong to judge and have their own imperfections, one of which might be a propensity towards judgementalness and/or lack of compassion? (I’m floundering here. Help?)
6, 7. Substitutionary sacrifice and resurrection, traditional Christian doctrine.
This ties in with 3/4/9, in that the Christian considers this an ultimate demonstration of the love of their God. I intend to give this topic a post of its own in order to adequately discuss the context of this belief, with reference to Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) teachings for context, and impact on the belief in the Trinity.
Also possible is a couple more posts discussing the context of the crucifixion, something I’ll possibly only be able to do after reading Marcus Borg’s The Last Week.
8. Belief in forgiveness
The theist’s God is taken as a role model to follow. Our concept of God is a mirror by which we look at ourselves. For an arbitrary example, Brian McLaren’s words from a discussion of his views of hell, which I was reading while contemplating possible posts on hell:
Here’s my concern: if you believe in a god of hate, violence, revenge, and torture, it makes you very susceptible to becoming a person made in that god’s image.
The point? Believing in a God of forgiveness, encourages the forgiveness of others.
At the same time, this belief also serves as antidote to the belief of sin leading to hell. The hell-belief is found in a number of ancient cultures, and the belief in a God of forgiveness is a liberating and empowering development. Again, it also ties in with 3/4/9, the belief in a God that loves you.
In terms of secular parenting equivalents, the first element is probably the most significant, as some of the beliefs requiring the antidote are absent. I’d think teaching people to forgive one another can be achieved through the teaching of human nature and the value of forgiveness in its own right, but primarily also by demonstrating love and forgiveness. In demonstrating the ideals, they become real, instead of abstract concepts.
In fact, I suspect that often when Christians hypocritically fail to live up to their stated ideals, it might be traced back to those stated ideals and abstract beliefs not being demonstrated to them in the first place. Might this be why sometimes people without the abstract ideals make a much better job of living the ideals than those that have them all safely encapsulated and “abstractified” in doctrines and statements of belief?
I’m sure much of the essence of good parenting lies in demonstrative living. Children are impacted greatly by what you do, so what you say isn’t going to bear much weight if you’re just idly babbling meaningless words…
Sjô, don’t ever let me write such a long blog post again. I’m drained. And I have serious doubts about large parts of this post even after going over it a dozen times before publishing in attempts to improve it… Time to just hit publish and get this out there, where I can’t continue tuning it: tuning doesn’t really help if you just keep on introducing new problems.