Do Children Need Religion?

By | February 19, 2011

Here’s an e-mail I recently received:

We have a child due and we’ve been thinking a lot about education…there are things about the system that we both disagree with yet think it’s important for children to learn how to socialize and work things out with the citizen majority…. What we are more curious about is how to approach religion …we’d like our child to have some sort of faith.

And my reply:

As with you, most people believe faith is learned. However, increasing evidence is confirming what Native people have been trying to tell us ever since we’ve started pushing religion down their throats: values and morals, and an honoring of something greater than the self, is an inherent part of being human. “Moral judgment is pretty consistent from person to person,” says Marc Hauser, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Moral Minds (Ecco, 2006). No matter what the identity group—Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, atheist, agnostic, Native, or pagan—and no matter what the cultural background or educational level, all people appear to have a similar sense of ethic. According to Michael Schulman, co-author of Bringing Up a Moral Child (Main Street, 1994) children demonstrate an innate sense of morality at an early age.

If anything, attempts to teach morality often backfire. Uneducated nonbelievers generally have better developed and more personally integrated value systems than those who belong to faith organizations. Look at the horrendous acts of cruelty unleashed upon fellow humans under the banner of institutionalized morality—the Crusades (up to six million killed), the Muslim conquests (tens of millions dead in India alone), China’s Taiping rebellion (twenty million slayed), and our era’s bloodletting in Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, East Timor, India-Pakistan, Iraq, the Middle East, Tibet, Chechnya, and the list goes on. We must include the untold millions who expired under Communism, Nazism, capitalism, nationalism, and the like, all of which qualify as belief systems. Mark Twain said he worked hard to not let school get in the way of his education, and the same could apply to religion and morality.

All of non-human life has faith—a moral code or set of values by which they live. As with us, it is intrinsic to them—they have no need for ministers or Sunday school. This is hard for many of us humans to recognize. We have isolated ourselves from the rest of life, and in doing so we have forgotten how to communicate with our plant and animal relations.


Barnes on February 20, 2011 at 9:18 pm.

Haven’t you noticed that Mark Hauser’s work has been recanted and all of it is under suspicion for making up data and results? Since he trained most of the people in this field, one has to wonder just what is true or not since his methodology is suspect, as well as his results. People keep saying animals don’t kill except for food, but that is a lie. Chimps kill each other’s babies, and wolves just killed 426 sheep this year on a ranch in Montana and did not eat one. Cats play with mice before killing them and so do many insects, it appears, or perhaps it just takes their brains that long to complete a thought. Due to the top man in the field who trained others to his methodology, the idea of moral cognition being inherent in animals goes unproven, which was what other scientists had been trying to tell Harvard for nearly five years.


Tamarack on February 22, 2011 at 5:14 pm.

Hi Barnes,

You’re taking us into some great new territory here. Hauser is clearly in hot water with some of the scientific community, and perhaps for good reason. Even so, I see him as being ahead of his time. The cultural bias embedded in “scientific” research can be horrific at times, and I’ve seen that come out in full force with morality research. Many of us seem to have trouble stepping aside of our culture’s moral precepts when viewing humans from other cultures, much less nonhuman people. So I can understand why some of us would find the act of a pack of Wolves wiping out a flock of Sheep reprehensible.

To be an effective tracker, one needs to leave his ego behind and become the animal she is tracking. When she feels the animal’s fears and desires, she has insight into his behaviors and movements. When I lived Wolves, I left my identity behind as much as I could and became one of the pack. I soon came to realize that much of my academic knowledge was biased and incomplete. The romantic notion of wolves killing only to eat ended up looking as silly to me as saying we kill other humans only to defend ourselves. Wolf morality dictates that the weak and sick be killed. This is for the greater good, as it keeps prey populations healthy and thus serves all the life connected to them. Wolves see sheep as sick animals—un-stealthy, constantly bleating, and hardly able to run. I’ve watched Wolves react the same way to Dogs, whose erratic behaviors and neurotic personalities tell the Wolves “misfit.”

Topics like this fascinate me to no end, because they take us out on the frontier that was once where we lived. We talk about nature being somewhere out there, beyond the roads and cities. We go out in nature on weekends and vacations. There was a time not too long ago when we were nature, every bit as much as Wolf and Flower and Fish. We each had our ways and our purposes in the hoop of life, and we did not judge each others’. I wonder if we can ever make that frontier our home again. I wonder if we will ever want to.


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