This speech was delivered at the Second Annual International Day of Protest Against Hereditary Religion on January 20, 2013. You can see recordings of the speech and subsequent question-and-answer session here.
Greetings, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for attending my speech. It is an honor to present at the Second Annual International Day of Protest Against Hereditary Religion. I will focus on the issue of hereditary religion from a perspective that, in my view, receives all too little attention. Unlike most individuals – and even unlike many atheists – I was not a victim of hereditary religion. I was raised in a non-religious household and have never been religious and was never seriously attracted to religion. I would like to provide my firsthand account of how the absence of religious indoctrination during my childhood enabled me to thrive as a thinker and maintain a high quality of life in adulthood. Through my presentation, I hope to provide a glimpse into the advantages that all children can and should have.
I was born during the very late years of the Soviet Union, when Gorbachev’s perestroika was already well underway. While the Soviet regime was always atheistic in name, religious freedom was openly tolerated by that time. By the time I was four, Belarus had declared independence from the USSR, and the post-Soviet government no longer had a view of religion one way or the other. Most people who pretended to be nonreligious during earlier eras of the Soviet regime no longer needed to do so, and so there was a widespread apparent revival of Orthodox Christianity during my early years. My family, however, was among those who were truly non-religious, so they never needed to pretend. I was raised largely free from structured ideology, either religious or communist. There was no real emphasis on atheism placed during my childhood, either. I was not taught that religion or religious people were bad, though I was taught about the history of religious atrocities – such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Wars of Religion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Much of what I learned on this subject was through my own reading of history books, of which there were plenty around the house, and to which I had unrestricted access. My family had no wish to be confrontational, so I was generally asked not to engage in any religion-oriented conversations in public. However, I do remember a situation where I and my grandfather – after whom I am named – were walking on the streets of Minsk and were hailed by Christians selling bibles and religious pamphlets. My grandfather replied firmly that he was an atheist and was not interested, though he did engage them in argument. It was around that time that he had read the Bible from cover to cover on his own, which seemed to reinforce his own atheism, as it does for many who actually delve into that text.
As a child, I was not expected to think anything about religion, though I did anyway. I was, however, kept away from any sources of religious indoctrination. I want to share a few of the thoughts that went on in my mind at the time:
● Prior to the scientific age, humans believed that gods inhabited high regions – mountains and the sky. However, humans climbed Mount Olympus and did not find the ancient Greek gods. Humans went into space and did not find heaven or any gods. Moreover, humans have discovered that the sky is not a solid platform or a place that can be inhabited generally; instead, it is a visual effect created by the fact that the Earth has an atmosphere. (I had memorized all the layers of the atmosphere, too.) Thus, it is impossible for gods to live there. Beyond the atmosphere is outer space, where no gods have been observed, either.
● Prior to the 19th century, humans believed that only a god could have designed human life. However, Darwin’s theory of evolution demonstrated that it was possible for one species to evolve into another in an entirely natural process. (Yes, I knew about evolution – though in very simple terms – at that age.)
● When I was asked by believers “If there is no God, then who created you?”, I would respond that my parents did. If the question was formulated somewhat differently – as in “What makes your existence possible?” – I would give an answer in terms of material causation – i.e., that I am made of cells, and cells are made of molecules, and molecules are made of atoms, and atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Generally, the conversation would proceed until I reached the smallest subatomic particle I could name, which was the quark, and which the believers asserted that God had to create. I generally answered that, while I do not know about the components of a quark, someday science would find out. I was fascinated with numbers from a very early age. I had learned to count at age two, before I learned to read, and by age four I was already delving into very large and very small numbers – to the hundreds of powers of ten, both positive and negative. I grasped that there was no limit in either direction to how large or small these numbers could get, and so I thought that there was also no upper or lower limit to humans’ eventual ability to understand existence at any magnification.
While my reasoning about religion at ages four and five may seem somewhat simplistic now – and the more sophisticated theists could find responses to my reasons for not believing in the existence of God back then – a habit of free thought was nonetheless established very early on in my life. It was never broken. I never hesitated to form my own opinions and to express them, sometimes in ways that got me in trouble with the various powers that be. I am, however, a better person because of this – because I acknowledge the power of evidence, reason, and my own mind in attempting to discover truth. While I may be wrong about particular ideas (and have been wrong in the past), the overall open-ended dynamic of my thinking enables me to overcome any specific errors and to improve my understanding. I have never been subjected to successful indoctrination into a static, dogmatic worldview whose adherents fear questioning and challenge. The old Soviet system and its communist propaganda machine had already disintegrated by the time of my childhood, while the Orthodox religion – which now has a close affiliation with Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime in Belarus – was not yet strong enough to try to impose itself. I moved to the United States in time to avoid the worst of Lukashenko’s tyranny. Had I spent my teenage years in Belarus, I would likely have been imprisoned for political dissent. I was fortunate enough to have grown up during perhaps the freest era in the entire history of the former USSR. When I moved to the US, I certainly had more intellectual freedom than I would have had in Belarus had I remained. But I also came to a society where atheism was a lot less common and a lot less understood.
I have always tried to maintain a great deal of respect for post-Enlightenment interpretations of religion. Spending my teenage years in the suburbs of Chicago, I thought, initially, that this was pretty much how the majority of Americans viewed their faiths. I attended friends’ Bar Mitzvah ceremonies and engaged in interesting discussions with moderate Christians and Muslims. In that area, even those who called themselves conservatives generally considered religion to be a private matter and focused more on this-worldly political and economic subjects – for which I could respect them and have civil discussions with them. Ironically, it was the politically correct segment of the American Left (which, I understand, is not the entirety of the Left) that tried to crack down on my expression during that time, because I criticized premodern or “traditional” religious paradigms – including Aztec human sacrifice, the Hindu caste system, and traditional Chinese practices, such as foot binding, which were bound with religious views of women’s submissiveness and dependency. To the politically correct Left, all cultures and religions were equal as a matter of dogma – except, of course, for post-Enlightenment Western individualism and rationalism. I realized that atheists and freethinkers generally have as much to fear from this sort of indoctrination as they do from religious fundamentalism of any particular stripe. It does not matter, for instance, whether a blasphemy law or censorship of speech in the schools are based on the dominance of one particular religious sect, or on the fear of offending any religious sensibilities. Either way, the crucial human faculty of reason is muffled, and the capacity for intelligent critical thinking is stunted. Only the freedom of the mind can lead to the discovery of truth and the improvement of the human condition.
Only when I went to college in Hillsdale, Michigan, did I discover that true premodern fundamentalist Christianity was far more prevalent than I had thought. The student body and professors at Hillsdale are split roughly along traditional conservative and libertarian lines. The libertarians – even those who are personally religious – tend to be tolerant and to incorporate Enlightenment ideas of individual rights and free expression into their religious views. Many of the traditional conservatives, however, thought that religion was the only legitimate foundation for morality. Those of them who were raised entirely in religious settings – with no allowance for interaction with other worldviews and perspectives – were bewildered at how I, as an atheist, could do anything worthwhile at all. One of them – indeed, one of the better-behaved ones – was listening to me play the piano in one of the practice rooms in the music building. He then came in and asked, with sincerity, “That was beautiful, but I want to know… why? If you do not believe in God, what is the point in doing anything beautiful at all?” Another fundamentalist Christian, with whom I had quite a few discussions, suggested to me at one point that he and I could have nothing in common because I did not believe in God and his entire life was based on that belief. In return, I asked him whether he thought that two plus two made four. When he agreed that this was the case, I pointed out that I thought the same, and that this was indeed common ground. I tried my best to find as much of this sort of common ground as I could, and I made it a personal project of mine to give numerous presentations on campus about the possibility (and, indeed, the superiority) of non-religious objective morality. My many essays on the subject from that time period are freely available for all to read online.
But it always baffled me how little I was able successfully get across to the fundamentalist Christians at Hillsdale that their way was not the only way. I never tried to de-convert them; rather, my objective was always simply to cultivate mutual respect and to lead them to recognize that, yes, atheists can be just as moral as some of them – while religion is no guarantee of moral conduct and can often be used to excuse genuine atrocities. Perhaps I reached a few individuals, but many seemed impervious. As new groups of students came in every year, they came with the same preconceptions. It was like a vicious indoctrination machine was working to turn out fresh batches of carriers for the fundamentalist religion meme, with all the built-in defenses that meme entailed. I thought that, if only I could get them to drop the idea that morality requires religion, everything else about them could be maintained without too much harm. I realize now, however, that the pernicious notion of the Christian religion being the sole foundation of morality is one of the defense mechanisms that are deliberately inculcated into children by the cynical professional purveyors of Christian fundamentalism. Most children, and most human beings, want to be moral. Fortunately, in the real world, morality is a matter of actions and not beliefs. Thus, people of any persuasion can act morally by following rather simple negative and affirmative rules of conduct. Yet if, early on in their lives, people form a repeatedly reinforced association between morality and a particular religious persuasion, they will develop a visceral aversion to abandoning that persuasion – even if reason and experience show it to have numerous flaws. They fear that, if they cease being Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu – for that matter), they will cease to be moral human beings. This fear keeps them in the flock and keeps them paying money to the peddlers of their particular denomination’s doctrines.
Yet reasons to be skeptical about religion abound. No person who is alive can avoid having doubts about pre-scientific systems of thought, formed millennia ago by people who were far less knowledgeable than even the average person today – and who were certainly far less civilized and moral in their personal conduct. Memes of hatred and insularity serve as the immune systems of fundamentalist religions. The more tolerant, post-Enlightenment interpretations of religion avoid these tactics by de-emphasizing institutional religious obedience and shifting their focus toward more abstract theology and more concrete real-world problems with secular solutions. This is an admirable attempt to salvage essential humanity from the grasp of dogma. Yet whether a child is born into a fundamentalist household or a more moderate religious household remains a matter of sheer chance. The children raised by fundamentalists continue to be subjected to an intellectual bubble, where questioning is discouraged and conformity in both thinking and practice is expected at the very least, and enforced through the threat of bodily punishment and social ostracism in many cases.
I want every child to have the intellectual freedom that I had. I was surely raised with rules and discipline and expectations for moral behavior – but those can exist in complete independence from any expectation of religious or even broader philosophical adherence. Since morality is a matter of action and not thought, parents can expect their children to adhere to certain norms of conduct while leaving them free to think and believe anything they wish. I am not against religious adults who are intelligent and tolerant about their religion. But the choice to be religious or not must be made in an informed fashion, without the pressures of guilt, ostracism, or punishment. Thus, indoctrination into any belief system – without the allowance for dissent or even doubt – is a form of child abuse. It warps and stunts a child’s intellectual development and renders the child ripe for exploitation by knaves, charlatans, and demagogues in authority. Every parent needs to give his or her children the latitude to discover truth for themselves, and to commit errors in the mind of the parent, as long as those errors do not damage the children’s bodily well-being.
As for me, I never felt myself to be constrained in my thinking – even during the times in my life when I was regimented in my routines of action, as I was in various public schools. I never felt that there were areas of existence or of my own interest that I could not explore. I never felt that I was a bad person for considering certain ideas and evaluating them on their merits. While many religious persons claim that there is a “void” in the human being that only their conception of a god or gods can fill, I never perceived such a void. Perhaps the void only occurs to those who abandon some part of their upbringing with which they were acquainted through repeated reinforcement; perhaps it is a form of nostalgia for a past to which they can no longer claim full allegiance. I, however, was always comfortable with reality as I perceived it through my senses and evaluated it through my mind. Existence is vast and extremely multifaceted. There is enough still unknown, still remaining to be discovered, that it never seemed fruitful to me to add another layer of obfuscatory complexity by superimposing a supernatural dimension upon the natural world. As for any intellectual errors of my past, they have not troubled me, since I consider myself to engage in a continual learning process, where improvement and not shame is the focus. It is better to have a good answer now, and to aspire toward making it better, than to blame oneself for not having the perfect answer the first time.
As a self-supporting adult, I consider the lack of indoctrination and the ability to exercise complete independence of thought to be my greatest asset. Any situation I encounter – be it in the work I do for a living or in the endeavors I engage in as part of living well – can be approached using reason and evidence. I try to understand the fundamental constituents of the situation and their natures. I then use my analytical abilities and previously accumulated knowledge to construct a solution or improvement. Where I need to rely on the work of others, I use my reasoning abilities to evaluate for myself the degree of that work’s reliability. Everyone makes mistakes on occasion, and so do I. However, adherence to reason is a self-correcting mechanism that can extricate me from the mental traps and vulnerabilities that plague some people for an entire lifetime.
In the years since I have graduated from college, I have been increasingly amazed at the breadth and open-endedness of existence. Life entails literally billions of possibilities and choices. While some people are, unfortunately, entangled in intellectual straitjackets and are pushed by their indoctrination along very specific and narrow paths (with well-known pitfalls along the way), I have always been determined to make a path of my own – based on my own values, my own talents, and my own flourishing. I will never allow dogma to blind me to possibilities for improvement. The earlier one embarks on this individualized journey, the easier it becomes to avoid common failure types in life. My plea to all parents is to allow their children this precious opportunity. Freedom of thought is the greatest gift you can give to your offspring, and it does not cost a penny.