Filling a Child's Head with Nonsense

Article excerpt

Man excels all the animals even in his ability to be trained. Moslems are trained to turn their faces towards Mecca five times a day and pray; they do so steadfastly. Christians are trained to cross themselves on certain occasions, to genuflect, etc.: while religion in general constitutes the real masterpiece in the art of training, namely the training of the mental capacities--which, as is well known, cannot be started too early. There is no absurdity so palpable that one could not fix it firmly in the head of every man on earth provided one began to imprint it before his sixth year by ceaselessly rehearsing it before him with solemn earnestness. For the training of men, as of animals, can be completely successful only in early youth.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Essays and Aphorisms (Penguin Classics, 1970, p. 177)

Schopenhauer, an atheist himself, expresses a rather jaundiced view of religious indoctrination, but one with which many humanists--myself included--would basically concur. It reminds one of the quote often attributed to the Jesuits: "Give me a child at an impressionable age and it is mine for life." This is an attitude most humanists find abhorrent. In fact, humanists are often possessed by a strong ethical obligation not to tell absurdities to youngsters. Humanist parents are the only people I know who actually agonize over taking their children to see Santa Claus. My own Catholic parents had no such qualms, although they did become irritated when I continued to profess a belief in Saint Nick (an insincere one, I should add) well into my teens, as a means of getting more presents.

But what if, as such researchers as Piaget and Kohlberg have demonstrated, very young children are unable to understand reality, or differentiate between fact from fiction? Jose Delgado, the famed brain researcher and a member of the Humanist Academy, goes so far as to argue that we need to fill a child's head with nonsense. Their young minds must be stimulated in order to develop properly, and the best way of doing this is by appealing to their imagination. In his article "Neurobiological Bases of Belief," in the current volume Challenges to the Enlightenment (Prometheus Books, 1994) he writes:

The brain of a newborn child has a huge amount of neurons and pathways, with a capacity to learn any language and to receive a rich spectrum of sensory information, which will determine the organization of the personal referential system and contribute to the establishment of individual emotionality. Through these mechanisms, beliefs, ideologies, and ethical values will be inculcated in infantile minds, shaping neuronal structures and functions. These processes are automatic without the participation, knowledge, or consent of the individual because, at birth, the human brain is very immature and lacks the capacity to select or reject sensory information. Later on, when the "age of reason" is reached the child begins to think about, modify, or even reject some behavioral reactions inculcated during infancy.

He adds that a lack of exposure to religion might result in atrophy or neuronal rigidity in the child's capacity for forming belief systems of any kind later in life. For a child's own mental well-being, it may be necessary to initially raise him or her in a world of fantasies and fairy tales, rather than hard scientific data and truth tables. …