You Were Damaged by Religion — But How Do We Prevent Others from the Same?
You may be recovering from religion, but for so many more, the trauma of indoctrination has yet to take hold. What can we do to stop it?
About 4 million children are born in the US each year. And of those, the vast majority will be raised in religious families, indoctrinated into an archaic belief system that teaches them they’re inherently sinful and in need of redemption. These children will be assigned a religion by no choice of their own, told to distrust others outside of their own faith, and taught to believe things through faith alone, in absence of tangible evidence and contrary to scientific consensus. Most will be told that skepticism is a sin and that doubt is evidence of evil within. All will be forced to suspend critical thinking in favor of magic.
I was one of these kids, and chances are, so were you. While my experience (raised Catholic, attended Catholic school, but later rejected it all after educating myself in the history of religions) was fairly benign in comparison to many of the truly horrific stories I’ve heard, it did leave an impact that still affects me today. My own experiences, together with the stories I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances, drive my activism against childhood indoctrination today, and have inspired this, my first article for ExCommunications, the official blog of Recovering From Religion, an organization I’ve admired for years.
So to the question at hand… Anyone who has survived and recovered from their own religious indoctrination understands the emotional (and many times physical) damage that is left behind and must be dealt with. Our own sense of empathy gives us the desire to want to save other children from the same fate, and in many cases we’re filled with anger and a sense of helplessness when we see other kids go through what we did. Sure, we’d love to swoop into a church, scoop up all the kids and save them from a life of celebrated ignorance, but what can we do when we live in a society that values this abandonment of independent thought and treats it as a virtue?
We fight ignorance with education.
In your own local area, I can almost guarantee you there’s a group working in your public schools called the Good News Club. They’re clubs that operate across the US and in many other countries in elementary schools — led by fundamentalist Christians who invite children to their afterschool sessions for “fun activities” and “exciting Bible lessons.”
“Free afterschool activities for my kids? Sign me up!”— said way too many parents without knowing what they’re sending their kids to.
The dangerous thing about these groups is that they’re not being at all truthful. They send out permission slips to parents that outline the group will be playing games, having snacks, singing songs, and learning scripture. Sure, that sounds fine for most Christian parents. However, the goal of these groups is far more sinister. These aren’t your average church-on-Sunday Christians. These are fundamentalist, Biblical-literalist, you’re all going to hell-type Christians. These are what you learned in science class is wrong, the earth is 6,000 years old and evolution is a lie Christians. They literally tell little kids they’re going to hell unless they pledge their life to Jesus Christ. I’m not kidding. And it gets worse. In fact, the GNC will not share their curriculum with parents or community members. If you want to read it, you have to pay for it, and it’s not cheap. Shocker.
The Good News Club actually won a Supreme Court case in order to be able to operate in your schools. They did this because schools are their preferred hunting ground. They’re not as interested in having their functions in churches. Those kids are already indoctrinated. They want the kids who don’t belong to their churches. GNC volunteers are referred to as “teachers” even though they don’t have proper credentials and their meetings aren’t affiliated with the school district directly. Why are they called teachers? Because kids are already used to listening to teachers and believing what they’re told by them. A 7-year-old is not going to distinguish between a teacher with a degree and one who’s peddling magical thinking. A teacher is a teacher to them. And while the GNC technically has to have a signed permission slip to talk to your kids, they do everything they can to circumvent that and gain as much access as possible (illegally) and even tell their club attendees to evangelize to their “unchurched” friends and try to get them to come to the club. After all, the Good News Club is run by an organization with an even more cringe-worthy name, Child Evangelism Fellowship. Gross.
So what can we do about them?
Step one is awareness. Share this information with every single parent you know. Share it with teachers. Share it with school administrators and board members. Even if they’re Christian. Pew Research estimates that about 70% of Americans identify as Christian, but a much smaller subset of those are Biblical literalists. An even smaller subset would be ok with a fake “teacher” telling their kids they’re “going to a very dark place forever, removed from their parents and families” just for “having a thought that offends God.”
Awareness is the beginning of the effort to get these groups removed from schools altogether. Despite the SCOTUS case, it can be done. One step further would be writing stricter facilities use policies once school administrators are aware of what’s happening. A policy can be updated very easily to prevent groups that bully children from using school grounds. It’s already very likely that your school district’s use policy states that all meetings on school property need to be open to the public. If that’s the case, you’re free to observe Good News Clubs meetings yourself. Pro tip: they hate that. So do it. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. In my local district a group of us observed Good News Club meetings and were greeted with a decent amount of resistance and unwillingness to open the doors. It got to the point of being downright comical, but they couldn’t stop us.
But what about the kids? How can we prepare them to reject this kind of aggressive indoctrination?
Shortly after observing the Good News Club in my own district, a few of us decided to start our own afterschool club focused on critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and the scientific method. We called it Young Skeptics. We brought in experts and created a baseline curriculum for the clubs, held a pilot club in the same school as the GNC, and then made our curriculum free and public for anyone to start their own clubs. We’ve since been informed that clubs have launched in a few states, and even overseas. Young Skeptics is not an atheist club or even an anti-religion club. It’s simply a way for kids to sharpen the tools they need to avoid buying into any belief that not anchored in evidence, such as political or pseudoscientific propaganda, disinformation campaigns, and more. There is no mention of religion in our curriculum — we’ve always felt that to be a personal decision, but not one that any child should be expected to make. Children are targeted by religious zealots because they’re still young enough to believe in magic and listen to and trust whatever an adult, especially a teacher, tells them. Think about it. If you never heard of religion whatsoever, would you have believed any of the ridiculous Bible stories if the first time you heard them was as an adult? I think not.
If you’re interested in fighting for the mental health of those 4 million children born each year, I urge you to get involved. Do any or all of the things I mentioned. Propose this level of activism to your local secular organizations or Meetup groups. The next school year will be upon us soon and schools will begin to open up again for outside groups if they haven’t already. Now is the time to recruit volunteers and plan.
If you need help getting started, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to do what I can!