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Thanks! -Jason Wisdom
I recently came across an interesting picture. It was of a little girl in the classic "thinker's position"--hand under her chin, eyes looking contemplatively into space. The text overlaying the image said "If we don't teach our children to think, religion will teach them not to." The idea, of course, is that children who grow up in religious settings are being brainwashed.
My very first thought when I saw the picture and read the text was, "Whoever wrote is obviously does not spend much time around children." For those who don't know, I teach high school Bible (part time) at a private Christian school (I do this and a volunteer for a couple of great ministries the rest of the time, so your financial support of my efforts is greatly appreciated). My desire is to create well-informed, enthusiastic, disciples of Jesus Christ. I spend countless hours studying and developing lessons to accomplish this goal. I work hard to be creative and use a wide variety of information mediums in attempt to keep the students engaged. I walk into class every day and am fired up about what we are going to discuss and work on. From the perspective of whoever made this picture, I am the worst sort of offender--a professional brain-washer. What is more, I feel like I am a moderately capable speaker/presenter (that makes me dangerous). So, these kids--some of whom have been in church and Christian school for their entire lives--should be putty in my hands. They don't think for themselves, because religion has taught them not to. Right? No doubt, some of you have already gotten ahead of me and have probably started laughing out loud. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Keep in mind, these are 16-18 year old students. They are almost at the end of their time at home, in grade school, youth group etc. You could say that they have "gone through the process." Yet, in my experience, they are no more predisposed to blindly embrace the claims Christianity than anyone else. I would actually go so far as to say that some of them are more jaded towards Christianity and religion than many people who haven't grown up in church and/or Christian school. Ask anyone who preaches and/or leads worship (music) for a living. They will tell you that trying to stir up a group of Christian school kids is about as easy as mixing concrete with a popsicle stick, (and a lot less fun). My point is, they ARE thinking for themselves, and a great many of them--probably the majority (according to statistics I will mention in a moment)--have not bought in. And that leads me to the second thought that I had when I saw this picture: "Where did the majority of the atheists I encounter come from?" Answer: from religious backgrounds. Do they think they are unique--the only ones smart enough to resist the brainwashing?
Stand up comedian Mike Birbiglia does a great bit about his time growing up in Catholic school. He jokes, "You can always tell the people who went to Catholic school as a kid, because they're atheists." People laugh because, like any good joke, there is a measure of truth involved. If everyone in the audience knew (or even thought) that people who go to Catholic school characteristically remain God fearing Christians, the joke would have flopped. As it turns out, Birbiglia's sentiment is actually backed up by research. The Barna group recently did a 5 year study that showed that, "nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15" (https://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church). There are several different reasons that the young people surveyed gave, but every reason reflects that, contrary to what the picture suggests, they WERE thinking critically for themselves.
The phrase, "If we (the irreligious) don't teach our children how to think, religion will teach them not to," reveals, at best, a lack of experience with young people. Sure, if you go visit a 4 year old Sunday school class, the kids will likely be repeating everything the teacher tells them. But why not follow that same group of kids through junior and senior high and see what happens? I am just telling you: things change. At worst, this sentiment represents a terrible disconnection from reality and/or a desire to simply stir up drama for drama's sake.
As Christians, we are not off the hook here. A careful consideration of what I have laid out above should not leave us feeling exonerated. We can't say "see, we aren't brainwashing people, so our hands are clean. We aren't the problem."* The very basic idea under-girding the sentiment expressed in the picture IS true: someone/something is going to shape the way our young people think. For this reason, the Church cannot neglect ministering to the mind, particularly with young people, where the focus tends to be largely (if not entirely) on meeting their social and emotional needs. Charles Malik said it well: "The problem is not only to win souls, but to save minds. If you win the whole world, and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world." So, as it turns out, we are somewhat guilty of what the original picture accuses. But it isn't that we are going out of our way to teach kids not to think. Rather, it is that we often simply ignore ministering to them intellectually at all. We have made that a separate, non-spiritual, sort of virtue. Lest you think that I am pressing too hard on this--"Come on man, the heart and soul are what really matters, all you apologetics types just try to make it all about the mind, and it's not,"--I will leave you with the words of Jesus: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command" (Matt 22:37-38 emphasis mine).
*Please do not misunderstand me. I completely recognize that there are some extreme groups that call themselves Christian that engage in what amounts to brain-washing (Westboro Baptist Church leaps to mind). They manipulate people emotionally, psychological, and even physically. But that is not the example given by Jesus Christ. Thus, groups that do this are not acting as followers of Christ.