I was going to skip blogging about this book due to vague and unspecific feelings of social unease. In the end it was precisely those feelings that made me realize it was important to write this post.
I am an atheist. Despite my vaguely Anglican upbringing I have been an atheist for a very long time and I came to this position on my own without any direct influence from others (I did not know any atheists or read any subversive atheist literature). For as long as I can remember I have tried to imagine all the possibilities concerning any issue and I think I was 8 or 9 the first time I pondered the possibility of the non-existence of a god. By the time I finished my high school science classes any remaining shred of belief was gone.
I don't want to discuss my own atheism here but instead my reasons for being uneasy writing this post. It is one of my most strident beliefs that spirituality is the most personal topic. There is no person on earth, not parents, siblings, friends, children or spouses (and certainly not strangers), who should presume to try to influence your own beliefs on matters of spirituality. But at the same time one should not feel ashamed of their beliefs or lack thereof. Yet I do feel shame in certain situations. I avoid lines of discussion that might lead to this topic with all but my closest friends and family. In mainstream society atheists are still viewed with some level of suspicion.
Although I came to atheism on my own, I recently decided to pursue the thoughts of others on the topic. I've been reading some of the more popular books from The Four Horsemen of New Atheism such as "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins as well as the book which is the subject of this post.
I found both books interesting, but it was definitely a case of "preaching to the choir," a particularly apt metaphor in this context. The biggest new idea for me (presented by both books) is the notion that involving children in organized religion is abuse. Intellectual abuse to be specific. Organized religion hinders the development of critical thinking skills. At some point all religions have an element of "because God said so" at which point it is no longer acceptable to question the statement. The mind of a child is a blank and infinite canvas and the nature of children is that they seek to fill that canvas by questioning everything around them. This is a wonderful trait that should be endlessly encouraged. The questions of a child should be answered honestly. Rational, evidence-based justifications should be provided for all instructions and directives. If something is unknown, that fact should also be shared with the child and they should be encouraged to seek out the answer on their own. "Because I (or God) said so," is never acceptable. The trials and realities of life cause our minds to close and our thinking to become rigid as we age; that process should not be hurried along with non-answers and veiled threats of hell-fire.
Religion is such a sacred cow (wow, lots of metaphors have a religious bent, this post practically writes itself) in almost all societies. To suggest that it should only be engaged in by persons who have reached the age of majority would never fly. But if it happened that you could only join an organized religion after you had time to develop your critical thinking skills I suspect that organized religion would become a much more minor part of society. In such a society I would not hesitate in discussing a topic or writing a blog post which tangentially might reveal my own (lack of) beliefs.
Postscript: I would like to add some meta-comments about this post. I've always thought about broaching the topic of atheism on my blog but this was not the way I imagined doing it. I backed myself into a corner by deciding to blog about every book I read and then reading this book. Despite that misstep, this was a really neat writing exercise for me because it was extremely difficult to keep the post concise and focused on a single point (ie. the thing I found most interesting in the book and how it applied to my own situation). There are so many tangents that I wanted to run off and explore and it is so easy to make snide generalizations about religion that would have added nothing to the content of the post and only inflamed emotions. I hope that I have managed to meet my goals. Most importantly it is not my goal to judge or influence the beliefs of others. I have friends and acquaintances from all manner of belief systems and I have many times enjoyed sharing their religious traditions with them at holidays (and would gladly join them again). Those experiences have always been positive and not an attempt to influence my own beliefs. My only beef with religion is the need many of its adherents feel to spread their own personal brand to others. In particular, many feel that religion should influence the policies of our secular democracies which is just so completely and totally horrifying. Keep it personal and keep it the hell out of government.