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…the U.S. Supreme Court banned as unconstitutional the use of public school facilities by religious organizations as a venue for religious instruction to students. In an 8-to-1 ruling, the court held that such activities violate the First Amendment. Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion in the case, known as McCollum v. Board of Education.
The Supremes found that
neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force or influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will, or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.
No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or nonattendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the federal government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’
She’s unbelievably cute. And delightful. I mean that sincerely. I have two young daughters, now 8 and 10, so I’ve long been around a surfeit of off-the-scale adorableness. It never gets old.
So, yes, this lovely, lively little girl retelling the story of Jonah — it’s absolutely wonderful.
Except for the fact that she’s not recounting some yarn about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. We may assume that among the adults who taught her this fairy tale, there’s no shared understanding that she’ll grow out of it. They won’t have a good collective laugh about it, including her, when she reaches age 11 or 12 and realizes that everyone played a good-natured joke on her. Because to them, this is no laughing matter, and no flight of fancy. They neither expect nor want her to cast aside the tale (and the book it came from) when she matures. On the contrary. The people who teach their brood these stories will maintain that the tales are true — literally or metaphorically — because the source is their favorite holy book. And they want their kids to sign on to that … forever.
Though I could be wrong, I’d wager that most of these parents will have scarcely given a thought to the extreme improbability of a man living inside a whale’s belly for three days before being vomited, intact, onto dry land.
Speaking of waterworld adventures, what of Noah’s story? I doubt that most Christians will readily reflect on the extremely remote possibility that Noah’s home-built ark was able to accommodate the untold thousands or even millions of species. In neat boy-girl pairs, no less. Likewise, most prayerful parents will probably dismiss skeptics who point out that animals like sloths and penguins, who can’t travel very well, couldn’t have made it to Noah’s place, thousands of miles from the creatures’ habitats. Et cetera.
Reason and open inquiry are, after all, often anathema1 to true faith.
At the risk of being a buzzkill, I ought to point out there are two vital differences between telling kids a fanciful Easter Bunny-type story, and indoctrinating them with the pretty and not-so-pretty stories from a holy book.
Firstly, I reiterate that the children of the faithful are expected to believe in, and live by, the latter — for life.
And secondly, there are serious social and psychological consequences if they don’t. The likelihood of ostracism, for one. The fear of causing deep parental disappointment, and of losing their moms’ and dads’ love and esteem, for another.
Even if you believe that the Bible isn’t literally true on every single page, I can’t say I understand why you would subject children to ‘sacred’ fairy tales and insist that they must ultimately believe in them until they die.
By extension, I don’t quite get why we wouldn’t simply let children make up their own minds, in due time, when they’re old enough to think for themselves.2
Meanwhile — sure, let them see how you live your faith. But also tell them about other religions, and about other creation stories — and about the fact that a billion people on this planet think that there are no gods at all.
Why wouldn’t you? Is it because forcing dogma on a five-year-old is easy as pie, and forcing dogma on a 20-year-old has every chance of failing?
In other words, for the love of _____ [fill in the blank], let’s please all stop doing this:
1I use the word advisedly. Anathema was originally used as a term for exile from the church, but evolved to mean set apart, banished, or denounced.
2This is what my wife and I do with our kids. They know that Mom’s a Christian and Dad’s an atheist, and we discuss it with them — when it comes up organically. But we also allow them to graze from other religions and world views. They’ve been to United Church of Christ summer camps and to friends’ Hannukah celebrations. They’re encouraged to learn about other faiths. We don’t tell them what to think. They’re smart, and kind, and they’ll figure out this religion stuff eventually.
Lawrence Wright is the author of a new bestseller about Scientology, Going Clear. He’s an ace reporter who is plenty familiar with the topic of religious craziness, having previously written the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower, a history of al Qaeda and the road to 9/11 (highly recommended).
I’ve yet to read his latest, but remembered that Wright had published a lengthy exposé about Scientology a couple of years ago, in The New Yorker. I just re-read that piece, and was struck by the parallels between the case of Maricica Irina Cornici, the killed-by-her-peers Romanian nun I wrote about yesterday, and that of Lisa McPherson, a Scientology member who, 18 years ago, likewise died a terrible death at the hands of her co-religionists.
…a Scientologist who died after a mental breakdown, in 1995. She had rear-ended a car in Clearwater, Florida — where Scientology has its spiritual headquarters — and then stripped off her clothes and wandered naked down the street. She was taken to a hospital, but, in the company of several other Scientologists, she checked out, against doctors’ advice. (The church considers psychiatry an evil profession.) McPherson spent the next seventeen days being subjected to church remedies, such as doses of vitamins and attempts to feed her with a turkey baster. She became comatose, and she died of a pulmonary embolism before church members finally brought her to the hospital. The medical examiner in the case, Joan Wood, initially ruled that the cause of death was undetermined, but she told a reporter, “This is the most severe case of dehydration I’ve ever seen.”
Deep psychological problems (possibly schizophrenia), check. A mental breakdown, check. Failure of fellow believers to seek or allow medical help, check. Multi-day practical imprisonment ‘for the victim’s own good,’ check. Dehydration and physical collapse, check. Death, check. (Note: Forensics experts hired by Scientology disputed some of the official autopsy’s findings.)
But there’s also a key difference between the two cases. People went to jail in Romania after Cornici died. By contrast, not a single Scientologist was ever properly held to account in McPherson’s death.
Scientology is still dogged by accusations that it holds members captive who wish to leave, and/or who have mental problems. Here’s such a report from just last week.