The other day I found myself singing a whacky little song I was taught in Vacation Bible School:
We are soldiers in the army. We have to fight although we have to die. We have to hold up the blood-stained banner. We have to hold it up until we die.
Now ______, he was a solider. He had his hands on the gospel plow. One day he got old and couldn’t fight any more he said, ‘stand up and fight anyhow!”
What the hell were we thinking? Those are lyrics to a song we’d expect to hear at a terrorist training camp somewhere. Just a fun, harmless song about staying strong in the Lord, you say? It’s harmless like a jingle for a kids’ cereal with jolly ranchers and cupcakes inside is harmless. Christians wanna talk about the unholiness of ‘secular’ music and rock and roll in the church? We have gospel songs bordering on a terrorist salvo and taught to children, no less! Talk about seeing the sawdust and missing the plank.
Religion is crazy. Having been raised in the Christian church, I often use the royal ‘we’ when referring to Christians, the church and religious people in general. It’s fair to say that I’ve run the spectrum of faith at this point, back and forth between fundamentalism and apostasy. Although I feel incredibly stupid for some of the things I may have believed, said and done in the name of ‘faith’ at different times in the past, I make no apology for seeking truth or meaning in life. I also readily concede that my beliefs and opinions are totally subject to change in the future - we all have minds so we can change them. There is nothing original about what I’m about to say, considering atheists, skeptics, agnostics and apostates have been decrying the imposition of religion on children for decades.
Religious doctrine, when imposed on children as truth is brainwashing. I have no desire to engage in some esoteric debate about brainwashing vs teaching. In the Christian church, we are taught the super-unnatural nature of God, the validity of the Bible and the reality of sin and its consequences from a very young age. We are encouraged to remember and recite memory verses, pray without ceasing and think in terms of personal testimony as proof of God’s existence. The church is often the first (and sometimes, only) institution that formally introduces abstract concepts like love, forgiveness, grace and compassion to young children. Unfortunately, in the Christian context, it is impossible to have a discussion about love and forgiveness without referencing buzzwords like, sin, repentance, guilt, shame and the hell. Most of us never move past this stage, viewing the physical and spiritual world as a series of black or white, cause->effect circumstances. I do something bad -> I go to hell. I did something bad -> Jesus died for it: ‘how tragic and beautiful!’ ‘Like a rose, trampled on the ground!’ This newfound understanding of redemption leads to a confusing cocktail of feelings: guilt, gratitude, shame, joy, fear, euphoria, grief, relief. We are inspired or ‘led by the spirit’ to ‘live for God’ henceforth. Oddly, this journey of faith is not complete with just one revelation, it is cyclical, evidenced by ‘re-commitments’ and ‘re-baptisms’ and spiritual highs and lows. If a grown man can’t break from this cycle, imagine the implications for an adolescent child.
In June of this year, the advertising world was taken aback when one of its biggest creative superstars announced he was leaving the industry, primarily due to his misgivings about advertising to children:
“As we all know from experience, children are not small grownups. Their brains are fundamentally different, the big difference being that right hemisphere brain development doesn’t really kick in until the age of twelve. This is important because without the right hemisphere involved, all decisions and concepts are very black and white. If you have kids, you’ve experienced this: The child that learns at school that drinking can be dangerous and suddenly thinks that glass of wine is going to kill dad. All things go into a category of good or bad; there are no grey areas for children. And this leaves them fundamentally and developmentally unequipped to deal with advertising in the way an adult can. If you sit with a child and watch TV commercials, you will notice how vigorously effective the messages are. “I want that.” “Can I have that?” “I need that.” These words come out of their mouths with seemingly every message, and they mean it and they believe it and they are defenseless against it. And that is the issue.”
It’s ironic that we should be taking our moral cues from the man who transformed Burger King into a cool global brand, but if anyone would know the difference between brainwashing and persuasion, an ad man would be the one to ask. The “message” of religion and the way we deliver it to young children leaves them defenseless. Mature reasoning has yet to kick in. Social acceptance is their ultimate reward and primary driver. They are defenseless.
I’m not overreacting. I’ve run my share of Vacation Bible Schools and I’ve sung the songs. I know we take it with a grain salt. Too bad Jesus Camp is like a terrifying video diary of my past summers. Look, it’s easy to justify and rationalize bits and pieces of our religion when examined in small increments. One song is just one song, when considering the hundreds of songs a child will hear and learn. And as far as I can remember, I’ve never seen a little Christian boy holding up a literal blood-stained banner. But as a reformed religious nutcase, it’s hard for me to ignore the religious assault we employ on our most defenseless minds. Values are important and every parent has the right and responsibility to teach their children to be kind and decent human beings. But let’s not confuse kindness and decency with the existence of God or loyalty to religious praxis. We can teach children lasting values without reciting religion. Compassion as taught by an atheist is still compassion. Kindness is still kindness. Love is still love. Religion is crazy to make us think otherwise.
I’m not here to judge parents who raise their children in the church. My parents were of the same mind and I’m happy I was raised the way I was. Here’s what I’d really like to say: the importance of nurturing a child’s sense of reason, independence and curiosity cannot be overstated. The world will be infinitely improved if your child grows to become a rational, decent person - let this be your contribution to the world. We need free-thinking teens and adults who can take all of our institutions to higher ground. The power of common sense is deceptively superlative and sadly, appears to be less and less common. Let’s fight to get it back… stand up and fight anyhow!