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Brainwashing: Children and Religion 6 May 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Documentary Film, Teaching.
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After watching the documentary Jesus Camp this afternoon, I was thinking about my strong emotional reaction to what I saw. Given what I’d read about the film and friends’ reactions, I had expected to be offended and disgusted. And indeed, I was actually embarassed by the weirdness of some of these people (the older woman with the cutout of Pres. Bush speaking in tongues was beyond freakish). But mostly I felt violated.

There’s a scene early in the movie with a young girl, around 7 or 8 years old, who is bowling with friends and family. As she tries to hit the pins, she prays to god to make it a good strike, and she “commands” the ball to do her will. Seeing this twisted my stomach in nots. I have vivid memories of believing that I had that kind of power, because I had faith.

The teachers used likely techniques to indoctrinate the children and to get them to believe: emotional activities designed to excite feelings, music and dancing, object lessons, rhythmic chanting, telling the kids that they are chosen and important, encouraging the children to profess their faith (not to mention to speak in tongues and heal), showing the kids models (inaccurate ones) of fetuses. But mostly it was the content of the teachings that disturbed me–a blatant manipulation of the emotions of a child.

Richard Dawkins has taken a lot of heat over the past year about the claim in his book The God Delusion that indoctrinating children into religion is a form of child abuse. It is hard to watch these kids talk about Americans as sinners who need chastening, or about how they are sinful for wanting to watch Harry Potter, just because it’s so silly. Or even more, the little bowling girl goes up to evangelize a woman at the bowling lanes, it’s painful to see the brainwashing in practice. But taken as a whole, the kids taling about why evolution is evil, and global warming isn’t true, and how they have to redeem america from Satan…it’s hard not to see this is child abuse.

I suppose it is my own discomfort with my own childhood, and the degree to which I had believed what I was taught. I realize mormonism is a different kind of religion from Evangelicalism, but many of the processes were the same. I have to wonder if my long, difficult journey to reshape my own world view and perspective would have taken so long had I not been indoctrinated in the way I was.

For me, the film raises again the question that may very well be at the center of democratic freedom: what rights do children have? Do they have the right to be raised free from their parents’ superstition? Is the kind of emotional, pyschological, and intellectual damage inflicted on children not a form of abuse? I believe that these parents are sincere in their beliefs and they truly want what is best for their kids. But is sincerity enough to justify what religion does to children?

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‘Hometown Baghdad’ Web Documentaries 29 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Documentary Film, War & Terrorism.
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I just spent a half hour watching the mini-documentaries about three men — Adel, Aussama, and Saif — living in Baghdad. The filmmakers followed them around over the past year in an effort to break through the banality and machine-like rhythm of news reporting on the Iraq War. For me, watching the lives of people in a war zone, trying to be “normal” and to still believe in their lives’ dreams snapped me out of a low-level anger and irritation over the war. I realized how, even though my objections to the war include its human cost, my primary objections have been political and intellectual. Here you cannot help but confront the day-to-day impact our ill-conceived invasion has on people whom, under normal circumstances, we would sit around in a coffee house and debate literature, talk about our lives, and enjoy the company of a friend.

The mini-documentaries are up on Hometown Bagdad and also on Salon.com. They have started distributing them through YouTube, through it’s New York based producers Chat the Planet, for maximum publicity. And they are available in vid-cast form through iTunes.

Watch them and spread the word. Here’s the most recent episode, “Symphony of Bullets.”

From Hometown Baghdad‘s description:

Hometown Baghdad
A documentary web series following the lives of a few Iraqi 20-somethings trying to survive in Baghdad.

The everyday life of the Iraqi citizen has been the great untold story of the Iraq war.

The Distribution
The brave Iraqi subjects and crew risked their lives every time they turned on a camera to make this series. They want to show the world what life is like when your hometown is a war-zone. We believe that people who see their stories will want to share them with others. That’s why we’re distributing the series online. So please – watch the videos, rewatch them, tell friends about them, comment on them, and link to them.

The Language
The intention of the Iraqi filmmakers and subjects was to show the world what Baghdad is truly like. That’s why they usually speak English and not Arabic.

The Producers
It is a co-production between NY-based Chat the Planet and a group of Iraqi filmmakers in Baghdad. The subjects also turned the cameras on themselves when it became too dangerous for our crew to travel through Baghdad.

And from Salon.com’s description:

What we immediately found absorbing in “Hometown Baghdad” is not the fear, confusion or carnage we’ve grown to expect from documentary reports out of Iraq. It’s the three men central to this series — Adel, Ausama and Saif — whose lives we see unfold in short, telling vignettes. We see them eat dinner and go to school, watch them go swimming and practice in their rock band. But in a war-torn, religiously divided city, even these simple actions are fraught.

On the fourth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq, when many of us have become hopelessly inured to reports of yet another bombing, the simple struggles of regular people take on a greater, more chilling power; we watch a way of life deteriorate before our eyes, and come to recognize the horrors of war in a way that the bold headlines or CNN news alerts no longer convey. We think you’ll find them compelling and thought-provoking, and hope you’ll write in to the Letters section to tell us what you think. The first three episodes appear in the left-hand column (and here). Additional installments will appear every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the next few months.

The shooting of “Hometown Baghdad” was led by directors and producers Ziad Turkey and Fady Hadid over the course of the past year; the series was co-produced by New York-based Chat the Planet, which will distribute these videos, after a short period of exclusivity on Salon, to a variety of online outlets (including YouTube.com, Joost and the series’ own Web site) for maximum exposure.

The Root of All Evil?: Part 2—The Virus of Faith (Review) 5 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cognitive Science, Cultural Critique, Documentary Film, Ethics, Evolution, Judaism, Political Commentary, Religion, Reviews, Science, Secular Humanism.
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Whereas when I watched Part 1, I found myself wishing Dawkins could be more social-scientific in his analysis of religion, watching the second installment I just found myself wishing he would slap some of these people, which is evidence of my own growing impatience with the power of religion in American society and of Dawkins’ equanimity (at least on film). Overall, I would say that Part 2 is far superior to Part 1, and would highly recommend it, even for showing to religious believers. My online acquaintance Bob McCue (who has posted thoughtful and detailed responses on this blog on the evolution of religion, here and here), has argued recently that the problem with the documentary as a whole is that it is basically preaching to the choir, that believers would not be swayed or moved to consider critically their beliefs by watching the film, and in fact might probably be turned away from the film by Dawkins’ apparent strident atheism. I find that to be especially true of Part 1, but perhaps less so of Part 2 for a couple of reasons.

First, Dawkins addresses directly the thinking and arguments of religion, especially of conservative brands of Judaism and Christianity. The Christians he engaged were difficult to listen to as they defended both their moral positions and their immoral actions. But what is worthwhile about Dawkins’ response is that he remains relatively calm and with more patience than I could muster, responds and engages their arguments with basic reasoned responses. Although I do still think that such engagement is, at the end of the day, probably a waste of time, simply because religious adherents don’t share the basic assumptions of scientific method or rational inquiry, I think that some people might be given pause by Dawkins’ simple insistence that they give reasons for their beliefs and actions. [Incidentally,I found it a stark lack that there were no imams interviewed for the program; and I also wondered how he would have addressed Buddhism and Hinduism (both of which, incidentally, have fundamentalist forms).]

Secondly, I found the actual science, albeit watered down, to be strong. Two main points from evolutionary and cognitive sciences are given: a) that children are genetically set up to absorb information from their surroundings and will accept information given to them by authority figures; and b) that we are genetically selected for altruism, the biological source of our basic morality. On both points, Dawkins raises the scientific evidence as reasons for his positions, namely that children should not be subjected to harmful ideas that create faulty and dangerous morality and that moral behavior is not based on a divine lawgiver.

I also found Dawkins to be magnanimous in his dealings with the likes of Michael Bray, who was arguing for why murdering OB-Gyns who perform abortions is morally justified. Dawkins notes that he could tell Bray was sincere and at base a good man, but that because of his religious views, he couldn’t see the moral complexity of the issues and the immorality of his own position, which he simply passed off to God. Equally frustrating to me was Dawkins’ conversation with the pastor running a Hell House in Colorado. For those not in the know, about 15 years ago, an Assemblies of God congregation staged an “alternative” haunted house for Halloween, wherein people would see, in stead of monsters, the fate of torture and damnation awaiting sinners in the next life. Rather than engaging Dawkins’ arguments, Keenan Roberts simply resorted to “witnessing,” that it is God’s law and he must scare children so that they’ll not burn in hell. [I highly recommend the documentary film Hell House as a bird’s eye view into the social construction of hell and sin and the inner workings of a conservative evangelical school, congregation, and family.]

Dawkins quoting Steven Weinberg (1979 Nobel Laureat in Physics):

Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you’d have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.

As a normative, I would argue that moral positions must be supported and held provisionally as we would any proposition about the world. That means that moral positions must be accompanied by reasoned arguments and evidence, just as we would expect of any other kind of position, political, economic, etc. The primary disconnect between people of faith and people of reason is precisely there: for a person of faith, the morality is a given, an end-in-itself, beyond critique and examination. This faithful position is held without realizing that their own moralities are historical and culturally specific, even though they experience them as transcendental and divine. Either that gap must be bridged or we must find a way within democracies to rein in the power of this kind of thinking.

The Root of All Evil?: Part 1—The God Delusion (review) 1 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cultural Critique, Documentary Film, Islam, Judaism, Philosophy of Science, Political Commentary, Religion, Reviews, Science.
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[My review of Part 2—The Virus of Faith can be found here.]

There has been much ado about Richard Dawkins’ Channel 4 two-part documentary, The Root of All Evil?, mainly because of Dawkins’ almost strident atheism and because of the relatively inflamatory title. [The video is not yet available in North America, but both parts are currently downloadable from Google Video, Part 1 here and Part 2 here.] Having been raised in a pretty orthodox Mormon household and having family on both sides who are quite religious now, I tend to be less afraid of religiosity in general than Dawkins seems to be. And I do sympathize with the religious impulse, the desire to beleive in something greater, for an explanation of both the uncertainty and fickleness of life as well as the disappointment with the realities of our existence.

When I realized I no longer believed in God, I found myself with twin wounds, one left by the loss of community, the other by the loss of submission to something greater. Dawkins seems to miss these dynamics completely, the importance of communal bonds and identity formation in people’s desire for and attachment to their religious beliefs. On Bill Moyers’ new series, On Faith & Reason, Collin McGinn said that when he left faith behind he found the world without God to be so much more vibrant and rich than it ever was with God. Although I did also eventually arrive at that conclusion, the years it took me to separate myself from religion were painful and transformed my most basic world view. The difficulty in replacing one’s world view and/or accepting the full implications of rationality and science can be quite overwhelming, but the documentary presents Reason as an easy englightenment, to which folks should easily convert.

So the main problem I had with the documentary emerges from my personal experience combined with my training as a sociologist: Dawkins doesn’t seem to fully understand how and why religion has the power it does on people, the role that it actually plays in people’s lives to give them meaning. All he seems to be able to see is its irrationality and anti-scientific mindset, along with the horrifying moral consequences of such belief. I had no qualms or disagreement with Dawkins on these points, but the documentary seemed to set up two categories of religion and science without addressing the complexities of why people believe in the first place and why it can be so hard for an individual, emotionally, socially and psychologically, to leave a faith-community. An exploration of these dynamics can help us understand more deeply why people refuse the evidences of science and rational argument; and more importantly it could help us understand to have more productive dialogues with the faithful, something of utmost importance if we are going to save our democracies around the world from collapsing into theocracies.

Another quibble I had was that the documentary painted religion with such a big brush that suicide bombers and rabid fundamentalists are lumped in with the millions of religious who fight injustice, hunger, and violence world wide. Human religions are vastly diverse and have multiple and contradictory consequences in the real world. It is problematic to ignore these deeply moral aspects to many of the world’s religious. I don’t point this out as an apology for religion, but rather to insist on seeing religion as a form of culture in all its complexity. Dawkins’ points about rationality and science stand even in the face of the morally positive aspects of religion.
[Dawkins has responded to many aspects of these and other criticisms in The New Statesman and in a great interview with the Infidel Guy.]

In all other aspects, I found the documentary to be a solid explanation of why scientific thinking and rational thought should prevail over religious belief, especially in the public sphere. Dawkins’ discussions with the likes of Ted Haggard illustrate clearly the problems of having rational discourse with some kinds of faithful. Haggard refuses the most basic premises of rational thinking and evidentiation of argument and insists, in an odd religious postmodern twist, that all ideas are of equal value and should be given equal time. He even goes so far as to accuse Dawkins of arrogance for making scientific assertions. In another interview on Point of Inquiry, Dawkins points out the arrogance is actually making assertions for which you have no evidence whatsoever and expecting that no one will criticize your position.

As I’ve been musing lately about the merits of rationality and especially about my own work in social theory and method, I find myself frustrated by the simple fact that many people simply, willfully refuse to accept the basic mode of rational thinking. McGinn pointed out that both the academic left and the religious right have been assailing rational thought in an odd sort of allegiance for the past 30 years, where on one hand postmodern philosophy and on the other fundamentalism make similar claims that require belief without evidence and refuse the most basic of rules of logic and empirical reasoning. It may simply be that it is impossible to have that discussion where those premises are not shared. For the academic left, perhaps more empirically and rationally minded researchers can work harder to actively engage in advocating the methods of rational inquiry; and perhaps for the religious right, the best we can do is continue unceasingly to fight for the fundamental principles of democracy that would allow them their religiosity without infringing on social progress. One debate, on the left, is ongoing and will probably work itself as postmodernism continues to lose its caché outside of the humanities; but with Dawkins, I do fear the power of the fundamentalist mind whose morality is clear and justifies violence and coercion to remake society in his or her image.