Several days ago, Polly and I traveled to Jackson, Michigan to have dinner with Sergio and Russ, two people I had met through this blog and Facebook. Russ talked about how he had been exposed to a variety of Christian sects and how this cornucopia of beliefs caused him to be skeptical of religion. Teenage Russ quickly figured out that no two sects had the same beliefs. Each sect had different beliefs, yet all of them supposedly worshiped the same God. Russ rightly wondered, if they are all worshiping the same God, why is this God giving each sect different beliefs? Questions such as this ultimately resulted in Russ rejecting religion and embracing atheism.
Polly and I grew up in Fundamentalist Christian homes. Neither of us can remember a time when we weren’t part of an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church. After high school, both of us attended an IFB college, Midwestern Baptist College. We met, married, and several years later began pastoring IFB churches. We were in our thirties before we attended a church outside of the IFB church movement. Indoctrinated in the one, true IFB faith, we were certain that our sect and its beliefs were the faith once delivered to the saints. While we grudgingly admitted that there were Christians in other sects, we believed that our sect was the only one that had the right beliefs. Not only did we have the right beliefs, we also had a pure lineage that reached all the way back to Jesus and John the Baptist. While we would eventually abandon the IFB church movement for the friendlier confines of generic Evangelicalism, it would be another 20 years before we left Christianity.
By being exposed to a plethora of beliefs, Russ was able, at an early age, to conclude that Christianity was false. Polly and I, on the other hand, having been exposed only to a narrow set of beliefs, spent five decades of our life in the Evangelical church before we could extricate ourselves from its hold on our lives. Sergio had a similar background, having been raised in an Evangelical home. He spoke of the anger that came when he realized he had wasted much of his adult life believing a lie. And not just believing, but diligently trying to live according to the precepts of Evangelical Christianity. Polly and I had similar anger and regret. It is hard not to be bitter when thinking about wasting the most productive, healthy years of your life worshiping a mythical God.
Which path should children be encouraged to follow — that of Russ or that of Bruce, Polly, and Sergio? I think most agnostics and atheists would agree that blind devotion to religious dogma harms children and robs of them the critical things skills necessary to help them understand life. Instead of being immersed in Christianity, children are better served if they are exposed to a wide spectrum of religious beliefs, including non-Christian religions.
I have long advocated that public high school students be required to take a comparative religion class. Such a class would expose students to the various world religions and their teachings. Once exposed, like Russ, they will be in the position to compare religions. Since most public school students come from Christian homes, this means they would be exposed to religions different from their own. This exposure would provide an effective inoculation from Fundamentalism and religious bigotry.
Evangelicals continue to demand that the various trappings of the Christian religion be reintroduced in public schools. Often, Evangelicals will argue that morality requires religion, and it is our duty to give students a moral and ethical foundation. Fine, I say. Every school then should require high school students to take a comparative religion class. Middle school and elementary students should regularly be exposed to a variety of religious beliefs, taught from a historical perspective. What better way to turn out well-rounded students than to expose them to a variety of beliefs, including atheism, agnosticism, humanism, paganism, and Satanism? Doing this prepares students for choosing their own non-religious/religious path. By the time students graduate they will have a sufficient understanding of religion and will be in the position to choose accordingly.
Surely Evangelicals want their children to have all the facts about religion, including Christianity. Surely, they don’t want their children making ill-informed decisions about God and salvation. Well, actually Evangelicals don’t want their children to be exposed to other religions. Instead, Evangelicals diligently indoctrinate their children into what they believe is the one true faith. Children born into Evangelical homes are bombarded with calls to put their faith and trust in Jesus. Sunday school teachers and children’s church workers use manipulative and high-pressure techniques to induce children into asking Jesus into their hearts. If children make it through the primary years unsaved, they are handed off to youth directors who “encourage” them to put their faith and trust in Jesus. The goal is to make sure children are saved and on the narrow path before they become young adults. Church leaders know if unsaved children reach adulthood they are often “lost” forever.
The next time you hear Evangelicals clamoring for Christianity to be reintroduced into public schools, ask them if they would support teaching students about other religions. Keep pressing them until they admit that what they really want is a religious monoculture. In their minds, there is no King but Jesus and no religious truth but the Bible. If left to their own devices, many Evangelicals would burn freedom of religion at the stake and turn the United States into a theocracy. Exposing Evangelical children to other religions is crucial in our attempts to beat back theocratic thinking. Once exposed, religious extremism loses its power.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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