Friday, November 17, 2006

Parents should think carefully before subjecting their children to Religious Indoctrination

Pascal Boyer’s research into “Children’s Acquisition of Religious Concepts through Intuitive Ontology and Cultural Input” (*) on which much of which this post is based gives us great insights into the workings and development of the ‘hardwired’ human brain. It should also give thinking parents something to ponder before automatically carrying on the narrow religious perspectives that have shaped their own lives and that have both been in the past and are today, the cause of many of societies most violent and ‘human existence threatening’ problems.

First the definition of Ontology (1.0):

Ontology is variously described as: The study of the broadest range of categories of existence, which also asks questions about the existence of particular kinds of objects, such as numbers or moral facts. (1.1) The study of the nature of being, reality, and substance. (1.2) A branch of metaphysics concerned specifically with what (kinds of) things there are. (1.3) A study of the ultimate nature of things. (1.4) The science of being or reality in the abstract, particularly as related to ideas or theories. (1.5) The study of being and what constitutes objective and subjective existence and what it means to exist (1.6)

Do children have a natural propensity to develop religious beliefs?

‘Recent research on children's thinking about imaginary beings, magic, religion and the supernatural indicates that their thinking stretches beyond the ordinary boundaries of reality. The evolution of imaginative capacities in humans, becomes clear when we focus on basic imagination that is generally automatic and largely unconscious that helps us produce representations of such basic things as; what people will say next, that people exist when out of sight, or what aspects of our environment are potentially dangerous. These examples suggest that there may not be one faculty of imagination but many specialised "what if" inferential systems in human minds. The more recent research offers a counterpoint on the development of children's domain-specific knowledge about the ordinary nature of things that has traditionally suggested that children [only] become increasingly scientific and rational over the course of their development.’ (*)

In acquiring an intuitive understanding of the physical, biological or psychological domains, even young children recognize that there are constraints on what can happen. However, once such constraints are acknowledged, children are in a position to think about the violation of those very same constraints and to contemplate the impossible. Perhaps the real contribution of this research is that it introduces the notion that children's ideas about fantasy, magic, religion, and science are interrelated in important ways. (2.0)

Cognition is “the process of being or ability to be aware, knowing, thinking, learning, reasoning and judging”. Cognitive developmental evidence is sometimes conscripted to support "naturalized epistemology" arguments to the effect that a general epistemic stance leads children to build theory-like accounts of underlying properties of different kinds of input. (3.1)


Epistemology is the study of the nature and scope of knowledge. The term "epistemology" is based on the Greek words "episteme" (knowledge) and "logos" (account/explanation). Epistemology looks at the proposition that knowledge is what is both true and believed, though not all that is both true and believed counts as knowledge. For a diagram of this you can go here:


Much of the debate in this field has focused on analyzing the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, belief and justification. It also deals with the means of production of knowledge, as well as skepticism about different knowledge claims. In other words, epistemology primarily addresses the following questions: "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", and "What do people know?". Recent studies have dramatically challenged centuries-old assumptions. (3.2)

Two Levels of the mental representation of conceptual knowledge

‘In the mental representation of conceptual knowledge we can distinguish between two levels of organisation, that of ‘kind-concepts’ (or ‘entry-level’ concepts) on the one hand and that of ‘ontological categories’ on the other. The former are concepts like ‘giraffe’ or ‘telephone’ or ‘uncle’ or ‘tree’ or ‘river’. Their representation activates higher-level categories of the fundamental kinds of things in the world, like animal, artefact, person, plant, natural object. Any object in the word that is identified as belonging to a kind-concept thereby activates a particular ontological category. In the same way, concepts of imaginary objects and beings are intuitively associated with particular ontological categories. The concept of ‘spirit’ we find in so many cultures activates the category PERSON. If you pray to a particular statue of the Virgin, you are standing or kneeling in front of an ARTEFACT. If you think that some antelopes can disappear at will, you must activate your ANIMAL category to represent these special beings.’ (3.3)

‘Two inferential routes allow children to produce expectations about new instances of ontological categories like 'animal' and 'artefact'. One is to generalise information from a 'look-up table' of familiar kind-concepts. The other one is to use independent expectations at the level of ontological domains. Evidence suggests that what prompts conceptual acquisition is not a general epistemic stance but a series of category-specific intuitive principles that constitute an evolved 'natural metaphysics'. [Metaphysics (Greek/Latin words meta = after/beyond and physics = nature) is a branch of study concerned with abstract thought and philosophy about topics not on the concrete or physical level of understanding].’ (*)

What we can perhaps conclude is that the human mind through the process of evolution has become hardwired with, what for the sake of a better term, we could call ‘instinctual survival knowledge of which perhaps a natural tendency to be religious is a part.

Humans have therefore it appears developed or inherited from previous generations a system of mind ‘categories and category-specific inferential processes founded on definite biases in prototype formation. Evidence for this system provides a better understanding of the limited 'plasticity' of ontological commitments as well as a computationally plausible account of their initial state, avoiding ambiguities about innateness. This may provide a starting point for a 'naturalized epistemology' that takes into account evolved properties of human conceptual structures.’ (*)

Human ‘expertise’ consists of different domains of competence

‘Research has also begun to suggest that human expertise about the natural and social environment, including what is often called 'semantic knowledge', or “Semantic memory which refers to the memory of meanings, understandings and other knowledge; in contrast to episodic memory” (3.4) is best construed as consisting of different domains of competence. Each of these corresponds to recurrent evolutionary problems, is organised along specific principles, is the outcome of a specific developmental pathway and is based on specific neural structures. What we call a 'human evolved intuitive ontology' comprises a catalogue of broad domains of information, different sets of principles applied to these different domains as well as different learning rules to acquire more information about those objects. Neuro-imaging and cognitive neuroscience are now adding to the picture of a federation of evolved competencies.’ (*)

‘Children's learning - in the domains of science and religion specifically and in many other cultural domains as well, relies extensively on testimony and other forms of culturally transmitted information. The cognitive processes that enable such learning must also administrate the evaluation, qualification, and storage of that information, while guarding against the dangers of false or misleading information. Currently, the development of these appraisal processes is not clearly understood. Recent work has begun to address three important dimensions of the problem: how children and adults evaluate truth in communication, how they gauge the inferential potential of information and how they encode and evaluate its source.’ (*)

Another element that comes into play here is ‘trust’ and it has also been discovered that the human tendency to trust is a chemical process stimulated by the oxytocin hormone that is secreted in brain tissues and synthesized by the hypothalamus. This small, but crucial feature located deep in the brain controls biological reactions like hunger, thirst and body temperature, as well as visceral fight-or-flight reactions associated with powerful, basic emotions like fear and anger. (3.5) Obviously one of the processes that children will fall victim to when assessing information validity is naturally higher level of the trust hormone that would be present between parents and children in ‘normal’ relationships. So if mum and dad are filling their head with rubbish it is more likely to be accepted as truth (or worse reality) due to the child’s weaken resistance or ability to analyse because of the trust bond.

Evolution of the modern mind and the origins of culture

The human cultural explosion is often explained in terms of "liberating events", of a newly acquired flexibility in mental representations. Actual cultural transmission is in fact constrained by evolved properties of ontological categories and principles. More generally, "cultural mind" typical of recent human evolution is not so much an "unconstrained" mind as a mind equipped with a host of complex specialised capacities that make certain kinds of mental representations likely to succeed in cultural transmission. (*)

Religious Thought and Behaviour As By-products of Brain Function

Religious concepts activate various functionally distinct mental systems, present also in non-religious contexts and 'tweak' the usual inferences of these systems.

They deal firstly with detection and representation of “animacy” (combination of initiative or autonomy, choice or purposefulness and strategy or reactivity). (4.1) Animacy can be more properly understood as a framework or way of thinking. Animate thinking stems from a basic need to explain happenings and tell simple stories about them and a need to fit things into roles in the stories as actors and objects of action. Scientific and mechanistic ways of thinking are in some sense attempts to get beyond these basic animistic tendencies, in that they tend to eliminate autonomy by searching for a cause for every action. But the tendency to describe the world in terms of [individuals as] autonomous actors is strong. (4.2)

Secondly religious concepts activate mental systems that deal with “agency”. Briefly, agency in simple terms deals with four factors: stimulating agency, behaviour-cue, behaviour-object and behaviour-act. They may be thought of as very loosely analogous to the physiologist's concepts of external stimulus, receptor-process, conductor-process, and effector-process. The stimulating agency may be defined in any standardized terms, those of physics, of physiology, or of common sense and it constitutes the independent, initiating cause of the whole behaviour phenomenon. Thus on different occasions it may consists variously in and be describable as, as sense-organ stimulation (in the case of perceptual behaviour), as the administering of a particular drug, e.g., hashish (in the case of hallucinatory behaviour), or as the neurological end-result of a preceding activity (in the case of a behaviour based upon memory or recall). (4.3) In the theory of Agency the key concepts present within "agency" are that “the individual”, “action”, “will” (as in the will to do something), “intentionality”, “”choice” and “freedom” Key concepts against which "agency" is commonly situated are: structure, determinism, society, environment, inevitability. From the point of view of “philosophy” agency is about “what is the individual, self or person?” (e.g., what is the unit of 'agency'?), or what, as a contrast, is not-agent (e.g. environment, structure, inanimate)? Agency can also be expressed as the concept of: the self is that which knows itself; existence is best understood by radical categorical divisions between mind-body, self-other, etcetera, for heuristic and ontological reasons. (4.4)

‘Religious concepts also activate mental systems involved in normal, social exchange, moral intuitions, precaution against natural hazards and the understanding of misfortune. Each of these activates distinct neural resources or families of networks. What makes notions of supernatural agency intuitively plausible? Evidence suggests that it is the joint, coordinated activation of these diverse systems, a supposition that opens up the prospect of a cognitive neuroscience as a legitimate way of exploring religious beliefs [as a being a natural function of the evolution the human brain and based on some level of survival the mechanism or even a ‘misfiring’ of that mechanism].’ (*)

The role of rituals and… why do we indulge in “Collective Ritual”?

‘Ritualized behaviour is a specific way of organizing the flow of action, characterized by stereotypy, rigidity in performance, a feeling of compulsion and specific themes, in particular the potential danger from contamination, predation and social hazard. A neuro-cognitive model of ritualized behaviour in human development and pathology, based on the activation of a specific hazard-precaution system specialized in the detection of and response to potential threats seems to exist. Certain features of collective rituals, by conveying information about potential danger and presenting appropriate reaction as a sequence of rigidly described precautionary measures, probably activate this neuro-cognitive system. This makes some collective ritual sequences highly attention-demanding and intuitively compelling and contributes to their transmission from place to place or generation to generation. The recurrence of ritualized behaviour [as used in many religious and cult practices] as a central feature of collective ceremonies may be explained as a consequence of this bias in selective transmission.’ (*)

This of course explains why religious organisations are so keen on rituals and it is also why cult like governments such as North Korea hold large cultural rituals to denigrate the US and to worn the citizenry of the ‘evils’ beyond their borders.

Ritualized Behaviour, Precaution Systems and Action-Parsing in Developmental, Pathological and Cultural Rituals

‘Stereotypic, rigidly scripted behaviour found in cultural rituals is also found in children's routines, in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and in normal adults around certain stages of the life-cycle. Researchers now offer an explanation of an evolved “Precaution System” geared to the detection of and reaction to INFERRED THREATS TO FITNESS, distinct from systems for manifest danger. The “Precaution System” includes a repertoire of potential hazards as well as a repertoire of species-typical precautions. Impairment in the system's feedback accounts for OCD rituals. Gradual calibration of this system occurs through childhood routines. Mimicry of this system's natural input makes cultural rituals salient and compelling.’ (*)

One could from this standpoint almost view highly religious people as suffering from varying levels of socialised obsessive-compulsive disorder. They again, to my way of thinking, could be seen as individuals suffering from seeing themself existing at the lower “Maslow Needs Motivation Levels” of physiological/security (or insecurity?) or at best prestige seeking, thus they are being locked into a system that is constantly stimulating a ‘natural’ “Precaution System” response.

Conceptual and Strategic Selection in Evolved Minds

‘Culturally successful religious concepts are the outcome of selective processes that make some concepts more likely than others to be easily acquired, stored and transmitted. Among the constructs of human imagination, some connect to intuitive ontological principles in such a way that they constitute a small catalogue of culturally successful supernatural concepts. Experimental and anthropological evidence confirm the salience and transmission potential of this catalogue. Among these supernatural concepts, cognitive capacities for social interaction introduce a further selection. As a result, some concepts of supernatural agents are connected to morality, group-identity, ritual and emotion. These typical 'religious' supernatural agents are tacitly presumed to have access to information that is crucial to social interaction, an assumption that boosts their spread in human groups.’ (*)
Why Is Religion Natural?

‘Is religious belief a mere leap into irrationality as many sceptics assume? Psychology suggests that there may be more to belief than the suspension of reason. Religious beliefs and practices are found in all human groups and go back to the very beginnings of human culture. What makes religion so 'natural'? One particular [traditional] view of religion, popular among sceptics, is what Boyer calls the 'sleep of reason' interpretation. According to this view, people have religious beliefs because they fail to reason properly. If only they grounded their reasoning in sound logic or rational order, they would not have supernatural beliefs, including superstitions and religion. Boyer thinks this view is misguided, for several reasons; because it assumes a dramatic difference between religious and commonsense ordinary thinking, where there isn't one; because it suggests that belief is a matter of deliberate weighing of evidence, which is generally not the case; because it implies that religious concepts could be eliminated by mere argument, which is implausible; and most importantly because it obscures the real reasons why religion is so extraordinarily widespread in human cultures.’ (*)

Boyer’s interesting article, which explains his thoughts on this subject can be found in its entirety here:

For in depth information you can also read “Functional Origins of Religious Concepts” here:

Another insight into the human mind and ‘God’ titled “Gods, Spirits and the Mental Instincts that Create Them” can be found here:

So what’s the point Richard?

According to Boyer, “RELIGIOUS CONCEPTS ARE PARASITIC UPON MORAL INTUITIONS”. He also says, “there is an early-developed specific inference system, a specialised 'moral sense' underlying moral intuitions. Notions of morality are distinct from those used to evaluate other aspects of social interaction (this is why social conventions and moral imperatives are so easily distinguished). They provide an initial basis on which children can understand adult moral understandings.” ‘This capacity for entertaining abstract intuitions about the moral nature of courses of action was found in children with various amounts of experience with other children [and also in children] of different cultures.’

What I also find interesting is this: “That children have early moral concepts does not mean that they have the same moral understandings as adults, far from it. First, young children have more difficulty in figuring out other agents' intentions and feelings; second, they do not have a rich repertoire of past episodes to draw from when representing the key features of a situation; third, they may not be aware of local parameters of social interaction.” (5.1)

So my point is that the traditional (and current) practice of indoctrination of children, particularly by parents (“intellectual incest” as I have called it) in a singular religious view or “faith labelling” as Prof. Dawkins calls it, IS AN INDEFENSIBLE PRACTICE. The reason is that much religious practice actually corrupts the inherent moral nature of innocents and contributes to the delinquency of individuals by providing and promoting a belief, which in effect is saying, that all that is moral can be ignored and subjugated in the name of the influencing agent’s concept or view of ‘god’ and ‘god’s word’ and by the influencing parties’ interpretation of ‘god’s’ laws. Corruption of the innocent by the powerful.

So rather than being a system of morality or a recipe for a ‘correct and righteous lifestyle’ as religious adherents claim, their faiths are actually nothing more than a divisive mind numbing load old rubbish inflicted by immoral adults on children that are too young to resist. If religious traditions where true (and moral) there could only be one religion. Not only are there many religions, there are many grubby factions all arguing about who has the correct view of their particular prophet’s teachings. If the religions truly did represent “god’s word” and god was there in the theistic sense these divisions of opinion surely could not exist. Where for example is the morality in the ‘Caliph succession’ argument between Shiites and Sunnis or in the procedural or doctrinal argument between the Catholics and the Anglicans?

The religious leaders and their abetting adult followers are on about power influence and “ownership” rather than any moral crusade. The ownership of children by parents is a contentious issue and I believe that parents do not own their children however they do bare responsibility for protection and support until the child can fend for itself. Adults that for example give their daughters up to marriage at ages as young as five are not living up to their ‘human moral’ responsibility any more than are domineering parents who over manage their children’s decisions and/or indoctrinate them in such things as an Evangelistic way of life.

“In a high-ownership situation, parents feel they have a right to control their children's behaviour and life choices, even that of adult children. They themselves often live their lives through their children. Their children's professional success or breeding success is their own. Their children's disgrace is theirs too. Reinforcing this set-up, communication in the family tends to be one-way. The parents communicate their expectations (not always explicitly either) and the children are expected to deliver. Through the growing up years, emotional control is fine-tuned to make the children feel extremely guilty about letting the parents down. The parents may even expect that they should be the ones choosing the marriage spouse for their son or daughter. In extreme cases, the head of the family (almost always the father) may feel he owns the family or family name to such an extent that if a daughter dishonours the family by having sexual flings, the head of the family feels empowered to kill her. Even in the present time, this kind of thing happens.” (5.2)

As an alternative, parents who do not feel any right of ownership over their grown children and see their offspring as equals are more likely to produce an adult person of mature ‘character’ rather than a lesser being who needs to rely on a religious crutch. The United Nations and much of educated society that has more humanistic values are in a battle to encourage this kind of relationship and to the more open kind of parent-child communication that goes with it, even when the children are young. Parents may be disappointed, even hurt, when it turns out that a son or daughter is not a carbon image of themselves however in all of nature it is the parent’s responsibility to produce an independent person able to pursue their own life goals. This done it helps if the society they live in makes them responsible for outcomes and builds on human progress as a whole.

This is not any easy concept to get agreement on and some downsides for non acceptance

“In the United States [for example], people talk about wanting a child of their own and by this they usually mean a child born to them from their own genes to create a biological connection. Americans often think of "their" child as a possession that they alone control, free from the interference of others. People do not willingly share control over a child, as seen by the difficulties divorced couples face in custody disputes that involve sharing their "own" child. Each parent wants full custody of the child, or complete ownership and control. Visiting rights are not usually awarded to the grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other members of either parent's kin group. Sharing would be interpreted as losing control.” (6.1)

Go a little farther east and you find ‘the Arab father has traditionally maintained his authority and responsibility mainly because he has owned the family's property and provided the family's livelihood. This hierarchical structure of the traditional Arab family reflects the fact that families are stratified on the basis of sex and age, where the young are subordinate to the old and females to males leading to a situation where the most repressed elements of Arab society are the poor, the women, and their children. In such relationships, downward communication often takes the form of orders, instructions, warnings, threats, shaming and the like.’ (6.2)

So what’s the harm, you still may think? Well tradition and culture are not always deserving of protection just because they are a traditional culture that may have existed for centuries. The world is changing and obsolete, or even worse immoral, acts perpetrated in the name of ownership need to be stopped. Cannibalism for example has been stamped out of New Guinea for both moral and practical health reasons.

A current case in point of the downside of individuals assuming they own their children: “Sociologists and government officials began documenting sporadic examples of female infanticide in India about 10 years ago. The practice of killing newborn girls is largely a rural phenomenon in India; although its extent has not been documented, one indication came in a survey by the Community Services Guild of Madras, a city in Tamil Nadu. Of the 1,250 women questioned, the survey concluded that more than half had killed baby daughters.” (6.3)

So who fights for the parents to maintain ownership?

The partners in crime, Christian Churches, Islamic Muftis and Mullahs and all the other god botherers in the world.

“Presented by the Holy See to all persons, institutions and authorities concerned with the mission of the family in today's world October 22, 1983 CHARTER OF THE [Catholic] RIGHTS OF THE FAMILY”


“The activities of public authorities and private organizations which attempt in any way to limit the freedom of couples in deciding about their children constitute a grave offence against human dignity and justice.”

“Since they have conferred life on their children, parents have the original, primary and inalienable right to educate them; hence they must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children.”

“Parents have the right to educate their children in conformity with their moral and religious convictions, taking into account the cultural traditions of the family…”

“Parents have the right to freely choose schools or other means necessary to educate their children in keeping with their convictions. Public authorities must ensure that public subsidies are so allocated that parents are truly free to exercise this right without incurring unjust burdens. Parents should not have to sustain, directly or indirectly, extra charges which would deny or unjustly limit the exercise of this freedom.” Yes we must keep those divisive church schools funded by the government!

“Parents have the right to ensure that their children are not compelled to attend classes which are not in agreement with their own moral and religious convictions. In particular, sex education is a basic right of the parents and must always be carried out under their close supervision, whether at home or in educational centres chosen and controlled by them.” Ah yes for gods’ sake don’t teach them any evolution stuff, they may see the truth (realty)!

“The rights of parents are violated when a compulsory system of education is imposed by the State from which all religious formation is excluded.” Rubbish!

“Every family has the right to live freely its own domestic religious life under the guidance of the parents, as well as the right to profess publicly and to propagate the faith, to take part in public worship and in freely chosen programs of religious instruction, without suffering discrimination.” Nope, can’t anymore, you can thank the radical Islamists for that! Oh, I guess oversexed Priests also must take some of the blame for the tighter civil control now obviously required as well. (7.1)

And… The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints The Family: A Proclamation to the World - This proclamation was read by President Gordon B. Hinckley as part of his message at the General Relief Society Meeting held September 23, 1995, in Salt Lake City, Utah: “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, to teach them to love and serve one another, to observe the commandments of God and to be law-abiding citizens wherever they live.” “BY DIVINE DESIGN, FATHERS ARE TO PRESIDE [hold authority] over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” (7.2)

A warning for all

“Amartya Sen [is] a Nobel laureate, a former master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard. [...] In his recent book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. [In the book] Sen argues that we are doing something terrible to our children by letting them attend faith schools. He writes: "[...] Under this system, young children are placed in the domain of singular affiliations well before they have the ability to reason about different systems of identification that may compete for their attention." It's a dismal image (isn't it?) of small children thus having destinies foisted upon them before they can think. Sen argues that this classification is not just disastrous for the child's development, but for community solidarity too. We saw something similar in Northern Ireland, he contends, where state-run denominational schools "fed the political distancing of Catholics and Protestants". The Guardian, July 2006 (8.1)

A better view (The wording of The UN’s cartoon no. 23 on the right’s of the Child…)

"Your children, are not YOUR children,
They are the sons and the daughters of life's longing for itself,
They come through you, but not from you
And although they are with you, they belong not to you,
You can give them your love but not your thoughts,
They have their own thoughts,
They have their own thoughts." (8.2)

Note* A number of references and authors of essays, report, books, etc., that Boyer is commenting
on are not shown and a full list can be found at Pascal Boyer’s site listed immediately below. (*)
Ontology&sa=X&oi=glossary_definition&ct=title (1.0) (1.1) (1.2) (1.3) (1.4) (1.5) (1.6)
+children&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1) (2.0) (3.1) (3.2) (3.3) (3.4) (3.5) (4.1) (4.2) (4.3) (4.4) (5.1) (5.2) (6.1) (6.2) (6.3)
_doc_19831022_family-rights_en.html (7.1),4945,161-1-11-1,00.html (7.2) (8.1) (8.2)

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