Belief in a deity (or deities), and the desire to worship it or them, is an almost universal aspect of human nature. This not something that can be wished or indoctrinated away, and it’s pointless and maybe even destructive to try. It’s far better, surely, to channel that impulse by giving children some sort of gentle religious grounding, preferably in a well-established, undemanding, culturally useful (understanding all that art and so on) and mildly (small c) conservative denomination that doesn’t dwell too much on the supernatural and keeps both ritual and philosophical speculation in their proper place. Better the vicar than Wicca, say I.
I’m suspicious of my own gut reactions to claims like this, because if there is some nigh-universal human religious impulse, I’m one of the aberrations born without the gene for it. Still, it’s intuitively more plausible to me that someone raised to accept the supernatural in an innocuous guise (unlike Stuttaford, I’m inclined to include Wicca in that group) would be rendered more susceptible to one of the more malign versions. Having accepted a deity, it seems a smaller leap to change your view about what It demands of us. Those raised within a religion also change at fairly high rates, after all, so whatever prophylactic effect such an upbringing has is limited, though it would be interesting to look more closely at how the starting point affects the destination for those who do switch.
It looks like we have some data here, in the form of the Pew survey (and the ensuing New York Times op-ed) to which Stuttaford is responding. That poll found that while the “unaffiliated” are the fastest growing “religious” group, children raised without an affiliation are more likely to end up with one than those raised within a faith are to switch religions (or abandon it altogether). The problem is, “unaffiliated” isn’t all that helpful a category—it’s easy to conflate with “secular,” but a closer look makes clear that this isn’t the case: Lots of people who lack affiliation to any particular church hold religious, or at least “spiritual” beliefs, and even attend religious services at least sporadically. And in the other direction, there’s no need to fear “ritualistic replacements for ritual, cults of Reason, readings from Dawkins and endless, achingly tedious hours of discussion about the meaning of life,” because plenty of organized religions are not overly concerned with the contents of members’ beliefs. Neither of my parents are believers, and I was an atheist more or less from the instant I understood what religion was and that (contrary to my first assumption) the adults were not having an elaborate game of pretend for our benefit. But I was arguably “raised Unitarian” at least insofar as, for several years, I was bustled off each week to Sunday School at the Ridgewood UU society, composed chiefly of other atheists and agnostics with a fondness for stained glass and organ music. One was welcome to believe in God, to be sure, but on the rare occasions when the subject came up, it was always with a certain NPRish air of indulgent detachment.
Which brings us around to the core problem with Stuttaford’s claim. As James Joyner observes, it’s a little doubtful whether the need to worship deities can really be an ineradicable, hardwired human trait when polls show that in much of Western Europe, the proportion of the population describing itself as atheist or agnostic approaches or exceeds the 50 percent mark. (My own experience is that self-described agnostics are, pretty much to the last man, just polite atheists: functional unbelievers eager to telegraph that they don’t wish to be jerks about whatever you believe.) Either they’ve split off into a new species over there, or Stuttaford’s chief assertion is just plainly empirically false: In many human societies, this universal impulse is indeed fading away, and indeed, probably prevented from fading still faster only by high rates of immigration. Bracketing the question of whether this is good or bad, or whether it’s associated with other harmful social trends, it’s clearly possible. The next question, then, is why religion might seem like such an inextricable part of the human condition, and
“But wait,” you cry, “what about all those Scientific American cover teasers I’ve glimpsed over the years about how we’re hardwired for religion?” Well, look again at the reasons people give for joining or switching religions in that Pew poll and you’ll see, not symptoms of some one unified religious impulse, but a variety of rationales. Many people cite what amounts to a desire for community and fellowship, which I have no doubt is close behind food, water, and oxygen on the list of universal human needs. Insofar as it usually takes something a bit thicker than a shared occupational or real estate choice to anchor a stable community, religion does the job well enough, but there’s no obvious reason other forms of civic association are incapable of picking up the slack.
Then there’s that large and nebulous category of “spiritual needs,” which probably comes closer to what Stuttaford’s referring to—though to the extent this is a common complaint, I’d expect it to be leveled against the sort of etiolated pro forma religious observance he’s recommending. I’m never sure I know exactly what people are talking about when they use language like this, and I’m skeptical that it’s a well-formed category at all. You can lump together fatigue, illness, impotence, and depression under the heading “diminished qi” or “orgone deficit,” which gives you two dubious assumptions for the price of one: First, that these three very real phenomena are of the same basic type or share a common cause (though of course they sometimes do), and second, that some version of the theory implicit in the label accounts for many such phenomena, even if one or two are misdiagnosed in the instance. We routinely feel bad about a lot of things, and because most religions posit an invisible order or a future realm where everything works out for the best somehow or other, they have an adaptable means for making us feel better about many of them. I doubt any godless carbon-copy of organized religion, as Stuttaford imagines, will do the job as well across the board as the time-tested champs, but if “spiritual” is a category error, it may turn out that we have an array of better means of dealing with the component problems that make up the ersatz class. Put it this way: Every society has knives and bladed tools, but not because we’re hardwired for knifiness, or because there’s a fundamental, universal human bladed impulse. What’s universal are a variety of diverse problems and situations that knives are good at solving. In a modern society, though, you’ve probably got a dozen task-specific knives that stay in your kitchen, and you manage to get by without a sword or a dagger strapped to your belt.
Finally, to the extent it’s distinct from the previous category, there’s what we call the “religious experience,” the kind of ineffable ecstatic feeling that may be common to some of the respondents who described themselves as “called by God” to their prefered denomination. No doubt that, as a consequence of how we’re wired, a fair number of people will continue to have such experiences for the foreseeable future. There will be epileptics and people who take drugs in every society for a long while to come yet as well, but it doesn’t follow that we’re therefore compelled to think of the former as possessed by demons and the latter as shamans. On the contrary, those interpretations are pretty much extinct among educated people. Universal phenomena may frequently be read through similar cultural lenses—but the phenomenon does not determine or demand the lens.
If this is roughly on point, a secularist who wants to ensure his kids aren’t easy prey for nutty doctrines has an alternative to inoculating them with some gelded lo-carb form of faith. Instead, he can try to supply them with the array of tools required to address the needs religion satisfies, to interpret the experiences religion purports to explain, and to grapple with the questions to which religion promises pat answers. Inevitably, a thoughtful and independent child will reject some of the parent’s preferred tools and lenses. But they’ll probably end up looking for ways to improve or replace those particular tools and lenses, not for the wonder tonic that does it all. They’ll have the same holes in their hearts we all do from time to time, but less use for the blunt God-shaped plug we carve when we’re trying to fill them all at the same time.