Recently Zoltan Istvan, author of the provocative book The Transhumanist Wager, called for “regulation that restricts religious indoctrination of children until they reach, let's say, 16 years of age.”
He presents us with horrific visions of indoctrination: “Religious child soldiers carrying AK-47s. Bullying anti-gay Jesus kids. Infant genital mutilation. Teenage suicide bombers. Child Hindu brides.” He also argues that young children are extremely susceptible to the teachings of their parents. But this is obvious! The rational capacity develops in humans over time and young ones only survive to adulthood because they are guided by adults.
Unfortunately, Istvan’s proposal for dealing with the irrationality to which humans are prone would, in fact, undermine his goal of creating a rational culture.
Degrees of abuse
In the first place, the Constitution does not grant government the power to restrict what religious doctrines parents teach their children; indeed, the First Amendment prohibits laws interfering with the free exercise of religion. It is true that “free exercise” does not allow parents to abuse children in certain ways—raping, starving, torturing them—whether in the name of religion or not.
But filling a child’s head with tales of virgin births, multi-armed goddesses, or prophets flying to an invisible place called “heaven” on a winged horse is a long way from breaking a child’s bones with a baseball bat or strapping explosives to a child in order to blow up infidel children.
Degrees of indoctrination
Let’s grant that religious teaching could confuse children, hamper the development of their thinking skills, or even inflict psychological damage. Still, there are different degrees of teaching or “indoctrination.”
It is reasonable for government to require parents to provide some level of general education for their children. And in America, Christians generally raise their children with reasonable, secularly defensible values in addition to the religious theology with which Istvan takes issue. Such parents generally want their children taught reading, writing, and math. They want them to learn history. And they want them to learn about the sciences that have created our current, advanced industrial society, though granted, too many have a bizarre aversion to accepting the truth of evolution, even though they accept the science concerning, for example, the heliocentric understanding of the solar system.
Degrees of repression
Further, Istvan’s suggestion would require the government to take on totalitarian powers. Would government agents be stationed at the doors of every church, synagogue, and mosque to check IDs and chase away anyone under sixteen? Would listening devices and 1984-style view screens be placed in every home and monitored 24/7 to make sure parents aren’t reading their children Bible stories? Would setting up a Christmas tree or nativity scene in one’s own home be considered “indoctrination?”
Furthermore, what about Eastern religions, which are more ways of life than theologies? Would teaching one’s children mediation as such be a crime or would it be legal as long as one never stated “The Buddha taught…” as an historical fact?
In a country in which 85 percent of people profess religious belief, is it plausible that legislators would ever pass a ban on religious education of children? And where would the government find the army of snoops to monitor their fellows to make sure they’re not corrupting the youth? Finally, does Istvan imagine that he or someone of like mind would be made the anti-indoctrination czar, the philosopher-king?
In recent years local child protective service officers have increasingly been arresting parents for alleged child abuse. Their crimes? Engaging in practices considered perfectly innocent in decades past, for example, letting a nine-year old play in a public park alone without a parent. (What has changed so radically since I was that age and played safely in my neighborhood with my friends?) But the kind of ban that Istvan suggests, combined with stupid government bureaucrats and busy-body neighbors, would multiply such abuses a thousand-fold.
A vision of rational values
One can understand Istvan’s frustration with the irrationality that plagues our world. But he also must appreciate that suggesting a ban on religious indoctrination of children ignores the dangers of an all-powerful government, dangers that Istvan otherwise seems to appreciate.
Further, his recommendation comes off as so ill-conceived that it paints transhumanists as dangerously detached from reality and, thus, dangerous if they ever get political power in their hands. One doesn’t promote the virtue of rationality by countering irrationality with proposals that, given a moment’s thought, can easily be rejected.
Those who want humans to live longer lives with enhanced capacities need to focus their creative efforts not only on the science and technology necessary to transform humans physically. They must also actively and intelligently promote a flourishing life as the goal for each individual, with reason as life’s guide and productive achievement as life’s purpose. And they must not employ the fear of government guns as motivation to abandon questionable or false beliefs. Rather, they should offer the shining vision of human life as it can be and should be as the compelling reason to strive for a better self and a better world.
Hudgins is director of advocacy and a senior scholar at The Atlas Society.
For further information:
*Edward Hudgins, Transhumanism vs. a Conservative Death Ethos . August 20, 2012.
*Edward Hudgins, “Book Review: Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think , by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.” ISkeptic, April 24, 2013.
*William Thomas, Transhumanism: How Does it Relate to Objectivism?