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Don't Join in Religious Wars - Educate Their Children

Religions create divides - Palestine, Northern Ireland, Syria, Egypt.... Children are collateral damage when religions fight. You can't stop religious hatred by killing religious fighters. The men wielding the AK47s are too far gone. Too indoctrinated. They hate their enemies too much to be persuaded that the brand of omnipotent supercomputer in the sky they're killing and dying for is an outdated idea.

We can't rid these countries of deeply entrenched delusions by feeding them atheist arguments, no matter how eloquently presented. The only chance we have to begin to cure their collective delusional anger is to open the minds of their children. Perhaps today, amongst all the upheavals and suffering going on in and around religious war-zones, we uniquely have a chance to do just that. The minds of millions of refugee children who have mercifully escaped the evils of their homelands now have a chance to be opened - out of the reach of their religious leaders at home. But atheists the world over struggle to change devout minds. I believe there's a better way. A more positive approach than attacking faiths.

Dawkins' latest slogan, quoting Hitchens, is "Religion Poisons Everything". If he's hoping this will persuade deists to abandon their delusions, he's deluded. All that happens is shit flies in both directions. Little is achieved except convictions are driven deeper on both sides. Just check out his Twitter barrage - heavy cannons letting loose in both directions every time he issues a proclamation. Everyone loves a good fight, but in this case there are never any winners. Just mounting anger.

After many years of reading arguments, on both sides, as well as spuriously blogging on my own part, I've come to the conclusion that the world is intensely polarised by factions who fight their corners from intractable adversarial points of view - there either is or there isn't a god. Neither side will ever persuade the other that their view is right. Seeds of doubt, rather than being sown, are more likely to be rigorously blown away in defence of what individuals believe (or 'know') to be 'the truth'. When attacked, defences strengthen.

Using this logic, the likes of Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Pinker and Hitchens are more likely to entrench beliefs in the supernatural than change them. Don't get me wrong. What they have to say, on the whole, needs to be said. But they will invariably be preaching to the converted (or unconverted if you will). Likewise if you weren't born to Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian etc parents, your chances of voluntarily arriving at the conclusion that those brands of deity must be the right one are statistically small. It takes a childhood of indoctrination by parents, teachers and communities to persuade human brains, with zero evidence, that there's a supercomputer in the sky responsible for everything - especially today in the face of science and the ever increasing probability that there might be more plausible explanations for absolutely everything. Guesswork is required less and less as we acquire the skills and understanding, layer upon layer, to grow our collective knowledge. And today it really is 'collective', with every computer and digital storage system connecting to every other. What used to be hidden in books, is now accessible, instantly, by every human on the planet. And it no longer needs the reader to be able to read. Education has become infinitely more effective with sound, video and animation.

Thus the standard atheist bandwagon is probably achieving little except providing those of us who already reject supernatural intelligence with a wider range of arguments to do battle with 'believers'. It's all rather negative, and arguably entrenching dogged irrational beliefs. In fact atheism is often accused of being nihilistic, which in a way, it of course is. It's not a faith or even a belief. It's a lack of faith or belief in something imaginary. So what might atheists do to change irrational beliefs using a positive frame of mind? What can atheists the world over do instead of shouting antagonistic slogans at the other side in order to encourage at least an opening of minds, if not a complete rejection of Faith, and in turn an end to so much pointless horrific violence.

For me atheism can be summed up by the idea that everything has the potential to be explained - respecting the fact that science can't answer every mystery today, and quite possibly never will. The human brain may have some computational limits. Consequently the main reason that religious minds haven't reached the same conclusion is because they don't recognise what science is and therefore what it ultimately could achieve. Most believers simply don't have the foundation layers of scientific understanding to recognise that most mysteries can be explained. We know what the sun is. We know how rainbows form. We know vast amounts about how the brain works... we can even watch it work. We know about atoms and now many of their components like Higgs Bosons. We have radio waves and silicon chips and mobile phones and aircraft. All in the past 100 years, and all because enquiring minds rejected gods and holy books as the answers to things they didn't understand.

Being charitable, and even respectful of their religious books (people listen if you show respect) believers need to be persuaded that at the time their holy books were written, the sum total of scientific understanding hadn't changed from one generation to another, for tens of thousands of years. The odd Archimedes or Copernicus happened glacially every ten, fifty or a thousand generations, and completely transparently to the vast majority of mankind. What science your father knew was the same as his father, and his father before him and so on for about eighty thousand years (when it's generally accepted homo sapiens 'started' what we might first recognise as civilisation). The teachings of each successive generation were never going to change perceptibly, so answers written in holy books that made sense to one generation, would make sense to future generations. Voices heard were from god. Why would they ever suspect that such voices, as we now realise, were psychotic manifestations of neurological malfunctions? And so it continued until a few brave souls started to question orthodoxy and evolved what we recognise today as science - observing, theorising, predicting and testing new ideas to explain mysteries. And then one realisation shared with others, coalesced with new realisations, that were in turn shared through printing and eventually digital networks, until the whole world was piling realisation upon realisation to form compelling alternatives to the original 'science' discovered by previous generations. As Dawkins, Harris et al frequently point out, there is not one tiny example of a single scientific revelation in any holy books in any religion. So much for omnipotence. They were simply written too soon. Before anyone realised that mankind could acquire new knowledge about how the world works within a lifetime - or even days. Holy books could not be written today. Their authors would rightly be considered deranged or naive at best.

So the message I want believers to get, is that holy books were the start of man's understanding of his universe, not the end of it. That's it. That's the difference between religion and atheism. If they get that, doubts about Faith can start and reason can sow its seed. This approach more comfortably encourages newly opened minds to recognise holy books not as being wrong, just superseded. It provides the respect 'believers' believe they deserve. They don't think they're stupid, so nor should we if they're going to let us attempt to gently and progressively begin to open their minds, or, more importantly, the minds of their children.

How are we going to get this message across without believers setting up barricades? Barricades built by people whose whole lives and livelihoods could crumble if this concept took hold - I mean the priests and the parents. People who believe it's their duty to make their children attend faith schools where holy books take priority. People, for example, who insist that evolution is equally valid, if not defeated, by creationism. Or who make sure their children know that Sunnis are right and Shiites are wrong. People who desperately want to protect their children from hell and the devil.

Before I consider the message of 'positive atheism', let's think about the messenger or medium. We've already begun the process of bypassing the clutches of brainwashers by developing communication media which only children fully understand and can fully exploit. I think we can be reasonably confident that mullahs (or rabbis and priests for that matter) who spend most of their lives muttering incantations probably haven't mastered the subtleties of the web, let alone Twitter, Snapchat and FB. The likes of Facebook and YouTube are used for social mingling and entertainment out of the view of 'boring' parents and teachers - admittedly only where they're allowed access... both a problem of nationality as well as household regulation. So there is a back-door into the minds of most of the world's children - digital media, online and increasingly mobile. Intrusive, invasive, pervasive perhaps, but discretely out of eye and earshot of stone-age god-peddlers. It has the potential to reach every human brain on the planet, especially if initiatives like Google's Project Loon (WiFi from networked high altitude geostationary balloons) gather momentum.

We have, or will have, the channels. But what do we put into them that children will want to watch and hopefully absorb - and then want more? What will tempt them into our exhilarating world of revelation and where the seeds of divine doubt can germinate? No child (at least no ordinary child) actually wants to be taught. They don't mind learning (usually). But being taught, especially by stern mullahs, is probably not their favourite pastime. Nonetheless every child wants to be entertained. We are beginning to witness a magical new age of infotainment where scientific understanding seeks to entertain instead of boring or preaching. It's where religion itself must have started -  families huddled around camp-fires listening to tales of ghosts and ghouls retold by shaman generation after generation, and long before a written tradition. In the UK our science stories today take the form of nature documentaries (David Attenborough), pop science (Alice Roberts, Brian Cox), celebrity challenges (Richard Hammond, James May), live audience panel shows (Brian O'Brien's Science Club, Steven Fry's QI), bite-sized collections of educational videos (ted.com, rigb.org, Nat Geo, BBC) and events or experience centres (Science Museum, Royal Institution, School Science Fairs).

Presuming you therefore buy the idea that replacing the marvels of religious miracles and mysticism with the marvels and excitement of scientific discovery in the minds of the world's children is a way of achieving the diminution of a faith in the supernatural (I prefer to proselytise atheism in these terms rather than suggesting that atheism is a belief to be adopted), then here's a positive way to encourage the opening of young minds rather than beat them into a corner where they feel duty bound to defend their cherished faith.

BUT... all of the programmes and content listed above are being created and broadcast in English. I expect there might be the odd equivalents in Spanish, Chinese and French. And I am sure the BBC will have translated programmes like Attenborough's Life on Earth into most languages, including Arabic (for commercial reasons rather than altruistic education), but I very much doubt that the Islamic strongholds in the Middle East, Pakistan and Indonesia have anything like this to distract, entertain and amaze their children. There will be three reasons for this:

  1. They are poor countries. Creating high quality compelling infotainment is expensive and requires considerable and wide-ranging expertise acquired over many years.
  2. Science teaching is considered a lower priority than religious teaching. So if any content was going to be created in Arabic, it is more likely to relate to holy teachings.
  3. The people who make such programmes, without reference to divinities, might be in danger of being labelled blasphemers if they don't mention the 'official' creator.
So here's my idea for positive action that atheists might adopt to help eradicate the madness of religious partisanship - find a way of helping the children of religious states to watch or otherwise experience the infotainment so widely available to free-thinking westerners (especially the Brits), in their own language and in a way that's out of the reach or unnoticed by their religious leaders.

Exactly how this might be achieved, I don't know. Funding probably isn't the main issue. Indeed if the right proposition were put to me and other wealthy atheists, we'd pay for some of it. And if a small proportion of the money we were going to spend on kicking Assad's butt is made available by our governments, then with a bit of imagination we can use it to start to open young minds for a long term strategy towards workable democracies in their home countries (utterly impossible otherwise).

So where better to start than the refugee camps surrounding Syria. Food, Water, Shelter, Healthcare, these are all important priorities for the world's aid budgets... and I'm saying why not include Education, delivered perhaps, by infotainment in their own languages? Don't leave it to the mullahs to get around to providing traditional brainwashing. They will only perpetuate archaic thinking and nonsensical murderous divides for generations to come.

These refugee kids are a god-send (sic). Atheism can be positive.

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