To the atheist a child is innocent. To the believer a child is born with original sin. On top of that, the best-behaved child still has to make up sins for the Eucharist (where they are made to believe they eat human flesh) because they know that no mortal can spend an entire week without sinning. Believers' children grow up feeling guilty.
Believers' children grow up thinking someone is looking over their shoulder at all times, taking notes of everything they do. Furthermore, besides being told of a place called heaven for good people, they also learn of a place called hell for bad people, and they live in mortal fear of being bad in the invisible man's eyes, or just not good enough. And hearing of such marvellous examples of god-fearing men as Abraham, who was ready to cut his child's throat without blinking an eye just because he heard a voice, doesn't exactly help them to feel more at ease.
Even at a time where science has explained almost everything under the sun and genetics show us the exact relationship between any species on this planet billions of children are still being exposed to the lunacy of religion.
When, by whom and for which initial purpose religion was invented will probably remain unknown. But we do know that it caught on at rapid speed, and it seems impossible to get rid of. After all, religions are the only theories that actually claim not to provide any proof.
Many (mostly religious) historians would have us believe that religion is as old as mankind, or even 'programmed' in our genes. The burial of the dead (which probably had hygienic reasons), pornographic artefacts (such as the Venus figurines), cave paintings and buildings whose purpose isn't known yet are all of 'religious significance'.
If religion were as old as man, or were in our genes, it would have spread all over the world - but even though it had reached almost every corner of the globe one populated island remained untouched by it until the 19th century.
At the beginning of the current interglacial some 10,000 years ago (the flood event in almost every mythology) rising sea levels cut Tasmania off the Australian mainland, and no stranger set foot on it until 1642. When the aborigines were discovered in 6044 RT (1803 CE) they - as the last human beings - had no advanced tools, no ability to make fire and no religion.
The oldest irrefutable proof of religion are the first texts, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Instruction of Ptah-Hotep and the Pyramid Texts from around 4,500 to 4,100 years ago. However, structures like Göbekli Tepe (and later Newgrange, the Pyramids and Stonehenge) indicate that religion started a lot earlier and possibly was already established around Anatolia as early as 12,000 years ago.
The purposes of religion are plentiful, which has made the idea so successful: denial of mortality, pacification of the lower classes with the promise of a better afterlife, avoiding responsibility, explanation of natural phenomena, the wish to control the elements, justification of authority and genocide, compensating an inferiority complex by feeling chosen by god(s), serving as a coping mechanism etc. Still, the tone of the mentioned texts and the layout of the mentioned sites suggest that the afterlife only applied to a few celebrities, and that religion was originally used to justify their rule over others.
The invention of monotheism, on the other hand, can be exactly pinpointed. 3,359 years ago Pharaoh Akhenaten got tired of the priests of Egypt's various deities, declared the sun god the only god and himself his high priest. The concept was disposed of together with Akhenaten, but the idea was picked up by a group of Semites and thus became the source of the combative world religions.
What is the point of religion today? For most people it is the institution that tells them what to think, what to do, whom to love and whom to hate. For others it is the ultimate power trip as they can tell their starving and HIV-ridden flock not to use contraceptives, or convince their gullible young men that crashing aeroplanes into skyscrapers will get them a reward in heaven.
And, not to forget, religion is (just like the armament industry) one of the most lucrative and recessionproof trades in the world; in fact, any recession is causing a boom for the business of religion, often in combination with a new doomsday scenario.
Religion is and always has been the reason (or the pretext) for wars, massacres and genocide, as well as for cultural divides between people who otherwise would have been the best of neighbours.
The main point of believers is the origin of matter and life. They are not able to imagine that matter has always existed, so they replace it with something else that supposedly always existed - their god. The same logic applies to the conditions that support the development of life.
And, hypothetically speaking, if there really were a god - would he allow the confusion about the right way to worship him?
In order to convince others (and, most importantly, reassure themselves) religious people don't have the luxury of evidence. Some of them resort to philosophical somersaults, such as 'intelligent design', but most of them are happy to make fun of those who don't believe, or who believe something else. I use the word 'fun' in its broadest sense, since most of those 'jokes' lack any originality and wit and are simply based on assumptions and stereotypes, such as 'atheists don't wash' or 'Muslims beat their wives'.
Many of these also apply their arrogant and ignorant attitude towards those who believe in supernatural occurrences outside of religion. Seriously, how could anyone who believes in the sky daddy judge someone who believes in UFOs or vampires?
However, as much as the believers enjoy ridiculing others, when it comes to their own beliefs they turn into defensive sissies, screaming 'blasphemy' at the slightest criticism.
It is undisputed that religious people, sadly, are still in the majority. But even so, their rights are disproportionate compared to that of atheists. Unlike them we do not have an organisation and a lobby, and we don't gather at a weekly service where we are told to get the Torah, the Bible and the Qu'ran out of the class rooms, to protest for a ban on religious children's books, or to organise a national atheist day. We don't visit school classes, and we don't ring people's doorbells and hand out leaflets telling them the good news.
While some believers try to reconcile their faith with science and state that not everything in their holy book is meant literally others openly defy the evidence and claim that everything took place as written in their scripts or taught by their priests. (On rare occasions, allowances may be made for facts that are too obvious, like the sphere shape of our planet, or the Earth not being the centre of the universe - contradicting a dogma that until recently was as undisputable in the Catholic Church as the immaculate conception and the resurrection.)
I think we all heard the claim that without religion there wouldn't be any morals and values. That's bull.
Good people do good deeds, and evil people do evil deeds, regardless of their religious background. Louis Pasteur and Adolf Hitler were Catholics, Henry VIII and Martin Luther King were Protestants, Ernst Boris Chain and Baruch Goldstein were Jews, Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi and Idi Amin were Muslims, and Albert Einstein and Joseph Stalin were atheists. (Stalin had a traumatically religious childhood, though; but it appears impossible to find a mass murderer or serial killer who lacks a religious upbringing.)
As part of evolution all humans have developed an innate sense of morality which can only be corrupted by religion. While morality teaches 'You mustn't kill' religion teaches 'You mustn't kill unless...' Subsequently it's the religions that provide entertainments such as witch hunts, crusades (past and present), stonings, the Inquisition, human sacrifices, honour killings and so on.
Many different studies show that the average atheist is less prejudiced, nationalistic, racist and violent as well as more compassionate, more educated and even more law-abiding than the average believer. (1) (2)
(In the United States atheists make up 15% of the general population but far less than 1% of the prison population.(3) (4))
Interestingly mothers in religious countries are also more likely to abort their children. (5)
(An atheist woman is less likely to face an unplanned pregnancy in the first place because she would have received a sexual education and would be allowed to use birth control. And when she finds herself in that situation she is more likely to let her child live because she has nothing to be ashamed of while the religious mother hardly sees an alternative to removing the evidence of her 'sin'.)
Besides all this atheists tend to know more about religion than believers. (6)
This may sound surprising, but I can say from experience that reading the entire Bible was a major step on my way to atheism.
Most believers achieved their faith by birth, while most atheists achieved their conviction by thinking about the facts.
Don't get me wrong, I'm fully behind the concept of religious freedom. If someone grows up (at least physically) and doesn't want to let go of Father Christmas, that is their own business. Let them grovel in private or meet with likeminded adults, let them build churches or mosques where they can meet, and let them print their reason-defying literature. But there is no logical reason why these movements should be publicly funded, exempt from taxes (if governments started treating organised superstition like any other business all the world's countries would be out of debt in no time at all) or able to impose their contorted views on others - least of all on innocent children, including their own.
From the day they are born all children of religious parents are claimed by that religion.
Can you imagine (or remember) the impact it has on a child to be told that an invisible man is watching you day and night? And that he'll cast you into everlasting flames if you don't obey him? That you are a sinner - not only because of your actions, but because of what somebody else did six thousand years ago? To be confronted with the image of a bleeding man (who supposedly died because of you) nailed to a cross, and to be forced to talk to it? To pick your friends by the faith of their parents and not to play with the 'infidels' or the 'children of the world'? To be brainwashed into believing anything that comes from the pulpit, even if it defies all logic and common sense? To be told that if you don't wear the veil properly you'll go to hell with snakes growing out of your head? To be constantly terrorised with the scenario of not being ready at the ever-delayed coming (or return) of the Messiah? To be told you are worthless, and nothing without your god?
(You can find a very good example on this YouTube clip where Irish comedian Dave Allen remembers his own religious conditioning.)
No matter how hard you try, you cannot teach a child religion without planting fear and guilt in them.
And not all religious child abuse is merely psychological. In the United States religious freedom allows Christians to kill their children by refusing them medical treatment (with the exception of five states), and every year dozens of parents (that we know of) avail of that offer. As for the number of children who are being left crippled or suffering damage that lasts for the rest of their lives we can only guess. Religious freedom in the US also allows the most brutal physical abuse which, each year, costs the lives of another two thousand children (and again, that's only the ones we know of). (7) (8)
Because of their age and inexperience children are impressionable and tend to believe what they are told by parents and other persons in authority. Teaching them religion of any kind breeds paranoia, intolerance, ignorance, schizophrenia and, since every religion considers itself the only true one, arrogance.
Naturally all religions have to get their members as children - there are hardly any persons who fall for their bizarre doctrines after reaching the age of reason. Can you imagine a grown man who hasn't been exposed to religion keeping a straight face when first hearing of a virgin birth?
In recent years children's literature finally got away from horror stories scaring the kids into total obedience in the style of the Brothers Grimm. However, the most violent books the world has ever produced - the Torah, the Bible and the Qu'ran - are not only made available to children but actually beaten into them. Exposing children to religion is child abuse, plain and simple. (By the way, this goes for all other ideologies as well, such as political ones.)
Exposure to religion, in contrast to most other forms of child abuse, is generally committed unknowingly. The parents force the children into their religion because they want them to go to heaven, entirely unaware of the damage they are doing to them in the real world. And I am convinced that even the majority of the clergy act with the best of intentions - but that doesn't make it any better.
Teaching the parents about the disastrous impact religion has on a child's life and mental health is the most important step in approaching an end to child religion.
Religion has no place in education and childhood. Children are not the property of their parents, therefore their parents have no right to give them to a religion. And while it will take many generations to get religion out of the home, there are many things that can be done to keep the children's indoctrination to a minimum.
Firstly, all minors should be prevented by law from attending any religious ceremonies and gatherings, as well as from joining (or being signed up for) religious organisations.
No programmes and advertisements promoting religion should be allowed on prime time.
All children's books, films and other media promoting religion should be banned.
Schools should teach about religions as part of world culture, without focussing on a particular religion, and without favouring or promoting any of them.
Parents should be informed about the mental damage religion is doing to their children (Religious Trauma Syndrome). (9)
(The Religious Trauma Symptom has only recently been identified, probably because it is shared by the vast majority of the world's population and therefore considered a normal condition in humans.)
Social services should treat any case of extreme indoctrination as the child abuse it is.
If we could only protect one generation from religion, the cycle of abuse would be broken, and religion would die of natural causes.
Coming out as an atheist is rarely easy, even in the (comparatively) free part of the world we live in. For once, in almost every case, we have to confront our parents, the very same people who have signed us up for their brand of religion. Provided they haven't already seen the light themselves, it will be a difficult step to tell them we don't believe in their gods any more.
But what is the alternative? Do we really want to fall to our knees and talk to thin air, at least when we're around them?
We can be sure, no matter how pious they are, that most of our parents won't abandon us for giving up religion. (And if they really went that far, would that be a loss?)
Another problem facing us is the departure from our social circle. This is worse if we only have friends of the same religion. But how comfortable would we feel if we stayed just for their companionship and had to keep uttering empty phrases and prayers in order not to arouse suspicion?
We can be sure that there are many around us who are in the exact same situation and who are afraid to come forward. If we decide to take the step and bear witness to our non-belief, we'll be surprised how many others will come out because we encouraged them. Becoming a non-believer can have a snowball effect.
I grew up in a Christian holier-than-thou family (of whom I was probably the worst one). After I came forward my parents, after getting over the initial shock, mentioned that they would have developed a laxer attitude years before, but they didn't want to disappoint me.
And even though I am the only family member who officially left the church you will rarely see any member of my family at the services.
I was fortunate enough to have had a circle of friends 'from the world', as it was called, already. Still, I had a lot of friends in the church as well, and I tried to remain friends with them after leaving. Interestingly, the more educated ones had no problem with that and respected my decision while the less educated ones avoided me, and in many cases even pretended I didn't exist.
There are many parts, even in the so-called Free World, where the consequences are graver than facing your family and losing your friends. Even though our rights are supposedly guaranteed being an atheist carries a social stigma and leads to discrimination in many places, especially in rural areas. The alternative to staying there in order to take a stand and become a spokesperson for freedom from religion is to move to one of the big cities where religion doesn't dictate people's daily life any longer.
But there are those who are in an even greater predicament than that. There are countries that don't allow atheism, and in quite a few Muslim nations (such as Iran and Saudi Arabia) those who convert from Islam to atheism (or anything else, for that matter) are executed.
We can't expect these people to become martyrs for their non-faith. But I would encourage them to always ask themselves: How far can I go without endangering my family and myself? Others who are in the same situation may pick up your signals and find the courage to take that attitude as well, and in the long run it may lead to a change in society.
(Christianity has tyrannised the European continent for 1,400 years before it was possible to admit to being a rational human being - if that's anything to go by, Muslim countries might achieve religious freedom by the end of this century.)
Despite the evidence to the contrary, many people ask: ‘But what if there is a god?’ just like an adolescent may ask: ‘What if there is a Santa Claus?’
Well, in this case it is a major problem that this god left no indication as to what is the right way to follow him. With hundreds of thousands of different beliefs and religions chances are greater than 99.999% that you’re part of the wrong one and end up in hell, regardless of all your efforts.
However, in most religions you’ll find moderates who will tell you their god judges you only by your deeds, and that all good people will go to Heaven. If they are right, Heaven will be full of atheists, and you should try to be one of them.
It may be helpful to include my own experience of becoming an atheist. It happened during a regular church service which I entered as a highly dedicated Christian. There was nothing different that morning: the sermon and the rituals were the same as every other day, but suddenly it struck me that all of this God stuff didn’t make any sense, and all the goings-on during the service seemed utterly ludicrous.
For a few weeks I continued as usual, sometimes thinking it may just be a phase, at other times taking into account how shocked my family and ‘brethren’ would be. But after a month or so, when I found it more and more difficult to keep a straight face when hearing about the virgin birth or the Second Coming, I decided to give the invisible man one last chance to prove himself and then left the church.
While the process of my enlightenment was a sudden one, it is a long and strugglesome process for others. And despite the rapidity of mine, I imagine it was a result of having been exposed to the real world more as a young adult than I was as a child.
I was strangely unconcerned about the sudden loss of my immortality. But if you think about it, swapping a vague fantasy of a life with someone you don’t know in a realm you don’t know in a form you don’t know with nothing isn’t really that much of a change.
I also learned that I was responsible for the results of my actions and efforts. A failure was no longer a test from God but a simple failure, and a success was no longer a blessing from God but a success I could credit myself for.
Looking at religion as an outsider not only gave me a clearer perspective, it also made religion look quite silly to me while I still sympathised with those caught in it. I felt like a hamster who had been taught by his parents that there is a bottomless granary at the top of the ladder we had to climb – now, looking at the cage from the outside, I realised that the ladder has no top because it’s a wheel.
After giving up the delusion of a hereafter, I realsied that everything happens in the real world, and that there is only the real life, both to enjoy and to make a difference.
(9) The Religious Trauma Syndrome has only recently been identified, although it affects the majority of humankind.
I have found a brilliant podcast by The Thinking Atheist
on Youtube, called Is raising kids in religion child abuse? in which many atheists from all around the world share their experiences.
A particularly chilling testimony comes from a 17 year old Egyptian atheist who states that his parents have the right to kill him if they ever found out (that's about 16 minutes into the clip).
Dave Allen remembers his introduction to Catholicism as a child - funny but scary.
If you are a child and living with religious parents it is very hard to come out as a non-believer. This Youtube clip may be able to help you deal with the situation: How to tell your religious parents you are atheist/agnostic
There are plenty of other great websites on these issues, and I strongly recommend Internet searches on topics that interest you.