Suppose we re-categorized Christianity as an adult activity like smoking, drinking, voting, driving, and marriage. These aren’t illegal, but society says you must be old enough to handle them wisely. Starved of its most fertile source of new members, this adults-only Christianity would die out within a few generations.
We adults have common sense that helps us believe true claims and reject false claims. For example, most American adults would reject a case for Islam or Hinduism or Sikhism as quickly as they would reject claims for miracle cures, alien abduction stories, and great prices on swamp land in Florida.
As adults, we’re far better at sifting truth from nonsense than we were as children. And that’s why most Christians are indoctrinated as children before their common sense has matured. This is the idea behind the Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.” We find it in Proverbs as well: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”
Children’s minds are pliable, and supernatural ideas from a reliable authority like a parent or teacher are credulously accepted. Getting a fifty-year-old who’s never smoked hooked on cigarettes is like getting a fifty-year-old who’s never heard of Jesus hooked on Christianity. It’s possible in both cases, but it’s far easier when you start early.
Adults raised in a religion think their religious beliefs are reasonable or even obvious, while someone introduced to those beliefs as an adult will often think they’re odd or even crazy. Religious adults will use their intellect to invent reasons to reassure their egos that their beliefs make sense. They won’t admit their supernatural beliefs are ridiculous when looked at dispassionately or that they believe for no better reason than they were raised with them.
We can see this from another angle by imagining a conversation between the father of a six-year-old child and the grandmother.
Grandma says, “Little Johnny is old enough for me to take to Sunday School now.”
“You can take him when he’s eighteen,” his father says, “but I’d prefer he stay out of church until then.”
“But eighteen is too late!” Grandma says. “By then he’ll be set in his ways. He won’t accept the truth then.”
What kind of “truth” is it that must be taught before people are mature, before their common sense is fully developed? Grandma realizes that only while someone is immature can the beliefs of religion be put into their head, but this indoctrination is a poor stand-in for truth. It’s fine for a social custom, not for a worldview claim.
Christian adults should consider how they would respond if asked to adopt a radically different religion. Few would switch, but why? As adults, a foreign religion appears foreign. That’s why religions need access to immature converts to survive. It’s not that the religion in a child’s environment is the correct one but that it’s the familiar one.
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“Start children off on the way they should go”: Proverbs 22:6.