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March 27, 2008
In The Village
Unnoticed conviction can still run deep
by Orson Scott Card

I've long been amused and perplexed by parents who proudly announce that they are not going to "force" their religion on their children. "We'll let them decide for themselves when they grow up," they say.

People seem to be so confused about what religion is. Some think of it as an organization formed to accomplish a common purpose -- on a scale somewhere between Kiwanis and the Taliban.

Some think of religion as a set of beliefs, with no organization or meetings required.

Some think of religion as the outward manifestation of their inner salvation.

And in the English language we do use the word "religion" in all these ways, so none of these definitions is actively wrong.

I learned the most important meaning of religion when I was in grad school at Notre Dame.

As an English major, I was required to take a seminar on aesthetics. Naturally, we began with Plato's Symposium.

Now, I'm not terribly interested in studying philosophy in the abstract. I only care about philosophy to the degree that I believe the philosopher is making true or illuminating statements.

I'd been reading Plato since childhood, and long before grad school came to the conclusion that a greater collection of nonsense would be hard to assemble in one place.

Behind the dialogues there is a real man, Socrates, whose ideas I would be fascinated to recover. But Plato used his fictionalized Socrates to teach a philosophy that has, as far as I can tell, no practical use in the real world. (Though even that statement has problems, since in Plato's work there is no such thing as "practical use" in the "real" world.)

So in our first discussion of the Symposium, I began taking it apart piece by piece, with a tone of amusement at the absurdity of Plato's views.

To my shock, even my best friends in that seminar began to be furiously defensive of Plato's teachings. It was a kind of anger I had never seen in any of them -- they were almost frantic to prove me wrong. There was fear in it.

Why did they care so much about a long-dead philosopher's opinions about the perfection of truth and beauty?

Then it finally dawned on me (thick-headed as I sometimes am): Plato's Symposium is not just a matter of aesthetics. It is a foundational document for mainstream Christianity.

It is from the Symposium as much as anywhere that the traditional Christian concept of God derives -- the God of transcendent perfection (defined in terms that are synonymous with nonexistence, in my opinion).

I had unknowingly tapped into their religion at a level so deep that they didn't even understand why my comments made them so upset. Yet they didn't think it was their religion -- they thought Plato was just a philosopher, and that their religion was founded on scripture.

What I learned at that point was that people aren't always aware of their real religion, the deep beliefs that they hold with such intense faith that it doesn't occur to them that other people might not share them.

We all have superficial views of religion, of course -- what we believe that we believe. But deep down inside our minds there is the religion that we believe with unquestioning faith.

For instance, Mark Twain thought he was an agnostic, mocking all religions with perfect fairness. Yet he lived his life as a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist, believing himself to be damned by nature and punishing himself for an enormous number of often-imaginary sins.

Twain took personal responsibility for anyone at all close to him who died, starting with the ne'er-do-well to whom the young Sam Clemens slipped smoking materials while he was in jail. The jail caught fire and burned down, killing the poor man -- and young Sam knew it was his fault.

He blamed himself for everyone else's death. He lived a life tormented by guilt -- just as Calvinism requires.

Another example: Isaac Asimov. Raised as a Jew, Asimov declared himself an atheist at an early age. Yet in almost all his novels, there is a god-figure whose plans shape or even create the world in which everyone else lives. It isn't a transcendent God, but it is definitely a being with superior knowledge who, with a tweak here or there -- bolstered by an occasional "miracle" -- keeps the rest of the human race on track.

Twain's and Asimov's deep religion was the one that had been taught to each in his childhood; the opinions laid down later were merely their beliefs about their own beliefs.

I think we all function that way; blessed is the soul whose deep religion is identical to his surface religion.

We all see and make sense of the world through the lens of that deep religion. We unconsciously interpret the meaning of everything that happens according to what we already believe is true.

Usually we don't notice those deep beliefs until somebody shocks us by challenging them. Then we get angry in a way we never otherwise experience -- rage driven by panic.

Like those grad students (and the professor) in the seminar on aesthetics, we find ourselves flailing about to defend something we haven't really thought about because we didn't realize that anyone thought it might not be true.

Since then I have occasionally probed to find out what someone really believes -- by questioning their opinions until I see that anger-panic. Only then do I know the real belief-set I'm dealing with.

But it's a poor sport, which only one of the players can possibly enjoy, and should be done only when it is urgently required in order to help someone understand himself.

That's deep religion, real religion. It is completely internalized -- and most of that internalization takes place in childhood.

Only when we go through a genuine conversion experience does that deep religion come to the surface, where we can drastically revise it and then, over time, put it back down deep, so we now see the world differently.

In this way, Alma the Younger's conversion experience, like Saul's on the road to Damascus, is metaphorically what we all experience when we are truly converted: The old self, the old worldview, is killed. We are no longer the person we were. Nothing looks the same afterward.

Your deep religion shapes everything you do and say, without your being aware of it. So you're going to "force" it on your children anyway, just as fiction writers like me reveal it throughout our stories without ever meaning to.

And if you somehow manage to separate your children's upbringing from your deep religion, all that will mean is that you have raised your children at such distance from yourself that they do not know you. What have you accomplished then, except to make your children spiritual orphans from the start?

We really believe our deep beliefs; what can we or should we do except raise our children to see the world through that same lens?

In fact, the whole idea of not forcing religion on children is really an attempt to force open-mindedness on them. But children don't want that kind of open-mindedness. They want answers to their questions. If they don't get them from you, they'll get them from somebody.

And since it's your job, the only responsible thing to do is involve them completely in your religion, teach it to them as the truth, and show them how a woman or man who believes as you believe must live.

Believe me, your kids will have no problem, as adolescents or later, finding every possible way that you might be wrong. But no matter what they come to believe that they believe, the grounding you gave them in their childhood will almost certainly still be there, speaking to them in the back of their mind.

Raise up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Even if he tries.

And since you are ultimately teaching your children what you truly believe about how the universe works and what everything means, it is nothing more nor less than teaching them the truth -- as far as you understand it correctly.

HREF="">See Bruce F. Webster's response to OSC's column

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