This article belongs to Great American Dumb Ideas column.

In the beginning: In the beginning, we are all children; we all start out as wide-eyed, gullible, trusting children to be molded by the grown-ups. And what they want is people like themselves, people speaking the same language with the same beliefs, habits, and weaknesses. But, there's more. People want the neighbor's kids to have all their own familiar characteristics, so they set up schools. Some schools do a fine job teaching mathematics, reading and philosophy. Some schools do an excellent job teaching a broad understanding of all the religions of the world. Unfortunately, most Christian Sunday schools are designed to inculcate a religious mythology that excludes other religions or even paints them as enemies of Christianity.


Children are programmed for survival by evolution to learn by rote at first. They must learn simple absolutes such as, "Don't leave the cave at night," or "Look both ways when you cross the street." Very young children can't tell the difference between rules that can save their lives and rules based on religious ideology. Critical thinking, if it is encouraged, develops later in life, often too late to save the person from a lifetime of guilt and allegiance to religious thought control.


The appeal: The notion that religious training in early childhood will promote a moral, ethical adult life seems so promising. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that this is true. Morality can and does exist in diverse religious cultures as well as outside formal religion, and it seems to be a product of early training and adult example. We are just as likely to find a healthy morality in an atheist as in a Christian.


Religious training is one of the many so-called good works of Christian churches. Some churches have special classrooms that look like real school classrooms. There are student desks, a teacher's desk, boards on the wall for writing, displays of student art work, flags, and pictures on the wall. The pictures, of course, are not of dead presidents but of imaginary Bible scenes. In this way, the authority of a real school atmosphere is usurped to facilitate the indoctrination of children. Very young children may not be able to distinguish the difference between fact-based education and religious history when both are dispensed in similar environments.


In these sectarian classes, there is no third party oversight, no teacher certification, no outcome measures, no quality control, and little tolerance for real questioning by students. No clear distinctions are made between fact and miracle, myth and history. No useful life skills are taught. Possibly the most useful skill any child can learn is how to formulate a good question, not something religious educators are comfortable with.


The price: In the United States, churches and their activities are tax exempt, so in some sense this religious indoctrination of children is subsidized by tax payers. One long-term price society pays is the intrusion of religious dogma into public affairs. Students coming out of religious training are often unable to sort religious opinions from what are simple political decisions. For example, if children are taught that contraception and abortions are bad, bad, bad, it is very hard for them to think productively about necessary population control and family planning.


Children tend to take what adults tell them as literal truth. Later in life, they may realize that much of what they were taught in Sunday school could not possibly be true, but by then they may be unable to keep false possibilities out of mind. There may be an ever-present negative self-image because they have lost the capacity for blind faith.


Making money on it: Where would organized religion get its paying customers if kids were not trained from earliest youth to repeat the old stories, to practice the habits of Sunday worship, and to drop money into the collection plate? If these prospective customers were not trained as children, what adult with any critical faculties and emotional control would buy what religion supposedly sells? Well, actually, some do, all on their own.


Of course, for the entrepreneur, religious education can be a gold mine. Every year sees millions of dollars spent by churches on Sunday school paraphernalia: coloring books, canned lesson plans, films, special Bibles, reward tokens for children, song books, and even Jesus dolls.


A once per week Sunday school is not as bad as a full time religious school, many of which operate in the United States. In these schools, underpaid, non-professional teachers are free to do and say what they please. And what they are pleased to do is intertwine religious dogma into just about every subject while enforcing special training and participation in the religion of choice.


Is there a better idea? Let's outlaw emotional and mental child abuse. It should be illegal to inculcate any religious belief system in children under age 16. Sunday school is a form of mental child abuse that can result in a life of discontent, guilt and intolerance for the views of others. Religious education that covers all the religions of the world is a great elective subject for any school child, but sectarian religious training should be outlawed. I think professional educators know the difference even it the churches do not.


Left alone, a person can grow up to select his or her own brand of faith, or pick none at all. If a child is, in fact, allowed to explore religions after maturity is attained, that person will often find a faith voluntarily, and that's the best way for churches to find really good customers. Sell it to adults if you can, but leave the kids alone.


Julian I. Taber