I tend to think of the range of human traits as being something akin to levels on a graphic equaliser. When we are born the mix of genetic, epigenetic and other factors mean that we arrive into the world with certain levels or ‘settings’. If I think about my own children for example, both are highly intelligent, loving and creative people (naturally) but I can clearly see that some of their inherent style (their settings) are quite different. Number One Son, for instance, is less physically demonstrative than his brother. The difference in their style, their settings, being rather like the difference between a cat and dog (a cat eventually sidles up beside you for petting, whereas a dog comes bounding over, tail furiously wagging). While I’m aware of the process whereby parents’ expectations influence the way they behave towards to their children, these ‘nature’ rather than ‘nurture’ differences do seem to be inherent.
Another setting in which my own children differ is in what we might call their religious sensibility. Number One Son, while acknowledging the significance of religion in culture and the possible limits of science as a means of exploring the world, is himself a rationalist. He can see the significance of archetypal motifs and metaphors but currently likes mathematics and logic as his preferred approach to understanding reality.
Number Two Son is somewhat different. In a world where arts are contrasted with sciences (yes I know that’s a false, even dangerous dichotomy) he would be described as ‘the arty one’. His setting for ‘religious sensibility’ is quite different (at least at age 10) from that of his older brother. As an example, when one of our chickens died Number One Son wanted to dissect it (he was 13 at the time and considering a career as a surgeon, in the light of my parents’ medical backgrounds). Number Two Son instead wanted to bury said chicken, say prayers and lay flowers on its grave.
In my own childhood I also had a strongly developed desire to engage with spiritual or religious things. I’ve written before about my early experiments in creating my own god and developing a liturgy that I found inspirational, so it has been great to observe my younger son creating his own religious ideas. (See The Rite to Roam, in Deep Magic Begins Here….)
Recently Number Two Son has evolved his own religious system. This is centred on a figure he calls ‘Jimaon’ (pronounced ‘jum-own’). Jimaon represents, according to my son, ‘the best that anything can be’. Thus Jimone exemplifies a sort of perfected or ideal state of being (or doing). A person, for instance, is part of Jimaon when they are being true to themselves and their ‘inner nature’ (as Taoists might express it, or perhaps ‘doing their Will’ in Thelemic language).
Within our summer house Number Two Son built an altar to his conception of the sacred. We gathered sap from a resinous tree in the local park to burn as incense, lit candles and Number Two Son led us both in prayer and song in praise of Jimoan. If you want to join in with this new religion all you need to do is pray to Jimoan each Tuesday, asking for help in being the best that you can be. (Interestingly we had the word Jimoan inscribed on paper on our altar since it was impossible, though not necessarily forbidden, to represent Jimoan graphically.)
Number Two Son (who plays guitar) and I also composed a song in praise of St.Nectan’s Glen, a magical spot in North Cornwall (where we sometimes go to attend public Pagan ceremonies marking the turning of the Wheel of the Year). I’d written the words (having been inspired following a ritual there) but it was Number Two Son who wanted to figure out the musical notation for the piece and worked diligently with me (I’ve not yet learnt to play an instrument and so was unable to write the tune) until the song was completed.
Being in a family context in which belief is something to be explored rather than to didactically defined (which, in their own way, was how my parents raised me), is a very valuable thing. My feeling is that this fits the needs of children, and indeed people, much better than a situation in which ‘the answer’ (to life, the universe and everything) is already (supposedly) known (by adults) for certain.
For some people maintaining an open minded attitude means throwing the baby of religion out with the bathwater of belief. But while the emerging forms of radical atheism certainly have their place in culture the idea that religiosity is somehow inherently stupid just doesn’t address the human need for meaning or the sacred. Our own settings can be such that the spiritual quest is important, so simply denying this isn’t realistic or helpful to adults or to children. But the issue here, as ever, is how this spiritual unfolding is permitted to happen. Philosopher and chaos magician Christopher Zzenn Loren writes in his book Unspirituality: Permission to Be Human:
“Children are defenseless to the ‘virus of dualism’ in whatever form it comes in – which is why [religious ideas] should not be introduced until [children reach] a cognitive age. Religious indoctrination is not required to raise healthy children. Their imagination should be nourished… but not invalidated or shamed. [The result can] be a neurosis, which I believe, is why [people] go to religion and metaphysics when they get older… In the best scenario, children would grow through their imagination into creative adults in an environment that is based on current psychology and a science-based education.”
The key word here is ‘indoctrination’. For while it’s impossible for parents and carers not to allow their own beliefs to inform their parenting style, and therefore their kids’ experience of the world, there are better or worse ways of doing this.
Indoctrination implies a style of teaching that aims at convincing a person to fully accept the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group and to not consider other ideas, opinions, and beliefs. An inevitable effect of indoctrination is that it erodes our empathy for other people. The ‘other’ is reduced to a series of simplistic narratives out of which arise prejudice and, more often that not, hatred.
Those who have been indoctrinated have reduced capacity to see nuance and complexity. They seek instead to maintain their cognitive make-up (beliefs) by imagining the ‘other’ as just as monolithic in structure as their own worldview. The fear of ‘Islam’, of ‘The European Union’, or whatever, prosper in such environments of indoctrination and these inflexible beliefs in turn thrive in situations that promote binary separations into them/us (or ‘Leave’ versus ‘Remain’). It’s a truly vicious circle.
Unpicking indoctrinated beliefs is tricky but not impossible. One way to do this, which is commonplace in more liberal forms of education, is to challenge the idea of the monolithic other by encountering things that don’t fit our fixed stereotypes. Discovering, through direct experience, that ‘all <name of outsider group> do not believe in or behave in ways that <whatever our prejudices predict>’ is one way this process can happen. The difficulty is that these experiences are ideally at a lived interpersonal level rather than in the abstract. Hearing (in the context of the recent referendum in the UK for example) that ‘not all people who voted ‘leave’ are racists’ is much less powerful than having a friend (who isn’t racist) explain their reasons for voting the way they did.
Many such attempts to broker lived encounters with ‘the other’ have happened across time and cultures. Examples range from student exchange programmes, town twinning and comparative religious studies (especially where young people from different religious backgrounds get to talk to each other in mutually respectful contexts). Extremism, be it of the little-Englander variety or Wahhabism can be challenged through these and other processes. These methods rely on playing the long-game. But, even in face of apparently hardening attitudes and divisions in our societies, this is a game worth playing.
To make deep transformations at a cultural, generational level what matters is how we enable our young people to see beyond the comforting certainties of simplistic narrative. To support them in a way that nurtures the skills and courage necessary to make their way in the world without seeking safety in simplistic dualisms and enacting the prejudices that flow from those beliefs.
This is a Great Work that would make us Ancestors our children could be proud of.