First of all: Atheist or not, if you haven't read Craig Thompson's Blankets, it's a reading emergency. It's not just one of the most beautiful and compelling graphic novels I've read; it's one of the most beautiful and compelling books I've read in any format.
And if you're interested in religion -- whether you're godless or a believer -- it is absolutely a must-read, pretty much right this second. Thompson's depiction of his fundamentalist childhood is a pitch-perfect depiction, in vivid and unignorable detail, of how, precisely, a religious upbringing can traumatize and fuck up a child. It's not written as a critical argument, it's not Dawkins or Dennet or Hitchens; it's a personal, emotional, intensely intimate view of what this experience felt like from the inside. I don't actually know if Thompson is an atheist or if he's just discarded the fundamentalist faith of his childhood (maybe I should have called this post "Questioning Religion in Pop Culture," but I've dubbed the series "Atheism in Pop Culture" and I'm sticking to it). But if you want to know how religion is playing out in families across the country, you have to read it stat.
So here, more specifically, is what I want to say about it.
Over at Daylight Atheism there's a beautiful, eloquent post about how religious teachers act and speak as if they know how the spiritual world works -- often in startling detail -- better than the rank and file. The post, and the discussion that followed, reminded me immediately of this scene in Blankets:
Craig is a child in Sunday school, being told in detail about what Heaven is like, how everyone will be singing songs and praising God forever. Craig asks his Sunday school teacher if he'll be able to draw in heaven (even as a child he loved to draw), if he could praise God and creation with drawing instead of singing. And the teacher says, unequivocally and with complete confidence and authority, No. You can't draw in Heaven.
The exact words in the book: "I mean, come on, Craig. How can you praise God with DRAWINGS?" And when Craig asks if he can "draw His creation -- like trees and stuff," she replies, "But Craig... He's already drawn it for us." She's quite adamant about it.
Now, let's set aside for the moment how appalling it is to squelch a talented child's creativity by saying something like that. My point is this: How on earth did the Sunday school teacher know that you can sing in Heaven, but you can't draw? On what basis was she making that claim?
None at all, that's what. It's not what she was taught about Heaven -- she was taught about singing God's praises, not drawing them -- and in her closed mind, drawing therefore couldn't be part of Heaven. But she didn't really have any basis for her answer. She taught it to a child as if it were a plain fact -- but she was just making it up.
The same way that all religious teachers are just making it up.
They don't have any basis for their detailed claims about Heaven or Hell, God and the soul. They have Scripture, sure; but Scripture is self-contradictory and vague, and if you ask ten religions teachers what Scripture means you'll get ten different answers. And there's no evidence for any one of those answers being right or wrong. Ultimately, it always comes down to faith.
So I think this Blankets story shows beautifully how the very idea of religious teaching warps the basic idea of authority. I don't mean authority like cops or bosses -- I mean intellectual authority. Human civilization is based, at least partly, on the passing down of knowledge from generation to generation, from people who know stuff to people who don't; and in particular children's brains are wired, for good evolutionary reasons, to believe what adults tell them. But that only works when the intellectual authorities have their teachings based in reality and evidence (and are open to new ideas and being proven wrong). Religious teaching, of the "I know what Heaven/ Hell/ God/ the human soul are like, and I'm going to explain it to you" variety, completely hijacks that process, by presenting with the conviction of authoritative truth ideas that they are just making up.