A Healthy, Respected Cultural Practice or a Potential Source of Neurological, Cognitive and/or Mental Health Risks?
Teaching Children to Embrace Faith as a Valid Means of Perceiving Reality:
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The minds of children have enormous potential - but they are also vulnerable to persuasive institutionalized influences that are not grounded in reason and that encourage blind acceptance while strongly discouraging questioning of their reasonability or their grounding in verifiable evidence. This raises concerns about the potential effects of these influences. What effects do the encouragement to suppress or suspend one's capacity to subject ideas presented as factual to critical scrutiny or to subordinate rational assessment of assertions of fact to instruction that certain things are exempt from such scrutiny or assessment have on the mind? What are the potential effects of requiring blind acceptance through the lens of beliefs that regard them as belonging in the realm of a separate kind of reality?
Could the Suppression or Suspension of Our Capacity for Critical Scrutiny of Assertions of Fact Have Adverse Neurological or Cognitive Effects?
For generations, adult leaders and parents have, usually with the very best of intentions and based on their own upbringing, passed on to succeeding generations accounts of historical events, principles base on their embrace of "faith" rather than the existence of verifiable evidence and means of perceiving reality other than through the lens of evidence-based evaluation.
But what is “faith”? It is the acceptance of claims of fact that certain things are true, either as asserted scripturally with no historical documentation or verifiable archaeological or anthropological evidence to support them, or that another reality exists outside of what we see in the natural world.
The widespread occurrence of this suppression and subordination raises significant questions about their potential effects on cognition, mental health and brain development and function. Because innumerable children are exposed to these institutionalized influences worldwide, often on a regular basis and over the course of their childhood, their effects may become so robustly reinforced that they may persist into adulthood, with the potential for any effects they may have to remain with them the remainder of their lives.
At The Ingersoll Foundation, we will fund unbiased studies of the potential neurological and mental health effects of the long-term exposure of children to such practices. The mission of The Foundation is not to challenge or discredit these institutionalized practices, but we do recognize that the selective suppression the human capacity to require reasonable evidence to support assertions of fact may have the potential to affect cognition, mental health and other neurological aspects of brain function. We consider that the likelihood of these effects is sufficient to warrant research to investigate them, and that, if unbiased research happens to reveal that they are associated with harmful consequences, the findings that result may warrant serious discussions about the ethics of exposing children to these influences.
The Purpose of The Foundation Is Not to Challenge Religion in General. It Is Only to Consider Questions About the Global Practice of Instruction to Embrace Faith As a Valid Means for Perceiving Reality and the Potential for That Embrace to Affect The Well-Being of Children.
We do not claim or assert that the religious instruction of children to embrace faith causes them harm. We simply recognize that long-term, repeated exposure to information of any kind results in the reinforcement and strengthening of the brain's retention and acceptance of that information. This is a matter of established neurological science, not speculation, concern or suspicion. There is no reason to think that information provided to children, whether in the context of religious instruction or anything else should be processed by the brain in any different way.
The fact is, though, that teaching children to embrace the validity of faith overwhelmingly occurs in a religious context, and treading on the toes of religion as we support studies into the potential effects of that embrace will be an unavoidable, though unintended consequence. We must, nevertheless, maintain our focus on the welfare of children.
With that said, though, it is not enough to note that, while most children exposed to this kind of religious instruction retain the things they are told in the synapses and neural pathways in their brains, that the nature of the things they are taught may have potentially in any negative effects. The hypothesis - the identification of the possibility that their exposure to information exempt from critical scrutiny - may, by virtue of some of that information being presented as something that must be accepted and exempted from the requirement of objective evidence supporting, if confirmed by unbiased research, it is a matter of legitimate concern. Acceptance of these things as a matter of "faith," by suppressing or suspending the exercise of critical scrutiny raises profound questions about the potential effects of that suppression or suspension on children neurologically, in terms of their mental health and/or cognition. But this is an hypothesis, albeit one that we regard as having sufficient grounds to be taken seriously, and will remain as such until unbiased studies produce findings that either substantiate it or reveal it to be groundless. Regardless of the outcome of these studies, though, our commitment to reason and respect for the scientific method requires that it accept the study finding, regardless of their conclusions.
Our concerns notwithstanding, no research study can be credible if it begins with a bias toward proving a particular result. The same regard for objectivity and reason that raises concerns about the effects of long-term exposure of children to teaching them to embrace assertions of fact that are not supported by evidence also holds for the studies we intent to support. An absolute requirement for performance of any studies we fund will, as matters of both dedication to intellectual and scientific integrity as well as Foundation policy, be a commitment by investigators to objectivity, freedom from bias and commitment to reporting their findings based on evidence, whether those findings support the concerns expressed above or refute them.
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