I'm not the only one, it emerged, who as a small and trusting child was taught and inadvertently terrorized by a bedtime prayer before the age of reason:
"Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."Another "aging professor [who] laments his shrinking brain" has recently noted the abusive aspects of that little rhyme.
I don't blame my parents, who with the best of intentions simply transmitted an old religious meme that's been kicking around unchallenged for eons (or since 1711, allegedly). They didn't talk much about Hell or eternal divine retribution in our home (leaving that unpleasantness to the preacher and Sunday School teachers), nor do I think they thought about it much themselves. And therein lies a huge but non-malicious cultural error of omission that philosophy must rectify.
It was in the name of philosophy that I thus responded as I did to the student who yesterday insisted the error is not that of those who instill fear in their young, but rather of those like Epicurus and me, who would slough it off. It's not unreasonable or irrational, he suggested, to fear a god who just might be crazy enough to commit the innocent children he loves (as George Carlin reminded us) to the flames.
So I testified to my own Epicurean moment, as a youngster, when the whole frightening fable just no longer felt real. The student said a belief that makes you uncomfortable (bit of an understatement, that) might still be true. Yes, I said, but discomfort might be reason enough to explore other worldviews. And, I added, "if there's a retributive god out there, may he strike me down. No, wait: may he strike you down."
It got a laugh, but there's a serious point here. So many believers (and non-believers) are so frequently devastated by life's various natural calamities and moral calumnies, that faith loses all credibility as a shield against punitive bolts from heaven. Heaven loses all credibility as a saving alternative to hell.
And that's why Epicurus and his Garden friends would applaud Professor Dawkins' bus billboard campaign. (Unlike him, though, I think they'd prefer to leave "probably" on the bus.)
I was asked if I agree with Dawkins' rhetorical extremity, in calling religious indoctrination "child abuse." I don't use that language myself, as there seems a crucial distinction between the unwitting harm of much indoctrination and the exceptionless malevolent harm of assault and torture. My parents were no torturers. Most religious fundamentalists are not torturers. But they do inflict harm, in the form of an unfounded fear. I forgive them, they know not what they do.
And I say, with Epicurus: Relax, and enjoy. We are stardust, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden. Park that bus right here.