Consider a practical example of how this works. In his famous PBS program Cosmos, astronomer Carl Sagan developed the trademark slogan “The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be:’ Sagan’s implication was clear: the natural is all that exists, and there is simply no supernatural. This was presented not as a metaphysical claim but as the authoritative finding of science.

But at least it was presented to adults, who could evaluate Sagan’s arguments and make up their own minds. Pretty soon Sagan’s doctrine could be found in children’s books. One, The Berenstain Bears’ Nature Guide, features the bears going on a stroll through the woods. Emblazoned on the page featuring a beautiful scene is the ideological message, “Nature is all that IS, or WAS, or EVER WILL BE.”

The effect of all this indoctrination, leading advocates of atheism argue, is not that religion will disappear but that it will cease to matter. Writer Jonathan Rauch calls this “apatheism,” which he defines as “a disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s.” Rauch argues that even many self-proclaimed Christians today are really apatheists. “It is not a lapse,” he contends. “It is an achievement.” Rauch hopes to see our whole culture become this way.

If the supernatural ceases to become a subject of devotion, what happens to the religious impulse? Some educators argue that children should be taught to have reverence for science, which can replace religion as the object of human veneration. “We should let the success of the religious formula guide us,” urged Carolyn Porco, a research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Colorado, at a 2006 conference on science and religion. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome— and even comforting—than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.”

Of course, parents—especially Christian parents—might want to say something about all this. That’s why the atheist educators are now raising the question of whether parents should have control over what their children learn. Dawkins asks, “How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents? It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods? Isn’t it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought out?”

Dennett remarks that “some children are raised in such an ideological prison that they willingly become their own jailers … forbidding themselves any contact with the liberating ideas that might well change their minds.” The fault, he adds, lies with the parents who raised them. “Parents don’t literally own their children the way slaveowners once owned slaves, but are, rather, their stewards and guardians and ought to be held accountable by outsiders for their guardianship, which does imply that outsiders have a right to interfere.”Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey argued in a recent lecture that just as Amnesty International works to liberate political prisoners around the world, secular teachers and professors should work to free children from the damaging influence of their parents’ religious instruction. “Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given license to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.”

Philosopher Richard Rorty argued that secular professors in the universities ought “to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.” Rorty noted that students are fortunate to find themselves “under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents.” Indeed, parents who send their children to college should recognize that as professors “we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.”