Do Children Have a Right to Be Religious?
A Christian friend of mine asked me, and I’m paraphrasing, “What if your child wanted to go to church with her friends? What would you do?”
First off, there is no easy or straightforward answer to this question as there are several things to consider first. For example, much of what certain religious faiths teach is “adult” oriented in content. Young children ought not be exposed without parental supervision. In fact, Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ didn’t get a hard R rating for nothing. As far as I’m concerned the atonement story about Christ’s death and resurrection shouldn’t be taught to underage children. For the same reason not all Brother’s Grimm stories are suitable reading for young children either. Some fables are, some aren’t. The bottom line is that the discretion of the parents, or legal guardian, is vital in any child’s development.
But a good parent doesn’t needlessly expose their child to violent material if they can help it. As for the Christian narrative, it’s the sort of stuff I would be weary of teaching my daughter when she’s too young to grasp the finer implications of what’s actually going on. Yet America is so saturated with Christianity and Christian-speak that it is hard not to be bombarded with it. This is why I argue that religion should remain a private affair, and should stay out of public affairs, in other words it would be nice if the religious could keep their *personal beliefs personal. Worship if you’d like, but I don’t need to hear about it twenty-four seven—nor do I want to.
Of course I understand many Christian parents begin by teaching their children the dumbed down Sunday school version of Bible stories, and they leave out all the bloody details, but again, this is only priming the child’s mind to be able to accept the full R rated version later—but this is not teaching a child to think independently of what the adult tells them—in fact it is the opposite. It’s a form of instilling a given belief rather than letting the child discover it for themselves on their own.
As an educator of children, at both elementary and junior high schools, one of the things I’ve learned is that children don’t respond well to being told what to believe. Rather, they want to make their own decision, and all we can do is help guide them to make well informed decisions. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will always make the right decision, but we learn from our stakes, and we must allow children this right—we must let them learn on their own terms. That’s the difference between being a true teacher and just being an instructor. An instructor instructs you to do this or that, whereas a real teacher will ask you, what do you think you should do? The true teacher is there to guide you, not tell you what to do or how to think.
Religion doesn’t do this, however. It doesn’t equip children with the skills to access or critically examine the information. Rather, religion inculcates and indoctrinates. And this is the opposite of an independent free thinking education—religion gives you a set of ultimatums, believe this, practice this way, accept this creed, take up this obligation—and only after you willingly submit to these demands can you join the club. Then, instead of asking you to ponder the finer points, it instead does the unthinkable—literally—by asking you to take it all on faith. Don’t question—just believe. That’s a bad lesson to teach an impressionable child.
Beware of Dangerous Beliefs
So the problem as I see it is that by letting my daughter go to church, or Sunday school, or what have you I’m essentially handing her tutelage over to somebody else—a complete stranger for all I know—and leaving my daughter’s crucial development and education in the hands of somebody who may not even be qualified as an educator. Further concerns arise too, as having been a devout Christian for thirty years I have seen the true depths of credulous, blinkered, superstitious nonsense that ignorant people can embrace and to leave my daughter in the care of a delusional zealot—for all I know—would not be good parenting and would not reflect well on me either. Meanwhile my daughter would be in danger of being inculcated with erroneous or possibly dangerous beliefs—depending on the zeal of whatever fundamental nut-job gets a hold of her impressionable young mind.
I’m not trying to be a sensationalist here. Not all religions, or for that matter all religious people, are safe. There are hazardous and cultish sects and mentalities to be concerned about. I even have Creationist family members so utterly credulous that I don’t want my daughter going anywhere near them because of the retarding affect they would undeniably have on her. It’s one thing to neglect a child’s education; it’s another thing entirely for one to deliberately misinform them. Yet the danger cannot be ignored, because, in answering my friend’s question it does raise the concern—what if her little friends take her to a Ken Ham Creationist brainwashing camp?
Or worse, perhaps she has a few little Mormon friends, and they take her to their church where a member of the FLDS is rounding up all the regular Mormon children to take them on a field trip to the FLDS compound in an effort for more transparency (unlikely but just for the sake of analogy humor me). So my little girl ends up in some FLDS compound where they’d set about degrading her value because she’s female and attempt to turn her into a zombie concubine for their breeding purposes (which frequently involves rape of minors).
See the documentary film “Sons of Perdition” and learn about the frightening truth of Fundamental Mormonism and its shady practices (including child abuse) in the preview below.
Even if the coast was clear I still wouldn’t leave her alone, in the care of pious folk, for the very reason that while she’s alone they might find out that she was born in a Buddhist society and that her parents are free thinkers who don’t believe in God, and you can guess what would happen next, they wouldn’t just be content to say “Ah, that’s interesting,” and let bygones be bygones. Nope. They’d most likely set about using evangelical tactics to try and “save” her and bring her over to Christ. After all, this is the goal of most mainstream Protestant Christian groups—as missionary work is part of the creed to proselytize—to spread the good news, share the word, and preach the Gospel perchance to witness to nonbelievers and win souls for Jesus. It’s not enough for a person to be born into a dissimilar faith—Christians feel an evangelical yearning to ask you to be born again for Christ.
But the danger is apparent. No little kid is mature enough, aware enough, or well equipped enough to understand what’s going on let alone argue a defense for their own position. They couldn’t possibly be expected to even have a position—they may not even be old enough to know how to ride a bicycle—how on earth could we expect them to have a position on over two thousand years of Christian theology? Granted, I know it’s not like this. No little kid understand the undertones of Biblical stories—they just like the stories. There are talking animals, angels, excitement… all things for a fertile imagination to latch onto and run wild with.
Which is why it is doubly dangerous to simply leave it up to the child to think about for herself, since such complex themes don’t make any sense in the mind of a child, and at best they could ask “why?” But every answer we could give them would be followed by yet another “why?” And the reason they repeatedly ask why, why, why is because they are attempting to confirm the information you (the authority figure) are feeding them, repeat it, thereby reinforce it and retain it. And since you are the authority, they accept what you have to say without question! Again, they’re not thinking on their own, they’re depending on you, as their key authority, to inform their whole worldview. They hang on every word we say.
When it comes to heavy handed philosophical riddles written into the subtext, children just don’t have mature enough minds to unravel the layers which undergird much of Christian theology, and I surely don’t trust any old Joe-shmoe to know what they’re talking about when it comes to the Bible (and I of all people should know). Do I really want my child learning from some lady, who smells of cats, what her opinion is on any particular Bible story? No—no I don’t. We must always be on the look out for Ms. Braybrook types.
If my daughter one day decides she wants to attend church I will be more than willing to accompany her—and afterward we would have a family discussion about what we learned or heard there. But I would never let her alone in a room with a Ms. Braybrook, or anyone who believes in a literal devil or hell—certainly not! And I wouldn’t respect anyone who tried to teach my daughter that she is a shameful sinner and needs saving from some imaginary force which can’t even be clearly defined. Nor would I tolerate anybody telling her that Jesus loves her, and that she can come to Christ anytime, but that her parents will perish because they are hardened atheists who have closed off their hearts to his love. There’s no reason to frighten a child with such superstitious lies and supernatural blackmail. It’s disgraceful behavior. So beware of Ms. Braybrook and all those like her!
Richard Dawkins was right when he keenly pointed out that there is no such thing as a “Christian” child, a “Muslim” child, or a “Marxist” child. Children don’t know the first thing about Marxism or any other complex philosophical ideology—religion included. Therefore it is up to responsible adults, and good parents, to teach their kids how to assess the information rather than just instill the information and expect them to assimilate. Although my daughter will imprint off of me, I don’t want her to be a mere copy, I want to raise her well enough for her to be a complete individual with the capacity to flourish.
Children can’t defend themselves with logic or reason quite simply because these are tools they haven’t yet developed. They’re underequipped to deal with the challenge of thinking through religion, and it’s unfair, in my opinion, to force them to decide and settle into any one mindset only to guilt them for changing their minds later. Moreover, there’s no excuse to subject a child to such manipulative persuasion before they can readily think for themselves. For the lack of a better word it is simply to force one’s beliefs onto them—and that’s the opposite of equipping them with the ability to think on their own.
In fact, their little brains won’t develop such a reasoning capacity to think on their own (truly independent of adult guidance) until they turn at least 15 to 18 years old. Every parent who has raised kids, or can reflect back on their own mental development, should know this by now. Even if they didn’t, science confirms it in the study of child mind design psychology—so there is no excuse to be oblivious to the fact that a child under 18 is not ready to mull over religious beliefs—instead it is the time they can begin to truly consider them for the first time. Luckily, if you’ve been a responsible parent, you will have (to the best of your ability) given them a full array of information concerning a plethora of religious beliefs and practices for them to consider. If not, then all you have done is restrict the growth of your child’s intellect by withholding from them important knowledge. Shame on you!
I want my daughter to be able to think for herself, but she needs to be shown the ropes, because everyone knows you don’t just let a child free climb with no assist on her very first try—if you catch my meaning. You’d only be setting her up for a big fall. I think many Christian parents are oblivious to this fact because, in all reality, they are only handing down their beliefs as they learned them from their parents. So for the believer, their child’s adopting of the parent’s religious beliefs seems natural, even is to be expected, but anthropological studies have shown how if you remove a child from the environment of their culture and belief system (such as with adopted kids from foreign countries) they usually end up inheriting the culture and beliefs of their adopted family and not those of their homeland. The reason for this is practical—they rely on their parents to properly inform them about how to live in the culture and society they are a part of—and this includes emulating the customs and traditions (even the religious ones) guaranteeing that if you are a Christian your child will likely inherit your beliefs. But the fact remains… they didn’t choose it freely.
My friend might ask, “but what if, after all is aid and done, she decides to become a Christian anyway? Then what?” Well, quite frankly, the odds of this happening are nill to none. I mean, my daughter has the exact same chance of becoming Christian as God does appearing before all the world to see just this instant. And so any concern I may have is negligible to say the least. Consequently, if God did appear this instance for all to see, then we skeptics would all stand corrected—and thus the question is rendered moot.
Now you might think I’m being a little unfair by equating my daughter’s chances to take up a religion by equating it with the chances of God’s existence—granted it isn’t an exact comparison—I suppose it’s not out of the realm of possibility that she might possibly become a Christian someday. But I highly doubt it. Even as I have the courage to say that about God too… I mean, anything is possible, sure. Just not very probable. Therefore my skepticism and deeply seeded doubt is justified. Belief in God is not. At the very least I am an agnostic when it comes to whether or not such a thing like a deistic entity could exist—a personal God, like that of the Bible, I’m fairly certain doesn’t exist. Likewise I am an agnostic when it comes to such a situation as my daughter choosing to take up a faith. I don’t know for certain—but there is every indication to doubt such a scenario. So I don’t get worked up over it.
And more than this, if she did show an interest in religion early on, I’d definitely be educating her on world religion using the critical method of comparative religion. That’s the best way to fend off the ignorance of religious narrow-mindedness—by looking at all the facts and then analyzing them and holding them up to scrutiny. It would be reckless to teach her about only one religious faith—since that could so easily lead to a sort of distortion of reality and sponsors an ill-bred dogma where she might come to think that it is the only genuine, or valid, faith and then neglect to consider any others. That’s how most believers get trapped under the yoke of orthodoxy in the first place. If you ask me, I believe it’s better to instill and independent spirit, skepticism, and a keen curiosity in a person than the desire to conform and be subservient.
So to make a long answer short—my daughter has a right to make her own decisions, her choice is hers and hers alone, but before she’s capable of doing so as a mature individual I will take all the necessary measures to ensure her safety and well being while providing the best education possible. This includes not letting her get caught up in religious circles, or allowing her to join or partake in religious cult practices—even singing in a church choir—without parental supervision. Only after she’s been made aware of every conceivable detail, along with the possible dangers of religious folly, would I feel content allowing her enjoy the ceremonies and traditions.