Friday, November 28, 2008

Religious Indoctrination of Children: Parental Right - or Parental Wrong?

The question of whether parents have the right to instill in their children all manner of moral and religious dogma is no doubt a sensitive one for some. It interests me because I have felt for a long time that while many parents surely believe they are doing the right thing for their children by programming them with their own beliefs, they are in fact doing them a great disservice.

It was a good feeling to find out I was not alone in this thinking. Chapter nine of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is titled, Childhood Abuse and the Escape From Religion. Admittedly, Dawkins' brand of atheism can be acerbic at times, and labeling religious and moral indoctrination of the very young as "abuse" on a par with other serious kinds of physical and psychological abuse is a tough stand indeed. But, like Dawkins, I am persuaded this is not an unwarranted characterization.

Shortly after I began this blog several months ago, I wrote the following excerpts from a post titled, Nothing Short of Brainwashing:

"Besides being innately curious, the mind if a child is particularly malleable, thus susceptible to the impulses of those charged with their upbringing. And when those impulses are offered to satisfy the caregivers rather than the child, the results can be horrific. The late and very wise Dr. Benjamin Spock had one thing right for sure: young children should be raised as individuals and not be driven to conformity as subjects of ritual discipline. (Benjamin Spock, Wikipedia) This methodology clearly suggests that a child's uniqueness be allowed to flourish even at the expense of parents' preferences - or prejudices." And:

"The introduction of simple, easy-to-comprehend, life-affirming values should be all that parents are allowed to instill in their children. From these, a firm foundation for more complex and morally pertinent values can easily be constructed. In other words, the nonsense that is religious dogma has no authentic role in cultivating either the mind or morals of a young child. The differences between right and wrong are readily discerned by accessing more universally accepted paradigms and without anointing religious parents or educators as arbiters of truth and morality."

I have to admit I felt the preceding thoughts of mine validated after reading Dawkins' scathing characterization of parental indoctrination.

In the gripping ninth chapter of The God Delusion, Dawkins cites theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey and his lecture, What Shall We Tell the Children?. In the lecture, Humphrey lays out his arguments as to why "[c]hildren . . . have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people's bad ideas - no matter who these other people are," and why, "[p]arents, correspondingly, have no god-given licence 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."

These are strong positions with the capacity to offend those of a different mind on the matter. But I'll throw my lot in with Dawkins and Humphrey on this score. (Granted my own perceptions may be coloured by not only the fact that my two parents were bent upon imposing their will on their children as regards religious matters, but also by the fact that one struggled with alcoholism and the other with even more serious mental illness. These factors no doubt added a dimension of offensiveness and abusiveness to the whole business of our religious programming.)

Humphrey makes clear the notion that educating young children in the ways of science is by far the best alternative to demanding conformity from them via religious instruction. He proposes that science education is uniquely suited to take the place of religious inculcation precisely because it is not dogmatic and does not dictate. Science is rather a participatory process where access to the tools and evidence necessary to avow verifiable worldly truths is available to anyone, even children. Humphrey's correct assertion is that teaching science is nothing at all like imposing personal ideology. On the contrary, it's about encouraging children to exercise their own powers of judgment and understanding to arrive at their own beliefs.

So valuable is the commodity of a child's attention, it drove one Jesuit master - as Humphrey reminds us - to proclaim, "If I have the teaching of children up to seven years of age or thereabouts, I care not who has them afterwards, they are mine for life."

Such is the methodology of compulsory religious education of the young. To so completely indoctrinate them in the ways of religion that their own capacity to question their audacious authority figures is eviscerated thus extending the reach of god-driven ideology one more generation. That is unless one is fortunate enough to command the wherewithal necessary to emancipate himself from its clutches - not an impossible task, but according to my experience, an ardently long and painful process.


  1. This is a topic that has been discussed much lately on a homeschool message board I frequent. I am not sure if you are aware, but recently an article was published where a father blamed "The God Delusion" book on his "Christian" sons suicide.

    I was quite surprised that most if not all of the other(mostly Christian) homeschoolers completly disagreed that the book was to blame. Many felt the blame laid with the parents who most likely felt they were doing the right thing bringing the child up in a strictly religious upbringing while neglecting to prepare him for the opposition he might face in the outside world including college.

    This conversation opened up many others about how to raise children up in our beliefs yet make them aware of opposing belief systems and prepare them as they face those. MAny parents I feel make the mistake of "indoctriating" their children, sheltering them from all other beliefs and create narrow minded replicas of themselves and either the children become the same or they realize they've been shielded/sheltered from other truths and completly leave their faiths all together.

    I think some of the "Indoctrination" parents do to their children can be very harmful and not in the best interest of the children.

    As a Christian, I try to teach my children my faith, mostly by living out our faith. My children are also exposed regularly to many different ideas and faiths and belief systems. They are exposed to our idea of the beginning of the world as well as the scientific version. My children are taught both of these are theories though, both creationism and evolution(I differ from most of my fellow Christians in that I do believe in creationism, but also an old earth!)

    Anyway, I am getting sidetracked...sorry. This is just an interesting topic for me as a Christian, of course I want to teach my children my faith and hope they too follow it when they grow up. At the same time I want them to have a broad view of the world and be open minded to other views, beliefs and philosophies. While we believe what we believe to be the truth, I don't want them to be so closed minded they can't listen to or consider another view point.

    I don't want to indoctrinate them to the point that if they read a book such as The God Delusion that their faith will be shook to the point they will kill themselves(Supposedly what happened in the story I mentioned at the beginning)

    Sorry, didn't mean to write a novel, just an interesting topic and one many homeschooling christian parents in partiular ponder these days....

  2. Once again, Tara, you have managed to ease my consternation regarding the mindset of some religious people. I applaud your desire to strike a balance between passing on your faith and exposing your children to contrasting world views and methods of learning.

    I have to say, I was relieved by your remarks revealing that most of the other Christian homeschoolers seem to understand that of course neither Richard Dawkins, his book, nor the biology professor can be blamed for the unfortunate suicide you wrote of. Yes it may have been a source of conflict in this young man's life, but assigning culpability for a suicide is simply unreasonable. (It occurs to me that maybe Jesse Kilgore was in fact embarking upon a godless world view but portending guilt over disappointing his father about this direction might have pushed him over the edge - in which case I blame the father.)

    BTW, I wrote of something similar a while back in Recalling A Brother's Suicide, so this story kind of stirs up memories for me. I admit it might not be easy reading but maybe it reveals a little bit about me.

    Something tells me you would never expose your children to the kind of moral and religious overkill that so injured me.

    I'm glad you will be a voice of moderation among your religious peers. It is something you seem well suited for.

  3. Tara, you are the bomb. I love how you paraphrase (Hey Bill I looked that word up) things. You put things in such a light that anyone would be hard pressed to disagree with you.

    Both my husband and I grew up in Catholic homes. Mine went to church, my husbands did not. And yet his family is supposedly devout in their religion. I know the spirit can be with you always. So you technically do not need a church.

    When my husband and I decided to no longer follow any sort of faith we said that if ever our children wanted to find religion we would gladly take them to any church they so wanted to try out.

    We talk about all sorts of religion at the dinner table (my favorite time to talk about anything) and we talk, and give our opinion but tell our children they have to from their own conclusions about religion and life in general.

    Religions was pushed down our throats and learned to despise it. I don't know if that is what turned us off to religion, or we just drew our own conclusions to how we feel about different concepts on what is religious...or not.

    Thanks for posting this Bill, it really hit home for me.

  4. This is a very interesting topic. My parents were big fans of Spock. Let's raise children as individuals and not pingen hole them into categories early on.

    How can you blame a book like God Delusion on a child's suicide? What Dawkins tries to teach is humanistic and compassionate reasoning and analysis. How ironic.

    Tara, creationism and science are not equal. One has clearly inferior reasoning. How can you believe in creationism and an old earth. You make your own rules I guess....hmmm...

    On the whole, I like your compassionate comments and your apparent desire to bring together those of faith and questioners. You are a very thoughtful person.

  5. I have double-edged regret about how I raised my son. On one hand, I regret having been religious at all, because it proved to be a massive waste of time (15 years' worth, to be precise). Concurrent with that is the profound regret that I didn't discover Unitarian Universalism before my son went off on his own.

    Another seemingly contradictory facet of this regret is that, even at its height, my faith was reserved, questioning and unenthusiastic. I wanted my son to experience wholesome church activities, but there wasn't all that much shared prayer or Bible study. So my son actually got the worst of both worlds. He was exposed to the hypocrisies of religion without experiencing the transcendence of it.

    Of course, from this present vantage point, I'm to have been enough of a skeptic not to pull my child into a blind, fanatical belief. And I look back at his development into the person he is now, and can't help but wonder if his hard-headed skepticism was hard-wired, as I believe mine was, or if he sensed my real feelings seeping through from underneath?

  6. Correction (I must be tired...):

    Last paragraph should read, "Of course, from this present vantage point, I'm GLAD to have been enough of a skeptic..."

  7. Volly:

    Don't beat yourself up over this. It sounds like your son probably did hone in on your own burgeoning skepticism and take a cue from it. And, like you, he probably gets a feeling of emancipation from it.