Sunday, September 19, 2010

Children and Religion

Earlier today, I had a discussion with a good friend of mine from school. Although she grew up in Louisiana, which (according to wikipedia) has the 2nd highest rate of church attendance in the United States, her family was not religious, and she currently considers herself to be an atheist. Our discussion centered around children raised in religious homes. She feels quite strongly that children should not be exposed to religion until they are old enough to logically and rationally consider religious beliefs for themselves.

I must admit, part of me agrees with her. Young children are impressionable. They are taught to listen to authority figures, including their parents, teachers, and religious leaders in the community. When growing up in a strict fundamentalist denomination or sect (the religion of the denomination or sect is irrelevant, although in the US, fundamentalist Christianity is the most common), questioning is taken as a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it" is a common example I constantly see on bumper stickers.

Is it safe to expose children to such rigid thought when they do not yet have the metal capacity to make their own decisions? Especially when such thought sometimes promotes hated of other groups (nonbelievers, homosexuals, etc.) or denies scientific realities? For me, these question have an easy answer: yes. I feel it is a disservice to these children. Because these religious ideas, and the command not to question these religious ideas, are programmed in at such a young age, they are not likely to be examined rationally even as an adult. Even worse are the children who, for some reason, do not fit into their religious community. Rejection at a young age is extraordinarily damaging and I personally find a person who puts their unyielding religious beliefs before their own family disgusting.

I call my blog "The Scientific Universalist" and fundamentalism violates both aspects of that stated belief. I believe in inclusion and I reject a literalistic interpretation of religious scripture written thousands of years ago. I believe in evolution. I believe in the Big Bang. I believe the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. And I believe every person has the right to examine these scientific findings and form their own opinion on them without feeling trapped by the fundamentalist beliefs they were raised in.

At the same time, fundamentalism makes up a minority of religious belief. A majority teaches love and respect, even if there is disagreement. Using religion, children can learn to be compassionate for those less fortunate and forgive those who harm them. Programs run by churches keep at-risk children off the street or allow children to help their community. Although all of these things can be accomplished without religion (since religion does not have a monopoly on morality and good deeds), it is no less valuable to society than secular programs of the same nature.

As long as children are encouraged to question and change their faith, and even explore opposing ideas, I believe religion can become a positive influence in their young lives. The same is true of any kind of belief system, such as political beliefs. Children should not automatically be assigned the beliefs of their parents. Allowing them to discover their own beliefs will teach them to think critically about the world and themselves and make them into better adults.


  1. I think what drives most religious parents to make little versions of themselves out of their children is fear. They fear their child going to hell, so the indoctrination starts early. I think there is a difference between indoctrination and education. I talk to my kids about my religious leanings and thoughts, but I also clarify that there are many, many other viable thoughts out there. If my daughter says "Daddy, what do we believe?" I quickly clarify that she and I do not, by default, believe the same things.

    I have noticed that this approach sets my kids apart from their religious peers. Whereas my kids evangelical friends feel the need to express the rightness of their religion, and their Mormon friends feel the need to express the rightness of their religion; my children find the need to get others to take on their religious perspective tedious. Hmmmm... maybe they are taking on my beliefs without me even trying. :)

  2. The problem comes when parents cross the line into indoctrination.

    I think you are going about it the right way. Even if your children end up with the exact same beliefs, it won't be because you pressured them.

    Fear is definitely a motivator. To this day, whenever I tell my parents I'm not a Christian, they still say "yes you are, you were raised that way". I find it to be insulting that they refuse to let me acknowledge my own opinion. It's frustrating to basically be told I cannot think for myself.