Monday, March 4, 2013

Should You Teach Religion to Your Kids?

This essay was published in Ethika Politika.

Today, many atheists (not all, to be fair) have expressed the view that it’s wrong for parents to instill their religious beliefs in their children.  Chillingly, Richard Dawkins seems to go so far as to imply that the law should restrict parents from doing so:  “Maybe some children need to be protected from indoctrination by their own parents.”  This particular subset of the atheist community is quick to acknowledge our right to practice a religion - even if they find it silly or usually oppressive - while questioning our right to pass it on to our children.  However, only atheists who oppose both rights (or neither right) are being logically consistent, as I explain below.

One of our basic duties as parents is to protect our children from danger. We strive to ensure – through force, if necessary – that our children don’t ingest harmful substances, unbuckle their seatbelts while the car is moving, or take candy from strangers.  Although it would certainly be nice to persuade them through reason, alone, to avoid such dangerous acts, we wouldn’t hesitate to enforce our rules against their will if they found our rationale unconvincing, and no sane person would accuse us of “indoctrinating” or “forcing our beliefs” on them while doing so.  I can’t imagine being congratulated for my “tolerance” if I were to say, “You know, it’s a pity that my child doesn’t agree that unbuckling his seatbelt while I’m driving is dangerous, but it is a free country. Perhaps if we get in a wreck, he will conclude that I was right (assuming, of course, that he survives the experience of being hurled through the windshield and is capable of reflecting on the experience).”

If we assume, just for the sake of argument, that what our religion teaches is true, then we will recognize that the danger of not passing it on to our children may be incomparably greater than not teaching them to avoid taking candy from strangers.  What Dawkins and like-minded atheists suggest would make sense only if we assumed from the outset that our religious beliefs are false (which, of course, they do).  However, they claim to tolerate our right to assume the contrary, without realizing (or at least hoping that we won’t realize) that they contradict themselves by denying our right to instill these beliefs in our children - which most, if not all, religions, naturally require us to do. 

Of course, if your child showed interest in other religious traditions or even questioned God’s existence, then attempting to suppress his curiosity may only add to the allure of heterodox ideas, as we’re often drawn to that which is forbidden.  But the religious parent who values such inquiry for its own sake, as if the outcome were immaterial to the child’s spiritual well-being, is better described as logically inconsistent than “open-minded” – he behaves no less absurdly than a parent who encourages his child to seek a second opinion on whether it’s okay to accept candy from a stranger. 

It’s also worth addressing the claim that the very act of teaching religion to our children evidences our own uncertainty about what we believe. “If you’re so sure that your religion is true,” I’ve heard it asked, “then why bother teaching it to your children? Shouldn't reason, alone, enlighten them to the truth of your religion?”  This view betrays an unduly high level of faith in one’s ability to reason his way to truth.  Even the smartest of us have been convinced to do moronic things. It also assumes that there’s nothing at stake in whether or not a child chooses to embrace his parents’ religion.  This argument, as well, rests on the a priori assumption that religious beliefs are nonsense.  Once this assumption is discarded, it should be clear enough that the desire to transmit our faith to our children has nothing to do with  religious doubt, but is rather an expression of our concern for their entire well-being.

In the final analysis, the only religion these particular atheists claim to tolerate is, in fact, a secular worldview that usurps the name of one’s religion.  Let’s not be fooled.