Among atheist groups, a claim that comes up with some frequency is that teaching children that God exists, that Christianity is true (or any other theistic system), that there is a life after death with a heaven and hell, etc, etc. etc. is a form of child abuse. The claim, a la Dawkins, is that parents teaching their children the parents’ religious beliefs is immoral and wrong, with some going so far as to say it should be against the law.
My first response on hearing this claim is, why shouldn’t a child’s religious upbringing and beliefs be left up to the parent? After all, who else should teach them? All other feasible alternatives that I can think of would result in vastly more and more severe problems. For example, leaving this up to the government brings up the specter of governments having the power to determine what a person’s beliefs are and to regulate what is allowed to be believed and what is not.
However, ignoring that problem, why shouldn’t the parents teach their religious beliefs and values to their children? Further, whether atheist or theist, how possible is it to be “neutral” in matters of religion? You can try to be neutral, but by your attitudes, by your questions and words, by your actions you are going to be teaching your child one way or another on this issue.
First off though, let’s clarify what we are talking about. When you talk about religious faith you are talking about a great deal more than just a set of abstract dogma and beliefs – much more than a belief in God, in Jesus, in the virgin birth etc. You are also talking about being part of a community. A community that provides friendships, companionship, and, when needed, support during hard times. It is also a community which teaches values and ethics – values and ethics that are, in part, dependent on the particular religion and denomination and individual church.
Consider the lessons learned from Christ’s death for the sins of humanity. Yes, there are a lot of logical problems with this story, however, overlook those for now and look at the moral message. This is a story about a perfect man who was willing to give up everything, including his life, to help and save others. That is a strong moral message.
Or the fact that God loved so much and cared so much for those who are his inferior in every way that he made himself human and suffered when he did not have to in order to save them. Again, regardless of the logic of the story, the moral message there is good, and this is part of what is passed on.
Or consider “let he who is without sin throw the first stone”. Or the golden rule. Or the Sermon on the Mount. Or any of a number of other passages and examples.
And then consider that this community is often involved in actions that help those less fortunate – food banks, providing job training, helping out at nursing homes, providing clothing and blankets to the poor, and on and on and on. Some say they do this in order to proselytize – and some do. Most do not though. They do it because they feel that something needs to be done to help their brothers and sisters in need, because they feel that it is the right and moral thing to do.
Now, I am not saying that religion is the source or cause of morality. It is not. However, morality does not arise by itself, it is to a considerable extent formed and created by a society through its social institutions. Religion and the church are one such institution. Not the only one possible and not the only one there. But, keep in mind we are talking about parents who are religious – for them the church and its community is one of the primary ways of supporting and teaching morality. To not teach their child about their faith, to not take them to church would be – in their eyes – an abandonment of their responsibility as parents to bring their children to become moral adults.
Atheists also teach their child morality. However, since ours is divorced from the ideas of God and the examples of religion we do not include religion. That is our view. For the religious though the opposite is true – and given this why should they not teach their religion to their child. To ask them not to is to ask them to teach them to be atheists and agnostics. And actually, when you get right down to it, isn’t that what this move by some atheists to label the passing on of a parents faith to their child as child abuse is; the promotion of atheism.
Consider, when you do not teach your child religion, when you avoid going to any church, what lessons are they learning? One much closer to atheism than theism. And that is my next point – it is not possible to be neutral on this, it is not possible to provide an unbiased upbringing of a child so that they will have a free hand in deciding what religion to choose. We can teach about religions, however that is not he same as experiencing the religion. Plus, most will not teach about the religion in the same way a believer will – there will be that judgment, that criticism against it. We teach them even when trying to be neutral so that they can make up their own minds later.
I know that when we raised our daughters we let them go to church with their friends when they wished to, we taught them about religion, and let them freely choose what religion they wished to follow. But given our example, the way we lived and discussed things around the home, our actions in not going to church, is it really any surprise that they became atheists?
For example, consider this example of child rearing from the Atheist Survival Guide.
A few days after the aforementioned playdate, my daughter asked me, “Did God invent the grass?”
“Some people think so,” I said.
My daughter persisted. “But did he?”
“Your friend thinks so,” I said. And then, cautiously, I added, “But I don’t think so.”
She considered this. “Then who invented the grass?”
“Well,” I said, “Science tells us that the grass evolved over a long, long time. Things happened in nature to make it grow.”
Now, that is probably the same answer I would have given to my five year old daughter had a theistic friend told her God invented grass. However, note that God is played down and even dismissed (tactfully and politely). Nor is the possibility that while the process of evolution created grass that it was God who created the process of evolution. It is these sorts of daily interactions that will cause your child to hold similar if not the same religious beliefs as you do, even if you are trying to be neutral in matters of religion. Your values, your ideas, your beliefs will come through and will be taught to them. It is an illusion to think otherwise.
To further illustrate this, consider politics. You may bring up your child with the intent to let them decide whether to be a Democrat or Republican. Yet, you are teaching your child with every discussion and action you take on issues such as gun control, welfare, contraceptive issues and abortion. When it comes time to say – “son, go ahead and make your own decision”, in the vast majority of times there are going to be few if any surprises. By your actions, by your behavior you have taught them your values and beliefs. There may be some variances, and a few who totally reject, but most, by and large, will follow in the footsteps you create, even when trying to be neutral.
And finally, this talk of indoctrination of child abuse is, in the vast majority of cases, greatly overblown. There is a difference between teaching and indoctrination. There is a great deal of difference in passing on your values and beliefs and child abuse. There are instances when it can edge into such, but those instances are rare and can happen with atheist beliefs too.
Again, I see no issue with parents teaching their children their religious beliefs. It is part of their community and their values and moral system. For them not to do so would be remiss.
There is also a corollary idea that these children are being taught with the idea that their beliefs cannot be questioned. Often this it true. However, there are many times when this is not true too, as I can attest through personal experience with my parents and my church when I was growing up, and with experience with many other Christians and religious people throughout my 57 years. Further, even when taught as being beyond questioning, questions occur and are asked, either when at home or, most especially, once the home is left and they are on their own.
Now, do not get me wrong; I obviously think that religious parents are mistaken in much of what they teach their child, especially those of the more conservative and literal beliefs. And I have no problem with pointing out the errors and mistakes. However, being wrong is not the same as being abusive. If it were, then every parent in history and pre-history has abused their children.
So, this idea that theists teaching their child their religious beliefs is a form of child abuse is bogus, an illusion that is unfortunately shared by too many atheists. One that should be given up instead of being used as a Trojan Horse attempt to promote atheism. Our views will ultimately win out without resorting to such overblown rhetoric and arguments.