September 09, 2005

Should children be labeled according to religion?

If you ask children what their religion is, they will unhesitatingly answer. They will say that they are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc. and from their answer you can confidently predict that this is the religion of at least one parent, and usually both.

This kind of labeling is not very meaningful. If religious beliefs are to be in any way meaningful, they have to be on the basis of a freely made choice. Compelling sometime to adopt a religion makes a mockery of that religion. But although children are not formally compelled to follow a particular religion, they are usually only taught the tenets of their parents' religion and are unaware that other religious options are open to them or that they have the option to reject the religion of their parents until they are much older. By then, they have become used to being believers in the family religious tradition, and very few people seek out information about other religions unless they experience deep dissatisfaction with their parents' one.

But the ideas contained in religions are deep, subtle, and complex, and it is unreasonable to think that young children are in any position to make a choice about what religious structure they find compelling.

So why do we label children according to religion? Richard Dawkins takes a strong stand against this and argues that classifying children as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. is a form of "mental child abuse" because such labels imply a choice of beliefs that only adults are in a position to make. In his essay Is Science a Religion? based on a speech given on the occasion of his accepting the 1996 Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association, he says:

I do feel very strongly about the way children are brought up. I'm not entirely familiar with the way things are in the United States, and what I say may have more relevance to the United Kingdom, where there is state-obliged, legally-enforced religious instruction for all children. That's unconstitutional in the United States, but I presume that children are nevertheless given religious instruction in whatever particular religion their parents deem suitable.

Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London's leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question - without even noticing how bizarre it is - that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?

Of course, one obvious counter to Dawkins' argument is that parents do influence their children in their political, economic, and social thinking, so why should religion be any different? But it is true that we do not assign political or economic labels to children the way we do with religious labels.

One reason that parents bring up their children in their own religious tradition is because they want to teach them moral behavior and most people cannot separate morality from religion. I do find it a little strange when some people say that without religion there can be no morality and that it is only belief in god that prevents people from (say) killing other people. To me it seems obvious that you can have universal moral values that are independent of religion.

Another reason that parents bring up their children in a religious tradition is that because they think that their own religion is the 'true' one and see no reason to not teach their children the truth, just like they would teach them that the Earth orbits the Sun.

The so-called Intelligent Design Creationists (IDCs) want students, in the name of 'fairness,' to be taught the "controversy" of evolution and intelligent design in science classes so that students can choose which is better. If they are so enamored with the notion of giving students choices and teaching controversy, perhaps they should set an example by encouraging churches and religion classes to also "teach the controversy" by teaching children evolution as well, and also the basic tenets of all religions (and atheism) and letting children choose which belief structure they prefer to follow.

But don't hold your breath that they will do this. The long-range plan of IDC advocates, as outlined in their Wedge Strategy, is to make Christianity pervasive in all areas of life, not make critical thinkers out of students.

Camp Casey event in Cleveland Heights

Everyone is welcome to come to an event including members of the Camp Casey Team from Crawford, TX: Friday, Sept. 9, 7-8:30, Church of the Saviour, 2537 Lee Road (North of Fairmount and Lee), Cleveland Heights.

There is a parallel program on the West Side Saint Joseph Center, 3430 Rocky River Drive (Rte 237, McKinley exit off I-90) West Park area, Cleveland. (For further information: 216-688-3462 or 216-252-0440x423)

Both events are free and open to the public.


Welcome: Rosemary Palmer, mother of Ohio Marine killed in Iraq
Moderator: Mano Singham, Case Western Reserve University

1. Gold Star Families:
A. Bill Mitchell of Atascadero, CA, whose son Sgt. Michael Mitchell was killed in action in Sadr City, Iraq on April 4, 2004, along with Cindy Sheehan's son Spc. Casey Sheehan. Bill is a founder of Gold Star Families for Peace.

B. Beatriz Saldivar of Fort Worth, TX, whose nephew Daniel Torres was killed in action on February 4th, 2005 in Baygii, 155 miles north of Baghdad, on his 2nd tour of Iraq when an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) exploded and hit his unarmored Humvee. She is available for interviews in English and Spanish.

2. Mylion Waite, Associate Paster, Antioch Baptist Church

3. Mano Singham, Case Western Reserve University, "The Case for Bringing the Troops Home Now"

4. Military Families Speak Out (family members of current US troops in Iraq) participants: Kallisa Stanley of Killeen, TX, whose husband is in the Army and currently stationed at Ft. Hood. He served one year-long tour of duty in Iraq and is scheduled to be redeployed to Iraq next year.

5. Iraq Veterans for Peace participant: Chris Snively

There will then be a Question and Answer interactive discussion with the audience.


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I have long held that proselytizing (compelling someone to switch to your religion) is a very arrogant thing to do. It seems like an elitist practice. You only try to convert people to "save" them. It is pretty arrogant to think that your religion is the right one and that everyone should covert to it.

Posted by Jonathan Ward on September 9, 2005 10:11 AM

The idea that "a parent" can bequeath their "spiritual truth" to another, as if it were their grandmother's china, reveals how truly superficial religious beliefs are in this society.  I'm reminded of one of my favorite writings from Gibran, for which the implications are extraordinary:

"Your children are not your children. 
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. 
They come through you but not from you, 
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. 
You may give them your love but not your thoughts. 
For they have their own thoughts. 
You may house their bodies but not their souls, 
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. 
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. 
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday..."

Posted by Mary on September 9, 2005 11:10 AM


I agree that compelling someone to adopt your religion is wrong, but I was using the word proselytizing as simply telling people how wonderful your own religion is and why they should adopt it. So I saw it as a voluntary thing and no more objectionable that persuading people to vote for your favored candidate.

Posted by Mano Singham on September 9, 2005 11:26 AM

Mano--I think you hit upon the key difference between political labels and religious ones, which is the spiritual aspect. Most religious/spiritual individuals see their religion as not a choice, but a necessity and a truth that the fate of their very souls rests on. If the children decide to join a different religion, or are given a choice, their soul is doomed to (insert punishment/exile here) in the hereafter.

Of course, if you're agnostic or atheist, then it makes sense give your children choice. I was raised as a Catholic, but both of my parents were, and are agnostic, so they emphasized the element of choice very early on. Their rationale on having us attend church and parochial schools was just as you described: to give us a moral/ethical framework to live within. When asked, we identified ourselves as christians, but that wasn't quite true given the rationale for sending us to church.

It *IS* important to kids that they have a culture to belong to, and religion is a key component of that. To be the only agnostic kid in a class of christians, for example, is very distancing and sets up the expectation that this child is qualitatively different from that child in some manner. The issue of culture is especially prevalent in some groups, where religion and ethnicity are intertwined, like Jews. I know several people that identify themselves as both Jewish and atheist, yet the two seem to be mutually exclusive on the surface.

I guess my question is: Do you think it is right to label children as anything culturally before they understand the culture they are entering into, even if omitting such a label might ostracize them from their peers?

Posted by Ben on September 9, 2005 02:36 PM


I don't agree with the author you quoted who believes that teaching a child religion is a form of mental abuse. Abuse implies an intent to harm, and barring a few mentally disturbed individuals, the majority of parents do not intentionally harm their children.

I don't know how it works in other religions, but in the Christian religion in which I was raised, a child learned the tenets of Christianity, including its history, starting from Genesis, so the history of Judiasm was also included. We did not learn all of the subtle variations between different types of Judiasm, and I didn't really understand the differences between various Protestant groups, the Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox church. But learning about one religion in depth allowed me a starting point.

When I got to college, I continued to explore the religion in which I was raised, as I have a curious mind. I also was now in school with people of many other religions, from athiest to Jain to Hindu to Islam to Buddhist to agnostic to Wiccan to Fundamentalist Christian to Jewish. The conversations that we had were amazing - each of us had a unique, deep understanding of the religion with which we identified ourselves. The collective knowledge was much greater than any of us could hope to get between birth and 18. Some of us looked at the other religions, saw something more attractive or more logical than what we had in our own religions, and therefore changed. Some of us looked at the others, looked deeper at where we were raised, and chose to remain where we started.

Not everyone has the opportunity to have deep discussions with followers of other faiths. Some faiths forbid it, and many do have a superiority complex. Does that mean religion itself is faulty, or that everyone should be raised as an athiest until they achieve the "age of reason", whatever that is? I don't believe so. Should children be forced by the schools to experience other religions, in the idea that by exposing them to other faiths, they will be able to make a more well-informed choice? This seems to be closer to the right direction, but something still seems off.

One quote that comes to my mind has its source in Jim Wallis' book "God's Politics": "The answer to bad theology is not no theology. The answer to bad theology is good theology." It is from that perspective that I take issue with the idea of eliminating religion completely, or turning it over to the schools.

~ Liz

Posted by Liz V on September 9, 2005 03:34 PM

(Sorry my comment is so long... this topic is one to which I've given much thought.)

I think Ben makes an important point, and that is that religion is a multi-purpose tool. The social and cultural trappings are not incidental but rather functional, which is why group worship exists and why we do label children as belonging to one tradition or another. Sure, part of it is because you want them to believe as you do, but I think a bigger part is just because you want them to be in your group. I grew up Catholic, and I think a lot of Catholics just don't bother to think about what they believe and are in it for familiarity or maybe just bingo, and I used to think that was shallow but now I actually think it's fine.

You're right that a religious upbringing leaves marks on a person's self and reshaping oneself as an adult is a difficult task - I don't contest that; I've had to do it myself. But a) any childrearing choice - be it theism, atheism, Religion of the Month class, or deliberate silence on the issue - will shape the child's early attempts at philosophy, and so no young adult on the verge of philosophical commitment is a blank slate; and b) the work of having to decide what you believe and what you stand for apart from what everyone's told you is, I feel, actually quite worthwhile.

I also think that the problem of the origin of moral universals is a harder problem in a God-free universe than you're giving credit for; that is to say, if you have solved it I would really like to know the answer. :) It is certainly possible to believe in a nontheistic absolute morality, but one is still left with the task of explaining why, in a set of contrasting moralities, yours is the right one. "God said so" is not a satisfying answer to me, but "Some fallible human with prejudices and self-interest at stake said so" is even worse. And "I said so" is good enough for me but likely won't be good enough for anyone else. ;)

The only marginally convincing defense of absolutism I've ever read was an essay by James Rachels in my undergraduate philosophy text, which basically stated that moral universals are those rules without which no society could exist. But of course, everyone believes his own "thou shalt nots" to be on that list. Who is the final arbiter? And doesn't this imply that as the conditions under which we live change, so too will the moral "absolutes" change?

This isn't to say that I believe we should act as if there are no moral absolutes or rights. I think life would be awful and unsupportable if we did and we can't really put life on hold waiting for a solution to this problem. But for me, at least, it is a hard problem.

Posted by Erin on September 9, 2005 04:16 PM

I think that it is ok for parents to consider the welfare of their children and assign them a religious label if the alternative is to have their children ostracized. This may be the only humane option open to them, apart from moving to another area.

But this raises another issue: what if you are (say) the only Catholic in a heavily Protestant area? Should the children be encouraged to say they are Catholic to avoid being ostracized?

One always runs into problems like this when we set up a hierarchy of belief structures that do not have any rational basis.

This is why in general I think we should strive for a soceity where your belief structures are accepted for what they are and nobody is ostracized merely because they adhere to a minority belief. Liz was lucky that she semed to have grown up in such environment and benefited from it.

Erin, I am not familiar with the James Rachel's work but John Rawls "A Theory of Justice" also tries to arrive, not at a final set of universal moral values, but at a method by which people can seek to achieve a consensus on the principles of justice as fairness.

Posted by Mano Singham on September 9, 2005 04:31 PM


Your point about the difficulty of finding universal moral values is well taken. I wasn't implying that I knew them or even that the were easy. I wasn't even saying anything profound! I just seemed to me that certain principles ("Don't be cruel to people" "Don't take advantage of other people's trust or ignorance", etc.) would be things that most people would agree with and did not require the warrant of any religion to be considered worthwhile principles to live by.

Posted by Mano Singham on September 9, 2005 04:45 PM

I think the main motivating factor for many parents raising their children in their own faith is the idea of "saving" them. Christianity teaches that one must be baptized in order to go to heaven. Any parent who believed this would surely want their child to go to heaven, and so taking them to church would be the obvious choice. I would definitely not call this child abuse. These parents are trying to look out for their children's future; it is just a future that is beyond the beliefs of Mr. Dawkins.

Posted by Katie on September 9, 2005 04:50 PM

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I ought to state that I was raised as an agnostic humanist. Though I have questioned and examined them at length, I have stuck quite thoroughly to the values that my parents imparted to me. I'm one of the few people I know who has followed so closely in her parents' footsteps, and is proud and happy to have done so.

That said, as an outsider to religion, I think that one of the most important things that parents do in raising a child in a religion is that they give the child a community to belong to (as Ben said). Growing up, I belonged to communities of people other than religious groups, but I don't think that the importance of being born into and accepted into such a ready-made community should be discounted. It seems especially relevant now, as people seem to be moving toward lifestyles that isolate themselves from everyone else (driving everywhere, living in houses that are far enough away from other people that you don't have to talk to your neighbors, etc). Teaching children to care about the welfare of others, and having them cared about by others is, I think, essential to raising them to be good people, and that's easier to do when there's a community involved.

I also feel that religion is important, in that it is one of the few things that involve traditions that have been passed down for millennia, but I can't put my finger on why. For example, I took part in a Passover seder earlier this year, and one of the things that I found the most amazing about it was that thousands of years ago, there were a bunch of people doing very much the same thing on the same day at the same time, thinking about the same things, and remembering the same events. Of course, nothing about this requires religion- people have been sitting down to eat dinner together for longer than Judaism has been around- but there's something about a specific ceremony or order of events that brings that feeling to the forefront.

Posted by melinda on September 10, 2005 03:08 PM