Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What Will We Teach the Children?: Raising kids with (or without) religion


In a previous post, I promised to address the issue of how to raise children with respect to religion.

I now make good on that promise.

The general principle I will be defending in this post is this:

Children should be raised such that they are put in the best possible position to make informed and free decisions on matters of religion and faith.

I argue for this point by way of analogy.

Let’s imagine two parents: Joy and James. Joy and James are doctors and very much want their ten year old son to eventually go to medical school and become a surgeon. They take him to visit the hospital at which they work on occasion and encourage him to talk with their surgeon friends.

Problematically, Joy and James do not expose their son to other career paths and shake their heads in disbelief and disappointment whenever he mentions that he may want to become a journalist.

Most of us think that Joy and James do wrong by their son. As parents, they should expose their son to career options that they deem fruitful, but they should also expose him to a variety a careers and encourage him to discover what he’s truly passionate about.

To not do so, it seems, is to undercut his autonomy (that is, his ability to make informed, un-coerced decisions). While the son may eventually become a journalist, he will have to overcome many obstacles to do so. For instance, he’ll have to research colleges with good journalism programs behind his parent’s backs and muster the courage to major in journalism, knowing his parents will disapprove.

So, while the son is free (in a sense) to become a journalist, his freedom is undermined by his upbringing.

I’m sure you see where this is going by now.

Imagine that Joy and James are atheists and very much want their son to be an atheist. They require their son to attend secular society meetings, do not teach him about the world’s religions, do not encourage him to ask questions about religious belief and shake their heads in disbelief and disappointment when he mentions that he’d like to explore Islam.

The son’s autonomy is undercut in this situation as well. While he is free (in a sense) to convert to Islam later in life, his freedom in this regard is undermined by his upbringing.

If you think there’s something wrong with the idea of raising a child to be a surgeon (or a lawyer or a pilot), you should also think there’s something wrong with the idea of raising a child to be an atheist (or a Muslim or a Wiccan).

But Black Socrates, you’ll say, I’ll have to raise my children to be something. It would be neglectful to not teach my children to believe what I take to be true and beneficial to them as persons.

I agree.

Recall that the claim I advocate in this post is that children should be raised such that they are put in the best possible position to make informed and free decisions on matters of religion and faith.

So, how does one do this? Here are some suggestions.

1. Don’t force your children to attend events where religious doctrines are advocated unilaterally. While it’s fine to tell your children what you believe and why you believe it, parents shouldn’t force their children to attend synagogue or secular society meetings, etc. Children should be allowed to decide to go if they wish.

2. Actively encourage your children to learn about and question different faiths.

3. Teach your children how to reason.

4. Don’t punish your children (in the form of overt disapproval or the withholding of benefits) for not believing what you believe.

Note that nothing I’ve said entails that parents should not teach their children to behave like reasonable people. Parents should teach their children not to steal, lie, cheat, assault others, burn things, etc. If children don’t learn how to act like reasonable people, their autonomy will most certainly be undermined in the future. They’ll be in jail!

Couples of differing faiths are often asked the question “How will you raise your children?” I propose that they answer this question in the way that I propose every couple answer this question. That is, by saying “We plan to raise our children as reasonable and autonomous people.”

Monday, September 5, 2011

Let's Have a Toast for the Assholes


In Famine, Affluence and Morality, Peter Singer argues that persons in affluent countries have a moral obligation to donate at least some of their income to organization designed to combat global famine. While most of us take donating to Oxfam to be a charitable act, Singer argues that for most of us, such donations are morally obligatory.

In arguing for this conclusion, Singer asks us to consider a scenario like the following:

Janice is on the way to the club in her new Manolo Blahnik stilettos (yea, surprise, surprise, I know what Manolo Blahniks are). She sees a small child drowning in a shallow pond. In order to save the child, she’ll have to wade into the pond, ruining her new shoes.

Clearly, we should think Janice an asshole if she chooses her shoes over the child’s life.

Singer thinks that this situation is no different, morally, from the situation of the person who spends however much on Manolo Blahniks instead of donating most of that money to Oxfam and buying less expensive shoes.
In fact, Singer’s position is more extreme. He thinks that it would be wrong to the buy less expensive shoes as well. Starving children need food, no one needs stilettos (or Starbucks coffee, or whatever).

Now, let’s consider the following three propositions which I think most of my readers will consider true of themselves.

1. I know that I can help feed a starving child in, say, Somalia, by donating what, from my perspective, is an insignificant amount of money to Oxfam or some other organization designed to combat famine.
2. I don’t donate money to Oxfam or an Oxfam-like organization, but instead spend much of my income on things I don’t need.
3. I’m not an asshole.

But, light of Singer’s argument, it’s not clear that all three propositions can be true.

So, this is the challenge (which is not unfamiliar to anyone who has studied moral philosophy): Either figure out how all three propositions can be true or reject one.

How do you respond?