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.”

1 comment:

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