Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Recruiting Early

In my post on Sunday I talked about my difficulties with the idea of getting Elli baptized.  One crucial part of the equation didn't make it into the post, which is strange because it is such a big part of why I dislike the idea.  That crucial part is the issue I have with religions recruiting children and indoctrinating them when they are too young to question what they are being told.  In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins talks a lot about how children are often referred to as "Jewish children" or "Christian children" or "Muslim children" but that we have an obligation to not profess children to be part of a religion since they cannot reasonably choose for themselves.  He wants us all to call them "children of Christian parents" instead, and although Dawkins is confrontational and nitpicky as usual he has a very strong point.  We don't let children do many things because they simply don't have the capacity to make those choices reasonably yet and barring historical trends religion would certainly fit in that group.  In the past children have traditionally been raised to be a part of their religion from a very early age to ensure that they do not break from it; it is much easier for an authority figure to imprint an idea indelibly into a child's mind than an adult's so religions naturally aim their recruitment at young ones.

The truth of the matter is that if children are raised without indoctrination and are taught about many different religions and that teaching is expressed as "these people believe this" rather than "this is truth, do not listen to anyone who says otherwise" they end up mostly as agnostics or atheists.  Any religion claiming some great access to truth must contend with the issue that hardly anybody believes that truth unless they have it drilled into them when they are very young.  Since clearly a lot of religions actively want recruits they take the easiest path to getting them even if it only works because of the fragility of their chosen targets.  Admittedly many believers are encouraged to believe that anyone who they don't convert is going to suffer eternally so they have the excuse that they are only trying to help.  If you have the choice of indoctrination of a child or eternal damnation of the person it is reasonable to think that indoctrination is a morally acceptable choice but the very idea of eternal damnation is so ludicrous I can't imagine a lot of people actually sit down and think that way.

I am not going to convince most religious people with these ideas I expect.  Religions do have their hardcore members but most people involved in them think along the lines of "Well, baptism is just a little ceremony, everyone goes through it.  What possible harm could their be in sprinkling water and saying a few words?"  I would tend to argue back that if the ceremony isn't powerful and significant then removing it entirely should be no problem but I doubt that is going to win anyone over.  Just like we don't let children vote and we don't let them drink and we don't let them have sex we shouldn't let them choose a religion.  If an adult wishes to believe things that aren't true then they are in good company - pretty much everybody has ideas, religious or otherwise, they hold dear that are ludicrous.  Giving people the best possible opportunity to learn and develop wisdom before they set themselves on a treacherous path is of critical importance and I think we need to apply that to religion just the same as we do to other important choices that children are not ready to make.


  1. I'm an atheist and you haven't even convinced me. I don't believe in eternal damnation and I think the idea is pretty silly too, but I don't think that gives me the right to force other people to stop believing in it. If I accept that Joe can and does believe in Hell then taking any action to send his impressionable young child there just seems wrong.

    You argue that forcing a child to grow up with a religion prechosen for them is a treacherous path of critical importance. Why? Because as an atheist your 'religion' makes you believe that other religions take harmful actions and brainwash people and you want to stop that from happening. But from their point of view the treacherous path of critical importance is not believing. Children aren't ready to make that choice either, and therefore should be raised within religion. After all, once they grow up they can always choose eternal damnation and leave.

    Having it any other way just feels like you're standing up and saying "I'm right and you're wrong and you need to follow my belief system instead of your own" which sounds an awful lot like run of the mill religious zealotry.

    As far as baptism (or anything else, really) goes, it can be both powerful and significant to some and just a little ceremony to others.

    Hockey players never touch the Stanley Cup until they win it. Why? Because to them it's a powerful and significant event and you're just not worthy of touching it until you actually succeed in winning it. But they put it on display in downtown Toronto and anyone can go in and touch it themselves. It's just a little trophey to most people. Would you argue that no child should touch the Stanley Cup until they grow up in case they become hockey players and want to follow that tradition? Would you argue that every child should have to touch it to try to abolish the tradition forever? Or would you just chuckle, think hockey players are quaint/weird and move on with your life?

    (For the record I went to the HHOF with my mother last year. I have a picture of myself standing beside the Stanley Cup. I did not touch it. I am not worthy.)

  2. You argue that "Children aren't ready to make that choice either, and therefore should be raised within religion." Preposterous. Remember that many religions have no concept of hell at all, and the ones that do have a concept of hell believe that only *their* religion will save people from that hell. By your logic we need to raise children in every religion that has a concept of hell at the same time, and that if I invented a new religion called WackoAtheism that was exactly like Atheism except with the caveat that anyone not of that religion would burn for eternity upon death that that children should also be raised in WackoAtheism!

    I don't insist that people follow my 'religion', though atheism is by definition not a religion. I happen to think atheism is right and in that I am no different from most religions but I don't insist that everyone agree with me. If an adult wants to choose a religion I think they are making a mistake but that is their perogative. However, just as I don't brand my daughter as "an atheist child" I would very much like religions to not brand children born to their adherents as belonging to them until the children are old enough to actually choose that.

    I am not arguing that atheism should be paramount and that other religions legally. I am arguing that *no* religion or religious alternative like atheism should be something that we enforce on our children. I think a choice of religion is important and as such it is important that that choice is made by adults, not children. Not having chosen a religion is not the same as atheism.

  3. No, my logic is not at all that every child needs to be every religion, but that belonging to the religion of their parent is logical. (And it also wasn't my logic, but the logic of religious people. It was prefaced with a 'from their point of view', after all.)

    You stated, as facts, that the following are true:

    - children raised with a religion are likely to follow that religion
    - children raised without a religion are likely to follow your religion (semantics aside, the lack of a specific religious belief system is still a belief system)

    As such, your stance here _is_ insisting that others agree with you. You're trying to force the next generation to agree with you by changing the way they are raised. It may not be your overtly stated goal but it is certainly the outcome you expect from the action you advise.

  4. Why do you suggest that children belonging to the religion of their parents is logical? Is it logical that we should all vote the same way our parents do or all have the same jobs our parents do? We live different lives and make different choices, why is religion something that somehow should be stamped on a child when these other things are not? I don't refer to a child as a mechanic just because one of his parents is, even though he is far more likely to become a mechanic given that fact.

    My stance here is _not_ that everyone must agree with me. Remember I don't advocate that children be taught that atheism is true but that they be taught one of the few truths that we all agree on - that people believe all kinds of different things - and follow that up with some education on what sorts of things people believe. They are then free to decide on whatever objective truth they want once they have that education, whether it be religion, atheism or otherwise. People raised without a specific religion end up as atheists more often than anything else but that doesn't necessarily mean that me advocating that method of teaching means I insist everyone agree with me. They are free to disagree with me once they know what the choice actually means, until then having someone else disagree for them is destructive to their education and freedom.

  5. I don't think you can extend the idea that we don't let children make important decisions to the idea that we shouldn't let them choose a religion.

    First of all, in basically every case where we don't let children make certain decisions themselves, we let their parents make those decisions on their behalf. We don't let children vote parents vote in the interests of their children. We don't let children buy alcohol (more specifically, we don't let people sell alcohol to children) but if parents decide to let their own children drink alcohol under their supervision, that's fine (of course if something really bad happens to their kids as a result, they might get charge with negligence). If the argument is that choosing a religion is too important to be left to children, then the conclusion would normally be that it should be up to their parents to choose it for them. That is precisely what is happening. I think your argument supports the opposite point of view that you want it to.

    Second, I just don't think that the religion of children is an important decision. If my five-year-old wanted to be a Buddhist, a Wiccan, a Christian or a Muslim, it would be hard for me to take that more seriously than if they wanted to dress as a Princess versus a Pirate on Hallowe'en. Stats that show that children who are indoctrinated early tend to stick with that religion don't show any special power of religion. Most people tend to believe the same things their families do on most issues - particularly those issues that they never have cause to put a lot of thought into. We could regard the trend of sharing your parents' religion as evidence that most people just don't actually care that much about religion, so it's never worth their time thinking about it.

    Lastly, I think the idea that I would not raise my children to be atheists preposterous. I don't think I'll see any reason to bring it up myself, but if my four- or five-year-old asked me who or what God was, part of my explanation would definitely be that God was something that people made up. In other words, I'll tell them the truth as I understand it. I have a lot confidence that my understanding on that matter is a lot better than the understanding that there is a transcendent being that is responsible for the creation of humanity or the universe, but I would expect everyone to teach their children the truth as they understand it or teach their children a simplified version (or outright lie) when they decided that was more prudent given the child's age and development.

    I think virtually every four-year-old is ready for the idea that there is or is not a God in the sky. Extremely few, if any, are ready for the idea that the issue of whether or not their is a God is extremely contentious and that their parents aren't willing to give them any guidance on the issue.

  6. Voting and religion are not comparable in this sense. We don't give parents extra votes for each child in their household and then let them decide what the child votes for - we just don't let children vote. In fact parents are not allowed to see or influence their children's votes once those children reach legal voting age. In just the same way we can ask (obviously not legislate, because clearly that isn't going to happen, not least because it makes no sense) that people not include children as having chosen a religion. Just like with voting, parents are going to influence their children's choices but I would very much like it if they didn't count the religious vote as being cast on the day the child is born and being binding for life.

    I agree that a five your old wanting to be a Buddhist, Wiccan, Christian or Muslim is very much like them wanting to play pretend or dress up since they have no idea what those things mean. That is fact is the core of my point, that adults refer to children as part of a religion when the very idea that those children are part of a religion is silly.

    I very much disagree with your last paragraph in two ways: First, four year olds are very ready to understand that people see things different ways. They can understand different rulesets and outlooks and accept that older people don't always agree. They will almost certainly have real trouble understanding the distinctions between various points of view on religion but the idea that it isn't considered settled should present no problem. Secondly I never said I wouldn't give any guidance on the issue, just that I would present the difference of opinions and the choices that various people make without suggesting that some of the options are off the table. I fully intend to tell Elli what I believe and why I believe it and give her the best interpretation I can of what other people believe and why they believe it. I intend to communicate that I have very good reasons for thinking what I think but that she is free to choose her own beliefs in the end and that my love and acceptance don't hinge on her agreeing with my points of view. I am confident she is ready for those ideas, though again I doubt she is ready for the exact differences between the various opinions.

    I want to teach her that thinking about what you believe and why you believe it is extremely important, as is considering what other people believe. That thoughtful consideration of why and the acknowledgement of the possibility of being wrong are key, and they are more important by far than having her believe exactly the same things I do.

  7. I realized that you were going to try to draw a distinction between voting and religion, which is why I included the alcohol example (I should have just left voting out entirely for that reason, probably). Similarly, parents choose what their children eat, when they go to bed, what they do with a substantial amount of their waking time, and on and on. All of these things are decisions that are not to be left to children, and when decisions are not to be left to children, they are made by the parents. You can't choose what your children believe, but you can choose where they are on Sunday morning (or Saturday Morning, or Saturday Night, or whenever) - and that is choosing your child's religion.

    I realize that four-year-olds can understand that people have different views on things, it was really more the idea that they would understand a cursory overview of the issues involved with religion, why people believe what they believe, and then be left to make decisions by themselves. You are saying that children are not ready to make decisions about religion at a certain age, and then say you will give them information to help them make a decision for themselves. After explaining that people think differently, explaining why you think what you think, will you say, "But you shouldn't make up your mind until you are older?" What is the point of an examination of the options if you think they are too young to choose?

    Thoughtful consideration and always bearing in mind the possibility of being wrong are both very important things. But if my child asked me whether fairies were real or made up, I would tell them the truth - they are made up. Same for ghosts, unicorns, leprechauns and God. I don't want to single our religious beliefs as one special area where we have to be careful what we say. The idea that there is a God is a substantially less credible idea than the idea that this a unicorn or a Loch Ness monster. There are enough things about the universe that we don't know, and enough things areas where we have to consider the possibility of being wrong, that I don't need to go to religion to use as an example of them. Religious differences seem like a good example why need to be sensitive to other people's feelings, to refrain from judging people based on differences, to be polite to strangers, and to not assume that everyone in the room thinks the same way we do. It's a terrible example of the possibility of being wrong.

  8. I agree that religions have far too many members who were not asked to make a choice, who were not asked to comprehend and pledge to the core beliefs of that religion when they became a member.

    I hope to see religions adapt during my lifetime - I found the protestant Christian upbringing in a UCC Congregationalist faith I received to be impotent, looking back on it now. If one of those changes during my lifetime weas emulating the traditions of Anabaptists [and possibly other theistic orders??], discarding the rubbish of Original Sin, and a surge in popularity of the systematic structure such that members chose to join the religion as an adult Member, I think the popular culture conception of Religions would be much less negative.

  9. What's the alternative? Let's pretend I'm Baptist and similarly marry a Baptist. We go to church every Sunday morning. We have a kid. Do we find a babysitter for them because they're not allowed to be Baptist until they're older? How does that possibly make any sense? When we celebrate a religious holiday, do we exclude them? I think it would be pretty ludicrous to do so. If they're too young to understand the choices involved then how could they possibly understand that they're not allowed to believe what we do?

  10. I think I may have really confused the issue here with my wording in the original post. I was never intending to advocate that these changes be implemented by the state or enforced by law. That would never be passed by government, would be impossible to write up in a way that worked or made sense and couldn't be enforced anyway. The change I want to see is in people's attitudes and prevalent ways of talking about things. I would like to see people thinking of children not as members of a religion but just as children until they choose that religion. Obviously people are going to train their children in their religion and they are going to involve them in their religion, we can't do anything about that even if we wanted to.

    Again, my dislike of religion membership rituals that take place before any reasonable age of consent is a dislike of social acceptance of those things, not a call to legislation or enforcement. I wish baptism (if it has to exist!) was a thing that happened when an adult chose a religion, not something that was practiced on infants and children. These are just me thinking about how I wish people behaved, which is why my inital post referencing voting was probably making things confusing.