A while back, I had a conversation with a young couple considering marriage who had differing perspectives on the role religion would play in the raising of future children. One of the options floated about was something like this: “We’ll just raise them ‘neutral’; we’ll expose them to as many religious and irreligious options as possible and let them make up their own minds.” Well, that sure sounds admirable enough. Give them the choice. Don’t stuff anything down their throats. No indoctrination or coercion whatsoever. What could be more honouring of the individuality and freedom of our children than that?
Of course, the barely concealed expectation behind such a project is that once kids are freed of the overbearing, clumsy, and possibly even malicious miseducation of priests, pastors, and other religious leaders they will naturally, joyfully, and gratefully embrace some form of secular humanism. All smart people know that “free” thought inexorably leads away from religion not toward it. This was certainly the expectation/hope of one of the parties in the conversation I had. By exposing their child to a wide variety of religious traditions (primarily as cultural artifacts) alongside secular “free thought,” the obvious superiority of secular humanism would shine through.
Journalist Danny Postel, in an article for New Humanist reveals similar expectations to the ones held by my conversation partner. The only problem was that his child still showed just a bit too much interest in religion, despite the supposed lack of constraints on his thinking from his father. Here’s what Postel had to say about his “problem”:
The dilemma remained: what if all the science and fantasy and comparative metaphysics fail to do the trick, and Christian literalism, despite my efforts, works its magic on my children’s minds? Call me intolerant, but I’ll admit it: I don’t want to tell my children what to believe or not to believe, but I would be displeased and disappointed if they were to embrace conventional religious views. I just would be.
As refreshingly honest as this quote is, it seems just a bit, well, closed-minded (not to mention ideology-laden—Christian literalism is not a domain of thought but a form of magic that weaves spells on children’s minds?). When the results of the “experiment” don’t turn out right, it becomes obvious that the main goal is not for little Johnny or Judy to be able to make up their mind on their own. No, the goal is for them to make up their mind correctly. It is for them to (independently?) arrive at the same views that are currently held and cherished by their parents.
That sure sounds familiar… kind of like religious education.
Of course, this is precisely what it is. All parents are socializing their children into their own worldview, whether explicitly or implicitly. All parents are modeling a particular way of approaching the big existential questions of life—What does it mean to be human? What’s wrong with the world? Is there a solution? Is there hope for a life beyond this one?—even if this approach is to ignore/ridicule these questions or pretend they don’t exist. And all parents must honour the fact that despite/because of/in addition to our efforts in passing on our own worldviews, our children still have the ability to make their own choices.
Even when those choices happens to include faith. It is possible, after all, that one can “freely” and thoughtfully decide to pursue a life of faith. Rumour has it that it may even have happened once or twice throughout history. Much as many prominent voices out there these days seem to believe that free thought is a one-way highway to irreligion, this simply is not the case. Even when people are “allowed” to think, it seems, many of them still end up with faith.