The justly celebrated biologist Richard Dawkins has kindly asked that we stop ascribing religious beliefs to children. It would be silly to refer to a four-year-old as a Marxist because his parents are Marxist, so why in the world should we credit to children a belief in the Resurrection or Muhammad riding to heaven on horseback? “Don’t Force Your Religious Opinions on Your Children,” the title of his newest article instructs us.
I used to agree with this, broadly speaking. I thought the fact that my mother left if it up to me to decide whether I wanted to continue to go to Mass — I didn’t — made my later reversion to faith more authentic. I imagined that I would be really cool and liberal about the religion thing when I had kids. In a sense, I would leave it up to God and them.
I was wrong about it all. And so is Dawkins now.
Actually, to be fair to myself, Dawkins is much more wrong. He goes further than pleading for a hands-off approach. “What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe,” Dawkins has said. “That’s child abuse.”He is not exaggerating his view for effect. On the subject of priestly sex abuse, he once told an audience that “as horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”
Let’s take his claims one at a time. He says that we cannot call a child a Christian in the same way we might call him French. He writes:
Citizenship of a country, whether we like it or not, has legal implications… But if you know somebody’s nationality that doesn’t tell you their opinions about anything. That French person may be left-wing, right-wing, pacifist or warlike, pro- or anti-abortion, the death penalty, vegetarianism, Windows, Macintosh, or Linux. [Time]
But citizenship is hardly the only aspect of belonging to a nation. Nations pass on a story of their own history, their own languages, civic holidays, and rituals. Nations impress on their members a character that is unchosen, even if it contains all the variety of opinion that Dawkins names. Even if someday I came to hate America, renounced my citizenship, and sought refuge in another country, I would still have thousands of Americanisms imprinted on my experience, expectations, and manners. These would instantly reveal me as an American.
Dawkins approves of cultural things that may be connected to religion, including feasts, art, and music. But he writes, “There really is an important difference between including your children in harmless traditions, and forcing on them un-evidenced opinions about the nature of life or the cosmos.” He tosses off sentences like, “Indoctrinating your opinions into the vulnerable minds of your children is bad enough.” And says that religious education “negates the ideal, held dear by all decent educationists, that children should be taught to think for themselves.”
Notice the language he uses: force, indoctrinate. And the implication that religious kids cannot think for themselves. Of course, I don’t intend to force religious convictions on my children or indoctrinate them any more than I intend to force on them good manners, or indoctrinate them in the conviction that “might does not make right.” I simply intend to teach, guide, instruct, and correct. Rarely will that even involve formal lessons. Most of it will simply be implied.
Parents can’t help teaching their children lessons. And they are often a little overwhelmed to see their child learning them, acquiring habits of behavior and thought that they never meant to pass on. These can be good or quite damaging. A father that says, “Let’s go help your mother with the dishes,” to his son and accompanies him in doing so is teaching something different about family life, women, parenting, and service than the father who commands, “Go help your mother with the dishes!” while he entertains himself with his iPad.
The little expressions, eye rolls, and groans that parents attach to ideas, people, dress, or even dinner plates pass on good or harmful lessons without ever presenting themselves as “indoctrination.” So, too, do the books on the shelves, and the books that come off the shelves more frequently than others. These are the very things that teach children how to situate themselves in the home, in the world, in their social class — how to value themselves or others.
There are ethical and metaphysical stakes even in watching television. The way a father leers at a beer commercial may inadvertently teach his daughter to see herself as only worthwhile to men as an object of pleasure. People live, imperfectly, according to what they believe and value. And when children are around, these decisions are constantly explained, justified, and weighed within earshot. Parental influence is so obviously powerful that it ought to inspire great respect for those who wield it.
Children will notice their parent spending 20 minutes a day praying the rosary. Or their parents consoling each other with words from the Psalms. Or their parents fasting for Ramadan. They might even hear their parents pleading for mercy from their sins, or see them donating money to a social cause.
A child notices and then does exactly what Richard Dawkins fears indoctrinated kids won’t do: she asks questions. At age four they may be answered simply and even enigmatically. At age 17, a great work of Augustine or Avicenna may be pulled from the shelf. And in the case of my own home, a copy of the Koran and several translations of the Bible are on the shelf near an autographed copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great. And next to that a copy of Michael Martin’s infinitely more challenging, Atheism: a Philosophical Justification, which I’ve read twice.
And yes, the happy presence of all those books in my home teaches something as well. Namely, that in this house we have nothing to fear from the best arguments of Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins should give children more credit. Children know instantly the sincerity of their parent’s convictions. They know intuitively what is really important to them. Adolescents, because they are unused to decades of bargaining with their own weaknesses of will, are absolute hounds against hypocrisy. Children invariably test their parents’ ideas for themselves.
So what would Richard Dawkins expect religious parents to do? The only way to satisfy him, of course, would be to renounce religion entirely, to become an evasive hypocrite, to diminish religion’s importance in your life to that of a hobby, like archery or collecting old coins, to make it a thin set of convictions added to the otherwise real and secular. I’m sure that would suit Dawkins just fine. A faith of this sort is practically the established state religion in Dawkins’ England.
Perhaps that’s why he can’t help being fond of it.