Indoctrination and Religious Education

In the course of the discussion of typology of ID opponents the topic of Richard Dawkins and his claim that religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse came up. Now since I’m a religious educator, and particular one who works in churches and other voluntary organizations, you can imagine that my response to Dawkins and to the petition referenced in Ed’s post, is not positive.

I agree fully with Ed that this is not an area for governmental regulation. I also understand the difference between the British system and ours here in the United States. Thus I would support any effort to remove government support from religious education, while opposing any attempt for the government to regulate what is done in private.

Update: Richard Dawkins has repudiated the signature on that petition. See post here with a link to the comment in which Dawkins repudiates it.

There are those who claim that the government does have a vested interest in preventing child abuse, and that if a type of indoctrination is child abuse, then the government should stop it. It’s easy to find some type of indoctrination a parent might inflict on a child that will seem abusive to many people. The problem is that the cure is likely worse than the disease. As some have pointed out, the result of government deciding what is good for a child in terms of religious information might likely result in some form of Christian indoctrination in this country. I know people, for example, who believe that it is so good for children to hear about Jesus that breaking the law as a public school teacher is justified in order to save their souls.

My point here is that there are a huge number of issues on which we will probably be better off allowing choices to be made by each family or household, rather than imposing a single solution. Abuse needs to be well defined and well nigh universally accepted as abuse in order for the government to effectively enforce it. This applies even to physical abuse. I’ve personally read about cases in which it seems to me that the government permitted abusive behavior, while in other cases much lesser abuse was punished more severely. It seems to me that much better definition is required here. This situation only gets worse in the case of psychological abuse. (Please note that I’m not arguing that abuse should not be a punishable crime, but rather that the definitions need to be more objective and more evenly applied. Overworked and underpaid social workers can hardly be expected to figure out all the loose language and legal rulings.)

But having stated my view on the government’s role, I’d like to make a suggestion to religious people and to religious organizations: Religious indoctrination is not good for children.

Now everybody, deep breathe for a bit. The Bible teacher is not suggesting the elimination of Sunday School classes. I’m not suggesting you can’t tell your children what you believe. What I am suggesting is that your child needs to learn about more than your own faith. The young people in your church need to learn about more than Christianity. They need to do so not in an apologetics sense, as in learning the top ten arguments against each of a list of religions. Rather, they need to learn how people in other faiths think and what they believe. They need to learn that atheists and agnostics really do exist, and continue to exist even in foxholes. They need to learn why those people believe what they do.

In Christianity specifically they need to learn not just the doctrines of their own church, and the particular views of the Bible that their church endorses. They need to also learn about the results of historical and literary study. They need to learn how comparative literature, anthropology, and comparative religion work and how they might be applied, amongst many other things.

I have discussed with many Christians who mourn the loss of young adult members in their churches. They wonder why it happens and almost always turn to a program of teaching them more stuff about their own faith. They want to ground them firmly in the doctrinal beliefs of their own church. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” they quote, “and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6)! Unfortunately, history has shown that this doesn’t necessarily work. Further, I think that the kind of Christians that process produces, even if they stay, are not well founded, and do not make all that good of church members.

What we need in churches is people who have freely made their spiritual choice and who are there because that is where they want to be. I departed the church after seminary, and over time came to reexamine my beliefs. Eventually I returned to faith, but I did so in a very different church denomination than the one I left. What was much more important to that process for me was the ability to read, study, and make my own decisions, skills that not all my teachers were happy I possessed!

The petition Dawkins promotes uses the age of 16. I would suggest that open education be provided at all ages, and that children are allowed to choose. When I was a college student I simultaneously was teaching at a small local Christian school. There was one teenaged girl who took my Bible classes who claimed to be an atheist. I remember numerous adults coming to me and telling me that I should let her even say that. Obviously she wasn’t an atheist at age 13. She couldn’t be! She was just being naughty and disruptive. But the fact was that she had good questions that I enjoyed discussing. They were questions I didn’t mind my other students hearing and working with. I encountered her at a church service some years later, and found that she had become a Christian, and more conservative about it than I was. That’s her choice. My task was not to stop her from asking questions and making her own decision. Would I be as happy had she chosen to leave Christianity? I’d simply still think I’d done my job, and as long as she was still asking questions and learning, I would have no regrets.

“Train up a child in the way he should go”–OK. But “the way he should go” is to learn and understand well enough to make his own decision.

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  1. Good post on an interesting topic. But I am puzzled by “I would support any effort to remove government support from religious education“. Since there is no such support in the USA, I can only suppose that this is a comment on the British situation. Now if there was religious indoctrination of the kind you rightly condemned happening in government schools, I would agree with you in opposing it. But there is not – except perhaps in some government funded church schools (and the very few Jewish and Muslim schools in this category), but even this is not supposed to happen. In fact the nominally compulsory (although in fact often ignored) religious education in British schools is supposed to be just the kind of “learn[ing] how people in other faiths think and what they believe” which you support. Some criticise the curricula for having a disproportionately small amount about Christianity. But, apart from that shortcoming, why do you think that this kind of religious education should be abolished?

  2. Although in this country I prefer that even comparative religion be taught privately, I do not claim to know how that should be best accomplished in the UK. If there is specifically Christian religious instruction, then I would be concerned both from the idea of government promoting religion and from the question of the quality of such religious instruction. However, assuming it is, as you say, the type of religious instruction I’m promoting that would not be a problem.

    What I was actually thinking about, and probably should have indicated more clearly, is those cases in the United States where, despite the law, inappropriate religious education does take place. One of two options for Bible curriculum for public schools fails any reasonable test of objectivity and is nonetheless in use in many school districts, for example.

    As for the deficiency you mention, it is one reason why I think Christians need to provide more effictive Sunday School curricula. I don’t think you can expect a government sponsored program to always get it in balance, and I strongly suspect we will never all agree on just what “balanced” is.

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