This is a guest post by Angela Russell. Angela Russell is a stay-at-home mom to two girls ages 3 and 4. She holds graduate degrees in School Psychology and Elementary Education but writes primarily as a fellow parent and as someone who thinks that if we can decrease childhood indoctrination we can decrease the negative forces of religion and focus on the positive forces of humanism. If you would like to be a guest blogger on godlessmom.com, click here.
Let me start off by saying that I question because I care. I care about you as a parent and a person. I care about your precious children and the next generation of humanity that they represent. I care about truth and honesty and integrity. And so I ask, in the spirit of concern and kindness, do you plan on raising your children in a religious faith tradition? And if your answer is yes, have you thought about why you are choosing to do so?
Some parents feel lukewarm in their religious convictions. Some parents have long-held or newly-found questions and doubts about their religion. Some parents consider themselves as having fallen away from their religious faith. However, many parents choose to indoctrinate their children into their religious faith traditions. The reasons vary. Some parents feel it is important to continue the tradition of passing along their family’s religion that has been practiced by family members for generations. Some parents don’t want to upset their relatives by not passing on the faith. Some parents see passing on their religion as a given, understood, expected part of good child-rearing. Some parents don’t feel personally motivated to pass on their religion however it is important to their spouses or parenting partners whom they love and want to support. After all, what harm can religious indoctrination do? Religions are all about promoting peace, love, and acceptance.
Whether or not you choose to indoctrinate your children into a particular religion will have an undeniable impact on their growth and development. The size and shape of the impact will depend on many factors such as your children’s temperaments as well as the intensity and content of the religious messages they receive. Like many aspects of child-rearing, your decision to indoctrinate your children into a religion is one you should evaluate and reevaluate deeply and continuously (just as you should evaluate and reevaluate deeply and continuously your adult choice to personally continue to practice a religious faith – try starting with these seemingly simple questions, “Why do I believe what I believe? What evidence do I have that what I believe is true?”).
I do not assert that the consequences of religious indoctrination are only negative. Religions often offer a sense of family unity, a sense of community, and avenues for the pursuit of living moral lives. However, I would offer that these positives do not have to be attached to religions and that there are some serious negative aspects to raising children in religion that should be considered before you choose to do so with your own.
1. Seemingly inevitable imposition of guilt and shame.
Many religions attempt to teach children morality by teaching them what is sinful. Children are often taught that their sins make God feel disappointed, sad, or angry. Children are often taught that their sins cause God to act in vengeful ways toward themselves or others. In many Christian denominations, children are taught that because of their sins Jesus Christ had to die a horrific death by means of crucifixion. When children feel that they are sinful or not living up to expectations, the impact that the resulting guilt and shame will have is hard to quantify.
2. Doubts and questions that cannot be reconciled.
As children develop their reasoning skills as they mature, doubts and questions about their religions will likely arise such as “How do we know this is true?” and “Why do we believe these things?” While children are coming to understand other aspects of the natural world through observation, experimentation, and reason, they are directly and indirectly being taught that religions don’t seem to follow the same rules. In the case of religion, you must have faith and believe in the face of insufficient evidence for its validity. Sometimes, doubts and questions are taught to be bad because their religion should not be challenged. Other times, doubts and questions are taught to be healthy and normal parts of their religious journeys rather than acknowledged as red flags that something may not be necessarily right or true.
3. The gullible and trusting nature of children.
Many religions openly take aggressive approaches to indoctrinating children into their faiths when the children are very young (prior to their teenage years). By nature, children generally trust what authority figures tell them is truth. Why is this so? Generally, to do so enhances their safety and chances of survival. Additionally, young children also have a very difficult time separating fantasy and reality so it is not difficult for them to accept what is presented to them as truth. But if what these religions assert to be truth must, for the vast majority of people, be engrained at a very young age in order for it to “stick,” ages in which children are unable to effectively and appropriately reason, then what does that say about the religious ideas themselves? Do you personally believe in the truth claims of religions other than the one in which you were raised when they are presented to you as an adult?
4. The dangerous “virtue” of faith.
The idea that it is virtuous to believe and follow ideas merely because you have been told to do so is unwise, at best, and dangerous, at worst. Many children are directly and indirectly taught that belief in religious claims are different, not requiring the same kinds of reason and evidence that are required of other areas of knowledge. God has revealed messages to others across history and those messages have been passed on, written down, and may be still occurring. Both religious authority figures and lay individuals interpret, reinterpret, and organize these messages in an endless variety of ways and attempt to apply them to the modern world. Remember, your children will not live in a bubble. As a parent, you never know what messages will be presented to your children throughout the course of their lives blanketed in the guise of religion. This is why I find it dangerous to directly or indirectly teach children that it is virtuous to believe anything on faith, in the absence of sufficient reason and evidence to support the claims. You might not like the fundamentalist or new age ideas that they choose to accept based on faith. As others have defined it, faith is knowingly or unknowingly pretending to know things that you do not know.
5. Fruitlessly seeking explanations for the bad.
For many children, being raised in a religion almost certainly guarantees them a future in which they will struggle with understanding all of the bad they see in the world. They will seek explanations when things aren’t going well in their lives or the lives of others. Why would God allow or cause suffering (including the suffering that cannot be answered with the response, “Free will”)? What am I doing wrong or what are others doing wrong to deserve these bad things to be happening?
Again, I bring up these points because I care. I want your kids to thrive and be happy in life. I want them to be a part of a generation of individuals who, when things are going well in their lives, do not spend time thanking and praising God but rather are proud of their own hard work, kindness, and accomplishments and are grateful for the hard work, kindness, and accomplishments of others. Who, when things are not going so well in their lives or observe things not going so well in the lives of others, do not spend time praying to God for answers but rather think about what they can be doing differently, become agents of change, and seek help from their fellow humans. Who don’t see the extreme doubts and questions that arise in the realm of their religious faith as merely healthy and normal parts of their religious journeys but rather as red flags from their own reason and logic that these religious ideas just don’t match reality and good sense. Who evaluate and open-mindedly discuss their own human moral intuitions and then act accordingly instead of having to cherry pick their morality from religious texts and teachings that are mixed bags of positive and negative moral principles. Who don’t feel compelled or obligated to continue in their faith tradition because it is the norm of their family and their society even though they strongly doubt its truth. Who live with their focus on this life (and how they can improve their lives and the lives of others) rather than with their focus fixed on the supposed life after this one. Who do not think of themselves as sheep as the common Christian metaphor goes but rather as individuals who try to care for themselves, accept the care offered by others, and seek opportunities to care for others themselves.
No parenting methods are fool proof. No one has all of the answers. But by raising my children to be critical thinkers that look to reason, logic, and evidence with a focus on spreading love and kindness throughout the human family, I feel like I’m doing my part to give the next generation their best shot at a better future knowing that you can in fact be good without God. And I hope you will consider joining me.
This was a guest post by Angela Russell. Angela Russell is a stay-at-home mom to two girls ages 3 and 4. She holds graduate degrees in School Psychology and Elementary Education but writes primarily as a fellow parent and as someone who thinks that if we can decrease childhood indoctrination we can decrease the negative forces of religion and focus on the positive forces of humanism. If you would like to be a guest blogger on godlessmom.com, click here.