Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." - Isaiah 30:21

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Brainwashing and Other Responsibilities

“Religious indoctrination of children is child abuse.” Read this gem on, where else, a Facebook page yesterday. The discussion had something to do with circumcision. (Save it for another day, folks. One dogma-spewing topic at a time, K?)

Well, by golly, that offends me. Also, it's stupid. It's almost too stupid a claim to bother writing about, but what the heck, I feel like addressing it.

Personal opinion here, as one guilty of indoctrination or abuse or brainwashing or whatever synonym you prefer: It is far more damaging to raise your children with zero exposure to the spiritual than it is to raise them with a belief in a higher power. No, I will not tell my children they are nothing more than their brains and the rest of their bodies, and that this whole existence is a crap shoot. Oh, but, uh, be nice, because I guess that still kind of matters, at least until you die. Then, you know, whatever.

Pardon the sarcasm. I fully realize, and in fact greatly appreciate, that there are atheists and agnostics with a much higher view of humanity than the one described above. I count many of them among my friends. They are thoughtful individuals and not really the type for commenting with wild accusations on message boards, though. (Or if they are, I am unaware of it.)

I firmly believe, having been a child and known one or two others along the way, that children have a thriving sense of the spiritual. I also believe that as parents we have a responsibility to honor that spirituality and to respond to it, allowing them to develop it further. If I am helping my child become a thinking, caring, responsible adult in every other aspect, then ignoring their spirituality is tantamount to sending them out in the snow without pants: It's incomplete parenting.

I know enough children to believe they're innately spiritual. Soulful, if you prefer. I know enough adults to believe even more firmly that there is a right and a wrong way to teach your kids about religion. If you train up your children in a narrow way that dictates exactly what they must believe, and threaten to alienate them if they deviate from it - and then follow through when they do! - then yes, I could easily be convinced that such behavior is really bad parenting. Actually I would just say you are an asshole. I might even say that presenting religion in an overly dogmatic fashion deprives your child of the opportunity to develop their own personal relationship with God and therefore equates to spiritual abuse. I might.

I grew up in a deeply religious household. It was strict. With six kids and Bible study in the mornings, we probably qualified for our own reality show. However, what I love about my upbringing is that no questions were forbidden. Doubting God? Okay, we can talk about it. Thinking about voting Democrat? Less tolerated, but they gritted their teeth and got through those conversations too. In politics, in religion, and in everything else, I knew that my parents would always love me no matter what I chose to believe. Jake and I are raising our kids essentially the same way, and with the same emphasis (albeit less political): We will love our kids no matter what, and we tell them so. More importantly, God will love them no matter what. Our love is not contingent upon what they believe, whom they love, or what they do, and neither is God's. If it's abusive to raise our children in such a manner, with an understanding that the love of the creator of the universe is absolute and unconditional, then we're guilty. Imagine their suffering.

This morning Laney asked me, “How old is the world?” We had a long talk, and I presented my position the way I present most of the big questions: Some people believe it's young. Other people believe it's old. There is evidence for both positions, and personally, I find the evidence supporting the idea that it's old to be more compelling. That's what I believe. We can talk about it and research it as much as you want.

An hour later, Liam wanted to know if we would die when the world ends. We talked about the fact that our bodies will stop working, but our souls will live on, and go to be with Jesus if we love him and believe in him. Yep, that's some shameless hardcore indoctrination right there. I'm teaching it to my child not because I can prove it, but because I believe it and recognize that the best evidence, which I have critically evaluated, points in this direction. Could I be wrong? Quite possibly. Will he have to decide what he believes for himself as he grows? Absolutely, and I will encourage him to do so. In the meantime, I refuse to leave him floundering with nothing more than an “I don't know” or even a “here's what I think” because I can't tell him something that can be proven. Okay for the age of the world. Less okay for what happens at the moment of death. Some kid questions warrant a concrete answer, even if the details are fuzzy.

It's possible that the individual quoted above, and others who share his mindset, take the position that each one of us can believe what we want, but should let our kids decide for themselves. Or, to use the usual terminology, we shouldn't take our beliefs and shove them down our kids' throats. To which I respond, if your faith isn't worthy of sharing with those you hold dear, it must be a pretty flimsy faith. I teach my kids about faith the way I teach them about gravity: It's all theory. There's really strong supporting evidence. Therefore, I will present this idea to you as truth. Explore it all you want, and please, I pray, reach a conclusion that is personal and truthful to you. God gave you a brain, now use it to its fullest.

You still prefer the alternative, oh omniscient Facebook commenter? Okay, go ahead. Teach your kids only that which you can prove. Have fun talking about, um . . . uh . . . Oh. Right.


  1. I was raised with no religion. The only times I attended church, as a child, was for weddings and funerals. My knowledge about God and religion was based on what I learned in school which amounted to almost nothing. School taught me about evolution, and the big bang. So that's what I believed in. Strangely enough I didn't even begin to doubt my beliefs until I became a parent.
    For the past ten years I have been searching for a belief that feels right to me. I'm not sure as if I'll ever find one. However, I'm not so certain that it cripples me either. I never made choices in my life because it's what Jesus would have done, or because I was fearful of judgment day. I have made choices in my life based on what felt right, morally. I listen to my conscience and treat others with respect. I try to always think about the feelings of others and teach my children to do the same. I try every day to be a good person, for me, and for my family. I learned all of these things without religion and was in no way "damaged" by it.
    In the end, when you put two good people next to each other...does it really matter which one was raised with their religion and which one had to search for it?

    1. I tend to agree with you in many ways, and I think there are several angles to take here. I never want to suggest children are "damaged" if they don't have early religious education - but I will continue to bristle at anyone who tells me I'm damaging my children giving them one.