Back in July 2016, atheist Zoltan Istvan laid out his position concerning “the religious indoctrination of children.”
Like some other atheists and transhumanists, I join in calling for regulation that restricts religious indoctrination of children until they reach, let’s say, 16 years of age. Once a kid hits their mid-teens, let them have at it—if religion is something that interests them. 16-year-olds are enthusiastic, curious, and able to rationally start exploring their world, with or without the guidance of parents. But before that, they are too impressionable to repeatedly be subjected to ideas that are faith-based, unproven, and historically wrought with danger. Forcing religion onto minors is essentially a form of child abuse, which scars their ability to reason and also limits their ability to consider the world in an unbiased manner. A reasonable society should not have to indoctrinate its children; its children should discover and choose religious paths for themselves when they become adults, if they are to choose one at all.
This is a position that is not uncommon among the atheist activists. In fact, my guess is that many readers have encountered this position, or something very similar, when interacting with atheists on the internet given the seeds of this position were planted in Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion. So let’s have a closer look at it.
First, it is misleading to focus on “indoctrination.” Not just because one person’s idea of education is another’s idea of indoctrination (underscoring the subjective nature of the accusation), but because something more is going on here than mere “indoctrination.” The more accurate term is socialization. According to wikipedia:
Socialization is a term used by sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and educationalists to refer to the lifelong process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs, values and ideologies, providing an individual with the skills and habits necessary for participating within their own society. Socialization is thus “the means by which social and cultural continuity are attained”.
What happens in a religious upbringing is not mere education/indoctrination, but a process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs, values and ideologies. And it occurs not solely in the context of a teacher/student relationship, but involves all other aspects of life. For example, a family that prayers together , celebrates a religious holiday together, shares their feelings about religious topics, or attends a religious gathering together is doing more than “indoctrinating.” They are socializing with each other , and connecting with each other, and those around them.
Atheist activists want to characterize this as child abuse, probably because they think if society can disrupt religious socialization, society will then become progressively more atheistic.
We had another atheist comment on this blog shortly afterward, who argued
” I believe that forcing these beliefs onto a child is very harmful. Some describe it as child abuse, and sure, I’m inclined to agree. A few questions/points have invited me to elaborate on this. I am not encouraging parents to act as atheists around their children. I am not encouraging them to teach atheism and existentialism to their children. I believe that parents should not take their kids to church, should not teach them that these faith systems are the truth, and should not try and inspire religious belief in them. I think religious education is terribly important, something kids everywhere aren’t getting enough of. I think children should be taught about the major world religions in their schools in an unbiased way (not encouraging any of them as correct or even encouraging atheism as correct).”
Clearly, the atheist activists think they are staking out some more high ground. They argue that children are not intellectually developed and impressionable. Thus, the child cannot truly decide for himself whether the religious claims of his parents are true. As a result, the child is being socialized in ways that shape his views on the world. It’s better to refrain from this, allow the child to intellectually mature, and then present him with objective information so that the child can decide for himself what religion to embrace (or reject).
At all sounds reasonable from a superficial perspective. But when you begin to think more about it, there are two fatal flaws with the reasoning.
1.By attempting to disrupt religious socialization in a family where the parents are religious, the atheist position is potentially disrupting the healthy psychological and emotional development of the child. The most important component of parenting is not the intellectual development of the child, but the emotional and psychological development of the child. When it comes to learning what is true, the parent is replaceable. When it comes to developing a secure and healthy emotional/psychological state of mind in the child, the parent is irreplaceable. To develop such a mentally healthy state, the child needs to form secure attachment bonds with their parents. It is far more important that parents bond with their children than it is to create an environment where children “can make up their own minds” about such things as religion.
Kathryn Kuehnle and Tracy Ellis explain the importance of bonding in an article from The Florida Bar Journal:
Children who develop secure attachment relationships with their parents are at an advantage cognitively, socially, and emotionally compared to peers who have not developed secure attachments.
When discussing the relationship between parents and children, attorneys and judges often use the terms “bonding” and “attachment”; however, these terms typically are used in a loose and imprecise manner. It may assist the legal professionals in their consultations and decision making if they gain an understanding of the precise social science meaning of affectional and attachment bonds. A child’s affectional “bond” is determined by five factors: 1) persistent; 2) enduring; 3) linked to a specific person (not interchangeable with anyone else); and 4) emotionally significant. The child must also 5) maintain proximity to or contact with the significant person because distress will likely be experienced at involuntary separation. The attachment bond that forms between a child with his or her parent includes these five criteria, plus an additional critical factor, which is the child’s pursuit of security and comforting in the relationship. Seeking security is the defining feature in the parent-child “attachment bond.”
To ensure safety and security, close physical proximity to the attachment figure is the set goal of the attachment system for very young children. Infants and toddlers use physical contact with the attachment figure as a secure base from which to explore and learn about their world. In school-age children the availability of the attachment figure, rather than the physical proximity, becomes the set goal of the attachment system. This attachment behavioral system is no less important than for infants or toddlers, in that school-age children still are not competent to make decisions completely on their own regarding their activities, supervision, or protection. Secure attachments for both younger and older children are based on children’s confidence in their primary caretakers as available, responsive, and protective providers.
There is a significant link between insecure attachments and inadequate styles of parenting, such as disturbed family interactions, parental rejection, inattentive or disorganized parenting, child maltreatment, and marital violence.
Children who develop secure attachment relationships are found to score higher on intelligence and academic achievement tests, be more popular with their peers, and have better internal emotional controls compared to children who have developed insecure attachments.
All of this is significant in that the atheist position would have religious parents detach from their children and thus disrupt the development of healthy attachment relationships. When the children are excluded from all aspects of their parents religious lifestyle (attending church, attending religious social events, praying at the table, etc.), day after day, week after week, this amounts to “parental rejection” and “inattentive parenting” from the perspective of the excluded child. The atheist position thus would force the parents to chose either to abandon any serious devotion to religion or detach, and thus harm, their children. Any government attempt to impose the need for such a choice would be pernicious.
2.What makes the atheist position even more disturbing is that religion alone is singled out for this treatment. Religious socialization is not the only form of socialization that shapes the beliefs of children. The same dynamic applies with political socialization.
Here is a nice description of the process:
People acquire political culture through a process known as political socialization. Although the bulk of political socialization occurs during childhood, adults continue to be socialized. Political socialization occurs in many ways:
Family: Young children usually spend far more time with their families than with anyone else and thus tend to acquire the family’s habits, beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes. For this reason, family tends to be the most important source of political socialization. Families mostly impart political culture unintentionally by acting as examples for the children. Very often, people end up with political beliefs similar to those of their parents.
Or, from here:
Our first political ideas are shaped within the family. Parents seldom “talk politics” with their young children directly, but casual remarks made around the dinner table or while helping with homework can have an impact. Family tradition is particularly a factor in party identification, as indicated by the phrases lifelong Republican and lifelong Democrat.
Wikipedia describes it like this:
Political socialization is the “study of the developmental processes by which people of all ages and adolescents acquire political cognition, attitudes, and behaviors”. It refers to a learning process by which norms and behavior acceptable to a well running political system are transmitted from one generation to another. It is through the performance of this function that individuals are inducted into the political culture and their orientations towards political objects are formed…..
What all this means is that all the arguments against religious socialization equally apply to political socialization. In other words, if the atheist position is to be held in an intellectually honest and sincere fashion, it must not be selectively restricted to the topic of religion. It must be extended to all forms of socialization that involves beliefs. If religious indoctrination is child abuse, political indoctrination is child abuse. If taking your children to church is child abuse, taking your children to a Bernie Sanders rally is child abuse. If praying with your children is wrong, talking about politics at the dinner table with children present is wrong. If you can’t “force” religion on children, you can’t “force” politics on children either.
Thus, atheists who insist that religious parents not instill their religious beliefs in their children have the same obligation to refrain from instilling their own political beliefs in their children. Such atheist parents should remain completely apolitical around their children. A reasonable society should not have to indoctrinate its children; its children should discover and choose political paths for themselves when they become adults, if they are to choose one at all. When the atheists’ children are 16, atheist parents can then provide information about the various political parties and what they stand for in an unbiased way.
Of course we know that no atheist activist would be willing to commit to an apolitical life around their children for at least sixteen years. And what this would clearly expose is that the atheists are not opposed to religious indoctrination because it is indoctrination. They oppose religious indoctrination only because it is religious. In other words, the seemingly reasonable position of the atheists is just cleverly disguised bigotry.
Summary: Atheist activists commonly argue that religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse and thus religious parents have a moral obligation to refrain from instilling their religious views in their children. This position is fatally flawed. It ignores the findings of social science that demonstrate a healthy bond between parent and child is essential for the development of a person’s emotional and psychological well-being. By trying to thwart religious socialization in families headed by religious parents, the atheists are advocating that harm be done to the children. What makes this even worse is that the atheist position is grounded in hypocrisy, given that the arguments against religious socialization apply equally to political socialization. That is, while atheists argue that religious indoctrination is child abuse, they have no problem “abusing” their own children with political indoctrination. The atheist position is essentially nothing more than disguised bigotry that has the potential to do great harm. Reasonable and ethical people should oppose it.