Friday, October 28, 2005

It maybe alright between consenting adults but what about the children?

A month ago I posted an entry in which I asked what should be done about people bringing up children in a religious manner. It was supposed to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek as I modelled what I wrote on the usual diatribes against homosexuality. Such use of analogy is a tried and tested method of getting people to see things from a different point of view. Still, I ought to consider the issue of children being brought up religious more seriously and carefully as it is something which is of immediate significance to me.

My problem is that I find myself agreeing with two incompatible arguments. The first of these is that people have the right to bring up their children as they wish and the state has no right to intervene or, to look at it from the other side, a state that intervenes in how parents bring up their children sounds awfully close to a paternalist (if you pardon the pun) dictatorship. The other argument is that by being brought up in some religion the children are quite likely being hurt in a deep and profound way – this being unacceptable in any truly modern society. So, I find myself squeezed between two incompatible imperatives. As I have grown more and more aware, in life rarely do we have a good solution.

Of course, neither of the two considerations I outlined above is absolute – we sometimes do think the state is right to intervene and we do think that we should accept some level of harm being done to children by their parents. Nothing is absolute as following either of these roads to the end would bring us... well, to the end. If the state never intervened then parents who commit incest, or who prostitute their children, or whatever else the human mind is capable of inventing, would be free to continue so long as the noise didn’t bother the neighbours. If the state always intervened then parents would be in trouble the moment they spoke too harshly to their child at the end of a long and tiring day. A line or, rather, many lines have to be drawn – the question of how to treat the fact of children being brought up religious is not capable of being solved straight out by a simple statement of some moral rule.

The first question has to be just how damaging to the children is such upbringing? And immediately we run into a serious difficulty – no proper study has, to my knowledge been ever attempted to judge this. Of course, there is the Paul Gregory study I have mentioned a number of times recently but that is about something different – the effect of religiosity upon the whole society. What I’d like to know is the effect on a person of being brought up religious. A number of times I have heard of studies of happiness which showed that strong religious beliefs lead to increased happiness – the ‘problem’ being that strongly held atheist beliefs are just as effective in that respect. But ‘happiness’, whatever it adds up to exactly, is hardly the ‘be all and end all’ of life. Otherwise, some sort of narcotic set-up would probably have to be considered most desirable. No, the harm I speak of isn’t necessary linked to happiness but to something more profound. If one considers it valuable to be able to face existence with an open, searching, friendly mind then, in many case, a religious upbringing must be seen as harmful. Of course, it would be foolish to deem all people who were brought up in some religion harmed by the experience. Some thrived and matured fully in that environment, others we faced with a religious environment whose harmfulness was minimal and others simply rebelled and, in fact, managed to gain strength from the struggle to free themselves of religion.

In an important sense it isn’t a religious upbringing per se that is the problem. I think that a person who is growing up ought to be presented with options and the opportunity to develop intellectually and emotionally in ways that may surprise or, even, at times trouble their elders. The problem with many religious communities is the certainty that they have God by the lapels so that any veering from their set of beliefs and practices is a move away from what is true and what is good. In that context variability can only be seen as a disability or, even, a sin. From that a straight-jacketed approach to upbringing follows. However, certainty is not just something that infects the religious – it can also affect atheists, the difference being that a religion can very easily provide philosophical grounds for such certitude while science, the next best thing for atheists, is open-ended and self-questioning. Someone with an unending faith in science is being unscientific. Someone with an unending faith in God is... well, the Pope.

Having said that I think the second part of when and how the state might intervene becomes somewhat easier to consider. First of all, I do think the state is right to intervene in cases that would traditionally be seen as purely within the purvey of the parents. Thus, in Sweden, spanking children is illegal. And so it should be. Being a parent I can attest to the fact that spanking a child is the result of a failure of the parent to find a better way to direct their child’s energy (and their own anger). No, I have never hit my tiny one-year-old daughter. Indeed, the very thought of it makes me feel sick to the pit of my stomach. However, I have at times felt angry or frustrated and can see how easy it must be for some parents to react with violence at that point. Secondly, I think it would be absolutely wrong to make it illegal for parents to bring up children within a religious context. What I think the state has the right to and, ultimately, ought to ensure is that children are brought up in a manner which makes them responsible for their own choices about how they will live their lives as well as giving them the tools they will need to make those choices. An orthodox religious upbringing fails to do either, by making the children think that they merely have to follow set strictures instead of intelligently responding to the immense complexity of real life. So, I guess, a big answer to my question is pluralism.

Of course, all that I wrote isn’t so important to me in the context of what a state ought to do – I’ll worry about that more if someone should suddenly make me king. However, the same issues are very significant for me as I am an atheist bringing up a daughter together with a (very laid back) Catholic. In a way such an upbringing can offer the best situation – assuming the parents are capable of coordinating their disparate world-views within the confines of the house. I might be worried that my reasoning was in effect reverse-engineered to fit my current situation, if I just weren’t as aware as I am of how much this set-up requires from the parents.


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