Passing on Religion

Should we raise children in our own image?

Richard Dawkins became a hero to many people after he published The God Delusion, but a villain in the eyes of many others. He had rejected and lampooned belief in a deity, but perhaps he was most vilified for a point he made about parenthood. Religious education is a form of child abuse, he seemed to say: if you are sending your kids to Sunday school, you are abusing them.

Now, he didn’t really say exactly that, but he did say something close. He wrote that as bad as sexual abuse can be, it’s not always terribly scarring (Dawkins recounted being abused by a priest himself as a child), and in fact religious indoctrination is often even worse. In particular, it’s even worse to fill a child’s head with the idea that he’s going to burn in hell for eternity if he doesn’t behave himself or doesn’t have all the right religious beliefs. That’s a horrible idea that stays with many kids, requiring some to be treated by therapists later in life.

Another memorable passage in Dawkins’s chapter on religious education demands that we stop putting religious labels on children. "A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents.” He thinks it’s as silly for my child to be regarded as a Jewish child as for him or her to be counted as a Democratic child. If parents became persuaded of this, then religious education would lose much of its point; parents often give their children a religious education precisely so that they will identify as Jewish children, Muslim children, and so on.

I wrestled with these issues myself for several years, because I did want my children to share my sense of Jewish identity. I wanted to have two Jewish children. At first, I didn’t think this meant I would need to enroll them in formal classes. After all, I never had any religious education as a child myself, and I don’t subscribe to a Jewish theology of any sort. After some time, though, I started to think it would be better if my kids had the religious education I never did. Hopefully they would feel more comfortable in Jewish settings than I did in the first few decades of my life. Perhaps they’d even have bar and bat mitzvahs.

I have two errors to answer for, from Dawkins’s perspective: wanting to have Jewish children to begin with, and trying to achieve that by putting them in religious school. At least on the first score, I think I can defend myself. On the second, I’m not so sure.

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