WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
At its simplest, the complaint against a religious education may be that it is an education in falsehoods. Whatever your religion, you will probably accept this as a description of education into many or most other religions. Jews think Christians teach their kids falsehoods; Christians think Jews teach their kids falsehoods. Atheists are distinct only because they think all religions teach falsehoods.
For good reason, this isn’t Dawkins’s complaint. Of course, passing along false beliefs will mean the next generation is afflicted with false beliefs, and that’s undesirable. But we wouldn’t find fault with parents as parents just because they propagated falsehoods. People were not being bad parents when they taught their kids the earth was flat, back when everyone thought the earth was flat. The parenting problem, if there is one, has to relate to how the sharing is accomplished, or when, or with what results.
One of Dawkins’s points is about the emotional damage done by religious education—which initially seems compelling. Telling kids that hell awaits them if they transgress can be psychologically hurtful to children, and we shouldn’t hurt our children. However, this isn’t a knock-out objection. Educating kids in ways that are clearly legitimate can be emotionally disturbing too. My own kids were very distressed by the fact that people die, as I discussed in chapter 14, but I would be reluctant to say people should keep death a secret from young children. If you tell kids about the world of microscopic viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and how their own bodies are full of them, they could be distressed, but those are the facts, and knowing about them can be useful. They might be disturbed by the facts about 9/11, or the Holocaust. It could be upsetting to read the
Diary of Anne Frank and realize what torments a person could be subjected to, just for being Jewish. It’s no simple thing to say that parents shouldn’t pass on beliefs that cause a child emotional pain.
And then again, if skeptics do rest their case on hurtful effects, they must also take into account beneficial effects (while Dawkins only focuses on the potential negatives). The story I told in chapter 14 about our Catholic babysitter and her message about heaven is just one case in point. Positive psychologists tell us that, on the whole, there are more emotional benefits than harms involved in being religious.
Another objection some have to religious education is that a young child can’t possibly make up his mind independently to accept religious claims or reject them. Again, this is not a knockout blow. When my kids were just five, I decided that they should be inoculated against the creationists who are all too numerous in our state, so we spent a good deal of time talking about the age of the universe, the age of the earth, and the basic facts of evolution. Of course, it was completely beyond them to know how to assess all this information. But surely I did no wrong. In fact, Dawkins has authored a lovely book introducing kids to basic science, including the science of evolution. Much of what kids learn in school they have to take on trust, rather than functioning as independent, selfsufficient truth-seekers. If they can’t think about religious claims independently, that’s not remarkable.
Dawkins might respond that someone has done the serious, rational, empirical research that can back up science education, but nobody has done this for any body of religious beliefs. That may be true—in my view it is true—but we’re going to have a hard time insisting on rational provability, or anything close, as a test that must be passed by everything we teach to children. I think moral education is a good idea, and we don’t have that sort of research backing up what we teach to children. Like I argued in chapter 14, we need to impart "life skills” (or virtues) to children early on, so they have strong instincts with respect to honesty, integrity, respect for others, and so on.
It’s starting to look like there’s nothing wrong with religious education. That is what I thought when I decided to have my kids religiously educated when they were seven. But then things got more complicated. At that point I had never myself had any religious education and didn’t know what to expect. It’s when I gained some firsthand knowledge that I did start to see some problems.