THE DEVOUT

The objections I have made so far may be particularly applicable when parents are more liberal, not more conservative. It’s in a liberal setting that parents and teachers may be lying to kids when they tell them about Moses meeting God on the mountain top. It’s in a liberal setting that kids may respond with doubts they are not supposed to articulate. In a conservative setting, these very ideas will have been conveyed and reinforced more firmly and consistently.

Kids in that setting are probably more prepared to think Moses really did meet God on the mountain top—literally. So doubts are not being suppressed. And the adults teaching these things are not lying, but really believe them.

There’s another objection that particularly pertains to religious education in the most conservative settings. Liberal Jews don’t encourage doubt in a religious school classroom, but neither do they punish it. When I went to see the religious school director, there was no drama, no rejection. Around that time I also talked to a parent involved in curriculum development for the school, and she declared herself an agnostic. I had even attended a bat mitzvah during which the girl’s father had declared himself an atheist. By contrast, doubt is more aggressively suppressed in certain conservative settings.

One method is to build mechanisms of doubt-suppression into the religion itself. A tenet of some Christian denominations is that hell awaits the nonbeliever. In some religions, religious faith is set up as a virtue, whereas religious doubt is set up as a vice. You are a bad person if you question what your coreligionists believe. A religion may prescribe terrible punishments for the apostate, even death itself. In other religions, permanent shunning is the punishment for the person who stops believing and living as the religion requires.

I suggested earlier that the problem with religious education is not the basic aim of sharing beliefs and customs with our children, but rather how that sharing is accomplished. Now it’s becoming clear that there isn’t always a clear line between what is shared and how it is shared. The content of a religion can be, in part, a method of transmission. Ifyou can first transmit "Faith is a virtue, doubt is a vice,” then all the rest of religious education will go much more smoothly. "Doubters will burn in hell for eternity” is another viral tenet, as you might call it, a tenet that tends to multiply adherents. Likewise, "Doubters will be sent away forever” and “Doubters have to be killed.” To transmit viral tenets of a religion is to transmit the religion in a manipulative way that undermines a child’s powers of thought.

There is nothing inherently wrong with parents wanting to pass on their religious identity or beliefs or customs, but now we have uncovered three problems, all to do with how the sharing is done, and thus three norms. The sharing should be accomplished without dampening a child’s powers of thought; the sharing should be honest (the lie to shore up identity is a problematic lie); and we shouldn’t teach viral tenets (that is, those intended to make the child unable to resist other tenets of the religion).

 
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