NORMALIZING RELIGIOUS EDUCATION

These three norms are easy to respect, when it comes to other aspects of educating our children. We can share the Beatles with kids without first saying “Loving the Beatles is a virtue, not loving the Beatles is a vice.” We can encourage our kids to see issues as Democrats do or as Republicans do without saying they will burn in hell for having the wrong political standpoint. We can get kids to be vegetarians or to be pro-hunting without saying we’ll shun them for going over to the other side. In all these matters, we can say what we really think, instead of transmitting simplistic falsehoods. We won’t make our kids perfect copies of ourselves, but that’s fine: parents do typically succeed in sharing some of the way they see the world, and we wouldn’t want our kids to be perfect clones of ourselves. After all, it’s to be expected that the next generation will have their own ideas, tastes, and so on.

Unlike Dawkins, I think at least some bodies of religious belief and custom are coherent and appealing enough that they can be shared with children in an ethical fashion, without parents becoming liars, manipulators, or suppressors of doubt. Not all of religion is palpably absurd and delusional, transmissible only through the dishonest manipulation of trusting children. There are people who honestly believe in God and share that belief with their children, without suppressing their propensity to doubt. But it does seem questionable that every religious belief can be passed on to the next generation in an honest, open, nonmanipulative fashion. Some religious doctrines are just too unbelievable to be embraced by many people without being heard very early on by children who have been discouraged from doubting. If we do use the methods of sharing that we use for other matters, we can’t expect any more success. Kids will not always have the religious views we would like, any more than they’ll have the tastes and opinions we would like in other areas of life.

So, what’s a parent to do? Let children go their own way, believing only some of what their parents do? Or achieve more complete indoctrination, through manipulative, semihonest means? It’s pretty clear what the good parent will do: avoid dishonesty and manipulation. The problem is that the good parent may have to be a bad religionist, doing less than others to keep the religious community populous and devout, going into the future. Should we be more committed to doing right by our children, or by the religious community into which we were born? That dilemma is only acute when religions are static things, committed to the very same doctrines in perpetuity. Perhaps we can do both, if religious communities allow themselves to evolve.

 
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