Professor John Martin
Conversations about Life
April 24, 2013
The Role of Religion in Raising a Child
In the opinion column of the New York Times, a “Room for Debate” article was posted that particularly struck me entitled “With Children, When Does Religion Go Too Far?.” As the agnostic product of twelve years of Catholic education, I have been interested in the dogmas and methods of our world’s religions for quite some time and wish to explore one of the most crucial elements that is shaping our future: the role of religion in raising a child. During the most impressionable and formative years of a human’s life, the role that religion plays is of the utmost importance to the outcome of the individual. I will explore personal cases, common methods, and draw my own conclusions on the topic in my search to determine how to best handle religion while raising a child.
2. Current Teaching Methods
2.1 Development-based Progression
Current approaches taken for teaching the various major religions of the world all seem to focus on a similar track. Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic non-profit organization, is written by parish leaders and has posted an instructional guide consistent with the Catholic Church’s views on how to teach a child about the faith from early childhood through coming of age as an adult. This guide can give a concrete example of the following principles: As a child develops, teach them what they are able to understand. First morals are introduced, often through stories and allegories that hold a rich tradition within the religious community; God is referenced in the simplest way possible. The most basic traditions and prayers, alongside playtime, bring a very young community of budding religious children together. As the child grows older, the basic history of the religion is taught and abstract principles are introduced. Traditions and prayers become more complex. After many years of growth, both in development through age and in learning about the faith, rituals may be performed to further indoctrinate the person into the religious community. Finally, the child becomes an adult with full knowledge and understanding of their faith. This timeline of education often takes the form of religious weekend or afternoon schooling, as is the case with the Jewish faith’s Hebrew school or the Catholic faith’s CCD program, youth groups and organizations, or regular day schooling through a religious institution.
2.2 Religious Day Schools
Many religions teach their faith through faith-based and supported schools. Though other faiths have strong religious day schools (such as the Jewish yeshivas, Beis Yaakov, or Solomon Schechter schools), Catholic schools are the primary example of this type of education. These schools provide a learning environment, often from an age as early as three years old, for children to grow up in. They learn, play, go to after-school activities, attend religious services, and grow up almost exclusively with people of their own faith. A community is built around the faith and children must make an additional effort to be a part of life outside of this community in any form. Religion classes are taught alongside mathematics, English, and history. Prayers are often said throughout the day, particularly in the morning, before meals, and at the close of the day. Even teachers are often expected to uphold the principles of the faith, as has been the recent topic of controversy and outrage in the state of Ohio. In Cincinnati, Mike Moroski, a Catholic school teacher, was fired for making comments in support of gay rights on his personal blog and two Catholic school teachers were fired for becoming pregnant outside of a marriage. Carla Hale, a Catholic school teacher at Bishop Watterson High School in Columbus, Ohio, was fired after being revealed as a homosexual through an anonymously written letter citing an obituary written for Hale’s mother that states the name of her partner. The students of these schools have seen first-hand the results of not following their faith’s moral code within their community. Children in religious day schools are surrounded by faith every day. Whether it is a great advantage or an unfortunate case of tunnel-vision, these schools offer very little perspective on life outside of their religious community compared to their public school counterparts.
3. How Much?
How much religion is too much or too little? The amount and intensity of religion in a child’s life is something that is often up for debate. While many religions preach daily prayers and weekly services averaging an hour to an hour and a half in length, such as Catholicism and many other Christian faiths, other religions require multiple daily prayers or have extremely long weekend services that are designed to be “all-nighter” events. The religious upbringing of a child, no matter what the intensity, can have strong impacts on their lives and the lives of others.
3.1 Too Much
In the New York Times article “With Children, When Does Religion Go Too Far?,” Lois Kendall, a former sect member, writes, “The practices and structure of some sects mean that children are growing up in an environment where they may be at risk of medical, physical, emotional or educational neglect, psychological maltreatment, and sometimes abuse in every sense of that word, even death.”
In some cases, religion has been taken so far as to physically damage a child. As reported in Komo News on April 23, 2013, “Herbert and Catherine Schaible belong to a fundamentalist church that believes in faith healing. They lose their 8-month-old son, Brandon, after he suffered from diarrhea and breathing problems for at least a week, and stopped eating. Four years ago, another son died from bacterial pneumonia.” This is a clear case in which religion has gone too far in affecting the life of a child. Both children could have survived if proper medical attention was sought; but, due to the religious belief that faith alone should heal medical issues the children are dead.
Since the beginnings of civilization, religion has been used as an excuse for war and terrorism. The result of human sacrifice as early as the Aztecs, the Crusades of the Medieval period,and recent radical Islamic terrorist attacks all end in one thing: the death of millions of people. A question to keep in mind when determining the validity of this excuse: Is a personal belief worth harming oneself or others over?
3.2 Not Enough
Austin Cline, the Regional Director for the Council for Secular Humanism and a former Publicity Coordinator for the Campus Freethought Alliance, wrote an article for About.com’s Agnosticism/Atheism’s guide entitled “What Should I Tell My Kids about Religion?” In it he states:
“If you aren’t specifically teaching your kids to believe in any gods or to follow any religious systems, then it may be tempting to just ignore the topic entirely. That, however, would probably be a mistake. You may not follow any religion and you may be happier if your children never follow any religion, but that doesn’t change the fact that religion is an important aspect of culture, art, politics, and of the lives of many people your children will meet over the years. If your children are simply ignorant about religion, they will be missing out on a lot.”
Cline continues on to urge parents to teach their children about all religions, including first-hand exposure through trips to religious services. Proper exposure to all of the major religious possibilities, skepticism, critical thinking, and respect for those of different beliefs are his goals when raising a child in a non-religious household; goals that I, personally, very strongly agree with.
4. Morality without Religion
A common concern regarding bringing up a child without religion is a lack of morality. Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University, responds to this concern when asked the question, “If you aren’t religious, how are you going to teach morals to your kids?” with the following sarcastic comment in a psychologytoday.com article:
“I [am] quite confident I could raise decent kids without the following dialogue: ‘Raven, I know you’re only 5 and your prefrontal cortex hasn’t developed but stop hitting Chloe across the face with the remote control. Raven, the gash over Chloe’s eye is starting to split. Raven, her optic nerve is dangling. Raven, she’s dying. Raven! Remember the verse Matthew 5:24? … Whew, that’s better.’”
In stark contrast, Dr. Dave Miller, a preacher, demonstrates a common religious objection and writes for apologeticspress.org, “The fact is that the Creator of the human race is the sole Author and Source of objective morality. Otherwise, moral distinctions would simply be the product of the subjective whims of humans… The Bible presents the only logical and sane assessment of reality – an objective standard, authored by the Creator, exists for the entire human race.” This belief, however, requires one to believe in the validity of the Bible as a source of logic, sanity, and truth.
Margaret Knight did a series of talks regarding morality without religion just after the end of World War II, an article on which was written in the Royal Institute of Philosophy magazine Think and republished on the British Humanist Association website. These talks deeply delve into supporting a secular humanist moral education for children apart from religion and boil down to the following statement in their essence, though not their entirety: “We must not be completely selfish; we must be prepared, at times and within limits, to put our own interests second to those of our family, or our friends, or of the group or community to which we belong.” I would highly recommend a full reading of this article in order to explore Knight’s fuller intention and thoughts on the subject.
An important aspect of religion to consider is the culture. Traditions and community are the foundation of many faiths and can partially exist outside of them. I personally know many people who do not believe in the existence of God but identify as Jewish. Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at the Queens College of the City University of New York, argues that, “The child is first and foremost someone who must be educated. Childhood is not for fun. It is generally a time for instruction and laying the foundation for a solid core of Jewish identity and knowledge,” in his section of the New York Times article “With Children, When Does Religion Go Too Far?” While cultural identity can be fulfilling and connect a child with their family and the community, the exact role that religion plays separate from traditions and the community itself is indeterminate.
6. Substance over Formalism
What I believe to be the most important section of the New York Times article “With Children, When Does Religion Go Too Far?” is a piece promoting substance over formalism written by Asma T. Uddin. According to the New York Times, Uddin is the, “founder and editor in chief of Altmuslimah, an online magazine… legal counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and a legal fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.” Uddin argues that parents should focus on the spiritual aspect of religion with their children and hold frequent, open discussions with them about spirituality. She further states:
“Unfortunately, when rituals are prioritized over spirituality at this tender young age, religion can become restrictive rather than liberating… I believe strongly that religion is a tremendous tool for raising morally upright and civically responsible children. That said, for children to reap the true benefits of faith, the focus must be on substance rather than formalism.”
When religious services become unreasonably long, how are children supposed to focus long enough to be fully engaged for the duration of the service? If kids are too worried about properly executing minute details of rituals, how are they able to focus on the spiritually rewarding aspects of the task? Formalities, while important in some cases and often stem from a very long history, are still just that. By further engaging one’s child in the spiritual aspect of the faith, a parent will often be leading the child to the true core of the religion.
7. A Case Study
Now that I have fully explored many of the aspects of the role of religion in raising a child, I would like to apply it to a real-life individual’s situation. In the “With Children, When Does Religion Go Too Far?” article, Kimball Allen tells his story of growing up in a Mormon household and the impact it has had on his life as a gay young adult. Allen states that, “On the surface, our theology created a supportive and nurturing environment for my family and me.” This picturesque surface was stripped away when Allen began to realize at a very young age that he was homosexual. His resulting play, “’Secrets of a Gay Mormon Felon,’ reveals the negative effects religion can have, particularly when the individual doesn’t fit into the dogmatic mold. But in a nutshell: “Over time a toxic mixture of unresolved resentment and anger led [him] down a dark turbulent path toward an adulthood lined with betrayal, alcohol, drugs, and sex, which ultimately landed [him] in jail.” After coming out to his parents, Allen was shunned from his religious community and family.
Kimball Allen’s life is a concrete situation to which this paper could be applied. The current methods of his faith (see the second section of this paper, Current Teaching Methods) were a constant in Allen’s life. “Weekly church services and activities were the norm… and early morning family scripture study was my wake-up call. [They] were the poster Mormon family.” However, when Allen broke the dogmatic mold, he lost the support that once came from the religious environment.
Had Kimball Allen learned his morality separate from his religious education as a child, as is strongly suggested by Margaret Knight (see the fourth section of this paper, Morality without Religion), he may not have spiraled into an adulthood of negative and illegal activities. The loss of his religion, an occurrence becoming more and more frequent in today’s society, would not have meant the loss of his moral compass.
Allen’s parents have clearly focused on the formal aspects of the faith over the inclusion of their son in the family after his coming-out. Kimball states that after writing his coming-out letter to his parents that, “[His] naivety gave [him] faith that the teachings of Jesus Christ would conquer all and touch the hearts of [his] parents… A few weeks later [he] received letters from [his] parents. [His] mother called homosexuality ‘repulsive’ and hoped [he] would ‘never blame the church’ for [his] actions.” An argument could be made that the intensity of the religion was too strong in his upbringing (see the third section of this paper, How Much?) since his family is willing to reject him for who he truly is based on the dogma of their faith.
The role of religion in Kimball Allen’s childhood upbringing was unsuccessful. Allen’s life could have seriously benefited from a reconsideration of the way religion was being injected into his life. Allen is not alone; every child in the world is molded by religion. Clearly the role religion plays in the development of a child is crucial and the consequences should be taken into consideration. The way religion is taught to our children instills solid, foundational dogmas. Whether the results are positive or negative, they will stick with them for the rest of their lives.