A few weeks back, I read Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion say:
I want us to flinch when we hear of a ‘Christian child’ or a ‘Muslim child’. Small children are too young to know their views on life, ethics and the cosmos. We should no more speak of a Christian child than of a Keynesian child, a monetarist child or a Marxist child. Automatic labeling of children with the religion of their parents is not just presumptuous. It is a form of mental child abuse.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since, when I was asked the following questions by Ashok in comments on his Temple Matters post:
1) What is your opinion on children being taken to temples but not encouraged to ask why?
2) At what point do you think parents/elders should leave the decision of finding personal meaning in religion to the individual? What would you do with your children?
For a novice parent, these are profound questions, and it is important for any parent to think about these.
To start with, there is no doubt in my mind in fully agreeing with Dawkins. I was indoctrinated as a Hindu child, and chose atheism only in my teens, after I discovered and studied other philosophies. I did not have to go through a tenacious struggle myself, but I can well imagine different experiences for others. I would disagree with indoctrination of any kind. One must encourage one’s children to think for themselves, and choose what they think is right.
Given that religion is based on blind faith and not reason, it is hardly surprising that most religious parents blindly indoctrinate their children in what they themselves believe is the best for their children’s good. But what about atheists? Do atheists equally provide an open environment for their children to let them choose between religion and atheism?
Even as an atheist, I believe that I should not indoctrinate my child with atheistic principles. Even if I was raised as a Hindu, I will let my child attend a Christian convent school if it offers quality education, even though it may expose her to Christian traditions. I will let her grandparents take her to Hindu temples and let her see and have that experience. I will teach her not to discriminate among her friends based on religion if I find hints of any such thing. Over time, I would encourage her to think critically for herself.
So my response to Ashok’s questions is: #1 is pure indoctrination. Not encouraging children to ask questions is bad parenting. Not allowing them to, is mental child abuse, as Dawkins points out. #2: From the birth of the child. You can provide facts, information, and knowledge. But the decision of finding personal meaning in religion or elsewhere is a birthright of the child.
Of course, it’s not as simple as it sounds (who said rational parenting was easy?). When she asks me for the first time (whenever that is), “Dad, what is God”?, what will be my response? Will it be “Dear, God is a fictitious entity that many people believe in?” No, I suspect I will point at an idol somewhere and say “That is what people call God”, and thus side-step the question of his existence. If after a couple of years she asks “Dad, where can I find God?”, I’ll say “I don’t know dear. I haven’t found him yet. If you do, please let me know.” As she grows up, I will continue to encourage independent thinking. When she is mature enough to understand how different people can have different values, I can then explain what my values are. Well, I hope so! :-)
What are your thoughts?
Update: 11th Oct: I realize that comments section on this post can be too restricted a space for many people to espouse their ideas. I have also learnt that this is a universal topic for parents who think. Hence, as can be seen from the comments section below, this topic is now a meme, open to all.