Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Religious Labels: Constructive or Constricting? - Jim Steele

The following reflection by Jim Steele is in response to:
Should we label children based on the faith of their parents?

This is a harder question than it might first appear. Even if we mean by labelling simply the choosing of a given name, the question is not straightforward. A given name will normally stay with a person throughout their life (though it is not unusual  for people converting to Islam to change their name accordingly), and can to an extent define a religious affiliation, irrespective of the religious views  the individual might later on have, as an adult. Naming one’s son Abdul Aleem, or Menachem, for example, is a religious label for life – Islamic and Jewish respectively. Even very common western names such as Paul, Simon, Mary, or Rebecca are biblical in origin, and normally associated with Christian parents and Christian upbringing.  

I would argue strongly that responsible parents should bring up their children to have freedom of thought, and to question the beliefs of those around them, including those of the parents, so that should they adopt the belief system of a particular religion as an adult, they are able to do so freely and with access to as much information as is possible. A given name which defines a religious affiliation should therefore be avoided if possible. I myself chose given names for my son and daughter which have no religious connotations, but I had freedom to do so. I understand fully that in some cultures such freedom will simply not exist in practice. 

However, if we attach a deeper meaning to “labelling”, such as a “Christian baby” or a “Muslim baby”, then we are entering contentious and difficult territory. To an atheist such as myself, the question is a simple one: a child below the age of reason cannot have made any informed choice, so such a label is at best meaningless, or at worst abusive, as it implies a decision about religious affiliation imposed on the child by adults. It says in effect “this baby belongs to [insert religion] and will be brought up to believe that [insert religion] is the one true faith”. To Christian parents, a child is born in sin, and can only be “saved” by following Jesus, but to an atheist, this looks like a perverse doctrine, to say the least. Naming ceremonies in most religions (eg Christening) entail vows made by parents, and often by others too, to bring the child up in that faith. 

The atheistic view is of course anathema to parents who are devoutly religious. They might well hold a firm and unshakeable belief that their child is by definition born into their faith, and that not to do all in their power to bring their child up in that faith would be an abrogation of their duty. They probably do not question, nor see the need to question; they believe it is the right and proper thing to do, and they do it wholeheartedly. 

The question becomes more nuanced when the beliefs of the parents are less than firm, and severely problematic where the beliefs of two parents are not congruent. Here there will probably be external pressures, such as the views of other close relatives such as grandparents, and the culture in which the child will be brought up and its mores, expectations and rules (and even its laws in a theocratic culture). In such cases the parents might well choose to “go with the flow” rather than take a stand on principle; not to do so could be fraught with problems for themselves and their child. 

Whether a child is brought up in a particular faith because of the strong beliefs of the parents, or because of the external pressures on them to “conform”, the result is likely to be a child who sets out in life with that belief system firmly entrenched.  This might be termed “indoctrination”, and is arguably the strongest factor in the propagation of religious beliefs from one generation to the next – ahead of the intrinsic or objective merit of any belief system to attract new followers. 

The Jesuit aphorism “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man” indeed holds true in many cases. To people of that faith, this is an outcome much to be desired: it is not only the right thing for one’s own child; it is also the most constructive way to ensure that one’s religion flourishes into the future.  It is no accident that faiths attach huge importance to “getting them young”, nor an accident that most people across the world follow the religion of their parents and wider families. Belief systems are indeed highly geographical – the faith to which one belongs is largely determined by the accident of birth.  

The corollary of this is also true: the bringing up of a child in a particular faith is often seen by those of a different faith as a wrong to be put right, since most faiths tend to hold that they have the unique truth, and all the others are misguided or wrong. To the atheist, the product of this process can be viewed as setting up divisions between people on religious grounds, and the source of much needless grief, dispute, discrimination, and even religious wars.

Another circumstance is arising more and more in the UK in recent years, through entry to schools being affected by the declared religious affiliation of the parents. Many primary schools can and do decide all, or a proportion of, the children they will accept on this basis; a result has been non-religious parents gaining  “admission points” by attending church, and by being active in church affairs, even down to flower arranging. Such “feigned” religiosity is a device to get their child into what they perceive as the best local school in terms of academic results. 

One might uncharitably argue that this is a cynical device by Christian churches to stem the decline in membership; in any event, the result is the labelling of many children as Christian who would otherwise have no religion, and access to young minds to inculcate Christian beliefs which the parents might well not encourage, if left to their own devices.  The 1944 education act, which stipulates a collective act of worship “of broadly Christian nature” in schools each day in England & Wales, is honoured more in the breach than in the practice, but it remains law today. The upsurge in faith schools is a contentious topic in the UK at the present time; this includes alleged “takeover” of some schools by Muslim Boards of Governors. It’s all about religions seeking to “get them young”.

In summary, then, to many people of faith, labelling and inculcating the young is entirely constructive, and essential both for the child’s wellbeing and for the propagation of their religion. To those of no faith, it is indoctrination of young minds, certainly to be disapproved of, and possibly to be actively challenged.  To those who are of no faith, or who are religious but questioning, the ideal should be to teach the child to think and question and seek evidence; to provide honest guidance and opportunity, where possible, to reach their own conclusions about what to believe; and to construct as few barriers as possible to the exercise of that choice. 

You can find Jim Steele on twitter at @manlygumdrop

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