[this is cross-posted at Newapps] Richard Dawkins has argued several times (e.g., here) that bringing up your child religiously is a form of child abuse. I think his argument that religious upbringing in general is child abuse has little merit (after all, Dawkins himself is the product of a traditional Anglican upbringing and calls himself – rather proudly – a cultural Anglican, hardly the victim of child abuse). However, his claim in the linked article is that parents who attempt to instill things like Young Earth Creationism (henceforth YEC) in their children are doing something wrong, or are somehow overstepping their role as parents. This question, I believe, is worthy of further attention.
Intuitively, it seems that fundamentalist Christians who teach their children that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, and that the Earth was covered by a great flood are doing something morally problematic. On the other hand, it seems (again intuitively) that the liberal Protestant who teaches her child that God loves us or that Jesus died for our sins, and who also accepts the results of science and geology is not doing anything morally wrong. Or similarly, that the humanist parent who teaches her child that all religious beliefs are false, and that everything is material, is not doing anything wrong. Indeed, all forms of parenting will involve transmitting, or attempting to transmit one’s personal religious viewpoints (including the view that no religious beliefs are true); there is no viewpoint from nowhere in parenting. Dawkins’ idea that we can dispassionately teach our own children something about religion without any form of personal angle strikes me as highly unrealistic.
But where can we draw the line? Under what circumstances does the transmission of religious beliefs count as a form of child mistreatment, to put it strongly? For clarity of discussion, I do not mean those aspects of religious education that involve, say, denying your child a vaccine or blood transfusion, but I want to focus on the transmission of beliefs alone.
An interesting model to consider the moral dimension of parenting is the stewardship model.
This model proposes that parents are not owners, but stewards, of their children. In a religious context, Christian parents are stewards of God’s creation (including the human beings they are parents to), and their task is to steward their children responsibly. Stewardship is aimed at helping the child flourish (as child and laying the foundations for flourishing in later life), specifically, providing them with knowledge and values that help them live well in society, as citizens and fellow human beings. In his book Wise Stewards: Philosophical Foundations of Christian Parenting, Austin outlines a Christian-inspired philosophical model of parenting. He contrasts this with the ownership model, which can lead to a form of absolutism over children (including, for instance, the right to give your child a weird name like Google). I think the stewardship model can also work for atheists, for instance, as parents we are stewards on behalf of the future self of the child.
Given this model, is it morally wrong to instill false religious beliefs? It seems unrealistic to say that instilling false beliefs tout court is wrong. For instance, you may unwittingly instill beliefs that are false, e.g., in the case where, say, theism is true, a humanist parent would be doing some wrong. That doesn’t seem to be intuitively correct. But even parents who are knowingly giving false information, e.g., “Santa will come and fill your stocking tonight”, aren’t obviously doing anything harmful. In the stewardship model, these transient Santa beliefs don’t seem to be psychologically harmful for the child in the long run, and most people seem perfectly happy to go instill Santa beliefs once they grow up in their own children.But instilling beliefs that will impede a child’s scientific literacy are a different matter – YEC clearly is such a set of beliefs. Teaching such beliefs may harm the child’s future capacity to flourish in a scientifically literate society.
There is another angle to consider the YEC parent from the perspective of stewardship. Under the ownership model, we own our children and we can do whatever we want (within limits of what the law permits), which includes coercing them into accepting our beliefs. In the stewardship model, in contrast, good stewards can attempt to instill beliefs they think are correct, but without trying to control their children’s minds. In the psychology of parenting, this is referred to as the distinction between an authoritative and an authoritarian parenting style (thanks to Gordon Ingram for the pointer, here is a relevant article).
Authoritative parenting means that the parent supervises and guides a child’s development, but at the same time leaves room for the child’s psychological autonomy, and has high acceptance of the child’s personality, interests etc. Authorative parenting has better outcomes on adolescent school achievements than authoritarian parenting or overtly permissive parenting. In authoritarian parenting, the parent tries to control every aspect of a child’s beliefs and personality, and does not accept it if the child does not conform to the parents expectations, whereas in permissive parenting, the parents do not provide any guidance (in the way of world views etc) at all, and let their children just do whatever they please. Also, authoritarian parents attempt to control the environment of the child so that she doesn’t get alternative views, in effect trying to shield their children from the views of others. In this view, a humanist parent who would punish her child for wanting to go to Sunday school would be authoritarian, as would be a fundamentalist parent who would punish her child for not believing in YEC.
So in this picture, it may still be morally acceptable to propose YEC as a worldview to the child, but only to the extent that they do not try to control their child’s beliefs through negative feedback, for instance, where the child gets punished for not believing in YEC or when they try to excessively shield their child from alternative world views.
Unfortunately, authoritarianism correlates strongly with religious fundamentalism – not with religious belief per se (see e.g., this article), so the fundamentalist Christian is more likely to try to indoctrinate their children than, say, the liberal Protestant. But the problem here seems to be the restrictive parenting style, not the fact that those beliefs have religious content.