The famous proverb states that if you ‘Train a child in the way of the Lord when he is old he shall not depart from his ways.’ If this proverb is right and childhood education has such a deterministic role in a persons life, then the education of that child should be considered carefully, lest we do it wrongly.
A recent study observed that 17% of Atheists took their children to church. The reason why they took them to church is that they wanted their children to have exposure to religions, so that they would have the ability to choose what they believe. (A cynic might say they took them so they could feel superior to those who attended – as they may echo the poster boy of Atheism, Richard Dawkins, who would claim the religious are suffering from a form of delusion). As the chief researcher said:
“They want to teach their children to be free thinkers, to give them religious choices, and so they take their children to religious organizations just to give them exposure to religion.”
Whilst 17% is hardly a majority of Atheists, it was interesting that about 1 in 5 would give their children a choice in their religious views. This raises the question: to what extent should a child be empowered to make decisions about what they believe? Would we find 17% of Mormons who would give their child an equal latitude when it came to their choice in religious matters and free thinking? More importantly when is any human being old enough to make choices about how they live their life?
As the recently departed Christopher Hitchens has argued that “If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.” The suggestion behind this is that if children avoided indoctrination they would have greater freedom in choosing and would likely choose differently. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer spoke of this when he said:
“If, in early childhood, certain fundamental views and doctrines are paraded with unusual solemnity, and an air of the greatest earnestness never before visible in anything else; if, at the same time, the possibility of a doubt about them be completely passed over, or touched upon only to indicate that doubt is the first step to eternal perdition, the resulting impression will be so deep that, as a rule, that is, in almost every case, doubt about them will be almost as impossible as doubt about one’s own existence.” (Arthur Schopenhauer, On Religion: A Dialogue)
The assumption that both positions make is that religious choice is purely indoctrination, and when beliefs are implanted at an early age, it is difficult for people to question deeply held assumptions as an adult. They seem to agree with the proverb that the education of a child has a powerful and lasting effect on any individual bur for different reasons.
If the religious education of children has such a powerful effect upon a child’s later life, then it is important to consider the best way in which it is done. Richard Dawkins has made the claim that the current way in which children are labelled as belonging to a certain religious group as a ‘Catholic girl’ a ‘Mormon boy,’ or a ‘Muslim child,’ before they are even concious of the existence of religion and unable to even conceptualise it, is a form of child abuse. This is because children are in some cases forced to be educated in a certain way that attaches cosmic and eternal significance to this set of teachings. Certainly, those who later abandon those beliefs would agree. The internet is full of accounts of ex-mormons who lay the charge of a messed up attitude to their body, sexuality, authority and the world to the way they were raised as a Mormon. Yet, this is not the case for many others, and is certainly very subjective dependent upon temperament, parents and local church culture.
When is a child capable of making an informed decision about religion? Are the new atheists right in that children should not be indoctrinated in a religion until they are capable of understanding its significance?
Because Mormons point to the wrongness of infant baptism, we see the age of 8 being an age in which a child is able to make a choice about their religious affiliation, along with the claim that they are capable of sinning. But what has changed since birth and eight that makes that age more responsible then they were at their birth? And why are children baptised at eight, when Jesus himself was not baptised when he was eight?
The church doctrine is that children from the age of eight are accountable for their actions. As the revelation to Joseph Smith states: ‘children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old.’ The implications of this is that they are able to make choices for how to live their lives and be held responsible for what they do as it is this responsibility that they have that makes them capable of sin. However, it would appear that we don’t really take this seriously; most of the time the choice of a child is not really taken seriously, if it’s allowed at all. Given how little choice they are given, do children age 8 really need to repent and be baptised?
Children are given only superficial decisions to make such as ‘chose which colour shirt you would like?’ or ‘what would you like to play?’ rather than choices that have moral weight. If they are really accountable then why do we not give them full responsibility for their own lives?
If they really are able to chose and be accountable for their actions then why have the legal drinking age as 18/21 (depending on country)? If we seriously think that they are accountable for their actions then why are they not allowed to make this choice at eight? By not letting them choose we are taking away their agency.
The drinking age shows a strange paradox. As a society we say that this decision to drink is one that someone at the age of 12 is not able to make, yet they are capable of being held responsible for killing someone. It is a strange piece of logic when someone can be held accountable for criminal acts and be allowed to have sex and get married before they are able to choose what type of beverage they wish to buy and consume.
In England at the age of 10 a child is deemed old enough to be criminally tried, as the case of the Bulger murders highlights. In America (whilst it differs from state to state) it is usually about 12-14 years old. But in both cases their criminal responsibility is limited, and they are not held to the same standards as if they were an adult, but are tried as juveniles. If 8 year olds are truly capable of sinning, then why do we not push for the age of criminal accountability being 8 years old? And why not try all of them as adults? To take the age of accountability to its logical conclusion it seems that we would be compelled to such a position.
Of course I am not really arguing that eight year olds should be given a complete freedom in what they do; it certainly makes sense to restrict choices until people can make them with an informed knowledge. I am simply highlighting a contradiction between baptising a child at eight for the remission of sins (what sins?) and the age of eight as the age of accountability and the restrictions on how accountable they can be in most things in life (who really lets an eight year old watch whatever film they like?). Possibly, a way out of this would be to argue for a progressive form of responsibility where we are given responsibilities of increasing importance over time from the age of eight. But if this is the case then why are children making one of the most important decisions of their lives at such a young age? Surely on the scale of importance it should be delayed, shouldn’t it? Here I confess my ignorance, as I do not know the solution out of these contradictions, and as such I turn to those wiser then me – you.
- How do we reconcile these issues?
- How should children be religiously educated?
- Why are children baptised at eight years old when Jesus wasn’t baptised at eight?
- To what extent should children be empowered to make their own decisions about religious affiliation?
- What sins an an eight year old commit? Are they really big enough that they need to be baptised?