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Dawkins: Don’t Force Your Religious Opinions on Your Children

7 minute read
Richard Dawkins is a biologist and author.

Last week the local government council of the London borough of Islington was reported in the Islington Gazette as having banned pork products from primary school dinners. The rumor of an outright ban has since been denied, and the truth is unclear. A good case could indeed be made for a ban, on humanitarian grounds. There is persuasive evidence, after all, that pigs have levels of intelligence and awareness comparable to our much loved domestic pets. But no such humane considerations have been mentioned here. Councillor Joe Caluori, the Council’s executive member for children and families, was quoted in the Gazette as saying: “By not having pork on the menus in our schools, we can keep down costs and reduce food waste, maximising the schools meal budget in tough financial circumstances.”

The underlying point was clarified by another spokesman from the council, as quoted in the Gazette and requoted in The Independent, one of Britain’s most respected national newspapers: “Young children, some as young as four-years-old, of different religious and ethnic backgrounds may not know which foods contain pork, or may not realise the importance of avoiding it due to their culture or beliefs.”

Whatever the truth or falsehood of the original report of the ban itself, there is something in that quotation that should leap out and hit you in the face. “Their” beliefs? The “beliefs” of four-year-old children? Did it not occur to this spokesperson that children who are too young to realize the importance of “their” beliefs might also be too young to possess those same beliefs in the first place? How can the “beliefs” of a four-year-old child be “important” to her if she doesn’t even know what her beliefs are?

Would you ever speak of a four-year-old’s political beliefs? Hannah is a socialist four-year-old, Mark a conservative. Who would ever dream of saying such a thing? What would you say if you read a demographic article which said something like this: “One in every three children born today is a Kantian Neo-platonist child. If the birth rate trends continue, Existentialist Positivists will be outnumbered by 2030.” Never mind the nonsensical names of philosophical schools of thought I just invented. I deliberately chose surreal names so as not to distract from the real point. Religion is the one exception we all make to the rule: don’t label children with the opinions of their parents.

And if you want to make an exception for the opinions we call religious, and claim that it is any less preposterous to speak of “Christian children” or “Muslim children”, you’d better have a good argument up your sleeve.

What might such an argument look like? First, some say that labeling a child Muslim, say, or Catholic, is no worse than labeling her French or Swedish. But it’s not a good comparison. Citizenship of a country, whether we like it or not, has legal implications. Your country issues your passport, you are allowed to vote in its elections, you may even be drafted to fight its wars. But if you know somebody’s nationality that doesn’t tell you their opinions about anything. That French person may be left wing, right wing, pacifist or warlike, pro or anti abortion, the death penalty, vegetarianism, Windows, Macintosh or Linux.

Unlike national labels, religious labels carry a baggage of personal opinion. Catholics believe Jesus was born of a virgin mother who never died but was “assumed” bodily into heaven. Mormons believe Jesus visited America and that Native Americans migrated from Israel. It is high-handed and presumptuous to tie a metaphorical label around a tiny child’s neck stating, in effect, “this child believes Jesus rose from the dead”, as calmly as you might write “Blood Group AB.” At very least it negates the ideal, held dear by all decent educationists, that children should be taught to think for themselves.

Second, there will be people who argue that, setting religious doctrine aside, we should still treat a child as belonging to the same cultural tradition as her parents. Jewish families observe a calendar of festivals and rituals, which are different from those of Christians, Muslims or Hindus. It is reasonable that children will participate in traditional meals on Friday evenings, will hang up Christmas stockings, will help make Diwali cakes on the appropriate day. I get that, and would be sorry to see many ancient traditions die (although I would draw the line at making children fast or chopping off babies’ foreskins). Many of my Jewish friends (almost all are atheists) see no harm in celebrating traditional festivals, and I enjoy a Carol Service in a great cathedral, or Harvest Festival Evensong in a country church.

But there really is an important difference between including your children in harmless traditions, and forcing on them un-evidenced opinions about the nature of life or the cosmos. Tradition is fine where it amounts to songs or literature, styles of dress or architecture. But tradition is a terrible basis for ethics, or beliefs about the origin of the universe or the evolution of life.

Indoctrinating your opinions into the vulnerable minds of your children is bad enough. Perhaps worse is the defeatist assumption, almost universally made by society at large, including secular society, that children as a matter of fact do automatically inherit the beliefs of their parents and our language should reflect this. Non-religious as well as religious people buy into the notion that children should be labeled with one religious name or another.

Even labeled for life: when you enter hospital, or join the armed services, you fill in a form where you have to nominate your religion (which can be “none”).

We regularly read demographic projections like, “By the year so-and-so France will be 50 percent Muslim.” Such a forecast can only be based on the assumption that all children born to a Muslim couple are little Muslims who will grow up to raise their own little Muslims in due course.

Divorce courts may be asked to decide whether a child of a broken marriage should be “raised Catholic” or “raised Protestant.” Nobody ever asked a divorce court to rule on whether a child should be “raised soccer” or “raised rugby”; “raised ornithologist” or “raised stamp collector”; “raised liberal” or “raised conservative”; “raised Macintosh” or “raised Windows.”

Feminists have successfully raised our consciousness about sex-biased language. Nobody nowadays talks about “one man one vote,” or “the rights of man.” The use of “man” in such a context raises immediate hackles. Even those who use sexist language know they are doing it, may even do it deliberately to annoy. The point is that our consciousness has been raised. Our language has changed because we have become aware of hidden assumptions that we previously overlooked.

Let us all raise our consciousness, and the consciousness of society, about the religious labeling of children. Let’s all mind our religious language just as we have learned to over sexist language. “Catholic child,” “Muslim child,” “Hindu child,” “Mormon child” — all such phrases should make us cringe. Whenever you hear somebody speak of a “Catholic child,” stop them in their tracks: There’s no such thing as a Catholic child. Would you speak of a “Postmodernist child” or a “States Rights child”? What you meant to say was “child of Catholic parents.” And the same for “Muslim” child etc.

If, when you first read the quotation from the Islington Council spokesperson, nothing jumped out and hit you in the face, please do so again. Is your consciousness raised now?

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