On January 20, 2013, atheists, secularists, and others from around the world will be participating in a "cyber-rally" to protest hereditary religion. It's going to be a remarkable event from several perspectives. To begin with, the concept of a cyber-rally is pretty revolutionary. Using webcams and video conference software, people from all over the world will be able to come together en masse to show their solidarity of purpose. Not only is this a new thing technologically speaking, it's a powerful new way to bring attention to causes that might never achieve first-person critical mass in a single area.
The idea of hereditary religion isn't discussed very often. It's just not on the cultural radar for most people. However, it's a phenomenon that affects people all over the world. It needs to be discussed, and this cyber-protest is an attempt to begin the discussion. According to the event's founder, Richard Collins:
[C]hildren have internationally recognized rights, including the right to make their own decisions according to their ability to do so. The decision to join a religion is a decision best left until a child is a mature adult. But, institutionalized religion has been unwilling to acknowledge that children have religious freedom rights. The institutions depend upon a steady stream of new adherents to maintain their flocks as older members fall into sickness and death due to aging. Until recently no one has mounted any serious challenges to hereditary religion.
It's a pretty revolutionary idea, and one that's likely to cause a little friction. Okay, that's a bit of an understatement. It's the kind of hot-button issue that could make the gun control debate seem like good-natured bickering. I can imagine the headlines: "Atheists Prohibit Parents from Taking Their Children to Church!!" If you think Christians react poorly when atheists try to take down nativity displays, can you begin to fathom the outrage if it were ever suggested that parents don't have a right to pass on their religious beliefs to their children?
The thing is, that's precisely what Collins and others are saying:
The concept of children as the property of their parents comes from antiquity and is part of the legacy of patriarchy. Modern children are conceived as persons in their own right because the notion of one person owning another person amounts to slavery...
Religious authorities deny any harm comes to children and insist a child is always free to make a choice later on in life. This claim simply does not stand up to the facts as observed. Indeed, there is nothing tentative about the religious indoctrination process. It is designed to produce a lifelong adherent and it usually succeeds admirably.
This is where the discomfort really starts ratcheting up. The thing is, all of that is pretty much true. We can quibble over whether or not parents are practicing "ownership" of children by forcing them to go to church, but there's no question that religion is primarily hereditary, and there's no question that it's a lot easier to indoctrinate children into religion than convert adults.
The hereditary nature of religion is so patently obvious that most of us never even notice it. If you were born in America and practice religion, you're almost certainly a Christian. If you were born in India, you're probably Hindu. If you're Iranian, you're probably Muslim. Overwhelmingly, all over the world and across cultures, people continue in the religious traditions of their parents.
Of course, one could argue that religion is passed on primarily from culture, not parents, but it's a very weak argument. One need only point out that in countries like America where different religious beliefs are permitted, children tend to stick to their parents' religion. In other words, a child of Muslim parents in Anytown, USA is more likely to be Muslim than Christian despite being surrounded by a culture of Christianity.
Religion is hereditary. It's a fact. Religion is also demonstrably harmful in many ways, some obvious and some not so obvious. Things like female genital mutilation and honor killing? Obviously bad. But what do we say about the millions of children in America who have been taught by well-meaning parents that the earth is 6 thousand years old, that condoms spread AIDS, and that homosexuality is an abomination? If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that their lives are negatively impacted by the religious teachings of their parents.
There's another really uncomfortable fact we have to address. Children's brains aren't developed enough to make considered, rational decisions about religion. Think about it. Children believe in Santa Claus because their parents tell them he's real. They believe in a giant bunny who hops around hiding jelly beans. They believe in a fairy with a tooth fetish and lots of spare change. Do we really expect them to make rational decisions about the origins of the universe, moral imperatives, and eternal reward and punishment? Of course not. The suggestion is beyond absurd.
Once we admit all these incredibly uncomfortable facts, we non-believers are left with a terrible conundrum. How do we both protect children from harmful religious indoctrination and respect the rights of parents to do what they believe is good? There's no easy answer. There may not even be any difficult answers. It may be impossible to do both of those things simultaneously. If that turns out to be true, whose rights take precedence?
Before we go off the moral cliff, it's probably a good idea to take a few steps back and think about what's reasonable to ask of religious parents. The question of hereditary religion isn't an all-or-nothing affair, and there are things that can be done in America to protect children from the worst aspects of hereditary religion while preserving the rights of parents to convey their moral beliefs to their children.
To begin with, it seems clear that as a society, we have the right to demand that children receive accurate comprehensive education and realistic, age-appropriate portrayals of the world. While we certainly cannot demand that parents lie to their children if they believe that condoms cause AIDS to spread, we can demand that those children receive accurate sex education in school. Likewise, it's understandable that a religious parent would tell a child she believes her religion is true, but society must not fail to provide the child with neutral education about the existence, beliefs and prevalence of other religions. If a child is old enough to consider the truth of Christianity, she is old enough to know there are other options, any of which might be true.
Suggestions like these may cause a knee-jerk negative reaction, but with some consideration, we will recognize that whether or not any religions are true, such policies of comprehensive education are better. Suppose, for example, that Christianity is true. Do we imagine that most Christians would be in favor of telling all Muslim children about Jesus before they become locked into Islam? Isn't that what missionary work is about? Shouldn't children of Muslim parents have a chance to go to heaven?
But what if Islam is true? Shouldn't all children of Christian parents at least be taught the basics of Islam, just in case? And what of Buddhism? Wicca? Zoroastrianism? There are hundreds... thousands... of possibilities. Is it not cruel to lock children into one religion before they know anything of the others?
If we are genuinely interested in what's good for children, we have to admit something very painful: No matter what we believe about the universe, there's a chance we're wrong. It would be unfair to our children not to give them the chance to make their own choice, no matter how certain we feel about our own beliefs. Does this translate into a government obligation to prevent parents from taking their children to church? Certainly not. But it does provide a strong argument for crafting a society in which even the most well-intentioned parent cannot shelter their child from reality and deny her the information she needs to make her own decision.
What do you think? How far should parents' right to control their children's religious decisions extend? At what point does the government have a right to interfere with a parent's religious choices? When is a child old enough to decide which (if any) religion is true? How can society protect children from the worst religious practices and teachings while protecting parents' right to free speech?