Head-to-head chat: Raising your kids religiously

(Illustration by Kent Willmeth | The Collegian)

This is a continuation of a new style of head-to-heads with a more chat-like format where we can better address each other’s arguments, directly question each other and hopefully dig deeper into the issue of children raised religiously. I am the opinion editor, Jonathan, an atheist who was raised in a Christian household and attended a Christian church. Discussing this issue with me is my old friend and fellow writer here at the Collegian, Tyler Gehman, who was not raised religiously.

Jonathan: So Tyler, should parents be raising their kids to be a part of their own religion? How prominently should this aspect of upbringing factor into their children’s lives?

Tyler: The answer, of course, is more much complex than this, but to get the ball rolling, yes. Parents should be raising their kids however it makes sense to them, and for a lot of parents of faith it’s the most natural thing in the world to want to give your child exactly what brings meaning, morality or comfort to your own life.

Jonathan: That, of course, sounds all right in theory, but in practice is much less ideal. Before I argue why indoctrinating (a verb your argument probably will not use) your children into your own religion can actually be quite harmful and a bad idea, I’ll first counter your point.

Yes, it is perfectly natural to want those benefits of religion for your child, but religion is completely unnecessary in providing these things — I would argue this for adults as well, but especially for children. Your children do not need the ultimate parent in a loving God or the morality from a demanding one; they already have you for those things. You are the one providing unconditional love, support and guidance for them. To force them into a religion they have no way to understand or choose for themselves is amoral.

Tyler: I think that is a bit dramatic. Religion doesn’t replace parents; it is an aid to them. You seem to be describing some ideal of every parent having a firm grasp on a secular morality or purpose to life already figured out that they can pass onto their kids, but I think we can agree that not every household is so endowed. Parenting is hard and incredibly meaningful — why not use every tool in the bag to raise a conscientious, well-behaved, cared-for child?

Jonathan: Of course parenting is hard, and it very well should be. I don’t think it is too idealistic to demand that parents not take shortcuts in teaching their kids a well-rounded and full understanding of philosophy, morality, purpose and multiple religions. This is what secular teaching can provide best as it is not imbued with biases. It instills the value of an open mind, and when your children are old enough to make a choice for themselves, both you and them can be sure it wasn’t forced upon them.

Tyler: Listen, organized religion has been shown to be a help to foster children. Kids already do have enough of an opportunity to make choices for themselves. Being raised religiously is not indoctrination, and according to the Slate article “Is Religion Good for Children?” kids raised in such lights have been shown to be better behaved and slightly mentally healthier.

Jonathan: The same Slate article also showed that they were much worse than secularly-raised children at being able to distinguish fantasy from reality, which I would say has a much bigger impact than the very slight and somewhat questionable benefits you cite.

Having a looser grasp on what’s real might make kids more docile, as the article suggests, but it will not necessarily make them better equipped to be people of the world. A looser grasp on what is real means less of an opportunity to fully appreciate science and to seek out challenging questions when they have already inherited the “answer,” so to speak. I’m not saying that any of this applies equally to all religious parents or children because everyone experiences, reacts and uses religion differently.

You mention better outreach from religion to foster kids, and I would argue that those growing number of young people finding a secular spirituality will work toward nonreligious aid, charity and kindness; they just haven’t had a chance to become as big as the Lord’s Diner yet. But they will.

Tyler: Yes, I agree that there is an equally valid secular morality and framework for upbringing, but what I am arguing is that this importance of choice that you keep bringing up still also applies to the parents’ choices in raising their own children. And that is a hard argument you have to make if you are attempting to fight against that.

Jonathan: You’re right, it is a hard argument to tell parents to raise their kids a certain way, but I think it is a worthwhile one. Yes, it is quite something to say that parents of faith shouldn’t have their children follow them into it, but here is why I’m saying it:

When a parent raises their child to hate gay people based on religious doctrine, someone should tell them to stop. When a parent raises their child to hate the infidel, someone should tell them to stop. When a parent raises their child to believe that the world is 6,000 years old, someone should tell them to stop. When a parent raises their child to stop questioning, to stop thinking, someone needs to tell them to stop.

The only justification for demanding that these people stop is to demand a secular upbringing for all children.

You can raise your children to have the benefits of religion without it. And you must. It is far too dangerous and too gruesome a risk to indoctrinate children who look to you like you are all-knowing. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of imprinting your own religion on them while they are at their most impressionable — their most vulnerable — while pretending that you have still given them a fair choice.

I am an atheist who was raised in a Christian church, but I was one of the lucky ones. I had religious parents who lovingly never stood in the way of me following my own spiritual path and a church devoted to openness and acceptance, even to any of the questions that lost me my faith. There are many more nonbelievers like me out there who aren’t as lucky and are forced to hide their beliefs out of fear. What psychological hell that must be.

For this, and many other reasons, children should be raised secularly, with the option of well-understood religions for them when they are ready.

Jonathan Greig
Hi, I’m Jonathan. I graduate this December, majoring in Anthropology, with minors in Creative Writing and Political Science. After that … we’ll see. Maybe graduate school in environmental anthropology. Maybe I’ll finally pursue my old childhood dream of becoming an infomercial host. It’s up in the air. Some of my interests and hobbies include devout sports fanaticism, religious study, and composing country songs that serve to explain the unearthly amount of disdain I have for country music. My band’s called Catfish Hurricane, you should check us out. Well, actually, you shouldn’t. I love writing, which is how I accidentally stumbled into this job. This stumbling into good things is my plan for life in general.
  • FlynnRiley

    Oh John, you are so young and impressionable. Would you like some free college with your radical social engineering ideas? Two words DAN SAVAGE, I don’t like to tell people their business like the liberals do but i think you would love him.

    Cant we just leave each other alone to enjoy this country the way the founding fathers intended? NO we must constantly push our ideas and tear the constitution to scraps in the process!

    I think this paper needs a “conservative corner”, to help the young people see that there is more to life than these communist agends they get taught growing up and at universities and colleges.

    I will defend the Constitution of The United States of America against all enemies both foreign and domestic!


  • Greg

    Amen Mr. Flynn.
    Mr. Johnathon, it would be helpful to note the difference between secular 1960’s, early 70 education to secular now. The Constitution was emphasized, understood,
    and valued. “I Pledge Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer were daily until abrupt stop in approximately 1971. We as grade school children were ordered to “take the Bibles home” you “can’t have them here”. Much has changed since that monumental edict was embraced by secular education.
    Generation gaps are simply culture change/time. Has the culture improved? What are the statistical differences between the days of the Lord’s Prayer recital and today?
    School violence?
    Gun shootings?
    Babies in stable two parent, self-sustaining homes?
    Political corruption?
    Video corruption? (I Dream Of Jeanie, was about as risque as prime time got)
    Violence against women?
    Pick your stat…. the Progressive Slide runs pretty much the same direction. That progressive slide is humanism, socialism, marxism …. .
    Integrity and personal accountability were cultural badges. Bonanza had moral “God fearing” stories reinforcing doing the right thing.
    How many “Friends” episodes pushed lying and deception as humor and standard fare? Did Two and Half Men add many redeeming social values to comedy?
    The point is your view of America is drastically different from my older view because of the ‘force’ used to change the picture. I am truly sorry, for that change. It is an injustice.
    The foundation of this country is Solid “all men are created equal” and “endowed” with “inalienable rights” by their “creator”. Bias and prejudicial interpretation has created the divisions and hate, … Not the Documents.
    In reference to “foundation”, I want to address your Choice to lose faith. I am sorry for this too. It is good to question. Answers are limited to our pre-established VIEW. Our political, educational, religious, culture and heritage, (PERCH), defines this view and is the environment (school), where assimilation of beliefs develop. Impartiality, absence of bias is impossible; It is merely a matter of whose bias and definitions are emphasized the most.

    Perhaps you are familiar with the old scripture; “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Your parents taught you to question and think, but because of the aforementioned PERCH view, even the best independent thinker is far from being independent of environmental influence.

    Answers you selected that led you to atheism,(another ism), were heavily influenced by your PERCH environment. I would encourage you to revisit the questions totally ignorant of preconceptions. Clear, as much as possible, your mind of environmental bias and traditional Biblical teaching error that influenced your answers chosen.
    Things like “Santa” can be powerful pre-established negative PERCH – a lie at an early point of belief assimilation.

    Try this question without PERCH interference.
    According to the Bible, how old is the earth?

    Good luck.