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.

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.