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Thoughts on last month's question: Is it unethical to teach children religion?

From: Dr. Norman R. W.
Sent on: Thursday, August 4, 2011 12:50 PM


Sam & Socrates


Sam:  Good Morning Socrates


Socrates:  Good Morning Sam


Sam:  Socrates I have a question I would like to ask you.


Socrates:  Questions are always a good way to discover truth.  So let us begin our seeking for truth with your question.


Sam:  Is it unethical to teach children religion?


Socrates:  Do you mean unethical or immoral?


Sam:  What would be the difference?


Socrates:  If the question was “is it immoral to teach children religion?’ then this would be asking if it is wrong for an individual person to teach religion to a child.  This is a private matter of personal ethics. 


If the question is “is it unethical to teach children religion?” then you are asking if it is wrong for a society to permit children to be taught religion and this would mean that any culture or society that permitted teaching religion to children, if it is wrong to do so, would be lacking “justice”.  It would imply that laws and social taboos would have to be set up try to restrict people from teaching religion to children since not only is it wrong but it is so extremely unfair so that society has a need to stop such activity. 


Sam:  It would seem to be the first question would be if it is immoral and only then would we have to consider if it should also have ethical concerns. 


Socrates:  That would seem to be correct.  First we need to think about if teaching religion is immoral and then we can consider if it is also unethical for a society to permit it.   Not everything that is immoral can be restricted by society. 


So the question before us to begin with is “Is it wrong to teach children religion?”   So what would cause anyone to think that it is wrong to teach children religion?


Sam:  Children, especially young children do not have the ability to discern or think well.  They are very accepting and are developing both biologically and psychologically.   For adults to teach their religion to their children at such a vulnerable stage of life would seem to be forcing on them the faith of the adults.  This would seem unfair to the children’s right to choose for themselves what they want.   So it would seem wrong to force religion upon people who do not have the ability to decide for themselves if they want to believe what they are told.


Socrates:  So what are we talking about when we refer to “religion”?


Sam:   Any faith in what cannot be seen.


Socrates:  Things like truth, beauty, justice, and love?


Sam:  No, things like God, angels, and demons.


Socrates:  Those would also be included but so would truth, beauty, justice, and love.   We have to be fair.  We simply cannot exclude some immaterial ideas and include other immaterial ideas without some good basis. 


So we could ask ourselves if it is wrong to teach children about truth, beauty, justice and love?  


Sam:  I see what you are saying.


Socrates:  Do most people who teach their religion to children believe it is true?


Sam:  Normally I would think this true?


Socrates:  Do most people believe that their religion answers the “ultimate questions” of life?


Sam:  What do you mean by ultimate questions?


Socrates:  Things like “Who am I as a human being?”  “What is right and wrong?”  “What is real and what is illusion?” and “What is the meaning of life”. 


Sam:  Those are the questions that every religion attempts to answer.


Socrates:  So we could change the question to “Is it wrong to teach children what we sincerely believe to be the answers to the ultimate questions in life?” 


Sam:  I see what you mean, but how do we keep the children from being brain washed?


Socrates:  Is learning a onetime event or a process?


Sam:  It would seem a process.  We learn things, build on them, and then sometimes reconsider what we have learned and come to a different conclusion. 


Socrates:  I would agree.  What would happen if we taught children nothing?


Sam:   What do you mean?


Socrates:   I mean that we provided for the children physical food and shelter but never spoke to them or gave them any content or training at all.  They would be allowed to develop as “noble savages” without any “brain washing” from adults.  I mean many metaphysical ideas can be implied in words and language.  So to totally allow the child the ultimate freedom we should allow them to develop their own language and start from scratch without any influence from human society or any adults.  We could most likely develop machines to care for them eventually and have them live isolated from adults entirely.    Would that be good for the child?


Sam:  No, I do not think that would be good.  They would be free but the cost would be they would fail to benefit from all humankind has learned.  Instead of being able to stand on the shoulders of giants we would be placing them in a ditch they would have to try to dig themselves out of and which would greatly limit their development and socialization. 


Socrates: I agree, but it is therefore impossible for adults not to teach what they consider to be the ultimate answers to life’s ultimate questions to children because they do believe these beliefs are what they most passionately believe.  Teachers are not neutral.  They always teach out of and based on their values.  So no one gets an unprejudiced education.


Sam:  Then do we have to accept the brainwashing of children as just an unavoidable evil?


Socrates:  What do we want for the children?


Sam:  To be allowed to think about reality and decide for themselves what are the ultimate answers to life.


Socrates:  Are some ultimate answers to life’s questions better than other answers to life’s questions?


Sam:  What do you mean?


Socrates:  Do we think that the ultimate answers given by Hitler were any more or less true than the ultimate answers provided by Dr. Martin Luther King ?   


Sam:   In other words is there any ultimate truth, morals, or ethics or are all answers to ultimate questions subjective?   I would say that some answers to the ultimate questions are better than others. 


Socrates:  So really if all the children freely decided to think like Adolf Hitler this would not be a good end.


Sam:  No, that would not be a good end if all children came to believe in the philosophy of Adolf Hitler.


Socrates:  So there are some conclusions about life that we hope our children will find and are seen as better than others? 


Sam:  Yes, I think that is true.  The question is what are those ideas and how should they be taught to our children?


Socrates:  Do all children always believe what adults taught them as they grow up?


Sam:  No, many children reject, alter, modify, reform, and change what adults teach them as children.


Socrates:  If adults maintain the beliefs of those that raised them do they to this because they choose these beliefs or because they are brainwashed?


Sam:  If I say because they are brainwashed then how could I explain all those who went through the same teaching and then abandoned or changed the teaching.   No, by the time people become mature adults they have chosen what they believe to be the ultimate answers for themselves.   This is the only explanation that explains all those who have abandoned what they were taught as children.


Socrates:  So the brainwashing of children is not as easy as it would appear.  Since learning is a process we can believe something when we are young and then change our minds.   Learning is all about changing our minds as we move from one hypothesis to another.  Learning does not take place without experimentation, rational process, and evolution of thought.   


Sam:  So adults can influence children but not control how they will ultimately think.


Socrates:  This would seem true under all normal circumstances.  Only if the environment became very extreme and abusive, aiming at total psychological control would one debate if it was possible.  Yet, in some real examples of even such extreme circumstances such as found in cults we find people eventually rebelling and abandoning the world view they were taught.  It is not easy to control the thoughts of another person.  Perhaps it is impossible.   Now all abuse is wrong and so we would immediately say that children should not be abused to try to control their beliefs through immoral means.  However, teaching is not an immoral means but a normal human activity. 


Sam:  So adults would seem to have a responsibility to teach children what they believe are the ultimate answers to life’s ultimate questions.   This is just a normal process in life.  So this is why we don’t have to worry about brainwashing?


Socrates:  Now one of the great moral responsibilities I have in teaching a child is that I have carefully examined the truth I am teaching.  Teachers have a responsibility to care about truth.  So adults do have great moral responsibility to take truth seriously and carefully to young people. 


The philosopher, Messiah Jesus;


“It will be terrible for people who cause even one the little children to sin. Those people would be better off thrown into the deepest part of the ocean with a heavy stone tied around their necks!”


And James a follower of Jesus said “… teachers will receive a more strict judgment from God.” 


So adults need to recognize that when they do teach children about the answers to the ultimate answers to life’s questions they take upon themselves a very serious moral responsibility.   They have a moral responsibility to teach the children the truth. 


But, do we have to worry about brainwashing of children?  I don’t think we do.   In the normal course of events children will learn that not all adults agree on what the ultimate answers to life’s questions are and will have to decide which answers make the most sense to them.   In a free society children like the United States children are exposed to a wide range of ideas and world views.  By the time they are adults they know they have to decide between several different ways of understanding life.  This then becomes their choice.   They will modify, clarify, and evolve in their thinking and even develop entirely new approaches to the ultimate questions.   So ultimately people have the freedom to seek and choose the truth they believe in. 


Sam:  What about in societies where there is not freedom of expression or exposure to many different world views?  Are not these children “brain washed”?


Socrates:  In societies where freedom of speech is not allowed then it becomes harder for people to have a free evolution of their thoughts and the consideration of more than limited answers to life’s ultimate questions.   But even here we will see people begin underground movements, seek contact with “outsiders”, and develop new thoughts.  It is not easy to keep people from thinking.   To really brain wash another human being is not easy. 


This would suggest that it is immoral or unethical to limit children from interaction with new ideas but not against teaching them religion.   This would be a different issue. 


Sam:   So if society attempted to restrict people from teaching religion to children it would in fact be keeping them from learning about different answers to life’s ultimate questions. 


Socrates: Yes, it would be intellectual censorship and that would seem to be a greater danger to the free development of thought than the teaching of religion.  It is best to have a free market place of ideas and depend on the truth to win out when in competition with inferior ideas.  Based on this idea, it would seem the finest answer is to allow adults to teach children whatever they believe to be the true ultimate answers to life and recognize that as they grow into adults they have a responsibility to either reject, reform, or receive what they have been taught. 


Sam:  The ideal idea would be that children would never be taught anything but the absolute “TRUTH” about reality.  But the problem is that adults disagree on what are the best answers to life’s ultimate questions.   We have differences of opinion on what “Truth” about life really is and some of us doubt if there is any absolute truth at all.  Therefore, the best we can hope to do is create a society where people will be exposed to many options so that as adults they can freely choose from among them.   This leaves the moral responsibility to seek for truth up to each individual person. 


Socrates:  Yes, with the search for truth and the love of wisdom hopefully being the common values that people of all different religions and philosophies can honor and teach to their children.   


So based on this discussion I think we would have say that it is not wrong to teach religion (the best answers to life’s ultimate questions that I know) to children.  Children cannot normally be successfully brainwashed and will eventually go through a process of learning and change in which they will develop their own unique adult answers to the ultimate questions of life. 




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