Parenting and religion. Does your kid really have a free choice?

photo credit: by R. Mitra / flickr

I’ve noticed that more and more parents, especially new generations of parents, struggle with the following dilemma:

“Should I teach my child to follow my religion?” (the believers)
“Should I teach my child not to believe in God and other God related concepts?” (the nonbelievers)

Even if they are in grade school they are still too young to grasp the concept of God is the most common and very sound argument.

This argument is most frequently used by the third group of parents, those who “assume” that their children will want to follow the religion that was followed by their parents. They are the parents that don’t have to struggle with the aforementioned dilemma because the idea that their children could abandon their religion never crossed their mind. They couldn’t even imagine that their children wouldn’t follow this religion, let alone allow it to happen. Those parents simply impose their religion on their children. Thus they can be sure that their children won’t stray.

Parents who belong in the third group wouldn’t bother to read articles like this one here so let’s go back to the first two groups, the ones with the dilemma.

It seems to me that more often than not parents find themselves on either side of the same spectrum.

We have parents who believe and wish that their children believed too and parents who don’t believe and think their children will be better off not believing. Both groups think (and actively argue) that their children should entertain the freedom of choice.

I can imagine that the precise dilemma for parents who believe could be the following:

Short term concern:
“Should my children learn my religion at school? Am I imposing my religion on them by sending them to this class?”
“Should I allow that my children be baptized? And, on a different note, am I committing a sin if I won’t have them baptized?”
“Should I take my children with me to church?”
“Should I pray with my children?”

Long term concern:
“Assuming that my children’s choice will be not to follow, how will we get along down the road with us wanting to attend religious ceremonies and them not wanting to attend them?”
“What will happen to Christmas and Easter?”
“Will my children end up as bad people? What will their values be?”

And for parents who don’t believe I can imagine that the precise dilemma would be as follows:

Short term concern:
“Should my children learn religion at school? Am I causing them to feel left out by not sending them to this class while the majority of the group attends it?”
“Should I allow that my children be baptized as this may come in handy down the road (by making them eligible for religious ceremonies of all sorts — wedding, funeral etc.), even if eventually they choose not to follow? Truth be told, due to tradition and social pressure people often prefer religious ceremonies to secular ones. What if he or she will want to marry a person whose parents will insist on religious ceremony?”

Long term concern:
“Assuming that my children’s choice will be to follow, how will we get along down the road with them wanting to attend religious ceremonies and us not wanting to attend them?”
“Will my children truly believe or be simply brainwashed? I want them to be smart and not blindly follow others.”

Whether you are a believer or a nonbeliever there’s always a risk that you will present the question of belief in a slightly biased manner. Many parents feel worried or are at least a little bit concerned if they see that their children belong to the opposite group. Some would even ask themselves “What happened to this kid?”.

The true believers and the rest of “believers” more often than not tell their children that religion is essential in their life. By doing so they sort of send them a very clear message that reads: “Although you do have a choice, religion is better than atheism.”. Why? Because we believe and thus we think so.

On the other hand parents who are atheists often send their children an opposite message: “Although you do have a choice, atheism is better than religion.” Why? Because we don’t believe and thus we think so.

Obviously, none of us has the authority or is otherwise in position to tell others that either approach is right or wrong. This is not arithmetic. Neither we should tell others that one approach is universally better than the other. We can only tell what’s better for us.

As I believe that there are true believers in this world (although few in relation to the total number of people who call themselves believers), it stands to reason that for them the former statement (religion is better than atheism) is true and for nonbelievers the latter statement (atheism is better than religion) is equally true.

No amount of reason is going to persuade one group or the other that just one of the aforementioned statements is true, and that it is not the statement they consider to be true.

Trying to convince somebody either one is better simply isn’t going to do any good.

So what is the best a parent can do?

In my opinion it all starts with a greater awareness, greater than average.
Parents believers and parents nonbelievers should acknowledge the fact that, like it or not, believing (and non-believing) is strongly influenced by the social setting.

Very often we follow a certain religion simply because our parents and the majority of people in our society follow it. For many the prevailing religion is a “nice to have” sort of thing, a “custom”, or a psychological bias acting on us, rather than a real thing.

Often people follow a certain religion their whole life just because their parents once thought to themselves the following:

“Religion will make my child’s life “easier”as it makes you eligible for religious ceremonies of all kind — baptism, wedding, funeral etc.).” — a utilitarian approach
“I don’t want my child to be an outsider.” — yielding to social pressure.

They then stick to this religion because they sort of committed to it earlier in their childhood when their parents took them to church, even if it was “just to make their life easier”.

Often it’s nothing else but a psychological fallacy called “commitment bias”. It is a term frequently used in psychology and sociology to refer to a situation in which new “decisions” are based upon past decisions or are made to justify actions already taken.

People in general need to justify past decisions and to preserve consistency between their statements and actions. So, when we (“decide” to) stick to one religion it’s not even our decision because the fact that we still follow it is rooted in our previous actions. We fool ourselves that we are rational and made a conscious choice while in reality our brain yielded to the commitment bias, ie. upheld our previous decision / action (we haven’t had a chance to use it to really ponder any true reasons why we should follow this religion).

Ask people why exactly did they choose to follow a particular religion and more often then not you will hear the same reasons I mentioned here.

That’s why we often feel awkward when we want to tell our parents that we don’t feel like following this religion any more. Blame the commitment bias.

But a religion is not just spiritual things, it also means rules of behavior (commandments), traditions etc. If the child follows the religion of his or her parents, the parents sort of know that their child has a moral compass and that he or she will be accepted by the society.

The aforementioned social pressure only adds to the overall uneasiness (“what will our family and other people think if the child doesn’t follow the religion?”).

We can ask ourselves whether we can’t have our own set of beliefs (a worldview) and our moral compass without being subdued to a religion. Of course we can, and many of us do have their own sets of beliefs and moral compasses.

This greater awareness will allow us to care less about the issues related to our short term concern (the social pressure and the perceived awkwardness) and focus on things that really matter, ie. an in-depth grasp of both concepts (religion and atheism), by us and our children, and on explaining to our children the psychological fallacies that often lead to people’s attachment to a certain religion.

In other words, don’t worry whether doing a thing or two in one or the other direction will be harmful to your kid (questions like “Should he attend the class on religion?”). Instead, worry whether you might display inconsistency in your worldview, for instance by celebrating Christmas or Easter as an atheist, simply because your family and friends celebrate it too, and you (or them, or both) would feel awkward if you didn’t celebrate with them.

Explain to your kid where does this inconsistency come from and what is your take on these issues. Or, if you do follow a religion, be ready to elaborate why do you follow it, be specific.