Should Children Think for Themselves About Religion?

In my latest post, I mentioned that many churches ask children to commit themselves to a particular theology, even though they lack the knowledge and the intellectual ability to make an informed decision. One reader commented that “Children are able to cope with hearing more than one side of the story from quite a young age, even though their abstract reasoning skills are still developing. It would be great to hear of a church where they are told ‘Some Christians believe X, and others Y, and others Z’ …’”

I certainly agree, and I’ve been thinking about why this so seldom happens. It seems likely that the human brain is wired up so as to make small children believe just about anything grown-ups tell them. Although some of us revise our views later on, the words of Ignatius of Loyola still ring true: “Give me a child till he is seven, and I care not who has him after.”

Parents want to give their children factual information about safety, social customs, good health habits, and so on. Since people tend to think that their own religious views are correct, they naturally want to provide this accurate information to their sons and daughters.

Unfortunately this leads well-meaning grownups to systematically indoctrinate impressionable young minds. But they will continue to do this until they realize that sincere and well-informed individuals can disagree about spiritual matters.

Humility is a virtue, and true intellectual humility is one of the hardest virtues to attain.

Roger Christan Schriner

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3 thoughts on “Should Children Think for Themselves About Religion?

  1. I would say that children can be taught to recite almost anything their parents or others teach them, but true and lasting belief and faith only come through thinking and feeling for oneself. As Mormons we believe that children are born with a clean slate morally yet come with a pre-existing personality and intelligences. Free will is essential and all must eventually have their faith tested.

    Baptism comes at age 8 or later when a person has an appropriate sense of right and wrong and a growing faith. Then at older ages there are new challenges and covenants along the way. We don’t always live up to our ideals, but respect for individual choice, hopeful questions and good in other faiths are our ideals.

    I used to be offended when people call us heretics. I learned that heretic means to think for oneself and that is the core to our theology. We should be humble heretics who think and feel for ourself and are willing to learn from others and work with communities for higher good.

    We think, we feel, we act; therefore we have been, we are, and we will become.

  2. This is a good way to look at the journey of faith, that it will be full of ups and downs, and something that has to be worked at and will change and develop over time as you get older. I guess baptism to me seems a bit like marriage, where you’re making a serious commitment but you know it will be like the faith journey as I’ve just described. So I would think it would make more sense to delay it until you are more aware of the fact that faith and marriage are to some extent choices and commitments as well as being based on a loving relationship. Maybe baptism at 8 means something different from more adult baptism, but to me such a dramatic and symbolic ritual that enacts membership seems more appropriate for someone older. At 8 I don’t think you can escape the role in the child’s choice to be baptised of wanting the approval of and to fit in with the faith community, and the fact that any spiritual experiences the child has had have probably only been interpreted within the cultural framework of that community. In Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman describes the process of “What you see is all there is”: a tendency to use only the facts you have been presented with in order to make judgements, rather than searching for other relevant information, which seems important if the person providing you with the information has a particular agenda to promote. A child is unlikely to be able to do that, although probably many adults are too!

  3. Pingback: An Atheist Talks to Her Mother | Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground

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