October 18, 2020

Should the Religious Indoctrination of Children Be Illegal?

Image from page 60 of "The teaching problem; a message to Sunday school workers" (1902)

Many atheists consider at least some forms of religious indoctrination inflicted upon young children to be abusive. Some atheists go so far as to suggest that all religious indoctrination involving a young child is inherently abusive. This raises the question is whether the religious indoctrination of children should be legally prohibited in the same way other forms of child abuse are.

At the outset, I think we need to bring in some nuance and agree that just because some forms of religious indoctrination may be abusive does not necessarily mean that all forms of religious indoctrination are abusive. I suspect we could each come up with a few extreme examples that we'd all agree were abusive. We could probably also come up with many far more common examples on which we'd be unlikely to agree (e.g., a parent taking a young child to church and exposing them to Sunday school). That would suggest that the question of how we'd define abusive indoctrination is far from clear-cut.

Even if we were able to agree that all forms of religious indoctrination were abusive, we'd still have to tackle the question of whether a legal prohibition against it could possibly be enforced. All parents teach their children various things in different ways. In fact, many atheist parents find it helpful to teach their children about religion. Finding the line between what we might label education vs. indoctrination is not always easy. But even if we could agree that a particular set of practices was abusive indoctrination, I'm not sure how we could hope to enforce laws against it. I'm also not sure that religious indoctrination could be banned without also implementing severe restrictions on religious freedom (and possibly other kinds of freedom).

Personally, I have no desire to make religious indoctrination illegal. I'd certainly like to see fewer parents exposing their children to it, but we are too far from clear definitions and realistic enforcement strategies for me to think that it is something to pursue. Besides, I usually come down on the side of helping people learn why they should not do something instead of attempting to restrict their freedom. If reports of declining religiosity can be trusted, I think we might expect to see declines in the religious indoctrination of children in the not too distant future. It is unfortunate to think that some children will be harmed in the meantime, but I'm not sure there is much more we can do than continue to discourage religious indoctrination in general and shine a bright light on the more extreme forms it sometimes takes.

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