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When can children make their own decisions about religion and belief?


By Aaron the Humanist


Aaron is our Layout Editor and a regular contributor. In this article, he asks at what age should a child be exposed to a life-shaping worldview – a worldview that may inform or constrict his entire vision of life. It will influence how he makes friends, what friends he makes, and much more. Aaron was exposed to the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses when he was twelve years old, but only for one year – and he was not raised in a strict JW family. But what of those who are?



It's all about me!

Yes, the image above is me at age twelve. This was taken just after the Falklands War and I was already hooked on the idea of the Royal Navy. My ambition to join the Armed Forces and my readiness to kill people didn't sit too well with the Jehovah's Witnesses. They suggested I pursue a career in civilian shipping or on cruise ships. At the age of twelve, I didn't take kindly to strangers trying to direct the course of my life. But as fortune would have it, my mother broke free from the religion, and that was that. A lucky escape for me.



I was raised in the South Midlands in the UK in the 1980s. The school calendar included a daily assembly, group prayers, and religious festivals, and all the school plays seemed to be based on the life of Jesus. It didn't seem strange to me at the time. A year with the Jehovah's Witnesses had had little effect. I do recall praying in bed, a lot. I had questions about myself and my sexuality and there was no one else I could talk to. But there was no answer. Either Jehovah didn't exist, and I was talking to myself, or he did exist and was ignoring me because he hated me.


At some point during my childhood or teenage years, I don't recall exactly when, I was christened. What was that all about? It certainly wasn't my dad's doing, and my mother wouldn't have pushed this. It must have been some outside influence. I seem to recall godparents wanting to be involved, so I'm guessing it stemmed from their insistence. I remained unreligious. Churches were cold, solemn, empty and lifeless places. At least that was my childhood experience of church. They were certainly not places I wanted to frequent.


During my time at secondary school I came into contact with other cultures. At primary (elementary) school, all the children were white English but at secondary school there were Pakistanis and Indians and a few Chinese. I often sat with three Pakistanis and I became good friends with one of them called Ishfaq. I learned from him about his very spicy diet and having to pray three times during the night. What a thing to be made to do. I wasn't a fan.


As I grew up, I thought nothing more about religion. In my twenties, we had Mormons knocking on the door. They were always fit, young, handsome Americans – which had an appeal of its own. I recall inviting them in on several occasions, mainly talking about life in the States and the gun control issue. I remained non-religious, although my attraction to Mormons had grown! A Catholic friend was forced by his family to go to church every Sunday. I resented them for doing this. He had no say in the matter. Was he their possession? Later on, I heard about circumcision. A cousin had had this done for medical reasons, but then I discovered it was done to some children as a religious cultural practice. I was appalled.


Freedom of choice

So, what choice does a child have in taking on something as significant as religion in their lives? For me, exposure to religion at school and home was relatively limited. But for others, exposure to religion at a young age can be life-changing and even scarring. My instinct is to say that, as a child reaches the age of choice and discernment, around 16 to 18 years, they should be able to decide their worldview then – what they want to uphold, belong to, and follow.


However, in many families, religious adherence may be deep and profound. The parents' choices are likely to be imposed upon their children, whether they want it or not. In some cases, parts of their bodies may be altered before they can even object, a practice increasingly seen as absolutely wrong across Europe and the Western world. Regardless of gender, no one’s body should be altered on cultural or religious grounds until they can give consent. As part of an imposed routine, they may be woken up to pray, made to pray before meals, forced into religious attire, and see their families wearing clothing viewed as restrictive or anti-social by the outside world. Others may have their food choices limited, with certain items banned at various times of the day or year. Some faiths prohibit organ transplants, organ donation, and blood transfusions. How can a child escape from all this? They may be fully immersed in these religious practices because it's all they have known. And opting out, even if they want to, may not be an option because it would make them feel like a spectator in their own home. Either way, it seems like indoctrination.


According to helpfulprofessor.com, indoctrination occurs when a person is repeatedly exposed, either voluntarily or forcibly, to a specific set of ideas or ideology. This exposure often involves being taught through rote learning rather than critical analysis and without being presented with competing perspectives. The primary goal of indoctrination is to shape an individual's belief system so that it conforms to the ideology or worldview of a dominant group. This process can take place in various settings, including schools, religious organisations, political groups, re-education camps, mass media, and even within families. It can be detrimental to societies and cultures as it works to restrict the spread of knowledge, limits free thought, and discourages independent thinking and critical analysis. The effect of indoctrination is significant; it limits people's abilities to critique, question, and reconsider assumptions, thereby impacting their capacity for independent and analytical thought.


Free to explore the options

Each one of us grows up in a specific family background, and our exposure to ideologies, worldviews, and social attitudes is largely determined by those around us. If faith is a significant factor in the life of adult members of a family, giving children the intellectual freedom to find their own path without undue influence can be challenging. A balanced learning approach and a diverse range of friends and visitors representing various worldviews, along with clear explanations and unbiased views about why the parent practices the faith, can help. Good religious education in school can also help. And how well do humanists and atheists measure up to this ideal? Do their children grow up with an unduly negative view of faith, or are they freely permitted to explore faith and religion for themselves?


Secularism

As I write this, the Israel-Gaza conflict is unfolding, and the opposing parties likely hold extremely prejudicial views toward each other. Eventually, they will need to find a way to move forward, setting aside prejudices and being more open and accepting of alternative views. But if the next generation of children is being raised with fanatical religious views which include hatred of other religions, then prospects for peace will be severely constrained. In the UK, we should be careful not to import such hatreds and divisions. It is not the state's role to impose religious faith or lack of religious faith, nor to interfere in family life. But the state can help by setting educational standards in school. For example, as pointed out by Richard Warden in his article for us in December, all subjects are scrutinised by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) to ensure they meet its aims, one of which specifically requires pupils "To gain knowledge and understanding of a range of religions and worldviews appreciating diversity, continuity and change within the religions and worldviews being studied."


However, encouraging parents to open doors to different paths for their children presents a significant challenge and, in the UK, parents have the right to withdraw their children from religious education lessons. If my parents had been strict Jehovah's Witnesses, they might have wanted to exercise this right in my case. Parents often want their children to follow their own worldview.


Concluding questions

So the fundamental questions at the core of this conversation seem to me to be as follows:

  1. Does the state "own" your child and can it interfere in family life to advance, or impede, the passing-on of approved religions or worldviews?

  2. Do parents "own" their own children and retain the right to pass on their own worldview?

  3. Should children have autonomy and the ability to choose their own direction?


If you have any answers, why not share them in the comments below?

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