Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Please Label Me: When I Grow Up I Can Decide What to Do With it

Ed Baker of Defense of Reason has a series of posts dealing with a new billboard campaign with the message that children should not be labeled with the religion of their parents. This is an old argument used by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins argues that children are too young to have opinions about religion and, just as we would not label a child as liberal or conservative, since children do not have political opinions, we should not label children as being members of any specific religion regardless of what their parents believe. One should be clear as to the stakes here. The main targets of Dawkins and the New Atheist campaign are closeted atheists, humanists, and otherwise unconventional believers who maintain themselves as religious believers. Such people continue, for their own reasons, to operate within that structure even after they have made their intellectual breaks with it. It is people such as these who can be tempted into secularist social structures that imitate organized religions. Such people need to be told that, contrary to what they might believe, religion is actually harmful for morality and need a shot of self-pride to get them to come out of the closet as non-believes. Such people as these continue with their religions, in large part, because they were raised in them and their identities are encapsulated within them. If such people did not have strong religious identities to begin with then their trip out of religion could be that much easier thus allowing Dawkins and company to go home with their mission accomplished. On the flip side not allowing parents to label their children would create all sorts of problems for religious people. Can Christians and Jews baptize or circumcise their children? What kind of education are parents allowed to give their children? This becomes particularly scary if we assume that the government has some sort of stake in the matter. Would secularists wish for the government to stop parents from raising their children in their faith? Dawkins believes that scaring children about a physical hell constitutes child abuse. Would Dawkins send the police into the homes of literary minded Christians to confiscate their children to protect them from being exposed to Paradise Lost?

Beyond raising certain questions to Dawkins and company as to what their attentions might be if they ever got the chance to put their ideas into practice, I believe there are more direct objections to make; I will go so far as to go the other direction and say that parents should actively seek to install strong ideological values in their children both in terms of politics and in religion. For one thing I reject the notion that children are incapable of having opinions. I had strong political opinions by the time I was nine. The reason why it took so long was that my parents were fairly apathetic when it came to politics. As the son of a rabbi, I already developed opinions about religion certainly by the time I entered kindergarten. Yes my religious opinions were heavily influenced by my father. In an ideal world maybe you could get children interested in issues by being neutral. In practice though children are attracted to intensity; they will care about things that they see the adults in their lives are truly interested in. So the choice becomes one of raising ideological children or raising apathetic children.

Parents are an important check on society and allow for honest multiculturalism. A parent not raising their children with a strong ideology means that a child is going to be raised in the values of the dominant society. There is a limit to how many viewpoints can take a leading role in the public sphere and schools. (Two would be impressive.) There can be as many ideologies to raise children in as there are parents. One of the great things about the honest sort of multiculturalism is that has checks and balances built into its very nature. Every parent raising a child serves as a check on every other parent raising their children.

Most crucially for the child's own intellectual development, a label is a place to begin one's search and a lens with which to deal with the world. Growing up as a Jewish child meant that I came into the world not as a tabula rasa, but as a part of a developed intellectual tradition. This allowed me to learn this tradition, its questions and its answers. If I did not identify so strongly as a Jew as I do than there would be no personal stake in exploring this tradition and I may never have gotten into the habit of asking the big questions at all.  Being born into a tradition does not mean that one has to be a slavish follower of this tradition. I am free to define my relationship to my tradition as I wish, even to reject it. But if I am to turn my back on Judaism, I would still be able to turn on Judaism as a Jew and thus embrace the label all the more. My father introduced me to Judaism and he has been a major influence. That being said he would be one of the first people to admit that my Judaism is very different from his.

There are limits to what parents can do to their children; I am not about to hand parents a blank check. I believe in practicing my brand of intellectual terrorism whenever I have the chance, with adults and with children. The more closed off the child the more eagerly I embrace the opportunity. The argument is sometimes put to me how dare I step on the prerogative of the parent and expose children to things that I know their parents do not wish them to be exposed to. My response is that parents do not have any intrinsic moral right to their children's minds. In theory I have an equal right to their children's minds to expose them to an ideology of my choice. Children, as beings without the full intellectual capabilities to take on the role of citizenship, are handed over to the physical control of adults, ideally the biological parents. Since the parent has authority over the child's body, he has an advantage when it comes to feeding his ideology to that child to such an extent that he can place whatever political or religious labels on the child he chooses. Since the government, the one body that can override the parent, is not allowed to have political or religious opinions it must turn a blind eye to the child's indoctrination. This, though, does not apply to individuals in society. A parent may be able to win out against society for the mind of his child, but it is at least going to be a fight.

I declare war against those parents who think that they can shut their children away and indoctrinate them as they so choose. I will carry out my moral duty to stand outside your doorstep and the moment your child steps out I will be after him. There is nothing you can do to stop me from talking to your children and giving out books and other forms of intellectual stimulation except to make an even greater effort to shut your child away to the extent that you would literally place your child in a locked cell until they are eighteen. This will also serve to raise the cost of your actions. I will make it so expensive that I will both intellectually and economically bankrupt you.


Miss S. said...

What an interesting post. I am trying to think back to my childhood, and if I was truly labeled or not. My Grandparents, who I lived with, maintained a pretty strict "Christian Home". By that I mean that we were active participants in our church, was read Bible stories at bedtime, did not listen to various types of music and/or watch certain movies, and maintained certain restrictions on what we did on Sundays (nothing like being shomer shabbos...but we did have some restrictions; such as not playing ball with your friends). On the other hand, my mother was non-religious and my father was a Rastafarian, so there really was no true monopoloy on spirituality in my life.

I remember being about 6 or so when my father carefully told me that going to church is a good thing, but do not blindly accept everything they say. My grandmother was a Sunday School teacher and I was one of the best kids in the classes. But I also had "other influences" whispering in my ear. So I would ask and formulate tough questions about Christianity that no one wanted to deal with.

So I think on one hand you are right. If I was not so surrounded by Christianity and active in learning about it, I wouldn't have been able to question anything about it. I would be at the mercy of religious leaders and be more trusting of whatever they had to say. On the other hand, I think the fact that I never truly owned the label of "Christian" made it much easier for me to walk away from it. To me, a Christian was someone who believed in Christ; not someone who was born to a Christian family. It cheapens the religion to call my mother a Christian -- a woman who hardly ever goes to church and probably never prays or does anything in the way of being religious.

I do not know if anyone has ever looked into it, but I think most converts to Orthodox Judaism come from pretty strong religious backgrounds. I could not really imagine going from not acknowledging that there is a G-d at all to having so much of your daily routine regulated by the commandments that came from...G-d. Surely it can be done; but there are probably many steps between the start of the journey and the point to where they are frum.

I think the answer is to continue to educate in your traditions, but do not dwell on a label. Judaism is a little different, in that your Jewishness is in fact dictated by birth; but the religion of Judaism really needs to be actively chosen by all Jews.

Chris said...

Wow, Izgad. This was a really good post! Thanks for shedding some light on the issue for me.