Religious ideas, a tabula rasa and an atheist parent

I’ve been wondering a lot recently about what one should tell children about the world. I wouldn’t want to be so grandiose as to call this “education”. More, a bit of uncertainty about what to tell children who ask things, what to tell them proactively, and (perhaps most importantly) what should not be told to them at all. (NB: by “tell”, I don’t mean once. I mean consistently, over time).

I am certain that there are some things that it would be unethical to tell children. For example, it would not be ethical to tell things to a child in order to obtain obedience by inducing a permanent state of fear, because (I am reasonably sure) that would be very likely to have a lasting and damaging influence on their emotional and intellectual development, which would cause them to suffer, without any countervailing benefit.

I think, but am not certain, it is unethical to tell children things which are objectively false (as best we can tell) and which (unlike the ordinary healthy fantasies of childhood) are likely to lead to long-lasting and systematic belief in falsehoods. This is partly because I think it is important to understand what is true and what is not. But also because, for systematic belief in falsehoods to be maintained, one has to adopt ways of thinking which reduce cognitive dissonance, and allow the truths which challenge that belief to be rationalised away.

By way of example: it would not be ethical to tell children that the world is flat, and that contrary views are part of a huge conspiracy. This (manifestly) would be a false thing to tell a child. And maintaining that belief, in the face of the evidence to the contrary, would probably necessitate telling the child an even bigger falsehood: that such conspiracies exist in the world, that all of the contrary evidence is fake or wrong, and that a vast swathe of people in the world are either stupid or are liars seeking to keep the population ignorant.

And it would probably also necessitate systematising damaging ways of thinking, like confirmation bias, communal reinforcement, deliberate avoidance of new information or dissenting views, and myriad other fallacies and bad habits. Mental acrobatics of that sort would be necessary to hold the falsehood up.

There are many examples of this sort of thing in everyday life. Things which (I stress) I would not want to shelter a child from, but would strongly want to avoid being told to a child repeatedly, unquestioned, as fact, over time. The odd bit of wrong here or there is of no consequence at all. And bits of wrong which are asked about and explained are positively valuable.

Some of these sorts of things I mean are:

  • The idea that modern medicine (and vaccination in particular) does more harm than good, is mostly about money, and that alternative medicine is more effective (an idea whose adherents are responsible for many premature deaths)
  • The idea that some groups of people, different from the child in some irrelevant way, should be treated differently and should not have the same civil and human rights as everyone else
  • The idea (perhaps obviously at this point) that there exists a personal god with an interest in human affairs, who can influence our lives, who has set rules to govern our conduct, and to whom we should supplicate ourselves

These things don’t occupy my every waking thought, by any means, but they do occasionally crop up in challenging ways. Partly because all three of the above examples are represented in my family and friends (to varying degrees). But also because of the existence of people and groups who proudly espouse these views, systematically, to children and everyone else.

People like Rev Dr Mark Griffiths, author of One Generation from Extinction, and recently a guest on All Things Considered, whose contributions contained more euphemisms for “indoctrinate” than I could keep track of. People like the Child Evangelism Fellowship, the Coalition 4 Marriage. Campaigns like JABS. Perhaps worst of all, state-funded faith schools and laws requiring acts of collective worship in all schools.

Certainly, I would not want to overreact to this kind of thing. There is an abundance of nonsense in the world for anyone who wants to seek it out, and by and large, the best reaction is to ignore it all (or make fun of the silliest things). But I do find myself angered by people who proudly describe the ways in which they indoctrinate children who are too young to discern truth from fiction.

I’m not sure where the boundary lies between behaviour which I find distasteful but is nonetheless acceptable in a free society, and behaviour which is categorically wrong and should be prohibited along with corporal punishment and child abuse. I am sure it is in the wrong place now. And I am sure there is a vast grey area sitting in the middle.

Mostly, I am concerned about these things, and a little unsure of how I should chart the waters. And I find myself concerned about the kinds of environments in which I’d be happy to leave my child to her own devices.

Or more importantly, to other people’s.