“The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.” Epicurus was here, some thousands of years ago, speaking philosophically of the ethics and mores of men and women. But can his words not be applied, in amplified abundance, to boys and girls?
The almost entire procession of a child’s existence is consumed by the pursuit of a myriad little joys. Children’s minds may yet be too immature to term their lives and their joys the heavy-handed “happiness”, but they scuttle around for pleasure like a hyena prowling for scraps. Play is a double-sided – uniquely so – process for a child. It brings it not only pleasure but it also fulfills its subliminal lust for learning. All mammalian young play to learn. Human children are a shining non-exception.
“Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul.” Epicurus places wisdom and learning in the highest echelons of human pleasure. For him, as for children, learning and pleasure are indistinguishable facets of the same mask. Children are all Epicurean in this regard. That is the entire reason why natural selection has made human childhood the longest of any mammal. Because of our complex societies and extraordinarily large brains, human children have a lot to learn. And natural selection has imbued our children with a lust for learning. Why, because they have a lust for play.
So why is it then that most religions seek to either hamper a child’s playful pleasure-seeking, or deny it completely? Religious child maltreatment has been given misdirected sensationalist media attention in our times; who among us has been told of a Catholic priest and not made a pedophile joke? And who among us is not aware of the rampant child marriages happening in countries like India and Pakistan? These things are already well-known. So I will not dwell on them. Even though they are the extreme of the same scale I will discuss.
I’d like to instead focus on the assertion that most and any religious indoctrination is unethical precisely because it is counter to a child’s instinct. It’s natural rights – never mind it’s human rights.
This argument stems from one universally acknowledgeable fact: children are immature. Don’t snicker, the point needs to be made. Evolutionary psychologists now think that this cognitive immaturity has adaptive reasons. They think now that a child’s poor working-memory is a neurological adaptation to facilitate language-learning and that a child’s metacognitive ability to critique itself is poor because otherwise it would run the risk of overestimating itself thus hindering the learning drive. Even if you don’t take an evolutionary view of the origin of this ontogenical characteristic the fact still remains, like a stubborn Moai headstone, that children look up to their elders for information they would never question. Childhood is the ripest time for faith. Children will not demand evidence or proof for what they’re being taught. This puts their guardians and teachers in a position of power.
And when that power is abused, humanity’s most crucial life-period is being undermined. The hindrance of innocence is the hindrance of life. The best thing a child can be taught is reason. It ought to be encouraged to play, to experiment (as they do whenever they pick up something new), to have fun and to ask questions. If you indoctrinate a child with faith-based morals and stories you shove a mind into claustrophobic spaces.
Even if there is no pain being inflicted on a child, there is such a thing as a non-pleasure. Why deprive a child food at a party because it must restrict itself to kosher or halal? Why force a child to fast for Ramadan, enduring a sacrifice not even adults can endure? (It might not bring them pain – though that is arguable – but it certainly doesn’t make them happy). Or why – and here I am being amiably mild – deny a child it’s birthday celebrations, and Christmas, and all the rest, if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness? Sacrifice does not make children happy the way it does adults. Lack of pleasure is for any child a negative non-pleasure.
Note that I am deliberately ignoring such horrifying practices as child genital mutilation, denying children medical care, corporal punishment on children and child sex abuse. But I will say one thing about these horrors, in passing: you do not have to be religious to be deranged, but if you are deranged you will certainly find a lot of support from religion. “With or without it (religion) you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics Steven Weinberg.
Studies by Boston University in 2014 showed that kindergarten-age children are less capable of telling apart fiction from fact if they have religious upbringing. A set of secular and religious children were told a series of stories that fall into three categories: realistic, religious and fantastical. The results are unsurprising: secular children were better equipped to tell which characters are fictional and which not. But the implication is worrying: if religion hinders a child’s ability to tell fact from fiction, will they grow up being gullible adults? And we know what gullibility in adults leads to. The best assurance for a peaceful, thriving culture and country is a large dose of secularism. Compare the least religious countries in the world like Norway, Iceland, Denmark, France, with the most religious countries; Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Georgia, Russia. Tell me now, where would you prefer to live? Think well, and don’t lets be superficial.
The advantage of teaching more and more skeptically and rationally over religiously is also the fact that if you teach a child, say, about evolution, the child does not need to stop believing in God (in Biblical Creation yes, but not the God behind it) if it so wishes. But teach children that the world was created in seven days by a perfect God and you automatically demand that the child close its mind to evolution and the rest. Logically, religion is less inclusive. And is that how we want our children to grow up?
When children play they are learning, instinctively, how and what the world around them looks like, feels like, and how it can interact with them. Even in their most creative moments of games and story-telling, children are seeking facts. But then there comes along a parent or guardian and tells them: seek no more I have all the answers. What are the implications? If mummy and/or daddy tells me they know everything, then, I best listen to what they have to say. Religion’s evolutionary conception in the human mind may have been just this. In the words of Ricky Gervais, God is “an unpaid babysitter.” Someone who is always watching your children, punishing and rewarding them even in their sleep and thoughts. Spooky, if taken out of context, right? But what other context is there?
Religion is a set of beliefs that seek to provide answers to the deepest questions any mind could ask. But isn’t the best answer premeditated on the best question? If you never learn how to ask questions you will never be able to appreciate the answers you seek.
When I was young, in Primary school, a group of children decided to play a prank on anti-social little me. They told me – and this became a school-wide conspiracy – that there was a ghost in the school well, which happened to be in the playground. They told me, with much gusto, that they heard voices coming from inside, voices of a woman, evil, malicious. The thought of it scared me to the bone. So much so – gullible child though I was – I would refuse to go out on the playground. I was convinced that that voice, that ethereal ‘her’ was after me and me alone. Children can be cruel, amen.
After many a tortuous day the teachers got wind of the prank. They held the giggling, bullying, clever children to account and they assured me that there was no ghost in the well. Relief!
But then, after school, I was made to go to Catechism, to prepare myself for my eventual Holy Communion. There I was taught, not by children, but by adults with Verbum dei caro factum est pinned to their chest, that when I die, and when my family dies, there is a place where we might go where all our sins will be punished for eternity, where, me, my mother and father will suffer scorching pain, all because we lied, or had impure thoughts, and did wicked things. Needless to say, this narrative scared me more than the ghost story. And far worse than that: this story was actually true! At least, it must be, right? No one ever came to tell me, no well-meaning teachers or friends, that it wasn’t!
What those children did to me was bullying. Fine, I’m hardly innocent of that. But what those people in Catechism was nothing short of child abuse. Psychological torture.
And that’s ok. Is it? Why did those children get punished and those men didn’t? Why is it that so much abuse is excused all because religion has a free ride? If I were to tell a child that the world was created by crocodiles who hold the world on their back and the whole universe is a giant lake, and that, if she doesn’t believe me she will be eaten by the crocodiles, I would be ridiculed, questioned, and seen as a nasty human being. But religious indoctrinators get away with it all the time. By all means teach children what values you extrapolate from religion. If you believe the Christian God is all about love, by all means do so. But keep the horror stories away. If your religion makes you kindlier towards the poor, as Islam does, then by all means teach that to your children. But stop there. Let them grow up as loving, kind human beings, then when they’re older, let them decide whether to believe in prophets and angels.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say teaching children the religion of their parents is child abuse in itself – as Richard Dawkins argues. But it certainly creates fertile ground and possibility for abuse. Why? Because there is little fear of recrimination. Why isn’t the Vatican being investigated for its endless counts of child rape? Why is nothing being done about female genital mutilation in Africa or circumcision everywhere else? Why are Jehovah’s Witness parents allowed to deny their children the right for a blood transfusion? And even something perhaps insignificant, but why do Jewish and Muslim children (children!) be taught to ask in what way their meat has been slaughtered? Religion is being given too much of a free ride. Cultural sensitivity is insensitivity to children. And after all, the underlying function of justice is deterrence. To deter others from mimicking a crime. So if religious maltreatment comes with no punishment, future generations will not be deterred and the cycle goes on.
It is heartbreaking to see children of around 9, with a bubbly, intelligent character, ethical to a tee, crying because their parents will not allow them to attend a Halloween party (kitsch holiday for most of us, but not children) or because she’s scared her father will beat her if she hangs around with a boy she likes. Who speaks for these children? What if, when this child grows up, she decides she wants to leave the faith of her community? How will she be treated? In some extremist communities she might be deemed an apostate and we know the rest. In others she might be ostracised from those she loves. And most of the time, she will end up hating herself and enduring terrible loneliness.
Is that in any way pleasurable? Does religious indoctrination, be it moderate or extreme, really bring pleasure and learning to children? And whatever pleasure religion brings them, can it not be given to them without the whole baggage of faith? Just as children can enjoy Christmas day without really caring about the Virgin birth, or enjoy carnival without its ominous shadow of lent.
Here follows a list of quotes from various monotheistic religions about children. Decide for yourself if they are good parenting guidelines in anyway and, if you decide they are not then you cannot claim to be an honestly religious person, for these words are inspired, presumably, by God.
Deuteronomy 21: 18 – 21
“If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. “They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’
“Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear.
Proverbs 22: 15
Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.
How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.
He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
“And those of your women as have passed the age of monthly courses, for them the ‘Iddah (prescribed divorce period), if you have doubts (about their periods), is three months, and for those who have no courses [(i.e. they are still immature) their ‘Iddah (prescribed period) is three months likewise, except in case of death]. And for those who are pregnant (whether they are divorced or their husbands are dead), their ‘Iddah (prescribed period) is until they deliver (their burdens) (give birth) and whosoever fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him, He will make his matter easy for him.”