I very much enjoyed the first atheist bus campaign, especially the Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling that the word “probably” had to be added and the Christian bus driver who refused to drive a bus with this advert. There is something wonderfully British about all this.
However the latest campaign “Let me grow up and choose for myself” goes too far and just hasn’t been thought through. It appears to be working on a number of assumptions about parenting and religion which are questionable, at best. In addition, its advice is simply impractical and makes one wonder what the psychological impact would be on the children whose parents try this approach.
Parents are not a blank slate, any more than their children are. Whether based on “evolutionary psychology” or on tradition, they have values which are cultural as well as religious and it is natural and necessary for them to wish to pass these on to their children. Children are naturally inquisitive and when they ask questions about the world, they expect answers, or they keep on asking. Parents cannot say they will get back to them on these complex issues when they are old enough to understand; instead they have to try to explain things in a way which is appropriate to their children’s age and abilities, which precludes nuanced explanations. For example, when my own children at a young age wanted to understand the difference between the Conservative and Labour parties I explained that Tories won’t share their toys and Labour people would (in my defence, this was before New Labour!)
Religion is not just a small aspect of society and one wonders whether this campaign takes into account just how culturally Christian this country is. Would this campaign advocate banning Christmas to avoid explaining to children who Jesus was until they are able to appreciate the historical issues? Whole swathes of literature and music would become inaccessible without this cultural background – even Harry Potter celebrates Christmas.
The atheist campaign is concerned that a religious upbringing is a form of “child abuse” which damages a child’s rational faculties for life. The alleged Jesuit quote “give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man” seems to inform such thinking. Nevertheless, text based religions, such as Judaism, ideally require immersion in these texts from a young age and such education is helped by faith schools which have good and bad points, like all schools.
The Talmud says that a child should start learning these texts from the age of six and the Ethics of the Fathers has the rather poignant saying “one who studies Torah as a child, to what is he compared? To ink written on fresh paper. And one who studies Torah as an old man, to what is he compared? To ink written on blotted paper.” Of course, this is not to ignore the fact that Jewish male children are circumcised when they are eight days old, a choice which Jewish parents very much have to make for the children.
There are practical issues here as well. If parents attend religious services they are hardly likely to leave their children behind, which will lead to them having to explain things which the new campaign would preclude (as well as denying children the sense of being part of a community). Alternately, leaving them behind would simply pique their curiosity, also not a desirable outcome from the campaign’s view.
The logical consequence of this campaign is that children of religious parents are best taken into care and kept away from anyone who may influence them “inappropriately”. Whilst I have had discussions with atheists on CiF who claim that when they say a religious upbringing is “child abuse” they don’t mean this literally, one can but wonder what this does actually mean other than as rhetoric?
The reality is that parents make choices for the children, whether they are religious or not, and this is the essence of being a responsible parent. This campaign is damaging, misguided and impractical.