This post is going to be about children, faith, worship, and indoctrination. The other day a friend of mine and I were discussing this. This friend is also an atheist. He and I had the opportunity to float a river yesterday, and as is apt to happen with us, the conversation turned philosophical. He and I were discussing the questionnaire from CARM that I posted about a little while ago. Eventually, the topic turned to the idea of children in religion. This eventually got us thinking about faith and worship.
Faith and worship are central tenants of Christianity. Indeed, one cannot find salvation with God without both faith and worship. And this is where we began to think about children. Most people who are religious are raised that way; very few people become devout much later in life. As a small child, you really have no choice but to participate in the religion of your family. So why is this an issue?
There is a passage in the bible, I believe it’s in Hebrews, that essentially amounts to “God will reward those who seek Him in earnest.” The actual passage is as follows: And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
This is important because eventually my friend and I had to question how meaningful a child’s worship or faith could possibly be. If you have no choice but to participate in a religion, is your faith and worship meaningful? If you’ve never been exposed to alternative ways of thinking, or were taught to categorically only accept one way of thinking, how meaningful is your faith?
As a young child, you’re exclusively reliant upon your parents for explaining to you how everything works. That element of trust between parent and child is necessary for a child to successfully interact with the world around him or her. Because (most) parents want their children to be healthy, well-adjusted, and successful, children really have no reason to doubt their parents. Unless you come from a pretty messed up family, what child wouldn’t automatically believe whatever explanation was proffered by their parents? Take Santa, for instance. Most children believe Santa exists and that he’s the one who delivers their presents every year because that’s what their parents tell them. And they only stop believing this because eventually, at some point, those same parents finally tell them the truth about Santa.
So why should it be any different with religion? If your parents tell you that God exists, chances are that is what you’re going to believe. So when a child with parents goes to worship in church, are they really doing it out of faith in God, or out of faith in their parents? The latter seems much more likely to me. It would almost seem like a better measure of faith for religious parents to raise a child completely ignorant in the ways of the religion until the child can reason and act for themselves. If the child or adolescent can then accept that religion, would that not be the ultimate expression of faith? Because in that situation, the child or adolescent is expressing faith and worship completely out out of their own desire, belief, and self. It was not informed at all by the parents’ beliefs.
Of course, such a thing would most likely be impossible because we don’t raise children in complete isolation and they’d be bound to hear about religion elsewhere. But I think it’s an interesting thing to think about. Especially in light of new studies that show how religious indoctrination from a young age changes how children perceive reality.
These studies would seem to suggest that children who are raised with religion have a harder time separating reality from fiction than their secular counterparts. This is probably why, in my opinion, religious children grow up to become religious adults: you literally lose the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality on a certain level.
So back to faith and worship. What this study shows is that children raised with religion experience psychological changes early in life. I would postulate that these changes carry over in adulthood. Either way, this would seem to me to call into question that idea of “seeking God in earnest.” How earnest can this seeking be if you’ve been psychologically conditioned for it? How “pure” can faith be if your brain has been shaped to blur the line between fantasy and reality?