#Humanists Need to Give Children Choice Too

Humanist Ad

The people who brought you the ‘there’s probably no God, so just relax and get on with life’ have created a new campaign aimed at parents. They want to encourage parents to give their children freedom of choice. The campaign urges parents not to label children with their beliefs.

The key problem here is, of course, that it’s simply biased. Humanist parents are going to try to encourage their children to see the world in the ‘right’ way that they see it, just as religious parents are too.

But beyond that, I also believe it’s a highly irresponsible model of parenting that they are suggesting. Parents do not and should not see their children as blank canvases that they should not make any mark on. If they did there would be no education. It is the responsibility of every parent – and every society – to do its best to pass on the history and story of the family or culture they have come from – as long as this is then followed by an invitation to freedom beyond it.

In fact, this invitation to freedom has long been a part of religious and cultural traditions. The Amish’s rumspringa is a time when their young people are required to leave the community. It is if they choose to come back that they become full members. We have traditionally sent children ‘up’ to university – the language is important because it suggests the time on the mountain where we think about the ministry we are going to have when we ‘come down.’

Humanist, Christian, Muslim parents all have this equal challenge: to bring children up who are informed but free. Labels are not helpful; boundaries and a secure sense of self and history are.


7 responses to “#Humanists Need to Give Children Choice Too”

  1. Yes, but the humanist campaign is aimed at faith schools. Many of these schools (including church schools) operate admissions policies which give places on the basis of parents faith. If this was reversed eg the two thirds of primaries that are not faith-based schools, and gave priority to children whose parents were atheists, humanists or agnostics, then there would understandbly be outcry. But churches routinely, and legally, run their schools (which are funded almost entirely the taxpayer) based on the faith of children’s parents. This is the point that they are highlighting, and surely its an issue which Christians, who see justice as central to their faith, would want to challenge. There are of course many faith schools who do not operate in this way, and have inclusive admissions. It is perhaps these schools which should be held up as models of good faith schools, which challenge the bad practices which lie at the centre of what humanists are seeking to challenge.

  2. Hi Kester,

    Not sure I agree with you here. I think the humanist agenda here would be that Children should not be ‘guided’ down a particular religious path. Sure, feel free to educate your children about what ‘you’ believe religiously, but do not force it on them. I would argue that teaching your child to pray and telling them about Jesus etc as fact, rather than it being what you personally believe is forcing it on them.

    You say that ‘It is the responsibility of every parent … to do its best to pass on the history and story of the family or culture they have come from – as long as this is then followed by an invitation to freedom beyond it’. Fine, but how many people I wonder look to move beyond in adult life but suffer incredible guilt because of the religious beliefs that have been sown by their parents. A prison without bars. You are free to leave at any time, but that can be a frightening experience.

  3. I agree entirely Jonathan. Faith schools are a real problem. But I think they are a more complex problem than we think. Is it Ok for people of faith to lead schools? I think it should be. But the admissions issue is totally wrong-headed. Trouble is, people (may be rightly) see schools run by Christians as schools which will try to convert their children if they are not Christian, or protective environments for those who already are, so it’s lose-lose.

    I agree that it’s the admissions system that needs looking at. But the general point that the article makes is that humanists are blaming parents in general, and I think this is nonsense. Gav, to pick up your point, the issue of force is tricky: you have to force your children to do certain things when they are young because they have no idea what is good for them. Do I give my son the freedom to run into the road when he likes? No, I restrict him. But this is the essential difficulty with parenting: helping children transition into adults, into the 2nd half of life. And it’s this the the parable of the prodigal is all about. I think there’s some lessons there.

  4. “I also believe it’s a highly irresponsible model of parenting that they are suggesting. Parents do not and should not see their children as blank canvases that they should not make any mark on.”

    You have made an enormous but common false leap. The sign asks that we not label children with complex worldviews they cannot have chosen themselves. It does not suggest we leave them as blank canvases. It does not suggest the family forego its own religious identity and practice — just that the child be free to choose her own in the long run.

    In other words, the sign is in complete agreement with your reasoned position. So why not lose the “highly irresponsible” straw-man jab and recognize that your positions are identical?

  5. Point taken Dale – my mistake writing too hastily in a few free minutes at work.

    The question I suppose is at what age it is appropriate for children to make those choices. At what age does a child become responsible for their own beliefs? I wonder if there is an agreed view on this, and whether that would have any impact on the difference between primary and secondary faith schools.

    My concern remains that parents on all sides of belief are not taking this seriously, and that humanist parents and Christian parents and Muslim parents are still guilty of putting undue pressure on children. I’d not go so far as to use Dawkins’ phrase ‘brainwashing’ (which might also be straw-man-ish) but I do think too many entrenched positions are being held on all sides.

  6. Hi Kester.

    I find this post rather interesting. I personally think that whether people teach their children about their own religion isn’t nearly as important a question as what they teach their children about their religion.

    Much of religious teaching I’ve seen focuses on teaching the “right” stories and the “right” beliefs the child should accept as absolute truth. And while I sometimes wonder the value in those “beliefs,” I think the bigger issue is that parents rarely touch on the implications of those stories and beliefs. There’s little sense of practical theology, life application, or anything else that would move that religious education from memorizing facts and assenting to certain head-held beliefs into what it means to live that faith out. There’s often little training in how to puzzle out the real-life issues that a child might face.

    I think the biggest culprit of this — at least in my experience — is the Sunday schools and other children’s programs. Speaking as a former Sunday school teacher who used to work with 12-18 year olds, many of the “educational materials” used in such programs are downright banal and even insulting towards the children they seek to “educate.”

  7. I’d totally agree Jarred. I do some teaching like that too, and the resources are generally awful, lacking any sense of healthy doubt, or recognition of things like Fowler’s stages of faith.