Children and Religion

I would like to spend some time to express my opinions on raising children a specific religion. I have previously pondered about this topic but refrained from writing anything due to the unclear nature of my thoughts. To an extent, my opinions on this topic are still not conclusive so alteration is almost inevitable and therefore, it might do this entry more justice if I categorize it as an elaboration of initial reflections. The decision to enter this discourse now was made shortly after finishing The Limits of State Action by Wilhelm von Humboldt whose ideas made me reflect on my stance on children and religion.

According to von Humboldt, “the true end of man is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole”, and in order for man to develop himself to his fullest capacities, he needs individual freedom. Freedom, however, cannot exist without security and since man cannot provide this security himself, the state must provide it. However, there is an important distinction between providing security and implementing “positive welfare” which the state may not do, according to his beliefs. Positive welfare is defined as actions taken by the state which are aimed at forming a moral character. The consequences of such actions would be a “nation of uniformity” and a weakened state of vitality, for man cultivates his faculties through his own activity.

One example of such positive welfare is religion. Religion encompasses a process of self-development, of moral perfection. But true self-development and moral perfection can only happen through the free will of the individual. Von Humboldt states,

“Whatever does not spring from a man's free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but still remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness.”

He further writes,

“If...he [the state] seeks directly to promote a religious spirit; if he protects certain definite religious ideas; or if, lastly, he dares to require a belief according to authority instead of a true and sincere conviction, he will hinder the spirit's aspiration and the development of the powers of the soul; and, although he may work on the citizen's imagination through his feelings and succeed in bringing his actions into conformity with the law, he can never produce true virtue.”

Von Humboldt's reasoning for his belief of the limits of state action could be applied to the relationship between parents and their children to a certain extent. It is true that whatever does not spring from man's free choice remains alien to his true nature and that man cultivates his faculties through his own activity. Thus initially, it seems that von Humboldt's reasoning could be used as an argument against parents raising their children with a specific religion. However, upon further reflection, one would realize that it is not the act of passing on a religion itself that produces a “nation of uniformity” and a weakened state of vitality, but rather it is the lack of independent thinking. If parents accompany their teaching of religion with the teaching of critical thinking, then they would not be stifling their children's self-development. But if they only impose their religion onto the next generation, then they would not only commit an injustice to their children, but also to the religion itself. I can only imagine that God does not want his followers to be machines.

Having said that, I would like to clarify that I do not believe that every parent who does not raise their children how to think independently is at fault. The question of fault and not at fault implies that there is a choice and not all of us have the same choices. There are many parents who do not know how to think independently themselves and therefore, would not be able to teach their children. Hence, even though they are technically not doing something they should be doing, they are not at fault.