Photo courtesy of Aspen Institute

Hobson’s choice is not that bad because it offers you two options: you can either take what is offered or take nothing at all. However, the tradition of parents indoctrinating children with their inherited religion does not offer the second option of not taking at all to any child. We are all steeped in a tradition of taking our children as religious putty in our hands. The age old custom has made us think that it is natural as well as obligatory to drill the religion we have acquired from our parents into the heads of our progeny. Given that there are many other religions in the world, each of which is believed to be the absolute truth by millions of people, we should allow our children the more reasonable option of choosing their own at the right time according to their own beliefs.

It is little wonder that such a tradition continues unhindered in cultures where parents have enjoyed many privileges including the unquestioned right to decide on their children’s marriage. However, it is puzzling when it still continues to be the norm even in western societies where children enjoy much freedom to decide on their affairs without parents’ approval. We accept that each of us has an inviolable right to hold any belief yet we don’t seem to understand that we blatantly continue to violate our children’s right to remain uncommitted until they come of age to understand the ins and outs of religions on offer and choose what they see as most sensible or reject all. Instead, we take their defenselessness against indoctrination as a justifiable reason to drum our religion into their minds. And we conveniently forget that if children were endowed with any critical faculties in their infancy, they would question the narratives of religion presented to them and there would be no room for any religious programming to happen.

From our infancy we keep learning many things. When children go to school they start learning systematically and the content of subjects and methodology are continually upgraded to give them a richer learning experience. And obviously the complexity of any subject is always kept on par with their level of cognition. You need not be a psychologist or an educationist to understand that early secondary level students cannot grapple with concepts taught at the advanced level or university level whether the subject is mathematics, history, art, economics, language or religion. For example, no complex grammar rules are presented to students of primary or early secondary grades. However, children have a totally different kind of exposure to language and religion before they come to school. They acquire them in their infancy from home environment without ever being conscious of the process and as a result they acquire their religious and language identity (so-called ethnic identity) much before they start school. The two processes are different in terms of their nature and consequences to the child and society.

As for language acquisition, it is natural and essential for the child to grow as a normal human being. Usually, children acquire any number of languages in their environment. If a child is deprived of language from her birth, she will be at the risk of irreversible brain impairment in addition to being hampered by serious language deficiencies.

In fact, depriving a child of language acquisition from infancy can only be done by isolating her from human contact, which will be a serious violation of a child’s right to grow up as a normal human being. The language acquisition of a child happens naturally without any conscious effort of parents to teach it. This is not the result of a tradition but a natural process. Interestingly, the more languages the child acquires from infancy, the better it is for his cognitive, language and personality development.

However, the acquisition of religion is a different ball game. Parents’ handing down their own religion to their offspring is not at all a natural process but an example of uncritical acceptance and perpetuation of an unshakeable tradition despite its adverse effects. A child who is deprived of a language will be seriously affected by it but a child will be none the worse for his deprivation of a religion – either parents’ or somebody else’s. You can always create an awareness in children of good and bad without placing them in the framework of a religion. The Indian sage J. Krishnamurthy conducted programmes in many countries where children from early childhood were trained to think of good and bad without morals being labeled as Buddhist, Hindu and so on so that they would grow up with sharper insights to morals without being branded by religious identities.

In fact, there is no essential link between ethics and religion and ethics can be more freely and productively discussed without being confined to dogma. Philosophers and scientists are engaged in it and some of them are trying to make those discussions accessible to the average person. Arguing that morality is an “undeveloped branch of science”, the neuroscientist and author, Sam Harris says, “Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, we will see that there is no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality” (The Moral Landscape).

As we know, all parents insist that their child should be taught their religion but nothing else. But what if the parents are of two faiths, say, Buddhist and Christian? Should the child be a Buddhist or a Christian? What are the options before the parents if they are both devout followers of their respective religions? Obviously, they wouldn’t want her to be a hybrid variety of Buddhism and Christianity. How would they finally settle the matter? Toss a coin?

The most reasonable and sensible thing to do in this instance is to stop indoctrinating the child with either faith and let her choose her religion when she is mature enough to do so. If the two religions have sensitized the parents to respect human rights, they would surely accept this more justifiable option. Unfortunately, what would prevail is the decision of the parent conditioned by the more parochial religion of the two, which is reminiscent of a primitive creed justifying might is right where the right of the child to choose a religion is summarily disregarded.

What is beneficial to humanity is not to perpetuate belief systems relentlessly passed down generations but to pave the way for the next generation to be intelligent beings finetuned to look at issues without wearing religious caps. Societies will be eternally fighting a losing battle for an illusory religious reconciliation until they have realized that the shortest way to a more peaceful and civilized life is not to aim at manufacturing “good Christians”, “good Buddhists” or “good Muslims” but to help our children to be good human beings. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Shakespeare. What is equally true is that a rose without any name would smell as sweet. So is the case with virtue.

Open minds, wholesome ideas and good conduct will flourish better without people’s minds being color washed by this or that belief system.