It is past time we rethink freedom of religion: no child left behind (part one)

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In light of the past three stories, I thought it a good idea to take a closer look at what we think of as religious freedom. Under that rubric, a state legislature voted to allow all manner of discrimination.  Another’s education committee voted to require prayer in school. Finally, there was the passing of one who handled snakes in the name of his god. In the United States of America, 2014, all of these things were not just considered, but done in the name of religious freedom. Religion is dramatically retarding the progress of social evolution. Yet we have barely begun the discussion about reasonable limits on its spread and practice. Consider this a conversation starter:

Limited freedom

The first thing we have to do is agree on the necessity of limits. In life, nothing is without limits. I am not even referring to matters of law. Nature, of which we are a part, has definite limits. Our life is limited by mortality. Our activities are limited by physicality. The amount of good or ill we can do is limited by imagination and resources. All law is about placing limits on what we can and should do as members of a society. Even when speed limits are completely lifted, we are not without limits. We still cannot drive as fast as we want to. We are limited by the maximum speed of the vehicle, and the maximum speed we can safely navigate the road. That is a situation where the law recognizes that the natural limits are sufficient.

Laws giving one person freedom to do something, restrict another from doing things that limit that freedom. Even freedoms granted by law are limited. Free speech still forbids speech that amounts to treason or inciting to riot. Slander and liable are also off the table, as is perjury in a court of law. There are so many restrictions of the freedom of speech that it requires much more than a couple of sentences to list them all. The same goes for the freedom to bear arms and the freedom of religion. All legislated freedoms must be understood in the light of their natural, social, and legal limitations. Many act as if they believe that religious freedom should never be hindered by natural, social, and legal limitations. Such people are either immature or whack jobs. I will spend no more time on this point. We now turn our attention to sorting the nature and specifics of those limits.

Religious freedom and children’s rights

Robots have no rights. As of now, robots are not sentient. We can do anything with them that tickles our fancy. We can program them to do bad math just for laughs. We can intentionally program them with false information about the world so that none of their output is reliable. We can spend every waking moment trying to abuse them, insult them, and even frighten them. We do not have to show them a modicum of respect. We own them. They have no rights. The same is true for anything we can own. Ownership changes everything.

But what of children? Who owns the children? I am going to bypass the many philosophical and emotional traps by simply declaring that no one can own a person, and children are people. The conclusion to this syllogism is that no one owns a child. Parents do not have ownership rights to their children. When it comes to the balance of rights and responsibilities, all parents have are responsibilities with regards to their progeny. That means that there are really no such thing as parental rights. The best we can say is that parents have privileges. Those privileges are very specific and greatly limited.

My employer has privileges and responsibilities. I have worker’s rights. He does not own me. I own myself. Based on our negotiations, he has limited use of my time and talent. He has limitations on how he can address me, or invade my personal space. While on the job, he has responsibilities for my safety and well-being. He must provide safety gear and training. He must provide a clean, secure workspace. He is responsible for paying the agreed compensation and tax filings as required by law. He is not my owner and I am not is slave. We are equals in a symbiotic relationship. He cannot run his business without me, or someone like me. And I cannot provide for my household without him, or someone like him. That type of relationship is replicated throughout all aspects of society.

Parents have the privilege of raising children, and the responsibility to provide for them. As wholly owned subsidiaries of themselves, children have all the rights implicit in full personhood. They can gain or loose certain rights specific to adulthood. But they are born with the full rights of personhood. Unlike with a robot, there are physical restrictions on how we handle a child. We cannot beat it, shake it, or cause bodily harm to it. We cannot exploit it for our sexual pleasure. We cannot sell it when we get tired of the responsibilities associated with it. There are even limits on how we talk to a child and what we can say. Those limits may be difficult to enforce, but they are there.

Children, and the right to truth

Before diving into truth, let’s talk about lies. There is nothing illegal about lying in and of itself. In fact, I contend that polite society is not possible in the absence of lies. As social creatures, we have to lie in a thousand little ways everyday. They are the necessary, little lies that make civilization work. Even as mature adults, we cannot handle the unfiltered truth all the time. Any filtered truth is something less than true. Children are even less capable of handling unfiltered truths 100% of the time. There is a fine line between unfiltered truths and outright lies.

I propose that a basic human right is the right to truth. That includes children. However, too much unfiltered truth about too many things can be damaging. This is a particular concern where children are involved. How much truth, and on what subject is proper for children? The answer is a moving target. This is where we have to exercise nuance. We have to walk that fine line between filtered truths and outright lies. In my experience, parents do a lousy job of this, preferring the relative safety of outright lies rather than risking an inconvenient and inappropriate truth. We do this because we overestimate the fragility of children, and the value of innocence.

Children are not that fragile. We always fear that they are more fragile than they are. Their bones do not break with every fall, nor are they riddled with infection every time they eat dirt. Even as babies, we are a lot tougher than we look. The same is true emotionally. Pets die, people die. Parents die. These deaths occur without regard to the age of the child. We live through these things. They do not hinder our growth. Much of a child’s fear and confusion about death is based on the lies and fantasies with which we fill them. They have to square those lies with the reality that is before them. That is a tough job even for mature adult.

Innocence is a thing that only comes in limited quantities, and is overvalued. We define innocence as the ability to remain ignorant of the complexities and dangers of the real world. The expression, “ignorance is bliss”, perfectly capsulizes how we feel about innocence. The innocent person enjoys a glass of milk without the awareness of what it took to get it. It never crosses their mind that someone expended the time and energy to poor it, paid for the cost to store it and cool it, bought it with money they would rather have spent on something else, acquired a job doing some menial task for too little money just to be able to afford it, etc… Maturity is enjoying a glass of milk while realizing and navigating all those realities.

The same is true for danger. The innocent have no sense of danger. To them, the world is designed around their comforts and needs. A sheltered child knows nothing of the dangers around every corner. Bears are cute and cuddly friends, while snakes might try to deceive you with lies. The man known as Grizzly Man never came to  understood the truth about bears. Paster Coots never learned the truth about snakes. In a sense, they were both innocent: ignorant of the dangers posed by the real world. We are only allotted a short period of time for innocence. On certain matters, in certain places, innocence is an indulgence we cannot afford.

We lie to children in an ill-advised attempt to artificially prolong the sate of innocence which we too highly prize. We believe that our desire to prolong the child’s innocence trumps any right to truth she may have. If a child is to be raised in the woods, they have zero opportunity for innocence with regards to wildlife. Snakebites can kill, and bears will happily rip your head off. They must know this the moment communication is possible. If a responsible adult suspects a child is the victim of sexual abuse, there is no more time to worry about innocence. The child must be given enough information to be able to detect the danger, and convey what is happening.

What, then, is the age of innocence? More to the point, what age is right for the death of innocence? The reason this is such a hard question is because it is the wrong question. It assumes that innocence is something we can and should control. It assumes that the child’s guardian is the ultimate arbiter of her innocence. I believe those to be faulty assumptions. We should never be asking how long should we keep the child ignorant of the way the world works. We should be asking how soon we can safely disclose more truths about the real world. The truth is the child’s birthright. It does not belong to us. We must release every last bit of it to the child that she can handle. Protecting innocence by perpetuating ignorance is almost always a bad thing.

A child needs a true answer to every question they are capable of asking. When a child is old enough to ask where babies come from, they are old enough for the answer. I have never understood why the answer to that question was such a shameful mystery. We have no moral problem explaining other biological functions. Try explaining pooping and peeing without making reference to internal and external body parts and functions. The biological details are simply not that complicated or blush worthy. It is the mystery that is titillating, not the facts. Once the facts are known, the child will likely be disappointed and move on to something more interesting.

If you insist that the child is too young to know all the facts, don’t tell them all the facts. That still doesn’t give license to lie about the details. At no age is it appropriate to convince a person that babies come from some fairy land and delivered by storks. Just tell them that babies come from mommies and daddies. That’s the truth. You need not include details that make you squirm. Always tell the truth. But do so in filtered, diluted doses when necessary. Death, marriage, divorce, and war can be handled with equal delicacy.

In our image

Do parents have the right to raise children in their image? Must a daughter walk in her mother’s footsteps? Do parents have the right to intentionally pass on their likes and dislikes, prejudices, hatreds, politics, and religion? For the sake of argument, let’s say that not all worldviews are created equally. Should a parent be allowed to pass on the worst possible worldview to their child? Should alcoholic parents be allowed to indoctrinate their children in the ways of alcoholism? This could be done without breaking any laws. Just glorifying the lifestyle may be enough.

Should a father be allowed to intentionally prepare his daughter for a life of prostitution and pornography simply because he enjoys those things? Remember, prostitution is not illegal in all places. What if he lives in a state where it is illegal? Can he still prepare her for that lifestyle? Do you feel icky even considering the question? Don’t worry. I’m not advocating it. In fact, I am trying to find something that we can all agree is off limits. More to the point, we need to agree that there should be at least some limits on what a parent can imprint onto a child.

A less vile, but equally devastating example would be for a parent to systematically convince their children that 2 + 2 = 5. This, along with a few other falsehoods about arithmetic can utterly destroy a child’s future. She would never graduate, never get a GED, never go to college, never hold a job worth having, and in the end, only be qualified for prostitution and pornography. This ruination of a life can be accomplished just by teaching bad math. Imagine what can be done by simply inputing other bad data.

At what point does this become a child services issue? What if from birth, a parent teaches his child to hate Jews? Not only that, he teaches that Jews are subhuman, worse, that all Jews should be killed on sight by a true believer over the age of 18? How bad does the indoctrination have to get before society steps in and revokes the parental privilege of guiding a child in his formative years? Paster Coots, the snake handler, leaves at least one son behind who follows in his footsteps. How young was that child when he started playing with poisonous snakes in the name of his father’s god? Was it abuse the first time daddy taught the impressionable kid to stick his hand in a basket of serpents for Jesus? At what age did it stop being abuse? I contend that the problem is not the snakes. It is the systematic input of false information about the real world.

It is as if we believe that parents have the right to make their kids as bucktooth stupid as they are. This was true not so very long ago. Today, we require that all US children go to school regardless of the wishes of the parent. We have decided that there are some basic truths that every child has a right to know about the world. Since parents have proven to be poor teachers, slightly better teachers are employed by the state.

With few exceptions, a child cannot grow up without someone trying to teach them how to read and write, do basic math, identify the location of important places on a map, understand the basics of politics and economy, drive a car, exercise and eat nutritiously, play an instrument if the aptitude is there, etc. As bad as public school is compared to other parts of the world, it is so much better than the alternative of allowing children to grow up without a guarantee of basic information about the world. It is a child’s best hope of not growing up in her mother’s image.

When religious freedom and the right to truth collide

Freedoms, religious or otherwise, always only pertain to the individual. All freedoms encounter limits when they impinge on another’s rights. You have the right to believe in any god you choose, and pray to him or her as often and as loudly as you like. You don’t have the right to disturb my sleep when you do it. As a teacher, you can maintain whatever faith-based belief system that suits your fancy. But you don’t have the right to teach it to my hypothetical children. Why should you be allowed to teach it to yours?

The reason you cannot teach the precepts of your god in the classroom is that it is a breach of every child’s right to true and reliable information. Does a child have any less right to true and reliable information when he gets home from school? How much right does a parent have to undermine the state-required instruction? If a teacher assigns a student the homework of reading three chapters of classic literature, and practicing the multiplication table, can the parent systematically forbid the child to read at home or do math with heathen numbers? Can a child really be forced to flunk a grade because her parents insist she only answer questions in ways approved by the religion of her parents?

If that should not be allowed, why should a parent be allowed to convince their children that there is not really any such thing as death. That is a basic tenet of most religions. What we call death is just a passage of one type of life to another. It is the vehicle that takes us to an even better place where no harm can come to you, and you get to have everything you ever wanted. How is a child ever to understand the dangers of the real world if she believes that dying is code for a trip to someplace better than Disneyland? How is that not abusive? How is that legal?

At school, children are taught the best information we have about the development of the universe. At home, they are taught the worst information available. Moreover, they are taught to distrust and disrespect anything taught to them by teachers. Think about it. If the universe was created by God in six days, then the teachers are way off on all their information about the most basic things. The teachers say that the universe evolved over billions of years by undirected forces. How stupid is that, right? The bible says different. Sunday School teachers say different. Parents say different. These two stories are not remotely the same. As a student, if I don’t have to listen to the teachers in matters of science, why should I listen to them in matters of math, English, and history? With parents actively undermining a child’s right to education, it is little wonder that we are so far behind in education

Conclusion: a mind is a terrible thing to waste

I propose that there should be limits on the amount of garbage with which we fill a child’s mind. Garbage in, garbage out is a true maxim in every sector. I do not care how much bad information a person pours into a computer. The computer belongs to them. I also don’t care what lies parents choose to tell themselves. They can lie to themselves about matters of sexuality, health, finances, or science. I only care that children be allowed an environment where they have the best chance to encounter and process true information.

If a parent tells a child that prayer heals sickness, why should the child ever take medicine or quietly submit to a shot? Uncountable numbers of people refuse to take life-stabilizing medications for mental illnesses because they were taught that God, not science is the key to healing. There is material harm in this type of upbringing. How much less secure are our little boys and girls who have been led to believe that an invisible friend with magical powers is watching over them, and protecting them from all harm. When harm does come their way, they are taught that either they were displeasing to their magical friend for some undefined reason, or that it was all a part of the magical friend’s plan. Either way, you should just accept the bad things that happen to you, and try to be a better person as a result. Psychiatric professionals will never run out of clients. There is material harm that cannot be denied.

I will refrain from going into too many details about what religious limitations I feel are appropriate for children. I will offer a couple of broad categories that should be considered. Children should not be taught a worldview that makes death seem like something preferable to real life. If children believe that death is the gateway to a fairy dreamland, they will not be as diligent about protecting and enhancing the one life they actually have. They should not be taught a philosophy that makes them feel that they are something other than a part of nature. In no way should they be taught to believe that they are apart from, or in dominion over nature. They should not be taught things that hinder their future ability to graduate and hold a responsible job. They should not be forced to tout the creeds of evolution deniers any more than they should be made to sing the anthems of the Flat Earth Society.

It goes without saying that any religious practice or belief that endangers the child’s health and safety should be heavily regulated both in and out of the home. Even in states where snake handling is legal, there should be laws about snake handlers with children living in the home. Children should also be restricted from attending such assemblies. There is nothing illegal about nude church either. The kids just have to remain fully dressed, and in another room with fully dressed adults. We already regulate matters of religion as it relates to health. Parents do not get to withhold vaccinations from their children regardless of religion. They also do not get to withhold other necessary medical treatments. On this matter, the legal system is inconsistent.

Finally, they should be free of any doctrines of separatism and exclusivity. This is the seed of all racism. It starts with the stories of God choosing a particular race of people to be his representatives and priests. Exclusivity is just as bad in the Christian scriptures. Jesus makes it clear that he is the only way to God. Anyone outside of that path is kindling for Hell’s fire. Once this idea becomes acceptable, Children have permission to use race, religion, and physical attributes as the basis of acceptable discrimination.

This is not to say that people cannot learn about religion. It is simply to say that there should be formalized regulations as it relates to children. If a parent can be fined for keeping his child out of school, why don’t the same types of penalties apply to a parent that counteracts and negates the instruction provided by school? If it is wrong for a parent to intentionally teach a child bad math and English, why should it be okay to teach them bad science? Perhaps there should be an age limit on proselytizing children. There is a smoking and drinking age. People still choose to smoke and drink. They just have to reach an age where they can make a responsible decision. We really should be talking about an age of responsibility when it comes to declaring one’s allegiance to life-altering worldviews. Ww have a real problem when 7 year olds are immersed into the blood of Christ for the remission of their sins, dying to themselves, rising to a new life of submission.

David Johnson

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