One of the consequences of religious belief no longer being the default state of being, is a concern with possibility of “indoctrination” of children who are brought up in a religious faith. The eminent psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, described children as having ” a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas”. The question of whether parents have an ethical “right” to bring up a child in their own religious faith, was brought to bear by a recent court ruling in Manchester, where a father was not permitted to “speak about Islam in a forceful way” to his child (who was in foster care).
Is attempting to pass down your own religion to your children unacceptable brainwashing? After all, the child has no say in the matter and might be just as happy or even happier being brought up without the faith.
Can children be described as “Muslim”?
Richard Dawkins, a very strong advocate of the view that bringing children up in a particular religion is brainwashing and hence unethical, penned an article for Time magazine, where expresses how ridiculous we are being when we describe children as Muslim, or Christian. He draws an analogy with describing children as socialist, or a conservative, which most of us would find ridiculous. What makes religion different? He accepts that it may be desirable to encourage children to partake in certain religious traditions and festivals with their families and communities, however draws the line at ascribing certain beliefs and views to them, without giving them a chance to form their own opinions.
What is problematic, Dawkins argues, is that parents expect children to believe certain things, or live a certain way, purely because they themselves happen to do so.
Going back to Dawkins analogy of substituting religious beliefs for political beliefs, I think it would be helpful to consider what differentiates different types of knowledge that we pass on to children.
The assumption made in that analogy is that both religious and political beliefs have the same relationship to the nafs, or the self. Both are alien, imposed upon the “tabula rasa” externally. As philosopher AC Grayling has argued “we are all born atheists… and it takes a certain amount of work on the part of the adults in our community to persuade [children] differently.”
However a counter argument can be developed from the Islamic tradition, building upon the idea of the Fitrah. The Prophet narrates in a hadith that “every child is born upon Fitrah” (Sahih Muslim, Book 033, Number 6426), and this concept is given context in Surah A’raf (V:172-173) when the Quran talks about the covenant made with the gathering of human souls. The doctrines of Islam do not bear the same relationship to the self as do the doctrines of political ideology, rather they are already imprinted upon the soul.
In this view, to pass on Islam to your children is merely reminding them of a covenant they have already made with their Lord. One could argue that this argument is circular as it itself rests upon belief in the truth of the Quran. However I am not trying develop a universalist doctrine here. For those who accept the Quran as a source of truth and wisdom, why should it not be used as a source of ethical reasoning; in this case to answer the ethical question we have posed about the appropriate way to raise one’s children? Or must we force people to adhere to some “objective” standard when it comes to raising their own children? Let us not forget, that often, the “objective” standard is merely the dominant narrative. In this particular case, the dominant narrative is shaped by a society that no longer sees scripture as a source of guidance or ultimate truth. A call for an “objective” standard in this case, is also a call to delegitimise other understandings (such as the Islamic one) of the role that scripture should play in our lives.
Distinction between actions and beliefs?
I think those uncomfortable with the idea of passing on a religion to your children might say, it is perfectly fine for parents to make decisions about what children do, but not what they believe. Children need to be taught how to behave in society, certain skills etc, but should be allowed to form their own beliefs based on their own reasoning.
The current way our society teaches children about science, is to teach them certain facts as truth; that gravity exists, we know the structure of atoms or how magnets work, we also may teach them the experiments through which we can establish these facts. What we do not teach them is the underlying epistemology, certain assumptions of what constitutes valid knowledge, and by extension invalidation of other forms of knowledge. Without introducing these assumptions to the children, and allowing them to come to their own conclusions about whether science really constitutes the best way of obtaining truths about the world, are we not passing on our understanding of science leading to objective truth, in the same hereditary manner as religion?
The idea that religion is somehow the exception when it comes to passing on beliefs onto children, is demonstrably false. Additionally, the idea that it is ok to pass on behaviours, manners, customs to our children, but not beliefs, rests on the assumption that actions in the world are separate from beliefs about the world. That thought and action are separate. Teaching a child that he should greet people, is educating them in the appropriate norms of their society. Teaching a child that he should greet people with the blessed greeting of Salam, because that greeting has been divinely ordained, that is brainwashing.
This distinction between beliefs and actions, privileges a modern “Western” worldview where truth claims have been separated out from religious practices and customs. It is perfectly reasonable for an atheist to enjoy evensong in the church, or take part in other traditions without subscribing to their principles. Worship can be separated from its divine content, yet in Islam, even everyday actions cannot be separated from their divine content. We are taught as Muslims, that even the most mundane daily actions can be Ibadah, or worship. Within such a worldview, it seems nonsensical to assert that one can educate a child in good Adab (which Syed Naquib Al Attas defines as “Putting things in their appropriate place”) or appropriate behaviours, without introducing them to the divine order in which those behaviours fit.
I will conclude by reiterating that, the idea that religious beliefs are the only types of beliefs that we pass down uncritically to our children is patently untrue, as I hope to have demonstrated above.
Stepping into the Islamic tradition, the concept of the fitrah makes a distinction between knowledge about God and His divine order from knowledge of the purely material. The former is already imprinted on the soul and merely requires reminding of. A truly “Islamic” upbringing, should be about no more than reminding the soul of what it already knows.
This is not brainwashing as we understand it, rather a washing away of the impurities that impede the intellect from recognising what the soul already knows. However, recognising that some types of religious upbringings go far beyond these, I share the concerns of people who see children being brought up in a vacuum of critical thought. Forcing children into narrow, dogmatic religious paradigms does not do justice to their own intellect, or the faith traditions we claim to be following.
To bring up a child Muslim should not mean to bring them up in our own image. The range of beliefs, practices, opinions, cultures, philosophies, institutions, and expressions that have developed over 1400 years in the Muslim world, contains enough diversity to accommodate people of all kinds of inclinations and persuasions. It is our duty to introduce our children to this world, but it is for them to find their own place in it.
Easa moved to the UK in 2008, after spending his childhood in Pakistan. He is currently working for the UK Treasury, after having completed a Masters in Development studies in Cambridge. He has a deep curiosity for exploring the world through books, people and travel and likes spend his relaxation time hiking, and listening to flamenco music.