Don’t Label Me
The debate sparked by this year’s billboard campaign by Ariane Sherine and the British Humanist Association — not the campaign itself, which is crystal clear, but the subsequent debate — turns out to be as muddy and straw-man-ish as one might expect.
The campaign slogan itself — “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.” — represents two subtly distinct messages. The first (“Please don’t label me.”) talks about the fallacy of attaching belief system labels to children too young for those labels to have any real meaning; it’s a statement about what’s reasonable language to use with respect to a child as they are now, whatever might have happened in their life so far, or might happen subsequently. The second (“Let me grow up and choose for myself.”) talks specifically about the ongoing relationship between a child and the authority figures in its life, and what’s reasonable for the child to expect in terms of education in matters of faith. These are related issues, of course, but it’s worth addressing them separately.
Aside from consideration of what such authority figures might wish to be true about a child, does it make sense to refer to a “Christian child”, or a “Muslim child”, or even an “atheist child”? This is at the heart of the first part of the campaign slogan: it doesn’t make any logical sense to use a belief system label to refer to a child, if the child isn’t capable of maintaining that belief system, in a genuinely rational and informed sense. It’s just not factually correct to talk about a “Christian child” if no informed decision can have been made, any more than it would be factually correct to talk about a “socialist child”, or a “libertarian child”. Which is not to say that a child can’t entertain some thin veneer of such an informed belief, of course, but it has the same cognitive status as belief in Father Christmas, or the Easter Bunny: that is, a direct transference of the teachings of some authority figure, with insufficient independent informed thought having been applied.
Ah, but — the counter-argument goes — what people generally mean by “Christian child” (insert a long list of alternative belief systems here) is merely a child of Christian parents, or a child growing up in a predominantly Christian environment, or perhaps a child being raised in the hope that they will become Christian; it’s a cultural thing, and nothing need be claimed about the child’s own beliefs. This is obviously true in many cases — although far from all — but even when it is true it merely underlines the point: to collapse all of the cultural background into a single word, which is identical to that used elsewhere to signify an informed belief system, is to make a claim, even if lazily and by default, about a child’s beliefs. It suggests more than is sustainable about what that child believes now, and also arrogantly predicts the child’s future path, as if that were already decided. If you mean “a child of Christian parents”, then say that, and be careful about implying a seven-year-old is capable of reaching an informed decision about how the universe functions.
It strikes me that there are three levels on which this issue can be discussed: i) whether parents have a legal or de facto right to bring their children up “in” a specific faith — that is, not merely a right of parents to bring their children up in an environment in which they themselves practise religion, but a right to inculcate that faith into their children; ii) whether it’s a good thing for parents to have that right, quite apart from whether one accepts that the right exists, and apart from whether one might seek somehow to revoke it; iii) aside from any legal or de facto rights, whether it’s morally or ethically justified to bring children up in a way which is intended to result in them acquiring a specific faith, and/or to identify them as belonging to that faith before they’re mature enough to make a rational and informed choice.
The focus of the Sherine/BHA campaign is primarily point iii, the moral/ethical (and factual) status of labelling, and of what might legitimately be called indoctrination. There’s a loose affiliation with the BHA’s campaign to phase out state-funded faith schools, which might be seen to attempt to revoke the rights referred to in points i and ii, but that’s not really the case; since only state-funded schools are referenced, no rights, legal or de facto, are threatened.
Nevertheless, Jan Ainsworth’s rebuttal in the Guardian focuses mainly on the rights of the parent:
It is surely central to the role of a parent, whether committed to a religious faith or not, to want to pass on to their child the things they value most, the beliefs and world view that shape how they live.
“Surely” is an assertion, rather than an argument, of course, and it’s not clear that wanting something entails having it as a right, or it being ethically or morally defensible. A parent might “want” to pass on their racism, or their homophobia. Is that a “right”? Even if it is seen as a right — albeit due to the fact that it’s hard to legislate against — is it morally defensible?
But there’s a larger issue here, which Ainsworth misses completely, and which is crucial. In their enthusiasm to project their faith onto their children, religious parents — or, vicariously (with a nod to the double-meaning), the schools they choose for their children — run the serious risk of blurring the important distinction between types of knowledge, and types of belief. Not all education is equal, but to a young mind it can seem that way, especially if the teacher is the same.
Articles of faith are not the same category of thing as scientific theory, or physical law. This does not, of course, mean that articles of faith can’t be taught, but a parent has a profound responsibility to accurately convey to a child their epistemological status. In theory, this isn’t hard to do; in practice, it may be much harder, for exactly the reason that Ainsworth claims: parents very often have an emotional investment in their children acquiring a similar world-view to their own, and this world-view is very often religious.
The secret ingredient here is a ruthless respect for the truth, and an intellectually honest examination of one’s own beliefs — and one’s motivations for those beliefs — such that one can avoid conflating the objectively true with the personally-believed, and convey the distinction to one’s children clearly and openly, along with supporting evidence, and without emotional baggage. To teach a child that an article of faith is believed by a parent, or a teacher, and to accurately explain why it’s believed, is defensible. To teach a child that an article of faith is true, is an indefensible betrayal of the child’s trust.
Agreeing that something ought to be seen as a right doesn’t require any practical way to make it so; we assert that people have a right to food and shelter whilst knowing that that right will never be given in practice to all. In that spirit, I believe all children have a right to know the truth value of anything they’re taught. Note that this has nothing to say about what they’re taught; rather, it says that whatever they’re taught, whether it’s physical law, scientific theory, or article of faith, needs to be backed up with whatever supporting evidence exists. If, for example, a parent asserts that some act is against a god’s will, their child has a right to know on what basis the parent believes that. If the authority is some canonical teaching, the child has a right to know where that teaching comes from. If the parent believes the canonical teaching was divinely inspired, the child has a right to know why that is believed to be true.
Also crucial to this process — in addition to intellectual openness and honesty — is absence of emotional baggage. Education with respect to articles of faith in an open and honest manner is nevertheless useless if accompanied by emotional manipulation or threat. Just a few days ago I learned that a friend of a friend is effectively estranged from her family because her religious belief system has departed in key areas from theirs. Another friend was more or less disowned from her family after going through complicated gender reassignment issues. Relations between a member of my wife’s family and his father were dealt a serious blow when he divorced, leading his father to believe that he was more or less doomed to hell. In her own way, my own grandmother was sufficiently concerned by my own clear atheism as a teenager that she mentioned on several occasions having someone from the church come round to talk to me about things.
These issues aren’t restricted to fundamentalist denominations; they vary only in degree across the wide spectrum of religious cultures. Nor are they merely emotional. The intellectual baggage of a skewed religious upbringing can also take many years and a great struggle to leave behind, even once a clear ostensible break has been made.
None of the above is meant to suggest that this is an easy process, but it’s one worth fighting for – hence the Sherine/BHA campaign. Notably, Ainsworth’s focus is on the — already-considerable — rights of the parent, and the campaign’s focus is on the — undervalued — rights of the child.
Giles Fraser – also in the Guardian – refers to the Sherine/BHA campaign in passing, in a manner which reads either as faceciousness or trolling:
Picturing a three-year-old child apparently pleading for independence from a religious upbringing, “let me grow up and choose for myself” is the final thought of Ariane Sherine’s atheist poster campaign. But hang on a minute. Do three-year-old children really have a view about secular freedom? Of course not. This is an adult’s agenda placed into the mouth of a child; a perfect example of the very thing about which it complains.
— and then continues a bizarre digression which equates avoiding labelling and indoctrinating children with a Thatcherite denial of society. Of course three-year-old children have no view about “secular freedom”. But nor do they have an informed view about cosmology, morality, the origins of religion, calculus, and evolution by natural selection — nor can they. That’s the point. To the extent that bringing up a kid must involve an “adult’s agenda”, what matters is what that agenda is. If avoiding as far as possible passing on one’s own faith-based beliefs as if they were true, being both open and honest about what one believes and why one believes it, and not building emotional baggage into the whole process, is an agenda, it’s a kind of optimal, benign meta-agenda.
It is worthy of note that the Sherine/BHA billboards mention, as labels to be avoided, “atheist child”, “agnostic child” and “humanist child” (as well as, among others, “libertarian child” and “anarchist child”) alongside the more traditional religious labels — as well they should. Atheism, for example, is a position every bit as intellectually inaccessible to a three-year-old as theism. Fraser is quite wrong to claim that this is an “atheist poster campaign”, and that it’s about “secular freedom”.
Having said that, it is of course possible to imagine a scenario in which belief-system-neutral campaigning against labelling and indoctrination of children tends to decrease religious belief and increase its absence, whatever one might call that: humanism, agnosticism, secularism, atheism. In the absense of labelling and indoctrination, more children might never become trapped in the first place in the intellectual cul-de-sac and emotional bind of religious belief. Much would be required of the intellectual honesty and rigour of religious parents and teachers, but if their arguments are strong, they’re no less strong when made to a sixteen-year-old than to a three-year-old, though believing so might require of them some, you know, faith.