Just How Much Control Over Their Children’s Thought Are Parents Entitled To?

In reply to yesterday’s open philosophical question whether a Swedish law banning any school, even private ones, from indoctrinating students by teaching their religious tenets as truths (with the ulterior motive of undermining Islamic schools’ abilities to radicalize their students), Mary Young makes a rigorous and eloquent case against such bans well worth highlighting (and commenting on) with this post:

I think the answer to your question comes down to a few fundamental things. To what extent do parents have the right to decide what their children should be taught? And does the country in question have some sort of legislation which protects religious freedom?

My answer to the first question is: a very, very large extent. Parents, no matter how ignorant or blind or stupid or doctrinal or whatever have a right to decide how their children are educated. In exchange for helping to perpetuate the human race, parents get to make fundamental choices in how they raise their children. If a parent wants to educate their child in a religious school, they should be allowed. Now, I don’t think that this is absolute – just extremely far reaching. If a parent wants to send their child to a school that teaches that the Holocaust never happened that is regrettable, but well within the rights of the parent. If the parent wants to teach their child to go to school and beat another child to death – that is aiding and abetting the commission of a crime and is manslaughter. I also feel that when a parent entrusts a child to a school, then they give up some of their rights as to what a child can be taught. So many parents, for example, complain that schools teach about condoms and stuff in schools and that they don’t want their children taught that. But if you want to benefit from free state education, you have to accept some of the things that will happen in public school. Similarly, if you don’t want someone teaching your child that Jesus is God, keep them out of Christian schools. Otherwise, though, I think the burden of proof should be on proving what situation is severe enough to remove a parent’s right to decide her child’s course of education and not in what situation the parent should be granted the right.

Second, is that if your legislation or constitution protects religious freedom – as the First Amendment does in the United States – then the government should not outlaw the teaching of religious doctrines in religious schools. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Considering that practicing religion and perpetuating religion is incumbent upon educating people in religion, then it is a violation of the constitution to prevent people from teaching doctrine as truth in religious schools. If, however, the state in question doesn’t have any laws practicing the exercise of religion, then perhaps it is OK. But I think that most western countries recognize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of which Article 18 discusses the right to practice religion as being a fundamental human right.

Schools based around schools of thought have existed since the ancient world and I don’t see how a government can justify removing a private school’s ability to perpetuate a viewpoint. So long as the students are taught the same basic skills in reading, science, writing, mathematics, etc. that are part of the national standard, there should be no reason to impose upon the curricula in those schools.

This is also an impractical move. Perhaps there are no historians of religion in Sweden, but anyone with any knowledge of the history of religion should know that if there is one way to inspire growth in a religion it is to persecute it. Outlaw the teaching of doctrine in religious schools and the schools will teach it anyway. Except instead of it being the class that 90% of the students sleep through, it will be coercive and a martyristic (word?) practice of a fundamental human right. It will become scary and interesting, much like it was for the first students who were subversively taught evolution, and it will become more popular. This December the Westboro Baptist Church came to protest my Catholic high school for being filled with “fag lovers and pedophile priests.” When I went to school hearing “you’re a f**king fag” ten times a day was normal and hearing people talk about how “gay” it was that we had to go to mass and learn religion was common. But as soon as an outside source threw hate speech at the school and questioned the school’s ability to practice it’s Catholicism, suddenly all the students are “United Against Hate” and vehemently interested in the outward Catholicism of the school. The fervor will die as the memory of the visit from the Westboro Baptist Church dies, but it is one small instance of how persecution fuels participation. If you outlaw religious schools then students will meet in private. Parents will begin to home school but in reality they will send their children off to a religious institution. It is what my own parents would have done if the same situation happened in America and it is exactly what I would do with my own children.

So if the goal is to stop the spread of radical Islam then I have a feeling it’s going to create more heroes and martyrs than apostates.

Which leads to my question: when IS it right to limit someone’s human rights? If people have a right to think, feel and believe according to their own consciences, at what point are you allowed to curtail that? When is it moral to infringe upon that right? If the answer is, “I’m afraid of Muslims taking over” then I think you have to examine how committed you actually are to human rights. If you are only committed to human rights insofar as you’re not afraid of other people, then you aren’t committed at all. There are ways to stamp out the violent actions of radical Islam without stamping out people’s right to practice religion.

Europe is becoming rapidly more secularized as the years go by which is curious because it has vastly growing fundamentalist Islamic sects growing within it. But a great social scientist (whose name I don’t know) showed that the religions which thrive the most are the ones which are the most counter-cultural and when you create a culture which makes religious people “other” and seem stupid or morally evil and uninformed, you open the door for zealous fundamentalist sects whose goal is to oppose the very culture you are trying to protect.

There is a reason people preach tolerance and that is because when people feel free to be the people they want to be (obviously not absolutely but within reason), they don’t feel the need to attack other people for being who they are. I can see this in my own behavior. I think I am generally tolerant of other people and what they believe, but once I heard an uninformed Methodist unintelligently bashing Catholicism and I pounced on her. I normally feel no real call to Catholic apologetics but in that instance I did. Why? Because she made the space I was in uncomfortable for me to be who I am. It is human nature.

So in conclusion my answer is that it is unjust to outlaw the teaching of religious doctrine in private religious school – unjust and an overall bad call.

I came close to saying “‘Nuff Said” again to Mary’s remarks here, but remarkably thorough, incisive, and well written as they are (and as much as they make the case she should start her own blog already!), I do want to raise the question to the readership whether parents really should be seen to having a right to as near absolute control over what their children are exposed to as she insists they do.  Even as she concedes they need to tolerate exposure to safe sex education if they take advantage of public education, the question still remains whether it is fair to children for their parents to control their thought to such an extent as to send them to a school that has indoctrination as one of its aims?

Is it fair for parents to presume the right of prejudicing their children to such an extent where not only are the children exposed to religion in the home and places of worship, as are obvious rights, but even in their formal education they are isolated from having any space to think outside their parents’ faith?   Or at least from their parents’ hostility to established facts of science (like evolution!), from their parents’ horrific racist beliefs (like Holocaust denial!), and from their parents’ homophobia (which come with insidious threats of hell in the hereafter and misery on Earth!).

And if Mary is to be consistent, then why should she accept the right of public schools to enforce secular policies about sex education, condom use, evolution-teaching, etc. when many poor parents who would otherwise seek sexual ignorance and creationism for their kids are stuck sending their kids to public schools?  Are vouchers for private schools necessary to accommodate some parents’ religious needs to fight scientific education and sexual health and awareness in their kids?  And if those vouchers do happen, then how is this not state funded indoctrination?  Just how much should the state accommodate irrational, dogmatic, and authoritarian beliefs and values among the religious, beyond just not interfering with free assembly and speech outside of people’s roles as executors of public offices?

I question whether this nearly absolutist view of parents’ rightful control over their children’s minds—though extremely common in America to the point of being an axiom—is not a prejudice which deserves serious questioning.  I pose that question to you to consider in the comments, along with the rest of Mary’s powerful case.

Richard Dawkins makes a related, lengthy case against state funded faith schools in Britain in a documentary you can watch here.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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