Even though parents would rarely admit it, they spend most of their time shaping their children. Instead of observing and trying to understand their children, parents put forward demands: "this is the paragon whom you must imitate" and "you must not be like you are." It is no wonder that such paragons often turn out to be the parents themselves. Society perceives such an attitude from parents as something quite natural: it is unclear why this may raise negative emotions. What could be alarming in children coming to resemble their parents?
In reality, however, caution is required. Children quite often come to fall under the influence of their parents' outlook and, even more often, parents unconsciously impose their attitudes onto their children. This is a natural process. On the one hand, we see children wanting to resemble their parents – their authority figures; on the other hand, parents want their children to be like them as much as possible and desire to have a lot in common with their children. Therefore, from the very beginning, parents try to instill an outlook in their children that will be conducive to maintaining harmonious relations in the future. Fortunately or unfortunately, this outlook, first and foremost, implies religion. It is this that provides people with a system or framework of more or less ready-made attitudes.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations in 1989, declared those fundamental rights which all children must enjoy worldwide. According to the convention, among other things, the right of a child to have freedom of thought and religion must be respected. But since the upbringing of children is mainly regarded to be the responsibility of their parents, the issue of children's religious attitudes still remains the prerogative of their parents.
The religious freedom of children has become an issue of hot debate. The book Forced into Faith: How Religion Abuses Children's Rights by Innaiah Narisett, which was published in 2009, is dedicated to this very issue. The author tries to prove that the rights of a child must include absolute freedom from religious opinion. Narisett suggests a postponement of the choice of faith until adulthood. Just like certain civil responsibilities – for example, the right to vote – can only be performed by a person having reached legal age, an analogous restriction must also be imposed in the choice of religion. Determining a system of beliefs and attitudes must wait until a person has become competent to take adult decisions. Any attitudes formed in such a way will thus not be those imposed by an individual's parents, but will be the result of independent choice.
Narisett provides numerous examples of the negative consequences that religious indoctrination at a young age might have. Among such consequences are intolerance, suspicion and aggression towards those people who share different religious opinions or do not belong to any religion. Narisett also notes that religion offers a sort of shelter for crimes committed against children, such as sexual assault, circumcision or physical assaults. Upon learning about such facts, society will want a culprit punished in the shortest possible time; however, Narisett advises society to take the simple logical step and contemplate the role religion plays in creating these problems.
It seems that the harm indoctrination may cause to a person at a young age can be of two varieties. The first is physical harm, and numerous examples can be cited to prove this. In particular, one can recall those high-profile trials that were conducted in the 1990s and the 2000s concerning instances of the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church. The other, more serious form of harm sustained by children is of a moral or psychological nature. This problem is discussed by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. Dawkins regards moral damage to be more painful, something that leaves a deep and long-lasting mark. According to Dawkins, speaking about the religious attitudes of children is absurd because children cannot realize the essence of religion.
e can say a "child of Muslim parents" or a "child of Catholic parents," but it is absurd to say a "Muslim child" or a "Catholic child." It is beyond a child's capacity to attribute themselves to any particular faith.
At first glance, the arguments of those against religious indoctrination at a young age are convincing. We, of course, could well imagine a society arranged in accordance with the opinions of Innaiah Narisett: where a specific age is considered as the beginning of adulthood and only at that age would a person be allowed to choose a religious denomination or not. What problems might we stumble into in such a case? The first problem is related to setting a specific age limit: at what age can a person be considered adult enough to be allowed to take such a difficult decision? Is it even possible to establish such an age? It would be very difficult to set any specific age requirement regarding such a personal and subjective issue as choosing a system of beliefs. But, let's assume that such an age can be established. Will the decisions of those people having reached that age be independent? We will probably just get a somewhat similar picture to that which we now have. Our families and social environment have such a great influence on our decisions that we often do not even realize that the choices we have made seldom belong to us at all.
On the other side of the divide are those people who believe that a religious upbringing is necessary for children. In contrast to Narisett, they think that by indoctrinating their children at an early age, parents are not violating their children's rights, nor are they committing moral violence or imposing their attitudes upon their children. Instead, they are merely demonstrating what they believe in and are setting an example for their children. No one can restrict a parent's right of freedom of expression, especially when it concerns their relationship with their children. Many people even regard it as a moral obligation of parents to pass down religious traditions to their children.
To some extent such attitudes contribute to the formation of harmonious relations and help to simplify daily family and social life. But this is where we come across problems. Obedient children often become victims of harm. One may recall the court case of Jehovah's Witnesses of Moscow vs. Russia as considered by the European Court of Human Rights. In 2004, the Golovinskiy District Court of Moscow took a decision to dissolve the Jehovah's Witnesses Moscow organization and to impose a permanent ban on its activities. There were several grounds for the court's decision, including the charge that the Jehovah's Witnesses encourage suicide and refuse medical treatments. According to the district court, the actions of the Jehovah's Witnesses were life- and health-threatening. This was a conclusion based on the religious literature of the Jehovah's Witnesses that prohibit blood transfusions.
What about a situation where a child of a Jehovah's Witness falls sick and the only way to save him/her is a blood transfusion? The child's parents might refuse the blood transfusion on religious grounds and the child might agree with the parents' decision because he/she is under their influence. In such a case, the situation would end with a fatal outcome.
The case of the Jehovah's Witnesses is a grave example of how a parent's outlook may harm their children. Various other problems might also arise. Some of these can be illustrated by the example of the Amish, a small religious community in the United States. The Amish live in small groups, marry only representatives of their own faith and are distinguished by their simple way of life, their plain style of dress and their rejection of modern technology and state or social assistance. Members of the Amish community themselves provide social or medical assistance to one another. The children obtain education either at home or at Amish schools, though they do not really need to apply that education much because they will go on to spend most of their lives on land cultivation.
One interesting rule the Amish have is that they have established 16 years as the age at which a teenager can decide either to be baptized and join the church or to leave home. Unfortunately, the Amish only have these two choices.
Several years ago, a reality television show called Breaking Amish was produced. It followed several Amish who had left their homes and moved to New York City. The show clearly revealed many of the problems that a closed religious community created for the young Amish: they find adapting to new environments very difficult, experience problems in establishing contacts with different people, naturally experience fear in front of strangers, and find it difficult to accept different opinions. One may assume that any child brought up in a family confined within the frames of a certain outlook would find him/herself in a similar situation when bumping into the outside world for the first time.
What is the situation in this regard in Georgia? According to the 2002 census, 84 percent of Georgia's population is Orthodox Christian. Of that amount, one might perhaps find only a few parents who would think it is best to allow their children to freely form their own religious attitudes. There is a strictly established religious environment in which we live. According to this, nationality and religious belief are actually equalized with each other, as are religious opinions and the issue of morality or immorality. This rigid environment creates a closed system and complicates any person from taking an individual decision. The environment makes him/her entirely dependent on, and afraid of, the society that he/she is a member of. Eventually, a person starts perceiving him/herself as the offspring of such a society and tries to imitate it, to look like it as much as possible and to be liked by it.
The current situation in Georgia very much resembles a photo project implemented several years ago, which, if memory serves, was called "the Dark Side of Motherly Love." Each photo featured a mother and child. As I saw it, two main types of mother were outlined in the project: a mother as an owner, and a mother who tries to project her own unrealized desires onto her child. Georgian society acts like that: as owners, mothers try to confine their children within certain limits from a very young age. The second type of mother is easy for us to understand if we recall that period when the Church first became accessible in post-Soviet Georgia and, to some extent, replaced the vacuum left by the communist party. Since that time, mothers, for whom the Church previously seemed inaccessible, started accustoming their children to that institution. They created a childhood for their children that they themselves had missed.
It is very difficult to side with either of the two positions in this debate. If we decide that we must have less influence on our children, we should be ready for the possibility of a wall emerging between parents and children because of their different opinions. If, on the other hand, we decide that raising a child according to their parents' outlook is correct, then we must also consider that each instruction given to a child will have two possible outcomes: the child will either obey it or act in contrast to it. It is, therefore, better for society to carefully consider its actions and the risks that such actions imply.