This morning, my Facebook feed (that treasure-trove of reflective material) provided me with this article which poses the question “Is religion good for children?” The writer is a gentleman named Mark Joseph Stern, who covers “science, the law, and LBGTQ issues” for the online magazine Slate.
It’s a good thing Mr. Stern covers those areas, and not (usually) religious affairs, because this venture into the field gives evidence that his understanding of religion fits into the eye of a needle with some room to spare. He cites a Yale University study that “proves” children who are raised in “religious” environments have less grasp of reality than those who are purely “secular”. (He also claims that taking your kids to church is the “default” position in the United States, but seems unaware that this is rapidly moving toward untruth.) Stern concludes with the bold statement that going to church may make children more “docile, obliging and credulous”, but it doesn’t make them “better people.”
He admits that the study was of children aged 3-6 years of age, a group whose ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy is perhaps tenuous at best. He also (by his own admission) lumps “some form of Christianity” with “religion” in its full extent. The findings cited seem skewed toward a very Biblically-literal version of Christianity, and toward those denominations where intellectual inquiry concerning the (scientific and historical) “truth” of scripture is inadmissible, and punishable by eternal hellfire. Furthermore, his claim (not out of the Yale study) is that in many religious households, family relationships and especially parental authority are so sacralized that children will be reluctant to make claims about reality that might be contrary to their parents’ views.
Three to six year olds might be defiant, but whether religious or not, they are rarely in a position to challenge the world-view their parents have imposed on them. And at that age, we really do not know what does or doesn’t make them “better people”.
What, I do know, as a fairly serious scholar of religion, is that anything that squeezes the entire phenomenon of “religion” into a fairly narrow segment of one of the world’s great religions, is that “religion” is not one thing. And I think a responsibility which flows from that knowledge is to make a differentiation, not based on religious groupings (such as Christianity, Islam, or Judaism), but on something much simpler and important.
Is it good religion, or is it bad religion?
Because good religion–in whatever tradition–will help us to become “better” people. I would hope that Mr. Stern and I would agree that “better” people are those who are realistic about their proper place in the universe, and therefore more compassionate, resourceful, inquisitive. I would hope that the stories–and most progressive Christians at least realize that the Bible is made of stories that perhaps have a basis in “fact”, but are heavily embellished to make their points–on which religious belief and action are based help us cope better with whatever good or ill life flings in our direction.
Bad religion doesn’t do that.
As to his claim that most religions are founded on a “miracle” story, or some kind of fantasy, I would counter that most are founded on the life of some exceptional human figure. At least, Christianity and Islam can claim this; Judaism might more be founded on a collective character (Moses may not have been one person, but a composite). Miracle may be “read back” onto that character to solidify the exalted nature of his personality.
The question of what “miracle” means also has to be raised. Usually, it is said that a “miracle” has occurred when there is no scientific or natural explanation for an occurrence. But is it not equally miraculous when social convention is turned on its head, as it seems to have been the case with Mary’s conception of Jesus? Something “miraculous” happened, but it may not have been a biological anomaly.
We can’t judge whether religion is good or bad for kids who have not progressed past first grade. Does it make them into better adults–more compassionate, thoughtful, realistic, inquisitive–or the opposite?
And that is not dependent on the dichotomy between “religious” versus “secular” upbringing. It is whether the religious or secular upbringing is good or bad. And either religious or secular can be good or bad.