Thursday, February 5, 2015

Children cannot make up their own minds about religion?


Jason Stubblefield on FirstThings.com asks Should Children Make Up Their Own Minds About Religion?. First Things is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, an organization created "to confront the ideology of secularism".

Jason suggests our belief in the ability of children to freely choose their own religion is an erroneous idea inherited from the Enlightenments faith in unbiased, neutral reason. All reason, we are told, is tradition based and it is only from living within certain customs and practices that children can learn the grammar necessary to reason within that tradition. Allowing children to make up their own minds "implicitly makes up their minds for them, because it teaches them that they have the sort of minds that Enlightenment rationality assumes. It teaches them that their thinking comes before God, rather than the other way around." Parents should therefore teach children the gospel for it is both true and good parenting.

Arguments based around tradition evolved in England in opposition to the French revolution and the subsequent dominance of French rationalism over the European continent. Tradition was again deployed to counter the utilitarianism of 20th century Communism and even to ward off the occasional American pragmatist. In what follows I lump both utilitarianism and pragmatism into the same bucket as rationalism.

Rationalism assumes humans are goal-seeking beings; that we pursue independently premeditated goals whether the goal is a result to be achieved or an activity to be enjoyed. It further assumes the necessary means to reach a goal are available and achievable. These steps are taken before the activity has begun and are only possible thanks to the universal human facility of reason,

Tradition attacks rationalism for being, at best, a deficient theory of human behaviour with no basis in reality. A rationalists conception of human action deals with a set of rules or principles or procedures which can be formulated in written form. But there is a second form of knowledge, inseparable from the first, that can be called practical knowledge as it exists only in use, is not reflective and cannot be formulated in rules. It is the dismissal of practical, tradition based knowledge that renders rationalism such a caricature of human conduct. End goals can never be solely chosen prior to an activity because it is only within the tradition of an activity that a person gains the abstract and practical knowledge necessary to identify goals and the means to reach them. Rationalism therefore see no obstacles to, say, imposing federal democracy in Iraq where no such tradition has ever existed or in radially changing a personal lifestyle by following rational exercise goals and motivation techniques.

Arguments from tradition are worth taking seriously as very arrow, specific arguments targeting rationalism. However the FirstThings article falls into the common conservative trap of turning such arguments into post-modern cultural relativism:
There is no such thing as neutral or unbiased reason, because all reason springs from a system of practices and beliefs that make reasoning possible. This is true in systems ranging from Christianity to Buddhism to the sciences. In all these traditions, people learn to reason by a process of initiation—by living within the practices and beliefs of those traditions. It is only after they have learned the grammar of a particular tradition that they are able to begin reasoning within it.
The question, then, isn’t whether kids are free to make up their own minds about religion with independent objectivity. Rather, the question is which tradition of rationality is shaping children’s reasoning.
The author's tradition of rationality apparently involves making universal truth claims such as "the gospel is truth" and "there is no such thing as neutral or unbiased reason" while simultaneously stating the reasoning behind such claims are dependent upon cultural tradition. Are we to understand Christianity is legitimately both true and false depending on the 'grammar' involved? Or perhaps he believes truth can be obtained regardless of the tradition involved. If so, it is rather irrelevant which tradition of rationality influences our children.
Letting kids make up their minds about religion implicitly makes up their minds for them, because it teaches them that they have the sort of minds that Enlightenment rationality assumes. It teaches them that their thinking comes before God, rather than the other way around. It reverses St. Anselm’s dictum “faith seeking understanding,” so that understanding seeks whatever faith it likes, or no faith at all. It renders human reason an impartial arbiter, rather than the imprint of the God who ordered all creation, who is above all and in all, who fashioned the minds with which we think.
We are told in typically offhand dogmatic fashion that god imprinted us with knowledge of itself and fashioned our minds as capable of detecting its works through the natural order. Ordinarily this line is tossed out as proof that atheists and heathens are aware of god but reject him out of anger or pride. Here however it completely undermines the entire argument as it points towards neutral, unbiased reason capable of deducing the existence of a creator God through natural law independent of cultural tradition.
We make our children eat their vegetables. We make them brush their teeth. Let’s make them go to church. In doing so, we will be no more guilty of indoctrination than the parents who let their kids “make up” their own minds about religion, because all reason is tradition-based. After all, we Christians do not think that the Gospel is merely a matter of personal opinion. We believe it is true. 
How many parents would willingly allow their children to spend day after day reciting advertising slogans in classrooms? How many would dress up to bring their children to the local shopping mall to listen with respectful unquestioning silence to a sales pitch?  Not very many I would hope. Yet it happens every day and every week in faith schools and churches around the world. This is not simply installing a good habit like daily teeth brushing. This is outright indoctrination through repetition and emotional anchoring.  Hiding behind cultural relativism is nothing but a failed obfuscation.

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