I have two friends—one raised Jewish and one raised Catholic—who both usually introduce themselves as people “recovering” from their childhood religions.
“Hi,” my friend Abner always says when he meets someone for the first time. “I’m Abner, and I’m a recovering Catholic.”
You’ve probably heard that kind of thing before. It generally indicates that people believe their early childhood religious experiences left them with some psychological scars, lasting spiritual issues, or even serious trauma—but now, as adults, they’re trying to grow beyond the religious limitations their parents or their priests tried to impose upon them as children.
So I asked both of them: “OK, what are you trying to recover from?”
One said “Guilt, shame, and moral compulsion.” The other one told me “A lifetime of indoctrination, which made it hard for me to think for myself.”
When we raise children in one religious tradition from birth, and insist that they follow it just as we do, it usually seeps deeply into the child’s consciousness, for better or worse. But does it ultimately benefit the child later in life? When we raise children to believe in only one Faith, does it hamper or help them?
Many people say that their religious upbringing, especially if they were raised in fundamentalist or particularly strict ways, scarred them psychologically, hindered them from developing into healthy adults and caused high levels of guilt, shame and hypocrisy. In fact, some even believe that early childhood religious indoctrination is tantamount to child abuse. The well-known atheist philosopher Richard Dawkins made that point when he said: “What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe. That’s child abuse.”
That’s not a new idea. Almost two hundred years ago, the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer summarized the same basic concept:
If, in early childhood, certain fundamental views and doctrines are paraded with unusual solemnity, and an air of the greatest earnestness never before visible in anything else; if, at the same time, the possibility of a doubt about them be completely passed over, or touched upon only to indicate that doubt is the first step to eternal perdition, the resulting impression will be so deep that, as a rule, that is, in almost every case, doubt about them will be almost as impossible as doubt about one’s own existence. – On Religion: A Dialogue
It might surprise you to learn that the teachings of the Baha’i Faith say something quite similar:
Another new principle revealed by Baha’u’llah is the injunction to investigate truth—that is to say, no man should blindly follow his ancestors and forefathers. Nay, each must see with his own eyes, hear with his own ears and investigate the truth himself in order that he may follow the truth instead of blind acquiescence and imitation of ancestral beliefs. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 454.
Let’s say, then, that you have little ones now, or would like to start a family at some point. Do you bring those impressionable small children up in a religion, do you teach them about all religions and let them choose for themselves, or do you teach them no religion at all?
Abdu’l-Baha, the Baha’i exemplar, suggested the middle way between those divergent options:
While the children are yet in their infancy feed them from the breast of heavenly grace, foster them in the cradle of all excellence, rear them in the embrace of bounty. Give them the advantage of every useful kind of knowledge. Let them share in every new and rare and wondrous craft and art. Bring them up to work and strive, and accustom them to hardship. Teach them to dedicate their lives to matters of great import, and inspire them to undertake studies that will benefit mankind. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 128-129.
What does it mean to feed your children “from the breast of heavenly grace”? For Baha’is it means giving children a solid spiritual foundation from the very beginning of their lives:
Schools must first train the children in the principles of religion, so that the Promise and the Threat recorded in the Books of God may prevent them from the things forbidden and adorn them with the mantle of the commandments; but this in such a measure that it may not injure the children by resulting in ignorant fanaticism and bigotry. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 68.
… blind imitation of the past will stunt the mind. But once every soul inquireth into truth, society will be freed from the darkness of continually repeating the past. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 248.
Among the safeguards of the Holy Faith is the training of children, and this is among the weightiest of principles in all the Divine Teachings. Thus from the very beginning mothers must rear their infants in the cradle of good morals—for it is the mothers who are the first educators—so that, when the child cometh to maturity, he will prove to be endowed with all the virtues and qualities that are worthy of praise.
And further, according to the Divine commandments, every child must learn reading and writing, and acquire such branches of knowledge as are useful and necessary, as well as learning an art or skill. The utmost care must be devoted to these matters; any neglect of them, any failure to act on them, is not permissible. …
The purport is this, that to train the character of humankind is one of the weightiest commandments of God, and the influence of such training is the same as that which the sun exerteth over tree and fruit. Children must be most carefully watched over, protected and trained; in such consisteth true parenthood and parental mercy. – Abdu’l-Baha, From a tablet translated from the Persian.
This unique Baha’i approach to spiritual parenting, which focuses on rearing and educating each child by teaching them the deep spiritual truths common to all religions—but not by using force, coercion or indoctrination—allows children, once they reach the age of maturity, to make their own decisions:
Unlike the children of some other religions, Baha’i children do not automatically inherit the Faith of their parents. However, the parents are responsible for the upbringing and spiritual welfare of their children … – The Universal House of Justice, to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom, 29 July 1982.
This approach, which balances the Baha’i principles of the independent investigation of truth and non-coercion in spiritual matters with the necessity to give children an early grounding in spirituality and morality, strikes a healthy equilibrium between the rights of the child, the parents and society itself.