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Childhood — a time of innocence and indoctrination

By Glen Coulton - posted Friday, 23 April 2010

A child born to two ethnic Vietnamese parents is Vietnamese. No argument. The parents don’t have to teach the child, or anyone else, that she is Vietnamese; she just is. It’s different with religion but many people can’t get their heads around that fact.

For years in Ireland, Catholic and Protestant parents assumed that their children were little Catholics and little Protestants, and made sure the children knew what they were. But they weren’t little Catholics and little Protestants. They were little children, too young to understand what their parents were doing to them and defenceless to protest if they had been old enough.

By assigning their children a religion and insisting they subscribe to its unverifiable “truths”, the parents guaranteed a continuous supply of brainwashed young warriors eager to make and throw the bombs needed to sustain the hate-inspired (but possibly much enjoyed) “troubles”. That might not have been the parents’ motive, but it was their accomplishment.


You could replace “Ireland” with any number of other theatres of religious hatred in the world, Christian or otherwise, and identify the same outcome.

We don’t have pre-pubescent liberals, conservatives, monetarists or anarchists. We know children have no need for or interest in fitting themselves up with such labels; and even if they had both, they would lack the knowledge and experience to assess the numerous labels available. So why do adults press religious labels on children who have no need of them and no capacity to make their own judgments about them? The answer surely has more to do with the adults’ insecurity than the children’s needs and rights.

Is requiring children to adopt the religious beliefs of their parents not akin to child abuse? We justify requiring them to accept the theory of gravity and the right of our elected government to make laws because our species has no doubt (or very little) that these beliefs are good and credible. There is grave doubt about most of the fundamental beliefs of all religions, Christian and non Christian alike. How can a society countenance the forced feeding to immature minds of “beliefs” that many people think are bogus because they cannot be supported by replicable, verifiable evidence? And not just bogus but debilitating?

We’ve recently heard from Malaysia that the husband in a devout Hindu family, without a word of warning to his wife and three children, converted himself and his children to Islam in order to gain access to the Sharia Law-sympathetic family court which, as he had anticipated, awarded him custody of the children. His wife, not being a Muslim, was not even allowed to attend the hearing, let alone protest it. A civil court has since overturned the family court’s decision and the Malaysian cabinet is considering legislation to require the consent of both parents before their children’s religion can be changed. Both parents? What about the consent of the children?

In Australia , a mother had to re-label her religion-free Kindergarten-aged daughter as “Anglican” to protect her from having to sit alone in a room while the other children had their special religious instruction (SRI). Public schools have to ensure that religion-free children do nothing educational or enjoyable while the labelled children are doing SRI in case the labelled ones decide that they’d rather join the unlabelled. The Catholic and Anglican archbishops of Sydney, and their mouthpieces, are furiously lobbying the State Government in a naked attempt to sabotage the experimental course in ethics and critical thinking being trialled in a handful of schools with consenting “no religion” children”. They fear that if the course gains a foothold, it will attract students away from the proselytising SRI courses their churches have for a hundred years been allowed to intrude into what is supposedly a free and secular public education system.

A sensible country highlights the damage that smoking and binge drinking do and encourages its citizens to regard them as socially unacceptable. A courageous and sensible country would do the same with the religious labelling of little children. Here are some steps it could take:

  1. Exclude people under the voting age from all statistics about religious affiliation.
  2. Remove all mention of the religion of pre-voting age children from all government forms including the census.
  3. Ban SRI in all public schools.
  4. Ban all other mechanisms for inculcating religious belief in all public schools and eventually in all schools.
  5. In their place, implement a compulsory primary school course in ethics, critical thinking and comparative religion that will ensure that all children in Australian schools learn     a. the beliefs that define each major world religion and the influence of its holy books on the belief, culture and literature of its followers,
        b. the moral rights and responsibilities of all Australians towards each other, their country and the world at large,
        c. a core set of ethical principles.

And let us hope that in the not too distant future, whenever two or more religions are gathered together in education’s name, all claiming to speak the truth, children will know that, at most, one of them is preaching it.


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About the Author

After attending small country Catholic schools and Armidale teachers’ College (NSW), Glen Coulton taught in government primary and secondary schools for eighteen years. In 1975, he was “temporarily” deployed to a HO position (curriculum and assessment) from which he never escaped despite being restructured out of existence twice. A period spent studying Item Response Theory (Rasch analysis) with Ben Wright at the University of Chicago led eventually to his involvement with the design and implementation of the NSW Basic Skills Testing Program whose successors include NAPLAN. He retired in 1994 and now spends his time taking and presenting courses with the Lake Macquarie University of the Third Age (U3A) and encouraging recorder playing.

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