Religion and Children

by Benjamin Studebaker

Generally speaking, I’m a proponent of freedom of religion, even in cases in which the religious beliefs in question are rather extreme. I do not think the state should go about preventing people from being Amish, even though by being Amish those individuals reduce our collective economic efficiency. Being Amish is no more debilitating to our economy than many other behaviors adults routinely engage in legally, and a good deal less than some–the Amish do contribute to society, albeit in economically less efficient ways. Some individuals (typically both the very poor and the very rich) lead wholly unproductive lives. However, I’m not so sure I can take this permissive attitude in certain cases involving children.

It’s one thing for an adult to choose to be Amish. Adults ought to have intellectual autonomy for the various reasons Mill outlines in On Liberty–restricting intellectual autonomy is not only a harm to the individual whose liberty is curtailed, but a harm to wider society, which is denied the dialogue and the dynamism produced therefrom. It is good to have vibrant social discourse, even if, in the short term, this costs us some economic productivity. Vibrant deliberation is the mother of new ideas and new ways of doing things. When we silence ideas, even reactionary ideas, we impede intellectual progress, and harm our economy in the long term.

The situation is quite different, however, when we consider children. Children are not yet thought to be competent decision-makers due to the fact that their brains are not yet close to fully-developed. For this reason, we presently deny children the vote–we do not believe their political views fully-formed. If they were permitted to vote, children would likely be coerced by their parents into voting the same way they do. Children not only lack the capacity to make political decisions, but they lack sufficient independence to do so without being coerced.

Politics is a branch of philosophy, and so too is metaphysics, the study of what is. Religions are typically concerned with metaphysical questions (e.g. “Is there a god?”, “If so, what is god’s nature?”, etc.). If children are not yet competent to decide their political views and if we cannot trust their views to be developed outside coercive influences, why should we presume children are competent to decide their metaphysical views (and, consequently, their religious views)? Children lack the capacities to commit to fully-formed religious opinions, and their parents are quite likely to influence those opinions.

Most of the time, religious opinions, unlike political opinions, are merely personal. If we permit children to vote, underdeveloped political views may cause harm to others through the political process. In the religious case, children holding underdeveloped religious views usually does not lead to harm. It is typically no more beneficial or harmful to children to be brought up in one religion or another. Typically none of these religious opinions harm either the children themselves or society more broadly. For that reason, we usually let parents raise their children to believe whatever they want.

But what happens when the parents’ religious beliefs are harmful to children? For instance, the Amish reject higher education; they deem it unnecessary and immoral. Back in the 70’s, the US Supreme Court heard a case concerning this Amish belief, Wisconsin v. YoderIn that case, several Amish children were pulled out of school after 8th grade (around 14 years old) by their parents. The state of Wisconsin sued. The court ruled in favor of the Amish parents, arguing that the parents’ freedom of religion superseded the state’s interest in educating children. But what of the children’s interest in being educated?

Being Amish prevents otherwise capable citizens from being employed in a variety of fields precluded by Amish beliefs. We readily accept the decision of Amish adults not to work in those fields despite the inefficiency that creates, but it is a fundamentally dissimilar case when these Amish adults are preventing future generations of workers from having the opportunity to access those jobs. Here it is not merely the state’s economic interest that is curtailed–the children are denied equality of opportunity. Their employment options are reduced not due to any absence of capacity or willingness on their parts, but purely because it is the opinion of their parents that they ought not to work in those fields. The question of what job an individual child will have is not a question for the parents to answer, it is a question that the child answers, for it is a question bound up with the child’s interest first and foremost, not the parents’.

In the Amish case, I would argue that the state has a duty to protect children from being denied the opportunity to gain the education required to do various kinds of jobs. The state provides a greater benefit to children by protecting their opportunity than the harm it does to parents by preventing them from imposing their religious views on their children. Understandably, Amish parents are not likely to see it that way–they’re likely to see higher education as a threat to their children’s souls–but this is why the state exists, to coerce people so as to prevent them from harming others, whether knowingly or not.

In most cases, we readily recognize that religion cannot be made a cloak for harming children. If there was a popular religion that mandated that children be physically or sexually abused, or that they be denied access to modern medicine, or that they be denied access to education altogether, I suspect most of us would agree that the state not only can intervene to protect children from the dangerous views of their parents in those cases, but that the state would have a duty to do so. While infringing on a person’s equal access to opportunity is not quite so horrible as child abuse, it is also a harm. While not quite so bad as slavery, the kind of harm we see in the Amish case is roughly equivalent to the harm imposed by the Hindu caste system, in which children’s futures are decided for them without any autonomy or self-input.

It is critical to the interests of individuals that they be able to express themselves through the manner in which they live, and doing so requires that they be afforded the opportunity to live in a wide variety of meaningful ways. Amish parents rob their children of this freedom, and so harm them. The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Amish parents enabled them to harm their children in this way, and was correspondingly mistaken.

Fundamentally, the state should protect children from curtailment of their opportunity for the very same reason it protects freedom of religion for adults. We let adults practice whatever religious beliefs they wish (insofar as those beliefs do not cause harm to others) so as to allow them to live their lives authentically, in accordance with who they are and what they believe. We ought to protect children’s opportunity for the very same reason.