Should we, religious Malaysians, indoctrinate or teach our children religion or protect them from it?

We as parents want the best for our children. We strive hard to provide the resources and opportunities to our children to discover and build up their strengths. Our hope is that our children become meaningful contributors to the society, who make full use of their lives to become a positive change and influence on others and on the society, country, and even the world.

One skill our children need to master is in critical thinking. Few parents would disagree on this. But most parents have an incomplete or erroneous understanding about critical thinking. Critical thinking is not merely about acquiring knowledge, but also, in large part, about the process of analyzing the acquired knowledge. This skill involves questioning ideas, even those that are accepted as norm. Critical thinking involves breaking down a problem into simpler chunks to be analyzed. It also involves looking at a problem from different perspectives and coming up with good solutions.

Critical thinking is an essential skills our children must muster, without which our children have difficulty distinguishing facts from nonsense and a poor understanding of the world and their surroundings (c) Creativa Images @ fotolia.com.

Critical thinking is an essential skill our children must muster, failing which our children have difficulty in distinguishing facts from nonsense, reality from fiction, and have a poor understanding of their surroundings and the world (c) Creativa Images @ fotolia.com.

Critical thinkers are open-minded, who are mindful of alternatives, curious, well-informed, and good judges of credibility. Such thinkers may be open-minded, but they are also skeptical. They are cautious about immediately accepting norms, assumptions, and reasons about a given stance or a belief system. They are cautious about drawing any conclusions without rational reasoning first.

Critical thinking cannot be reconciled with religious thinking because the latter involves accepting superstitions (such as “magical events”) that violate physical laws and causal relationships.

So, though we as parents say we want our children to think critically, yet many of us allow religious beliefs to be implanted and inculcated into our children, often with our blessings. In other words, we parents may be skeptical and protective of our children’s minds when it involves unusual claims, ideas, or hype, yet religion often gets a free pass to influence our children. Why is that?

Wendy Thomas Russell, author of “Relax, It’s Just God”, says this is because many of us look to religion for answers to four fundamental questions about life, which are: 1) how did the world come to be, 2) what happens when we die, 3) how should we behave, and 4) why do bad things happen? In other words, many of us turn to religion to answer questions related to the purpose in life, morality, and justice.

"Relax, It's Just God" by Wendy T. Russell discusses on what parents should do about teaching religion to their children.

“Relax, It’s Just God” by Wendy T. Russell discusses on what parents should do about teaching religion to their children.

And we Malaysians are among the most religious in the world. About 80% of us are religious, and nearly two-thirds of those religious are fundamentalists: people who adamant that their religion is the one (and only one) true religion. And while people in the rest of the world would generally become less religious as they grow older, we Malaysians are religiously devout throughout our lives.

We Malaysians are highly religious, among the highest in the world. 80% of us are religious and two-thirds of the religious are fundamentalists. And religion is central to many Malaysian lives. (c) Tan Kian Khoon @ fotolia.com

We Malaysians are highly religious, among the highest in the world. 80% of us are religious and two-thirds of the religious are fundamentalists. And religion is central to many Malaysian lives. (c) Tan Kian Khoon @ fotolia.com

There is a risk children brought up in a pious religious background may affect their critical thinking skills. Scientific studies, in particular by Corriveau and her research team in 2015, have shown that there exist differences in the perception of reality between religious and secular children (below 6 years). Secular children were reported to have a keener sense of reality, who, for instance, understood that magical events in any story they read could never happen in reality. In contrast, religious children had more difficulty differentiating reality from fiction. For instance, they were more receptive that magical events in stories they read, whether these stories had any religious background, could actually happen in real life.

Nonetheless, one important caveat from such studies is all children they studied were all aged below 6 years. Children’s perceptions of reality, including those from religious background, would likely improve as the children develop more complex critical thinking skills, especially with increasing education in science at schools.

No doubt that even religious parents do value critical thinking in their children, but these parents would not hesitate to expose their children, even at a very young age, to religion. And the religion to which these children are exposed is very often only a single religion – their parents’ religion. Rarely do religious parents  expose their children to other religions. Religious parents indoctrinate their children, whether wittingly or unwittingly, that their religion is the only one worth believing. All other religions are often claimed to be false, inferior, or even evil and thus should be avoided.

Many religious parents expose and teach only one religion to their children, leading to a myopic understanding of other people from other faiths (and those without any) (c) Distinctive Images @ fotolia.com.

Many religious parents expose and teach only one religion to their children, leading to a myopic understanding of other people from other faiths (and those without any) (c) Distinctive Images @ fotolia.com

Parents who are non-religious often also expose their children to religion. These parents fear that if their children are not taught about religion, then their children risk leading immoral, wasteful, and aimless lives. They also fear that depriving their children of religion could deprive their children of spiritual guidance and comfort in times of trouble.

At the other end of the extreme, secular or atheist parents fear of indoctrinating their children with religion, or that teaching religion to their children would backfire by making their children religious instead and believe in superstitions at the cost of rational thinking. So, some atheist parents completely shield their children from religion, having no patience and zero tolerance—a “religion blackout”—on any religious ideas.

Should we instead protect our children from superstitious, religious thinking? (c) Thomas Perkins @ fotolia.com

Should we instead protect our children from superstitious, religious thinking? (c) Thomas Perkins @ fotolia.com

So, what are we as parents to do?

Regardless whether we are religious, our children should still be taught religion, but not just on a single religion but on a variety of them. The idea of teaching our children religion is not to convert our children to a particular religion but to develop religious literacy in our children, that our children have a much greater understanding about how religion plays an important role, past and present, in the society, arts, media, music, literature, politics, and building architecture.

By having greater religious literacy, our children learn about differences between groups of people and why people behave as they do. Through greater religious literacy, our children learn about tolerance and appreciation on human differences. Religion may not be important to us or to our children on a personal level, but it is important to some people, so it is important our children understand this, regardless whether our children believe in any of their religious teachings.

Through greater religious literacy, our children would also better understand what drives religious violence, hatred, racism, intolerance, sexism, and terrorism in the world today. If our children are ignorant about religions or are myopic to only a single viewpoint of one religion, then it is difficult to get our children to understand why things happen as they do in the society and world.

So, yes, we should teach religion – not just one but many religions – to our children. But we as parents need to do this on our own, without relying on others or hoping the Malaysian government would suddenly become progressive to allow the teaching of comparative religions at schools. The latter, even if well-intended to promote greater tolerance and harmony among people, would probably be abused by certain people who would indoctrinate our children. Recall that many Malaysians are highly religious, and it is easy to see how a well-meaning policy of teaching multiple religions at schools would lead to abuse, discrimination, and bias by teachers with their religious and personal agendas.

As Wendy Russell, in her book “Relax, It’s Just God”, says, “Religion isn’t rocket science.” Every parent, regardless of religiosity (or lack of it) is able to impart the generalities about any religion: on its beliefs, traditions, practices, and celebrations. Such information can easily be obtained from the web. Children books about religions of the world, free from judgement, are also available, such as those listed in Wendy Russell’s book.

Our children are our precious gifts. But our children should not be miniature versions of us but who would blossom into mature and independent individuals, capable of using critical thinking based on reason to decide for themselves on their belief system. Our children should derive their conclusions about their beliefs without coercion, indoctrination, or having been force-fed by us with our own belief systems. But to achieve such goals, our children’s critical thinking skills need to be honed. Having poor critical thinking means our children will have difficulty separating facts from nonsense or too accepting of all sorts of beliefs including dubious ones.

Inculcate a strong critical thinking based on reason in our children. Teach them to think, reason, and question everything (c) DragonImages @ fotolia.com.

Inculcate a strong critical thinking based on reason in our children. Teach them to think, reason, and question everything, even accepted norms. Critical thinking is a priceless gift we can endow our children (c) DragonImages @ fotolia.com.

As the late Carl Sagan said, “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out”.

References

  1. Corriveau, K.H., Chen, E.E., Harris, P.L. 2015. Judgments about fact and fiction by children from religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Cognitive Science, 39: 353-382.
  2. Russell, W.T. 2015. Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. Brown Paper Press, California.
  3. Stern, M.J. 2014. Is religion good for children? The Slate (link).

 

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Comments

  1. Good article. I disagree on the points to teach kids with various religion. What more important for adults to respect other religions. Kids were not to be blame because the one who shape them were their parents. I believe all religions taught their worshipper in morality, justice and respect other religions. The hatred, extremism and violence are just the propaganda of the media to mind control people to believe that religions to be blame.
    Those problem arise because of the people itself regardless of what religions they believe. Nowadays I believe most of the extremism, violence always be related to one religions only. Why it happens? only gods knows

    • Teaching about religions does not mean conversion to other religions. You are confusing between the two: head knowledge and spiritual conversion. Awareness and understanding about other religions lowers ignorance and helps us see other people’s point of view, not to mean converting to other religion or even agreeing with the dogma of other religion.

  2. The muhibah photo should be credited to a photographer in Malaysia. Sam KH Lim. Here’s his facebook page [link deleted].

    As for religion, for documentation purposes, our Malaysian government force us to determine the religion of our kids at birth. I’ve one of mine written Buddhism and the other Catholic. Well, if I’ve get to choose, I’ll prefer to leave it blank and let them decide for themselves.

    • Thanks for the photo credit. I’ve changed the photo.

      True, let our children decide what they believe, rather than forcing it upon them at birth. But of course, there are some religions that cannot be reversed.

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