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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As the late Carl Sagan said, “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out”.
- 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.
- 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.
- Stern, M.J. 2014. Is religion good for children? The Slate (link).