Most of my friends are atheists and agnostics. Many of them are of a variety quite different from the “new atheists,” in that they are content in their disbelief, not feeling a need to berate those of us who believe in God. But I do have several friends who are antagonistic to religious belief.
One topic that comes up regularly in conversations with them is raising children. My atheist friends often tell me that they teach their children to think for themselves. Christians, in their opinion, are indoctrinating their children by teaching them the Faith. Even when I was an atheist, this double-standard seemed obvious to me.
Indoctrination or Education?
Indoctrination, in the classic religious understanding of the word, means to pass on doctrine in an authoritative way. The difference between education and the modern understanding of indoctrination is that the indoctrinated are not encouraged to critically examine the things they have been taught.
I was indoctrinated in the Catholic Faith through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) in my late twenties. My instructors did not refer to it as indoctrination though, probably due to the negative connotations the word invokes in the minds of modern people. However, I was encouraged to ask questions and think critically about what I was being taught.
Every parent educates their children. It’s one of the primary functions of parents. Part of that education includes teaching them the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood.
There may be a fair number of Christian parents who raise their children without encouraging them to think critically about their beliefs. But I’m also sure that many atheist parents poison the well when they talk to their children about God.
In a sense, one can rightfully respond to the charge of indoctrination by turning the argument back on the atheist. If a child is raised in a household where religious belief is mocked and ridiculed, the likelihood of the child approaching the topic with an open mind is significantly reduced, if not eliminated altogether.
A Different End Game
I’m certainly no expert when it comes to parenting, but my limited experience has been successful so far. I attribute this to the fact that my wife and I did encourage our daughter to think critically about the things we were teaching her. We encouraged her to ask questions and we did our best to provide the answers. She’s now a college student and as strong in her faith as we had hoped.
Granted, we approached the topic with a bias, but what parent doesn’t? Like atheist parents, our belief in what is true is important to us. But unlike atheist parents, the end game is more than knowledge or the commendable hope that our children grow up to be good people. It’s about the fate of their eternal souls.
Proverbs 27:17 says “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” This is more than just an awesome sounding metaphor. When ideas are exchanged, one can benefit by becoming more alert in their thinking.
This is the reason my wife and I always welcomed inquiry from our daughter. Not only has it sharpened her knowledge of the Faith, it has sharpened our own.
Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. –G.K. Chesterton