In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins comes out against the use of religious labels for children, arguing that we should find phrases such as “Christian child” and “Muslim child” just as bizarre and inappropriate as, say, “liberal child,” “Keynesian child” or “secular humanist child.” To describe children in religious terms is to label them “with the cosmic and theological opinions of their parents” — which is surely just as silly and offensive as ascribing to them age-inappropriate political or economic opinions, right? Dawkins chalks it all up to “the weirdly privileged status of religion.”
But wait a minute — do people really ascribe cosmic and theological opinions to young children? Although the act of writing this sentence will make it untrue, Google currently returns zero hits for “monotheist child,” zero hits for “Thomist child,” zero hits for “dualist child,” and zero hits for “premillennialist child.” Why? Because these are actually labels for theological opinions — as opposed to “Catholic child” and “Jewish child,” which are labels for group membership. Very young children might not be capable of having coherent opinions about complex topics, but they are certainly capable of group membership, whether in a formal organization like the Roman Catholic Church or a cultural entity like Judaism. Most people will accept group labels for children, even secular ones like “American citizen” or “Cub Scout,” and will balk at opinion labels, even religious ones like “monotheist.” There doesn’t seem to be any double standard at work here.
So I don’t see anything wrong with mentioning what religion a child belongs to. Of course there’s a case to be made that children ought not to be recruited into religious groups, but the fact is that they are, so we might as well call a spade a spade. Better to acknowledge the true state of affairs — that nearly every religious group in the world recruits children, especially children born to group members — than to deal in prissy euphemisms like “a child of Catholic parents.”
Actually, I have a hard time getting all indignant about parents indoctrinating their children. (Dawkins, with his characteristic tact, proclaims it equivalent to, if not worse than, child abuse.) If you really believe that something is true and important, then of course you’re going to want to teach it to your children. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you. I would question the patriotism of any parents who said, “We both love our country, but we’ve decided not to raise Junior as a citizen. When he’s old enough, he can decide for himself which country he wants to be loyal to.” I’d question the morality of any parents who chose not to give their children any moral guidance, leaving them to “decide for themselves.” And I’d question the religious seriousness of any parents who chose not to indoctrinate their children. I can’t get behind the idea that you’re free to believe whatever crazy thing you like but that you mustn’t teach it to your children.