Children of Faith

Guest article by Muhammad al-Hakeem, a writer in Egypt.

Lump it or like it, but atheists are quite good for the intellectual integrity of our species. Not only are they an indispensable component of its philosophical spectrum, but they also add sobering talking points to perennial debates on human social issues from their disparate perspective. I do not agree with Richard Dawkins that a world without religion is a better one (after John Lennon), or that the existence of God is an exactly scientific question whose answer is that it is improbable. How living organisms were created was the only thing I thought I could ever concur on with a twenty-first-century atheist. Well, times change, and so do people and their stances, although loathing pig-headed knuckleheads has and will remain my stance in the foreseeable future.

Headlines in 2013 of Dawkins’ raving about indoctrination of children as child abuse took me aback as little more than the delirium of an ageing New Atheist. What I read, however, in the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion apropos of this matter, especially that I read it amid my quasi-crisis of faith, gave me pause for thought. “And I never tire of drawing attention to society’s tacit acceptance of the labelling of small children with the religious opinions of their parents,” wrote Dawkins. “Atheists need to raise their own consciousness of the anomaly: religious opinion is the one kind of parental opinion that—by almost universal consent—can be fastened upon children who are, in truth, too young to know what their opinion really is. There is no such thing as a Christian child: only a child of Christian parents. Seize every opportunity to ram it home.”

Indeed, the sheer absurdity of the idea of religiously affiliated children cannot be put bluntly enough, and is perhaps most salient in Egypt, a postcolonial Muslim-majority nation state bar none that is still in limbo between secularism and Islamic ruling and bent on maintaining its religious bipartisanship. Just because a baby came out of the birth canal of a Muslim female who had been impregnated by a Muslim male, “Islam” is put in its birth certificate and subsequent identity card as its “religion.” The azan is whispered into its ear and circumcision is done within seven days. The child will be inculcated with such convictions as that the world was created by one God, that a certain Arab man was His last prophet, and that the Quran is the final revelation. At least the first and last three chapters of the holy book, as well as certain moves to be done and phrases to be uttered five times a day and in the mosque on Friday, will be seared on its mind indefinitely. At school, the child will be taught a subject that answers to “Islamic religious upbringing.” (In my own case, one of the most grating, albeit laughable, things in this regard was Mum’s unhinged superstitious belief in the evil eye, to the extent that all my extended family are told that I have enrolled into the faculty of sciences instead of medical college, the most enviable mundane achievement in Egypt.)

Just because another baby, perhaps just a few metres away next door or at hospital, emerged from between the legs of a Christian female who had been fecundated by a Christian male, “Christianity” is put in its birth certificate and subsequent identity card as its “religion.” The baby is baptized and brought along to mass. The parents and the “Christian religious upbringing” subject will nag the child about its inherently sinful nature, asseverating that it can attain salvation only by believing in the Word who was made flesh 2000 years ago, and that the Arab prophet in whom its “Muslim” spars believe was a false one aided and abetted by Satan himself. If “Christian” schoolchildren are the minority in the class, they would be taken to another classroom come the period of “religious upbringing.” You might be wondering if I ever wondered about where they used to go at that time. Well, I remember asking one of them, who would have told me even whatever Christian theology they were learning from that book with him had it not been for a watchful teacher sworn to preserving Egypt’s religious stalemate.

In both cases, although the theory of evolution is taught without qualms in both national and foreign secondary schools (withstanding to this day the popular fairy tale that it has been discarded in the West but is somehow cleaved to only by Islamic countries), children are most probably instilled with visceral antipathy to an utterly parochial travesty of it. And that is to say nothing of the debacle that is the “religious upbringing” subject. Being a mandatory subject in all twelve school years that nonetheless does not share in the final total score, with an exam comprised chiefly of so-called common-knowledge questions answerable by anyone with a nodding acquaintance of standard Arabic, it need only be boned up on on the night before the exam. I am told the reason that it is never allocated marks in the total score is that the “Christian religious upbringing” subject is much easier than the “Islamic religious upbringing” one and thus yields unfairly more marks. Children are also barraged with platitudes about “national unity” every which way. I know; we are never short on inanity.

To paraphrase an interviewee on an Egyptian atheist online show I have been watching of late, parents pass on both their genes and their culture and beliefs to children. In Dawkins’ own terminology, parents disseminate both genes and memes. The word “meme” is extraordinarily apt even for the topic of religious indoctrination, considering that it comes from a Greek word meaning “that which is imitated.” Is it not irreverent that religious convictions be purveyed in this way? Minds are made up before there are minds to make up. And since we are citizens the paragon of postmodern, postcolonial, developing countries, we are wont to put our avaricious spin on indoctrination whereby the supposedly holistic religion is disconcertingly diluted to materialistic – I dare say pagan – propitiation of God in exchange for mundane wealth. In essence, Egyptians speak in religion, seldom about religion.

Now, I do not care about Dawkins. Most atheists wish the whole world became atheists and the battle against indoctrination is the first step in that transition. But he has got a point. That said, I do not buy into the atheist mantra that babies are born atheists. A newborn is no more atheist than a rock. Let your newborn grow alone on some far-flung island, then after fifteen years stop by to ask if he believes in God. If the experiment has been run well, he will most certainly ask back what you mean by God. Babies are obviously born ignorant of, and thus neutral on, almost everything intellectual, although we might say that we are all born with a natural desire for truth, which is not too far from the Islamic concept of the fitrah. In any case, one need not hold this ludicrous contention to show that religious indoctrination is wrong and unwholesome on several levels.

The paramount level is soteriological. Let us presume for a moment that Islam is the single true world view. Probably no more than 10% of the Christians who have not left religion behind altogether will ever bother to consider Islam, much less convert to it. We all know where the rest are headed.

Imagine a society where most Muslims are converts. Have you heard of any before? Yes, the nascent community of Prophet Muhammad and his companions in Makkah and Medina. The result, to my mind, would be both fewer apostates and fewer extremists on the one hand and more steadfast, willing Muslims on the other. Muslim society will once again abound with the loftiest minds in the world. God will be truly loved with all their hearts and all their minds, simply because minds have been left to rationally think about Him, and hearts have been free to emotionally pine for Him. How idyllic.

Putting the long-term merits aside, I have been involved in these discourses for long enough to be self-critical and ready to say “I do not know” when I ought to. Indeed, I believe my thesis does run foul of certain traditional Islamic injunctions in the Quran and Sunnah. I do not know how feasible my clamour against indoctrination really is and what parents are supposed to do in practice. Nor do I know how they are supposed to pass on morality without coating it in religious overtones. Considering that we are already in a Muslim society, can children still be told gruffly, for instance, about the cruciality of premarital chastity? Or should they come to that conclusion on their own? I do not know.

What I am already sure of is that, while it is certainly impossible for parents to completely conceal their religious convictions and practices, they should at least eschew hurling unjustified religious assertions at children in their formative years, i.e. until they are no longer copycats. The vacuous “religious upbringing” subject should be either scrapped or replaced by the more meaningful and edifying religious studies or comparative religion, in which they are taught a sizeable spectrum to critically and freely choose from. A detractor might say that parents are entitled to force whatever education they desire on their children, and might ask why I am singling out religious education. Well, it is one of the things laypeople differ on, while they never disagree on science or mathematics. Even in science, competing scientific models are taught, for example the punctuationist and gradualist models of evolution. Competing religious mindsets should likewise be accessible to everyone with a mature mind.



Categories: Islam

4 replies

  1. Hmm, interesting. However, where most Muslim parents fail is in developing their own religious knowledge beyond understanding the rites and rituals of faith and getting to the meat of why they believe what they believe other than this is what they were taught themselves. They, therefore, are unable to deal with intellectually developing their worldview to help their children view it as a sound basis for their own belief at the very least. I certainly think children should be taught the basics of their deen whatever that deen may be but as the inquisitive child’s mind grows parents need to be ready to discuss and offer answers to children’s growing awareness of the world and the competing worldviews it contains.

    I would be loath to hand easy victories to Dawkinites in not raising our kids with religious knowledge or trying to instil an Islamic ethos or love for Islam within them. Do you think devoted followers of the king of the memes will raise their children as anything other than atheists? If not, then why should we not provide our kids with solid religious upbringings.

    However, speaking with a teacher at an nursery with an Islamic ethos but which welcomes children of all faiths and backgrounds, she does get quite annoyed at certain types of Muslim parents who expect little 2 year old Yusuf to be able to recite Quranic verses rather than allowing him to grow, develop and play like a child. Her view is that since prayer should be taught at 7 that is the age you should start more formal islamic training, until then children learn by imitation so will slowly imbibe elements of their deen from a (hopefully) healthy, loving islamic household.

    Lastly, I would argue that morality has no basis without religion but you seem to be of the opinion that morality can be taught “without religious overtones”? Perhaps it can but why wouldn’t we want to include the religious basis for it when teaching kids. We could certainly bring up different worldviews which don’t subscribe to that viewpoint but my bias is in favour of my deen naturally which I hope my child would accept as their own.

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  2. Dear monajuly,

    You see, that’s the rub. You need to justify your view that just because you identify as a Muslim and just because you gave birth to a child and have and will be in charge of it, you are entitled to give him an ideological/religious/philosophical springboard or stepping stone deriving from your ideology/religion/philosophy. The absurdity of this (as I’ve chewed over in my article and you seem to overlook) is thrown into relief when you realize the brute fact that another parent of another religion is entitled to the same thing “whatever that deen may be.” (Perhaps you should reread my run-down of the situation in Egypt.) It is thrown into yet more relief when you realize that some adults convert to other religions and, if they are pro indoctrination, will raise their children in the new religion if they are born after their conversion, but would have raised them in the old one if they had been born before conversion. Absurdity upon absurdity.

    “I would be loath to hand easy victories to Dawkinites…”

    A genetic fallacy (or guilt by association) par excellence. You can’t disagree totally with the Devil himself because he, too, believes in God. And let’s not forget that it is me who pointed out that, being an atheist, Dawkins is not expectedly entirely sincere and concerned only with the wellbeing of children in his crusade against indoctrination.

    I would be loath to wink at the absurd state of affairs I’ve canvassed just because it was made clear to me by people I am diametrically opposed to in other respects.

    Absurdity upon absurdity, once again.

    Just pretend that it was not Dawkins who gave me pause for thought over this. Perhaps I was mistaken in quoting him because of your sensitivities, but I’d be concealing the fact that it was him who got me rethinking. Anyway, pretend I didn’t. Also pretend there are no atheists. Wait, no. Consider atheism as one of the world views on the table, because that’s indeed what it is. Contrary to their declamations, atheism is not merely a lack of belief in gods, but is an entire mindset that moves on from there and seeks alternative explanations of why we exist, where we came from, etc.

    Now what about the fact that Christian parents want to instil a Christian ethos into their children, that you want to “instil an Islamic ethos or love for Islam within them,” and that atheist parents want to foist upon their children a positive rejection of God and acceptance of alternative explanations?

    All still unmitigatedly absurd and unacceptable.

    Children need to be kept neutral (not atheists, as you seem to have misunderstood; again, babies are born neutral, not atheists, not theists) on things that adults disagree on until they become adults themselves. Again, minds should be made up when minds can be made up. Children must be free from bias. You say you want to get them biased – and you seem motivated in this by your own personal animosity with “Dawkinites” – but that certainly doesn’t mean you’re so entitled. It’s just your whim which you seek to actualize through your authority as a parent.

    Authority.

    You, whether you be atheist, Muslim, or Christian, may have authority, but certainly no right. Might isn’t right, is it?

    I don’t think I have a problem with making your kids do something other than playing like a child per se. Hey, all parents make their kids go to school. My problem is with instilling into them a bias (which in case of faith may be baneful to them in the long run), and more importantly with the essence of the idea of every parent’s co-opting his or her authority to instil a bias different from that which another parent would. Note also that a partiality for the parent’s religion is at the same time a partiality against the religions of other parents.

    Parents, however, don’t disagree acrimoniously on secular subjects such as science and maths, and all children are taught that “2 + 2 = 4.” So it is justifiable to make your kids go to school to learn that, and that only. Perhaps this is more complicated over here in Egypt, seeing as Quranic passages and hadiths are taught in the Arabic-language curriculum as the epitome of classical Arabic literature, but the strict linguistic analysis is, of course, also overlain by myriad religious Islamic remarks in step with the conservative mindset of Egyptian society at large. Christian schoolchildren are exempt from the “Islamic religious upbringing” subject, but not from the Islamic teachings in this. I don’t know how the teaching of Islamic scripture as secular Arabic literature can be extricated from its teaching as Islamic homilies, to be honest.

    And don’t let me get started about parents’ instilling into children a bias against established scientific facts taught at school and for beliefs about the world that run counter to them and that are present only in their religious minds and their blinkered interpretations of scripture. I think this is one manifestation of the widespread religious mediocrity or incompetence of modern-day Muslim parents which you described in your very first sentences and which actually props up my own thesis. Indeed, not only do they thrust on them their religious concepts to take for granted, but they also give no or little rational justification. Absurdity upon absurdity for the third time.

    To provision for your sensitivity towards “Dawkinites,” I’d condemn them, too, for appropriating established scientific facts to convert their children to their Gnu ideology. I have personally never come across any such atheist, however, and all I hear from them is that they would teach their children only critical thinking and free inquiry, for which I’d commend them. I don’t care whether they’d practise what they preach. People like you, on the other hand, make no bones about all-out indoctrination, which my conscience forces me to condemn, no matter who calls for this absurdity.

    “Lastly, I would argue that morality has no basis without religion…”

    I’m of the same opinion myself. Indeed, the philosophical argument for God from morality is probably the most cogent one to my mind. Atheists can be moral even more than theists, because they are humans and all humans by definition are moral and have been endowed with what Muslims dub the fitrah. But their world view fails to justify the source and meaning of morality. I wrote a piece on this which I hope to publish later.

    “[B]ut you seem to be of the opinion that morality can be taught “without religious overtones”?”

    No, I am not. I said I don’t know. And, just as it was me who suspected ulterior motives in Dawkins, I’m myself also the one who broached this challenge to my own thesis. However, it doesn’t detract in the slightest from my previous argument for the absurdity of the current state of affairs, which, I’d like to remind you, is about trading on your authority as a parent to foist upon your children an affinity with your views. Your “bias… in favour of my deen naturally which I hope my child would accept as their own” is still wrong, at least as long as there are tens of religions and non-religious ideologies under the sun.

    On second thoughts, this challenge seems to be beside the point. My point was more about the direful fact that parents of different faiths use their authority to raise their respective children in their respective faiths. Nevertheless, I don’t think there is as much opprobrium in telling your children that there are objective, universal ideals by which to abide, as long as the same thing is told to all children. I take issue strictly with parents’ telling different things to their respective children before their minds are mature enough to judge for themselves. Not to mention that these different things are about religion, and religion is too serious a matter to be so handled. Children henceforth take certain things for granted. More moronically, the things that a child would take for granted are merely the things that it happened to be forced to listen to from its parents, whose beliefs were, in turn, largely (but not always totally) determined by their own parents (if they are not converts), and so on.

    There is a difference between morality and the philosophical basis or conceptualization of morality. It doesn’t matter whether or not you instruct your kid to be charitable, loving, caring, and non-discriminatory, not to murder, not to torture people, etc., because your kid, being human, is created with a propensity for all this. What difference would indoctrination make? What if you left it to grow with these good characters and discover on its own that, for example, the atheist world view cannot account for such morals, while theism has a cogent conceptualization, i.e. discover the argument from morality single-handedly? This might be better, but, as I said, I withhold any firm stance for the time being.

    In any case, I was more specifically concerned with the moral injunctions that are not universal but are restricted to religions, such as premarital chastity (including abstaining from masturbation) and abstaining from homosexual relationships. These punctilios are the only things about which I’m concerned (and as yet unsure) with respect to teaching children do’s and don’ts.

    Come to think of it, what niggles you so much about indoctrinating your kids? In saying things like “I certainly think children should be taught the basics of their deen,” “[W]hy should we not provide our kids with solid religious upbringings [sic],” and “[M]y bias is in favour of my deen naturally which I hope my child would accept as their own,” you’re presupposing that your hope won’t come true unless you drum your deen like “2 + 2 = 4” into your child before its mind becomes mature enough for it to judge your deen for itself.

    And what a deuce of a presupposition! Don’t you see how this undermines your faith? It quite puts me in mind of that hackneyed Salafist and Wahhabist rationalization of the death penalty for apostates, where they ask us to imagine that the pope with all his intellectual pre-eminence among the Christians, like the Abrahamic-faith-savvy Jews among the pagan Arabs of Medina mentioned in Quran 3:72, converted to Islam then promptly left it. (This is despite all the jarring differences between those Jews in that time and place and the pope in our time and place, and despite the fact that many, if not most, ex-Muslims were raised as Muslims, and most certainly almost none of today’s ex-Muslims were so silly as to be Trojan horses who converted to Islam only to leave it promptly, which simply blows this insane rationale out of the water.) The pope is undermining the veracity of Islam. Ergo, the pope ought to be killed! These people don’t see that the very idea of having to defend the image of Islam in the eyes of non-Muslims by murdering dissidents, itself sullies the image of Islam even more than do the dissidents.

    It is likewise disgraceful to think that I need to instil a bias into my children so that they accept the same truth as me and go to heaven. I’m much more comfortable thinking that they have accepted the same truth as me after thinking it out themselves without an infantile bias. Reverts are not envied for nothing, after all.

    You’re also presupposing that your kids will remain convinced of your religion after their minds mature. Well, if they do remain so, then you can largely (although admittedly not totally) thank indoctrination, rather than free inquiry and critical thinking, for that. I, however, am personally disturbed by this uncertainty.

    And I thank you for getting my creative juices flowing about this.

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  3. I’ll try to respond to your comment more fully when I have more time but you seem to have responded to my ruminations rather forcefully! I’m not “sensitive” about ideas or views associated with Dawkins and his ilk. I come across atheists regularly and am very familiar with their views and beliefs, their truths and their hypocrisies: as diverse a bunch filled with good and bad ideas just like any religious community. And my use of the word Dawkinites is a common descriptor of certain accolytes of his used by religious and non religious people alike. It’s a description of the sheeple like thinking of certain swathes of his followers who profess free thinking but then end up following their idol hook, line and sinker.

    The problem you have is that I have no issue at all with parents of different faiths or none teaching their children or bringing them up in own faiths or none. That is their prerogative. Being a free human being who has created a family gives me the right to raise my children as I see fit. It’s not about “might” but about wanting to raise a family within your ethos and worldview.

    However, I do get the gist of your argument in general and while of course you are right that to have a child come to the view that Islam is the true faith on their own without any coercion or instruction may be the best situation all round I just don’t think it is realistic to expect that many practising parents are willing to risk their child’s akhirah especially when the only religious element present in the child’s life is in the home. Again, you may question my right to worry about my child’s akhirah and ‘impose’ that concern upon a child by teaching that child age appropriate lessons from Islam and I really wouldn’t know what to say to you apart from the fact that belief and practice are connected. It’s easy to say things but if you truly believe how can you not want to teach your child the same. As you might have guessed we are coming at this from two different perspectives. I, from a minority in a largely secular, irreverent and diverse country and you, from a Muslim majority country that has it’s own particular brand of religious turmoil stamped throughout its history.

    As you say, I suppose until either you or I have families we won’t really know what the best way to teach will be, whether you can be neutral in either of our current environments, if objectivity is BS or whether children will cultivate their own random beliefs in the absence of any parental guidance.

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  4. Nah, ma’am, just knock it off. You’ve yet to justify any of your hidebound declamations about parents’ “prerogatives” or controvert head-on the absurdities I’ve canvassed twice above. I stand by my case. People viewing our little exchange here can see whose case is more cogent regarding the absurd status quo which has unjustly lingered on for millennia and without which you’ve insinuated time and again Islam would have faded into oblivion or, needless to say, at least would not have become the fastest-growing religion in the world. This speaks volumes for how most believers truly regard their belief. I myself never said that. Actually, I said it would be much more wholesome for the proportion of steadfast Muslims and minimize the apostates and extremists.

    But, as a “minority in a largely secular, irreverent and diverse country,” you know better!

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