Saturday, August 06, 2005

Values and Religion

One idea which seems to be common, even among the non-religious, is that a religious upbringing is necessary to instill good values in children.

It's true that values come neatly packaged within many religions, and it's plausible that the belief in an Omnipresent God might be useful for preventing children from behaving badly in their parents' absence. Pragmatically speaking, though, religion is an imprecise tool for the task.

Religion as values-delivery package fails in two ways: first, it is overly broad, which may cause children to throw the values out if they don't agree with unrelated religious dogma; and second, religious people are vulnerable to having their values manipulated by religious figures and texts.

The first point is obvious: if a child is taught that one mustn't kill because God said so and later comes to believe that the Bible was written by men, then she might decide that murder is acceptable. Similarly, if she believes that the prohibition of eating milk and meat is silly, why refrain from stealing? Or, it could go the other way. Imagine a boy who is raised in a loosely religious household by parents who hold tolerance as an important value. If the boy decides to become more religious, he might be swayed by a religious figure or a book which extols discriminating against homosexuals.

The second point is a little less obvious since "religious values" are often thought to be consistent, at least within a particular religion. If you look at religion in practice, however, it's clear that two people of the same religion might hold completely opposite positions with regard to a particular value. Born again Christians are generally thought of as solidly Republican, but about a third of them consistently vote Democrat. Many Catholics enthusiastically support the Iraq war, while the Pope himself opposes it.

In short, religion is a bad tool for instilling values, and certainly not a necessary one. Parents must live their values, teach by example, and explain their value-beliefs to their children as well as they can.


Ben Avuyah said...

Interesting thoughts, JA, I agree that religion is a pretty poor method of instilling morals.
I still feel, however, that I will likely use religion to instill culture and heritage for my children. I want them to know where they come from and to feel that that has value. But as far as morals I think the bible is...well lets just say misleading.

Zoe Strickman said...

Come on.

Enigma4U said...

This is a superb speech by Natalie Angier, "Raising Children with Secular Values in a Religious World".

Her worldview matches mine and if not for communal/familial/social and other constraints, that's how I would be raising my children.

Pragmatician said...

It seems you’re implying that there is such a thing as universal values?
Religion may not be all, but at least believers have a guide.
I they stop believing, true, they lose their guide, but non believers (of any religion) have none to begin with.
Most teenagers despise their parents at some point, the values they were taught will seem irrelevant then.
When they need values and morals the most, they will have nowhere to look!

Stacey said...

I definitely don't believe a religious upbringing is necessary to instill good values in children.

Had I never heard the word God I would be the same person. My morals are rooted in humanity.

DNA said...

Jewish Atheist,

How about you explain your values to me, and I'll play the role of your kid.

Jewish Atheist said...

dna, I'm speaking living by example and creating a loving, tolerant home, not a 30 minute conversation.

JC Masterpiece said...

I'd have to disagree with you. I think that your second point is the more obvious. It becomes pretty obvious that there are different religions, sects, and religous values, and that as a result they could be a bit inconsistant. That's as plain as watching the news.

However, in regards to your first point if a child rejects their parents religious values it doesn't mean that they're going to disregard the moral beliefs. In looking at your first example "if a child is taught that one mustn't kill because God said so and later comes to believe that the Bible was written by men, then she might decide that murder is acceptable." In a case where the child sees murder as no longer wrong, it isn't because of the religious system. It is often because the child chooses her view and justifies her view by saying that there is no God.

A child is more likely to reject their parents religious views because their parents don't really live out what they believe in a healthy manner. As in the second example the child is more likely to not refrain from stealing because they see their parents deceiving and stealing from others. The religious beliefs can say whatever they want, but if the parents are not living them out the child will have a very difficult time taking them seriously.

Whan you rejected your beliefs did you suddenly start going out and stealing and killing? Of course not. Unless there are serious outside forces, chances are that those value systems are at work in your life in some way.

dna said...

Living by example is certainly important. But you also need an answer when your kid says, "why?" And she will.

Jewish Atheist said...

And I'll answer her, as honestly as I can.

JC masterpiece, I don't think I disagree with anything you wrote.

Sadie Lou said...

The first point is obvious: if a child is taught that one mustn't kill because God said so and later comes to believe that the Bible was written by men, then she might decide that murder is acceptable.

Murder is one of those moral codes anyways. Even the most remote islands who have never heard the gospel, believe that murder, lying, stealing, rape, etc. are wrong.
If you raise up your children in the Lord and the only reason you give them for NOT doing certain things is: "Because God said so."
Then you are doing them a disservice, aren't you?
Murder is not only wrong because God said it's wrong, it's wrong because of countless other reasons--reasons even atheists can agree on.
Your first point is weak.

Laura said...

There's actually an extensive theory on Moral Reasoning derived by a psychologist named Lawrence Kohlberg. He theorized people go through stages of moral development ranging from the most basic "i might get in trouble" to the most advanced "intentions matter most, morals are relative". Many religious people do rely on more than just the "God said so" approach - there is a deeper level of reasoning going on for them. But for those who do rely purely on the "these are the rules, no matter what, no wiggle room" (no matter if the rules are secular or religious) that, he would argue is where most people stop developing. Few people, he said, develop beyond that point. So for most people who's moral development stops short of advanced, nuanced thinking, religion is a good way of formulating those morals "here's what you do and what you don't". I don't know if I agree with him or not, but I've defintely met more people in my life who are "rules based" reasoners rather than critical thinkers. Just a different way of looking at morals.

Sadie Lou said...

C.S. Lewis is my favorite Christian thinker. He would definately agree with you, Laura. His book Mere Christianity, touches on Moral Law quite exstensively.
My husband and I go way beyond, "God said so." but then again--I got saved a year after my husband because I didn't want to feel obligated to become a Christian and I am always on the lookout for signs of 'Christian brainwashing'.

Anonymous said...

JA your argument is weak. people do not start killing if they leave their faith. Many men trained for war come back shell schoked as a result of war, and having to kill even the enemy. Nevertheless I presume one could create a culture of it "you shall kill", but that would be conditioning in the opposite variety. Either way tying keeping kosher in with murder is fallacious,from the Judaic perspective. The first is a statute, which is carried out because the Master of the Universe decreed so. If it is violated it is only between the Creator and this person. Murder on the other hand is between man and man. Ask yourself if I kill someone can I fix it afterwards. No they are dead! you can't bring them back. So what I want to know is why you chose to equate those laws?

Jewish Atheist said...

You folks are right. My first point is weak. As an ex-Orthodox Jew, I should know better. :)