Start children off in the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4
Professor Richard Dawkins is a top biologist, but is probably better known as a militant atheist. (The word “atheist”, of course, means “a person who doesn’t believe in God”, and is not to be confused with “agnostic”, who is “a person who doesn’t know or claim to know”.)
Most atheists are happy to get on with their unbelieving lives, and to leave “religious” people to get on with theirs, sadly deluded though they think we are.
But not Professor Dawkins. For several years now he has been on a high-profile war-path against religion (one of his best-known books is called The God Delusion). And he is now hoping to publish a picture-book for children in which all forms of religion, and Christianity in particular, are attacked. “I have long felt it wrong that children are brought up to believe the same things as their parents,” he says.
To be fair to Prof Dawkins, he isn’t trying to “convert” anyone to atheism; if he were, he would be no “better” than us Christians. No, his aim, he insists, is to encourage children to “think for themselves” rather than simply accept what parents or grandparents, schools or churches might teach them. “I think indoctrinating children is wicked…” he says.
Well, I don’t know about you, but when I read that remark I felt like responding, “Actually, Prof Dawkins, so do I”. And I think that many Christians and other religious people will feel exactly the same. The very word “indoctrination” has a bad, ugly, sinister feel to it – it conjures up notions of brain-washing, of strong people manipulating weaker ones psychologically.
The dictionary defines it as: “The process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.” The key word there, of course, is “uncritically”, which means “without thinking for themselves”. Surely we would all agree that that is wrong.
Well, we must leave Prof Dawkins to the judgement of the God he doesn’t believe in. But his views do challenge us about our attitude as Christians towards the children for whom we are responsible, either as parents ourselves or corporately as churches.
I think we can sum it up with a question: At what point might “sharing our faith” cross a line and become “indoctrination”? For – let’s look facts in the face – there are people of various religious views who do seem to cross that line: you think of extremist Islamic sects who instill repugnant views into the minds of children – and also, I’m afraid, of fundamentalist Christians who are not much better.
There’s a narrow line to be trod. How can you possibly be a Christian without wanting to share Jesus with your children? Even if those Bible verses from Proverbs 22 and Ephesians 6 weren’t there, surely you must want to pass on to your children the most precious thing in your life? You want them to become followers of Jesus! Of course you do!
But you also (I hope) want them to become thoughtful and mature adults. You want them to develop the kind of faith that will stand them in good stead if they are attacked at school, or tossed into the crazy whirlpool of beliefs they are bound to meet if they go on to higher education. We’ve probably all known youngsters brought up in a sheltered spiritual environment who simply couldn’t cope with “the real world” when the moment arrived.
I’m suggesting questions here, not offering easy answers – I speak as a very far from perfect parent.
But one thing stands out a mile from both my experience and my observations: it is folly to try and protect children from hard questions, and wrong to present them with only the very simple aspects of our faith. And it is vital to discuss sensitively and respectfully with them whatever issues may arise.
Apart from questions to do with the Bible or Christian belief, there may very well be practical issues: how to handle the day when a child decides he or she doesn’t want to come to church any more (ever seen a sullen teenager in church?) – or when some sports activity they are keen on is scheduled for Sunday mornings.
My impression is that most Christian parents in evangelical circles do indeed respond to such turning points in a wise and gracious way. But there’s no doubt that confusion and uncertainty can arise – and it can be very painful.
The key, perhaps, is just this: to pray for wisdom (of course) – and never to forget the great truth that, even if our children lose their way spiritually, God loves them even more than we do.
Heavenly Father, thank you for all the precious children who figure in my life. Help me, in all I do or say, only ever to point them lovingly to the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Here’s an extra prayer you might like to join me in…
Lord God, you know perfectly the heart and mind of Richard Dawkins. Just as you met with Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus and turned him round, please meet today with Professor Dawkins and flood him with the light of Jesus. Amen.