Christian children, or children of Christian parents?

A friend of mine, who is not a Christian, was recommending The God Delusion to me the other day, and as it’s just come out in paperback I decided to pick up a copy. I expect it to be a fun, but completely enraging, read. (In return my friend has agreed to read Alister McGrath’s book Dawkins’ God, which I blogged on at some length last year. See this post and the links from it.)

Reading the preface, I can already see why so many people have raved about this book. Dawkins knows what he is doing, and for those who are receptive to his style (at least an equal number are repelled by it, even among atheists and agnostics) he is quite an effective propagandist.

Take, for example, his call for atheists to “mind their language” as regards describing children. Dawkins is insistent that one should never refer to a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child”, but a “child of Christian parents” or “child of Muslim parents”, since the child has not yet had an opportunity to make their own mind up and hence should not be labelled as if they had.

To his credit, Dawkins does not pretend that he is promoting neutral, unloaded language here. Rather, he is promoting language that he sees as favouring atheism, to replace language that he sees as favouring religion. Dawkins’ “child of [ ] parents” formula promotes an atheistic perspective in a number of ways.

First, it promotes a profoundly individualistic view of humanity. One of Margaret Thatcher’s most notorious (and, some would say, misunderstood) statements was:

“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

Dawkins goes even further: as far as religion is concerned there is no such thing as society, community or family. There are only individuals, standing naked and alone as they make their own individual decisions about the world. This, of course, tends to favour atheism, for which one of the central “myths” is that of the bold individual, courageously making their stand against the oppressive forces of religion that apparently permeate our society (ha! We wish!).

Second, Dawkins’ formula follows the atheist rhetoric of non-belief as the “neutral” option: that the basic stuff of humanity is non-religious, and then different religious beliefs are placed on that neutral base like the toppings on a pizza. Keep a child away from religion, so the argument goes, and you enable them to make their own evidence-based decision from a neutral and disinterested perspective. But in reality, there is no neutral position. Everyone starts from their own set of assumptions. What Dawkins wants is to ensure that as many children as possible start from his set of assumptions.

Third, from a specifically Christian point of view, Dawkins’ choice of language undermines what we believe about the nature of Christian belief. It encourages the view that being a Christian is principally about the decisions and commitments that we make as individuals. Since a child is too young to examine the evidence for Christianity and make their own mind up, a child cannot be a Christian.

Baptism, and particularly infant baptism, remind us that being a Christian is not principally about the commitments we make to God, but about the commitment that God makes to us. It is about God saying to us, whether we are old enough to understand it or not, “You are my dear, dear child. I am delighted with you” (to quote NT Wright’s delightful paraphrase of Mark 1:11).

A “Christian child” is not a Christian child because they have sat down with no prior commitments and made their own decision from a neutral point of view; nor because they have been so propagandised by their parents as to be incapable of making their own mind up, brainwashed from birth into a helpless dependency on religious belief. A Christian child is such because, in their baptism, God has declared to them that they are his dear, dear child, and he is delighted with them.

For all these reasons, Christians should remain clear that our children are “Christian children”, not because we refuse to teach them to think for themselves (quite the contrary), but because they are born into the life of the Christian community, the church, and because God has given them his promises in Christ through baptism.

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9 Responses to Christian children, or children of Christian parents?

  1. Phil Walker says:

    It’s funny, my own views on this keep moving subtly. So a little while ago, while I was moving towards paedobaptism but hadn’t yet been convinced, I’d have agreed, in a sense, with Dawkins. Even then, I was never very convinced by the whole “age of accountability” thing that Baptists have going, seeing as how it implies [contra Scripture] that there exists a time when people are unaccountable.

    But all that said, as a now-persuaded paedobaptist who can happily call a baptised child of believers a Christian, I’m reluctant to concede that some children are born Muslims, or Taoist, or animist. I think I probably don’t accept (in a sense) the description of “Muslim” as one with objective force. “Muslim” is just a particular way of saying “non-Christian”.

  2. John H says:

    Phil: I (partly) agree. You’ll notice I skirted round that point a bit in my post!

    Again, we have to resist our inclusion within an undifferentiated class called, simply, “religion”. You know the logic: “The 9/11 terrorists were Muslims, therefore Christians should not be allowed to run schools”. Erm……

    That said, I still think talking of a “Muslim [or whatever] child” is fair. The points about human beings (a) living in community rather than as isolated individuals, and (b) not being blank slates, but moulded and shaped by their upbringing, apply to Muslims and members of other religions as much as to Christians.

    But you’re right that there is an important difference between referring to a baptised child as a “Christian child” and referring to a child of Muslim parents as a “Muslim child”. The difference is subtle, but still real – because baptism makes a real difference and is not simply an anthropological phenomenon within the class of “religious initiation rites”.

  3. Phil Walker says:

    Yes, I think those are fair observations. Thinking further, I’d probably describe such children as being “brought up as Muslims”.

  4. Hi John,

    I am a Christian who is writing a blog series on Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion”.

    Join the conversation at:

  5. CPA says:

    Here’s an idea: how about those adorable little one ones on your photo, John? Don’t call them “the Halton children,” but rather “children of the Haltons”. Then when they’re eighteen and out of the house, they can decide whether they want to continue the Halton line or not. Until then it’s just abuse to socialize them into all you and your wife’s quirky habits.

  6. John H says:

    Great plan! Disclaim all responsibility for the little blighters!

    ***develops wistful expression***

  7. Kelly says:

    Great post. I saw where you headed with it by that third paragraph– I’ve been thinking exactly along these lines lately since we are having our daughter baptized this Sunday. I might just have to link to it.

    So much of Christianity is dominated by this strong strain of individualism that Christians don’t know what to do or think when confronted by atheists and others who use their own logic against their faith regarding accountability. I.e.: “There’s some evidence that homosexuality is genetically inherent; therefore we cannot call homosexuals sinners accountable for their actions; therefore the Bible must be re-interpreted on this point.” Or: “Faith isn’t real and personal until you are old enough to make your decision; therefore parents should have minimal input into their child’s upbringing regarding religion.”

    How can a parent believe that their child has somehow made an un-influenced, “objective” decision to accept Jesus as their Savior when those same parents brought their child to church from infancy, shared the Scriptures with them, and basically impressed Christianity on them at every turn? Faithful parents are often better than their word!

  8. Tom R says:

    Here’s an edited (and condensed) version of my contributions to a debate on this topic at The New Republic six months go. That page is $ubscriber only, so I saved the text…

    There are a number of different answers one can give to the question “Does religion cause violence?” Possible answers include (a) “yes, pretty much all religion does” (the “Dawkins/ Sam Harris approach”), (b) “no, all religions are basically good” (I am tempted to call this the “Oprah/ Reader’s Digest/ Bono/ Mandela approach,” (c) “no, only monotheistic religions” (the Gore Vidal approach – also shared by Ibn-Warraq in his Why I Am Not a Muslim, although IW also gives some grudging points to Jesus and Christianity), and so on.

    Prof William T Cavanaugh, a Dorothy-Day-type anarcho-Catholic and author of Torture and Eucharist, recently presented an influential paper on this question I have some queries with his methodology, though: mainly, he undercuts himself by arguing that we can’t really separate “religious” from “political,” etc, violence.

    My own view is that while motives are often mixed in practice, they are distinct in theory. “Religion” is about what we do to prepare for whatever we believe comes after death. If I avoid eating pork because God declared pigs unclean, that’s religious. If I avoid pork because of fears of trichinosis, the same physical act becomes secular in its motivation.

    In fact, as Judge Richard Posner has pointed out, a government may impose policies favouring a certain religion for purely secular motives. Posner’s example is that a completely utilitarian legislator might well prefer citizens to be Mormons rather than Rastafarians. Different religions are not “regarded by the magistrate as equally useful.” A sizeable minority of Muslims, haredim or Amish among the populace will be more difficult to accommodate (which is not to say the magistrate shouldn’t try).

    I also suspect that there are different theological variations among religions that affect how readily, or under what conditions, its adherents will take up violence.

    At one extreme, I take it as obvious that, if a large majority of a society were Thuggee, or adherents of Odinism, or believed that the Sun God requires a human sacrifice each morning to slake his first, that would cause (and not merely correlate with) a rise in religiously-motivated violence within that society.

    At the opposite extreme, an unambiguously pacifistic religion would seem to wholly preclude violence. Yet absolute pacifism has little survival value. As a result, even adherents of notionally pacifist religions come up with ways around it – the “Quaker cannon,” the Zen samurai who insists that “My opponent kills himself by placing his body in the path of my sword.” As Peter L Berger has noted, the Amish sanction of “shunning” often leads the shunnee to suicide, and thus operates as a very effective death penalty.

    Away from these extremes, there are some religious doctrines that offer incentives for the use of violence or coercion, and others that do not. Take, for example, the mediaeval Christians’ belief that baptism worked ex opere operato to confer Divine grace, even on non-believers (eg, babies). If one holds this view, there may seem no reason not to baptise “infidels” at swordpoint. If baptism is like vaccination, it works whether or not it’s voluntary. By contrast, if one holds the view shared by most American Protestants – that only “believer’s baptism” is valid – there is no point compelling anyone to be baptised. It’d be like forcing someone at gunpoint to write you a love letter, so to speak. American-style Protestants want their church to be a pure sect of the genuine believers, without nominal hangers-on who don’t really believe the central doctrines.

    Now, of course, most of those Christians who believe in baptism ex opere operato also (today) reject forced baptism. But there is still tension between these two principles. For example, I have witnessed some moderately conservative Catholics, when discussing the Edgardo Mortara case, concluding: Yes, well, it was wrong to kidnap a Jewish child and raise him as a Christian just because a servant girl surreptitiously baptised him… but note that Edgardo himself remained a devout Catholic. This shows baptism is an objective means of grace.”

    To choose an example from the Protestant side, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination also contains an incentive to abuse. From teaching that God has chosen some to be saved, while leaving others in their sins, it is a short leap to concluding that worldly success is a sign of divine grace. You can massacre the natives and steal their land (in Ireland, New England or South Africa), because you are the elect and they are not. Now there are reasons a Calvinist could give why this should not be done, but they are competing doctrines. You need to apply the brakes to the doctrine of predestination, so to speak, rather than it wait until it runs out of fuel.

    (I should note that, as a Lutheran, I believe in modified forms of both these doctrines whose abuse I have just criticised. The possibility of easy abuse does not prove they’re wrong: vide the doctrine of freedom of speech).

    To the extent that [atheist debating opponent] is correct that the culprit is a word beginning with mon-, I think he’s on the right track… but it’s monism, not monotheism as such. This, I suspect, is why Islam has such problems with religious tolerance, especially as it reforms itself to move closer to its original roots (ie, Wahhabism rather than the Ottoman version).

    Judaism and Christianity both contain a very central internal dualism. Judaism has strict and detailed rules of external action, but is not universalist or proselytising. Christianity is universalist and proselytising, but does not (by world religions’ standards) have very strict and detailed rules of external action.

    Yes, some particular localised manifestations of Christianity do try to adopt such rules (“no meat on Fridays,” “no dancing on Sundays”), but these tend not to endure. Christianity (particularly, not only, its Protestant version) places very strong emphasis on internal motivation rather than external action. As St Paul says, if you want to keep the holy days, go for it; if you don’t, go for it; either way, what matters is that you’re doing it for the Lord. Christians prefer general principles to absolute, detailed rules. Despite attempts by various Christians to argue that “no true believer in Jesus could possibly have a good reason for doing X” (drinking alcohol, gambling, using the Pill, working on the Sabbath, etc), these run into the problem that Jesus himself was anti-ritualist and broke the Law of Moses (but not, Christians would argue, the Law of God) at many points.

    So: Judaism insists that all Jews should keep kosher and the Sabbath, but in no way believes that everyone should become a Jew. Gentiles have only the stripped-down Noachide seven, not the 518 commandments of Torah, as their obligation.

    Whereas Christians believe everyone should become a Christian, but baulk at arguing that this means everyone should wear a WWJD bracelet, dress like American Evangelicals do, eat certain foods, etc. Africans, Koreans, and other non-Western cultures have adopted Christianity and grafted its doctrines onto their traditional practices. They may start naming their children “John” or “Martha,” or wearing suits, but overall Christianity has no theological problem with them continuing to eat their traditional food, wear their traditional dress, pray in their own language, etc.

    Now: contrast both of these with Islam. Islam is universal and proselytising, like Christianity. But it also has a very detailed set of rules for daily living. All branches of Islam agree that, in theory, everyone in the world should become a Muslim, pray in Arabic, grow a beard (for men), wear a head covering (for women), avoid eating pork or shellfish, teetotal, pray towards Mecca five times a day, make hajjr, etc. There is no leeway in Islam for letting others “do their own thing” – whether because “you’re only a Gentile, you’re not bound by God’s covenant with Abraham” or because “You’re a fellow Christian, but your conscience leads you to interpret ‘women should dress modestly’ as meaning ‘long skirts are essential, but head scarves are not’.”

    And with that… I need a break from typing. Someone else can have the conch shell for a change!

  9. Theresa K. says:

    Kelly wrote: “How can a parent believe that their child has somehow made an un-influenced, “objective” decision to accept Jesus as their Savior when those same parents brought their child to church from infancy, shared the Scriptures with them, and basically impressed Christianity on them at every turn? ”

    That’s one thing that really tripped up my plans and my understanding of faith development as an Evangelical parent. I still remember my daughter, around age 5, asking me if she was a Christian (actually she probably asked if she already had Jesus in her heart, or something like that). My GUT INSTINCT was to tell her “no” (since she had not yet done that), but I struggled with saying that to her.

    Kelly wrote: “So much of Christianity is dominated by this strong strain of individualism that Christians don’t know what to do or think when confronted by atheists”

    Your statement reminds me of an email conversation I had with a local out-spoken atheist August Berkshire regarding his yearly visits to the local Evangelical college, by invitation, to give young students a chance to quiz and challenge him. My post didn’t directly have much to do with John’s post, but some points are similar.

    My post:

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