On Freedom From Religion

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


Do parents have the right to indoctrinate their children?

For millennia, most cultures have acted as if the answer is ‘yes’ — using everything from physical violence to threats of damnation to ensure each successive generation followed like sheep.

Now, finally, someone, somewhere has said, ‘no’.

In December 2022, Japan announced a law to protect children from parental religious fanaticism. The law would protect kids from being a) forced to participate in religious activities, b) refused medical treatment, educational or social opportunities based on their parents’ religious beliefs and c) protect them from religious coercion, i.e. being pressured by parents threatening them with hellfire.

My husband, brought up Southern Baptist, and I (Evangelical then Seventh-Day Adventist) raised our eyebrows: if only.

To quote ‘Giest’, discussing the Japanese legislation on r/atheism: “Most Americans would loose their shit over this. Forcing religion on kids is a big part of our culture.”


The United States gets mentioned a lot in the reddit thread because perhaps no other country so full-throatedly proclaims its hypocrisies. Individual personal freedom, including freedom of religion, is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution but few other nations match the United States’ fanatical zeal for enforcing minority religious practices on everyone.

Texas just passed a law demanding that the Biblical Ten Commandments be posted in a ‘conspicuous place’ in every classroom in the state. Florida wants to ban any mention of menstruation before sixth grade (12 years old), though which chapter of the Bible supports that blend of misogyny, gynophoby and science-loathing is not specified.

As anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see, the US Right believes only in the absolute personal freedom of wealthy, fanatical, embittered, power-drunk, humanity-hating men. The rest of us be dammed.

Hence the chances of laws to protect children from emotional, psychological and physical abuse in the name of God will remain unwritten and unenacted.


This isn’t just a United States problem, though; nor is it only a problem of religion in the States.

The real but unarticulated debate is this: are children people, entitled to the rights and privileges of personhood? Or are they, as the American Right, and so many other cultures construct them, property?

How a society answers this question is of existential importance for the simple reason that children become adults.

A culture, religious or national, that views children as property cannot prepare them for a successful adulthood. Responsibility, the ability to carry oneself in the world, cannot be conferred at an arbitrary age: 18, 21, whatever.

Children who are controlled, brain-washed, browbeaten throughout their youth aren’t going to suddenly blossom into self-sufficient, competent adults. Instead, they are turned loose on society as adult-sized toddlers, prone to tantrums and destruction.

I don’t believe it is any coincidence that the United States combines high rates of religious fundamentalism with catastrophic rates of interpersonal violence. Should we be surprised that children denied agency and personhood seek extreme and harmful outlets as older teenagers and adults? Is anyone surprised when a beaten dog bites?

Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash


The only way to rear children to become full citizens of humanity is to, quelle surprise, treat them like human beings. From their first breath onwards.

“Childhood is a time for gathering and developing the assets necessary for full autonomy,” writes Hollingsworth (2013). Developing the capacity for full autonomy requires independent trial-and-error, in the same way developing the capacity to ride a bike requires time spent wobbling up and down the street.

Adults can screw this up in so many ways: laziness, authoritarianism, over-protectiveness.

It is tougher to co-regulate, discuss, take time to listen to a child than it is to demand compliance, or at least the appearance of it.

But it is better.

Children learn respect by example. If we want them to grow into adults who respect the opinions, privacy and autonomy of others, we had better show them how its done. Treating children as full-fledged human beings is the best way to inoculate them against hateful ideologies that thrive on repression: nationalism, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and the like.

As educators, we have the extra privilege and responsibility of making our classrooms safe for ideas and self-expression. When children express ideas we find difficult (as they will) we have to model an appropriate, adult, respectful response.

Once, I was teaching English to a group of 14-and-15-year-old Spanish kids. One of them came out in support of Vox, the ultra-nationalist, uber-misogynist far-Right party that had formed recently.

My kneejerk response was: ‘We’ll have none of that in here.

But I pulled myself together and asked why he supported them, and we had a class discussion. Who knows whether he changed his mind about Vox, then or later, but at least he had a chance to participate in a respectful debate, instead of being shut down.

Teachers, and parents, have to model the behaviours and responses they hope to see in children. If we want kids to become thoughtful, compassionate, self-respecting, respectful global citizens we better start working on ourselves.

How do you support your students/kids to develop autonomy? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke