At first I thought that I had misread the report that a 7-year old boy had been taken away from his mother because a judge ruled that the youngster had been damaged by his mother’s religious beliefs! Judge Clifford Bellamy ruled that the boy had been damaged by the ‘religious beliefs and practices’ of his Jehovah’s Witness Mother. He concluded that the boy should not live with either of his separated parents but should be placed in foster care.
It is always difficult to be certain what is in the best interest of a child. In this case there was the suggestion that the boy was confused and disoriented by the rift between the parents. Judge Bellamy went so far as to suggest that the mother had immersed the child in her religious beliefs and practices with ‘the intention of alienating him from his father’. Possibly he was right. But the main social worker dealing with this case rejected the conclusion arrived at by Judge Bellamy and took the view that what was at issue was the conflict between the parents and not the mother’s religion.
Nevertheless whatever the truth about the intricacies of this case the focus of the ruling became the religious beliefs and practices of the boy’s mother. In effect the case became fixated on the supposedly damaging consequences of strongly held parental religious beliefs and practices.
Judge Bellamy claimed that he was ‘satisfied that the fact’ that the boy has been ‘immersed by his mother in her religious beliefs and practices has been a significant factor’ in causing emotional harm. In effect a mother’s deeply held religious beliefs stood indicted as a marker for maternal pathology.
The coupling of emotional harm with a mother’s religious practices has important implications for any parent who possesses strong religious or philosophical convictions. This was a threat that the mother appeared to intuitively recognise. In desperation she was prepared to censor any religious communication with her child in exchange for being allowed to keep her son.
During the proceedings the mother sought to challenge an initial care order by going to the Court of Appeal and promising to desist from exposing her son to her religious principle. She promised not to talk to her son about religion, nor allow him access to religious DVDs and websites. She undertook not take her boy to the Jehovah’s Witness meeting house. She even pledged that if her son raised the issue of religion she would do her best to change the subject.
The response of the Judge to this mother’s pledge to censor her religious communication with her child and not to act in accordance with her conscience was particularly disturbing. He had no problem with regulating the exposure of children to their parents’ religious beliefs. He stated he had the legal power to “regulate” the exposure of a child to religion but because he was uncertain about the possibility of policing the mother’s pledges he would place the boy temporarily in foster care.
Who is responsible for socialisation?
If indeed a dysfunctional relationship between two warring parents was responsible for the pain suffered by the child than the problem could have been tackled through an approach that sought to prevent the thoughtless or destructive behaviour of the adults concerned. However what was on trial was not simply parental behaviour but parental beliefs. More specifically it raised questions about the rights of a parent to bring up a child in accordance with their beliefs.
The use of the term ‘indoctrination’ to refer to what used to be called socialisation raises disturbing questions about who gets to decide what are the moral values communicated to a child. Indoctrination can cover a variety of sins. Parents, who are serious about their beliefs will naturally go to great lengths to ensure that their child internalises their sentiments about what they consider to be right and wrong. Frequently the way such parents go about the business of child-rearing can appear strange even bizarre to those who adopt a laid back approach to it. But it is only in recent times that the immersion of children into a religious life and the parents’ religious practices and rituals was blamed for causing emotional harm.
If exposing a child to religion causes emotional harm why not to secular moral education? Once the ideals or ideas of parents become associated with emotional damage they become in effect both medicalised and delegitimised. In effect the authority of parents to determine the values that underpin their children’s socialisation is called into question because of the damage that they can allegedly inflict on their offspring. In this case the right of a mother to rear her child in accordance with her moral outlook is trumped by the right of a judge of the court to determine the religious parameters of the boy’s socialisation.
The association of moral education with emotional harms takes idea of ‘parents mess you up’ in new dangerous directions. In effect it indicts parents not so much for what they do but for their beliefs. That is frightening news for parents with orthodox Christian, Muslim or Jewish beliefs. Once beliefs and religious practices of parents becomes a subject of interest to the Courts their moral and cultural relationship with their child becomes compromised.
As an atheist parent can I let off a sigh of relief? Not really because if you want your children to immerse themselves in the virtues of humanist liberalism will I not be also criticised for indoctrinating them?