Davide Mastracci, in his article “Religion and children” (October 17, 2011), bemoans a sorry state of affairs: that children are taught religious views by their parents. Why must this stop? Because, in order for “progress to be made, parents must end the unjust brainwashing of children.” Once parents cease and desist in educating their children about religion, then children will gain “the ability to access their own views, unpolluted by the beliefs of their elders.”
What does it mean for children to uncover their own views, and for these views to be logical ones? For one, by describing it in this way, Mastracci is making a misguided swipe at religion. According to Mastracci, since all people are rational at their core, an authentic relationship to one’s self entails an automatic rejection of religion. This is an odd view, as its truth depends on every person having an absolutely logical essence which they can tap into. This groundless assumption stems from the Enlightenment idea of rational progress, whereby all facets of the world (and of human life) can be explained accurately by reason.
In this Enlightenment ethos, reason is innate to humans and simply must be developed. Accordingly, anything that impedes the progress of reason must be discarded. As such, religion is irrelevant and opposed to logic. Mastracci unquestioningly adopts this trope of Enlightenment thought. He fails to justify his assumption that faith is fundamentally irrational, and thus reproduces a dangerous and unproven essentialist claim.
Mastracci’s understanding of religion makes room for neither the self-understanding of religious people nor the history of religion. He contends that religious practices rely on “fear mongering,” but few religious people would likely describe their worldview as fearful. If individuals possess the autonomy and hyper-rationality that he assumes they do, then certainly their self-identification should be taken as valid.
Further, for Mastracci to equate all religious practice with the most extreme examples he can concoct, namely Hamas and the Westboro Baptist Church, is both false and illogical. It is false because it ignores the extraordinary diversity within religions, all of which include strong messages of pacifism, love, and tolerance. It is illogical because any human group contains diversity; ignoring this fact bars meaningful understanding. We should not dismiss leftist ideology on the basis of the violence of the Russian revolution, precisely because it is not representative of the diversity and range of leftist analyses and political programs.
The artificial division between faith and reason ignores history in two ways. First, it ignores the complex precedent of religious scholarship, critical thinking, and scientific exploration. In the pre-modern world religion was not delineated from other realms of knowledge in the way we now assume it to be. Much of our own system of thought developed in a “religious” context.
Second, Mastracci’s notion relies on the explicit understanding of religion as being a matter of belief. This understanding itself is conditioned by the development of Christianity in the western context and cannot be translated to other religious contexts. Mastracci unwittingly makes himself an important cautionary tale against our impulse to universalize our notions of religions. He disregards the fact that religion is as much a matter of experience, identity, community, and a sense of history as it is a set of beliefs.
Mastracci compares the teaching of religion (by parents to children) to the forced conversion of Native Americans by European settlers and writes that, “in both cases, the dominant group abuses its power by asserting a subjective belief it holds true over those it controls.” This comparison fails to confront the relationship of domination that Mastracci seeks to call out. Rather, it promotes the same logic of supremacy that was so compelling to European colonialists. Mastracci succeeds only in infantilizing Native Americans and asserting the superiority of his own notion of rationality over religion. In doing so, he has almost entirely replicated the logic of domination which he claims to reject.
Humans are not isolated or asocial beings. We each inherit our own conceptual universe from those around us, and, as such, it is foolish to claim that any person who is not religiously indoctrinated will be an exclusively autonomous thinker. We are implicated in our social contexts; we are in dialogue with all sorts of influence regarding our values, our general understanding of the world, and what sorts of analysis we consider valid. Unless a child can be entirely shielded from external influence (which is neither possible nor desirable), the claim that children can draw beliefs from their pure and logical self is an utterly meaningless one.
What Mastracci ultimately seems to be calling for is a rational appraisal of the values we each hold. But such an undertaking requires nuance and self-awareness, and he offers neither. He makes no mention of the task of coexisting, one which is incumbent upon all of us and which requires some level of humility. His unbending assertion that “logic” (which he fails to define) is superior to “religion” (which he misunderstands) furthers neither of these goals. He does succeed, however, in embodying the dangers of the very assumptions of superiority, dismissal of difference, and imperialism of values that characterized the colonial experience he claims to question. Diversity exists in this world, in this country, and on this campus. Our analytical tools (including logic) can and should be used to understand and come to terms with this diversity in light of our own beliefs.
Abbie Buckman is a U3 Honours Religious Studies student she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Adam Winer is a U2 honours philosophy student. He can be reached at email@example.com.