February 17, 2010

Judicially-Enforced Indoctrination

Divorced couples use their children as pawns in power plays against one another all the time.  It's despicable.

Parents and adults of all sorts also believe that they have a religious duty to indoctrinate children into their weird religions, and that it is imperative that they do so before the child attains the age of reason and critical thinking skills.  And indeed, the Constitution of the United States gives them the right to do so, in possibly the only two substantive due process cases that social conservatives familiar with the law actually like, Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) 269 U.S. 510, and Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) 262 U.S. 390.  Now, as I've discovered in my own practice, the scope of the parental rights articulated in Pierce and Meyer are probably limited to a very close orbit around the facts of those particular cases.  But that doesn't mean that this substantive due process right doesn't come up.

Which is how we get results like this -- Catholic guy marries Jewish girl, ostensibly converts to Judaism, has baby with Jewish girl, then divorces her and reverts to Catholicism, and then he pours some water over the baby's head and mumbles a few ill-understood words, with the result that he faces charges of contempt of court because he used the child in an utterly meaningless ritual that she is far too young to even be able to remember much less understand, in violation of the wishes of the custodial mother who would prefer that the infant be used in different but equally meaningless rituals that she will still be far too young to even be able to remember much less understand.  A man could easily be going to go to jail for doing that and is presently under a court order to not expose the girl to any religion but the Jewish faith.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues passionately that the indoctrination of children into religions before they are able to decide about the supernatural for themselves is a form of child abuse which people of morality ought to oppose.  I'm not entirely sure if I buy that, because whatever else we might say about indoctrinating children into religions, it is pretty clearly a well-intentioned act.  That doesn't necessarily mean that we should exonerate it morally, of course; it's not too hard to think of other things that parents do, or used to do, with the intent of benefiting or at least educating their children which we now think of as morally indefensible.  And I also do think that parents have a presumptive right to raise their children as they see fit and are presumptively the best judges of their childrens' best interests.  It should take a heavy burden to overcome that presumption.  Which, of course, is what the Constitutional cases I mentioned before are all about, and why whatever the merits of Dawkins' quite well-grounded idea that there are no "Christian children," just children of Christian parents, can't realistically ever be anything more than an intellectual exercise in this country.

If this seems like an uncomfortable concept to you, take a moment to imagine a bizarre cult.  One that advocates communion with spirits through the ritualized use of mind-altering drugs, the mutilation of children' genitals, and preaches the moral imperative of adhering to the literal translation of nonsense poetry from an age before gunpowder.  You'd probably think that raising children in that environment was dangerous.  You'd be right, too, because when you put nutty religious beliefs and children together, sometimes children dieI'm not just making this up -- religion kills children.  Of course, the ritualized use of mind-altering drugs, the mutilation of children' genitals, and preaching the moral imperative of adhering to the literal translation of nonsense poetry from an age before gunpowder are all things that one could attribute to any of a number of  flavors of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.

So I look at a case like this one from Chicago, and I have to wonder about the just how worthy of respect concepts like a parent's Constitutional right to raise her child as she sees fit, the automatic assumption of respect and tolerance for religious beliefs, and the idea of governmental neutrality towards religions really are when they play out to their extremes like this.  Here, the little girl's primary custodial parent is her mother, who will indoctrinate the girl to be Jewish.  But her father hasn't lost his rights under Meyer and Pierce because of the divorce.  So I think the judge exceeded the Constitution in issuing her restraining order and will probably wind up jailing the father in violation of those Constitutional rights in a couple of weeks.

But here's the thing -- the little girl in this story is three years old.  The baptism ceremony can't possibly mean anything to her.  The court is not really addressing about the girl's religious beliefs here -- a three-year old doesn't have any religious beliefs; at most, she will parrot things she can't possibly understand in order to please whatever adult she is with.  What this case addresses is the right to brainwash the child into religion A or religion B.  After all, there is no objective reason to choose Judaism over Christianity.  They are equally fanciful mythologies.  And the court cannot favor one over the other.  Later in life, the girl is going to grow old enough to look at different religions and compare them on their merits.  But it's very difficult for someone to do that objectively when they have been brainwashed their whole lives into accepting as true the myths of whatever religion their parent chose to tell them were the right religion -- which is why the children of Christians tend to become Christian themselves, why the children of Jews tend to become Jews themselves, the children of Muslims tend to become Muslims themselves, and so on.

It is vexing indeed that a court should have to be tied up in these legal knots about how to soften a child's mind so that when she becomes an adult, her powers of reason will be handicapped in this fashion -- picking and choosing between religions, picking and choosing between parents who have equal rights as compared to one another.  It is intensely aggravating that the Constitution I am sworn to protect and uphold enshrines the right to do this to a child as a fundamental right, and both mother and father are to be condemned for their immature and unnecessary actions compelling the court to wade into these treacherous waters in the first place instead of behaving like the adults they are supposed to be.

Just think of all the resources that have been wasted on this.  Hours of the court's time that could have been spent handling other cases, forcing judges and law clerks to dig deep into complex, murky, and difficult Constitutional territory (and probably coming up with the wrong answer despite what I'm sure were their best efforts).  Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of dollars on lawyers.  All the anger and anguish.  A man's freedom.  All over something that has no objective meaning and which the girl herself will barely remember.  (Although when she's old enough to find out about this, she'll be able to research the issue and no doubt be utterly humiliated.  Good job, mom and dad!)

Far better would have been a recognition on the part of everyone involved -- mom, dad, and judge -- that the girl is going to figure things out for herself one day anyway.  If dad thinks a particular ritual on a three-year old is important to do, and it doesn't hurt the girl to do the ritual, then so be it.  Where's the harm?  It doesn't really make her a Christian.  It doesn't make her any less Jewish.  It doesn't make Christianity true or Judaism true.  But it does expose some rather thorny facts, including the fact that the Constitution protects a parent's right to brainwash her child and honoring that right means sending a man to jail for harmlessly splashing some water on his own daughter's head.


Dan said...

A few thoughts to share, just for giggles.

1) Being a pediatrician, I am all too familiar with divorced parents who use their children as pawns. It is indeed despicable, and can make management of medical issues incredibly fraught, time-consuming and ineffectual. This particular example is a legal (and extreme) version of a health-care fiasco I commonly encounter. A curse on both their houses.

2) For what it's worth (which is to say, probably very little), there are a few of us somewhat blinkered Christian types who basically recognize that they belong to a mystery cult with remarkable staying power. Some of us even choose to raise our children with regular exposure to said mystery cult, because doing so gives us a sense of meaning in life and a set of moral precepts around which to form a coherent behavioral code. We also (perhaps naively) plan to raise our kids with a healthy dose of skepticism, and hope to take it in our stride if said kids say "nuts to all that," convert to Jainism and give our particular mystery cult the finger in due time. This does not necessarily mean that we are dooming our kids to a life of compromised reasoning ability.

Burt Likko said...

We mostly agree, Dan.

My point about critical thinking is aimed only at the religion one is raised to believe is the "true" one. Being raised in a religion can cause one to develop a "blind spot" in those critical reasoning skills which would not necessarily apply (and likely would not apply) to any subject other than that religion.

I could be picky and point out that the "coherent behavioral code" could just as easily be characterized as arising despite the actual teachings of that religion rather than as a result of it. But that's getting away from the focus of the post.

What I'm curious about is how you dispense medical advice and treatment to a child when the parents are behaving this way. If I'm a lawyer in that situation, I can at least be someone's advocate, or if I were the judge I could exercise some personal discretion about the best interests of the child. But as a doctor, you can't do anything to the kid unless at least one parent consents. Caduceus' Staff, that must be a difficult ethical position for you! What do you do?

Dan said...

I will happily concede that a coherent moral code can quite easily be constructed absent a religious foundation. Perhaps I'm just lazy in that I like my coherent moral codes ready-made. Regardless, while we're raising our kid Christian, among his passel of godparents were a Muslim, an atheist Jew and her atheist husband and a handful of liberal Episcopalians like ourselves. But I guess that's the kind of thing that happens when you let gays like us raise kids -- we get the rules all muddled.

As for parental conflict in the provision of care for kids, I base care on the preference of the parent who brings the child in. If the other parent forcibly objects, I compose a Sternly Worded Letter about medical decision-making being based on available evidence, and that both parents are welcome to attend appointments, but cannot contravene plans made in their absence. I further make it clear that failure to comply with an appropriately-prescribed course of treatment could be considered neglectful, and can be taken into account when custody disputes arise. (In the case of controversial matters like ADHD, this can be very tricky.) Then, if conflict continues I simply refuse to offer non-emergent care until parents can work out an acceptable compromise.