Labelling children

Oct 30, 2011 Comments Off by

Richard Dawkins has brought our attention in recent years to how wrong it is to automatically label young children with the religion of their parents. “That is/you are an X” are the two formulations this error takes. The problem is, just as there’s only so young one can be if one can form one’s own opinions on politics, economics, philosophy, ethics, history or science, there’s only so young one can be if one can form one’s own opinions on questions of metaphysics, including the origin stories, teleology and eschatology inherent in religious doctrines. But how old must one be before it is OK to ascribe labels? Clearly newborn babies don’t deserve such classification, which often goes on. But when Ricky Gervais says he became an atheist at the age of 9 (or, in fewer accounts, 8), can his statement fit into these concerns? Perhaps; perhaps the simple question of whether a god exists at all, rather than the much harder one of what kind of god it is if there is one (this is what separates Christians, Jews, Muslims etc.), can be achieved at a young age. But this question will require a bit more thought.

Circa 1900 psychologists tried to quantify intelligence. Their earliest popular attempt was the IQ. It conjectures a “mental age” for children, a measure of how old a child that intellectually capable would normally be. The IQ expresses this age as a percentage (not a quotient; it should have been called an IP) of the “chronological” (i.e. real) age of the child. A number of problems with IQs have been raised since then, and so have several alternative measures of intelligence that may be better. I won’t go into these (or the details of how the notion of an IQ is generalised to those smarter than an average adult), however, because my point is this: the question we should be asking is not at what chronological age a person can be religiously labelled, but at what mental age. In other words, smart children are in a better position to call themselves (a)theists when young than their less intelligent counterparts. You may have heard of Mason Crumpacker, an astonishingly intelligent and well–read girl who recently impressed even Christopher Hitchens in a protracted conversation with him when she was 8. (All power to him for being so generous with his time, incidentally.) Mason’s mother Ann* made clear to Hitchens during the conversation that, Mason’s stated desire to be a freethinker notwithstanding, her mother didn’t intend to tell her what to think. While my argument might suggest Mason is in a position to self–label and thus be labelled by others, the issue her mother raises is worth raising too, because the cruelty of forcing a child in a certain direction as if it can be automated is the main flaw in premature labelling.

Having said all this, surely even an idiot can be labelled and can self–label once an idiot. Perhaps a “this much mental age or that much real age, whichever comes first” criterion is appropriate. There is something reminiscent of our legal system about it. Clearly these are thorny questions. “There is no such thing as a type X child” statements, however far Dawkins loves them, may be too simple. But his crucial point, that labels are applied too soon, seems indisputable.

(* This is one of several spellings I’ve seen; the Internet or, for that matter if I recall correctly, even WEIT has been inconsistent on it.)

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About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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