Children Can’t Choose Their Religion, But Judges Can Do It For Them

August 6, 2012

When a judge in the United Kingdom ruled last week that a 10-year-old girl, born into a Jewish family, can be baptized according to her wishes, is this child choosing a religion, or is this judge really choosing it for her?
I can't see how this judge's decision does anything to respect freedom of religion or strengthen religious liberty.

Children can make religious choices, to be sure.  Like this girl, any child can express preferences about religious matters to the extent that intelligence and maturity levels permit.  But the scope of those preferences must be proportionally small.  Children can prefer to attend the church that a parent attends and join religious activities with their young peers.  In this UK case, it appears that this girl expressed her wish to be baptized after going to a Protestant church with her father, and participating in an evangelical Christian festival. (See the London Telegraph article and a blog at God Discussion.)

Children can be religious, just like adults.  It’s only natural for religions to supply age-appropriate activities and education designed to indoctrinate people into a faith.  A religious faith can be quite simple.  Fully understanding the details of a religion’s theology is not required for membership in a religion, in the same way that fully understanding every philosophical argument against god is not required for being an atheist.  Any religion has simplified versions of its narrative easy enough for bright children to follow, and the kinds of religious experiences desired by a religion can be aroused in children.  In fact, it is probably easier to elicit basic religious experiences in children, since they resonate more to their immediate social surroundings and naively take emotions to be a sure guide to what is important. That is why successful religions never overlook childhood. 

Children can make religious choices and religiously participate in church activities.  To that extent, they can be religious, in this minimal sense.  However, children can’t decide to "have a religion" in any full sense.  This recent UK court decision explains why. 

Judge John Platt’s decision relied on many factors in this unusual case.  Two factors apparently weighed heavily on his mind as he concluded that this girl should be baptized as she wishes.  First, being born into a Jewish family (both parents and all four grandparents are Jewish – the father only recently left Judaism himself) is far from enough to be truly Jewish, at least according to Judge Platt.  The judge complained that the family had done little to formally indoctrinate this girl into Judaism so far.  Second, according to Judge Platt, this girl’s emotional conviction that she directly encountered God is quite sufficient for knowing what religion she should follow.  The judge was seemingly impressed by this girl’s willing conformity to the "rule" that when one has a deeply emotional religious experience, the denomination arousing that experience gets all the credit, and must be able to claim the new convert into its ranks. 

These two criteria – religion cannot be mere ethnic heritage but active indoctrination, and religion is determined by religious experiences among a particular denomination – are pre-eminently and paradigmatically Protestant criteria for true religion.  This judge relied on Protestant criteria to decide that this girl should become Protestant.  This judge might not be personally religious, but he did apply local cultural standards to determine what constitutes religion. 

When a judge uses his or her own understanding of religion to control the religious lives of others, we should be concerned, even if we aren’t much surprised.  But we should be surprised if anyone thinks that this child has chosen her religion.  She hasn’t chosen a religion – she has chosen to feel religious among a religious community at most – precisely because she is unable to appreciate the larger questions of what might constitute a religion, what modes of religious instruction are appropriate, and what the meaning of religious experiences may be.  This judge’s ruling does not "liberate" her choice of religion, but simply imposes one religion all over again, just as religious parents would.  This is not a secular judicial decision, by any means – and by saying this, don’t assume that a secular decision would have instead forbidden baptism.  A secular decision would not have proceeded from an initial verdict on what constitutes genuine religion.

It doesn’t require an atheist to point out these issues, and people of all religions should appreciate their magnitude.  In an age when ignorance about religion and religious diversity seems to be growing, right along with fear and hatred, we surely cannot let our judges decide religion for anyone.


#1 F. Bacon (Guest) on Monday August 06, 2012 at 9:35am

Since it is widely held that children are unable to make decisions in alcohol usage and sex, it would follow that neither are they able to decide a religious one.  If imposed, I think it borders on abuse.

#2 Alex Schindler (Guest) on Monday August 06, 2012 at 10:03am

Thank you for this post. I found the judge’s decision extremely troubling and you helped me articulate why.

In the first place, it is difficult to articulate my feelings about a mother trying to seek a court petition preventing her daughter’s baptism by her recently converted father. This is more involvement than I would like the court system to have in religious affairs. With that said, the judge’s response is an equally extraordinary overstepping of boundaries.

Perhaps as far as he is concerned, it is “best for the child that she be baptized”—words that would be, perhaps, less troubling if the judge were a known atheist or, for that matter, anything but Christian. But that does not make it the business of the legal system. If he had to offer a decision, and that decision had to be a denial of the mother’s petition, then it should have been expressed as non-interference, not “deciding the child’s religion for her.”

As it happens, Jews are an ancient people who do not see ourselves primarily as a ‘religion.’ “Religion” is itself more or less a Christian or Pauline innovation, in the sense of a faith community organized along completely non-ethnic lines. Jewish law, for example, simply does not consider matters of personal theology or faith actionable in a Jewish court (very unlike canon law). What we have is a legal system, governing membership in a society based on roughly constitutional principles, whereby citizenship is conferred mainly by birth, and occasionally by so-called ‘conversion,’ more aptly translated from the Hebrew ‘geruth” (from the word for ‘reside’) as Immigration or Naturalization. Conversion, for its part, in a Jewish context does not involve adaptation of theological principles (in contradistinction to the judge’s expectation that the child be “indoctrinated in her faith,” neither a born Jew nor a convert is as concerned with ‘doctrine’ as with practice of legal norms). It involves immersion in a miqwe—the original ‘baptism’, of course, but without the same theological connotations of Christian baptism—and verbal accentance of the *law* of the Jewish people, and verbal acceptance of joining the Jewish people.

If one is married to the word “religion” for Jews, one can say that we are a people who have a religion. But Atheist Jews are also Jews, and someone who believes in the divinity of the Torah, the unity of God, the prophecy of Moses and so on, but has neither converted nor been born to a Jewish mother, is *not a Jew*. So the Christian categories most comprehensible to the West (of which we are not products) utterly fail to describe us.

What the judge is thus engaged in is an act of cultural imperialism, rejecting the Jewish self-identification in favor of the Christian identification of Judaism as “another religion” like Christianity. This imposition does not only cause the child to lose a faith heritage. It also, more troublingly, causes her to lose an *ethnic* heritage. He did not only take her away from belief in monotheism unencumbered by mysteries like the trinity or virgin birth or the eucharist. He also, quite simply, has virtually ensured that she, and her children, and her children’s children, will fizzle out of membership in the Jewish people. Her sons will in all likelihood not marry Jews, and her grandchildren will not have citizenship in the Jewish nation—one which survived 2 millennia of persecution by clinging to its unique identity and rejecting mere ‘religion’ as a sole identifier. That would not be the case if the child were merely an atheist—a non-believing Jew may easily still identify with the Jewish people and the state of Israel is as full of such types as any urban Jewish center elsewhere. But it will be the case for a child who identifies with Christianity, and so it has always been.

For my part, as someone with a horse in this race, I can only hope the girl comes to her own conclusions over the next few years, and changes her mind. It’s quite true that the British court system has no business trying to convince her one way or the other. It’s also sad that she appears to be a the object of yet another type of parental post-divorce tug-of-war. One hopes that whichever decision she ultimately makes will be as free as possible from the unhelpful influences of her parents, who seem not to know what they’re doing to a young psyche.

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