Children Can’t Choose Their Religion, But Judges Can Do It For Them
August 6, 2012
#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.