Friday, January 9, 2009

Stolen future: does religious freedom harm children's rights?

Some time ago a friend lent me a book called Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels (written by Hella Winston), and reading it led me to question some firmly held beliefs about freedom of religion.

Having been raised in a democracy and school-nursed on the American concept that the Bill of Rights and Constitution are sacrosanct and untouchable, I never really delved into the concept of religious freedom. Unchosen forced me to go there.

Freedom of religion as applies simply to independent adults is easy enough to grasp. We should all be free to practice whatever religion suits our fancy, as long as it doesn't actively hurt anyone else. That means that my mother can waft her way into shamanism, my neighbor can practice his run-of-the-mill Presbyterianism, my friends can howl at the moon every month, and I can remain an atheist. Despite the rise of megachurches and hard-core right-wing evangelists in the US, we've all rubbed along together fairly well.

But what's pulled me up is the question of children. American custom, at least, has always held to the belief that parents should be allowed to bring up their children in the religion--or lack thereof--of the parents' choice, as long as it doesn't involve harming said children. The cults in which prepubescent girls are forced to marry older male leaders being a case of unacceptable.

When it comes to mental hurt or injury, outside of brainwashing, things get a little murkier. That's the road this reading has sent me down.

Unchosen is the first in-depth book I've ever read of a notoriously closed religion, Hasidic Judaism. (Despite the fact that my father's parents were raised in Ukrainian Jewish ghettoes, I know next to zilch about Orthodox practices and beliefs. He, after all, was raised atheist, which tells you something about how much his parents loved their upbringing.) It chronicles the lives of several young adults in the Hasidic community of Brooklyn, a burb of New York City. Raised in strict traditional fashion, a young man studies religious texts and becomes a tutor of the same, and a young woman shaves off all her hair when entering marriage.

A few years down the road, at the time the author met these people, they have individually been nudging the edges of the outside world for some time, having realized, in their mid-twenties, that there's a whole lot more out there than they can find on their neighborhood streets. More people, more ways of thinking, more ways of living.

The problem is, none of these people are equipped with the social, economic, or educational tools needed to survive in that outside world. The women the author meets have only a 4th-grade education. The men have what run-of-the-mill secular Westerners might deem a warped view of sex and sexuality. Many of the men and women barely speak English. Not a one of them is trained in any useful trade or skill beyond reading Hebrew, caring for children, or basic carpentry, this in the center of one of the world's great metropolises of opportunity.

After finishing the book, I was left with the feeling that, by giving adults the freedom to raise their children in their own religion, and by allowing them to keep their children from contact with the outside world, we have, by societal assent, stolen these people's freedom to choose almost anything once they become adults.

Western societies have for some time agreed that every child must have a minimal education. In America the idea is that the education gives them a chance to craft a future on par with their peers. When did we allow freedom of religious upbringing to trump children's chances to craft their own futures? What kind of future can a child have when their parents and immediate surrounding culture prevent them from learning the language of the country they're living in, much less its customs, mores, and skills required to make a living?

This look at Hasidic Judaism led me to think about other even more pleasant-looking cultures, such as the Amish or Hutterite communities. How many adults are simmering away under religious restriction, chafing at the traditions they were raised in but lacking the skills and knowledge to make other choices?

There's a flip side to this, too. As an atheist, I have no particular interest in taking my child to church down the road. As a secular humanist, though, I am conscious of wanting him to make his own choices, and certainly of the need to be educated in the religious cultures and beliefs of the society we live in, as well as others. At some point he'll probably attend Sunday School and we'll delve into knotty Bible questions ("Yes, some people do believe that God created the whole world in 7 days." Pause. "No, mummy doesn't believe in that." Pause. "Well, I don't think that really makes mummy wicked. That's probably not what they meant." Fear crawls over child's face. "No, mummy doesn't believe she's going to hell, either." Oh, shit. "Honey, don't cry, mummy's not going anywhere where she'll get burnt. Neither are you." Hugs, sobs, days of disbelief and worry on child's part follow. "I think we'll try a different church this time. Isn't there a book of Bible stories that doesn't scare the crap off kids?"). How many other atheists out there, though, will give their children that freedom?

Children might be dependent on their parents, but one day they will become adults. Are the rights of parents eternally shortchanging the rights of future generations? Where do we draw the line between religion freedom and individual freedom?

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