Choosing For Your Child – The Fallacy Of The ‘Choice’ Argument

I tutor a 12 year old girl in English, since she goes to a Catholic spanish school where their understanding of teaching was left behind somewhere in the Middle Ages. She’s been doing pretty good, actually, I’ve managed to drag her out of a flunk into the green line.

Here’s the funny thing. Yesterday, we were talking about how to build sentences with speculations in them, such as “I might have taken the cookie if I only had the money”. She had a little trouble fully understanding the concept of speculation, so I drew up an example of the Mayas.

“The Mayas”, I said, “were a people who lived in Mexico before the Spanish arrived. They lived in prosperous city states and generally had a blast. But one day, they all just left the cities. Abandoned them, just like that.” and I clicked my fingers for effect.

“Nobody really knows why, but we can speculate! Understand? So, for example, we could say that they died of,” and a I drew a list:

  1. Disease
  2. Famine
  3. Alien invasion

“The first two are plausible. They could have happened. They’ve happened before in other places. But the last one is implausible. It’s so unlikely to have happened we just take a shortcut and say it didn’t happen.”

Her answer was the stone we tripped over before tumbling down the hill.

“Why is it a stupid speculation?”

“The first two are plausible. They could have happened. They’ve happened before in other places. But the last one is implausible. It’s so unlikely to have happened we just take a shortcut and say it didn’t happen.”

I froze in my tracks, for a second wondering whether I should explain the Drake equation to her.

“Well”, I answered, “it’s so unlikely it’s barely believable. Besides, I just invented that example to show you what a stupid speculation was. I don’t know if any respectable historian has ever speculated alien invasion as a reason for the Mayas to evacuate their cities”

I quickly repeated this to her slowly, in simpler English.

To cut a long story short, she then proceeded to anecdote all sorts of supernatural phenomena. One in particular was of a friend of a friend (aren’t they all) who is a nurse at a hospital and one day was abducted by aliens. She had the night shift, and one day night, while driving to work, she suddenly stopped the car and woke up at home, with a tiny shard of extraterrestrial metal embedded in her foot.

I told her I would speculate as to what happened: “Well, the nurse, being on night shift, could have sleepwalked herself all the way back home.”

“Oh yeah! She does sleepwalk!” confided my young pupil.

“And, working in a hospital, it’s possible that she had at one time or other come into contact with Technetium, which is, in fact, a metal that cannot be found naturally on Earth.”

In a way that strongly resembled religious organisations she then proceeded to tell me even more fantastical anecdotes and stories about Ouija boards and devils and so on.

In a way that strongly resembled religious organisations she then proceeded to tell me even more fantastical anecdotes and stories about Ouija boards and devils and so on.

When her mom came to pick her up, I, as usual, briefed her on the content of that lesson, and she laughed at her daughter for believing Ouija boards were real (laughed in a kind of gentle, teasing way, she’s not a bad parent). I told her I was very skeptical because I was:

“A man of science who believes in empirical evidence and in proof”

“Oh”, she replied, “so you don’t have faith?”


“Well, no, not really.”

I very much enjoyed seeing the enlightened expression on her face when I said that some people use the argument “Everyone’s atheist about all the other Gods like Zeus and Thor, I’m just atheist about one more God than you are”.

To cut this part of the story short, it was a textbook theistic vs reason argument. Obviously I wasn’t about to risk my job so I kept it mild. I very much enjoyed seeing the enlightened expression on her face when I said that some people use the argument “Everyone’s atheist about all the other Gods like Zeus and Thor, I’m just atheist about one more God than you are”.

Walking back to the parking lot, she used an argument that mortified me.

“You see”, she said, “I’m raising my children in the Christian [Catholic] faith. When they’re 18, they have every right to walk away from it if they want to. My brothers and sisters have had the same choice and some of them have taken it”

It’s like giving cigarettes to your kids until they’re 18 and then expecting them to make a choice about wanting to continue smoking or not.

I didn’t want to risk my job, see, so I just finished the conversation by nodding and by telling my pupil that I was a Libertarian and that I would die to defend her right to believe whatever she wanted to believe (and I probably earned myself a tidy raise).

But I couldn’t stop thinking about what the mom had said. She indoctrinated her own child and pretends that it has a choice? This is nothing short than a self-apologetic excuse for child abuse. It’s like giving cigarettes to your kids until they’re 18 and then expecting them to make a choice about wanting to continue smoking or not.

I was raised in an environment of academics and critical thinking. I’m not trying to come off as ‘holier-than’ my pupil’s mom is, but honestly…

Dawkins was right on track when he described religious education as child abuse. In Spain, not only are they inept at teaching languages, but that poor kid is going to go through the rest of her life honestly believing that if she prays to one of a myriad of saints and virgins she’ll go to Heaven. She’ll believe that a guy with good ideas rose from the dead and is God. Chances are by the time she hits adulthood, she’ll no longer believe in Ouija boards. But given her indoctrination of obedience and unquestionable faith, I’m not so sure she’ll be able to give up any childhood belief.

She indoctrinated her own child and pretends that it has a choice?

My pupil, on finding out I was atheist, jokingly pointed an accusing finger at me and said “unbeliever!”. I smirked, but I’m not sure if I was fully able to coneal my face of pure horror.

Ma’am, you and your kid are smart people. But you’re not giving her any kind of choice.


19 Responses

  1. Hmmm… now this is odd. I too have been raised in an environment of academics and critical thinking. My dad is a university graduate professor, world renown in his field, and I myself am currently working towards a PhD. I don’t claim to be extraordinarily smart, but I know how to use gray matter.

    And, your claims about indoctrination seem a little fishy to me.

    How do you propose we don’t indoctrinate our children? We have no natural instincts, so we watch and imitate from day 1. Trying to raise a child without indoctrination is like trying to raise a child without opinions, or without a culture. Indoctrination is a loaded word, describing a process that can’t be helped. It’s loaded because, through popular use, it immediately points an accusing finger at the church. However the exact same process (i.e. the instillation of beliefs about which the child will have a difficult time being flexible) will occur regardless of how you raise him/her.

    Or, if you somehow manage to raise a child to be completely flexible in all beliefs, you’d have the mental equivalent of a person without a skeleton. Unhealthy is an understatement.

    In the event that indoctrination is inevitable, which you may or may not grant but if you’ve read the above should seem at least plausible, we need to teach our children to believe something. Wouldn’t you agree then, that it would be expedient to do ones absolute best to find the “truth” and teach this?

  2. No, clearly children need an example. But this woman was teaching her child in one religion. She was teaching that the Church’s word was infallible and other ridiculous things.

    I don’t want to come off as someone who has any idea of parenting – hopefully I won’t have to find out for a while :P. But the natural thing for me would be to teach critical thinking and independence of thought.

    Clearly the child is going to become part of what the parents teach it. A religious education, however, is completely superfluous.

    I was putting myself as an example as someone who has had exactly zero religious education. In fact, in History lessons at school we learned about the Islamic Empire and in Geography we learned about Hinduism, all in completely neutral and objective terms (as far as one could use this word). I really did have a choice, and in fact at one point, during a visit to my motherland of Serbia, I felt reconnected and considered taking up religion seriously as homage to my origins. Luckily, I desisted (as many ADD people would), but at least I had the chance of an informed choice.

  3. It is indoctrination because the child is not allowed to speculate on the logical conclusions one could come to based on the possible false premise. Nor is the child allowed to ask why daily observations seem to contradict the premise:
    He kisses tragedy like a clown.
    Aloofoe I call him;
    his true name
    I shall not speak

    He loves everyone,
    a true romantic
    though clowning around

    Aloofoe has many children
    born to many mothers
    who rarely hear him speak

    Many of his children are infamous:
    one has killed millions

    Occasionally he visits a child, but
    the little one doesn’t recognize him
    just cries when he leaves without gifts

    Aloofoe knows the little one
    will be bludgeoned to death by his brother
    watches it happen

    Everyone loves Aloofoe, just clowning around.
    He loves everyone as a romantic does

    One child will rape his sister
    another already has
    though Aloofoe murmurs softly
    barely heard,
    says he loves his children
    while the Mothers are abandoned

    Everyone loves Aloofoe as they must

    His children run wild
    run amok as
    free spirits will

    He would teach them
    if he could, but
    they don’t know him
    a multi-dysfunctional
    poor parent

    Such a prolific father
    bringing flowers and such
    many admire him because
    Aloofoe is God
    — Douglas Gilbert
    Free Verse Poetry

  4. All children are indoctrinated in some way. You can’t raise a child in a void. And I didn’t see in the original post where the mother didn’t allow her child to question.

    Everyone has faith in something. You have faith that God doesn’t exist, apparently, and you’re entitled to that.

    If you were raising children, they would be indoctrinated to think as you do merely by being exposed to life with you.

  5. No, I’m not referring to raising children in a ‘void’. I’m referring to raising them in reason and rationale. Talking to them about Santa Claus is reasonable because it spurs the imagination and in the end they question it on their own terms.

    However, teaching them that a religious institution is inviolable as a religious education would do is tantamount to indoctrination.

    The mother never forbade questioning. But the child has been raised to be completely immune from doubt, which is terrible. During the small discussion I had with the mother, the child just nodded her head and said “ah no, I believe in Ouija boards and in God and that’s that”. My heart broke and it was then I realised that if I pushed it further I would lose my job!

  6. Ah, and it’s not that I have faith in the absence of a God. I believe in empirical evidence, proof and science. So far, God’s existence remains in serious, serious doubt using standard scientific methods. The negative hypothesis: “God does not exist” remains accepted, to me at least, because there is no proof to reject it.

    And you might try to say I have faith in evidence, then, but evidence is not something you have faith in. Evidence is or isn’t. Evidence either proves or disproves. You can hope for evidence to exist, you can cook evidence, but it’s either there or it isn’t. Faith implies almost futile hope that something will happen.

    Evidence just happens. I don’t need to have faith in it.

  7. Well, as I said, all children are going to be raised with some kind of faith, whether faith in God or faith that there is no God.

    I think it takes a pretty big leap of faith to raise a child in an atheist environment, given that if you are wrong you’re supposedly sending him to an eternity of torment.

    Then again, I raise my family in what is closest to a Christian environment, although questioning and discussing are encouraged. Heck, maybe they can fix some of my doubts.

    But if it turns out that, say, Islam is the one true religion, I’ve set my own kids up for hell.

  8. Oops–you were commenting at the same time. I’m not an idiot; I just didn’t see your second comment before I posted mine.

  9. There is another choice: there might be a spiritual realm of souls that does not require a God. All of us at some point will die. It doesn’t make logical sense to go out of existence. So it would seem reasonable to construct a theory. There is some data about it but not yet enough to be at a high level of confidence.

  10. No problem, Marcia πŸ™‚

    @Doug It might very well make logical sense. The human body is, as my physics teacher likes to put it, a large bag of dirty water. The brain is no exception. Your consciousness is at the base level a series of electrical impulses carried across synapses and nerves. Like taking a battery out of a flashlight, once you die, your ‘bag of water’ decomposes and the electrical impulses stop.

    Like I treated the God null hypothesis, you could of course construct a hypothesis for an afterlife. Unfortunately, the proof necessary could only be provided by people who have already died!

  11. eltower,
    There was an experiment where someone put aside a document, locked it in a safe, and asked that it not be opened until after death. After his death, several psychics around the world purported to get messages from him. Each one got a part of the document. The messages(purportedly from the departed) were designed to make no sense to each individual. The scrambled messages kept coming for several years…until finally matched to the document… There have been all kinds of clever experiments tried over the years but were ignored or denounced without careful examination. Much reincarnation data has also been collected and ignored. Reputable scientists have been shamed into not participating anymore. It would interesting to see a revival of legitimate experiments with vigorous controls.

  12. Greetings. This is the first time to your blog…I can honestly say I cannot remember how I came across it. In any event I agree with your post. I, too, have read “The God Delusion” and agree with Dawkins as well.

    Yes…it IS indoctrination. You may not realize it…but it is. If you are of a faith chances are you make your kids go with you to church or other holy place at least once a week or as your faith demands…not many parents allow their children the choice to stay home. I know I wasn’t when I was younger. If the kids ask questions they are quickly given answers by their elders that may not be you on how your faith is the correct faith. If you persist in asking then you are told that you are going against God and his teachings…you have to have faith. The woman mentioned was sending her child to a Catholic school in which (like many religious schools) I am sure have classes devoted around the Bible and it’s contents and why this flavor of faith is the correct one and others aren’t.

    May parents do, in fact, offer their child(ren) the choice. Those parents are few and far between. Even Pagan parents (and I know quite a few) don’t offer their kids choice like they would have you believe. They offer the same justification as quoted above…when they are older then can choose…but until that time they are taught almost exclusively the parent’s particular flavor of Paganism. They will not know that they have choices when they get older as “their” was is going to be the right way and anything else will be wrong.

    I have a son. I am Buddhist. My husband is Athiest. My son will have a choice. When religions are spoken about we will talk about my beliefs, my husband’s, and all others as well. The only way for him to make an informed decision that is right for him and his spirit is to inform him of his options. Many children do not get that.

    Anyway, good article. I may have to visit here again another day.


  13. Hey Sandy, glad to be read!

    The Catholic school my pupil attends is, like most (if not all) other Catholic schools in Spain very dogmatic. There is an obligatory ‘Religion’ class, but interestingly enough it consists exclusively of the Catholic doctrine.

    Asking my pupil about her classes, just to make her talk in English, I poked out of curiosity and asked whether they learned about, say, Hinduism or Judaism or whatever in Religion and she looked a little puzzled and said “No, of course not, we learn Religion, like the life of Jesus and stuff”.

  14. Hello again…I just wanted to appologize for my typos…it is difficult to type correctly when you have a 2yr old hanging on you and calling your name every 5 minutes. πŸ™‚

    Anyway…as to the “they will have a choice later” argument…I was raised in the Church of Christ…and I have to admit that I did not know I had a choice until I was 25 years old and aquired a penpal that was Wiccan. Until then COC/Christianity was the only way to go. Any other religion was bad or a myth.

  15. Hey, typos are the new tyops.

    The ‘they will have a choice later’ argument is also kind of moot since children, well, learn, like children should. If you teach them only one thing it’s going to be bloody hard for them to get it ‘unlearned’.

    The British education system taught me in Year 9 that atoms looked like Solar Systems. Learning in Year 12 that they are actually like fuzz balls of probabilities was a bitch to get used to. And this is with science, which is meant to be disputed by nature! I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone steeped in religion from childhood.

  16. It is very difficult to say the least to change. Even now that I am no longer a Christian by choice…even now that I have embraced Buddha’s Teachings…even now I find myself scared now and again that I am going to hell. In my mind there is that question of “what if they are right?” I know in my heart I am following the right path as I have never been happier. When I still tried to conform to the Christian faith I was miserable and depressed and wondered what I did that God would punish me so.

    It wasn’t until I left that I became freed from *most* of that and was able to enjoy life and the good that comes with it and deal with the bad that has to come from living…but occasionally once in a blue moom something will happen and the thought of “what if they are right” pops in my head (usually when people talk about the end of the world…I don’t know…I am not a psycologist to explain it). And it is scary to think about and I struggle with it still.

    I wish that I DID have the choice so I wouldn’t have that question pop into my mind as I know that it is just what they brainwashed me to believe…and that is what they want…for that idea to stay in my brain so maybe I will go back to the Faith.

    But I am one stubborn b*. I am not about to go back to a faith that degrades me as a woman and wife and just all around makes me depressed.

  17. I actually am raising a child and soon to be children without the indoctrination of religion. We have religious family members and our son can clearly see what they believe. I have never pushed on him religion or my own atheism. He is free to believe what he wants, no pressure.
    However, if you were to raise your child a christian then the pressure is there. If he chooses to not believe anymore, then he is going to hell… Nice.
    If my son chooses to believe in god later on, then no threat from me or my beliefs (or lack thereof)
    Also, in regards to the above comment “I think it takes a pretty big leap of faith to raise a child in an atheist environment, given that if you are wrong you’re supposedly sending him to an eternity of torment.” by Marcia. Surely the arguement goes the same for whatever you believe in. For all you know (and to be fair you know as much as me about the afterlife) my Buddhist relatives are right and you are screwed. That is hardly an arguement for a leap of faith.

  18. San Nakji…this is like what I was talking about with someone else a while ago. She said that if there was ONE truth wouldn’t it make sense to follow it. And on the surface it makes sense…but she couldn’t understand my POV that there isn’t ONE truth about God…if there was there wouldn’t be so many paths. The way I see it…there are so many ways and God isn’t giving on which one is the right one as they all claim to be the right one…may as well just pick one and stick with it. As long as you live life as a decent person what difference doesn it make?

  19. […] Nobody in the science community will try and force someone not to believe in Intelligent Design, the notion of a higher purpose in the universe. Nobody will say a word about how the parents tries to educate indoctrinate their child within the realm of their home and/or church (although perhaps they should). […]

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