Beyond Reason

Free Will and Your Parents

Posted in Philosophy by Abigail on May 7, 2008

Unfortunately, I don’t have the knowledge to talk on free will very well, but a new thought’s materialized: should parents teach their children anything foundational?

Here’s the source of such a vague question: Dawkins has stated that parents who inculcate religious beliefs within their own children are guilty of a form of child abuse. To an extent I can see what he’s saying (although I have not read his statement in context, so I may not fully understand it). Here’s my question in a more specific form: are you reducing a person’s freedom by “inculcating” that person when he is young?

And, of course, the definition of inculcate:

  • To implant by repeated statement or admonition; teach persistently and earnestly: to inculcate virtue in the young.
  • To cause or influence (someone) to accept an idea or feeling: Socrates inculcated his pupils with the love of truth.
  • To impress (something) upon the mind of another by frequent instruction or repetition; instill: inculcating sound principles.

In sum, to inculcate is “to cause to accept a belief/idea through repetition.”

I suppose, in relation to Dawkin’s comment, he is only concerned about a particular type of belief. In other words, if you inculcate your children to believe that touching a hot stove is bad, then that’s good. But, to inculcate your children with religious beliefs is bad. The problem is clearly the subject being inculcated. And here I differ from many: technically speaking, “religion” does not include a belief in the supernatural, although it may. (Refer to Instead what it refers to is something quite broad: addressing, in some manner, the foundational questions of human existence, no matter the conclusion. Using the technical definition, all people are religious for the simple reason that, unless you die before the age of 3, you’ve asked a “big” question and most likely have some theoretical answer.

Using the technically accurate definition, Dawkins is suggesting that parents should teach their children about nothing that matters. I’d have to say that’s child abuse. (However, I also doubt he means the technically accurate meaning of the word “religion.”)

With that aside, back to the original question: are you reducing a person’s freedom by “inculcating” that person when he is young?

I was inculcated as a child. No question about it. Hands down. I am the poster child for this. Was it more likely that I would believe my parents over other people? You bet! All the way. All children are, effectively, brainwashed, whether it’s to believe in God or in no God. They don’t have the mental capacity to process and truly engage such thoughts. And this isn’t the result of parents being cruel; this is the result of children being children. Can we ask children to be otherwise? Again, can we ask children to be otherwise? If no, is there any merit to Dawkins’ implicit idea that parents never teach their children about anything that matters? Is that not an abdication of a prime and central responsibility?

Here’s a question on brainwashing (a cousin of inculcating): is it truly brainwashing if you tell the brainwashee to go check out what you’ve just told him? In other words, is it truly brainwashing if you encourage thinking at all levels, including challenging the very concept you just taught him? I was encouraged to do exactly this, from the very beginning. And I have. I have felt free to leave my parents way of thinking. I know what they think. I have developed my own ability to think. I have strip-searched the concepts they have inculcated me with (and pretty much every other concept I have been given), and feel comfortable that I have not been either brainwashed or abused. (Of course, perhaps the universe or God is controlling my mind, at which point feel free to stop reading my blog ’cause it’s all over. We assume this is not the case; there is no demonstrating it.)

So, has a child’s freedom been reduced because he has been taught one thing at the exclusion of something else? This raises the far larger question of human freedom which I could address because bloggers need no credentials to talk on things they don’t know… so I’ll address it. We assume our own freedom by thinking. Inside of what bounds that thinking exists, I do not know, but it is clear that those bounds exist. (I.e.There are limits to what a human consciousness can process and achieve. This should be clear from simple analogy. If my arm span is only 5’8, and I am therefore physically limited, do I have any cause to assume that my mental capacity is not also limited? You must provide a reason to deviate from a pattern. I see no reason.)

The answer? The child’s freedom has not been affected if, and only if, after (or during) the inculcation he is encouraged to think. Thinking, to me, appears to be the same as free will. It is freedom in its essence. And yet the freedom of every human being exists within bounds. So, the real question is, was there much freedom to reduce to begin with? That is for someone else to address.

So, to my Mom – I love you! Dad, you’re kinda cool too.

Love, your inculcated child.

To everyone else, that feels like a rather academic post. Sorry! Thoughts? Concerns? Confessions? Your best methods at inculcation? How do you manipulate people? Was Dawkins inculcated as a child? Is your brain in a vat? Should I stop asking questions?


6 Responses to 'Free Will and Your Parents'

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  1. Epiphanist said,

    It’s been a long time. My answers to the questions would be that you have to have a framework and you have to take advantage of the learning that has been done before. On an intellectual level, the point of philosophy is to provide that framework, be it religious or secular philosophy. My reality is different to Dawkins’, his framework comes nowhere close to my experience of this existence. Most of our learning is done at a very early age and doesn’t relate well to intellectual concepts. If you don’t love your parents you really mess up your head at a basic level. Glad I have a choice.

  2. Chris said,

    It’s funny how we can over think something isn’t it? I’m guilty of this.

    Well, there’s a pragmatic, philosophical stance I would have; namely, it’s healthy to encourage your child to think for the themselves, don’t indoctrinate them, etc. But when we enter into a theological reasoning we are confronted that we should raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. There actually exists no wiggle room in that.

    We can however encourage our children to be Bereans!

  3. amandalaine said,

    Well, Chris, I guess that’s my question – when it comes “theological reasoning”, is it actually reasoning if you started out by assuming the answer? I can see what Dawkin’s is saying if a parent takes this approach. A parent has incredible weight over his child and that child is going to feel TOTALLY unfree to disagree with something his parent feels so strongly about.

    I don’t see how these things come together – true reasoning (in which you don’t assume the answer ahead of time) and commitment to your faith (in which, by definition, you have assumed the answer). Out of respect for true reasoning, should a parent encourage a child to TRULY challenge all aspects of a faith system (which includes the possibility of rejecting it)… or just tell them “here’s what I believe, don’t challenge.”?

  4. Brad said,

    Back at it again I see Amanda…
    Thanks for the heads up in e-mail. Dawkins point about inculcation is really a truth claim not a treatise on methodology. There are some things which are only initially learned by repetition. Language and mathematics certainly wouldn’t fall under Dawkins eye as evil inculcation. Even the high and mighty realm of material sciences can only say to know things by repetition. When you train a child in any way you are always starting with the answer-all instruction is authority. Parents are always limiting the freedom of a child…On a hike “Don’t eat that mushroom” At home don’t stick your finger in that socket. Should the child check the sources-why not?
    Most all experience to a child is formless; it’s the parents duty to form and inform their child’s experiences. It seems counterfactual that children feel unfree to challenge their parents beliefs. It seems to me that is where the vast majority of family conflict comes from. We may look back later in life and say “thanks for not letting me buy that Mustang or get that tattoo”. Why is “thanks for bringing me up in the knowledge of the Lord” not given equal treatment?

  5. amandalaine said,

    Hey Brad, great to hear from you again!

    I didn’t really understand this… “Dawkins point about inculcation is really a truth claim not a treatise on methodology.” Sorry. Maybe I’m retarded.

    Counterfactual is a new word for me!


    Well, Chris raised a concept I’m very curious about: “theological reasoning.” Here’s my dillema: a scholastic Christian (or person of any other faith) is taught two potentially contradictory things: faith and the ability to challenge. Faith meaning “believe these unprovable things” and ‘the ability to challenge’ meaning “think”. If the ability to challenge is taken seriously, then the outcome is unknown. But, inside a faith, you can’t do this. Meaning, when I say “Is Christianity true?” I am not able to answer “no”. This means there was no point in me asking (because the only answer is yes) which means I’m not really reasoning.

    So, I would say, “theological reasoning” is not fair. It’s self-contradictory. (Although obviously, within particular bounds, there’s a whole heck of a lot of reasoning in theology.)

    Ok, I’ve said a lot of nonsense. Here’s my question: should a parent teach that child his faith AND give him the ability to challenge it (which could lead to rejecting the faith) or just teach him the faith?

  6. amandalaine said,

    By the way, I don’t know WHERE that “Possibly related posts: ….” things came from up above. I’m not responsible for that!


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