Growing up Catholic, my parents made me and my three other siblings attend church every Sunday, just as their parents did with them. While my older sisters went to a Catholic elementary school, my brother and I did not, as private schools became too expensive for four children. However, we all attended weekly religion classes, which were required by my church in order for children to make their first Communion and confirmation. While my three siblings and I all attended church on Sunday, went to religion classes, made our first Communion and finally were confirmed into the Catholic Church, none of us are religious today. In fact, none of us desired to be confirmed into the church but did so because of our parents. Forcing children to join a religion before they can fully grasp the beliefs and practices of a that religion can be confusing and distressing. While most intentions are pure, children should not be forced into a religion simply because it is the faith of their parents.
Some argue that in practicing their own faith, Scriptures command them to teach their children. Specifically, Christians may cite Scripture that tells them to instill the words of God into their children “for knowledge, obedience, preservation and continuity,” as corechristianity.com states. While exposing children to religion can increase cultural competence, being forced into religion is a different matter. While growing up, most people at my church knew my family. These people would often compliment my family and speak to us after Mass. In these moments, I felt a connection and sense of community with them. However, as I got older and began to understand the message that the church was putting out, I began to feel alienated as I disagreed with what was frequently preached. Specifically, I began to understand how religious beliefs became interconnected with social and political issues. Because of this, I found myself becoming resentful of the faith, as I felt trapped in something that I did not agree with. This made me wonder, what really happens when religion is forced on children?
Children who are forced into one religion may never realize that they align with another or may be too fearful to tell their parents they are irreligious. Specifically, a study conducted at Florida International University in which all students reported growing up in a religious home found that 30 percent felt that they were forced to follow the religion of their household. This is problematic, as being a part of a religion implies following a set of rules and adopting a strict sense of morality. By forcing their children into practicing a certain religion, individual agency is stripped. These children, pressured by their parents, are told to believe a certain way, regardless of if they agree. Additionally, 60 percent of students in the Florida International University study claimed that they “would be hesitant to tell their parents” if they wanted to show interest in a religion other than the one they grew up with. Children should never feel like they have to submit to a way of believing that they do not agree with. Children should also never feel afraid to tell their parents if they find themselves aligning with a different religion. Forcing a religion on children can cause a divide between the child and their parent and can make children resent religion in general. For this reason, parents should create an environment where beliefs other than their own are acceptable. Most importantly, children should feel comfortable practicing a different religion or no religion at all, if that is what they believe. This can be done if parents expose children to multiple religions and show support for whichever, if any, their child feels connected with.
LGBTQ+ children also face the mental toll of forced religion. Homosexuality is declared sinful in some religions, such as Catholicism, Islam and Orthodox Judaism. Joey, a blogger for the Anxiety Canada website, writes that when he was young, he often feared going to hell for being gay after seeing fellow members of his congregation repeatedly nod their heads in agreement as his priest preached that gay people should be abstinent rather than acting on “intrinsically disordered” desires like same-sex relationships. Hearing this can make any individual, young or old, feel like there is something wrong with them. Specifically, psychologists have found that when gay individuals face rejection from their parents, including due to religious reasons, they can experience “internalized homonegativity,” which is a form of internalized homophobia that contributes to poor mental and physical health. In this way, family members using religion as an excuse to be prejudiced against members of the LGBTQ+ community can be particularly damaging. For this reason, parents should not push their children into a religion that promotes beliefs different from their own. Parents should embrace their children regardless of the religion they choose and should be conscious of how certain religious beliefs could harm their child’s mental well-being.
This is not to say that religion should not be practiced. In fact, those who practice a particular religion may experience increased quality of sleep and overall life satisfaction, as well as lower rates of depression. Religion can also serve as a moral basis that impacts how one chooses to live one’s life. Additionally, religion can provide a sense of comfort for some in providing a community to depend on and offer answers to questions surrounding death. In this way, religion can be a positive addition to one’s life. However, joining a religion should be a choice that one makes for oneself, without coercion or pressure from one’s parents. Therefore, if parents do want to expose their child to religion, they should strive to teach their children objectively, without favoring their own beliefs. In these situations, children should be exposed to multiple religions starting at a young age. Not only will this allow children to decide if they align with a specific religion, but, as they get older, they will also be more understanding and respectful toward people of different religions. Parents can introduce their children to religion objectively by informing their children of religious groups they can be a part of and institutions they can attend, as well as providing texts that teach about different religions without favor. Lastly, parents should be supportive if their child does not show an interest in any religion. Just because one’s parents practice a certain religion does not mean that they will agree with the same beliefs and practices.
Kathleen Lion is a senior majoring in history.