“Jewish child”? “Muslim child”? “Christian child”?


Cultural Tradition has its place, but that place is not in factual education.

By Richard Dawkins

My oft-repeated (some might say too oft) point about the absurdity – indeed wickedness – of labelling children with the religion of their parents (“Would you speak of a ‘Postmodernist child’, or a ‘Gramscian Marxist child’?”) is usually effective. People nearly always get the point immediately, although whether their future consciousness is raised to the point of actually wincing, as I do, whenever they hear ‘Catholic child’ or ‘Muslim child’ is another matter. But there is one counter-argument that I often meet, and it sounds superficially plausible. It is my purpose here to deal with it.

The objectors I am speaking of often invoke the special case of Judaism, but the point can be made more generally. It is ridiculous and wrong, they say, to try to discourage parents from passing on their cultural traditions to their children. Language, accent, styles of dress, diet, mealtime habits, proverbs, poetic allusions, games, non-verbal signals or greetings such as head-shaking or nodding or social kissing, these are all culturally transmitted. Humanity would be the poorer if we lost them. Religion, so it is claimed, is just another member of the list.

I accept much of that and rejoice in the colourfully varying traditions of world cultures. But religion is not just another member of the list. It is completely different. Here’s why.

Religion makes truth claims about the real world.. This sets it apart from other traditions handed down, such as styles of dress and cookery. If a ‘Jewish child’ is labelled by a yarmulke on his head and peyot curls in front of his ears, that seems to me no more sinister than a culturally transmitted preference for cricket or baseball, or a habit of wearing a kilt and sporran rather than trousers (culturally transmitted body-mutilation of children is a very different matter). The problem arises when the ‘Jewish child’ (‘Muslim child’ etc) is assumed to hold, by virtue of his Jewishness (etc), a belief about some factual proposition: a proposition, say, about the age of the world, whose truth depends only upon evidence and is not culturally determined. Such faith-based beliefs about reality all too often actively contradict the evidence and therefore subvert genuine education.

There are legitimate and admirable respects in which people differ from one another by virtue of traditions, handed down through generations. Factual beliefs about the real world should not be among them. When you put it like that, I find it hard to imagine how any person of goodwill and intelligence could seriously disagree. Yet because it is usually not put like that, there are many people, even non-religious people of intelligence and goodwill, who have been duped into confusing the ‘cultural tradition’ side of religion with the ‘factual beliefs’ side. When such confusion flows from the labelling of children it is downright wicked.



  1. You know Carl Jung is his old age began to make a distinction between what he called “religions” and a subset of that which he referred to as “creeds”. Now, whatever else you can say about Jung and some of his nebulous crap, the creed part he really got just right: for most people religion adds up to nothing more than blindly believing in the teachings of their culture and parents because it was taught at a very young age; rejecting this dogma amounts psychologically to a rejection of their family beliefs and identity, leaving them feeling empty. Sound familiar? People need to believe in something and science can’t account for mankind’s spiritual side yet; there is still no poetry or colour in science — it’s dry and lifeless, very few scientists have a feel for the mystery of being without invoking some cultural/religious/magical nonsense. True religious experiences go under the heading of mysticism (see Buddhist meditation and Sam Harris), but second hand religious experience through memorising the experiences of others as dogma and rules is easier and more prevalent among the masses. To get rid of the phenomenon you describe, ie./Muslim or Jewish children believing in religious allegories as scientific truth…you’d need to outlaw brainwashing of kids with religious dogma until they can think for themselves, say 12 years of age. But this is the mechanism by which creeds/religions survive: through brainwashing of the young. Get rid of that brainwashing-in-early-life aspect in creeds … and all these so called religions would appeal to no one very quickly, only the more experience-based more psychologically sophisticated religions like Buddhism would survive. Therefore, the dogma-based religions which have a very strong political component for controlling the masses, like Islam Judaism and Christianity, will fight tooth and nail to prevent it from happening.

  2. Indoctrination can be reversed. Maybe we could start by getting religious parents to stop hacking bits off their children until they are old enough to consent.

  3. Vicki posted this link on the “Open Discussion”, but I think it is appropriate for this thread:


    in The God Delusion that pushing a religious label on children is a form of mental child abuse.

    The rhetoric was strong, but his point was sensible.
    He said the phrase “Christian child” or “Muslim child” was unfair to kids too young to understand those religions.
    They never subscribed to those beliefs, so why were parents foisting their faith upon them?
    It made as much sense as saying “This is my toddler. He’s a Republican.”

  4. I agree with that article. However, a child can be a “christian child”, i.e. a child believing in the tenets of the christian religion. I have been one such child. Denying that is, to me, diminishing the child, telling him that what he believes does not matter because…he is a child. That having been said, I totally agree that one should not call a child “a christian child” just because he has christian parents.

  5. Ego Christophe #5
    Aug 3, 2018 at 6:21 pm
    I have been one such child.
    Denying that is, to me, diminishing the child,
    telling him that what he believes does not matter because…he is a child.

    If you had been adopted into a family with some other aggressive religion, it is very likely that you would have been denied that choice!

    I think that was the point in the article –
    Indoctrinators do tell the child what he/she has to believe, and think they are entitled to impose this because “what he learns to believe does not matter because he is a child“, and the parents have been indoctrinated to inculcate the local “tribal superstitions” into their children.

    In the more extreme religions, there is active discrimination against non-believers – such as laws imposing imprisonment, beatings, or execution, for those leaving Islam. (see link) – Or shunning by family members and associates in some cults!


    This movement matters because thirteen states punish atheism with the death penalty and all of them are Islamic.
    Because a series of laws in Saudi Arabia define atheism as terrorism, where Ahmad Al-Shamri has been sentenced to death for atheism.
    Because Sina Dehghan has been sentenced to death in Iran for ‘insulting Islam’.
    Because a Pakistani High Court Judge has said that blasphemers are terrorists and Ayaz Nizami and Rana Noman face the death penalty there.
    Because even in countries without the death penalty, such as Bangladesh, Islamists kill atheists whilst the government turns a blind eye.

    There are also forced conversions, as a condition of legal marriage and inheritance!

  6. Christopher Hitchens had many substantial points on this matter as well and especially when highlighting the totalitarian nature of religion in life and death. The liberation from mental bondage and the tyrannical grasp of religion relies heavily on evaluating the precepts by which merit is awarded. Currently prestige is ascertained by fame or popularization by political means especially in the United States.

    Religion works as a sort of beginners indoctrination device which deems that state the controller of human affairs and affirms despotic tenancies as the norm. If your genitals are mutilated as a child, I believe you are traumatized even at the early stage of development you are exposed to an act of cruelty without your knowledge in the name of tradition. I think its possible human beings even from birth attempt to rationalize there interactions with the environment and religion being the primary education apparatus in poor communities has the advantage of “providing all the answers”.

    We are taught to fear the unknown, we are taught to rationalize parts of our environments without understanding their functions and we are manipulated in the hopes of servitude in life to the legacies of other prime apes. I think the first step towards freeing humanity is in fact allowing our offspring to be informed and to teach them critical thinking. Without the faculty of inquiry we leave no choice for the future and condemn our offspring to a Self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I have come from the very system I described here and I hope that my prescription matches the observations of others. Two side notes, I’ve been heavily reading Christopher Hitchens and sharpening my debate skills. Also I would like to thank Professor Dawkins for creating CFI of which I have recently become a member. CFI is a wealth of resources for not only learning, but appreciating our existence. With my plug out of the way I look forward to hearing more debate and insight on the issue.

  7. The idea of the babies born into different religions shows exactly the flaw in Religion . If babies were accidentally mixed up with the parents of different religions. we know that these children would be brought up with their new parents beliefs, In extreme Religions this would allow some children to think that they are superior to other people of a different religion or no religion at all and even act badly against these people because their religious teachings allow this. While all along they would be offending against their own birth parents. There are no human genes to define Religion it is just the same as the indoctrination from cults or cultures and no more divine than that.

  8. angus knox #8
    Aug 4, 2018 at 3:57 am

    There are no human genes to define Religion it is just the same as the indoctrination from cults or cultures and no more divine than that.

    While there are no genes for specific religions, there are genetic controls over the stages of mental development, which leave young children vulnerable to belief in fanciful stories, copying parental role models, and indoctrination, before they reach the Concrete Operational Stage or the Formal Operational Stage of cognitive development, where they develop rational critical thought processes.


    Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development suggests that children move through four different stages of mental development.
    His theory focuses not only on understanding how children acquire knowledge, but also on understanding the nature of intelligence. Piaget’s stages are:

    Sensorimotor stage: birth to 2 years
    Preoperational stage: ages 2 to 7
    Concrete operational stage: ages 7 to 11
    Formal operational stage: ages 12 and up

    Hence the fundamentalist adage:- “Give me a child ’till he’s seven (so I can retard his mental development and block his reasoning skills with approved fallacies and dogmatic clutter), and he will be mine for life!”

    The final stage of Piaget’s theory involves an increase in logic, the ability to use deductive reasoning, and an understanding of abstract ideas.
    At this point, people become capable of seeing multiple potential solutions to problems and think more scientifically about the world around them.

    The ability to thinking about abstract ideas and situations is the key hallmark of the formal operational stage of cognitive development.
    The ability to systematically plan for the future and reason about hypothetical situations are also critical abilities that emerge during this stage.

    Those indoctrinated in “God-will-take-care-of-it” fatalism, see no need for these skills, and prefer to be spoon-fed, lazy-brained, and dependent on priests mullahs rabbis etc!

  9. «… If a ‘Jewish child’ is labelled by a yarmulke on his head and peyot curls in front of his ears, that seems to me no more sinister than a culturally transmitted preference for cricket or baseball …»

    Except that the yarmulke or kippah is actually required by religious law (Halakha). If rabbis and/or religious laws required boys to play cricket, we wouldn’t think of cricket as a culturally transmitted preference.

  10. It is convenient to label “cultural tradition” anything that parents (or a group) teach their children that they don’t want people to challenge, often as a result of their own cognitive dissonance (the investment they made when they were children themselves to adapt their mental structures to information that didn’t match their observations of the world around them, or contradicted their innate sense of decency or self-preservation; it is a well-known psychological fact that people usually compensate this cognitive trauma with particularly strongly held beliefs). It’s not only religion. People used to teach their children that the earth was flat (I mean when it was just that they didn’t know better, before the misconception made its way into the religious books and became credo), or that blood-letting cures all sorts of diseases, etc. Cultural tradition is fine as long as it’s freely adopted by people. The key word is “freely”. I don’t think it’s any better when the reason a child is forced to accept things against his or her will (or worse) isn’t religion. Children may be told by their parents that, say, homeopathy cures cancer or vaccines cause autism, that’s not religion (well, almost…) but that doesn’t make it any less wrong.

    My point is, cultural tradition is fine, I very much value my own, but it has zero value as justification for selecting the essential components of childrens’ education or we’d still have to adhere to the conception that the earth is flat. Also, cultural tradition should be something you are happy to embrace; if you’re not, you should not be forced to live by it. Finally, I would like to point out that cultural tradition has often been misused to create mistrust between groups of people – this is not a monopoly of religions. So I would not give cultural tradition more importance than it deserves. That a man be happy to, say, wear a kilt out of respect for the tradition of his country is all fine; that the same man be branded an outcast, be imprisoned, exiled or killed for not wanting to would be unacceptable. That it be used to support master race or warmongering rhetoric would be unacceptable as well. (I took the example of the kilt because nobody, I hope, will take it literally – I really do love Scotland and its traditions and I definitely don’t ascribe any ill intention to them)

    Cultural tradition can’t be a universal excuse to justify anything.

  11. A religion’s name can be used to refer to that religion’s beliefs, or to the cultural traditions of that religion. Using the phrase “Christian child” as a short way of saying “a child being brought up in the Christian religion” does not seem wicked to me! I am an atheist, but I was read bible stories as a child, sang in an Anglican boys choir, had bible stories read to me at school, sing Christmas carols, sing catholic Latin masses in choirs, etc., so in some contexts, I could be described as Christian.

  12. Matthew Nicoll #13
    Aug 4, 2018 at 8:51 pm

    A religion’s name can be used to refer to that religion’s beliefs, or to the cultural traditions of that religion.

    The problem which arises is “badge tribalism”, where the more moderate cultural Christians, Jews, Buddhists etc, unthinkingly defend the activities of the more extreme cults and denominations, who wear the same badge.
    Cultural and political divisions and religious wars are started on this basis!

    Using the phrase “Christian child” as a short way of saying “a child being brought up in the Christian religion” does not seem wicked to me!

    The problem is with the ambiguity – and the shifts in meaning when religious extremists seek support from the wider community who wear the same badge.

    We see this when Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons etc., who widely oppose each other on numerous issues, suddenly become buddy-buddy “Christians”, and popes and mullahs, become the “anti-secular religious” when seeking wider support for “their right” to impose their nutty beliefs on others.

    I am an atheist, but I was read bible stories as a child, sang in an Anglican boys choir,

    Atheists and Humanists, should certainly be aware of the different religious cultures around them.

    Many religious people blindly support the “right” of other religious denominations to impose their views on lawmakers and populations, without any idea of what these beliefs are, or what effects they have on communities.
    They work on, “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, and blindly rubber-stamp whatever the other groups choose to believe – and ENFORCE on their communities in the name of “religion”!
    This a fundamental problem with indoctrination in thinking from “faith” in preachers and ancient writings, as an alternative to evidence based rational thinking!

    saying “a child being brought up in the Christian religion”

    We come back to ambiguity!
    You seem to have been fortunate that you come from a tolerant background where you were able to break free, when you chose to do so, having understood the nature of the religions in which you had participated.
    You do however seem to be carrying some baggage regarding the alleged “goodness” of religion!

    does not seem wicked to me!

    Many in the more domineering religions or cults, or in theocratic countries, cultures, or families, dominated by religions, are not fortunate: – as some examples on this discussion and on this RDFS site show.

    Death or imprisonment for leaving Islam, arranged/forced marriages, male and female circumcisions, denial of a secular science education, Children of Jehovah’s Witnesses denied medical treatments, being forced to pray 5 times a day, carry out strange rituals at weekends, peculiar dietary requirements, constant religious interference in personal medical treatments, profound interference in people’s sex-lives, shunning of non-believers by family members, communities torn apart by gangs from rival religions!
    The list goes on!

  13. @Matthew Nicoll: this might have been a fair point if the world was a reasonable and logical place. The problem is that the limit between christian tradition and christian religion is very blurry and people are easily confusing them – and other people will take advantage of the confusion.

    One confusion is the one between “christian tradition” and “history of the Western world”. While it’s true that Christianity has been a prevalent force since around the 4th century in Europe, there is one Western tradition that I believe to be much more important in the long run: the discovery in the 18th century of the right of self-determination, personal freedoms, right to privacy, and the right to not believe in a god if you don’t want to. Also the concept that science should not be fettered by the diktats of the religious types or determined by the religious scriptures. That is the Western tradition I choose to adhere to.

    One more right we have to discover is the right of children to receive an education that opens their minds to the world, not format them with pre-digested data – and I don’t point solely at religion here. Labeling children anything before they can think for themselves is wrong. We have a duty as parents to teach our children how to think for themselves, and we have a duty to allow them to take a different path from ours.

    Also, when a child has parents that are avowed anarchists (for instance), you don’t call them “anarchist children”. The sad truth is that people do that anyway, ascribing the mistakes of the parents to the children, but any reasonable person (of which they are unfortunately few) would accept that being raised in a household with anarchist (or other) values does not make one an anarchist, even though it will definitely have an influence on the child’s life. The same holds for many other parental traits and traditions. Why make a difference for religion? One is not a christian until one makes a conscious, informed and free choice to be a christian. Same for any religion. I’m sure God would agree.

  14. Oliver,

    I mostly agree with your take on all this but diverge on the Enlightenment invention of individual freedoms. I don’t believe it is the great breakthrough of the age nor a defining virtue of modern western culture, though it is a defining characteristic.

    First it is an idea that could possibly be handed to Christianity itself, (as Larry Siedentop does in “Inventing the Individual”.) And it is an idea most perfectly expressed in Libertarianism, that politico-economic religion formulated for aspies like me, but with fewer social skills.

    And second this…


    Individualism doesn’t begin to solve our cultural problems.

    The roots of my culture offer little worthwhile to Christianity, but are traced through the Enlightenment, through the golden age of Islam (via the Rennaisance) to Hellenic Culture. The cult of the individual seeking to confer all blame and all reward to individuals is part of Christian divide and rule theocracy.

  15. Hi Phil

    I don’t quite get your point. I acknowledge the influence of the Arab world of the middle ages, and of ancient Greece on European Renaissance and what follows. But there is a difference. Socrates was condemned to death because he was said to encourage impiety among his students – which he denied. Other Greek philosophers had similar issues. Easily two thirds of the people living in Athens in those days were denied civil rights. The Arab world, in its first centuries, used to be fertile ground for science and mathematics – still impiety was not tolerated. What happened in 18th century Europe (it might be said to have started earlier in some parts, like the Netherlands) was a wave of free thought with regards to religion, among other things, that might have just stopped there, like the age of Pericles stopped short after the plague and defeat against Sparta, if not for the American and French revolutions. Then came the 19th century and this freedom of speech, and other individual freedoms, became law. And a good thing too! Now I don’t care too much whether you consider the deep origins of this movement to be the century of Pericles via the Arab world of the middle ages. The fact is, it blossomed in 18th century Europe and was confirmed in 19th century Europe and America. At the end of the day, I don’t care if the Chinese or the Incas (just kidding…) invented it. Whoever did it, the result is what counts. Individual liberties are a great invention of mankind, they must be carefully guarded.

    Now about “individualism doesn’t begin to solve our cultural problems”: I accept it’s an interesting conversation to have but it is besides the point. Individualism and individual liberties are two different things. To think that restricting individual liberties can be a solution to some perceived problem of individualism in our societies is a confusion at best, and a very dangerous one at that. Returning to the dark ages (I deliberately exaggerate) will not make the world more altruistic. Religion will not do it either, as it has proven over and over and over again. Let’s work on the problem as free individuals and the world will be better for it. One could even argue that there are more altruistic organizations today than there ever were, and most of them with one major difference: they don’t care what religion you’re of, or if you don’t have any, to help – which was never the case before!

  16. It’s so good to see some new names commenting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I hope you’ll stay around!

  17. Oliver, thanks for the full reply. I won’t get to it properly for a day or so. Apologies.

    But just to lay the ground a little, you’ll not find a bigger celebrant of the Enlightenment than me. This novel process of an intellectual introspection of ourselves bore the most spectacular fruit. I find its roots most particularly in the enquiring humanity of Epicurus and Democritus.

    Tom Paine set us free as much as any to make our culture based in reason and fellowship, but perhaps the greatest revolution in our self cultivation was the near silent revolution in England with the Invention of Childhood a sudden 400% increase in expenditure on children on books and toys just for them. A general education rather than training for each petty dynasty. An indulgence in licensed play creating a sense of safety coupled to a creativity that may have under-written an industrial and cultural revolution…

    The concern I have is that individual freedom is of course challenged at the interface with all other freedoms, whilst our empowered individualism makes us vulnerable to predators. There are none more pious, more libertarian of thought, more guilty of their crimes, more deserving of the reward for their achievements and more parasitised than in the Land of the Free.


  18. Jeffrey Bash #7
    Aug 3, 2018 at 7:40 pm

    Christopher Hitchens had many substantial points on this matter as well and especially when highlighting the totalitarian nature of religion in life and death.
    The liberation from mental bondage and the tyrannical grasp of religion relies heavily on evaluating the precepts by which merit is awarded.

    Religion works as a sort of beginners indoctrination device which deems that state the controller of human affairs and affirms despotic tenancies as the norm.
    If your genitals are mutilated as a child, I believe you are traumatized even at the early stage of development you are exposed to an act of cruelty without your knowledge in the name of tradition.

    When aggressive religion takes over and dominates in theocracies, knee-jerk aggression, regardless of damage to people, business or communities, is the standard response to criticism of religious abuses of citizens.

    Here is a recent example!


    Saudi Arabia has said it is freezing all new trade and investment with Canada over its “interference” in the Gulf Kingdom’s internal affairs.

    In a series of tweets, the Saudi foreign ministry said it was expelling the Canadian ambassador and recalling its own envoy in Canada.

    The move comes after Canada said it was “gravely concerned” about the arrest of several human rights activists.

    Among those arrested was Saudi-American women’s rights campaigner Samar Badawi.

    Ms Badawi had been calling for an end to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system.

    The [Saudi] foreign ministry said it “will not accept any form of interfering” in its internal affairs.

    It referred to last week’s statement by the Canadian foreign ministry, which urged Riyadh to “immediately release” civil society and women’s rights activists.

    Women must adhere to a strict dress code, be separated from unrelated men, and be accompanied by or receive written permission from a male guardian – usually a father, husband or brother – if they want to travel, work or access healthcare.

    It should be noted that Saudi Arabia is currently promoting the spread of its Wahhabi Sunni Islam to other countries, in regional wars and by sponsorship of armed rebel groups. – But hey! They have oil to make western multinationals rich, so they must be the good guys!

  19. Thanks all for your kind words of welcome.

    Phil, I must say I am enjoying this exchange very much. Unfortunately finding time for these things isn’t always easy. I basically agree with everything in your last comment, but I particularly agree with what you’re writing about the interface with all other freedoms, and individualism making us vulnerable to predators. You really hit the nail right on the head in my opinion. I’ll just add that education is the key – as predators know full well. Working on the quality of education is essential, and there is no domain where challenging predators is more important.

  20. Jewish people get particularly upset when you suggest that mutilation of their children’s genitals doesn’t strike me a particularly moral activity, that it would seem to me to be a rather imprison-able offence. They talk to me about a covenant with a god. What sort of evil spirit is this?

  21. Oliver.

    Yes, education, education, education!

    This is where cultures are forged, following on from Raoul Martinez.

    The increasingly fascist looking forces in the USA know for themselves the power of early childhood influence, just like the Jesuits. The phenomenon of “over imitation” in kids where they take on trust exactly what they are told, despite its palpable error, has been tacitly understood for millenia. It is the very engine of culture, forming the reliable copying a stable enough evolving entity requires not to dissipate in a few generations. But it is also the very engine of all abuse.

    Somehow the USA must start to insist that kids are not the property of their parents but are citizens too with state conferred rights. It is the only UN member state not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


    Objections come from the likes of conservative homeschoolers and its obvious undercutting of their ability to form child clones. (95% of religious fundamentalists’ children become religious fundamentalist. Lesser religious produce lower percentages like themselves. Atheists least like themselves.)

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