Children Can’t Choose Their Religion, But Judges Can Do It For Them

August 6, 2012

When a judge in the United Kingdom ruled last week that a 10-year-old girl, born into a Jewish family, can be baptized according to her wishes, is this child choosing a religion, or is this judge really choosing it for her?
I can’t see how this judge’s decision does anything to respect freedom of religion or strengthen religious liberty.
Children can make religious choices, to be sure.  Like this girl, any child can express preferences about religious matters to the extent that intelligence and maturity levels permit.  But the scope of those preferences must be proportionally small.  Children can prefer to attend the church that a parent attends and join religious activities with their young peers.  In this UK case, it appears that this girl expressed her wish to be baptized after going to a Protestant church with her father, and participating in an evangelical Christian festival. (See the London Telegraph article and a blog at God Discussion.)
Children can be religious, just like adults.  It’s only natural for religions to supply age-appropriate activities and education designed to indoctrinate people into a faith.  A religious faith can be quite simple.  Fully understanding the details of a religion’s theology is not required for membership in a religion, in the same way that fully understanding every philosophical argument against god is not required for being an atheist.  Any religion has simplified versions of its narrative easy enough for bright children to follow, and the kinds of religious experiences desired by a religion can be aroused in children.  In fact, it is probably easier to elicit basic religious experiences in children, since they resonate more to their immediate social surroundings and naively take emotions to be a sure guide to what is important. That is why successful religions never overlook childhood. 
Children can make religious choices and religiously participate in church activities.  To that extent, they can be religious, in this minimal sense.  However, children can’t decide to “have a religion” in any full sense.  This recent UK court decision explains why. 
Judge John Platt’s decision relied on many factors in this unusual case.  Two factors apparently weighed heavily on his mind as he concluded that this girl should be baptized as she wishes.  First, being born into a Jewish family (both parents and all four grandparents are Jewish – the father only recently left Judaism himself) is far from enough to be truly Jewish, at least according to Judge Platt.  The judge complained that the family had done little to formally indoctrinate this girl into Judaism so far.  Second, according to Judge Platt, this girl’s emotional conviction that she directly encountered God is quite sufficient for knowing what religion she should follow.  The judge was seemingly impressed by this girl’s willing conformity to the “rule” that when one has a deeply emotional religious experience, the denomination arousing that experience gets all the credit, and must be able to claim the new convert into its ranks. 
These two criteria – religion cannot be mere ethnic heritage but active indoctrination, and religion is determined by religious experiences among a particular denomination – are pre-eminently and paradigmatically Protestant criteria for true religion.  This judge relied on Protestant criteria to decide that this girl should become Protestant.  This judge might not be personally religious, but he did apply local cultural standards to determine what constitutes religion. 
When a judge uses his or her own understanding of religion to control the religious lives of others, we should be concerned, even if we aren’t much surprised.  But we should be surprised if anyone thinks that this child has chosen her religion.  She hasn’t chosen a religion – she has chosen to feel religious among a religious community at most – precisely because she is unable to appreciate the larger questions of what might constitute a religion, what modes of religious instruction are appropriate, and what the meaning of religious experiences may be.  This judge’s ruling does not “liberate” her choice of religion, but simply imposes one religion all over again, just as religious parents would.  This is not a secular judicial decision, by any means – and by saying this, don’t assume that a secular decision would have instead forbidden baptism.  A secular decision would not have proceeded from an initial verdict on what constitutes genuine religion.
It doesn’t require an atheist to point out these issues, and people of all religions should appreciate their magnitude.  In an age when ignorance about religion and religious diversity seems to be growing, right along with fear and hatred, we surely cannot let our judges decide religion for anyone.