Civilizing the young

Many Americans who are indifferent to faith will confess they find themselves challenged as they try to raise good and decent children without the religious confidence their parents had.

writes William McGurn, for whose sagacity I have the utmost respect.  But if I may offer an alternative perspective, while taking Bill fully at his word:  The problem for child-rearing today, if one exists, may stem less from lack of belief in God than from lack of belief in authority.  If parents are unwilling or unable to restrain their children, my guess is that it is their absorption of the 1960s ethic of authenticity, rather than skepticism towards supernatural claims, that is most influencing their practices in the home.  Jesus is not the source of the mandate to say please and thank you; a due respect for civilization is.  Self-restraint, manners, artifice, the ideal of behaving like a gentleman or a lady, these are courtly virtues, not necessarily religious ones, and they were all trashed by the pseudo-cult of “getting back to nature” (i.e., no haircuts, bathing optional, no more suits and ties, no more waiting till marriage, and, from what I observe in some of my peers and their progeny, forks, spoons, and knives expendable).  Religious zeal can in fact trump respect for authority and manners in the pursuit of holy Truth, no less than the baby-boomers’ pursuit of maximal self-expression, which latter quest I suspect is the real child-rearing culprit here (along with a hyper charged multi-billion dollar youth industry). 

Nor are Jesus or other deities the source of parental authority.  It comes with the genes.  The only question is whether parents have the commitment and ability to use that authority wisely.  You don’t need to consult the Bible to figure out whether your eight-year-old should be allowed to wallop his baby sister, nor do you need to refer to the Bible to thunder forth with a non-appealable ban, complete with dire penalties, against such walloping.  People for whom religious practice was a vital and enriching part of their upbringing may have fully understandable difficulty imagining life without it.  Going to church every Sunday with your family, buffed and polished, is a wonderful, important ritual.  But I can testify to the possibility of a civilizing childhood without religion.  No one whom I went to school with through grammar school (and to my knowledge for a long time thereafter) came from a religious family, with the one exception of a friend whose mother was a Christian Scientist, but they were “good and decent children.”   Despite the usual predilection for tormenting the class scapegoat, they have gone on to become productive citizens at the same rate as most groups of children.   To the argument that they were simply living off the capital of the Ten Commandments, I will only observe here that no society condones murder, though all make exceptions for certain categories of deliberate killing.  And self-professed Christians can make lousy parents, too.  I have noticed recently that the mothers of young gangbangers in Chicago have a tendency to thank Jesus when their sons beat the rap. 

As for non-religious family rituals, here’s just one among many possibilities: I went when young with my parents every Sunday to the Dorothy Ahmanson Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles for Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts, also buffed and polished.  I cannot imagine my life being any more enriched had I spent those hours being taught that Lazarus rose from the dead or that Joseph Smith deciphered runic holy tablets with magic spectacles than it has been from early and formal exposure to Beethoven’s piano concerti.

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