Recently, the New York Times “Room For Debate” section tackled the issue of religion and child rearing. As apart of the debate, they enlisted seven writers from various backgrounds from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, to Scientology and Mormonism to discuss the topic, “With Children, When Does Religion Go Too Far?” 

Here’s how the Times framed the debate:

Parents often turn to their church, mosque or synagogue to teach their children about morals and values, and to build self-esteem. And yet religions can be paternalistic and insular — indeed, some religious groups have even been accused of child labor and possible human rights abuses.

When does a religious upbringing cross the line from nurturing to oppressive?

Most of the essays seemed to caution against enforcing strict religions tenants to parent children, arguing that most devout believers who use their religions to enforce and punish children are missing the point of God.

Mark Galli of the publication Christian Today, argues that many conservative Christians are driven by legalism and authoritarianism, instead of the principles of unconditional love.

It would be easy to say this is a distortion of “real religion.” But the fact that children are often oppressed in religious households suggests that there is indeed something in religion which tempts parents in this way. That temptation is the inherent human fascination with law and control. People become religious for many reasons, good and bad. One for many is that their lives are completely out of control morally and socially, and they see in religion a way to bring order to the chaos. Religion as inner police. Such adherents are attracted to religions, or denominations within religions, that accent discipline and obedience. This happens — surprisingly — even in Christianity.

This is surprising because the New Testament message is about freedom from law, and being grounded in grace. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” proclaimed Paul in his most profound exposition of grace. The fact that even some Christians fail to grasp the radical nature of God’s unconditional love suggests just how deeply we humans are embedded in a world ruled by law, expectations, duty, control and obedience. We naturally imagine that Christianity is just a nicer form of this basic reality. The message of grace is so radical that it is simply hard to hear it for what it is.

Asma T. Uddin, founder of the online magazine Altmuslimah, echoes Galli’s sentiments.

Unfortunately, when rituals are prioritized over spirituality at this tender young age, religion can become restrictive rather than liberating. Many young girls want to wear the headscarf because they find it beautiful or comfortable or because they want to mimic their mothers. But in some cases, parents are convinced that Islamic modesty has to be ingrained in their child as early as 3 or 4 years old — and the best way to do it is to make them wear a headscarf even while they are still hanging from monkey bars. 

Instead of helping them cultivate healthy relationships with the opposite sex, such strict standards of modesty, and gender segregation among young people, leave them confused about sexuality and, at worst, lead them to rebel and break boundaries.

I believe strongly that religion is a tremendous tool for raising morally upright and civically responsible children. That said, for children to reap the true benefits of faith, the focus must be on substance rather than formalism.

The discussion of how religion affects child rearing is definitely an interesting one. According to a study by the Pew Center, a growing number of Americans are unaffiliated with religion, many describing themselves as “spiritual” instead of “religious.”

Could this be because they felt overly repressed as children, or is our country (and world) simply moving away from organized religions?