Faith in our children

By Khaled Diab

Much as we'd like our children to hold the same things dear as we do, we should have enough in them to let them choose their own belief system.

27 November 2009

Our unborn child is so hip that he is fashionably late for his own birthday reception. Though he is already something of a globetrotter, he seems unwilling to wean himself off the five-star womb service to which he has grown accustomed.

Once our son finally decides to shine for his parents,  he will be the biological embodiment of innocence, a clean sheet, unaware of the world or of his place in it. Our choices and decisions on his behalf will have potentially lifelong consequences. Even something as apparently straightforward as a name, especially given his mixed cultural background, will play a significant role in shaping his identity.

Although there are many things a child cannot choose or change, including the parents (s)he is lumbered with and where (s)he is born, one area that should certainly not be hereditary is faith. We are determined to leave the choice of belief systems to our son to make for himself, once he is old enough to do so.

In this, we agree with the message of Ariane Sherine's ‘Please don't label me‘ campaign, though this is something Katleen and I have had an understanding about for many years, in the context of the hypothetical ‘what if' games we're so fond of.

This is partly due to our belief in freedom of choice, and there is no domain so personal as the belief system one subscribes to. We also do not wish to deprive him of the beautiful aspects of his triple heritage – secular humanist, Muslim and Christian.

In addition, since we are both of a sceptical bent, reject dogma and accept the possibility that we may be wrong in our evolving beliefs, we think it is only sensible that our child should reach its own conclusions. Until that time, he will not be exposed to the overtly ritualistic or liturgical aspects of religion, except as an outside observer: no church or mosque, no Bible or Qur'an, no circumcision or communion.

Despite our rejection of organised , we will raise our son to appreciate the power of faith and attempt to give him a balanced appreciation of both the beauty and ugliness of religion and its role in shaping human civilisation.

That's not to say we will actually go out of our way to educate him about religion, not least because we're not that interested in it. As Katleen rightly asserts, we will approach the topic from a cultural perspective and try to discuss and contextualise what exposure he has to religion as and when it occurs.

But certain things will be harder in practice than in theory. It is inevitable that our own views and biases will be conveyed to our son. Perhaps understandably given our own convictions, we will wish him to grow up to be an adult for whom religion is inconsequential, except on an intellectual and cultural level, and who respects our common humanity above all else. But if he decides to embrace a faith, we will also be happy that he has found his own path, as long as he is tolerant of other world views.

Another major challenge will be society. In spite of our best efforts not to label our child, there is no guarantee that others will not go ahead and do so anyway – or try to introduce him by stealth to their chosen faith.

Although Europe has largely moved away from the assumption that a child is born into a faith, some may presume on the strength of his surname and possibly his appearance (if his North African side shows through strongly in his features) that he is a Muslim, and even discriminate against him on that basis.

Education is also a concern, and we will have to monitor carefully his schools activities – especially if he ends up in a “Catholic” school – to ensure that he receives no religious instruction.

In the world, it is widely believed, among both Muslims and Christians, that faith is hereditary – an issue I addressed in this article – and so many will also make unwelcome assumptions.

This won't be a problem with immediate family and is also no longer an issue with the Egyptian bureaucracy. Luckily, earlier this year, Egyptians got the right to leave the religion field blank in their ID cards.

And when our son comes of age, it will be up to him and no one else to decide which faith ticks his box.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 26 November 2009. Read the related discussion.

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