An Ethical Concept of God
Algernon D. BlackFrom Algernon D. Black, THE RELIGIOUS EDUCATION OF THE CHILD, in Ethics as a Religion.
Responsible parents recognize and desire to do whatever they can to meet the child's religious needs. Thoughtful parents know that as the child grows he will have need of direction and faith. Wise parents know that they must not expect the child to accept indoctrination with beliefs which they no longer hold themselves. They cannot force the child against his will. Whatever guidance and teaching is undertaken in the name of religious education must win the cooperation of the child and must be based upon sound principles of learning.
The neglect of religious education by parents may mean that the child is subjected to mis-education. Just as with sex education, religious ideas play upon the child whether the home or school provide for them or not. For religious influences cannot be kept from the child until some specific day when parents and teachers are ready to take responsibility. They play upon the child's life from the very earliest years.
The child lives in a world in which his fellows are of many religious traditions. He meets devout, believing Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. If he lives in a large metropolitan city, he meets adherents of Buddhism and Mohammedanism and the other great world religions. He hears orthodox and liberal, religious and anti-religious ideas. From the earliest years the child sees churches and temples, meets members of the clergy in various religious garbs, sees evidence of religious ceremony in the funeral procession and wedding celebration. He hears conversation on religious issues at home, in public places and on the radio. He knows some of the drama and conflict of religious groups from story books, history studies, and the press and motion picture. On religious holidays the child associates and is identified with traditional religious loyalties or finds himself having to make choices for which he may not be prepared. He may have to identify himself with an ancestral religious group or be classed with those who do not fall within conventional categories of institutional religions. Thus the child may accept ideas and beliefs because of pressures, propagandas and accidental factors. Because a child may feel the need for definiteness it may accept doctrines based upon ignorance and misinformation, over-simplification and bias. Because a child feels the need of association and belonging, it may be drawn to and affiliate with a particular church or temple which offers the experience of fellowship and community. Because a child has a hunger for beauty, it may be attracted by the trapping of the church, the candles at the altar, the lofty height and color of the stained glass windows and the music or organ and choir. Friendship for a playmate, the voice or personality of the minister, the social affairs of a religious sect, may mean that the choice of a religious outlook and faith rests on superficial and chance factors rather than upon sound guidance and preparation for the fundamental problems of finding a life purpose and a road to meaningful living.
Revolt against absolute dogmas may be the result of the imposition of authoritarian creed and ritual. Just as traditionalists are shocked to find that their young people may turn away from old beliefs and affiliations, so the liberal and "emancipated" parents are often rudely awakened when they find their young people turning to traditional authoritarian concepts. A child may be unable to accept and live in a freedom which has no positive content, no purpose for which the freedom is to be used. Revolt against a freedom which offers no consecrating values may lead a child to seek security in traditional creed and ritual. In periods of difficulty and emotional stress the growing child may be in such need of security as to accept beliefs and practices which he would normally reject as a violation of reason and the values of the home. One child seeks freedom from the dead weight of dogma. The other seeks security and meaningful purpose and in so doing accepts the dogmas which make freedom impossible.
A child's religion does not consist of his knowledge of biblical history, or his verbalization of creeds or his performance of rituals. His religion is his growing awareness of himself and his confidence in himself. It is also his growing feeling of at-homeness in the world, a sense of inner peace as he feels at one with the stars and the forces which sustain and move the earth and the process which is at work in the great chain of being. His religion is his increasing sensitivity and sympathy and mutuality in relation to his fellow human beings. And finally, a child's religion is his growing clarity and understanding of the values which he finds most worth living for, his "first things." For it is in the growing awareness of the values which will dignify and ennoble his life that he finds it worthwhile to grapple with difficulties, to overcome disappointment and defeat and face the crises of life with dignity and courage. It is in terms of these "first things" that he can make his decisions in the day to day choices between the better and the worse. The child's religion is an increasing orientation and growth in the direction of spiritual security and fulfillment, a meaningful existence for himself through all the years of his life. His religion is also an awareness of the self as part of the larger humanity whose struggles and fulfillment constitute an over-arching challenge and dedication.
Studies of religion among young people reveal that despite years of indoctrination
backed by sanctions of generations and an assumed authority, many of our youth have definitely turned from religion. Many have nothing to do with the bibles, many give up the idea of God or transform the personal God into something quite vague and meaningless; many leave the religion in which they were taught and confirmed. Whatever we may think of supernaturalism, it is playing less and less a part in the life of today. Young people may continue to believe but with no conviction or feeling of security. When conduct rests on supernatural sanctions, the time arrives when the growing child begins to doubt the basis of his beliefs in such sanctions, whether because he examines the idea of God or because his prayers are not answered; then may follow the very opposite of the security and faith we had hoped to give the child. He is thrown into disillusionment and despair because the basis of his living has become doubtful at the time he needs security the most.
For these reasons the program of religious education may be sounder if it helps the young recognize and understand that man's moral growth is natural and human and is not necessarily dependent upon a transcendent supernatural power. Furthermore, it is important that the young realize that ethical principles derive their sanction not from some authority outside of man, but from man's insight into his own experience. True, man is the product of cosmic forces and dependent upon the larger powers which sustain the universe. But man's life and its possibilities are to be thought of as his own responsibility and opportunity. His freedom offers the possibility of meaningful choices and the mastery of self and of the shared mastery of man's nature and man-made environment. At the same time that we leave open the questions of the great mysteries of God and death and the origin and destiny of man, it is right that children learn about and become familiar with the origin and meaning and present day values of theological and metaphysical ideas and beliefs of the past and of the contemporary world. But these religious concepts should be taught when children are capable of understanding and of having a real interest in them. And the young should have help in interpreting and integrating them in meaningful terms.
Obviously, such religious education must begin in the earliest years. It must be an integral part of the life of the family. The child must be helped to feel respect for self and others; must learn to participate in the day to day give and take of family relations with a mutuality which means equality and respect for differences. The child must learn the relative importance of various values — material surroundings, wealth, power, creative achievement, loving relations, and the child will learn them from the example of others, from the quality of relations between parents and relatives and neighbors, and from the kind of taste and the aesthetic and moral climate in the home.
Sincerity is essential to sound effective religious education. Parents must not send children for indoctrination with beliefs and practices to which they do not themselves subscribe. Otherwise, there is bound to be confusion and doubt in the child's mind. Indeed, there may even be a strong cynicism as the child senses the difference between what his parents teach and believe and do. Admittedly, the parents have problems. Many suffer from inadequate or neglected religious training themselves. Many have no time to think out their own basic questions. Many are anxious to avoid hurting or alienating older relatives who cling to traditional faiths. Yet the responsibility of parents is clear; to face their own religious problems squarely; to participate in the religious fellowship with which they involve the child; to share the child's religious training with sympathy and without rigidity or coercion.
The ancestral faiths of the parents can present special difficulties in the religious education of the child. Confusion and guilt feelings and conflicts between parents, or between the home and the religious education institution, can destroy the values in the religious education program. It can also undermine the child's security and faith in himself and in those who are dearest to him. Those mothers and fathers who have cast off the faith of their ancestors, whether it be the Judaism or Christianity of our western culture or the Buddhism or Hinduism of the cultures of the East, must be free of all
guilt feelings in daring to think and decide on matters of faith, and must be free of any feeling that they have violated anything sacred by their departure from old beliefs and rituals and affiliations. True, the child must feel good about his ancestry, be it Jewish or Christian, Buddhist or Hindu. He should know the history and the fundamentals of the faiths of his fathers. He should know that he is free to depart from the old and should be able to stand firm for his own values and principles, whatever the criticism and pressure and prejudice from traditional groups. He should see his own ancestral faith as part of the stream of man's religious aspiration and his own tradition as one among many diverse expressions of man's effort to relate himself to the unknown and to work out a meaningful existence. The child should feel secure in the religious tolerance of his parents and should know that his home is part of that larger movement among men which values all human beings in an inclusive morality. He should feel that his home stands for positive values beyond those of any one creed or sect of the past or of one group of humanity. He should feel that he belongs to a religious fellowship which is on a par with other religious groups of the past and present —and indeed, that it is an attempt to go beyond them in its respect for the truth and goodness and its attempt to work out a more inclusive humanist faith.
The holidays and festivals such as Christmas and Easter bring home some of the religious confusions of parent and child, and their meaning should be clarified. The celebration of Christmas in America was a Christian celebration in early times when almost all the population were Christians and when religion played a very important part in the life of the individual and the community. Furthermore, this mid-winter season of the year has had a special meaning for religious Jews in the historic celebration of Channuka [sic] or the Feast of Lights. And even before Christianity and Judaism, this time of the year was marked by pagan rites. It was the period of shorter days and longer nights, intense cold, dwindling food and fuel supply. Many myths and rituals involving evergreen trees, Yule logs, fires and feasting were part of the effort to warm and share, and to cheer human beings, and help bring the sun closer to earth. Today, even for many Christians, "Christmas" has become a folk festival of our American and western culture — transcending the religious rituals and including all the people in its non-religious aspect. It is a time for easing tension, for rest, -for a new perspective on day to day concerns. It is a time for uniting in a common desire to meet children's needs and to make children happy. It is a time for seeing friends, exchanging gifts, enjoying parties, a time for joyous affectionate gatherings of family and friends and those who work together. It is a community time for neighborliness. The hard work, the pace of modern life, the competition, the conflicts among individuals and groups, the increased anxieties of people beset by so many uncertainties of economic and political affairs — all these have made the mid-winter holiday a necessity of modern society. It is because of this that many non-Christian families decorate their homes with greens, light a Christmas tree, and exchange gifts. It is because of this that many schools have assemblies to celebrate the occasion. Just as it is narrow for Christians to force their religious beliefs on non-Christians in the celebration of the Christmas festival and holiday, so it is narrow of non-Christians to refuse to have any part of the Christmas celebration--refusing to decorate a Christmas tree or exchange a gift or recognize the values in this meaningful period of the year.
The same problems and the same need for clear understanding and cooperation is present at Thanksgiving and Easter time. Thanksgiving is a religious day for some and a day of special meaning for all in that it marks the harvest and an important event in American history. Easter represents the Passover and Liberation for the Jews and the Death and Resurrection of Jesus for the Christians. Yet Easter, too, has meaning beyond religious sects in that it has become an occasion for celebrating the advent of spring. However the home may interpret these holidays with regard to spiritual values in ancestral faiths, these occasions should not become occasions for religious majority imposition or for minority bigotry and withdrawal from the larger, more inclusive communal values which call for the participation of all.
This document is part of a larger document, "Understanding Ethical Religion," edited by Howard B. Radest.
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