Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Children

There is no shortage of examples of religious repression and religious based conflict.  There’s Protestant versus Catholic in Ireland, and Christians vs. Jews vs. Muslims at regular intervals throughout history. In fact, the deeper you look, the more examples you see. The Communist regime in the USSR tried to outlaw all religion. Religion was ridiculed, religious property was confiscated, the regime harassed believers, and they even propagated atheism in schools.

There are also examples of tolerance.  But these examples are often taken from polyglot empires of the past, such as the Persian Empire, or in more recent times, Iraq under Saddam Hussein.  This type of tolerance was often subject to the whims of a dictator or absolute ruler, however, and misfortune would come to the religious group that fell out of favour.

Democracies have often enshrined Freedom of Religion.  Perhaps the most notable example is the U.S.A., a nation that has protected that freedom in the First Amendment of their Constitution.  America was built on European immigration, and there was a desire for the religious clashes and persecutions that characterized European history to be left behind in the Old World.  And it has more or less worked.

In Canada, religious freedom is one of the fundamental freedoms in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At a recent Comox Valley Humanists’ discussion, we talked about how freedom of religion pertains to children and their rights. As an introduction, we talked about five religious practices that affect young children.

Polygamy – This is an issue that the courts in Canada have wrestled with recently and one that causes outrage amongst the populace, especially when it involves older males with child brides as young as 14. Though the law against polygamy is considered to contravene freedom of religion, the greater concern is the harm done to minors. Institutionalized polygamy only ever seems to be practiced in fringe religious groups.

Denial of Medical Interventions to Children – This is another issue that the courts have recently wrestled with, and that also provokes outrage amongst the public. A child is dying, and the parents are denying the child life-saving medical intervention based on some aspect of their religious doctrine. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t permit blood transfusions because of their interpretation of dietary rules in the Old Testament requiring that meat be fully drained of blood before being eaten.

Genital  Mutilation – This is an issue that’s gaining more attention.  In some parts of the Muslim world, clitoridectomy is widely practiced on little girls, and when Muslim immigrants want to practice it in the West, people are outraged.  Circumcision is a religious tradition in Islam, and is considered religious law in Judaism. While clitoridectomy is not a practice that is part of the western world, circumcision certainly is, and it is now being challenged by increasingly secular nations.

Creationism vs. Evolution –  There’s a big culture war over this in the U.S. right now. The issue isn’t so pronounced in Canada. In the U.S., there’s a large and vocal lobbying effort to get Creationism and Intelligent Design taught in schools. The rallying cry of Creationist is “Teach the Controversy.” What the controversy actually is supposed to be is unclear.  All evidence points to evolution. But creationists insist that their freedom of religion be respected and that intelligent design be taught in science class. But at a time when all evidence points to life having evolved on a 4.5 billion year old Earth, can the teaching of creationism and intelligent design be considered fair to young people?

Religious Labelling of Children – The above issues are really centred on the idea of the religion of the adult automatically being the religion of their children.  So if the adults don’t believe in blood transfusions, the child is automatically assumed to be of the same faith. If the adults believe in circumcision, then so does the infant child. You get the picture.

Richard Dawkins has set out to raise our consciousness about this sort of religious labelling. His point is that how can a child, much less an infant, be considered religious at all? There’s no such thing as a 4 year old socialist, or liberal or democrat. How can there be any such thing as a 4 year old Muslim, Christian, or Hindu? Using humor, Dawkins explains himself in this short video:

I’m interested to hear what people think and how they would answer these questions:

  • What rights do children have in relation to the rights of the parents to practice whatever religion they want?  Do they have the right to be free from their parents’ religion? Do parents own their children, and have the right to do what they want to them?
  • If the parents’ religious practices fall too far out of the norms of society at large, does society have a responsibility to intervene?  Polygamy and clitoridectomy are obviously completely unacceptable in our society, and the courts are increasingly recognizing children’s rights to receive life-saving medical interventions even if they go against the religious beliefs of the parent.  Why is circumcision tolerated?
  • Science is all about evidence and opposing theories and structured argument. In that case, why shouldn’t both scientific and religious versions of Earth’s history be debated in the same venue?

I look forward to your response to any or all of these points.


The following do not represent the opinions or policy of Comox Valley Humanists, but only of the comment writer. Personal attacks, offensive language and unsubstantiated allegations are not allowed.

  1. Barry Saunders

    What would you guys do if suddenly God were to appear as in Revelations, maybe,or some other way(s)?Would you believe then?—B.

  2. Rick H

    Regarding your last bullet point, Evan – Both scientific and religious versions of Earth’s history should absolutely be debated in the same venue. Not only debated, but taught. The venue, however, should not be science class. Exposure to creation and life origin/development stories from different cultures and religions should be a part of general education.

    The debate should be whether or not these stories can in any way be deemed scientific. Using the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District ruling regarding Intelligent Design would be a fine case study in preparation for the discussion/debate.

    My perception is that a good part of our population still doesn’t understand what science is, or how it forms part of our society and culture. Some of that lack can be overcome by showing the contrasts between science, pseudo-science and non-science; debating can be a good tool for that.

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