The Secular Life

Thriving Without Gods or Gurus

Obedience or Thinking for Oneself?

Secular parents value independent thinking. Religious parents, obedience.

For all of those parents out there, let me ask you a question: is it more important for you that your child thinks for herself, making her own decisions concerning various choices she faces in life, or do you think it is better that she defers to those in authority, looking to and listening to teachers, pastors, or other such figures for guidance, and obeying their directives?

In short: would you rather cultivate independence of thought in your child or obedience?

Well, according to the recent findings of social science, your religiousness or secularity will have a pretty big impact on how you answer theses questions.

What recent research has revealed is that the more religious a parent is, the more likely he or she will seek to cultivate obedience in his or her children, while the more secular a parent is, the more likely will he or she seek to cultivate independence of thought.

Consider the following:

* Over 30% of Evangelical Christian parents and 28% of Baptist parents value obedience in their children over all other values. In contrast, only 9% of secular parents cite obedience as a primary trait they seek to cultivate in their children. Furthermore, over 60% of secular parents rank “thinking for yourself” as the most valuable trait to cultivate in their children, while only 37% of Evangelicals and 40% of Baptists value this as a primary trait. And just to add insult to injury – or rather, injury to insult – nearly 40% of Evangelicals and Baptists strongly favor spanking as a way to reinforce obedience, while only 21% of secular parents support the spanking of children (see Darren Sherkat’s Changing Faith, pg.127, for further details).

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* Social-psychologists Bruce Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer found that atheist parents actually tend to be reluctant to force or impose their atheism on their children. Indeed, atheist parents are much more likely to want their children to “make up their own minds” about what they believed, which is in stark contrast to believing Christian parents, who are far more likely to consciously and deliberately attempt to pass their religious beliefs on to their children.

* Sociologists Brian Starks and Robert Robinson found that secular parents are much more likely to value and seek to cultivate autonomy in their children, rather than respect for or obedience to authority – both of which are far more likely to be of greater value to religious parents, especially conservative Protestants.

* In his analysis of Christian parenting literature and atheist parenting literature, professor Jeff Nall compared a plethora of Christian books on how to raise children with the few analagous atheist books out there, and as he reports: “one of the most significant differences between the Christian and atheist parenting literature…is their approaches to authority.” The more religious favor instilling a more obedient approach to authority, while the more secular favor cultivating the ability to question authority and be critical thinkers.

Of course, we mustn’t conclude from the above that all religious parents are more likely to cultivate obedience, or that all secular parents are more likely to cultivate independent thinking. The above research simply reveals certain correlates, percentages, averages, trends.

But they are correlates and trends that warrant serious consideration.

For instance, I would argue that raising children to be obedient is much less healthy than raising them to be able to think for themselves. Children should be taught to consider the reasons those in authority say what they say, or order what they order, and they should develop the critical thinking skills, personal confidence, and ethical autonomy which will enable them to resist or reject such orders if they don’t agree with the reasons behind them.

And at the societal level, obedient citizens are much more likely to submit to authoritarian leaders, are more likely to follow a herd mentality, are more susceptible to the draw of fascism or fundamentalism, and are less likely to resist abuses of power. In contrast, citizens who value independence of thought are much more likely to foster and sustain democracies and democratic institutions, they are more likely to resist abuses of power or fascistic movements, and they are more likely to defend personal freedom and liberty.

There are many values and virtues of secular culture, but surely chief among them is the heavy predilection for independent thinking.

 

Phil Zuckerman Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College and the author of several books.

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