In Friday's Times there was an article by A.C. Grayling occasioned by the case of a man found guilty of child cruelty by a court in Manchester, for making two teenage boys take part in a self-flagellation ritual. Grayling discusses various religious traditions of mortification of the flesh and then concludes as follows:
We do not like children being involved in either Mosley-like or religious activities of elective suffering, one reason being that we do not think they are in a position to give properly free and informed consent. This, in turn, raises the question of what else children should be protected from in the way of religious practice, or even doctrine: for psychological effects are every bit as real as physical ones.
One might think that teaching six-year-olds the Calvinistic dread of eternal torment in hellfire is as harmful as flagellation - the youths in the Manchester case began their self-flagellation in Pakistan at that age. But what about teaching children false or weird beliefs as fact?
Once one begins to ponder where these lines should be drawn, one has begun to ponder again that border between modern secular society and religion. In my view, leaving adults to do what they like in private - providing it does not harm the unconsenting - is the right course, but that includes acquiring religion too. Leave the children out of it, both the believing and flagellating, until they can make a free and informed decision for themselves.
What exactly is being proposed in these closing paragraphs? In the context of the article that precedes them and given the question Grayling raises about what children should be 'protected from', a natural inference would be that he's mooting the idea of political or legislative intervention in what is taught in the home, the practice of taking children to church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship, and so on. If it is what he's suggesting, this could be made more explicit than it is.
But can he really think that the religious education of children should be forbidden, rather than simply being discouraged by those who want to discourage it? If so, would it be any form of religious education, therefore not just preaching to children about the torments of hell, but also talking about God's love, or about going to heaven when you die, or about Jesus as mankind's redeemer? And how, in that case, to decide the limits of what parents and other adults may teach children? Should religious belief be the only prohibited subject matter? Or should non-religious beliefs that are (thought to be) false or morally objectionable also be taboo? And - the most pertinent question of all here - by what decision-making body are these areas of prohibition to be settled? And how is the non-teaching to be policed?
It is hard to credit that the vision sketched out by these questions could really be Grayling's meaning. Perhaps this was no more than that in a society respecting secular principles, religion should not be taught in schools (in which case I agree with him). Or perhaps he was merely giving expression to the hope that religious parents might themselves refrain from instructing their children in what they, the parents, believe. Well, fat chance of that, frankly; and relying on parents themselves to do the right (atheist) thing is hardly consistent with talk of 'protecting' children from 'psychological effects' - in a context where, it is plain, amongst the main people that they would need protection from would be their religious parents.
On the other hand, if Grayling does indeed have in mind anything like the kind of invasiveness of private space I gestured towards with the questions in my last paragraph but one, I can see why he doesn't articulate it very explicitly. It's not an appealing vision and that's putting it mildly. It is radically incompatible with secular liberalism.