WASHINGTON — In madrassahs and Sunday Schools around the world, children are taught about how to live a God-centered life. But children also learn prejudice and discrimination when they are taught that people of other religions are not "saved," or that those who believe differently are "misled." I speak from experience: As an Arab-American who grew up in a Christian environment in Lebanon, a country of 13 recognized religious sects, which experienced political sectarian meltdown in the 1980s. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the world is also turning sectarian through the wrong kind of religious education.
There are about a billion children in the world under the age of 10. They are vulnerable to indoctrination. The young child becomes "religious" sooner than you think. They are learning the theology of double standards: believers going to heaven and others going to hell. Children learn one form of religion and take their own faith as the only right one. They are not taught about other religions or at least about the validity of other religions.
After about the age of six, you can expect a child to ask tough "theological" questions: why is my friend (of another faith) going to hell? If God loves everybody, why would so many people be deprived of His benefits? I was born into my religion, how come I am favored or chosen or selectively saved? The child will soon grow up to discover that some questions do not have easy answers. He also discovers the contradictions and inconsistencies that are inherent in exclusive and sectarian thinking. In fact, most of us have grown expecting religion to give us concrete and full answers to every question we ask.
Spiritual education, on the other hand, is essential for personality development, but it should not be confused with sectarian religious education. We are born with a spirit but not with a religion. Religious education is a process intended to help children acquire positive values and develop spiritually. Naturally, the desired positive outcome of religious education is not guaranteed, depending on the approach.
Spiritual education, in my view, is a qualified category of religious education that is associated with a positive outcome on children's values and spiritual growth. Quality spiritual education cultivates the child's inborn capacity to love and be loved, to belong and be accepted by others, to acquire knowledge through exploration and to appreciate diversity through healthy exchange of experience.
Parents' attitudes about religion reflect how their children are taught about spirituality. Children are learning to love or hate religion. Too often, when children learn to love it, they take it as a prescriptive formula, a community membership, a set of facts and a pass to salvation. When that happens spirituality is diluted. On the other hand, parents who dislike religion because of their childhood experience "protect" their own children from religious indoctrination, applying the principle of "do no harm." This "protection" is not lasting since if it's not taught at home, religion is acquired on the street or from TV.
As a member of an international network of educators of early childhood, I note the absence of curriculum material on spiritual education for young children. As educators, we talk about integrated learning intellectually, socially, physically and emotionally. However, when it comes to guiding young children spiritually, there is very limited consensus. We wrongly assume that young children are receiving spiritual education through religious training.
So may I suggest a few ideas to parents who do care about this issue to encourage spiritual growth of their kids?
1. Educate yourself about world religions, in the context of their cultures, as different paths to same Source. The paradigm shift in attitudes comes when you start embracing diversity rather than confronting it as a problem.
2. Encourage your children to mix with children of diverse backgrounds.
3. Set an example by attending celebrations of other communities.
4. As your children's ages allow answer their questions about their own religion and comment positively about the differences and similarities.
5. Organize advocacy groups among parents to foster curricula of spiritual diversity in schools.
NGOs and governments may one day adopt the theme of religious pluralism for children and advocate for it globally. Children deserve to be protected from abuse of fanatic religious socialization just as much as they deserve to be protected from sexual abuse or child labor. Through the Convention on the Rights of the Child, NGOs can popularize the religious pluralism agenda for children.
It may be fitting to end with Gandhi's thought on religious pluralism. Proselytizing, Gandhi said, "will mean no peace in the world," for what the human race needs is not a syncretism religion, but rather that "Hindus become better Hindus and Mussulmans [Muslims] become better Mussulmans and Christians become better Christians."