THE RELATIVE rights of parents, children and the state in regard to religious upbringing represents a vexed issue of competing rights and duties in liberal democratic and pluralist societies today.
Parents have a fundamental responsibility for the religious and general education of their children and certain rights for passing on their own values. Children have a right to an education that equips them to flourish in a liberal pluralist democratic society. The state has a corresponding duty to oversee the form of education that will promote this. The balancing of these various rights and duties raises many complex issues about the very nature of a liberal society.
The issue to be explored here is that of the right of parents to pass on their religious beliefs to their children. This is a right that has been widely accepted in liberal societies. However, when such transmission of beliefs involves indoctrination of their own children, this conflicts with another prized liberal value, namely the right of each individual to be self- determining. Some would question the rights of parents in a liberal society to pass on any religious beliefs at all to their children on the grounds that this always involves indoctrination. However this seems too extreme a view for the following reasons: (i) children require in the early years a stable set of beliefs from which to begin to interpret their experience; (ii) it is unavoidable that the way parents interact with their children will be influenced by their values and religious beliefs and the child has a right to know what these are; (iii) to be able critically to evaluate alternative religious beliefs the child needs an initial framework from which to interpret others; and (iv) parents have certain rights to pass on to their children their beliefs. Parents thus have a right to pass on their own religious beliefs, but if they subscribe to liberal values there are restrictions and safeguards on how such a primary culture should be conveyed to a child. …