The fact that I attend church regularly has led several people to become uneasy, both as to my suitability as a witness before a House of Commons select committee and also about the sort of childhood the daughter of such a person might have endured. I therefore thought it worth writing a little about the religious upbringing of children and what it might entail, particularly with regard to home education.
The first thing to do is clear the ground a little and consider what such a childhood is not. It is not or should not be about having one's head crammed with a lot of rules and ideas from outside. Rather, it ideally consists of being taught to listen to one's own inner voice, which can easily be drowned out by the clamour of the world. What do I mean by an inner voice? I mean the conscience. I believe that God places within every human a guiding device, rather like a compass, which enables us, if we will only pay heed to it, to distinguish right from wrong. To use a modern analogy, it is like a Satnav system, which we can either obey or ignore. I do not for a moment think that the Lord God has fitted the children of different races and religions with different versions of this Satnav; I think there is one model for the whole human race. It tells us the basic route to take, on the one hand for instance to avoid adultery and theft and on the other to take every opportunity to help the widow and orphan. If we are perplexed, listening carefully to this internal guidance system will help us to find the right way.
The problem is of course, that without practice and training, children may get out of the habit of listening to this voice, which is hardly ever louder than a whisper in any case. Some adults have lost the knack entirely of heeding this God given mechanism. It is not so much a matter of waving a Bible or Qur'an at a child and insisting that he learn the word of God. Rather, it is a case of explaining to the child the rules of conduct and urging him to listen hard both to his own conscience and also for any instructions from God. In other words, we are trying to develop a talent or skill within the growing child, not impose a set of instructions from without. At the same time we can explain to the child that there are universal rules such as honesty and justice, avoiding adultery and theft, being kind to those weaker than ourselves. It is not so much a question of warning them that God will punish them, as showing the child that adultery brings unhappiness more or less as a matter of course. So of course does theft and murder. I doubt that many of us know any happy thieves, murderers or adulterers. This tendency, for certain types of behaviour to bring misery, seems to be built into the fabric of the universe, rather like gravity. One could even compare it to the principle of dharma and karma.
Children naturally break these rules if they have not been taught to listen to their conscience. Not because they are inherently wicked, but for the same reason that they might break the rules of chess when they first learn to play. It is simple ignorance. This is not "original sin", as one of the people who comments on this Blog calls it. Our job as parents is to teach them the rules and encourage them to cultivate the habit of listening to their inner guidance. This regular listening for guidance can be called, meditation, prayer or many other things.
Home educating a child makes this whole process a lot simpler. The average child is likely to find the still small voice of conscience drowned out when she is with other children. This can cause the child to take a wrong turn. Imagine you are driving a car containing half a dozen noisy passengers. As you approach a roundabout, the Satnav says quietly, "turn left". At the same time, all the passengers in the car are shouting at the top of their voices, "Turn right!". This is what happens sometimes if a God fearing child is with a group of other kids who decide say, to steal makeup from Boots. Because the group are shouting the wrong instructions, the child's conscience can be drowned out.
I consider the teaching of children about right and wrong to be of crucial importance. It is certainly easier and more effective to undertake such teaching in a quiet, one-to-one setting rather than in a crowded, noisy classroom. Just for the record, I am not really a Christian. I attend church because that is the form of worship with which I grew up. I don't believe that any religion has a monopoly on truth and I also believe in the essential goodness of humanity. I do not think that anybody will be damned and I feel sure that all will be saved and brought to God ultimately.