It is barbarous injustice to blame and punish children for crimes committed by their progenitors. But we all inherit advantages and disadvantages from our parents’ genes, fortune, social status and level of education. Some unfortunate children inherit even diseases given them by their parents. Equally tragic is the inheritance of blame for the “sins of the fathers”. The pernicious view that punishment should be inflicted on subsequent generations for the crimes of one’s ancestors is still shared by some. But all of us are witnesses to the lasting effects of social injustices committed centuries earlier. The current and recurrent example of this is the recent and on-going race-riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Journalists have reminded us of multiple precedents, and some political pundits have warned us that unless certain mind-sets are changed, history will continue to repeat itself. Having lived for ten years in the U.S. cheek-by-jowl with racial discrimination, I cannot but underline its obvious historical, criminal source : slavery.
Every nation has crimes on its conscience, from the Australian genocide of Aborigines to the disastrous inheritance world-wide of colonialism. We must not continue to ignore the challenge to take effective action to eradicate the recurring explosions of the volcano, ever ready to erupt, which is racial prejudice. But, more broadly, we should wonder about what other poisoned legacies we are preparing for our children. Few would dare speak of religious indoctrination in the present context : a brash black adolescent being shot in the head by a white policeman, a reaction provoked initially by the youngster’s defiantly walking down the middle of a street in Ferguson, resulting in violent race-riots and the use of military weaponry to kill protesters. But the implications of religious indoctrination of inherited belief deserve to be faced, as insignificant as they may seem in comparison with the current tragedy.
We are all responsible for the values we transmit to our children. I am happy to assume mine. I have left my children and theirs free to make up their own minds about religion, and will always respect their choice. I would expect all atheists to do the same. Non-atheists should, equally importantly, wonder about the damage they are doing in perpetuating myth, illusion, blind faith, blind folly and fanaticism in their offspring. God, fortunately (and for obvious reasons), will not punish any of them for their refusal to question their religious beliefs. But their descendants would have reason to regret their acceptance of the status quo. My parents, grandparents and earlier forebears did not have the luxury, the opportunity or the social fabric to question their faith. I cannot blame them for their credulity nor for transmitting without questioning their beliefs and religious practice to their descendants. But to do so today is to refuse, or at least limit, future generations’ freedom.