Long ago, when the world was very young, I was in the process of writing a doctoral dissertation on children’s rights. It never got finished, mainly due to a serious problem with allergies which took two or three years to regulate. To this day most of the major food groups are simply inedible for me — no red meat, none of the cabbage family of vegetables: turnip, cauliflower, cabbage, etc., no oranges, bananas, mangoes, papayas, guavas, red grapes (though not, strangely, green ones) — which to this day makes eating a bit of conundrum. Of course, you don’t need to hear about my health problems, but the point of recounting them is simply to say that, while I did give up my PhD project years ago, I never lost my concern for the rights of children. During my life as a priest I was always vaguely troubled by the baptism of children, and the promises that parents are expected to make to bring their children up in the life of the church, inducting them into the faith, and ensuring that they remained faithful to the teachings of the church.
These promises, which are either outwardly or tacitly made by religious parents, to make sure that their children are indoctrinated with church or religious teachings, are reflected in other aspects of religious life. I remember now with amusement, but also cognisant of the seriousness of her deep conviction on the point, the occasion when my wife Elizabeth came with me to an ordination of someone as a priest (a woman as it chanced). In the ordination service the ordinand makes a number of promises and commitments. One of them has to do with seeing that the priest’s family is a model to the Christian community of faithfulness to the teachings of the church, and of the ideal of Christian marriage and family. When we came out of the service — well, there were mutterings under her breath during the service itself! — Elizabeth – no wilting violet she! — expressed her views very sharply both to me and to the bishop about the inappropriateness of the promises the ordinand was expected to make. There was no justification, as she said, to make a person make promises about what another person should believe or how they should live. She would make up her own mind, if you please, and would not be governed by, or limited by Christian ideals or beliefs. Had she been present at my ordination, she said, she would have got up at that point and objected publicly — as doubtless she would have done! (She was herself a nonbeliever, though fully supportive of me and the work I had undertaken to do.) Nor did she think it right for anyone to promise that children should be brought up to believe. What children ultimately believed was their own business, and not the business of the church or any other body with presumed authority.
Although I had made the same promises some years before, it was clear to me that she was right, and I always had problems with the church’s practice of baptising infants. This was brought home very powerfully to me this morning by a picture that PZ Myers has put up on Pharygula from an old Sunday School (or school) workbook for children. Here’s the picture.
The use of techniques like this becomes, it seems to me, seriously questionable when you consider how religions have evolved, and how religions have hijacked various features of the evolved human cognitive apparatus and put them to uses other than that of survival. These points are clearly made in the paper recommended by Andy Thompson, author of Why We Believe in God(s) in response to Egbert’s questions in the comment stream of the post “Read, Mark, Learn and Inwardly Digest.” There are so many aspects of the complex processes involved in the evolution of religion that we can scarcely do more than touch on the outskirts of the theory of religion. The paper recommended by Thompson as supplementary reading is by Scott Atran and Joseph Henrich , “The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions.” Aside from the cognitive mechanisms that lead to the telling of minimally counterintuitive religious stories, the truth seems to be that these stories are “cognitively sticky” (my own term); they remain in the memory much more effectively than stories of the mundane, or stories that include many counterintuitive features. In Atran’s and Henrich’s words:
Cognitive approaches hypothesize that although intuitive concepts transmit well, concepts that minimally deviate from intuition transmit better, while those that deviate greatly cannot transmit successfully because they overload cognitive processes that drive inferential reasoning and relevance. 
This is extremely important, and there is growing empirical evidence that this is true. It means that religious stories take advantage of certain aspects of human cognition to make them more compelling and memorable. This also clearly means that indoctrination of children with tall tales is much easier than teaching them science and math, so it is not much wonder that children come to school primed to oppose the things that they are taught, especially things that conflict with their deeply held religious beliefs, beliefs that are ingrained in them very often from very early childhood indoctrination, the kind of indoctrination that Christian parents promise to undertake when they have their children baptised. (Baptists, by the way, who do not practice infant baptism, have a similar commitment ceremony. They are not going to miss the opportunity to inculcate religious beliefs in children. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to think that Baptists are even more likely to try, at least, to guarantee that children will make a commitment to Christianity when they have come ”of age,” since their children’s failure to do so would reflect badly on their parents.)
What is it about religious stories that make them so compelling? I don’t know whether this has been studied yet or not, but I would hypothesise that they are so compelling precisely because they were learned, for the most part, in childhood. It is well-known that certain built-in (or hardwired) cognitive abilities and tendencies are very active in childhood. For example, the tendency to ascribe agency even to things which are not agents is very active in childhood. As Atran and Henrich say:
Young children spontaneously overattribute agency to all sorts of entities (clouds, computers), and may thus be predisposed to construct agent-based representations of many phenomena. … This reactive bias was likely adaptive [-- better to have lots of false positives than one false negative, when it comes to predators --], at least until supernatural agenst were harnessed by cultural evolution to begin demanding costly actions and cooperation, under threat of divine punishment or offers of sublime rewards. 
As Thompson and Aukofer explain in their book, we often see aspects of a reversion to childhood in the context of religious worship. The mention holding hands above one’s head when singing or praying as a gesture of supplication, much like the child asking to be picked up and coddled. There is a cocoon of relative safety within liturgical settings, many of which use techniques for giving the worshipper the sense of being safely enfolded in the arms of a loving creator (mild forms of trance induced by singing, dancing, and other means, for example). In Christian contexts this is often explicit. The leader is often called ‘Father’ or ‘Pastor’ (viz., shepherd), and members comprise, together, the family of God, and are all brothers and sisters of one another. But there is also almost always a menacing context too, in which failure to blend into this family and to believe appropriately in concert with it will be dealt with with condign punishment either here and now or in “the sweet by and by.”
However, I don’t want to overload this post with theory of religion, although I think it is important for all of us to have an understanding of how religion functions, how it evolved, and why it is so enduring. My point is this. If we know so much about how religion evolved, and how various cognitive mechanisms came to be hijacked in the process, we also know how to avoid making claims which have no reasonable basis in our understanding of the world. In addition to this, we are beginning to know just how these beliefs work in practice, as well as methods which make the teaching of these claims much more effective in bringing about loyalty and belief. We have less and less excuse for imposing these beliefs or using these methods in the education of children. Indeed, the more we come to know about religion — and all the declarations of human rights were made long before we had this understanding — the more it seems clear that inculcating religious beliefs in children may be understood as a violation of their rights. By what strange twist of logic can it be thought to be appropriate to teach children, as though it were true, that Jesus died for our sins, and ascended into heaven, or that Mohammed was visited by the angel Gabriel and conveyed to him the very words of God himself?
People think they have a right to pass on their religious beliefs and customs to their children, but by what right do they teach their children lies? Isn’t telling children lies, and making it more likely, by various means, that they will take these lies for the truth, an offence against the right of any person to know what is true and what is false? Human freedom (insofar as we are free — and I don’t want to get tangled up in the free-will problem here) depends on knowing the truth. Being told, and expected to believe, as Aristotle would have told us, that some persons are born to be slaves, is contrary to respect for human rights. But so is the teaching of religious stories, no matter how ancient, no matter how important they may be to us as parents or religious leaders, whose effect as by-products of a number of evolved cognitive abilities is to subvert our very capacity to know and understand the world and human life for what it is.
Take something that Veronica Abbass has just posted as a comment (thank you Veronica). This, from Frank Pavone, the National Director of Priests for Life:
the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ is that He alone has authority over life and death. Neither the mother, nor the father, nor the state, nor the individual herself, can claim absolute dominion over life. “Nobody lives as his own master, and nobody dies as his own master. While we live, we are responsible to the Lord, and when we die, we die as His servants. Both in life and death, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:7-8).
Pavone quotes from Paul’s letter to the Romans as though it merely states facts. We belong to the Lord. Period. That’s why assisted dying or abortion are not within the power of human beings to carry out or to regulate. This, despite the fact that there is not a shred of evidence either for the Lord, or what it means to say that we are the Lord’s. Time to tell people like Pavone to hold their baseless superstitions if they like, but that it amounts to lying to try to convey these beliefs to others as though they were the truth, and that it is an unwarrantable intrusion into the lives of others to make these groundless beliefs determinative of our laws or of the way that we live together. Believe what you will, but be prepared to give evidence for your beliefs if you want to bring them into the public sphere and expect them to have an effect on how we organise our lives. This goes doubly for children, because children’s minds should not be perverted by being asked to believe superstitious tales. They should be given the ability to think for themselves and wisely, not to parrot the crazy beliefs of their elders.