A young child is removed from his family, taken to live in a remote community, made to engage in strange rituals, denied the company of ordinary children, dressed in unusual clothes and surrounded by adults who worship him. Are these scenes from some despotic cult? No, this is the way that new religious leaders are “nurtured” under the auspices of what are widely held to be the enlightened and progressive practices of Tibetan Buddhism.
Osel Hita Torres was identified whilst just a baby as the reincarnation of then recently deceased Lama Yeshe. The Tibetan Buddhist Federation for the Protection of the Mahayana Tradition say on their website that his mother “had a feeling” that he may be said reincarnation whilst he was still in the womb. As a consequence of the beliefs of his Buddhist parents, Osel was denied anything resembling a normal childhood.
Within Tibetan Buddism selection of new Lamas often follows such a course; the Dalai Lama himself was chosen whilst a baby, segregated from other children, denied freedom and choices, and indoctrinated to believe he was the reincarnation of a previous figure. His wretched childhood was soft-soaped in the film Seven Years in Tibet, which passed little or no comment on the insanity and cruelty of this treatment of a child.
But Osel Hita Torres (now 23) began to see through the nonsense he was taught to believe his whole life and in spectacular style. He returned to Spain when he was 18. His experience at university, exploring film, music and mixing with other young people, showed him how to take a different path in life. Now a qualified cinematographer, he describes himself as an agnostic.
But his childhood will have had an indelible impact on his future life. He describes his experience: “at 14 months I was recognized and taken to India. They dressed me in a yellow hat, they sat me on a throne, people worshipped me ... They took me away from my family and put me in a medieval situation in which I suffered a lot. It was like living a lie”. This is just horrible.
If adults choose to entertain fantastic beliefs, that is their choice. If adults choose to live their lives according to a set of religious doctrines that is up to them. In fact socialists defend peoples’ right to freedom of religious expression. Any other policy would oppress and serve to more deeply entrench religious belief. However, there must be limits. Children should be protected from religious strictures and given choices about how to live and what to believe.
This is the value of a secular education system — to provide an environment in which children and young people have freedom from religious indoctrination and which enables them, even if only in a limited way, to question and have faith in their own choices.
It could be said that Osel’s case is an extreme example of the treatment of children by organised religion, and it is true we are looking at a broad spectrum. At one end we have faith schools and at the other the deification of babies. However, it seems to me that the indoctrination of children and abusive control of their lives in the name of multiple sets of religious beliefs is all too common.
Most children aren’t told they are gods or fabled leaders, but that doesn’t make the forms of control any less harmful — from my neighbour who I witnessed when I was ten striking her five year old daughter with a fish slice because she was questioning how god could live in the sky, to the girl who is forced to cover her head or whole body as soon as she reaches puberty. We must raise the demand for secularism, for an abolition of faith schools, and for the rights of children to make up their own minds.