Age of Accountability

By: Jake
January 12, 2012

The famous proverb states that if you ‘Train a child in the way of the Lord when he is old he shall not depart from his ways.’ If this proverb is right and childhood education has such a deterministic role in a persons life, then the education of that child should be considered carefully, lest we do it wrongly.


A recent study observed that 17% of Atheists took their children to church. The reason why they took them to church is that they wanted their children to have exposure to religions, so that they would have the ability to choose what they believe. (A cynic might say they took them so they could feel superior to those who attended – as they may echo the poster boy of Atheism, Richard Dawkins, who would claim the religious are suffering from a form of delusion). As the chief researcher said:

“They want to teach their children to be free thinkers, to give them religious choices, and so they take their children to religious organizations just to give them exposure to religion.”

Whilst 17% is hardly a majority of Atheists, it was interesting that about 1 in 5 would give their children a choice in their religious views. This raises the question: to what extent should a child be empowered to make decisions about what they believe?  Would we find 17% of Mormons who would give their child an equal latitude when it came to their choice in religious matters and free thinking?  More importantly when is any human being old enough to make choices about how they live their life?


As the recently departed Christopher Hitchens has argued that “If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.” The suggestion behind this is that if children avoided indoctrination they would have greater freedom in choosing and would likely choose differently. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer spoke of this when he said:

“If, in early childhood, certain fundamental views and doctrines are paraded with unusual solemnity, and an air of the greatest earnestness never before visible in anything else; if, at the same time, the possibility of a doubt about them be completely passed over, or touched upon only to indicate that doubt is the first step to eternal perdition, the resulting impression will be so deep that, as a rule, that is, in almost every case, doubt about them will be almost as impossible as doubt about one’s own existence.” (Arthur Schopenhauer, On Religion: A Dialogue)

The assumption that both positions make is that religious choice is purely indoctrination, and when beliefs are implanted at an early age, it is difficult for people to question deeply held assumptions as an adult. They seem to agree with the proverb that the education of a child has a powerful and lasting effect on any individual bur for different reasons.


If the religious education of children has such a powerful effect upon a child’s later life, then it is important to consider the best way in which it is done. Richard Dawkins has made the claim that the current way in which children are labelled as belonging to a certain religious group as a ‘Catholic girl’ a ‘Mormon boy,’ or a ‘Muslim child,’ before they are even concious of the existence of religion and unable to even conceptualise it, is a form of child abuse. This is because children are in some cases forced to be educated in a certain way that attaches cosmic and eternal significance to this set of teachings. Certainly, those who later abandon those beliefs would agree. The internet is full of accounts of ex-mormons who lay the charge of a messed up attitude to their body, sexuality, authority and the world to the way they were raised as a Mormon. Yet, this is not the case for many others, and is certainly very subjective dependent upon temperament, parents and local church culture.

When is a child capable of making an informed decision about religion? Are the new atheists right in that children should not be indoctrinated in a religion until they are capable of understanding its significance?baptized-baptism-mormon.jpg

Because Mormons point to the wrongness of infant baptism, we see the age of 8 being an age in which a child is able to make a choice about their religious affiliation, along with the claim that they are capable of sinning. But what has changed since birth and eight that makes that age more responsible then they were at their birth? And why are children baptised at eight, when Jesus himself was not baptised when he was eight?

The church doctrine is that children from the age of eight are accountable for their actions. As the revelation to Joseph Smith states: ‘children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old.’ The implications of this is that they are able to make choices for how to live their lives and be held responsible for what they do as it is this responsibility that they have that makes them capable of sin. However, it would appear that we don’t really take this seriously; most of the time the choice of a child is not really taken seriously, if it’s allowed at all. Given how little choice they are given, do children age 8 really need to repent and be baptised?

Children are given only superficial decisions to make such as ‘chose which colour shirt you would like?’ or ‘what would you like to play?’ rather than choices that have moral weight. If they are really accountable then why do we not give them full responsibility for their own lives?


If they really are able to chose and be accountable for their actions then why have the legal drinking age as 18/21 (depending on country)? If we seriously think that they are accountable for their actions then why are they not allowed to make this choice at eight?  By not letting them choose we are taking away their agency.

The drinking age shows a strange paradox. As a society we say that this decision to drink is one that someone at the age of 12 is not able to make, yet they are capable of being held responsible for killing someone. It is a strange piece of logic when someone can be held accountable for criminal acts and be allowed to have sex and get married before they are able to choose what type of beverage they wish to buy and consume.


In England at the age of 10 a child is deemed old enough to be criminally tried, as the case of the Bulger murders highlights. In America (whilst it differs from state to state) it is usually about 12-14 years old. But in both cases their criminal responsibility is limited, and they are not held to the same standards as if they were an adult, but are tried as juveniles. If 8 year olds are truly capable of sinning, then why do we not push for the age of criminal accountability being 8 years old? And why not try all of them as adults? To take the age of accountability to its logical conclusion it seems that we would be compelled to such a position.

Of course I am not really arguing that eight year olds should be given a complete freedom in what they do; it certainly makes sense to restrict choices until people can make them with an informed knowledge. I am simply highlighting a contradiction between baptising a child at eight for the remission of sins (what sins?) and the age of eight as the age of accountability and the restrictions on how accountable they can be in most things in life (who really lets an eight year old watch whatever film they like?). Possibly, a way out of this would be to argue for a progressive form of responsibility where we are given responsibilities of increasing importance over time from the age of eight. But if this is the case then why are children making one of the most important decisions of their lives at such a young age? Surely on the scale of importance it should be delayed, shouldn’t it?  Here I confess my ignorance, as I do not know the solution out of these contradictions, and as such I turn to those wiser then me – you.


  • How do we reconcile these issues?
  • How should children be religiously educated?
  • Why are children baptised at eight years old when Jesus wasn’t baptised at eight?
  • To what extent should children be empowered to make their own decisions about religious affiliation?
  • What sins an an eight year old commit? Are they really big enough that they need to be baptised?

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23 Responses to Age of Accountability

  1. james on January 12, 2012 at 5:03 PM

    Eight has become a purely cultural landmark for mormons, a rite of passage no different than a birthday and has little to do with accountability or ability to act and choose. The age of eight really means nothing so doctrinally, we should treat it as what it is. My own daughter who is developmentally challenged, in special education classes and far behind her peer group in school, was still baptized at the age of 8, first Sunday following her birthday – mentally she was at a 5 year old level – at best.

    Yet this constitutes membership into an organization that affects the very core of their life from that point forward. I can’t see it in any other light than indoctrination. There is no choice, there is no real understanding. Your examples are spot on – we would never allow an 8 year old to make a choice regarding marriage or voting for in a general election, yet this makes sense?

    Baptism should be separated from membership into the organization. As a rite of passage I can see the cultural value of the celebration but it’s impact on their future life is without consideration of the child’s ability comprehend what they are signing up for.

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  2. jks on January 12, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    Just because an eight year old CAN sin, doesn’t mean we give them freedom to sin. My 8 year olds can make good choices or bad choices, but I don’t hand them loaded guns just to test them. But if they really want to murder someone they can get their hands on some sort of weapon. We don’t let kids buy drinks, but we all realize that any kid who really wants to drink can get ahold of alcohol.
    Any age you pick must be arbitrary. 8 is old enough that most kids can decide if they want to follow God. It is beneficial to get to actually make the decision.

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  3. hawkgrrrl on January 12, 2012 at 5:56 PM

    Child psychology does teach that the ability to distinguish right from wrong is developed around this age – it’s not overnight obviously, but it occurs between ages 7 and 9 typically. Personally, my view about drinking alcohol is that it is not a sin – it impairs one’s ability to be responsible for choice; therefore, it can lead one to sin or unhappiness due to impaired reasoning.

    Do the anabaptists have it right? Maybe. The Amish baptize at 18, only after Rumspringa, yet they have a retention rate over 95%. That’s mostly because they are so insular, so if you leave, it’s not just a worldview you leave, but everyone you have known from birth. So, even though they give you a chance to un-indoctrinate, the isolationist culture (combined with the practice of shunning) keeps people from leaving. I am not a huge fan of the over-the-top indoctrination that sometimes happens in the church; it’s one reason I am creeped out whenever I hear the Primary children singing “Follow the Prophet.” The culture is strong enough it’s not necessary to take it to those extremes. People get it.

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  4. Ren on January 12, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    -How should children be religiously educated?
    Preferably with exposure to a wide variety of practices. A “home base” church is fine but children should be exposed to other practices as well as cultures. For children in LDS families, this is critical in towns where the majority of their classmates and neighbors are LDS.

    -To what extent should children be empowered to make their own decisions about religious affiliation?
    If I were asked as a child I would have voted to stay home instead of hearing a boring sermon. :) Most kids probably would. I don’t know… I don’t think parents should force a child to be baptized but what if the child wants to join an entirely different religion? Should that be supported? A lot to consider…

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  5. Stephen M (Ethesis) on January 12, 2012 at 7:27 PM

    Hawk has it right as to the psych changes that occur. OTH Christ was baptized at 30 — I don’t think many would call that age one we should wait on.

    I think there are elements of balance and structure we provide children and we need to acknowledge that we judge their choices within them.

    If they lack the structured that makes it ever the more hard for them.

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  6. hawkgrrrl on January 12, 2012 at 8:43 PM

    There’s also peril in a pluralistic approach. Rather than giving a child a framework for morality and to understand and access the divine, you can put that all into question and create skepticism and outsider perspective so that no religion feels like a stable refuge.

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  7. LovelyLauren on January 12, 2012 at 9:27 PM

    I think that indoctrination doesn’t necessarily result from a strong church culture, but rather from a culture that clearly claims it’s superiority to others. While I was raised in the church, I lived mostly among non-members and it was easy to see that they were good people who made good choices. I could see that a life without the church could be fulfilling as well and knew that my parents would not disown me when I left. The same is not true of others raised in the church and I can see how easily they would be angry at the way their view of the world had been shaped.

    Baptism as 8 is tricky, because some kids see it as more of a rite of passage and others do wonder at the doctrinal significance of being responsible for one’s mistakes. I think that 8 is fine, mostly because any age would be arbitrary to some extent. I still make mistakes because I “don’t know any better” and I don’t think I’ll be punished for them. I see baptism as a step to spiritual maturity, perhaps if not in the act, when it’s reflected on later.

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  8. Aaron R. on January 13, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    This notion of the age of accountability and the way that it coincides with baptism seems to reflect something about the way in which we enter a fallen world. The fall is gradual and is grounded in the environment in which we mature. Our need to be freed from that sin is immediate and yet our sense of accountability reflects, I think, the complex ways our actions shape and influence the lives of those with whom we are in intimate relation rather than the age at which Children somehow become able to make moral decisions. This notion suggests that our freedom to choose is actually bound up with (both constrained and enabled) the choices of others (Adam & Eve, our parents etc.)

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  9. Paul on January 13, 2012 at 8:07 AM

    Agree with Hawk and Stephen on the psychology of right & wrong and age (wish I had a citation to share, but I don’t).

    I’m intrigued by your comment, Aaron.

    As for the deterministic value of a child’s training — how do we then account for the number of people who walk away later (three of my seven children, so far, for instance)?

    I think there is likely a difference between the intermountain west where the culture is Mormon as well as the religion vs. where I live and where I grew up (Michigan and Pennsylvania, respectively). It seems where Mormonism is the culture, one can be culturally Mormon without believing. Not much draw in that direction when the prevailing culture is not Mormon.

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  10. Ray on January 13, 2012 at 8:23 AM

    Excellent insight, Paul. I teach my own children to think for themselves, and if that means they leave when they get older, so be it. However, I also teach them what I believe and why, and if that means they stay when they get older, so be it.

    That’s the missing aspect of most arguments against “religious indoctrination” that I read – the lack of understanding that ALL parents teach their children what they believe and, almost without exception, hope they agree when they get older. Even agnostics tend to teach their children that they don’t know and that it’s fine / best not to think you know.

    For atheists to rail against theists for teaching their children in a way that, hopefully in the eyes of the parents, will influence those children to believe also is silly – since those atheists generally are doing the exact same thing. It really boils down to, “I disagree with ‘THOSE people’ and don’t think their beliefs should continue to exist and influence MY life – so they should stop teaching their beliefs to their children, since that will eliminate those beliefs faster than anything else I can do.”

    Of course, we all are blind to our own blind spots, so it’s hard for the extreme atheists to realize they are the exact same, in practical terms in this regard, as those they oppose the most strenuously.

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  11. Jake on January 13, 2012 at 9:20 AM

    I like the idea that it is about teaching children to think for themselves, and help them to become autonomous beings who act for themselves rather then are acted upon by other people and other beliefs. There is no one true way to do this, every culture and every child will be different. I think this is a reminder that every child should be treated as an individual and not homogenised by a standardised way of teaching them.

    Pluralism is difficult, as for obvious reasons you want a child to follow what you believe and hold dear. My Professor is amused by the fact that his atheistic liberal approach has resulted in his son is rebelling against him and becoming very conservative and religious as he wants some stability that the pluralistic sceptical approach fails to provide. Perhaps it shows that children to some extent rebel against their parents.

    To distinguish between baptism as a cultural rite of passage, an ordinance of salvation, and as membership in an organisation seems problematic. If it is a cultural rite rather then being about accountability then it can’t be done for salvation. If they have no accountability then they can’t sin yet and so need no saving, and we are told baptism is an ordinance of salvation. On the other hand it could be the case that it is a rite that is done as a rite of passage, the significance and weight of which only comes upon reflection. However, most rites of passage are about passing from innocence to experience, its about coming of age, like a Bar mitzvah, and we have plenty of these such as YM and YW’s, and baptism doesn’t seem to convey any progression from being a child towards being an adult.

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  12. paleorbber on January 13, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    first, i don’t think taking certain high stakes decisions out of teenage children’s hands is a signal that we don’t think they can or should be morally accountable for such decisions. it’s just one of the many ways parents will try to protect children from the consequences of failure. why? love, for one thing. but it’s also self-interest — as legal guardians, our kids’ problems become our problems to some extent.

    second, i don’t personally believe in the concept of “sin” but given the mormon doctrine of repentence it isn’t really of any consequence whether mormons baptize children at birth, or at some subjective “age of accountability”, or later. people can just repent for all the mistakes they made before they knew better and be 100% forgiven.

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  13. Brad on January 13, 2012 at 12:37 PM

    I think this is a very good discussion. I never really thought much about this, even when baptizing my older children at eight. But when my last child was baptized at eight, I viewed things differently. This child still believed in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. She didn’t have the capability to rationally comprehend these beings. Extrapolating from that, she didn’t have the ability to make rational choices about joining the church.

    I also take exception with the concept of sin with children. It is still being taught that when eight-year olds exit the baptismal waters, they are cleansed from all sin. According to what I understand of the gospel, children under the age of accountability are not capable of sin. So why are we claiming all their ‘sins’ are washed away at baptism?

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  14. Paul on January 13, 2012 at 12:41 PM

    Brad, we shouldn’t be teaching that. Mormon says in Moroni 8:8:

    “Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me.”

    That said, I know that some teach it. But they are wrong.

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  15. Cowboy on January 13, 2012 at 1:03 PM

    There is a lot about Dawkins that I like, but I actually disagree with him on the notion that religion is “abusive” to children. What his paradigm doesn’t account for is what would fill in the gap. As someone who has left the Church, more or less, this argument troubles me. Whether I like it or not, I am who I am because of my upbringing, which was centered on Mormonism in Utah County. It is easy to look back and say, well, if I hadn’t had this influence then life would have been better. Still, it begs the question, in the absence of those influences what, if anything, would have taken their place? If I hadn’t been Mormon, would I have been Amish? Heaven forbid. I’ll take Mormonism any day of the week if I don’t have to be Amish. Would I have been a Pentacostal fundamentalist? Ouch! Again, I’ll take Mormonism. Would I have been a casual Catholic? Now that’s a trade I’d probably would have been willing to make.

    Part of the thought that goes into justifying parents rights here is not based on the individual, but rather on the aggregate. We accept that some Children may unfortunately be indocrinated in fundamentalist families, on condition that over all society balances by preventing the tendencies for massive extremes. If on the other hand parents can’t indoctrinate, then you need a force which prevents them. In that case, what is this force if not an unchecked system of massive indoctrination? It would be nice if parents were a little more religiously tolerant with their kids, but I don’t expect that to really change. Still, it is better than the alternatives I think.

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  16. Jake on January 13, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    I don’t think I have ever been to a baptism where I have not heard that the child when they are baptised is having their sins washed away. Usually accompanied by a picture of Jesus being baptised, and possibly an really bad object lesson – My favourite being the dirty t-shirt and Jesus being the soap that cleans us (isn’t soap an alkali that burns our skin if used to much?).

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  17. NewlyHousewife on January 13, 2012 at 2:18 PM

    Don’t some members believe their children choose them as parents in the pre-mortal realm?

    I think whether or not that belief is shared with you plays a big role in how much “religion exposure” you’re going to give a 5 year-old as perpetration for baptism.

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  18. NewlyHousewife on January 13, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    I like to think of the whole baptism thing as a “the dove didn’t appear until after Jesus came up” thing–with more importance being placed on receiving the Holy Ghost than the water itself.

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  19. FireTag on January 13, 2012 at 3:58 PM

    I don’t think it is possible for parents to NOT indoctrinate children in something. (Dawkins would just like to indoctrinate kids with a secular worldview based on HIS values.) “Indoctrination” is just a term for passing on human culture, which always is tied to some belief system and identity, whether the identity is perceived as ethnic, national, clan, tribe, gender, religion, etc.

    I still remember staring into the mirror one morning, probably in my late forties, and being startled as I saw myself unconsciously express a minor shrug I recognized seeing my father do a hundred times. Our parents beliefs are ALWAYS in our heads, even when we rebel against them.

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  20. [...] discussion topics: How does the “age of accountability” really work? How is sex like a twinkie? How do you get members to appreciate the blessings of cleaning the [...]

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  21. jen on January 17, 2012 at 1:09 PM

    I always wondered why an eight year old could choose whether or not to be baptized, but (especially at my house) try being an eight year old that refused to go to church… there was no way that would be okay. (It wasn’t any more possible as a 14 year old, or a 17 year old, and when I finally left the church at 30, I was sure my family would prefer I was dead than to leave. I was wrong, but it was the most terrifying thing I have ever done.)

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  22. Brandon on January 23, 2012 at 3:52 AM

    Kids pick up on whatever they see, and will certainly take on the values their parents emphasize demonstrate through their actions. We’re currently living in Malaysia, and have befriended Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Atheists, and have learned about their beliefs and visited a lot of their religious sites. We don’t teach our kids any particular religious philosophy but we talk about the deep questions they ask, and we love to hear the answers they come up with. Wide exposure to religions at a young age, I think is better than “protecting” them within a single belief system until they’re “old” enough to not be swayed from their parent’s beliefs. Unfortunately, this is what many people do, and I think it’s damaging to kids.

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  23. Bob on January 23, 2012 at 7:43 AM

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