Religion is a product. Religions are brands. Adherence to religion can be measured by brand loyalty. Religious education is advertising. Is it ethical to advertise to children incapable of making rational distinctions among competing brands? What a great question I never thought of.
Consider this perspective, offered by psychologist Gad Saad, Ph.D., in "The Brand Loyalty of Religion is Unsurpassed" :
One of the benchmarks for determining whether it is ethical to advertise to children is to ask the following question: What is the minimal age at which children have the cognitive capacity to understand the ulterior motives of advertisers, and accordingly to build cognitive defenses against such attempts? This approach is congruent with the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget who studied the cognitive developmental stages that children traverse. Whereas there are some cross-cultural differences in terms of the minimal legal age for targeting children, a common benchmark is eight years of age. Hence whilst it is unethical to advertise to young children who are otherwise cognitively unprepared to understand the persuasive intent of advertising messages, it is apparently perfectly moral and ethical to "advertise" one's religious beliefs to children shortly after they make their entrance into the world. It seems that divinely ordained products do not need to conform to the same ethical standards as those imposed on tobacco companies by the FTC, or those forced on movie producers (via movie ratings) by a committee mandated to enforce some fuzzy and ephemeral community standards.
Psychology Today also notes, somewhat ominously, I think:
It is interesting to note that the law stipulates very specific guidelines as to when individuals can have sex, can vote, can get married, can drive, or can drink (as they are otherwise cognitively and emotionally unprepared to partake in the behaviors), yet they are fully "prepared" to be exposed to religious narratives straight out of the womb.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but like the freedom to vote, imbibe, drive, and marry, it's not absolute. Thus, Saad indirectly raises another question: is there a legitimate role of government in regulating the age at which children are permitted to be exposed to religious narratives?
The going answer today is No. But in fifty years? I'm not so sure. I know plenty of adults who, retrospectively, wish they could have avoided indoctrination into their parents' faith.