Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Is religious indoctrination of children abusive?

This blog is the result of seeing the headline question posted on an atheist FaceBook forum.  The statement is made by some atheists to the effect that when parents indoctrinate their children with religion, it's a type of child abuse.  I wanted to offer my thoughts on the topic here.

For the most part, in the USA, we're talking about christianity, although some of this might apply to other Abrahamic religions.  I'm not so knowledgeable about them.  I also acknowledge that your experiences and understanding may vary from mine.  That is, there are around 40, 000 different versions of christianity, and they distinguish themselves in various ways based on their particular doctrines.  My comments are keyed to the version of christianity that I was taught in an evangelical lutheran church because that's what I know best.  Of course, my understanding of that is biased since I never really bought into the program, and left it as soon as I felt I could.  Hence, I admit my comprehension could be flawed in detail, but probably not in basic doctrine.

So, disclaimers done, let's proceed:  in the version of christianity I was taught, there's an all-powerful, all-knowing god who rules the universe he created from nothing.  This god is acknowledged to be a jealous god (a curiously human sentiment for an all-powerful being), so he has no tolerance for belief in other gods.  He demands humans worship him, and only him (sounds like deep insecurity to me).  Somewhere in the universe, this god created two places where people would go after they lived out their days on the Earth:  joyful heaven for the believers and horrifying hell for the heathen unbelievers.  Evidently, this god also created an evil opponent (for no obvious reason), the devil (satan, or whatever) to seduce people away from the path leading to heaven, in order for them to land in hell where he tortures them forever.  This is pretty much the prototypical "carrot and stick" for humans.  If you swallow the story, you get the carrot;  if you don't, you get the stick - hard and forever!  Because a woman was convinced to eat some fruit by the devil (in the form of a talking snake), all of humanity is scarred by her free choice to disobey god (See the messages, here?) for all time.  Now that's god's justice and love, right?

I think it's pretty safe to say that the vast majority of christians in the US were born into and raised within christian families.  It's virtually certain that this, and this alone, is the primary explanation for the predominance of christianity in the US.  Religions are perpetuated in this way - Richard Dawkins has referred to religions as "God Memes", where a meme is defined as "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture".  The meme is, therefore, self-replicating.  Not everyone exposed to a meme is brought under its influence, of course, so not unlike the way DNA operates, the replication is not always completely perfect.  I'm an example of someone who didn't accept the this "god meme" - what I was taught never made any sense to me.  But for many (most) believers, being raised in a family with a particular religious bent is sufficient to indoctrinate them with the meme and by this means, the meme is perpetuated.

From my viewpoint, I have no problem with someone accepting the tenets of christianity, although it's always puzzling to me when otherwise intelligent, rational people choose to accept what I see as a preposterous story with virtually no supporting evidence.  There are many positive aspects of christianity (although they vary from one to another of the 40, 000 flavors), so inculcating the traits of kindness to others and love for all god's creations, for example, can't be a bad thing.  Many christians find the notion of love for all god's creations (e.g., homosexuals or socialists) pretty challenging!  The message may (or may not) be inherently abusive, but what I find to be obvious child abuse is the creation of fear and self-loathing.

In the version of christianity I was taught, all humans are scarred indelibly with the sin committed by the first two humans who were tricked into going against god's rules.  Presumably, a (temporary) human sacrifice (by the "son" of god, via a "virgin birth") is the only way to redemption chosen by god for the original sin, provided one accepts the temporarily murdered son of god as their lord and savior.  Frankly, I find this notion totally absurd, but everyone is free to believe whatever they choose.  Just don't ask me to buy it!

In any case, many children born in christian families are told that fire and brimstone forever awaits them because even if they act only with kindness and love for their entire lives (which I think even children realize is pretty much an impossible standard of behavior), their damnation is assured by a sin committed by someone else long ago.  They're made to feel shame and guilt for their "transgressions", notably including sins they themselves didn't actually commit.  The only solution is to embrace the jesus meme even more, which breeds even more guilt for the inevitable human "failings" (like sexual lust, for instance).  Fear, guilt and shame are powerful tools by which the meme controls its believers.  And, by a bizarre twist, regardless of the massively heinous crimes someone may have committed, if at the end of their miserable lives they accept almighty jesus as their lord and savior, they go to heaven!!  The only way to avoid hell and damnation is to believe.  [Reminds me of the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz.]

The content of religion isn't necessarily abusive on its own.  But the use of fear, guilt, and shame to force children down your parental "path of righteousness" is child abuse.  If you're a christian, you almost certainly want your children to accept your version of the one "true" religious faith.  Using abusive tactics to accomplish that goal clearly is an immoral thing to do, at least in my book.

If you're an atheist, the proper thing to do is to encourage your children to make up their own minds about religion.  This necessarily involves letting them learn about religion, and to give them the self-confidence to resist the peer pressure they'll surely get from their indoctrinated peers in order to make an informed choice as they mature into adults.  Most atheists don't seek to force atheism on believers - they want believers to (a) support separation of church and state, and (b) accept atheists without hate and contempt, thereby living up to the positive ideals of christianity.


Anonymous said...

Masterful. That appears to be accurate and without any distortions. What got me to question things was when a pastor asked me what I thought was the requirement to get into heaven. I answered "be a good person." I was quite surprised when I found out that that wasn't the right answer. I then began to realize that these were doctrines of men, not of a deity. What kind of deity needs or wants worship? It just makes no sense. That's partially why I believe that religion is on borrowed time, at least in civilized societies. Combine that with acts committed by various organized religions that clearly discredit religion even further and you have to wonder why it is taking so long. The church can be replaced with atheistic organizations that provide social interaction as well as guidance and help for it's members. A deity is not required. Religion has no monopoly on being moral. I do believe that there is a place for non religious "churches." You spend a few hours on a Sunday learning how to better cope with life, how to solve problems that come up in life, do volunteer work, and other things that some churches do but not waste time with a non-existant diety. Instead of a pastor you have a group of people who run the organization and bring in professional speakers and basically organize everything. There has to be a market for that. A modern day "church." No white space this time. Lisa MacArthur Riverside RI.

Chuck Doswell said...


Thanks for the compaction ... I dislike the idea of atheist "churches" because it gives the impression of turning atheism into just another religion. If people want to get together to have in-person discussion groups, that would be fine by me. Just don't call them churches. Atheism isn't a religion, like bald isn't a hair color.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, and thank you. Lisa MacArthur.