Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Religion As Child Abuse

Religion is poison; protect children. (1930s era Soviet Russia anti-religion poster.)

Something I'm hearing quite frequently now from atheists is that parents who teach religion to their children are guilty of child abuse. I think the first time I heard it was from Richard Dawkins, and being the influential spokesperson for atheism that he is, what he says often gets much repeated.
My religious upbringing was in a very distinct form of Christian fundamentalism, part of the Pentecostal holiness movement. I think back now on my childhood and weigh whether I think my childhood was one of mental abuse. Certainly my religious upbringing has left an impression on me that continues to this day. But poverty left far more scars than religious indoctrination. My parents were wonderful, loving parents. Not perfect, to be sure, but very caring and concerned that their children grew to be responsible adults.  
Perhaps one of the biggest religious impacts was the holidays. Some parents think teaching belief in Santa Claus is good for a child. My parents always taught us that Santa was a fun myth and that mommies and daddies are really Santa for children. To have done otherwise, they thought, would have been lying. I'm not sure I lost anything of value by this theory. I loved Christmas as child. (Come to think of it, I still do!)
Halloween was another holiday my parents frowned upon. It was too pagan, too satanic in their opinion. But once my parents divorced (when I was 11) and were kicked out of our church, this restriction was lifted. I went trick-or-treating for the first time when I was 12. It was fun, mainly because of the candy and fellowship with my friends. We did other things to compensate for trick-or-treating when we were in church, so again I'm not sure this was a wholly negative thing. I grew up in the psychedelic 60s and not the least concern of my parents was that our treats might be laced with drugs. Perhaps that fear was a bigger concern than the pagan aspects of Halloween. Certainly I recall Mom talking about that fear more than Satan.
When I came into puberty of course it was implied that sexual self-pleasure was against God's plan and was wrong. We were never taught that it would lead to blindness, hairy palms, or insanity, but yes, we were taught that God created sex essentially for two reasons: procreation and pleasure between married couples. But I confess that I took the risk of displeasing God on a regular basis - and I'm certain most youths who were taught as my brothers and I were did the same.
Then there is Hell. Yes, I heard about Hell growing. I remember having at least one nightmare about going there. I mostly heard about it at church during revivals. My parents didn't harp on it. Not only that, they also taught us that it isn't wise to assume this or that person is going to Hell or, once dead, that they did go. We were taught that no one can know what might take place between a person and God before death, so how could we possible know about their final destination? As for people who interpreted religious faith differently than we did, Mom had a saying: "They are walking in all the light they see." I suppose that is somewhat condescending, but certainly much above arrogant judging. 
But beyond all that, even had my parents been atheists and hadn't raised us to believe in Hell, I don't see how we would have escaped the subject. Lots of people believe in Hell or post mortem punishment. There is a deep seated human desire to see bad punished and good rewarded. It is fairly said to be a part of our culture, implicit in many stories, movies, even our cartoons. I remember watching Satan's Waitin', in which Sylvester the cat used up all his nine lives chasing Tweety and wound up there.
So all in all I don't think my parents abused my brothers and me by raising us as Christians. I think religion as child abuse is a rhetorical device, and a rather poor one in my opinion. My faith had a more positive than negative impact on us overall, I believe.
There is one more thought I have about the matter. Once I got old enough to think for myself, I did begin to have questions about the more negative elements of my faith. Once I started investigating the matter for myself, I naturally began to modify some of the things I had been taught. I found there were lots of different ways to look at things. My upbringing was a template of sorts, not a carved-in-stone way of life. It is the responsibility of all of us to become our own person.
Now in no way am I being unsympathetic to those who have been deeply scarred by their religious experiences. I'm merely telling my story and giving my personal impressions. I think the proper kind of religious faith (or spirituality) can be a blessing. I'm also very much aware that the wrong kind can be a curse. But I also hold a philosophy that we should always try to rise above the negative circumstances in our lives.


  1. Dawkins explaining evolution (his field of expertise): clear, accurate, entertaining.

    Dawkins outside of his field of expertise: has excellent aim at his foot.

    Case in point: Child abuse. Could he find a way to word his thinking in a manner calculated to engender more antipathy? Hard to see how.

    Now I know we differ here. I think early religious indoctrination does much harm (calling it child abuse actually hurts the case, shutting up ears that might otherwise hear). I think great stress is present when families and couples diverge in their beliefs in ways that are not mutually acceptable. I think this harm is much underestimated due to the the predominance of believers not eager to report or hear about it. I think there is great sexual dysfunction, to be blamed upon early religious indoctrination, in both society's attitudes and in individual men and women (who understandably aren't eager to broadcast that information). These harms are due to inflexible religious doctrine. Religion does harm. I don't concur that such thinking is only that of the minority extremists, as you seem to think.

    I get that you feel you were benefited rather than harmed by your more fundamentalist upbringing. It was different for me. Fear of coming up short and ending up in hell was suffocating. Even gazing upon the opposite sex with appreciation was 'committing adultery with her' mentally. I remain damaged.

    So as you cite your experience in support of the harmlessness of religion, I call that bet with my experience. And have built my case a bit. I'm sure you can build your case a bit. Have a good one!

    1. I've noticed that about Dawkins. But really, I think some religious folks look for the least slip with him and then blow it out of proportion. His recent comments about pedophilia is an example. I really understood what he was trying to say, but I knew he was going to be taken to task for it.

      Now this religion as child abuse - even though I understand perfectly his point - is something that is overly provocative. I bristle at the suggestion my parents were child abusers. I think that accusation is overly broad. I would hate to see a war against religion here in the US such as was waged in the Soviet Union or China as much as I would hate to see a theocracy. Balance, as you said in one of your earlier comments. (And speaking of child abuse, did you notice the old woman on the poster yanking that child's hair? Sheesh!)

      I'm sorry you had a bad experience with religion. As I said, I know some people have had bad experiences and I'm not unsympathetic. For me, I had something then I don't have now: a loving, supportive extended family. I was also given a firm moral foundation which not only has led me to a life long practice of the Golden Rule, but kept me from falling into the drug life (other than a handful of stupid youthful experimentations). And I was chaste (despite the occasional lapse of lust of heart or self sexual gratification), my ex-wife having been the first and only woman I was with until the end of our relationship. Had I stayed true to my religious convictions, I'm certain we would not have parted and likely would still be together today.

      Well, everyone's experience is different.

  2. I have an idea... What if we human beings in every part of the world just taught The Golden Rule and no more teachings of any gods. Don't you think the whole world would be and would have been better off?

    1. Hi Syliva. Thanks for the question. I think it is a very important one.

      Here are two rules of human action:

      1) Treat others the same way you wish to be treated.

      2) Look out for number one.

      So what makes the first rule "Golden"? What makes it an "ought" rather than just a starry-eyed sentiment?

      In the faith tradition I was raised in we were taught that God created humans in His image, and that by virtue of that fact a certain dignity adheres in every person.

      If I accept, as I am coming to do, that the cosmos is very likely an intelligent, purposeful situation, it spurs me to seek meaning and purpose. Well, that's my reason for thinking the first rule is more than starry-eyed sentimentality.

      On the other hand, if the cosmos is the result of blind chance, a colossal yet astounding accident, if life is purposeless, short and brutish, why does the second rule not make perfect sense?

      Now lest I'm misunderstood here let me add that I'm not suggesting that atheists can't be moral, empathetic people. I'm not. But for those who don't believe in what Martin Luther King Jr. called the "arc of the moral universe" (Let me quote him here: "This is a law-abiding universe. This is a moral universe. It hinges on moral foundations. If we are to make of this a better world, we've got to go back and rediscover that precious value that we've left behind.), for those who don't believe that, the Golden Rule is mere opinion and not a moral imperative. I have to agree with Martin.

  3. I hate hearing the EXCUSE "I was raised this way." PLZZZZ. At some point we all must be accountable for our OWN actions. I have cousins who were abused as children even as they walked bruised or limping to church, since the beater was a big shot there. While the abuse screwed them up IMO, there are many degrees of child abuse. There seems a natural BREAKING AWAY from parents during teen years. If you KNOW you were 'abused' by your parent's teachings, then you have taken the step toward healing. But to call what a parent TELLS their children abuse? GIMME A BREAK

    1. Ah, my blunt and to the point Diane. But yes, I agree that we have to become our own persons. We bear the responsibility of deciding for ourselves what we believe and why we believe it. People who are this or that solely because their parents were haven't reached full mental maturity, it seems to me. Therefore, I find this idea of religious indoctrination as child abuse lacking.

  4. I think religious indoctrination and child abuse started in Genesis with God's first children.

  5. "My faith had a more positive than negative impact on us overall, I believe."

    This is the statement of my own upbringing!

    1. All things considered, my religious upbringing helped more than it hurt me. "As the twig is bent so grows the tree."