Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Is It Child Abuse to Raise Children in a Religious Tradition?


There's a claim made by some recent atheist critics of religion--including Richard Dawkins--that I haven't taken up on this blog. Specifically, some argue that it amounts to something like child abuse to raise children as “Catholics” or “Southern Baptists” or “Hindus,” to encourage them to think of themselves in these terms before they have reached a level of intellectual maturity necessary for reflecting critically on the content of the belief systems correlated with these labels.

It turns out that some time ago I started a post on this topic but then never finished it. Given how little time I have this month to devote to this blog, I thought this would be a good time to finish up that essay and post it here. So, here it is--a post on what we should make of the claim that raising one's child in a religious tradition amounts to child abuse.

The claim matters to me in a very obvious way. I have children. I'm raising them in a religious tradition. Am I thereby being abusive?


First of all, this claim needs to be distinguished from other points one might make about religion and child abuse--points that Dawkins makes in The God Delusion. For example, he argues that teaching kids to believe in hell, and to think that they are at risk for going there if they fail to tow the (religious) line, can only be described as abusive. I tend to agree that the label of “abusive” might be appropriate for parents or preachers who terrify kids with vivid images of eternal damnation, who paint hell as a potential final destination if kids aren’t sufficiently obedient.

But to say this is a very different thing from saying that it is abusive to raise a child with a religious identity.

I grew up with a broadly “Christian” identity, although it became quickly clear to me that neither of my parents had especially strong Christian beliefs. They thought I should experience what being part of a church is like. Since my father was a Lutheran preacher’s kid and my mother a Baptist preacher’s kid, we became members of a local Methodist congregation. I attended Sunday school regularly and, as I got older, became active with my church’s youth group and the UMYF (United Methodist Youth Fellowship).

I can not recall, even once, being threatened with hellfire for failing to tow the line. I was vaguely aware, of course, that there was this teaching about hell that was part of the Christian tradition, but it certainly wasn’t something that the pastor or youth group leaders emphasized or even talked about. Heaven, yes. But hell?

I surely knew that traditional Methodism affirmed its existence, but never once did it enter my head that I might be in the slightest danger of ending up there. Never once did any church leader say anything that could put such an idea into my head. God was a God of love, and His love and mercy and parental care were so vividly emphasized that there was no place in my thinking for a threat of hell. Damnation wasn’t something a loving parent imposed upon His beloved children. Hence, the persistently reinforced message that God is the most loving parent imaginable—and that He loved me unconditionally—pretty much guaranteed that I never lived in fear of hell.

I can confidently say that the same is true for my own children. They’ve attended two different churches growing up. In neither is the threat of hell preached from the pulpit. In neither is it taught in Sunday School. In neither do children receive a message of threat, of potential doom, of fiery torment if they don’t tow the line. On the contrary, the message is one of comfort and reassurance.

The churches my children have attended pair an honesty about the conditions of this world with a promise that there is more to reality that meets the eye—that despite the suffering and uncertainty of this mortal life, despite the fact that we live in a world that runs according to natural laws utterly indifferent to the good, there is an eternal realm defined by love rather than by indifference. The religious vision my kids receive says that existence is vastly better than it seems, not that it is (at least potentially) vastly worse.

You can accuse these churches of engaging in wish-thinking, I suppose—but only if you stress that they are honest about the state of this world, the uncertainty we face in this life, the fact that there is no magic ritual we can perform to protect ourselves from illness and accident and natural disasters. My children haven’t grown up thinking that prayer is magic, that it can call God to heel and get him to meet all our needs. People die while congregations pray for them. Tornadoes destroy communities and take lives, including the lives of those who are huddled in their safe spot praying fervently for deliverance.

The world runs according to fixed and predictable rules, and bad things happen as a working out of these rules—not as a divine punishment or anything of the sort. God has created a space of otherness in which His creatures may live and grow and form themselves, but in which they are vulnerable. God weeps with us as we pray for the fortitude to go on. God weeps, and bestows strength, and fashions an eternal context within which all this suffering is redeemed. 

What is offered here is not a false portrait of what this world is like, but a picture of a broader context in which the hope of redemption changes the meaning of tragedy.

Is it abusive to teach kids such things, to give them this kind of hope? Not a false belief about the way that the world works, but the hope that despite the grim realities of this world, in the end all will be well? Not na├»ve notions about prayer’s magical powers, but the message that at the heart of creation lies a God who is on the side of joy and life and love?

It isn’t hard to make the case that abuse—physical and psychological—happens in religious communities. I’m afraid to say it also sometimes happens in schools too, and in extracurricular programs that are supposed to be enriching but instead become soul-crushing.

It isn’t hard to demonstrate that specific religious teachings routinely serve as instruments of abuse. And it isn’t hard to show that certain teachings lend themselves to such abusive use. But it doesn’t follow from this that raising a child as a member of a faith tradition is essentially abusive.

To be fair, Dawkins is usually cautious about this stronger claim. He flirts with it enough to inspire some of his more pugnacious followers to run with the idea, but for Dawkins it has more the form of suggestion than outright assertion…at least when he isn’t caught up in moments of rhetorical excess.

But when he gestures most strongly in the direction of this idea, there’s a certain line of thinking that he invokes. Specifically, he invokes the idea that it’s wrong to foist on children beliefs that they are too young to evaluate for themselves. To be a Christian is to believe certain things. Therefore, Dawkins concludes that raising a child as “Christian” and labeling them as such foists these Christian beliefs on them without their consent. It amounts to telling them what they believe before they have the capacity to decide such matters for themselves. It’s taking advantage of their innocence to indoctrinate them for life.

And while, in his more sober moments, Dawkins hesitates to use the word “abuse” to describe this practice, there is no doubt that he thinks it is an irresponsible way to treat children. In discussing Incan priests who sacrificed a young girl, a willing sacrifice eager to rush into the arms of the Sun God, Dawkins says that they “cannot be blamed for their ignorance…But they can be blamed for foisting their own beliefs on a girl too young to decide whether to worship the sun or not.”

The implication for our modern world is clear enough: Parents can be blamed for foisting religious beliefs on their kids before they have the cognitive development and maturity required to consider these beliefs on their own merits. One might think of it as a kind of opportunism: Suck the kids in while they’re too gullible to question. Brainwash them while their childhood credulity makes them vulnerable.

What are we to make of this line of thinking? First of all, adopting and affirming a religious identity does not necessarily entail detailed knowledge about the doctrinal teachings of the given religion. Some religions do not define themselves primarily in terms of doctrinal teachings in any event. Instead, they define themselves in terms of such things as shared ritual practices, or the cultivation of ineffable religious feelings or experiences, or a common mission (defined in terms of intra-communal aims and broader social aims that often have to do with promoting social justice or peace), or a shared history and heritage (a story about the life of a religious fellowship over time which is intended to invoke a sense of belonging to a community that stretches back into the past and will continue into the future).

Even religious communities that do stress doctrines and teachings are routinely defined by far more than that. And it is hardly uncommon for someone to identify with a religious community, to feel a deep sense of belonging to it, without adhering in anything but a very loose way to the doctrines promulgated within that community. In these cases, the sense of identification is rooted in something other than allegiance to the doctrinal teachings—something often vaguely described as “culture.”

It is therefore too simple to say that attaching a religious identity to a child who is too young to evaluate the “beliefs” of the religion amounts to opportunistic indoctrination. It is too simple, in part, because so much of what is meant by the religious label has nothing to do with beliefs. Religious identity is often more about belonging and rootedness, especially in young children, than it is about dogma. Providing the former is not, by itself, abusive. On the contrary, I would argue that healthy social development requires these things.

That said, it is clearly troubling when these psychological needs are offered at a price. If the price for a sense of belonging and rootedness, for an identity with which to orient oneself in a confusing world, is that one must extend blind allegiance to a set of teachings and shut down one’s critical faculties, then there is something very problematic going on even if we don’t call it “abuse.” If the tangible threats of social alienation are exacerbated by threats of damnation for any who question the faith, then something very pernicious is going on indeed.

But not every religious community imposes such costs. Furthermore, it is problematic to claim that it is always wrong to teach children beliefs before they are ready to critically assess them. Mature critical reflection requires a set of intellectual abilities and a framework for reflection that cannot be acquired except through the introduction of a basic set of foundational beliefs. It is a routine part of childhood education to teach a body of beliefs that the child or student is incapable of evaluating on their own. What elementary-age child has the training in historical methods needed to evaluate the claims made in grade school American history?

Very often, education involves introducing students to a body of received wisdom while at the same time cultivating the student’s capacities for critical thinking and independent inquiry. It is the latter which is crucial. We need to ask, not whether beliefs are being passed on which the child is unequipped to evaluate, but rather whether the spirit in which those beliefs are passed on is one that stifles or cultivates the child’s capacities for critical thinking.

Is uncertainty acknowledged? Is critical reflection encouraged rather than discouraged? Are past errors highlighted? Is the tradition passed on as an inheritance from which children are encouraged to build in the light of their own lived experience, rather than as a set of shackles they must wear on pain of betraying the tradition?

If the answers to these and similar questions is yes, it would be a mistake to call what is going on brainwashing, let alone child abuse. While religious education may amount to opportunistic indoctrination far too often, it would be a gross overgeneralization to say that every religious community passes on its beliefs in a way that stifles the intellectual imaginations and capacities of those who grow up within it.

Religious communities—and parents raising their children in religious traditions—need to ask whether religious teachings are being offered to children as a springboard or as a cage. They need to do their best to ensure the former and prevent the latter. But I don’t think they need to worry that raising their child within a religious tradition is necessarily or inevitably a case of opportunistic brainwashing.

It can be, but it can also be a source of belonging and rootedness, and a resource for approaching an uncertain world in a spirit of hope. And the latter needn’t come at the cost of a stifled mind.

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