Saturday, April 19, 2014

Indoctrination and Child Abuse

Today's Podcast

It is not terribly uncommon to see atheists make the claim that raising someone with religion is tantamount to child abuse. Recently (say, over the past year or so) this has really irked me when I hear it. I wish atheists would stop using the argument as it seems quite hyperbolic to me. Statements like this have huge potential to alienate exactly the types of Christians that I would like to engage with. On the other hand, I have to admit that when I was going through the early stages of my atheism this type of statement resonated with me big time. In this post I am going to explore these two conflicting thoughts on this common statement.

Why does this stuff resonate so well with many atheists?

I first heard the "religion is child abuse" meme when I was new to atheism. At the time I was very angry at religion, I see it as responsible for a lot of the pain I experienced as a child. The fear of hell and thought-crimes were the biggest offenders, but there were a great many things about the religion that affected my childhood in a negative way. I was terrified of hell a lot during my childhood, there were plenty of nights where I was unable to sleep as I had these fears running through my head. I was afraid to try new things unless I was certain it was acceptable from the church's perspective. I was afraid to ask questions as the answers might lead me to losing my faith. Being mired in fear is a really shitty way to grow up.

The fear was instilled so deeply that there was even a couple of years when I didn't believe in any of it anymore and yet I was still afraid of hell. I definitely wasn't a Christian and I was pretty sure I didn't believe in God anymore, and yet I just assumed this meant I was going to hell. I had some pretty serious struggles with depression during this time. I have heard similar things from quite a few atheists, it really shows how strong indoctrination can be. Many atheists say that the reason this kind of fear is instilled in people is so the church can keep members, although I would guess that the causation is the other way around, the church still exists because it instills this kind of fear but they don't subject people to fear for that reason.

But details aside, the point is that I look back at my childhood and I see that the indoctrination I experienced as a child definitely caused me years of unnecessary anguish. In this state I heard people say that religion is child abuse and it really resonated. Furthermore, pictures like this will pop up from time to time and I find them creepy as hell. I feel really sorry for those kids, it seems to me that they will either be Christians for life or they will experience the kind of pain I did when they leave the church. I really wish there was something I could do to make that not happen.

But is it appropriate to call this child abuse?

What makes something abuse? Is it simply that it causes someone distress? Imagine my son is playing in our front yard and I scream at him, which makes him stop what he's doing, sit down, and cry. If I'm doing this just to fuck with him I'm a horrible father and we might want to call it abuse (especially if it is a regular occurrence). If I just stopped him from running in front of a car then perhaps I just saved his life.

So where does indoctrination fall? Let's focus on the doctrine of hell for a moment, is it abuse or not? I think many atheists see it as causing pain for no good reason. Hell doesn't exist and yet they were tormented for years because of the thought of going there after they die. Being tortured for eternity is terrifying, and the made up threat is designed to keep them in line. From this perspective it definitely feels like abuse.

But what if hell were real? Whether or not it scares them is beside the point, you must warn your children about hell and in so doing help them avoid it. If hell were real it would be your duty to tell your children about it, a little fear is a small price to pay compared to an eternity of torture. If my son was running in front of a moving car and I sat back and did nothing I would be a negligent father, if hell were real and I said nothing the same logic would apply.

So what is the real situation? Does hell exist and the Christian parents are doing their due diligence by telling their children about it, or is hell made up nonsense and they are causing their children undue pain? This is the disconnect, Christians think we are in the first situation and atheists think we are in the second. Many atheists see the unnecessary pain and call it child abuse, but the Christian parents think they are saving their children's souls. Even if we are right, I think child abuse is an unfair charge.

Return to my analogy with my son running out in front of a car. Suppose that after I scare him I realize that the car was parked. He was never in any danger, it turns out I scared him for no good reason. Does this make me a bad father? Does it make my actions child abuse? Hell no! I should probably pay more attention to my surroundings and those of my son, but an abuser I am not.

The Christians see a car aimed at their children and they are trying to keep them from getting run over. It is up to us to convince them that the car is parked. We need to work to convince them that hell is not real. We should tell them that we think they are wrong and more importantly tell them why. But we should not call them monsters for doing what logically makes sense based on the beliefs that they hold. All that does is make us look like dicks and gives them a reason to dismiss us.

**edit 27 April 2014** I have been reconsidering my thoughts on this topic. I am still working through some of and I am planning on writing another post on the topic soon (probably in a couple weeks, this week and next weekend will be very busy for me). If you have anything to add please throw a comment in. I'd love to hear more perspectives on this.

2nd edit: I finally wrote a follow up post


  1. Nice work, I particularly liked the following comment as it added a brief smile in an otherwise serious post. "If I'm doing this just to fuck with him I'm a horrible father and we might want to call it abuse (especially if it is a regular occurrence)."

  2. While religion isn't, in and of itself, abuse, there are a lot of abusive things that are taught to children about religion. Take hell. You know how messed up that made you and a lot of other children. There are all kinds of disturbing and offensive things that parents teach their children and impose on their children that can and do cause mental anguish and emotional harm later in life. I'd sure call that abuse.

    1. I guess it comes down to what is meant by "abuse". Does the fact that the parents truly believe that hell exists affect whether we use that label? I would argue that it should.

      Let me use another analogy, suppose we were talking about federal prison. It's a scary place, and I'm sure we could find some rules that don't seem fair that could land us in there. Would telling a child about that prison be child abuse? The difference of course is that prison is real, but they think hell is real too.

      I don't like children being scared by hell. I wish parents would stop telling them about it, but as long as the parents are convinced hell is real it seems not telling their children about it would actually be irresponsible. Calling this child abuse just doesn't sit right with me.

      It's very difficult, because as you said, it causes a ton of mental anguish and emotional harm that lasts for years. Nevertheless, "child abuse" seems like the wrong label to me.

    2. I don't think so. Does the fact that people who belong to NAMBLA really believe that what they're doing is good change the fact that they're sexually abusing children? Not for a second. Belief doesn't change reality. It is the job of the parent, just like it is the job of the schools, to educate their children in what is actually so and make them productive members of society. If some parents really, honestly believed that teaching their kids to read was evil, would it be child abuse to refuse to allow their children to read? Damn straight it would. Belief doesn't mean a thing.

    3. Hmm, I think you got me Cephus. As you said, nambla members perhaps think they are doing something good for the child, but I would still want to call what they are doing abuse. Similarly, if a parent thought that beating their child would be good for them to teach them to follow instruction or whatever, they could use my logic to justify that, and I would clearly want to call that abuse as well.

      It still rubs me the wrong way when I see people call religion child abuse, perhaps it is more situational, sometimes it's fine and other times it's hyperbolic. I don't know, I guess I need to think about it some more.

    4. I think the NAMBLA analogy is flawed. NAMBLA is not just teaching children that it's healthy for children and adults to love but their goal, as I understand it, is having a sexual relationship.
      If parents were physically burning children so that they would know, first hand, what the fires of Hell felt like the NAMBLA analogy would be more fitting.

    5. I think the point of the NAMBLA analogy is to show that my logic was flawed. My argument was basically that the parents truly believe what they are telling their children, and therefore it isn't abuse. Cephus pointed out that the NAMBLA guys truly believe that what they are doing is good for the kids. My logic would apply to them and then it would conclude that they are not abusive. Obviously we disagree with this conclusion, so the logic is flawed in both cases.

      Of course, I would not argue that NAMBLA and indoctrination are completely the same, and I don't think Cephus was either. In fact, I think the analogy works because of the discrepancy, NAMBLA is obviously abusive, and since my argument applies to that it shows that it is flawed.

  3. I also grew up being told about Hell, that it was a very real place and it's where God would send everyone whose name wasn't written in the Lamb's Book of Life.

    We were also told “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” Luke 13:28 And that it was a place “Where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”. Mark 9:48 So your basic fundamentalist vision of Hell.

    I grew up, much like you and millions of others and lived in fear of going to Hell. I do think, however, that the fear was worse for me than for many. I think that because it made me more dysfunctional than many people I hear talk about it today. The insomnia for me was so bad that it led to a lot of missed school, poor grades and a problem keeping up with classes. I'm not saying there were no other factors involved but at the root was always the fear of a judgmental God and his mind police watching my every thought for sin.

    I remember well fearing the rapture so much that I would often suffer panic attacks. If my parents were late picking me up, my first thought always seemed to be “The rapture has happened, my parents were taken, and now I'll have to take the Mark of the Beast and be persecuted or burn forever in Hell”. These were very real fears for me.

    If I ever talked about these fears with my parents I got told that the very fact I had fear meant I was harboring sin. I'd hear how we loved our sin and that kept us for loving God. Unless I was able to stop loving sin and learn to love God with my whole heart I couldn't feel secure in the fact that God, through Jesus would save me from hell. I used to pray for God to stop loving sin and make me love him instead. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7

    One thing you touched on in the podcast that was also a real issue for me but have never heard anyone else talk about was the issue of knowing who is getting it right and doing all the things God wants us to in order to keep us from Hell. My parents seemed so sure of which church to attend to make God happy but I always had doubts. What if the Catholics were right? What if I really did need to talk in tongues? These were questions that I couldn't talk candidly with my parents about because they seemed so sure they knew but I was always left asking “what if they have it wrong as well?”

    Having said all that I struggle with the idea that it was “Abusive” of my religious parents to teach me that the Hell they believed in was real. The more I think about it the more I think it’s a malformed question. The question implies that a black or white, right or wrong, yes or no answer will fit and I don't think that such answer ever could be satisfactory.

    1. Very frustrating to read, hits home as I had similar situations as a kid. I particularly hate the idea of not being able to discuss these difficult issues with your parents, the idea that simply doubting is bad is such a toxic one.

      I think you are right in your last paragraph, it is a bit more complicated. And thinking back, what bugs me about this child abuse meme is the ham-handedness with which is it so often used. So often people will just automatically say that teaching a child religion is abuse, and I think that is silly. On the other hand, there are abusive things within religion, and some churches focus heavily on those things and I think it is reasonable to call it abuse.

    2. Like you say there are things within religion that are abusive and one of the things I feel was abusive was being forced to watch a movie from 1972 called “A Thief in the Night” and the sequel in 1978 “A Distant Thunder”.

      I wasn't made to see them just once either. During the 70's and 80's, these movies were used by churches, Christian schools and camps to scare people into accepting Christ and were always followed by an alter call. They were meant to “scare the hell out of you”.
      My Mother also seemed to like the movies so, “if they were show'n we were go'n”. After all, no one who was “Right with God” should fear the Rapture and if the movies scared you; then you must have had a reason to be scared, and needed to work it out with God.
      I used to pray and pray but yet the movies still scared the shit out of me so I was left feeling like I must have blasphemed the Holy Spirit or something.
      The movies are very poorly made, nevertheless reading the reviews on IMDb, Amazon and Youtube it's clear they have caused a lot of trauma to the kids forced to watch them.
      Reading the reviews is painful for me and tends to make me angry. However, I suppose it's also cathartic knowing I'm not the only one who has suffered.
      I hope that someday, someone edits the Wikipedia pages for these movies and at least mentions that many people claim the movies were traumatic to them as children.

      A Theif in the Night is on Youtube and A Distant Thunder is on Vemio if anyone wants to watch this shit.

      I've never seen any of the Left Behind series of movies or read the books so I don't know if they're as scary. I wonder, however, how many well intentioned parents are scaring their children by using the Left Behind movies to scare them into believing in a loving god.

      I'm not sure why thinking about this takes me to such dark places. Most parts of the fundamentalist nonsense I was taught, and spent most of my life believing, just makes me laugh now, or at worse a little angry.
      I've even thought about this subject before without it making me feel depressed so I don't know why this is different.
      Maybe it's the act of trying to put my thoughts into writing or the fact that I've never really talked about it with anyone who has also gone though it.


    3. That sounds really awful. I really hate that "if it scares you, then you must have a reason to be scared" crap. I didn't have any equivalent of watching that movie, but I definitely got that idea in my head somehow. It's toxic.

      And yeah, writing things down and posting them publicly definitely makes it feel different. You have to take any nebulous parts of the ideas and formalize them. There have been many times when I was half way through a post and by just organizing and writing down my thoughts I decided against posting it. I'd either find a flaw in my logic, or just realize there was another angle I hadn't considered yet.


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