Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Prison, Hell, and Child Abuse

Solitary confinement
(Photo credit: Chris.Gray)
Today's Podcast

Prison is a scary place and no parent wants their child to end up there. As part of teaching your children about the world, it is a good idea to tell them about prison and the kinds of things that people can do to end up there. If you think your children are particularly at risk for going to prison, you might spend a fair amount of time warning your kids about the kinds of activities that land them there. If you see them engaging in dangerous behavior, a prudent course of action would be to warn them against those behaviors.

However, suppose you obsess about the possibility of your kids going to prison and talk about it all the time. Perhaps even with the intention of scaring them to keep them safe. Your children could easily suffer some psychological issues from this and we might want to call this child abuse.

Now, suppose we hear about a parent who is teaching their child about prison, do we assume that the action is child abuse? I would argue that such an assumption would be irresponsible of us. Sure, it is possible that the parent could be obsessing about prison and causing their child to live in a world of fear. But it is also possible that they are teaching their children about prison in a reasonable way.

For my purposes, prison is just an analogy for hell. The point here is that I "recently" (damn, more than a month ago) wrote about my dislike of the common atheist meme that indoctrination is child abuse. A very brief summary of my argument was that since the Christians truly believe that hell is real we shouldn't call it abuse when they tell their children about it. In the comments, Cephus pointed out that some NAMBLA members really believe that having sex with young boys is good for the boys, by my logic we couldn't call this abuse either*. Clearly with this example at hand it is clear my logic was flawed. The beliefs of a person committing an act does not affect whether or not their action is abuse.

So I thought back about what had been annoying me in the first place that motivated me to write that post. What I don't like is the wholesale statement that indoctrination is child abuse. Teaching your children your religion does not necessarily constitute child abuse, it depends on how you do it. Replace "prison" with "hell" in my first 3 paragraphs and we can see an example of this. Teaching your children about hell can be very damaging psychologically, but it doesn't have to be. If it is mentioned briefly and never emphasized it probably won't cause any issues (my wife grew up in this type of environment).

In my first post I focused on the wrong detail. Whether the parents believe in hell or not is irrelevant. If they teach their kids about hell in an abusive way then it is abuse. If they teach their kids about hell in a responsible way it is not. Whether or not hell is a real place is irrelevant to the discussion (although it does add a dimension of disgust for atheists to think the kids are being subjected to psychological torture for nothing).

So is indoctrination child abuse? I think the only reasonable answer is "sometimes". Certainly some denominations are worse than others. I would say that fundamentalists fit this category more often than other churches. But even that is not universal. If you want to talk about religion as child abuse, I think the only reasonable thing to do is focus on a particular behavior and identify why you see it as abusive. This could spark an interesting discussion, who knows, you might even convince someone of your point of view. But making the broad statement that all religion is child abuse will just turn off any religious people who are listening.

(*note: I am in no way saying that the actions of NAMBLA members are equivalent to teaching your child about hell. In fact, the whole point is that they are significantly different, and yet my logic applied to both indicating that the logic is flawed)
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  1. As a parent I think the trick is communicating to your kid in an honest yet age appropriate way. I have always told my kids (currently 9 and 12) that there is no god, hell, or afterlife. I also say that there are no unicorns because there is no good evidence for their existence. Does that mean I'm indoctrinating them in anti-unicornist ideas? Maybe.

    I'm definitely comfortable with that.

    1. That's an interesting point. I'm sure there are things that every parent tells their child that could be seen as indoctrination in some way. I love the idea of "tell them how to think not what to think", but at some point I'm sure you just have to say "this is true, that is false". Of course, my son is not quite 1 yet, so I haven't really experienced any of that first hand.

    2. That's exactly the point I've made in the past, everything that a parent does is indoctrination. Teaching your child to speak is indoctrinating them into a language. Teaching them how to count is indoctrinating them into mathematics. You can't get away from it. It's not that you indoctrinate, you can't help but do that, it's what you indoctrinate that matters.

    3. "everything that a parent does is indoctrination"

      now that is an interesting statement. I never really thought about it quite like that, but I guess you are right, by teaching basic you are telling them something is true that they can't reason through (gotta start somewhere). Hell, even with the "teach them how to think" I suppose we could say we are indoctrinating them into skepticism.

      Certainly not the way I would usually think of the word "indoctrination", but it does seem to fit

    4. Any kind of education is indoctrination. It's pushing an individual to think as you do. There are far too many atheists who are so utterly opposed to any kind of indoctrination that either they don't recognize that there's no way around it, or they go so far the other way that they don't teach their children anything about religion at all. Not enough is even worse than too much IMO.

  2. Child abuse is a method that is routinely used to indoctrinate children instead of educational methods. One of the most common ways taught to religious people to control and educate their children involves regular use of corporal punishment which leads to escalating violence. this has been researched by many good academics including Alice Miller who questioned the lack of response to a letter about child abuse by Olivier Muarel and wrote:

    "If the Catholic Church were to open its eyes, train its gaze on the cruelty being done to children, and speak out against it, would that have a detrimental effect on the power of the church? Probably, for at present time that power rests squarely on the subjection of the faithful to its authoritarian decrees. If self-possessed believers were to begin questioning the power structures of the church, those structures would come tumbling down."


    1. I agree definitely, there is much that goes on in a lot of churches that I would call child abuse. And I think you are right, it's all about control. Even still, it's not every church and not every Christian


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