Surly Amy has a post today on Skepchick.org giving advice to a reader who is working on a project in an education class. The issue is that the class is reviewing a proposal for an educational rights amendment, which included the notion that children have the right to be indoctrinated into a religion in public schools. The reader express outrage that everyone except them is in favor of this proposal. Amy, as usual, gives some good advice. I highly encourage you to read the post.
There has been an ongoing debate about the harm of the religious indoctrination of children by their parents and other adults such as teachers and pastors. There are plenty of stories, admittedly all anecdotal, of young adults filled with anger at the people who indoctrinated them and caused them to have a very difficult time adjusting to the real world outside of their given faith community. They have problems with depression, socializing, and navigating a alien culture, even though they were born and raised right here in the United States.
It seems to be almost natural that parents should be able to raise their children in their own faith. The question becomes when does indoctrination into their parent’s beliefs become abuse?
There are the obvious answers such as when the parents’ religious beliefs compel them to physically or sexually abuse their children, but what about mental abuse?
My personal opinion is that if a child is living in fear due to things their parents do or say, for whatever reason, this constitutes abuse. I am not talking about an occasional spanking or threat of punishment. I’m talking about a child living in constant fear of physical harm. I think most people would agree that if a parent is always threatening to beat a child in order to get them to behave as they want them to, this would be abuse. So how is this different from the constant threat of burning and torture in hell that many religious parents threaten their children with on a continuous basis? “Don’t do that, or God will send you to hell!”, “You listen to your mother or God will punish you!”, “Be nice to your brother, God is watching you!”
Unlike the parents who threaten direct, physical harm to their children, religious parents who threaten their children with God’s terrible wrath are never questioned. What police office would ever think to arrest a parent who threatened their child with the torment of hell? How many prosecutors would consider charging “good Christian” parents will child abuse for telling their children, day-in and day-out, that they are sinners and are going to hell?
The fact is, Christians get a free ride in this country when it comes to child rearing (and most everything else). They can threaten their children with the most horrible, terrifying tales of burning flesh, and being ripped apart limb by limb and no one thinks that there is anything wrong with this. These visions of hell are very real in the mind of an impressionable child, as is the terror they create. Sure, some people might go as far as to call these parents “strict’ but the fact is their actions toward their children is abuse, plain and simple.
The big question is what can we do about this? There is no easy answer, but I think that education is key. I’m talking about creating a safe, accepting, secular environment in our public schools. I’m talking about keeping religion out of politics and our public institutions. This means we, as non-believers, as well as anyone else who believes in religious freedom and the separation of church and state, let our politicians know that we don’t want religion in the public spaces. We need to let them know that we value reason and science as a guide for public policy. As more people, especially young people are exposed to reason and science, the less tolerant society will become as a whole of superstitious beliefs. It may take a generation, but it can happen. It will take all of us speaking out and supporting those organizations that are fighting for reason, science and separation of church and state to make a difference.