A frequent accusation lobbed at religion by certain atheists is that indoctrinating children with religious beliefs is a form of child abuse. Richard Dawkins has drawn a lot of criticism for making this accusation. Now, I'm not interested in defending or criticizing Dawkins one way or the other so much as I'm interested in exploring the question on my own.
So, is religious indoctrination child abuse?
It's certainly a loaded question, isn't it? When most people think of abuse, they think of physical beatings, sexual molestation, and inflicting mental anguish. When religious people think of their beliefs, they think of an important part of their lives, something that brings them a certain amount of meaning, joy, and perhaps even comfort. Lumping it in the same category as what we traditionally think of abuse isn't likely to get much consideration, as it sounds absolutely absurd and potentially insulting at face value.
Another part of the problem is that not all religions are the same, and they don't all teach the same things. Also, different people react in different ways to certain religious teachings (more on that later). Adding to this is that "abuse" is a pretty broad term. I'm sure that we all inflict some sort of abuse on our children in some way or the other. I completely flipped out in front of my son one time while going on a walk. I completely lost it, and I was yelling and screaming. Is that abuse? Well, it certainly wasn't good for him. I don't think that puts me in the same category as a habitual mental abuser, but it's certainly not the kind of thing I'd ever want to do again. (It's been over a year without an incident - I think I learned my lesson.)
So, taking these two things in mind, here's the question once again:
Is religious indoctrination child abuse?
Not necessarily, but it certainly can be.
Let's get some of the obvious examples out of the way first, where I'm sure that even most religious people will agree with me that these examples are clearly examples of abuse that was empowered and inspired by religious teachings. We have people who take the "spare the rod, spoil the child" doctrine too far and inflict severe bodily punishment on their children, and they feel justified by this because it's supposedly what God wants. Also, you have people who refuse medical care for their children so they can pray instead.
Slightly less extreme than that, but where I might find still find some agreement among religious people are religious groups that shun those who don't live up to their standards. Ostracizing and/or kicking a kid out of the house because he or she is gay, for instance, is definitely a form of abuse. (And yes, I realize that there are nonreligious people who treat gay people with cruelty as well. I'm talking about those who do it and then use their Bibles to justify it.)
Now, where I'm probably going to find some more disagreement is with my next point, but I feel pretty confident when it comes to the following statement: teaching your kids that they will go to hell for not believing the right thing is a form of abuse. As I said above, different people react to religious teachings in different ways. Some people are able to compartmentalize and not give that idea too much thought - and who can blame them? Eternal agony? Who wants to think about that?
Unfortunately, some people can not push those thoughts out of their head. They get obsessive about it, and they agonize over it. I had an online conversation with a young man not too long ago where he told me that he frequently worries about going to hell (and his loved ones going there). In other words, teaching them about hell is giving them something to worry about.
Oh, but Lance, Hell is real!
If that's your reaction, then my response is: you had better damn well prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt before you teach that to your kids. Just saying it's your belief/faith isn't good enough.
I think that we'd all agree that it would be pretty awful if you taught your kids that there were werewolves out there who would eat them up if they didn't brush their teeth thoroughly. Imagine some poor kid lying awake at night, wondering if he did a good enough of a job so he won't be devoured by a ferocious beast. In other words, it's abusive to make your kids fearful of things that don't exist, and if you're going to teach them about hell, the burden of proof is on you to prove that it exists. Otherwise, I stand by my statement: teaching your kids that they will go to hell for not believing the same thing as you is abusive. It robs from them their very right to view the world as they see it, and it causes all kinds of anxiety. Even if they're true believers, they might still agonize over what happens to their loved ones.
Along with that, I also feel that it is abusive to teach your kids that there are evil spirits/demons/the Devil out there ready to try and cause all kinds of havoc on their lives. I was lucky enough to not be raised with the hell thing, but I was taught about demons. Again, some people are able to give this little thought. As for myself, I had (still have) a very active imagination, and I was terrified of every random noise that I'd hear at night. I don't think that was the intent of my parents when I learned about demons, but that's the result.
The tragically ironic thing about this is that people will defend this by telling stories about how their faith helps them when it comes to dealing with demons. I believe that I've related this before, but I once had a conversation with a woman who told me that a demon appeared before her and her three-year-old son in the form of a giant spider. Her son was panicky, and after holding him and praying over him, he calmed down. This was her proof of how prayer makes things better. What she didn't seem to understand was that it was her very faith that created the problem in the first place. My son doesn't see giant demon spiders, so I never have to pray over him to chill him out. Don't get me wrong - he's three. He sees all kinds of things. The last time we had thunder and lightning, he insisted that Thor was outside and wanted to invite him in.
Okay - the Thor thing was due to my suggestion. He was scared of the sound of thunder, and so I told him that it was Thor. Before you want to call me a hypocrite though, let me point out three important things:
1. Thunder and lightning are demonstrably real.
2. He stopped being scared immediately. Sure, he got so excited that he didn't want to go to sleep, but the point is that it made him feel better.
3. This also shows why I'm not willing to make a blanket statement that religion IS child abuse. Sure, I don't actually believe in Thor, and when my son gets older, I'll explain what thunder and lightning actually is and that Thor is just a character from mythology/comic books (but I'll probably point out that people actually did believe in him at one time). In other words, a magical explanation for something isn't necessarily harmful, and it might even help in certain situations.
Just like with Hell, I'm sure that there are some folks out there who insist that demons are real. To them, I say the same thing: prove it.
So there you have it. Religious indoctrination isn't necessarily child abuse, but it sure has some features to it that lend itself to it. I'm sure that there are some people who might get all bent out of shape with this. (See my first paragraph about how it instantly puts people on the defensive.) As always, I'm willing to change my mind, but if you're going to convince me that the hell/demon thing isn't a form of abuse, then you have to convince me of at least one of the following:
1. Teaching kids to fear nonexistent things isn't a form of mental abuse.
2. There is evidence for hell and/or demons. Please, do not submit your personal anecdotes. I want verifiable evidence.