This is a response to Helen de Cruz’s article in TPM 63 (2013). I encourage the reader to look at the article. My apologies are to be extended for only just recently finding it, and my respects are to be given to her for a sympathetic treatment of a complicated “parenting” issue in this day and age over the treatment of the religious ideas a child might come home from school with, or be sent off to with concomitant packed lunch. However, I want to take issue with what sorts of thing de Cruz identifies as being the sort of religious child abuse of concern to those like Richard Dawkins whom she cites in the main.
They (Dawkins et al) do not solely concern themselves with the teaching of young earth creationism which is incompatible with modern science. Claims about child abuse via a religious rearing do not concern; the more innocent aspects of religious indoctrination via Sunday school stories about Noah’s Ark, Jesus’ walking on water, talking tricky snakes, and compassionate miracles performed by an alleged Messiah – a tripartition of “the father, the son, and the holy spirit” – how easy these things are for a child to grasp indeed – but it doesn’t send them home with nightmares. There are much more serious forms of child abuse endemic to religious parenting than those addressed by de Cruz’s article. de Cruz is a parent, whereas I, am not – and it seems, as she indeed claims, that, when writing the article she is keen to begin “from the reality of parenting and the transmission of beliefs.” I on the other hand of course had parents, one a silent physics professor father, and the other an evangelical Christian mother – so my own formative years were spent broadly around the dinner table with one parent telling me the universe was 14.5 billion years old, and the other, a mere 6000 years old – and concomitant arguments regarding evidence and their respective methodologies. One parent clearly wasn’t right – but was either lying? I argue not. One was just plain wrong. There are others of course who publicly discourage religious education, such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
I have come to regard religious instruction in the rearing of children in a number of different ways – both good and bad. But let me turn to the difficulty in parental responsibility in remaining either neutral or proactive in the formation of their offspring’s worldview – neutrality is limited in its practical delivery. The manner of its delivery, however, is most certainly not, and therein can lie a real danger of childhood abuse. Put simply, one manner openly refers to facts and questions opposing views in the hope of rational retort; the other, makes constant reference to the authority of one book as the literal word of a world authority on everything. This “word of God” in Deuteronomy 14:18 thinks bats are birds – quite the taxonomical error on the part of a divine creator in whom small children are expected to believe, and continue to do so.
de Cruz also asks “But where do we draw the line? Under what circumstances does the transmission of religious beliefs harm the child?” The question of religion, the notion of God, and of young earth creationism, is, I imagine, going to rear its head for every parent as their children develop, they being naturally exposed to horizontal (as opposed to vertically by direct parenting as opposed to peers and teachers etc) sources of cultural transmission, and with a nativist propensity for teleological thinking about the world – work on this has been done by scholars such as Deb Kelemen, at the University of Boston. A small section of de Cruz’s article concerning Mike Austin’s book ‘Wise Stewards: Philosophical Foundations of Christian Parenting’ concerns me to begin with. de Cruz claims that under Austin’s model, “it seems unrealistic to say that instilling any false belief is harmful. Even parents who are knowingly giving their children false information aren’t always doing harm” – conflating it with the relaying of stories about Santa Claus etc. Tales about Santa Claus do not come with concomitant stories of eternal damnation in hell, nor does de Cruz take time to identify how religious narratives which do come saddled with such extra modes of behavioural control might be delivered. “Wise stewards,” indeed, parents should be, but there’s a difference between not making it into Santa’s good books, and being burnt in hell for eternity, for a lack of belief in a loving God. I note that de Cruz does seem ambivalent as to whether or not religious parenting might be damaging to offspring when offset against real world facts – depending, it seems, on the manner of the stewardship she thinks should be in place. But still, I do not feel she directly addresses the real extent, indicating a certain paucity perhaps, to which the religious abuse of infants can be understood and extended to encompass. Either that, or her article really is limited by scope on this very serious matter.
Next, de Cruz turns to the issue of authoritative and authoritarian parenting styles – again, indicative of an actual parent, with a real philosophical ideal, held to give children freedom to decide for themselves on matters of religion at whatever age they might become apparent. I don’t think there is a clear distinction between the two parenting styles she mentions at all. Regardless, whether or not religious transmission is conducted by either method, the information is still transmitted into the minds of innocents who do not have the necessary life experience or education to make informed decisions about the “alleged” creation of the universe, our supposed purpose within it, duties, and ultimate worldviews as to how they should live life – especially with end times in mind. de Cruz also seems to have been limited in her short article to her own largely Catholic upbringing and its influence upon her, so is shackled within a narrow view of what religious indoctrination and abuse might entail. Here, I do not limit this article so, looking at religious transmission from a broader perspective – but freely admit, that I myself grew up amidst the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. Thinking neither side of the conflict seemed particularly religious in nature, nor particularly pro-social – in fact, sectarian – coupled with the fact that I found the whole gamut of my religious upbringing as empirically implausible as a fat red man who, every Christmas, was supposed to fit down the chimney to deliver presents – I turned out to be quite the sceptic, and the atheist – and not without being made to feel utterly immoral for my disbelief in religion, yet praised for my empirical probity and common sense on peering up the chimney flue to see if it was possible for a fat bearded red man, for any man to climb down it. Many years later, and after studying philosophy, things really hit the fan when Sam Harris’ The End of Faith was published, which I grabbed off the shelf as quick as if it were a free ticket to Hawai’i.
Examples of religious child abuse with which Dawkins might concern himself, such as labelling small children with their parents’ religion being as crazy as raising UKIP children, are another sort of religious child abuse that does occur on delivering religious instruction (and Dawkins does broadcast on the scare tactics of some others forms of infant abuse). Regardless of any parental conundrum surrounding the ethics of encouraging independent free-thinking offspring, it’s fair enough common sense to claim that religious accounts of the cosmos, the earth, and our place in it do in fact directly contradict scientific explanation about the origin of species, how they came into being, when they came into being and how they came into being etc – but – the voracity with which these contra-scientific beliefs can be delivered by parentally wise stewardship, can be, to say the least, devastatingly terrifying for the infant recipient. And if not, at least render them outcasts in a future scientific modernity finding consolidation and acceptance only amongst themselves. There are cases of religious instruction that can count as abuse, and severe abuse at that, so numerous that mentioning them all goes beyond the remit here. Some parental religious instruction can be exacted with impunity and without permissible correction, nor does it go unnoticed on the part of the recipient child resulting in many recovering cases during their respective adulthood. The problem will likely remain, but within either a system of education or parenting – it can be noted as misconduct on the part of a teacher within an educational establishment – or the parent, depending on context. If done from an anthropological point of view, or one with a view to preserve a cultural heritage, then, well, fair enough – I suppose. However, it seems to me, that such transmission depends not on authoritative or authoritarian parenting styles, but over the level of ignorance vs education on the part of the “viral” source of religious infection.
On the subject of religious education in schools – why is it necessary that religious education be given its own special place and syllabus “alongside” the sciences, English literacy, mathematics, and other subjects? Might not that, to the mind of a child, make it seem like religious studies obtains equal credulity alongside those other subjects children slavishly wade through in our school curricula? Religious studies are not taught from an anthropological perspective, at least in the UK – merely as a hodgepodge of belief systems a child is observedly expected to determine the truth of, as if they have some moral responsibility to do so. This is a particularly hazardous area to explore within the multitude of faith denominational schools, for in these places, neutrality goes out the window. Children do indeed receive biased religious instruction. Catholicism, and Islam, form a great part of them. In Bristol, here in the UK, and elsewhere throughout the world, there is a Brethren school, where children are disallowed internet access, and all connected to a special Brethren mobile phone network such that they are only allowed to communicate with other members of their strict Christian sect – not the world outside of said sect. That said, having worked as a teacher for many years, I trust and hope pupils at such schools have found ways to see past the system of indoctrination imposed upon them – and found the freedom to explore the world of scientific endeavour. Otherwise, the result is indeed, for them, an imposed indoctrination, isolation, and lack of freedom to explore and marvel at the natural world, and renders them as isolated in a city, as those in the American Bible belt, or Mormon “beehive state” of Utah.
Now let’s return to how a religious world outlook might be relayed to an infant recipient under the instruction of a religious parent, and take on board how it might impact on said child’s psychological wellbeing as far as a religious worldview might make sense. Consider this passage of testimony:
“I was raised under a physics professor father telling me the universe was 14.5 billion years old, and an evangelical Christian mother claiming it was only 6000 years old. A child naturally believes that parents tell them the truth. Citations could be provided, but this is not this kind of article. I’m tackling not only young earth creationism, but talk about the “end times.” For example, when I was about six years old, I was thrilled by the TV cartoon He-Man, and on showing my mother, it was switched off and I was banned from watching it. On asking why, I was told that “in the end times” there would be a man who claimed to be like “He-Man” but that he would be the “antichrist.” On asking who the antichrist was, I was told that he would be like Hitler. “Who was Hitler?” I asked. I was told he was a man who would be very much like the antichrist, and who, in his time, burnt alive intelligent people like my father so he (Hitler – a proto-antichrist) could not be challenged and that the “end” would be in my lifetime. It didn’t take much for me, as a child, to put two and two together: that acquiring an education would be my downfall, and that my father would be burnt alive, in my lifetime, simply for being a clever physicist and a threat to this forthcoming antichrist. Every son loves his father, very much – a prestigious source of valuable life skills, and knowledge about the universe, particularly in my case. Were I to have embraced the Christian ideals of my mother, it followed I would witness this unfortunate demise of my own father. That, is religious abuse.”
These are the sorts of religious child abuse I’m flagging up in response to de Cruz’s article – which seem to be ignored – as stated, in response only to the heartfelt ethics of parenthood and felt responsibility, a philosophically accentuated one to boot, to ensure infantile freedom of choice, an individuality built on ill-equipped decision making apparatus. Consider the story of the Muslim mother Sara Ege, who in 2012, in Cardiff, beat her son to death for not being able to memorise lines from the Qu’ran and then went on to try and dispose of his body on a barbeque with lighter fluid. This “responsible, wise steward”, according to the BBC is now jailed for life. So my argument is that de Cruz’s article seems to focus more on the ethics of a parental dilemma, and one that I acknowledge, rather than on the issue of real religious child abuse, and this extends not only to the youngest of infants, but to have been dealt out to young, unwed mothers, barely children themselves. As much was brought to light recently where the bodies of up to 800 babies were discovered outside the grounds of a Catholic care home for unwed mothers in Galway, Ireland – in a septic tank.
The persuasion of children toward religious affiliation comes loaded not just with scientifically falsified tales of young earth creationism (which de Cruz does acknowledge can indeed be damaging), but also with other forms of abuse that border on the horrific, and some that exploit psychological terror. The psychological threats are, to say the least, threats – yet nonetheless comprehensible threats, often embedded in the minds of infants with counterintuitive tales of as much interest to a child as are tales of Pooh Bear and, indeed, Santa Claus. But it seems the “threats” are not always exacted in a supposed afterlife, but in this life too, by sick individuals, allegedly devout at that, and well-meaning to the untrained eye. Need I go into female circumcision? Need I go into the child sex abuse endemic to the Catholic Church? Indeed, may I? It seems not, other than to mention the atrocities of a select deplorable religiously-affiliated few, as not every religiously-minded parent administers such wounds on their offspring such as those I have just mentioned. Within current affairs too – how are the children on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict able to make any sense at all of the world they are growing up in, isolated within the quibbles of their cultural heritage?
The rights of a parent to raise their offspring in a manner such as they fit, remains a tricky subject – but let’s not forget, that it’s not all about that. Religious abuse goes far further than delivering scientifically false worldviews. It ranges from antiquated pseudo-science, psychological abuse, to physically being smacked round the back of the head for not singing in church, to perhaps being physically beaten to death.
In the Independent in May 2015, Dawkins remarks, “The majority are ignorant, which is not the same thing as stupid. Natural selection will not remove ignorance from future generations. Education may, and that is the hope to which we must cling.” This much, from Dawkins, blankets over not just the parenting of children and its concomitant ethics, but to generations of future parents too. Maybe parental responsibility involves, within “wise stewardship,” not just embracing the ethical conundrum of what to transmit to offspring with regard to religion, but a responsibility to become acquainted with the facts before such stewardship is awarded as an honorific. There is much more I could say, but it could be considered inflammatory to say the least. Since this is a popular article, there is no scope for scrupulous citation of the work done in evolutionary psychology, cognitive, and other revolutionary scientific studies of religion and the proponents of it that would bolster my argument. I only encourage to reader to seek them out – with care.