Perhaps one of the most bizarre yet common bits of anti-religious rhetoric that has foamed to the surface in recent years is the accusation that to raise—or “indoctrinate”—one’s children in a given religion is to commit child abuse. Richard Dawkins has put it this way:
‘What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe. That’s child abuse.’
An article in the Huffington Post makes an even broader assertion:
“Forcing religion onto minors is essentially a form of child abuse, which scars their ability to reason and also limits their ability to consider the world in an unbiased manner.”
This sort of language is a prime example of why many of today’s atheists (in both academic and armchair circles) have been popularly pegged as the New Atheists. Why new? Because, as the Oxford mathematician John Lennox has put it, this distinct brand of atheism is new in both tone and emphasis. The New Atheists emphasize not only their non-belief in God, but also their contempt for religion; and the tone of their anti-religious language is often riddled with zeal and ridicule.
This harsh and unhelpful language does not apply to every atheist out there but, unfortunately, it applies to enough of today’s skeptics to cause real frustration for those believers and non-believers who desire meaningful and productive dialogue. For this reason—and for the sake of real progress in believer-skeptic dialogue—I’ll offer a brief appraisal of these aggressive accusatory remarks.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police define child abuse as the “maltreatment of a child whereby the survival, safety, self-esteem, growth and development of the child are endangered.” It ought to go without saying that accusations of child abuse should never be thrown around lightly. Child abuse is, after all, a criminal offense. Thus if any skeptic is going to make such an allegation, he better be ready and able to use airtight logic and solid evidence to support his indictment; or else he will appear as nothing more than a sloganeering rhetorician unworthy of being taken seriously.
One problem with this accusation is that it paints all religions (or all families within a given religion) with one broad stroke of black; but without adequate justification. Sure, there may be extreme examples out there of, say, religious fideism or poor parenting, but there is no good reason to believe these are the widespread norm.
Now from a Christian perspective:
First, there is nothing in Sacred Scripture, apostolic tradition, or any other authoritative guideline from the Church that mandates religious coercion or the prohibition of inquiry within the family. As a baseline, this just shows that extremist indoctrination to the point of “maltreatment” is not the accepted mode of religious education within orthodox Christianity.
Abusive religious coercion by parents is a rarity as far as I can tell, and examples are sparse—case studies—and every scientist knows that case studies although potentially interesting are not the gold standard for drawing broad conclusions. What the anti-theist must do for his accusation of child abuse to be taken seriously is show good evidence that all religions foster the harmful indoctrination of children; or show sound evidence that particular religions do this as a matter of principle.
I agree that “forcing religion onto minors is child abuse” if by “forcing” the accuser means communicating ideas through a violent means. But teaching is a different story; forcing and teaching are not synonymous. The Oxford online dictionary defines indoctrination as “the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.” But surely this definition —inasmuch as it implies inappropriately forced belief—does not always correlate with what takes place in religious homes.
Personally speaking, I was raised in a faithful Christian home but questions about “why we believe what we believe” were never prohibited; and I was never shunned or ridiculed when I began to openly question and criticize the religious beliefs I had been taught as a child. It made for good and often fruitful conversation. Nor have I seen the stifling of religious inquiry in other homes where belief in God is paramount and worship is commonplace. The Christian faith has never discouraged “digging deeper” intellectually; the Church has always faced questions and objections head-on with great seriousness. Such willingness to enter into dialogue with those who disagree has been of the essence of Christianity from the beginning.
The Christian Church has a duty to teach what is true; and so do Christian parents. And teaching is a far cry from coercion. The more parents are convinced that some fact about the world is true, the more they are obliged to teach it as true; and the less likely it is that they will encourage their child to question it.
Indeed sometimes it is appropriate to accept a given belief uncritically. Imagine a child who learns about the molecular structure of water in science class. Most parents (I would venture to infer) acknowledge the presence of oxygen in water. They hold this belief with scientific conviction despite never seeing an H2O molecule directly with their own eyes. Now parents may not encourage their children to question the presence of oxygen in the water molecule, but that doesn’t mean they won’t allow their child to do so. The same goes for religious beliefs. The child must be allowed to think critically and even challenge beliefs when reasonably warranted, but they must also be taught to revere truth and follow the evidence where it leads—and this goes for scientific and religious inquiry.
The point amounts to this: parents have an obligation to teach their children the truth. If parents are convinced that certain tenets of religious faith are true then they have an obligation to teach their children those things as truths—because the cardinal rule of child-rearing is to teach children how to live in the real world.
And don’t skeptical parents do the same? I hope so. Good parents teach their children what they believe to be true and, furthermore, why those explanations are the best explanations. Teaching the “whats” and “whys” is not indoctrination; it’s called education.
But what about the violence associated with religion? Is that a reason to oppose or at least be wary of religious education in the home?
Perhaps in the case of radicalized religion where resultant violence is immanent. But the majority of world religions do not encourage or foster violence—that’s just a fact. Frankly the over-generalized, distinction-lacking blanket statement “religion causes wars” is getting old (but unfortunately I don’t think it’s going anywhere so we’ve got to be able to address it). Yes, certain religious convictions have been the motive for some of the violence throughout history and into the modern age; but so have anti-religious convictions (to which the 20th century overwhelmingly testifies).
But much violence has also erupted in disputes about money; and land; and property. But these are not bad things in themselves. What then is common thread among all of these things? Value. Man in his pride and brokenness always carries with him the potential to get violent when he is contending for the things he values the most. What’s the value of religion? Order, sanity—and hope. Religion has the potential to give life context and meaning, thus driving the former atheist C.S Lewis to write:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Thus just because something has the potential to cause violence does not mean that it, by its nature, causes violence. Perhaps the problem lies not in the thing man fights over, but in man himself.
Clearly a general disdain for all religions (or Christianity in particular) on the basis of violence is not reasonably warranted; for most religions do not by their nature foster violence. Unless one wants to be consistent and hold contempt for every other thing—be it money, land, property, truth—that can and has caused violent conflict down through history. But of course, no one is going to be that consistent.
At the end of the day—when we look at what really happens in the majority of Christian homes—there is no real basis for accepting the notion that raising one’s children to identify as a Christian from a young age can be classified “maltreatment of a child whereby the survival, safety, self-esteem, growth and development of the child are endangered.”
In the end it seems that while the universe remains a place of discovery and wonder, no parent—religious or skeptic—will ever leave their children completely unindoctrinated; for no one lives without holding uncritically to some doctrine about the real world. As we’ve acknowledged, some truths become so apparent, often by evidence and intuition, that criticism just becomes superfluous and unnecessary.
Skeptics ought not pretend that they do not (or would not) educate their children to believe in certain dogmas that they are certain of: dogmas like “God doesn’t exist” or “don’t believe in superstitions” or “only believe what can be proven with the scientific method” or “think for yourself.” Again, no parent on the face of the earth can be wholly undogmatic about the world when raising their children.
And couldn’t the charge of child abuse, given the skeptics reason for opposing the religious education of minors (that religion is not evidence-based), be applied equally to the atheist parent who teaches their children that atheism is true? For atheism, despite the confident sounding anti-religious oratory that fumes from the New Atheists, is not itself evidence based. Which experiment has discounted the existence of God? Which arguments have refuted, say, the St. Thomas’ five ways, the moral argument, or Leibniz’s argument from contingency? There appears to be a heavy bias driving this sort of anti-religious verbiage, and G.K. Chesterton saw it in the 20th century when he wrote:
“It is assumed that the sceptic has no bias; whereas he has a very obvious bias in favour of scepticism.”
At the end of the day, doctrine just means truth; and any parent who does not teach their children to live according to the truth as they see it has failed. And failing to educate one’s children to live in the real world in harmony with its real laws, physical and spiritual—or indoctrinating one’s children to believe they can choose their own “truth” according to their own personal liking—now that’s a real problem.