It seems that I just don’t learn. My last blog, “Teaching a Child Your Religion is Not Child Abuse” about why parents raising their child in their religious tradition is not child abuse received a lot of attention, mainly from those who disagree with me, some quite strongly. During my many, many discussions about that blog, I wrote a paragraph reversing the argument to one showing that raising your child to be an atheist is the real child abuse. I was rather taken by this argument and am developing it here because it might help bring home the fact that claiming a parent bringing their child up with their theistic religious beliefs is child abuse is bogus. And not only bogus, but also, dangerous to our rights to believe as we see fit and to act on those beliefs (without which having the freedom to believe becomes decidedly less important).
I also realize that there is a quite a bit of a gap between my Teaching Your Child blog and this one; I can only say that life and school can team up to take a toll on time.
So, why should raising a child to be an atheist be considered child abuse? Consider that the great majority of atheists do not believe in a life after death. That means that they will never meet and be with lost loved ones and friends ever again – a young girl who lost her mother will never have any hope of seeing her mother again, a husband losing a newly wed wife will never be with her again, a child lost too young will never have that chance to live and grow. The injustices and wrongs committed so often in this world will never be corrected with the guilty and evil punished and the innocent vindicated and lifted up. We are here for a very brief span of uncertain years, too often filled with pain, and with no hope of something better afterwards. There is no all powerful person who loves you, supports you in this life, and has created something better for you in the next. You are on your own, and if you are lucky, you may have others to share your life with. But the universe does not care if you do or not. And all too often neither does anyone else.
Now, you can argue what this all means and how it should be understood, however there is no real argument that the above is at least part of the basic atheist belief and worldview. And since it is, and since it is a view without hope or help, it is a depressing worldview, a futile one. Something that is verified by the many studies (click here, and here) showing that atheists have a greater incidence of depression and commit suicide more often than those that believe in a God. In fact, there have also been studies showing that being religious has a positive effect on mental health – so why lose this benefit by raising a child to be an atheist?
It is not a bad, superficial case for labeling the raising of a child as atheist as child abuse. Especially when you consider the problems you are then setting that child up for by believing a minority point of view in regards to religion, one that the majority religious view often do not respect or trust. Social conflict, conflicts with peers in schools, bullying, all of these and more are issues being created for the child by teaching them to be atheists.
So, given all of this, do I really believe that raising a child to be an atheist is child abuse? No. In fact, my wife and I raised both of our daughters as atheists. But then, I also do not believe raising a child to be religious is child abuse either. I think that calling something child abuse requires a higher standard than what many atheists are using in regards to religious instruction (and conversely, some theists in regards to atheists).
Here are some points to consider in this regard.
First, parents can screw up their kids in different ways without it rising to the level of being child abuse. Just consider divorce as one easily seen possibility, it can screw up a child but is still not considered child abuse. Also being too strict, or inconsistent in your interactions with your child, or too lax can also cause them problems. These are just some of the many ways parents can cause problems for their child that do not rise to the level of being child abuse.
Too often the sort of thinking behind this sort of claim seems to believe there are only two sorts of parents, the perfect ones and the child abusers. However, the reality is far different. The reality is that you have the perfect parent (of which there are none) with a range going through very good parent, mostly good parent, OK parent, slightly bad parent, worse parent, bad parent, and child abuser (of which there are way too many). Most parents, whether theistic or atheistic, fall on the ranger from mostly good to slightly bad.
Second, what constitutes abuse is usually how a child is taught and raised and not the content of what they are taught. There can be exceptions at the extremes, but those are a minority of cases. The question of abuse is actually one of does the actions of the parents cause the child emotional and psychological problems, does it physically harm the child. It is not the content of what they are taught, but how they are taught for the most part.
Third, it is difficult to understand how raising a child in the dominant belief system of a culture can cause them such distress and emotional turmoil that it leads to mental illness (thanks to my younger daughter for bringing this point up). In fact, it is those who are taught things contrary to the culture they are being brought up in that would be more likely to experience problems – things such as atheism for example.
Fourth, abuse is not defined on whether the beliefs taught will help or hurt society. That is of secondary importance. What is abusive is defined in relation to the health of the child, not of society in general. Indeed, there have been studies showing that some beliefs that cause distress and problem for individuals can be good for society.
Now, many that claim teaching religious beliefs is child abuse refer not to the way religiousbeliefs are taught but to the beliefs themselves, arguing that it sets the child up for problems later (I would argue that point, but let it stand for this example). However, let me ask, what about parents that do not teach their children to be responsible or how to work for their goals? They too are setting their child up for problems in life, so are they also child abusers? As I said, there are many ways parents can screw up raising their child, but still not be child abuse. I would put both of these as being problems, but not child abuse. In fact, I might even say that raising a child to be irresponsible is the greater “abuse’ as the religious child, in addition to the religious teachings, can and often does also learn to be a responsible human being who works for any goals they set.
In concluding, let me say that if you claim that it is better for the child and our society if the child were raised to learn of many different faiths and taught what each believed without the parent explicitly stating what they prefer the child to believe I would agree. Say that it is better for our society if the only thing about creationism that is taught to children is why it is wrong along with the evidence for evolution and the earth being over four billion years old and, again, I would agree with you.
Heck, I’ll go you one better; my wife and I not only taught our girls about other religions, we taught them ours and explained to them why we thought those religions were wrong and why our atheistic beliefs were correct. To use a word that is usually too easily used and too loosely defined, we indoctrinated our daughters.
However, to claim that teaching your child your religious beliefs and faith, and taking them regularly to religious worship and classes is child abuse, and I would strongly disagree. It can be, but for most it is not. To claim that it is stretches the meaning of child abuse and makes it so inclusive and encompassing that it not only loses it usefulness as a descriptor but becomes an active danger to the civil rights of all of us.
Save the claims of child abuse for the specific instances of when the teaching of religious beliefs becomes such – parents whose religious beliefs do not allow them to meet their child’s medical needs, groups such as the Quiverful movement who advocate a harsh and physical form of discipline, etc. – and stick to the more accurate claim that “it would be better if….” for the rest.