Is it "abuse" to raise a child in the church?

I saw a fellow atheist friend of mine on Facebook join a group called "Religious Indoctrination of Children is Child Abuse". The issue was popularized, in my estimation anyway, by Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion in which he makes just such an argument.

And yet, I don't know that I fully agree with that idea, at least to the extent that it is being popularized in the new atheist subculture. I think that religious indoctrination is a bad thing, certainly; and while I would agree that certain types of religious indoctrination could qualify as child abuse, I don't know that I would go so far as to paint the entire issue with such a broad stroke.
The main reason is simply that although atheists seem to focus on the more vocal, idiotic and destructive believers out there, the reality is that religion, as it's generally practiced, is pretty benign. It's been so watered down by secular modernism that most people in the U.S. who self-identify as "Christian", for example, don't even go to church. We live in a country full of "cultural Christians" – people who have some measure of respect or even reverence for it, but don't actively practice it. Many of these people view religion, however erroneously, as a sort of moral compass or a source of a sense of greater personal meaning. The fundamentalists that make the news for their facepalming stupidity are, in reality, a very vocal minority.

Abuse, at least to me, connotates something severe. For example, I was spanked as a child. After becoming familiar with the research on spanking, I don't think that a mild, open-palm slap to the buttocks is conducive toward raising an emotionally healthy child. But I certainly don't think my parents abused me. They may have been misguided, but they never caused me any irreparable harm. But when others have told me they were beaten with belt buckles, I think we're crossing a line into something that could be considered abusive.

To that end, I think that there is a line between something that is simply unhealthy and relatively unobtrusive, and something that is detrimental to a child's upbringing. The real issue, as I see it, is not that we need to treat religious indoctrination as though it is some special category of abuse, but rather that we must address the belief systems that influence people to rationalize and justify abuse on religious grounds. To use an obvious example, I think most readers would agree that genital mutilation of young girls is clearly abusive. But in Islamic nations, it's par for the course. Young women are forced to cover their entire bodies and stripped of all rights and dignity. Such upbringings are clearly both emotionally and physically abusive, but they are rationalized under the guise of sacred religious beliefs.

Religious indoctrination may be deleterious to a child's upbringing without actually being abusive. I do not consider it "abuse" to raise a child as a young-earth creationist, but clearly such an upbringing will adversely affect their understanding of science and their ability to succeed academically. Raising a child with puritanical ideals about sexuality is not abusive, but research has shown such upbringings to adversely affect sexual health later in life. Telling children they'll go to hell if they don't believe in Jesus is misleading, demonstrably fallacious and even cruel, but I don't think it necessarily fits into the pattern of emotional distress that would fit the American Psychological Association's definition of abuse – much of it depends on how, specifically, the concept of hell is used as a tool of coercion.

This is all made more difficult by the fact that emotional abuse itself is not a clearly defined issue. Even physical abuse is sometimes defined under muddy terms, and indeed many people would assert that my above example of striking a child with a belt buckle for "disciplinary" reasons is not actually abusive. But emotional abuse is even muddier, and it's sometimes difficult to draw the line at where we can begin using the "a" word.

What I do believe is that no child should be brought up to be a "Christian child", a "Muslim child", or whatever else. A child will believe whatever a parent (or any adult in a position of authority) says to be gospel truth (excuse the pun), and it speaks to the weakness of religious dogma that it is most successfully transmitted to the young and ignorant. We need not raise children to be Christians, Muslisms, Buddhists, agnostics or atheists; we need only raise them to be independent, critical thinkers – to learn to weigh evidence for themselves, to consider opposing views, to view claims about reality with a healthy spirit of skeptical inquiry, and ultimately to make up their own minds.


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