Saturday, June 23, 2007

Religion As Child Abuse

In previous posts, I have given a superficial account of the idea that religion is a form of child abuse. However, the claim continues to be made, and I want to look into it in more detail.

Abuse and Maliciousness

In “Theism as Mental Illness or Child Abuse”, I argued against the claim that religion is child abuse on the grounds that the term ‘abuse’ is an accusation of maliciousness – a lack of concern for the well-being of those abused. In the case of religion, this is often false. The people who ‘teach’ religion to children love their children as much as any parent or adult can love children. They are simply mistaken about the facts of the matter with respect to what is in the child’s interests.

I used the example of a parent who took thalidomide in the 1950s. This drug caused severe birth defects in children. This was a tragedy, but it was not an instance of abuse. It is an instance where the parents would have behaved quite differently if they had been aware of the real-world facts of the matter. It is not because of a defect in desire (maliciousness, for which moral condemnation is appropriate), but a defect in belief, that they act as they do.

Consequently, we cannot legitimately call this behavior ‘abuse’.

Emotion-Laden Words

Furthermore, I hold that that the use of this phrase, ‘religion is abuse’ represents the same moral flaw as is exhibited in using the phrase, ‘militant atheist’ or ‘atheist fundamentalist’. People do not choose these phrases because they can be proved true. People choose these phrases because they know that the person hearing them will have a particular emotional response – a response likely to generate irrational, unreasoned, and unjust hatred of the target group based on a false assumption built into the use of the term.

Religious demagogues use the term ‘militant atheist’ because they want to give the (false but useful) impression that atheists are disposed to act violently and, if they are not controlled, will come after ‘good Christians’ with guns and other forms of violence to force them to give up their religion.

‘Fundamentalist atheist’ is used to convey the (false but useful) response that these atheists have blindly attached themselves to a set of propositions that they will hold on to in the extreme and will not tolerate any view that differs from their own.

‘Religion is abuse’ is used to generate the (false but useful) impression that religious people have no interest in the welfare of children and that they harm children merely for the pleasure of doing do – or that they are too caught up in their own pleasure to consider the child’s welfare.

Anybody who complains about the terms ‘militant atheist’ or ‘fundamentalist atheist’ on the basis that those who use the term are trying to generate an emotional response based on a false association, who then uses the phrase ‘religion is abuse’, is the purist form of hypocrite.

Harm

The two points above represent the first layer of this particular onion. Now, I want to go to the second layer.

If I deny that teaching religion to children counts as ‘abuse’, does this imply that it is a perfectly legitimate action?

Absolutely not.

Look at the comparison situation. If I say that a mother who took thalidomide in 1955 is not guilty of any moral crime, am I saying that it is or was safe to take thalidomide? Absolutely not. Thalidomide was a dangerous drug that caused harm to the children of those parents who took it.

One might respond that this is an inappropriate comparison because people did not know that thalidomide caused birth defects, and this is why they were not culpable. Now that we do know of the harm, we would accuse any pregnant woman who takes thalidomide today of committing a grievous moral wrong.

This is true, but there are some important details to take into consideration with respect to ‘knowing that thalidomide is dangerous’. There period of time from ignorance to enlightenment was not instantaneous. It is not as if, at 11:53:14 am EST on March 11, 1958, everybody went from total ignorance of the dangers of thalidomide to total awareness of its dangers. There was a process involved that took time. We start off with only a small number of people knowing of the harm, who then have to convince others, who then have to convince others. A society has to achieve a certain level of overall awareness of the harms of thalidomide before taking thalidomide can be said to be morally objectionable.

Asserting that it is morally objectionable to teach religion to children requires the false assumption that knowledge of the wrongness and dangerousness of religion has reached the required degree of public acceptance.

Evidence and Epistemic Negligence

A person with prima facie good desires, but false beliefs, is not automatically free from moral condemnation. I have, in this blog, made a great deal of noise about epistemic negligence – about negligently holding onto a belief when that belief makes the individual a threat to the well-being of others.

I have compared reckless thinking to reckless driving – engaging in behavior that puts others at risk without a sufficient exercise of caution to make sure that one is not acting in a way that threatens others.

However, reckless thinking does not depend on a failure to use logic. As I have also argued, the requirement that we use reason at all times is unrealistic. Sometimes it is more rational to use quicker, though more fallible, methods for justifying our beliefs. There was sufficient evidence that thalidomide was harmful long before the average person could be held morally culpable for its use.

Even today, a mother who takes thalidomide during pregnancy can be held to be blameless if she was told by a trusted authority that thalidomide is harmless, such as a physician.

The fault, in this case, belongs to the doctor – the expert – who gave her the bad information. It does not belong to the mother who decided to trust her doctor.

Similarly, it is not the fault of the mother who decides to teach religion to her children when she is surrounded by a population that is almost entirely in agreement on the value of a religious upbringing. It is still not the case that ‘abuse’ is a legitimate charge in this case.

Conclusion

I am still going to argue that it is wrong to teach religion to children. However, the precise nature of that wrong, and what a moral person may legitimately do about it, are still open to question. I suspect that I will take at least two more posts to address these questions.

8 comments:

vjack said...

Careful about how you are defining abuse. If you are using a blanket definition, you might want to make this explicit. It sounds like you are trying to make intent part of your definition of abuse. The inclusion of intent here is controversial among experts. However, your phrase "a lack of concern for the well-being of those abused" sounds like you might be confusing abuse and neglect. Part of the problem is that legal definitions do not necessarily match up with psychological definitions.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

vjack

Actually, my concern is with neither law nor psychology, but with morality.

The moral sense of 'abuse' is something quite close to 'wrongful use' of another person. In desire utilitarian terms, this will turn out to be a use to which a person with good desires would not put a person.

'Abuse' in the moral sense includes neglect where one has has an obligation to care for another. In this way, a hospital or nursing home that chronically neglects its patients, or a school that chronically neglects the children in its case, can be morally charged with abuse.

Now, I am not trying to make 'intent' a part of the definition of abuse. In fact, I never used the term. This was intentional. There were a couple of times when my brain wanted to slip the word 'intention' into the argument, but I had to keep reminding myself that it would not fit.

Negligence, for example, is not a problem of 'intention' The negligent person does not 'intend' (or seek to) do harm. She simply does not care about the harm that might result from her actions. In other words, it is the lack of intent to avoid harm that defines negligence - including epistemic negligence.

However, I do argue that all moral claims do look primarily at what intentional actions tell us about a person's desires. Taking thalidomide in the 1950s does not justify moral condemnation because we cannot infer from this intentional act that the agent has a defect in desire. Neither does teaching religion to a child tell us this, at least in the current setting.

However, morality does require an intentional action.

Jon said...

At what point does the "well you should have known better for yourself" factor kick in? It seems to me that people who teach their children that there is a loving God and that they should go to church--while mistaken--have genuinely good intent, and (perhaps more importantly) aren't doing any real harm. But what about the parents who teach their children that, say, they should never go to the doctor, as Jesus will heal them if they are pure of heart? Or what about the parents who teach their children that sex is something dirty and that they should be ashamed of their bodies? It seems to me that even if the parents legitimately believe these propositions to be true (and these are just examples; you get my point) there is so much evidence to the contrary that we can say you should have known better.

It seems that there is a line there somewhere, and that a blanket good intention combined with honest belief is not enough to avoid crossing it all the time.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jon

Stay tuned.

I am devoting a series of posts to this, and yours is certainly an area that we need to look at.

martino said...

Negligence, for example, is not a problem of 'intention' The negligent person does not 'intend' (or seek to) do harm. She simply does not care about the harm that might result from her actions. In other words, it is the lack of intent to avoid harm that defines negligence - including epistemic negligence.

I still fail to see why this is distinct compared to desires. This is easiest to see redoing this paragraph and substituting desire for intention.

'Negligence, for example, is not a problem of 'desire' The negligent person does not 'desire' (or seek to) do harm. She simply does not care about the harm that might result from her actions. In other words, it is the lack of desire to avoid harm that defines negligence - including epistemic negligence.'

So here the negligent person lacks a desire to avoid harm, in your version they lack an intention to avoid harm. What is the difference?

Austin Cline said...

I suspect that I will take at least two more posts to address these questions.

Will you address the objections raised to your position one of the last times you brought it up? For example, you continue to use the same definition of "abuse" which I and others objected to then and I still don't think you adequately support your usage here. I also challenged your use of thalidomide as an analogy and I don't think you sufficiently addressed that, either.

Sinbad said...

I agree with your main point but disagree with this one:

"Religious demagogues use the term ‘militant atheist’ because they want to give the (false but useful) impression that atheists are disposed to act violently and, if they are not controlled, will come after ‘good Christians’ with guns and other forms of violence to force them to give up their religion."

I use the term "fundamatheist," but do so in a specific way:

http://someonesaygrace.blogspot.com/2007/06/ignominiously-defining-fundamentalism.html

My reasoning is designed simply to expose a particularly dangerous way of thinking.

MICKY said...

ORPHAN BOY
About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 2004, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages . God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].
PEACE BE WITH YOU
MICKY