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’.
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.
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?
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.
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.