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Meditation 682
Where is the line? Religious teachings and child abuse.

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Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion quotes[1] the psychologist Nicolas Humphrey:

"In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon."

Even though Dawkins skates away from the full implications of this comment,[2] the idea that teaching religion is child abuse has become inextricably linked to his name.

Regardless of who the concept is attributed to, should we regard the teaching of religion to children by parents as a type of child abuse? Could not a believer just as well claim that non-believers abuse their children by failing to teach them about god?

I don't think such broad brush generalizations accomplish anything. What is more important is that in addition to fairy tales, mythologies, and religious instruction, children should learn critical thinking.

But still, should some types of religious instruction be considered child abuse?

We are on tricky ground here. If we agree that some types of religious instruction are abusive, then we are interfering with the freedom of religion. Which is more important - religious freedom? or the child?

In some madrassahs in Pakistan, it is reported that young boys, 10 to 12 years of age are being taught to be suicide bombers. Is that child abuse, or is it not abuse until the child goes off on a mission.

In the Inca world, children were taught to aspire to be human sacrifices, with marriage and a family as a secondary option if they were not selected to appease the gods? Was the teaching child abuse? Or was it not abuse until the sacrifice?

And of course what brings this issue to the forefront is the case in Texas of the children of the FLDS colony - the girls are taught that they must enter into an arranged marriage as soon as possible after puberty (usually to a man in his 50s who already has a large number of wives) or otherwise, they will not go to heaven to wash Christ's feet with their hair. Is it child abuse to teach them this nonsense? Or does it not become child abuse until they submit on their wedding night?[3]

In all the above examples, I would prefer to protect the child than to come down on the side of religious freedom.

But let's take another recent case - a 14 year old Jehovahs Witness girl in Toronto who was forced, thanks to a court order, to have a blood transfusion against her will. It probably saved her life but she testified that she felt violated by having this foreign substance inserted in her body. Was it child abuse for her parents to teach her that blood transfusions were against God's will? Or was it child abuse by society (the medical and court system) to force her to have the transfusion?

I find myself conflicted here. Perhaps both constitute abuse. Perhaps neither.

I don't know the answer. But, clearly there are potential conflicts between the free excercise of religion, including the parents' rights to pass their religious views on to their children, and society's interest in the well-being of children.


  1. The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p326
  2. (Dawkins actually seems more concerned that a child is labelled as a member of a religion before he or she is in a position to make an informed choice)
  3. For an earlier view on this, see Meditation 146 - An American Tragedy - on Mormon Fundamentalism. (It's the one piece of my own writing that causes me to get emotional every time I have reason to revisit it.)