Posted by: Gabriel | February 20, 2009

Religion as Child Abuse

We weren’t required to read the chapter of Dawkins’ book ‘Religion as Child Abuse’ and so I only briefly skimmed some of the section titles and didn’t give it much thought afterwards. Certainly the claim that it is inappropriate to indoctrinate children is easily labelled as absurd and open to critique. Reading something-or-other this week, however, got me to rethinking my initial rejection of any worth in this claim in light of conversion experiences. 


The power of Christianity to transform someone’s life originally came in the form of a conversion experience. When people were born into Pagan families and only accepted Christianity by hearing the Message later in life, I can only imagine the radical life change which must have been made available to them (like a blindfold being removed). St. Augustine’s mother, for example, allowed her son to continue in a sinful life rather than force an insincere baptism upon him (I’m paraphrasing a bit) and this early distance, I’m sure, contributed to his fervour upon his conversion.


Today children are born into Christian families and raised on Christian teachings with the assumption that they, of course, will be Christians. In a way this seems to undercut the moment of conversion which was such a foundational experience in early Christianity – they no longer have such an early darkness against which the Light of Christ can shine. I wonder if, by raising children to be Christians, we are not depriving them of an extremely important part of their spiritual development; in effect abusing a child in this way. I’m not sure how this situation should be changed, or even if it should be changed; I certainly wouldn’t advocate not teaching children Christian morality – even St. Augustine lamented that his mother did not press him to be baptised as a youth.


My own experience with Catholic popular piety is a bit limited, so maybe someone can offer some correction, but it seems to me that Evangelical sects provide a better foundation for conversion experience than the High Churches. In my Baptist upbringing, children are not considered Christians until they ‘make a decision to accept Jesus into their hearts’, generally around the age of 7-ish and only after that are they baptised. This seems at least to preserve the appearance of a conversion experience, even if Evangelical children are still seeped in Christianity as much as a child who was baptised as an infant in a High Church.





  1. Gabe, I think of my brother. Right now, he is in confirmation class, not so much on his own will, but because me parents (mom in particular) think it is important. However, in these classes, he finds a very watered down, uncritical teaching of the foundations of Christianity in which he is expected to accept. Yet that is not where he is at.

    I think it would much more beneficial for these classes to address my brothers questions, doubts, concerns and ideas surrounding Catholicism and provide an open space to critically examine these things.

    My brother is at an exploring stage. Real questioning and thinking is more important that being orthodox or incorporating into the Church. Real searching is more important that entering into what was “right” or “true” without having reached there in your own time and in your own way.

    I think that there is great benefit in raising your kids in a Christian atmosphere. The challenge is how you do so, what you encourage in your child, and how you know when your child needs to be protected from its influence. Discovery, exploration, questioning, examining, playing… these are all things that children have a right to. We as fellow Christians and for some as future parents must respect this, allow this, and delight in it and be loving companions and guides.

  2. “I wonder if, by raising children to be Christians, we are not depriving them of an extremely important part of their spiritual development; in effect abusing a child in this way.” That’s a pretty bold statement Gabe, and I like it!

    This book, Summerhill, I’m reading by A. S. Neill is about a school in England. Classes are not mandatory and the children only go when they are interested. Given the freedom to follow their own interest and free of an authoritarian, the children grow into especially self confident and successful individuals. The school has been running for decades.

    I volunteer with little kids in North St. Louis at the Missionaries of Charity. Every Sunday we take them to mass. I employ eight years worth of tricks to keep the kids interested, or at best quiet. Sometimes I would like to just take them out to the playground and play instead. I kind of agree with Gabe, and think that if kids didn’t have to go to church they probably wouldn’t hate it. If churches wanted more kids to come they would have to adapt the liturgy for the kids, as every successful youth group I have attended has done.

    I also did a lot of conformation retreats and high school retreats for Catholics. From my experience with these retreats and my own personal experience, the people that stay active in the Catholic Church are the ones that have had a profound conversion experience from cradle catholic to full fledged Catholic.

    In case we have all forgotten, grade school can suck. People are picked on and sometimes you’re the bully. Parents go through divorces. There are alcohol addictions, drug addictions, addictions to porn, and addictions to stuff. Whether the kids were victims of people and their addictions or the perpetrators and the ones addicted they often found on this retreat the call of Christ to live more authentic lives in community with their classmates. This was the kind of stuff that made me stoked to be a Catholic.

    Give the kids a little freedom. Make our efforts conform to their needs a little more than making them conform to our structures.

  3. I was also intrigued by the title of this chapter in Dawkins book, and while I did not read through every word of it, found the subject itself to be an interesting thought reflection. Like many of the New Atheist’s arguments, there are extreme sides (which are often the majority) and more moderate sides. Do I think religion can be used as a type of child abuse in its brainwashing effects and in preventing both the spiritual and intellectual growth of an individual? Yes. Do I think this is necessarily the effect that raising a child as part of any religious tradition has? No.

    There is something to be said for tradition, for knowing who one is based on where one comes from. I come from a Christian background, predominantly Catholic. Understanding Christianity and Catholicism helps me understand my family a bit better and my own childhood and the decisions made about my upbringing. The role of the parent is to help guide and nurture their children and to prepare them for eventually embarking on their own life journey. I think a religious tradition can provide an important foundation, but it depends on how that is taught, the freedom (of lack thereof) which is given, and the expectations which accompany it.

    A movie which comes to mind from this chapter and post is “Jesus Camp.”

    For anyone who has not seen it, I would recommend it as a frightening look into what I believe is the brainwashing of thousands of children in certain evangelical religions. They are training soldiers for God’s army to defeat everyone in this society and culture who goes against God’s will (or the will that they have dictated and claimed authority over knowing). This to me is child abuse. Families who maybe in genuine good faith and conscious indoctrinate their children to become part of a religion with no option of questioning or leaving commit a kind of psychological child abuse, and I don’t think this is healthy for the individual or society.

    So what would an appropriate religious upbringing look like? I think the guys who have posted above me list some important qualities: freedom, questioning, exploration, and an opportunity for genuine conversion or acceptance of what speaks most to them in their lives. Belonging to a specific religious tradition is not bad, and neither is raising one’s children in that tradition. But there should always be a spirit of openness. And I think often parents have as much to learn from the insights of their children as they have to teach, and they miss out on this opportunity when they remain close minded and indoctrinate rather than invite exploration.

  4. I did read through this chapter in Dawkins, and one of the points he stressed most passionately is that there is no such thing as a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child,” but rather only “A child of Christian parents” or “A child of Muslim parents.” At first, I thought this point seem a bit nit-picky, fussing over words for no reason (and this from an English major!). Reflecting on it a little more deeply, however, I can see where Dawkins is coming from. While I believe that baptism makes a person part of the Christian tradition, and baptized children should be considered Christians, there is something to be said for letting children make that decision for themselves, when they are at an appropriate age.

    I think back to my own Confirmation in the seventh grade, and I honestly had no idea about the importance of the sacrament I was receiving. It was just understood that in seventh grade, you were confirmed, just like you went through First Communion in second grade. Even though our teachers told us it was okay to not get confirmed if we weren’t ready, no one considered that an option. Every Easter, I look at the adult converts in my parish who willfully choose to accept their faith with some jealousy, knowing that they are freely and fully choosing to advance in the Church because they believe in it and its mission. I believed that not getting confirmed was going to leave me out of a big party.

    So perhaps Dawkins is on to something when he says that children are simply the children of their parents’ tradition, and should only be considered members of that tradition when they freely choose it for themselves.

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