© 2000 by Larry Gott
Most people suppose they know what constitutes child abuse. Abuse may generally be defined as action or behavior towards a child that causes harm. But what, exactly, do we mean by harm? Is it always clear-cut?
Reasonable people would agree that hitting a child hard enough to cause bruising or other injury constitutes abuse. But, even though many states have called spanking abuse, many parents believe it is not. It is open to debate. Burning a child with cigarettes is clearly abuse. But smoking around children, even though it is known that secondhand smoke causes cancer, heart disease, and respiratory problems, is not so clearly abuse in the minds of many. The matter is open to argument.
Other gray areas include shouting at one’s kids. That’s just “normal” in many households, but, carried to extremes, it can be abusive, too. Belittling and shaming children, also can be called abusive. Calling children names, labeling them (“you’re stupid,” “you’re destructive”), and threatening them (even if the threats are not carried out), all are forms of abuse, depending on which experts you choose to listen to.
Admittedly the grayest of the gray areas is the teaching of children. Can the secular and religious education of children be abusive? Secular teaching may be more or less effective in preparing children for their adult lives; more in cases where children are taught how to think, to reason for themselves and derive answers from evidence; less where they are taught what to think and the conclusions at which they should arrive.
I've come to believe that teaching religion to children is a form of child abuse. Parents quite naturally think that their children should be taught whatever the parents believe. In a seemingly never-ending cycle, parents who were themselves brainwashed as children pass along to their own children the religion they were taught. It never occurs to them to examine what they’ve been taught to see whether it has been helpful or harmful.
Rather than teaching children that some behaviors are harmful, religion (Christian religion in particular) teaches them that their very natures are evil, their thoughts corrupt and their actions so vile that they deserve to be tortured for eternity unless they continually beg some implacable cosmic bully for forgiveness. Children are taught that an invisible god, or one of his minions, is looking over their shoulders at all times. While many adults resent the proliferation of surveillance cameras, they teach their children that someone who can see through walls is always watching them. It is a wonder, given that kind of upbringing, that most people are not schizophrenic.
Stuffing immature minds full of dogma when they haven't the means to sort through it critically damages the developing psyche. No amount of post-adult reason ever completely liberates the subconscious from all that ecclesiastical baggage. The pain it creates is lifelong and debilitating.
Teaching children religion is abusive because it creates confusion and discourages critical thought. Further, it fosters guilt, which is particularly destructive, because it remains in the subconscious long after the reasons for it are recognized and understood.
It needs to be said that, while some teaching may ultimately be harmful, it does not constitute abuse in the sense that the parent or teacher intends harm or is indifferent to the consequences of the teaching. The harm done is the end result of a cycle that started eons ago. Unfortunately, relatively few people as adults thoroughly examine what they’ve been taught. The whole idea of “faith” is designed to repress critical thought and to encourage acceptance instead. The result is that faulty thinking is passed on from generation to generation. Anything that makes the mind work less well, or causes emotional pain may be characterized as harm, and its inculcation is abuse.