Thursday, February 9, 2017

Religion As Child Abuse

Richard Dawkins famously argued that religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse.  Militant theists have used that in an effort to make Dawkins and like-minded atheists seem unreasonable, typically by distorting the meaning of the atheists' words, and trying to make a nuanced position seem much more extreme or outrageous than it really is.  At Shadow to Light, Mikey thinks he has scored a devastating blow against New Atheists who argue that religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse.  He summarizes his main argument in this way:
Atheist activists commonly argue that religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse and thus religious parents have a moral obligation to refrain from instilling their religious views in their children.  This position is fatally flawed.  It ignores the findings of social science that demonstrate a healthy bond between parent and child is essential for the development of a person’s emotional and psychological well-being.  By trying to thwart religious socialization in families headed by religious parents, the atheists are advocating that harm be done to the children.  What makes this even worse is that the atheist position is grounded in hypocrisy, given that the arguments against religious socialization apply equally to political socialization.  That is, while atheists argue that religious indoctrination is child abuse, they have no problem “abusing” their own children with political indoctrination.   The atheist position is essentially nothing more than disguised bigotry that has the potential to do great harm.   Reasonable and ethical people should oppose it. - Mikey
The first problem with this argument is that he begins by quoting the words of Zoltan Istvan, who advocates a law restricting religious indoctrination, which is not at all representative of the position of most so-called new Atheists, and is certainly not the majority position of New Atheists.  But Mikey presents this as if it represents the views of people like Dawkins.  He starts out presenting this extremist statement, and then immediately pivots to Dawkins as the focus of his outrage, without even mentioning the fact that Dawkins didn't say that.  He hasn't explicitly lied, but one could easily come to the conclusion that Dawkins favors restricting religious indoctrination by law.  This is a sleight of hand worthy of the best illusionists.

Having accomplished his first feat of misdirection, he then immediately pivots in a different direction.  Atheists like Richard Dawkins have made the case that religious indoctrination can hinder a child's ability to reason objectively.  By instilling religious beliefs and ideology in the child, he may become permanently predisposed to reject any alternative ideas or lines of reasoning.  He is more likely to reject rational thinking in favor of dogmatic thinking.  But Mikey steers the discussion away from "indoctrination", toward a discussion of "socialization".  In this way, he avoids the need to defend any possible negative effects if ideological indoctrination, and instead argues that a beneficial socialization process is anything but harmful to the child.
First, it is misleading to focus on “indoctrination.”  Not just because one person’s idea of education is another’s idea of indoctrination (underscoring the subjective nature of the accusation), but because something more is going on here than mere “indoctrination.”
Actually, it is misleading to change the topic in this way.  Of course, there's more going on than indoctrination, but that's not what Dawkins argued against.  We can stipulate that socialization is a process every child goes through, and it is influenced by many factors, some positive, and others negative.  Socialization in a stable and supportive environment is likely to have an overall beneficial impact on the emotional and psychological development of a child.  And it is undeniable that a religious upbringing in such an environment often produces beneficial results in the socialization process.  At the same time, it is also undeniable that a non-religious upbringing in an otherwise similar environment can produce very similar results. 

Mikey is quick to cite studies that correlate religious upbringing with less risky or anti-social behaviors in children.  That's all well and good, but the real message of these studies is that it is the manner in which the child is socialized, but not necessarily the religious aspect of it, that produces a beneficial outcome.  For example, this study on the effects of religious upbringing concludes:
Given the fact that youth who value religion and participate in congregation’s activities are less involved in risk behaviors, it is possible that at-risk youth, in particular, may alter some of their behaviors if they are associated with a caring environment that stresses risk avoidance, pro-social behaviors, positive role models, and healthy relationships (Sinha & Cnaan, 2004). One of the sources of such an environment can be a local congregation that offers programs and activities designed for adolescents.
So it is recognized that a stable and supportive social environment brings about these beneficial effects.  This kind of environment is often found in a religious community or congregation, but it might just as well be found in a non-religious context.  The point is that it it isn't religion specifically that produces this - it is the social environment in which the child is raised and socialized.

Mikey wants to make it sound as if New Atheists don't favor raising children in a loving and supportive social environment:
By attempting to disrupt religious socialization in a family where the parents are religious, the atheist position is potentially disrupting the healthy psychological and emotional development of the child.
But that is absolutely not the case.  As I said, he has diverted the discussion away from the real topic, which was indoctrination, and that's not the same thing as socialization.  Indoctrination is about intentionally instilling a particular set of beliefs and/or dogmas.  A child indoctrinated with religious belief might be affected in a negative way by being resistant to rational and objective thinking, while at the same time growing up to be emotionally and psychologically healthy due to his overall socialization process.  Mikey is not addressing the actual argument that he claims to have defeated.

He then doubles down by stating:
What makes the atheist position even more disturbing is that religion alone is singled out for this treatment.
He compares socialization in a religious environment to socialization in a political environment, and lampoons the supposed hypocrisy of atheists who wouldn't insist that parents should refrain from talking about politics around the dinner table.  But once again the original topic was indoctrination.  I actually believe that many parents, whether religious or not, would agree that deliberately indoctrinating young children with a particular political ideology may not be desirable.  Many parents would agree that teaching them to think first is more important, and then letting them adopt their own ideology when they are more mature is the better way to go.  And this is consistent with avoiding religious indoctrination of a young child.

But very few of us would advocate passing a law that restricts what we teach our children, whether it is about politics or religion.  We all favor bring them up in an environment that promotes a healthy socialization process.  And many of us believe that intellectual development should come before any ideological indoctrination.  You'd never know it from listening to Mikey, but even Richard Dawkins recognizes and has stated that there can be many beneficial effects from involvement in a religious community.  But Mikey (perhaps due to his own religious indoctrination) doesn't have the intellectual honesty to make a fair representation of Dawkins' argument, or to argue against that.  Reasonable and ethical people should oppose Mikey's dishonesty.


  1. I hadn't seen this before, but Jerry Coyne pointed it out on his blog.

    Lawrence Krauss: Teaching Creationism is Child Abuse

    One thing to note about Mikey's dishonest approach to this topic is that he (like many other religionists) tries to equate the term "child abuse" with the worst kinds of physical and psychological abuse. But there are many different kinds of abuse, and many possible levels of severity. Teaching your child not to think scientifically and analytically is one kind of abuse that hinders his intellectual development, but it is not the same as severe parental neglect, sexual molestation, or physical beating. All of those things are different, and they all have different effects on the child, but they are all forms of abuse.

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  3. I get very tired of the religio-bots trying to draw this false equivalence.
    The conditioning applied to pre-age of reason children in most christian denominations is heavy handed and brutal. Recitation of scripture, hymn singing and praise for 'testimony bearing' are the norm. Classic brain washing techniques.

    That is different in quality and quantity from teaching your children critical thinking and the skills to cope with the given political climate while occasionally mentioning evolution.
    If we made children learn songs about evolution and science Mikey would have a point.

    1. You're right. Many even send their children special indoctrination centers, called Sunday school. I attended catechism class at the age of six. Of course, parents don't think of it as indoctrination or brainwashing. They think they're doing what is right. But they were indoctrinated themselves, and they're passing it along.