Raising children in a religion – abuse or stability?

Next up to take on Richard Dawkins is the Guardian’s Anne Karpf. She begins:

If Richard Dawkins had his way, a fair number of you and, as it happens, me, would be had up for child abuse. According to him, that’s what religious indoctrination of children by their parents is. And if you can sue for the long-term mental damage caused by physical abuse, he argues, why shouldn’t you sue for the damage caused by mental child abuse?

If you accept Dawkins’s characterisation of religion, you’d probably agree. Religious parents, to him, are Mr Dogma and Mrs Bigot: they terrify their kids with tales of eternal hell, fire and damnation, when – that is – they’re not carrying out female circumcision or coercing them into forced marriages. Flat-earthers the lot, they’re brainwashers, fanatically opposed to science and rationality.

Isn’t it curious that we tolerate the stereotyping of religion in a way we’d never abide with race, religion [sic] or gender? I certainly don’t recognise myself in this caricature.

Hmmm in fact Karpf is the one doing the misprepresenation here. Dawkins (in Chapter 9 of the God Delusion) makes the point – with reference to specific cases – that raising a child with such a fearful version of religion that for example they believe a Protestant schoolchild friend went to hell when they died has a damaging effect on children that can be regarded as a form of mental abuse. He does not say that raising a child in a religion per se is abusive.

With this mistake in mind, much of the rest of her piece can be written off as the anti-Dawkins bandwagon, for example

…his view that religion is the one sphere of society in which it’s accepted without demur that parents have an absolute right over what their children believe is a bizarre one.

…Atheist fundamentalists [are]…curiously drawn to the fanaticism of other fundamentalists. And in the middle sit the rest of us, struggling to impart to our kids some values that go beyond the material, commercial or purely rational, though not necessarily incompatible with all those. I want my children to know about the long cultural tradition that they come from. And yes, if I’m honest (and though I recognise I might fail), I’d like them to continue this in some way.

But it’s worth pausing on her assertion that all parents, religious or otherwise, are equal in their desire to raise their children in their own image:

…All parents believe in something or other (often just as passionately as religious ones do), whether it’s human rights or whether they worship in the temple of rising house prices, and most want to transmit their values to their kids. Dawkins says he flinches when he hears a child referred to as a Christian child rather than the child of Christian parents, for you wouldn’t talk about a Marxist child, and how can a four-year-old choose their own religious belief?

In fact a study of 836 parents in Canada found that more than 90% of the 51 very religious parents said they had raised their children in the same beliefs as they had but less than 10% of the 400 or so atheist parents had raised their children as atheists, instead saying they wanted their children to make up their own mind. None of the atheist parents wanted school to teach atheism, but over 80% of the very religious parents wanted school to teach their belief.

One assertion I’ll be looking into is that

….in a report last month, Harriet Becher found scores of studies with the same findings: religious families were more stable and (to a small extent) happier, the parents more involved, nurturing and family-centred. We know kids have a hard time in chaotic families: perhaps, at its best, religion can provide a valuable structure as well as community support.

This is very interesting and something I’ll report on once I’ve ordered the research. This presentation by Becher looks like it relates to the same research and reveals differences in parenting between religions, reminding us that we should not treat religion (nor even individual religions for that matter) as undifferentiated masses. In particular it is apparant that the religious views of parents’ and religious leaders are far more important when raising children for Muslim parents than Christian parents.


One response to “Raising children in a religion – abuse or stability?

  1. I think that this is THE most important topic there IS. The way in which children are raised, or more often crippled in many ways, is of fundamental importance for human well-being and sanity.

    The work of Alice Miller via ‘For Your Own Good’ and other books offers a very disturbing insight into how what she calls TOXIC pedagogy is inevitably dramatised on to the world stage in dreadful ways. Her case study of the link between the TOXIC child “rearing” practices common in Germany and the rise and SUPPORT of Hitler are chilling.

    So too, is the related work of Lloyd deMause via his ‘History of Childhood’ and his Psycho-History school of cultural understanding. This reference provides a unique understanding of the all American (psychotic) “hero” Ronald Reagan.


    Also the book ‘Spare the Child’ by Philip Greven.

    And much, much more besides.

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