October 9, 2007

Parenting: Reason or Religion?

In a post on Religion vs Atheism in Parenting, and the ensuing discussion at An Unquiet Mind, several participants have advocated a balanced approach: a child must be exposed to both religion and atheism, and allowed to choose between the two. This thinking that there is somehow a choice involoved here is flawed. It has an uncanny resemblance to the advocacy of both creationism, a.k.a. intelligent design, and evolution being given equal airtime in the classroom, so that the children may have a choice. Framing the issue in such terms traps us into casting atheism as yet another religion. It is not. Atheism is as much a religion as creationism is a science.

One of the commenters on the post had raised a couple of questions, that I thought captured the essence of the volumes of discussion on this subject world over. I quote:

If your daughter got scared of ghosts, would you or would you not tell her ghosts are all nonsense? Then why wouldn’t you tell her the same about God?

Right, why wouldn't you? Let me rephrase the title of the post: Religion vs. Reason in Parenting. Tell me now, is there really a choice here?

In an article on Religion's Real Child Abuse, Richard Dawkins writes of the mental abuse suffered by children in the hands and the mouths of the religious. He contends that it's far more cruel, and the consequences much longer lasting, than the physical abuse they may have suffered, also in the hands and the mouths of the religious. Dawkins quotes a private correspondent, a victim of child abuse, who wrote to him:

"Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a 7 year old) as 'yuchy' while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest ? but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares."

Dawkins, of course, castigates the Catholic Church for this kind of religious fear mongering, but not everyone understands why. They believe that most people grow out of their fear of hell, devil, and stuff like that.

In a letter to Cary Tennis at his column in Salon, Since you asked, a divorced man worries about hurting his daughter, who is terrified of his going to hell. He is a non-believer, particularly in organized religion, but the girl's mother is a devout Christian, as is her family. The girl has been thoroughly indoctrinated to believe that her father would go to hell because he was not a Christian. I'll refrain from going into the merits of Tennis' response, but simply point to the fact that the girl in question is thirteen years old. At her age, she wouldn't believe that Santa Claus delivered her Christmas gifts through the chimney, the tooth fairy kept the dollar under her pillow, or the stork brought her baby sister home, would she? Why does she still believe that her father will go to hell, if he rejected Christianity?

Born into a religious Hindu family, I still remember how the adults used to scare me with dire consequences to deter me from committing minor transgressions. For example, if I attempted to steal a sweetmeat before it was consecrated to the gods, they'd admonish me with, "swami kannakkuthiduvar" [in Tamil]. Translated into English, it literally means, "god will drive a dagger into your eyes". For major transgressions, there was the ubiquitous threat, "You will go to this horrible, horrible, place called hell". Occasionally, I too have nightmares of being thrown into a vat full of boiling oil in a scorching desert, with emaciated men and women around me being roasted on the skewers! I shrug off these dreams when I wake up, but not everyone does. The suicide bomber does not shrug off the promise of the virgins that he'd get to enjoy in heaven, if only he murdered the infidels; he embraces it tightly until he's blown into pieces. It's the carrot after death that does the trick here, and not the stick, but where did I read that pleasure and pain were mediated by the same part of the brain?

Let me share with you a personal story. My daughter was then nine or ten. Ignoring my wife's protests, I let her watch with us the movie, The Changeling. The film portrays all kinds of very scary/ghostly situations that a music professor encounters, when he moves into a house haunted by a murdered kid. My daughter was, by then, well aware of my views on life after death — that there's none. I had assumed, therefore, that she was quite capable of separating facts from fiction. That the pale and ghastly looking kid emerging through the closet door was not real, but only a figment of the film director's imagination, acted out by a kid who is quite alive and well. I was wrong, and to date, I feel guilty for not listening to my wife.

My daughter is today a fine young lady, a Caltech graduate, and a skeptic-agnostic, who assigns near zero probability to the existence of any supernatural god or ghost. By the time she saw the Changeling, she had already seen the Star Wars, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Jabba the Hut, the evil witch, and the alien abductors do not seem to have had any lasting, unpleasant, impact on her. An avid reader of science fiction, Tolkien, and even Anne Rice, she quite enjoys watching the A.I., the Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter series. She's very uncomfortable, though, about certain horror movies, and would rather not watch the Poltergeist, the Shining, or even the Sixth Sense. It cannot be just the fear of imaginary creatures tumbling out of the closet or from under her bed. There must be something else at work here.

I have puzzled over this at length. I am not a neural scientist or a child psychiatrist, and I have, after all, a sample of one. With that caveat in place, my conjecture is this: the ghost — in this case, the ghost of a child close to her age when she saw the movie — evokes the fear of death and after-life, and this fear has the capacity to linger well into adulthood. It's next only to hell as a fearsome tool in the hands of the religious. Demons, ghosts, and hell are designed to instill a primal fear deep in a young child's mind. Not withstanding whatever her developing reason may say against, the child picks up this fear from a number of adults in her life, not just her parents. Adults, whom she respects and trusts. Once etched into her brain, this primal fear seems to have a very durable plasticity, not easily erased by the facts and the theories that she may subsequently receive from her Biology and Physics professors.

I cannot say how or why this fear of bogeymen works its way into the adult life of some and not others, but it does. I guess, we don't know enough about the brain, or the role that the interaction between emotion and reason plays in its development, to call it with any certainty. Not yet. In the meantime, however, there is no reason why we should allow any child's mind to be burdened by the fear of gods, ghosts, and other bogeymen. I believe that this is what Dawkins means, when he says that religious indoctrination is child abuse, and it should be resisted in any way we can.

I am all for inculcating a spirit of inquiry and an open mind, but not so open as to allow these mostly untenable and fear-mongering stuff from the Bible, the Koran, or the Manu Smriti to crash into it. We'll be risking too much of the child's development if we did. As I have advocated elsewhere, responsible parenting is to let prevail the rule of reason, and not the rule that anything and everything goes.

  1. TRF,
    I can't really relate to any unearthly stuff, so I can't gauge the depth of the fear your daughter felt. But I appreciate the essential intelligence of your contention.
    Religious indictrination as child abuse is a very powerful concept. You should have made it the title of your post.
    Great post.

  2. This resonates with me. I had done a post about this not too long ago.


  3. Due to formatting problems, I deleted the following comment [edited the link to commenter's post]:

    Shefaly Yogendra said...

    Hi. I stopped here to leave a comment but it became too long so it is now a post on my other blog. Hopefully the pingback works else the link is:
    A chain of posts, parenting, religion and a child’s perspective

  4. I thought you analysis of your daughter's reactions was right, but don't blame yourself. We all do what we think is the best for our kids and I think you have done a great job overall from your description of how she thinks. :)
    About the religion thing, I feel that one needs to be honest with one's kids, which is in a way what you are saying I think.
    If my daughters had ever asked me do I believe God exists (they never did)I would have said no.
    At the same time if my daughter had told me that she believed in God, I would have definitely asked her why and tried to give her counter arguments. Because if I had said uh okay, then I would not be asking her to question herself.
    Its important to question everything.
    At the same time if she had insisted on praying to God, I would never ever have stopped her, or mocked her.
    In fact my kids have been exposed to religion at my parents house but they have (I guess) seen the way I approached the whole thing...I usually humour my parents and make sarcastic remarks off and on.

  5. This is a great post! Fear is a physiological reaction that has been a necessary evil in our evolution. I believe instilling fear in children as a means to a religious end is unacceptable. A child would not know fear of hell, for example, without someone teaching that fear.

  6. Darn, another formatting problem with another link. Here's the modified link along with the original comment:

    divs said...

    Apropos of the meme:

    Mom’s religion dominates custody hearing.

    2:56 PM

  7. Religious indoctrination may amount to child abuse in extreme cases but it is a blessing that most people do not actively practise any religion and their religious affiliation becomes relevant only for such events such as marriage and death.

    We have to get rid of the idea that a child inherits the religion of its parents unless otherwise stated and we should not have to fill the column for religion in any form be it birth certificate or school admission. I think in most cases our religion becomes relevant only in these forms other than the ceremonies of marriage or death.
    As for threats about this punishing god (the kann kuthing entity) it is such a mockery. Any bright child is going to see through this when in the same breath you are told about an all loving all forgiving divinity. But yes, parents who do this to the child should be put behind bars. But they do so much more too like hitting the child for not getting 100/100 - so which abuse are you going to single out?

    Except in the case of a couple of religions, there has been a dilution of religious fervour over the generations which is good. And I hope that someday in the future religions would be banned. That would be one major disease cured for humanty.

  8. I really liked the way you put your point across. Still new to parenting I haven't introduced any negative associations with religion yet. But I may have done unconsiously later if I hadn't read your post.

  9. I dont think what Harris, Dawkins, and others, say can be imported into the Indian context.

    Threats of 'Kann Kuthing' cannot be compared to sexually ravaging altar boys. The concept of hell is not as well developed in the Hindu religion either.

    As an 'atheist' (many do not want to use that word) parent, it would be irrational and even dishonest to allow ones kids to be able to make a choice. This gives rise to convenient explanations like "I am performing this archana/ annadhanam/ pilgrimage so that my kids get to see both sides".

    To Usha -
    >> I think in most cases our religion becomes relevant only in these forms other than the ceremonies of marriage or death.>>

    I wish it were true. It may be true that being a Hindu means nothing. However, being a Christian gives you exclusive access to medical college seats too. (St Johns Bangalore, CMC Vellore, etc).

    Dawkins/Harris and others are primarily writing for western societies where civil liberties are already well established. Religion could still help you in Boston College, but it is nowhere as relevant as it is here.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  10. I'm an atheist but looking from the other side, I see this problem:
    any parents truly believe in God and religion. Why would they think this is a good idea?

    I think, as Shefaly says, that it is more important to teach them how to be open-minded in their approach and tell them that it is *your* religion they're practising. As with matters of money, etc. you show your kids what you think is best and then, when they're old enough, you let them make their own choices.

    The issue of abuse and fear is less related to religion and more to poor parenting. A parent who frightens their child will do it in the absence of religion.

  11. rambodoc, dotmom, shefali, divs, squiggles mom:

    As I have noted elsewhere, there is a danger of making this into a single issue debate. It is not. Religion is not just about god. Communism or homophobia are religions, too, even if they had nothing to do with gods. I'd like my child to have the capacity to reason against all untenable ideas in religion.

    Yes, the fear of death is the most basic survival instinct in biological evolution. Religions prey on this fear by adding after-life, and then hell, to enforce self-serving rules of governance and control - the Auschwitz and the Gulag of the spiritual world. Btw, thanks for linking to my post at skepticum.com.

    usha, rc, suchi:
    Physical child abuse is punishable by law in most, if not all, civilized countries, and therefore, there is a deterrent in place. Mental abuse is not. A Catholic priest cannot easily run away from law, if he sexually ravaged the altar boys. If he ravaged the minds of the chorus girls with threats of hellish punishment for "living in sin", however, hundreds of thousands of parents and politicians will stand up and cheer! The effects of mental abuse are subliminal, and at least in certain forms, worse than physical abuse.

    Yes, some of what Dawkins, Harris, and I have written, may not apply to several non-Abrahamic religions in India, in particular, Hinduism. Imo, the general thrust of the arguments against child indoctrination holds. Religious fear-mongering is not diluted much, because the concept of hell is not well defined in Hinduism. Hellish consequences here and after, especially for the loved ones, is not any less terrifying, as the example of Deeps' comment on Usha's post on this subject shows. I am perhaps way off the current scene in India, but honestly, how many Hindu women in India will dare walk into their puja room or temple, when they are menstruating, and how many can, if they were wearing a tee shirt that said, "I am menstruating"? Imagine the impact on the little boy who lost his brother in a car accident, if he knew that his brother had married a "mangalik" [a blemished horoscope] or "sagothra" [same lineage] woman, against his family's protestations!


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