Stealing Our Children’s Futures: The Evils of Childhood Religious Indoctrination

Note: This was originally posted at Freethinking For Dummies.

A while back, Surly Amy had a post on giving advice to a reader who was working on a project in an education class. The issue is that the class is reviewing a proposal for an educational rights amendment, which included the notion that children have the right to be indoctrinated into a religion in public schools. The reader express outrage that everyone except them is in favor of this proposal. Amy, as usual, gives some good advice. I highly encourage you to read the post.

There has been an ongoing debate about the harm of the religious indoctrination of children by their parents and other adults such as teachers and pastors. There are plenty of stories, admittedly all anecdotal, of young adults filled with anger at the people who indoctrinated them and caused them to have a very difficult time adjusting to the real world outside of their given faith community. They have problems with depression, socializing, and navigating a alien culture, even though they were born and raised right here in the United States.

It seems to be almost natural that parents should be able to raise their children in their own faith. The question becomes when does indoctrination into their parent’s beliefs become abuse?

There are the obvious answers such as when the parents’ religious beliefs compel them to physically or sexually abuse their children, but what about mental abuse?

My personal opinion is that if a child is living in fear due to things their parents do or say, for whatever reason, this constitutes abuse. I am not talking about an occasional spanking or threat of punishment. I’m talking about a child living in constant fear of physical harm. I think most people would agree that if a parent is always threatening to beat a child in order to get them to behave as they want them to, this would be abuse. So how is this different from the constant threat of burning and torture in hell that many religious parents threaten their children with on a continuous basis? “Don’t do that, or God will send you to hell!”, “You listen to your mother or God will punish you!”, “Be nice to your brother, God is watching you!”

Unlike the parents who threaten direct, physical harm to their children, religious parents who threaten their children with God’s terrible wrath are never questioned. What police office would ever think to arrest a parent who threatened their child with the torment of hell? How many prosecutors would consider charging “good Christian” parents will child abuse for telling their children, day-in and day-out, that they are sinners and are going to hell?

The fact is, Christians get a free ride in this country when it comes to child rearing (and most everything else). They can threaten their children with the most horrible, terrifying tales of burning flesh, and being ripped apart limb by limb and no one thinks that there is anything wrong with this. These visions of hell are very real in the mind of an impressionable child, as is the terror they create. Sure, some people might go as far as to call these parents “strict’ but the fact is their actions toward their children is abuse, plain and simple.

The big question is what can we do about this? There is no easy answer, but I think that education is key. I’m talking about creating a safe, accepting, secular environment in our public schools. I’m talking about keeping religion out of politics and our public institutions. This means we, as non-believers, as well as anyone else who believes in religious freedom and the separation of church and state, let our politicians know that we don’t want religion in the public spaces. We need to let them know that we value reason and science as a guide for public policy. As more people, especially young people are exposed to reason and science, the less tolerant society will become as a whole of superstitious beliefs. It may take a generation, but it can happen. It will take all of us speaking out and supporting those organizations that are fighting for reason, science and separation of church and state to make a difference.

Featured image by KayVee.INC


Jay is a dad, husband, and pet lover. He has a degree in Theater Arts and works as a Unix systems administrator, mainly because he has a degree in Theater Arts. He used to be a single dad, but now he is married to the perfect woman. He has two teenagers, a daughter, and a step-son. He also has an adult son. He shares his home with his wife, kids, an Australian Shepherd, and a bevy of adorable chihuahuas. He is a skeptic and humanist and tries to contribute to spreading rationality by writing about skeptical topics. You can find samples of his writing on his personal blog at Freethinking For Dummies, the JREF blog, and in Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

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  1. I think this is a low priority to the point of being a non-issue. What you are talking about is essentially verbal abuse. I won’t deny that verbal abuse of children in the form of threats does a certain amount of harm. But parents don’t lose their kids or get fined for verbal abuse all by itself. For 5 years I worked alongside social workers through anti-truancy programs in Philadelphia, and I got to see what kinds of child abuse were reported, and the consequences. So many kids in this country are already suffering regular physical and sexual abuse, witnessing violent crime in the homes, witnessing serious other criminal activities in their homes, and subject to much more severe verbal abuse than how most kids take the threat of hell (while hell scares many kids, to most being raised in that worldview they think of it as a mostly abstract thing that happens to other people. Not them, because after all, they are believers.) Legal intervention when there is abuse is a difficult thing to manage since most forms of intervention include at least some harmful consequences, so those have to be weighed against the amount of harm being done by the parents or guardians. This article seems to me to be a rather shallow touching on an incredibly serious and complex set of issues.

    1. While I have to agree that verbal abuse is not as big of an issue as physical/sexual abuse that is not the point I took away from Jay’s post.

      The point I took, is that this is verbal abuse, not lesson or moral teaching, and that it should be treated as such. It certainly would be unacceptable to tell a child that a stranger is watching them at all times. If they disobey the wishes of this stranger they will be abused and harmed forever.

  2. I have to disagree with you here, Martha. Is it possible that you don’t know anyone who is seriously religious? I don’t see how you could call what is done to (some) of the children in these families a “non-issue” otherwise.

    I teach in the pit of the Bible Belt. I’ve had more than one student who has escaped the grip of fundamentalist religion. The damage they have to recover from is not a non-issue. Maybe google “No Longer Quivering” if you want to see some specifics?

    No, this is not a crime. I didn’t see Jay asking for it to be a crime, though. He spoke of the desire to educate people — specifically, I assume, parents — so that they might see the harm in raising children this way.

  3. I agree that child abuse is an incredibly serious and complex set of issues, but just because this particular issue doesn’t rise to the level of physical or sexual abuse doesn’t mean it isn’t important or that children aren’t seriously affected by it. You are engaging here in the same sort of thing Richard Dawkins did with the whole Elovatorgate thing. Just because an issue isn’t as horrific or terrible as another related one doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be paid attention to. There are all levels of issues and more than enough people who care about them to do them all justice. We need to raise awareness about ALL of the issues that negatively affect our children, not just the most prevalent or egregious.

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