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Religion and Child Abuse

June 27, 2008 particular professor at my school, the type who would embrace the “militant atheist” label, steadfastly describes religion plus children as equallying child abuse. He points to cases of Jehovah’s Witness kids dying because they (or their parents) don’t allow blood products, Christian Science kids dying because their parents opt to pray them better instead of taking them to a doctor, young boys being molested by priests who can’t turn off their sexual drives no matter what God wants. He also points to the smaller things: the damage done to a young mind by parents who insist that it is good and right to hate homosexuals, who teach that science is the devil’s work and the world was intelligently created, who inflict the mental trauma and anguish of constant guilt and fear of fire and brimstone.

I don’t feel comfortable going as far as to claim that religion as a whole is child abuse, but I have seen particular manifestations that sure would qualify. I know others will say that these people would probably be bad parents regardless of religion, but I don’t know. I mean, if you don’t have the belief that god would rather have your child die than get a blood transfusion, what the hell would stop you? Seems that some bad acts really only have religious motivations.

Other things, well, as much as I hate that religious people will tell their kids that I am not even human, I kind of have this strange feeling that they ought to be allowed to. As much as I think it is wrong to hate gays, to disbelieve in evolution, to have strongly prescribed gender roles, who am I to dictate other’s values? I’m not quite a moral relativist, but I wear the uniform occasionally.

My partner, AB, is working this summer for an agricultural company. She is leading a team of twenty Mexican Mennonites and hand-weeding various canola fields. Her crew is comprised of girls and women, aged 14 to 40-something, and a few 14 year old boys who are too young to work with their dads yet. AB has a lot of fun with her crew, most of them are friendly, chatty, and good workers. The exception of course is the 14 year old boys, who, when AB talks, look at her as if she is some sort of disgusting effluvia they found on the street, but when her male co-lead talks, jump. These boys are rude to her, refuse to work, will not follow orders, sneak around, and generally act like jerks. For the male lead, though? They do whatever they can to impress him. I know, part of this is just that 14 year old boys are jerks, but a lot of it is that they have never really had to obey a woman before. No, really.

AB was asking the girls about their chores, and they all responded that on top of this job (for which their family gets at least $90 of her earnings), they have to go home, weed their family patch, cook, clean, do their brother’s laundry, and clean their brother’s rooms. Clean their brother’s rooms? Oh yeah, even their older brothers. If they are lucky, they only have a few brothers but since these families tend to have ten kids….

One of the girls asked AB if she is married. AB had decided earlier not to come out to her crew – she’ll never see them after this job and she’ll never change their mind about gay anyway. AB answered that yes, she was married. “For how long?” Nine years. “How many kids?” None.


None. girl asked AB how old she was, and explained that by the time her mom was 27, she had six kids already. AB asked how many kids the girl wanted and it was like her personality turned off and a script-reading-robot turned on. “As many as the Lord will give me.” Then she went back to roguing, singing a song with the rest of the crew, a song that had a lyric (I kid you not) that said something like “We don’t believe in evolution, creation is the only truth.”

It was like all the kids had their own shiny personalities one-on-one, but that could turn off at any moment and they would turn into script-robots. Ew! Boys! I hate cleaning my brother’s room! *beep* *whirr* But a woman’s role is to be submissive to men *beep.* Babies are noisy and smelly! *clink* *boop* *beep* But my only purpose is pump out offspring until my body gives out *whirr*

I am trying to be a cultural relativist, here. They must get a great satisfaction from their religious lives, and their strict gender roles are part of those religious lives. Still, I can’t help but think that these girls are being suppressed and erased by the uniform and unchanging demands put on them. They have no chance to be or do anything else. They have no opportunity to develop interests, hobbies, selves. They’re just squashed by religion and culture, but culture that would have no reason to make these demands if not for religion.

Goth f222791.jpgThese exchanges were enough for my partner to change her mind, to fully identify with the “religion is child abuse” side of the argument. She describes these kids as brainwashed. I want to agree, but my inner sociologist keeps coming out, saying “they are no worse than you, just different. The concept of the self is a relatively new one anyways, developed only recently in certain areas. It’s not a universal requirement for being human. And their religion is important to them, they get a sense of security and maybe even happiness from being a part of that, and a part of their culture.” Another part of me just feels so sad for all these girls, relegated to anonymous slavery and perpetual child-bearing, in the name of someone’s imaginary friend. The boys too, as privileged and arrogant as they are, only get to remain so if they fit into a pretty small definition of masculinity. Woe on the gay Mennonite, on the artist, on the musician, on the mechanically-inclined girl or the culinary-talented boy.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dr. Jim permalink
    June 27, 2008 9:58 am

    Another excellent post! One thought that I had while reading it was the old “chicken vs. egg” conundrum. Is their religion to blame for their gender constructs, “child abuse” etc., or is the religion shaped by other social or cultural factors?

    Certainly, their religion reinforces and transmits those values, but a religionless world would not not be free from these attitudes and ideas. I think sometimes some atheists go a bit over the top in blaming religion (and solely religion) for society’s ills without understanding the interconnectedness of all spheres of human life.

    Again, thanks for a thought provoking post and for wrestling with these issues out loud.


  2. i.p. permalink
    June 27, 2008 1:18 pm

    Thank you, Natasha, for a very deep post. It was moving.

    But on to the point.

    Moral relativism is a very dangerous path to take, and hopefully this will strengthen you in your convictions:

    By what means are these precepts enforced?

    What happens if a wife says to her husband: “I think that three children are enough. I will not be having more.”

    What happens if a teenager says to his father: “Dad, I’m gay.”

    No doubt you see where this is heading…

    Violence and social exclusion.

    Those are the ways in which the value system you post about is enforced: initiation of violence against the dissenter. To make matters worse, the violence is not frowned upon by the society… quite the opposite.

    The abuse that religious parents target their children with isn’t that they teach irrational values, but that they enforce these values with violence. That is the crime.

    To Dr. Jim:

    In this context, it does not matter whether these same values do or do not exist without religion. They are in this instance defended and enforced on religious grounds. Therefore they are caused by the religion. To combat them, the religious root must be combatted.

    It may be possible that repression of women could be defended on non-religious grounds (has it ever been done? hopefully not), but that has nothing to do with the fact that in this case it is directly the religious belief that causes the repression.

  3. That Guy permalink
    July 3, 2008 11:38 pm

    I am very much religious myself. Christian specifically. I believe in Christ strongly and unshakingly. I’ve heard enough arguements to suggest that homosexuality may not be thouroughly condemned by God in the Bible presented by steadfast but gay christians who have laboriously learned the original language that I do not believe it to be a key issue. As for the child abuse and women’s rights issues, I do not believe that the God who encouraged patience and love and faith like a child thinks that anyone has the right to make children suffer, nor that that same God who saw Deborah as a worthy judge of Israel and military leader thinks women should be weak and will-less.

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