Child abuse is awful. This is something virtually everyone agrees on, right? Regardless of our faith or lack thereof, we are all humane people who think that abusing children is morally wrong. In fact, it's more wrong in some ways than abusing adults because children have no way to protect themselves. Children are powerless, vulnerable, and often ignorant of the fact that what's happening to them is wrong.
Having agreed that child abuse is wrong, we can get on with the business of preventing it, right? Well, maybe not. At least, not when the abuse is carried out in the name of a deity. Not when the abuse is protected First Amendment speech. The idea of "religious abuse" lags far behind in the cultural consciousness, largely due to our conditioned avoidance of even the appearance of suppressing free speech or expression. Nevertheless, religious abuse is a real thing, and needs to be talked about, even if it does raise some uncomfortable questions about parents' rights.
We can start with something easy. Parents are free to believe that medicine doesn't work, but if they refuse to provide their children with life-saving medical treatment, they will (hopefully) be prosecuted. We've seen this narrative played out several times in recent years, and most thinking people agree. Depriving children of life saving medical treatment is wrong and abusive. But what if the belief that medicine doesn't work comes from religion? Is it no longer abuse? Hopefully, the answer is clearly no.
Let's ask a harder question. Suppose a social worker heard a parent talking to her child: "Sally, if you don't get in the car right now, your Uncle John is going to burn you with a cigarette lighter when we get home." Under most state laws, the social worker would have to report both the parent and Uncle John to Child Protective Services. Within hours, the family would be investigated, and if past abuse was evident, the child would likely be taken from the home.
Now, suppose a social worker heard the same parent saying, "Sally, if you don't go to church on Sunday and pray like a good girl, God's going to burn you in hell forever." Is the social worker required to report this incident? Of course, you know the answer. She is not. The threat of burning from Uncle John is considered abusive, but the threat of burning from God is not. Why would this be?
Some might suggest that the threat of hell is distant and beyond the control of human authorities. This is true, but misses the point. We are not asking whether God is abusive by burning people in hell. We are asking whether children suffer the effects of abuse if they are told they will burn in hell. Do both the threat of hell and the threat of Uncle John's cigarette lighter cause emotional trauma?
Is it abusive to tell a child she's defective and broken when she is not? If a social worker overheard a parent telling a child she was fat, ugly, and worthless, what might happen? If this kind of emotional abuse was the only abuse occurring, the child would not be taken, but the parent would likely have to attend parenting classes, the child would probably see a therapist, and the family would be monitored until it was clear the parent was no longer engaging in emotional abuse.
What of parents who teach their children that they were born worthless, sinful, and morally bankrupt? Do they receive parenting classes? Of course not. They are often given accolades and held up as models of effective parenting. Telling a child she's fat, ugly and worthless is wrong. Telling her she's worthless, sinful, and morally bankrupt is right.
We could go on with examples, and perhaps in broader dialogues, we should. Before we do that, however, we need to address the likely objections from religious parents. The most obvious will be appeals to both freedom of religion and speech, and parental rights. The government, they will aver, has no right to interfere with their religious beliefs or the raising of their children.
The thing is, that's not true. Not completely true, anyway. The government can, and often has, imposed limits on religious practice, free speech, and parental rights. Most notably, children are protected from abuse. Parents do not have the right to abuse their children. Period. End of story. The question is what constitutes abuse. Here's the federal government's definition.
"Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation"; or "An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm."
What's especially notable is what's not included in this definition, and that's an exemption for sincerely held religious beliefs. The reason ought to be obvious. If a parent practices ritual sexual abuse in the name of Satan, we want the legal authority to bring them to the justice they deserve. In fact, we demand that they are brought to justice. Human sacrifice is a religious practice. Handling poisonous snakes is a religious practice. Female genital mutilation is a religious practice. We can and do reserve every right to prevent parents from abusing children in these ways.
Despite the obvious need for restricting religious parenting rights, most people get very twitchy when we start talking about emotional abuse. We don't have any qualms about protecting children from serious physical harm, death, sexual abuse or exploitation. We're on board that ship. Yet we recoil from the idea of also protecting children from emotional abuse.
Could it be that even though we love our parents, we remember how terrified we were in Bible Camp when the preachers taught us about demon possession, and how watching horror movies would send us to hell? Might we be thinking about how we got married too young to the wrong person to avoid feeling guilty for having sex? Could some of us be suffering from lingering self-loathing because of our sexual orientation? These are all effects of emotional abuse, but maybe we don't want to talk about it because it's hard to call our parents abusers. It's hard to think of all that church, and all the pretty Sunday suits and dresses, and the uplifting music, and all the singing and clapping and think of it as emotionally abusive. Our parents meant well. They did not want to abuse us. They are good people. Not abusers.
Or, more pointedly still, could it be that the Christian doctrine is abusive by its very nature? Could it be that the idea of punishing a little child today for the sins of her ancient relatives is morally bankrupt and damaging to young minds? If we were to allow the possibility that certain religious teachings are intrinsically abusive, would that lead us down a path to banning certain religions?
These are very hard questions, and there are no easy answers. Sadly, at this point in history, our response has been avoidance. Rather than conducting research on the effects of religious indoctrination and teaching, we very carefully sidestep the issue for fear of censure or professional reprisal. Rather than listen to the stories of atheists who have left abusive religious homes, we vilify them and attribute their emotional difficulties to lack of faith in their abusers.
It is past time that people of conscience make the hard choice to speak openly about religious emotional abuse, and to do the research that will give us more concrete answers. Do we really have the moral high ground to criticize the Pope for allowing child abuse on his watch when we refuse to ask religious parents to justify behaviors that strongly resemble emotional abuse? Perhaps we can justify ourselves by saying that emotional abuse isn't as bad as sexual abuse. Perhaps we just don't understand some nuanced difference between religious parenting and non-religious parenting. But even if these rationalizations let us sleep a little better, there's still going to be the gnawing question: By avoiding the issue, are we looking out for children or ourselves?