Friday, January 4, 2013

Mental abuse and religions like Christianity

Richard Dawkins is in the news again for saying something controversial. His statement, of course, as is often the case, is controversial only by virtue of an unwillingness on the parts of his opponents to look at the evidence. In this case, Dawkins is under fire for suggesting that teaching children to fear hell in order to secure their attachment to a particular religion is a severe form of child abuse, one that may actually outstrip "real" forms of child abuse--including some physical and sexual abuse--in terms of consequent damage, here emotional and psychological.

The original statement appears in Dawkins's The God Delusion, published in 2006, and he hasn't changed his stance except perhaps to strengthen it since. In the book, Dawkins writes on p. 356:
Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.
He goes on to cite a letter he received later, which reminded him of this remark (which he calls "off-the-cuff made in the heat of the moment"). An American woman sent a letter indicating that she had been sexually abused by her priest at the age of seven, which is the same age a friend of hers died--a Protestant friend who, the woman was taught, was sent to hell for doing Christianity wrong. On p. 357, Dawkins quotes the woman, saying,
Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a 7 year old) as 'yucky' while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost any 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 qualifies this (p. 357 still), taking the usual measured manner of an academic, with
Admittedly, the sexual fondling she suffered in the priest's car was relatively mild compared with, say, the pain and disgust of a sodomized altar boy. And nowadays, the Catholic Church is said not to make so much of hell as it once did. But the example shows that it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical.
For another nine pages, Dawkins provides examples sent to him that substantiate that the religiously inculcated fear of hell alone may be the cause of more suffering, and thus more substantive abuse, than many examples of physical and sexual abuse. He notes how this fear of hell, manufactured as it is, causes social forces that create additional psychologically abusive features as well, mentioning Dan Barker's Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists as an example of a preacher who had lost his faith and yet was socially penned into having to continue to lead his congregation, faking it until it became too much to continue.

That was in 2006, though, and now we're in 2013, so why is this a hot topic? The Daily MFail. Always imminently relevant, the headline-trolling news outlet (something of FOX's British little brother) managed to get around to reading The God Delusion sometime in the last few months, it appears, and made a fuss about this eleven-page section of the book (rather in a "where can I get a toehold?" way). Of course, the Daily Mail, leach that it is, is unlikely to be the real center of this media shitstorm, and it remarks openly that Al Jazeera is the real source for this renewed overblowing of commentary, so perhaps it is interviewer Medhi Hasan who we can thank for being such a cantankerous Johnny-come-lately to Professor Dawkins's work.

[Incidentally, the Daily Mail seems to have something of a track record for attacking Dawkins by overblowing the scope of controversial, though measured and careful, statements he makes. Recall last February when the media outlet tried to publicly lash "Career atheist" Dawkins for actually being "agnostic." It's a shame he hadn't read my book by then, as I've commented previously; I really think Professor Dawkins should read God Doesn't; We Do, particularly chapter five.]

This entire media-spun debacle has gotten quite a bit of attention since the Daily Mail and Al Jazeera decided to dredge it up, prompting responses from across the board. Richard Dawkins's Foundation for Reason and Science has responded more than once: "Physical versus mental child abuse" (by Richard Dawkins himself) and "Child sex abuse and Richard Dawkins: An unusual perspective on giving voice to the trauma of 'immeasurable fear' of millions of children" (by Sean Faircloth, the RDFRS director of strategy and policy and author of Attack of the Theocrats!).

The "Friendly Atheist" Hemant Mehta (author of I Sold My Soul on eBay and The Young Atheist's Survival Guide) has also weighed in on his blog on Patheos, "Is believing in hell more traumatic than being physically abused?" I mention Mehta's response for two reasons. One, I really like how he sticks it to the Daily Mail:
Instead of doing that, though, the Daily Mail unhelpfully summarized Dawkins’ argument this way:
Raising your children as Roman Catholics is worse than child abuse, according to militant atheist Richard Dawkins.
Wow. That’s not what he said at all. (And the “militant” bit was just unnecessary. It suggests aggression or violence, and neither word applies to Dawkins.)
And two, he goes on to quote Miranda Celeste Hale, who was raised Catholic and agrees with Dawkins (incidentally, I was also raised Catholic and also agree with Dawkins, but I very much like the words from her blog and would thus rather quote her than ramble about my own thoughts).
Although I left Catholicism fifteen years ago, on occasion I still catch myself wondering what I need to do in order to rid myself of the guilt, shame, and feeling of dirtiness that, in one form or another, is almost always my companion. I sometimes find myself feeling frustrated: why, I wonder, can’t someone just tell me what penance to do? I obviously no longer think in terms of sin or feel the need to go to the confessional, but the desire for absolution remains, like an itch that cannot be scratched.
Who can deny that this is a form of child abuse? The mere act of writing this is making my hands shake and my stomach churn with anxiety. Fifteen years ago, I made the choice to leave Catholicism, something that, among the family and community I grew up in, just isn’t done. This choice was, without a doubt, the best and most liberating choice that I have ever made. However, I do not have a choice when it comes to the ever-present guilt, shame, and anxiety that resulted from my childhood religious indoctrination, and which, to varying degrees of intensity, will always be with me.
The rest of Hemant's post is well worth reading as well, but this is getting epically long without getting to my point.

I would like to take this point about hell, which is getting all of the focus due to the immense fear it can (and does) induce, and I would like to raise it a notch by pointing to another facet of being raised religiously (not just in the Catholic tradition) in the Christianities (although this applies also to Islam, at least equally).

It strikes me as being simultaneously very pernicious and very damaging to live one's life in a state of believing that some external entity knows all of your thoughts--and, of course, is judging you for them. While much of the attention of the religious upbringing has been on the fears (and outright terrors) induced by believing in hell, there's an awful lot of paranoia, guilt, and shame attached to having your very innermost thoughts observed by any outsider, particularly a judgmental one.

The problem latent in this situation is supported, in party, simply by referencing something of a stereotype, caricature of reality that it may be. Almost entirely from the outside and largely from within, Catholicism is considered synonymous with guilt. Many forms of Protestantism, however much they lift up and glorify God and try to be positive, are centered upon shame. In general, we need only look at the American Religious Right to get a sense of the paranoia that runs rampant in strongly religious veins.

Being raised religiously, then, contains being raised tormented by fears with no basis in reality while being trod upon by guilt and shame that have sources also lacking real foundations, all of this negativity being reinforced by a pervasive, inescapable paranoia that stretches considerably beyond Orwell's most fantastic nightmare dystopias. Whatever it brings with it, it carries these horrible artifacts in tote.

So while the fear of hell may be a primary form of religious mental abuse, teaching our children that some all-powerful (and judgmental) force in the universe knows everything they do, good or bad, including their very thoughts, must come in a close second. Not far behind that would be the teaching that without God (and religion), life can have no purpose, which sets the stages for major depression in anyone who decides to forgo the fantasy for reality and thus leave the fold.

To wit on this last point, consider this recent post on John W. Loftus's (author of several books, including Why I Became an Atheist, The End of Christianity, and the upcoming The Outsider Test for Faith)  blog Debunking Christianity, where he responds to a letter sent by a Christian who is losing his faith. The author of the letter to Loftus identifies himself as "scared and burnt out" and includes in his letter (alongside a fear of hell), "My question to you however is how does one live at peace or in tranquility without a God? What meaning does life have?" Clearly, there is mental trauma involved in the idea that one can only have meaning and peace in life if one accepts the premise of God--a premise that has absolutely no evidence to support it.

So, I agree with Dawkins, able to draw from testimonials received from real friends that I know and even some personal experiences--the fear of hell is not something to be fooled around with, and it is at least highly plausible that the mental abuse caused by teaching children about hell, particularly when done vividly, may outstrip many other forms of child abuse, including physical and sexual assaults in some cases. I go  further and point to even more cases where a religious upbringing can be very psychologically and emotionally damaging as well, including the idea that your every action and very thoughts are being monitored (and judged) and the dogma that there is no meaning or happiness possible in a godless life.


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