If Christianity were verified to be true, I think we would be likely to see a concerted effort on the part of all responsible stewards of that truth not to teach their children about hell until after some age of accountability because they would be likely to see it as unduly abusive to a child's mental well-being to do otherwise.At the end of that post, I went on to write the following paragraph, which some Christian interlocutors to and with whom I was not talking have decided to rake me over the coals (of hell) for on the account of being uncareful with how I said it (and, to be frank, because I have apparently touched a nerve of theirs about evidence-based claims-making).
And note that this isn't typically what we see. (1) Among those Christians who believe that Hell is a reality, there is a perceived ethical imperative in the other direction--to teach children about Hell before they can handle the idea. (2) That suggests that the Christian ethic places a higher value on securing the belief than on the mental well-being of the child--something that would be unlikely to be the case if Christianity were true. (3) This suggests something sinister and abusive about the practice of teaching Hell to children, even if abuse is not the intended effect of the ones doing the teaching. (numbers added, emphasis original)A commenter requested that I back up the numbered statements with evidence before I am qualified to make them, but he did so in a way that was sufficiently unclear that I thought he was talking about wanting evidence that it is common that children are first taught about hell at a very young age (easily argued to be too young). As I assumed--to my error--that the commenter was attempting to troll me instead of asking a valid question, I treated him in that way and paid a price (one shouldn't feed the trolls even when they're not trolling).
Somewhat in my defense
Observe a couple of points before I proceed. First, notice that regarding (2), adding in the word "could" at the beginning, "That could suggest...," would cause the contention against that statement to evaporate. From that change, adding a qualifier of less than certainty to it, (3) follows from (2). My point with the post was to speculate in a particular direction, not to make a definitive statement about the state of the world. I should be more careful with my wording, then. Noted.
On (1), I have a very hard time explaining the fact that children frequently are taught about hell very early on (in the Pentecostal tradition, in which I was quasi-involved for a time, the proper time to teach children about hell is, effectively, as early as possible). I, and my commenter, and most people I found talking about it on the Internet when I searched, along with every friend I asked, all learned about hell before memory. The oldest ages I was finding in my search were around eight years old for first learning about hell (readers are encouraged to search for themselves for information on when it is appropriate to teach children about hell).
My (Christian) commenter indicated that he believes that no child should be taught anything (I'll add a qualifier of "except at great need" to be charitable to him) before an age that they are able to handle it. If his view is typical among Christians, then we have three possibilities to consider. Either (a) there is an assumption that children are ready to learn about hell at a time that may be too early (research is therefore indicated), (b) too-young children are learning about hell incidentally (at church, maybe?) with parents playing cleanup on this problem, or (c) there is a perception of great need to teach children about hell at an age that may be too early, one that seems most likely to be justified via the religious ethic.
In case (a) there is a problem--this assumption needs to be clarified and, if warranted, corrected. It remains to be determined, and very likely needs to be determined, at what age (read: maturity level) first introducing an idea like hell is appropriate. In case (b) there is a problem that is very difficult to nail down but that also may imply that teaching slightly older children about hell, with them unable to understand why they shouldn't teach younger siblings, friends, and other children about it, may be inappropriate as well. In (c) there is the problem that I indicated, which essentially points out that the religious ethic values belief more highly than well-being, which I'm not sure can even be considered controversial since the religious ethic considers belief to be a necessary part of well-being.
Ultimately, though, most of this is away from my point--hence a fair amount of my aggravation. My point was to raise the question of why it isn't a universal (or even more common) ethical standard to withhold religious teachings like the doctrine of hell until after an appropriate maturity level is reached. Indeed, my post would have done fine without that paragraph at all, and were I less committed to honesty, I'd have deleted it or changed the wording, made a short note of that, and deleted all of the ugly comments, which I have left there partly to my own indictment.
I should also note that I found that as time wears on, with it both that fewer and fewer Americans believe hell is real (~60-65% of Christians, I believe, is the statistic) and that a more informed ethic is reaching a wider audience, we are hearing a louder call to this question from more sides, including many Christians, apparently. That, at least, is good news, though often it seems the answer given is in the 5-8 years range, which I suspect is far too young.
An important aside
To make a poignant aside, though, since it came up. To quote my commenter,
I am willing to state that no child should be exposed to anything at all for which they have not reached an appropriate level of mental and emotional maturity. That's easy.In that case, one must wonder if he is admitting that no child should be taught about Christianity, or at least that it is the truth. Somehow I suspect not, hence my extension of "except at great need" clause to be charitable to his view. Although observe that this case implies that there is an ethical imperative in the religious ethic to secure belief before an appropriate age for evaluating something so substantial as a religion has been reached.
(NB: Catholics have two coming-of-age rites. The first is First Communion, and it is at roughly 8 years old. That time is considered to be the earliest time at which a child is likely to be able to recognize the significance of the Eucharist. This is telling concerning age-appropriateness of religious articles. The second is Confirmation, at 12-13 years old. It is when a child is first considered mature enough to make the decision for herself about whether or not she will accept the religion, so using that as a guide, we could say that the Catholics, at least, feel that 12-13 is an appropriate minimum age at which a person is mentally and emotionally mature enough to evaluate a faith and 8 years old is a minimum age at which a person is able to make sense of religious articles at all. By the comment, no person should be taught to accept a religion as true before age 12-13 and should not even be introduced to religious articles taught as truth before age 8. That is easy.)
Doing my homework
I take these things very seriously, not least the requirement that our claims to knowledge are based to the best degree possible on evidence. I also readily admit to being willing to change my mind when shown to be wrong. Thus, I spent a long time last night reading comments about my alleged dishonesty betwixt taking the time to hunt down and investigate what research has been done in this direction. Unsurprisingly, very little has been. Of course, my post from yesterday was actually intended to be part of the growing call for that research to be done--something I should have stated more plainly--but it has been dragged off that point by a combination of factors that do not least include my own misjudgment.
Finding gold in the coals
What I want to share in this post, then, is the fruit of that investigation, which is the work of Dr. Marlene Winell, author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Formal Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. Dr. Winell has spoken about what she is calling Religious Trauma Syndrome at psychological professional conferences as well as at atheist/freethought conventions. Should Religious Trauma Syndrome clear the hurdle of official recognition based on her growing body of cases, a door may very well be opened into conducting the kind of research that so sorely needs to be done.
About Religious Trauma Syndome, Winell has written about the cycle of abuse that effectively drives it,
The doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it.The cocoon
You must conform to a mental test of “believing” in an external, unseen source for salvation, and maintain this state of belief until death. You cannot ever stop sinning altogether, so you must continue to confess and be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite complete lack of feedback about whether you will actually make it to heaven.
Salvation is not a free gift after all.
For the sincere believer, this results in an unending cycle of shame and relief. It is a cycle of abuse.
She also describes the phenomenon as being like a cocoon (See Leaving the Fold, Ch. 2). Within the cocoon, which is to say with one's religious beliefs intact and unchallenged, the trauma is far less apparent or fails to manifest clearly, but one also cannot move out of that cocoon without experiencing it. This, incidentally, would create an additional psychological pressure to maintaining one's beliefs if her observations are borne out.
This seems to accord with an observation that I have had--but have no empirical evidence for--that among formerly believing atheists, a sense of psychological damage from their religion, especially from patterns taught in early childhood (fear, guilt, and shame being the most common, though there are others), is extremely common, and yet from still believing religious people, it seems nonobvious.
Until now, I had assumed that the most likely explanation for this phenomenon was the rationalization of the harm on the part of the religious, and that may be a part of it. I now suspect more strongly, though, that they may actually be blind to it since the beliefs themselves insulate them from experiencing much of it overtly. Note that this is not really something that could be considered a protective effect of religious belief.
A most useful term that Winell employs to describe at least some of the mechanism leading to Religious Trauma Syndrome is "phobia indoctrination." This seems to be a very apt term for religiously inculcated ideas that are likely to induce fear that prevents rebellion, doubt, or apostasy. The problem, of course, is that we do not consider phobias to be a healthy state of mind, and we do not consider indoctrination to be a healthy way to convey information. And yet, Winell points out that teaching these kinds of articles to children unable to process them and too likely to trust them seems to meet the criteria for both of these terms.
Aside: It strikes me as relatively obvious that if the religious articles are not true, and we can be quite confident that they are not, then fears of these religious articles are irrational by their very nature. Of course, there is a huge body of philosophical literature debating whether or not holding false beliefs, if religious, constitutes being irrational, and I'm not interested in getting into that debate, one I personally feel concedes more than we can justify to the religious position (which lacks epistemic soundness).
When I first found this term, I became very hopeful that a body of literature surrounding it would be easily found, perhaps regarding cults who also use the technique (though more often on vulnerable young adults and adults than on children). Some effort has been made in that direction using the term, but I suspect the term itself is new (and perhaps due to Winell herself) and has not found its way into the literature yet. (Much of what can be easily found on that term talks about cults and Mormonism, with a few asides into Scientology.) Since the study of cults has a rather thorough body of literature behind it, I would not be surprised to find a similar phenomenon under a different name in that literature, but I have not had time to look into that yet.
Though not all religion is likely to be passed on in this way, I feel like it is plausible that a great deal of it is. I was raised Catholic by not terribly seriously religious parents. It would therefore be far from the mark to consider my indoctrination into religion severe. (I tried to inflict a more severe indoctrination upon myself a few times while of college age for what I recognize now to be primarily social reasons, but it didn't take very deeply.) And yet even with this very moderately religious upbringing, I suffered a regular struggle with the fear of hell, among other modest issues, for thirteen years after walking away from Christianity, and I'm not sure I'll ever be totally rid of it. To call this a "phobia indoctrination," which must have been very passive if it was one in my case, hits the mark very closely for my experience as I now understand it.
On that last point, my biggest objection to Dr. Winell's work, though I think I understand it, is the focus on fundamentalism instead of religion more broadly. Fundamentalism, I do not deny, is the most severe and damaging form, and Religious Trauma Syndrome is likely to be most prevalent and most severe in those cases (Winell notes patients and contacts who are unable to function in day-to-day life because their Religious Trauma Syndrome is so severe, and attempted and successful suicides are not unheard of).
I do think, however, that in typically lesser degrees, it is far more prevalent, extending in fair likelihood to many, if not most, if not all, believers. Perhaps it is only visible when something shakes them, even slightly, from their belief cocoon (judging by my experiences with hundreds or thousands of formerly religious atheists but not empirical data). In that regard, I hope via fundamentalism that Winell can get a toehold for Religious Trauma Syndrome that then leads to a much broader investigation. This needs more attention than it gets.
A call to compassion
If Winell is correct about her assessment of the "safe cocoon" provided by beliefs, then there is a major call to compassion here for those of us who are strident against faith. The religious, particularly the deeply religious, are trapped in their beliefs--which, being untrue, are likely to create cognitive dissonance in addition to other issues (see Winell)--by potentially serious psychological consequences connected to moving away from those beliefs, sometimes even slightly. In working with believers, then, especially in the effort of disabusing them of their belief systems, we must be compassionate to this psychological state of affairs.
We are in a position where the world may depend upon breaking the spell of religious belief, and it seems likely that doing so will entail a major need for compassionate psychological care for many as it happens. On a case-by-case basis, we must also recognize the psychological trauma that has to be dealt with as people leave their faiths. Supporting these endeavors to shine the light of psychological research on problems of this sort, then, is likely to be of high value, so I encourage readers to research them for themselves and make decisions that seem fitting.
It is worth noting here that, though empirical studies have not been done on this matter for whatever reasons, the body of observations of Winell in her professional work (which is connected to but not exclusive to the psychology of religious harm) leads her to conclude with confidence that teaching children these kinds of religious articles constitutes a form of child abuse. That isn't to say that she's guaranteed to be right without some kind of empirical study to strongly back her up, but it is more than enough to be strongly suggestive.
These matters deserve research so that they do not have to depend on speculation and a growing body of strongly suggestive cases. Connected to that directly, the people who suffer in these ways deserve the dignity of having the matter treated with seriousness--not dismissiveness and obfuscation--until and after the research bears on the matter.