Oct 11 2007

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Fear, Religion and Child Abuse; Searching Beyond Rhetoric

I’ve been following a few recent posts on the not-so recent topic raised by Dawkins in 2006 regarding religion teachings being mentally abusive to children. The Rational Fool writes a very thoughtful post with a focus specifically on the issue of inducing fear in children and Mahendra of An Unquiet Mind gives the perspective of one raised in a Hindu family.

I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, however, the perspective that these two posts brought to me is worth exploring–it’s worth exploring the concept of fear in religious education, the implications of family, society and tradition.

Dawkin’s main example of mental abuse in children is the fear-inducing teachings of hell. He says, “the threat of eternal hell is an extreme example of mental abuse, just as violent sodomy is an extreme example of physical abuse.”

The Rational Fool tells a powerful story of his experience growing up under religious-induced fear:

Born into a religious Hindu family, I still remember how the adults used to scare me with dire consequences to deter me from committing minor transgressions. For example, if I attempted to steal a sweetmeat before it was consecrated to the gods, they’d admonish me with, “swami kannakkuthiduvar” [in Tamil]. Translated into English, it literally means, “god will drive a dagger into your eyes”. For major transgressions, there was the ubiquitous threat, “You will go to this horrible, horrible, place called hell”. Occasionally, I too have nightmares of being thrown into a vat full of boiling oil in a scorching desert, with emaciated men and women around me being roasted on the skewers! I shrug off these dreams when I wake up, but not everyone does.

He goes on though to wonder if watching horror movies may have the same effect on children, and if a parent lets a child watch a horror movie, will it be just as scaring as threatening children with hell.

To answer this I would look at the emotion itself. Fear, is a useful feeling, that allowed humans and other creatures the ability to discern danger and flee, fight, hide, or invoke another protective behavior. This emotion has been essential to our evolution.

Emotions though do not function on their own, require a certain behavioral output, or else there would be no channel for the emotion, and the emotion would not be recognized. We recognize fear by its manifestations, most of them physiological, such as cold sweating, heavy breathing, panic, etc.

Scary movies are designed to make people jump out of their skin, and appeal to the large population of thrill-seeking, adrenaline junkies. Children can be easily impressed by these movies but they can also be taught how to behave in situations of fear. So if by some chance your child gets to see a scary movie, I would take it as an opportunity to teach the child about fear. Everyone feels fear but how we react to it is what makes the difference in the long term.

In the religious context the behavior that’s taught in response to fear is religion specific. Thus it’s the behavior that’s the end-goal and fear is a means to that end. Parents don’t only have the ability to instill fear in their children but they also teach the ensuing behavioral rules. For example, a deer will teach its fawn to run when sensing danger. A fawn raised in captivity without learning how to positively employ fear will most probably not survive amongst predators.

So fear in itself has served us good, but as humans we’ve also learned how to employ it to serve less rational and less noble purposes. Despite having the luxury of reason (and ever- increasing science knowledge) to explain certain phenomena to us, we still teach our children to obey through fear. As a kid I was told that if I didn’t behave the boogeyman would get me. When at a very young age I said there was no boogeyman (my folk were laughing too hard during their boogeyman threat so it wasn’t believable to me), I was told the gypsies would take me away. In the religious household the threat takes on religious connotations and it continues to be religious even at an age where the child can understand reason, facts, science.

What’s paradoxical about the attempt of religious folk to control their kids through religious threats is that, “you have to work hard to get kids to believe nonsense. If you’re not desperately selling lies, the work is a lot easier” (Penn Jillette, Parenting Beyond Belief). Jillette’s advice is to “tell your kids the truth as you see it and let the marketplace of ideas work as they grow up.”

That sounds too simple to be that simple. So what do you tell your kid when his friend asked, “Did your grandpa go to heaven when he died?” Julia Sweeney’s answer is, “No we don’t believe in that.”

Before I express my disagreement with Sweeney’s answer, let me tie in another point about culture and its implications in the context of religious fearmongery. Religion, families and cultures are closely connected. From questions of how do I continue belonging to my family after I leave their faith behind, to how will we function as a family if husband and wife have different belief systems, to how the next generation should be educated, all depend on navigating the outside teachings vs. internal reason divide. How do I balance what I’m taught versus what I should believe as an independent rational being?

Some of us want to stick with what we’re taught, regardless of what the world teaches. It is very comforting to think grandpa went to heaven, and it might seem the best way to soothe a child who just lost grandpa. Sweeney chose to give the blunt answer, ” we don’t believe in that.”

Here is where I disagree. Culture is a beautiful thing that keeps us human and connected. There is nothing wrong with telling the child, “some people believe grandpa went to heaven because he was a good man, I do not think he did because there is no heaven. But how you remember grandpa is more important than where he went.” And that’s because I believe family is about the history we share, the experiences we share and the love we share, all that is real between people, not some fabricated fantasy. Saying “we don’t believe in heaven” is assuming the child knows what he believes in, and it’s the same as saying “we believe in heaven” and assuming the child believes.

In conclusion, I believe fearmongery for religious goals is unacceptable, particularly when teaching the impressive minds of children. It’s not fear itself that’s the cause of concern but its psychological and behavioral aftermath can be damaging. There is nothing wrong with navigating fear through cultural conversations but it is very important to not lie to our children, and to give them rational information that they can put to use on their own.

I don’t believe my grandpa is in heaven or hell or anywhere, but he is with me, because he is part of my family, my culture and he made sure I learned science. I don’t think my parents were abusive for letting me watch Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the short movie, which to this day haunts me (mostly because of what Michael Jackson became later in life). I stopped being scared at night by memories of scary movies since that first 1989 night when machine guns were roaring outside our apartment during the Romanian revolution (coup d’etat, or whatever is called today). I learned to fear abuse of power then, and scaring children through purposefully developed religious hell-tales meant to inflict obedience to religious entities is one of those examples of abuse of power.

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6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Fear, Religion and Child Abuse; Searching Beyond Rhetoric”

  1. [...] Matt Bradshaw wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptHe goes on though to wonder if watching horror movies may have the same effect on children, and if a parent lets a child watch a horror movie, will it be just as scaring as threatening children with hell. … [...]

  2. salienton 24 Oct 2007 at 9:45 pm 2

    Good post, Mana.

    I agree that using fear to control a child’s behavior is abusive, and I think this is true whether the fear is attached specifically to religious images or to other threats of inappropriately dire consequences.

    I think that aside from the abusive element, a potential problem could arise through providing an external locus of negative control (God will punish you because you are bad) rather than providing a positive internal locus of control (we feel better when we do the right thing).

    I read more on Dahmer and serial killers after our last discussion, and found material that linked extreme religiosity in upbringing with ultimate impulses to commit serial crimes. So, it appears that not only does religion not work in preventing crime through ‘accountability’, excessive emphasis on punishment and shame may drive some to self-hatred, shame, and rage directed toward others. Tragic.

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