In a previous posting, I dismantled the popular New Atheist argument that a religious upbringing is a form of child abuse. We saw that such a position works equally well with the political socialization of children, which would entail that New Atheists who share their political views with their children are actually abusing them. Yet New Atheists are not willing to remain completely apolitical around their children. We also saw that any attempt to implement the “religion as child abuse” position though societal or legal pressure is likely to cause great harm.
It’s now time to take the dismantled parts of the New Atheist argument and sweep them into the trash bin.
There is a glaring fact that completely undercuts the “religious indoctrination is child abuse” position – there is no evidence to support it.
Typically, when New Atheists make this argument, they try to support it in two ways:
- They engage in philosophical arguments about children’s rights and the need for people to arrive at their own conclusions free of parental influence. But unless someone is willing to make the same case for political socialization, there is no reason to respect the position when it comes to religious socialization. Even more problematic is the simple fact that regardless of the validity of such reasoning, it fails to constitute evidence that any child abuse is occurring.
- They often cite stories of people who claim to have been harmed by their religious upbringing. Yet most of these stories are unverifiable and those that can be verified rise no further than the level of anecdote. As such, they are easily canceled out by people who can tell stories about how their religious upbringing cause no harm.
The thing that is most annoying about all this is that the claim “religious indoctrination is child abuse” is easily testable by science. Yet the New Atheists, who claim to champion science, have shown no interest in exploring this issue from a scientific perspective.
From the scientific perspective, child abuse disrupts the normal development of the brain. The effects of abuse can, and have been, extensively studied by science. Some are listed in the link above. Or, you can go the CDC webpage. Many of the effects can be detected well into adulthood:
Children who experience abuse and neglect are also at increased risk for adverse health effects and certain chronic diseases as adults, including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, liver disease, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high levels of C-reactive protein.
In one long-term study, as many as 80% of young adults who had been abused met the diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at age 20. These young adults exhibited many problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicide attempts.
Children who experience abuse and neglect are at increased risk for smoking, alcoholism, and drug abuse as adults, as well as engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors.
And, of course, the effects can be detected in childhood:
Studies have found abused and neglected children to be at least 25% more likely to experience problems such as delinquency, teen pregnancy, and low academic achievement. Similarly, a longitudinal study found that physically abused children were at greater risk of being arrested as juveniles, being a teen parent, and less likely to graduate high school.
What happens if we turn the New Atheist talking point into a scientific hypothesis? It makes predictions. For example:
- If religious indoctrination is a true example of child abuse, children from religious families should be show a greater likelihood to experience problems such as delinquency, teen pregnancy, low academic achievement, drug abuse, high-risk sexual behavior, and at greater risk of being arrested as juveniles, being a teen parent, and less likely to graduate high school compared to children raised in secular households.
- If religious indoctrination is a true example of child abuse, adults who came from religious families should be at increased risk for adverse health effects and certain chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, along with being at a much higher risk for at least one psychiatric disorder at age 20, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicide attempts, compared to adults who came from purely secular households.
Since there is no evidence to think that a religious upbringing results in higher risks for such physiological, behavioral, and psychological problems as children and adults, there is no evidence to support the “religion as child abuse” hypothesis. In fact, this is not really a situation of people not looking for the evidence. Scientists did not have to go on fishing expedition to see if a history of child abuse might come with physiological, behavioral, and psychological effects. The effects of child abuse are so pronounced that they simply got noticed, then documented, then studied. Put simply, that the “religion as child abuse” position is held only by partisan and activist communities, and not by the scientific community itself, underscores just how vacuous it is from a scientific perspective.
But it gets worse. Science has studied the effects of religiosity and childhood development. And it is usually the case that the effects are the opposite of what we see from child abuse. I have seen several of these studies myself over the years (and can post if someone wants). For now, let me quote at length from Tom Gilson:
Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led a massive, authoritative study called the National Study of Youth and Religion. The results were published in the 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers (with co-author Melinda Lundquist Denton), published by Oxford University Press (yes, that’s Dawkins’s university). It is the best study of its kind to date.
This study sorted its 3,290 participants into levels of religious involvement: the Devoted, the Regulars, the Sporadic, and the Disengaged. Because America’s predominant religious groupings are Christian, the “Devoted” and “Regulars” were predominantly Christian—Protestant and Catholic. Therefore these results can fairly be taken as relating specifically to Christianity. (Results for other religions are hard to determine from the data.)
The closer teenagers were to “Devoted” rather than “Disengaged,” the less they engaged in these negative behaviors:
Habits: Smoking, drinking, marijuana use, TV watching, pornography use, “action” video game use, R-rated movies;
At school: Poor grades, cutting classes, getting suspended or expelled;
Attitude: Bad temper, rebellious toward parents;
Sex: Early physical involvement, including number of partners and age of first sexual contact.
Those more “Devoted” on the scale showed more of these positive outcomes:
Emotional well-being: Satisfaction with physical appearance, planning for the future, thinking about the meaning of life, feeling cared for, freedom from depression, not feeling alone and misunderstood, not feeling “invisible,” not often feeling guilty, having a sense of meaning to life, getting along well with siblings;
Relationships with adults: Closeness with parents, number of adults connected to, feeling understood by parents, sensing that parents pay attention, feeling they get the “right amount of freedom” from parents;
Moral reasoning and honesty: Belief in stable, absolute morality; not pursuing a “get-ahead” mentality; not just pleasure-seeking; less lying to parents and cheating in school;
Compassion: Caring about the needs of the poor, caring about the elderly, caring about racial justice;
Community: Participation in groups, financial giving, volunteer work (including with people of different races and cultures), helping homeless people, taking leadership in organizations.
The findings are overwhelming. On page after page, chart after chart, on every one of the ninety-one variables studied, the closer teens were to the “Devoted” end of the scale, the healthier their lives were. These are the results of Dawkins’ “child abuse.” This is what he complains is so bad for children.
In other words, not only is the “religion as child abuse” position void of evidential support, it is a position that is falsified by the evidence.