It is not terribly uncommon to see atheists make the claim that raising someone with religion is tantamount to child abuse. Recently (say, over the past year or so) this has really irked me when I hear it. I wish atheists would stop using the argument as it seems quite hyperbolic to me. Statements like this have huge potential to alienate exactly the types of Christians that I would like to engage with. On the other hand, I have to admit that when I was going through the early stages of my atheism this type of statement resonated with me big time. In this post I am going to explore these two conflicting thoughts on this common statement.
Why does this stuff resonate so well with many atheists?
I first heard the "religion is child abuse" meme when I was new to atheism. At the time I was very angry at religion, I see it as responsible for a lot of the pain I experienced as a child. The fear of hell and thought-crimes were the biggest offenders, but there were a great many things about the religion that affected my childhood in a negative way. I was terrified of hell a lot during my childhood, there were plenty of nights where I was unable to sleep as I had these fears running through my head. I was afraid to try new things unless I was certain it was acceptable from the church's perspective. I was afraid to ask questions as the answers might lead me to losing my faith. Being mired in fear is a really shitty way to grow up.
The fear was instilled so deeply that there was even a couple of years when I didn't believe in any of it anymore and yet I was still afraid of hell. I definitely wasn't a Christian and I was pretty sure I didn't believe in God anymore, and yet I just assumed this meant I was going to hell. I had some pretty serious struggles with depression during this time. I have heard similar things from quite a few atheists, it really shows how strong indoctrination can be. Many atheists say that the reason this kind of fear is instilled in people is so the church can keep members, although I would guess that the causation is the other way around, the church still exists because it instills this kind of fear but they don't subject people to fear for that reason.
But details aside, the point is that I look back at my childhood and I see that the indoctrination I experienced as a child definitely caused me years of unnecessary anguish. In this state I heard people say that religion is child abuse and it really resonated. Furthermore, pictures like this will pop up from time to time and I find them creepy as hell. I feel really sorry for those kids, it seems to me that they will either be Christians for life or they will experience the kind of pain I did when they leave the church. I really wish there was something I could do to make that not happen.
But is it appropriate to call this child abuse?
What makes something abuse? Is it simply that it causes someone distress? Imagine my son is playing in our front yard and I scream at him, which makes him stop what he's doing, sit down, and cry. If I'm doing this just to fuck with him I'm a horrible father and we might want to call it abuse (especially if it is a regular occurrence). If I just stopped him from running in front of a car then perhaps I just saved his life.
So where does indoctrination fall? Let's focus on the doctrine of hell for a moment, is it abuse or not? I think many atheists see it as causing pain for no good reason. Hell doesn't exist and yet they were tormented for years because of the thought of going there after they die. Being tortured for eternity is terrifying, and the made up threat is designed to keep them in line. From this perspective it definitely feels like abuse.
But what if hell were real? Whether or not it scares them is beside the point, you must warn your children about hell and in so doing help them avoid it. If hell were real it would be your duty to tell your children about it, a little fear is a small price to pay compared to an eternity of torture. If my son was running in front of a moving car and I sat back and did nothing I would be a negligent father, if hell were real and I said nothing the same logic would apply.
So what is the real situation? Does hell exist and the Christian parents are doing their due diligence by telling their children about it, or is hell made up nonsense and they are causing their children undue pain? This is the disconnect, Christians think we are in the first situation and atheists think we are in the second. Many atheists see the unnecessary pain and call it child abuse, but the Christian parents think they are saving their children's souls. Even if we are right, I think child abuse is an unfair charge.
Return to my analogy with my son running out in front of a car. Suppose that after I scare him I realize that the car was parked. He was never in any danger, it turns out I scared him for no good reason. Does this make me a bad father? Does it make my actions child abuse? Hell no! I should probably pay more attention to my surroundings and those of my son, but an abuser I am not.
The Christians see a car aimed at their children and they are trying to keep them from getting run over. It is up to us to convince them that the car is parked. We need to work to convince them that hell is not real. We should tell them that we think they are wrong and more importantly tell them why. But we should not call them monsters for doing what logically makes sense based on the beliefs that they hold. All that does is make us look like dicks and gives them a reason to dismiss us.
**edit 27 April 2014** I have been reconsidering my thoughts on this topic. I am still working through some of and I am planning on writing another post on the topic soon (probably in a couple weeks, this week and next weekend will be very busy for me). If you have anything to add please throw a comment in. I'd love to hear more perspectives on this.
2nd edit: I finally wrote a follow up post