Richard Dawkins called imposition of religion on a child a form of child abuse. He says there is no such thing as a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child” – rather they are children of Christian or Muslim parents. If religion implies a belief then such terms are abusive as they involving forcing a belief on a child who is too young to understand.
We can see this more clearly if we swap the religion for another belief. For example, what would we mean by an “atheist child”, “Marxist child”, “monetarist child” or “Tory child”? Don’t these sound obscene?
Religion as a tradition
But what if religion is more a tradition or culture than a belief (see What is religion?). Some people claim that their children are Christian, for example, because they are bringing them up in the Christian tradition. Well then, how do these people react to terms such as “atheist child”, Marxist child”, etc., which could be similarly justified.
I think the tradition argument is a cop-out. Religion may be more tradition than belief but it usually does include formal beliefs. Parents may or may not accept the beliefs but bringing a child up in a religious tradition usually does mean imposing beliefs in the schools, churches or Sunday schools. Religious instruction is an imposition of belief.
And, in some traditions, religious beliefs can be very extreme, especially when imposed on as child. In The God Delusion Dawkins tells of the experience of an Irish child raised as a Catholic. At age seven she was sexually abused by her priest and was able to handle it. What she couldn’t handle though was the death of her best friend (a child of protestant parents) because she had been taught that her friend would go straight to hell – and she believed it!
Many religions have unhealthy beliefs which should not be imposed on a child. Attitudes to science (creationism), racist views (“chosen people”), attitudes towards women, rejection of other people’s sexuality to name a few. It seems to me abusive to impose these on children.
But, putting belief aside, we should also recognise that not all the customs of a culture or a tradition are necessarily good – some can be downright evil. For example, genital mutilation. Some of the customs are imposed on children and often this is done in the name of religion.
“Suffer little children . . . “
It is one thing for a responsible adult to adopt weird beliefs or submit themselves to dangerous or unhealthy customs. But when it is done to a child surely it is abuse.
Christopher Hitchens summed this up in his book God Is Not Great:
“But both in theory and in practice, religion uses the innocent and the defenseless for the purposes of experiment. By all means let an observant Jewish adult male have his raw-cut penis placed in the mouth of a rabbi. (That would be legal, at least in New York.) By all means let grown women who distrust their clitoris or their labia have them sawn away by some other wretched adult female. By all means let Abraham offer to commit suicide to prove his devotion to the Lord or his belief in the voices he was hearing in his head. By all mean let devout parents deny themselves the succour of medicine when in acute pain and distress. By all means – for all I care – let a priest sworn to celibacy be a promiscuous homosexual. By all means let a congregation that believes in whipping out the devil choose a new grown-up sinner each week and lash him until he or she bleeds. By all means let anyone who believes in creationism instruct his fellows during lunch breaks. But the conscription of the unprotected child for these purposes is something that even the most dedicated secularist can safely describe as a sin.”