“Why can’t atheists just leave religious people alone? What difference does it make to them anyway?” This is a common complaint leveled against the non-religious. Sometimes I have these thoughts too. What harm is it really? And then I remember my childhood and think about the encounters my kids have had with religious kids.
It's Not Just About Religious Adults
If religion was all about individuated adults making decisions for themselves about their own religious convictions, that concession might make sense. But religion doesn’t just affect individuated adults. In fact, most religious adults started out as religious kids.
And the thing is, very often, religion isn’t localized in the home and it often isn’t harmless. In the case of evangelical Christianity for example (what I grew up with), religion can be utterly terrifying, with far reaching implications for how kids perceive the world, engage with peers and how they see themselves.
What Kids Do With Religion
I found parenting with religion exhausting and confusing. Some parents manage the cognitive dissonance better than others. I couldn’t do it. It wore me out and made me sad. I appreciate these points from Deborah Mitchell, atheist mom and author of a viral essay on atheist parenting , “God is a bad parent and role model,” “God is not logical,” “God is not fair” and “God does not protect the innocent.”
When parents teach their children that there is a heaven and a hell and the only way to get to heaven is to be a Christian, what do they expect their kids to do with that information? Or what about the original sin notion? How does a small child process the teaching that they are scum doomed for hell unless they “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour”? Children handle these theological concepts in a variety of ways. Some kids feel so sad and scared for the eternal souls of their friends that they develop a fervor about “sharing the Gospel” in attempt to save their friends from eternal damnation. Others use it as a tool of exclusion, a way to single out kids they don’t like. And then there are the kids who internalize everything. They don’t externally make it about others but ultimately, their internalization affects how they treat others because it affects what they think about themselves.
It's Hard Enough To Be A Kid
Being a kid is hard enough without the fear of hell, the striving for heaven or the belief that humans are all icky scum in need of a divine saviour to protect them from divine retribution. To this day I have vivid and visceral memories of waking up in a cold sweat straining to hear noises in my house, worried that everyone was raptured and I was left on earth alone with the rest of the sinners – all because I might have gone to sleep without confessing one of my sins.
At school, the religious kids have a beef with the kids of different religions and the kids of no religion. Most kids with no religion are happy to be kept out of it all, but they really have no choice. It’s almost guaranteed that an atheist kid will be confronted by a religious kid (and often adults too) in a way that makes him/her scared, anxious, degraded or confused (or all of the above). Usually this happens in the earliest, most vulnerable years of a child’s education.
Bullying, Anxiety, & Exclusion
Ultimately, no one is left out. This isn’t just about atheist kids having to deal with the evangelistic efforts of religious kids or the pressures put on them by the school board itself (prayers before sport events, Bible and religious promotions handed out in school, etc) . The religious kids have their own set of issues which are leading to their behaviour in the first place.
Bullying and religious abuse, self image problems, fear and anxiety, confusion about sexuality and issues related to segregation, sheltering and imposed ignorance are just some of the problems that can result from a religious upbringing.
By now it probably sounds like I’m saying parents shouldn’t be allowed to teach their children about religion. I’m not saying that at all. Just like I wouldn’t suggest parents can’t teach their kids to believe in palm reading, astrology, ghosts, the evils of food dye, or whatever strong beliefs their family might have. I have many friends with sincere Christian beliefs who do not teach their children to evangelize, they don’t teach exclusion and they do not expose their children to hell theology or rapture eschatology.
Keep It Where It Belongs
What I am suggesting is that spirituality, religion, faith – whatever you call it – be recognized as a powerful social force when placed into the hands of children, can be quite dangerous both for the child him/herself and for his/her peers. Bullying with spirituality, oppressing with scripture, misinforming with well intentioned convictions cannot simply be excused by virtue of being based on a “personal faith”.
I don’t expect religion to go away. It is useful to many people and enriches their lives in many ways. I also do not expect my children to be sheltered from offensive beliefs. I hope they are able to engage in conversations and friendships with a variety of people, including those with strong religious convictions. But as Mitchell stated in her essay, “I only want religion to be kept at home or in church where it belongs. It’s a personal effect, like a toothbrush or a pair of shoes. It’s not something to be used or worn by strangers.”
Many religions manage to pull this off and still maintain a strongly devoted faith. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for other religious expressions to give it a try. Our kids should be allowed to grow up without fear of spiritual bullying, the threat of eternal damnation or complex self image issues related to perceptions of their eternal soul.