Children and Religion: Harmful Indoctrination

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the effects of religion on children? Why is promoting religious ideals harmful when it comes to children and religion?

When it comes to children and religion, Dawkins makes it clear that children cannot have religious beliefs, and it is inappropriate to force children into religion. Though parents often pass on religious traditions, there are some reasons why it doesn’t work.

Read more about children and religion below.

Children and Religion

Is it a bad idea to mix children and religion? Another of religion’s dangers is the negative effect it has on children. Raising children in a tradition of faith constitutes an act of abuse in and of itself. Some of the most tragic victims of faith are the young children who are taught from the moment of birth by their parents, clergy, and community to unquestioningly accept a belief in God. This forced suspension of critical thinking stunts a child’s intellectual capacity and usually sets her up for a lifetime of guilt, shame, and fear. 

To take the example of Catholicism, young children are taught that if they eat meat on Friday, masturbate, or curse their parents, God will sentence them to an eternity of damnation in Hell.

Two thousand years of Christian tradition have portrayed Hell as an unimaginably horrifying place, where you are continually burned alive, forced to eat molten sulfur, and personally tortured by the Devil himself. 

American evangelical pastors like Ted Haggard and Keenan Roberts even take children on tours of so-called “Hell Houses,” in which they are shown live, simulated scenes of torture designed to mimic the horrors that await them in Hell if they engage in sins such as homosexuality or blasphemy.

That Hell (like everything else religion claims) is almost certainly fictitious can be of little comfort to the psychologically vulnerable and suggestible children who are taught to believe that they might one day be forced to spend eternity there. Being forced to believe in something so ghastly at such a young age leaves permanent, crippling psychological scars—even for those adults who’ve left behind the faith of their childhood. Dawkins argues that when it comes to children and religion, children should be left alone.

Female Genital Mutilation

There are also serious physical dangers when it comes to children and religion. When the religious community isn’t inflicting psychological trauma on children, they’re inflicting physical harm.

Female genital mutilation, practiced within certain Muslim communities (although it is by no means exclusive to Islam), entails the forcible removal of the clitoral glans and/or clitoral hood from adolescent girls. It is extremely painful and can lead to lifelong health complications for the victims—when the procedure doesn’t kill them outright.

Female genital mutilation is designed to keep women “pure” and prevent them from being able to experience any pleasure during sexual intercourse. The practice is a direct product of religious ideas regarding the role and position of women in society.

Children Can’t Have a Religion

We must stop indoctrinating children in the idea that faith is a virtue. Teaching children to unquestioningly obey authority and accept received wisdom without evidence hobbles their ability to think critically and robs them of the joys of intellectual discovery. This another one of the dangers of children and religion.

Children can’t choose their religion any more than they can choose their political affiliation, because they do not have a full grasp of the facts. It makes as much sense to say “She’s a Catholic child” or “She’s a Jewish child” as it does to say, “She’s a communist child” or “She’s a fascist child.” 

Instead, we ought to say, “She’s a child of Christian parents,” making it clear that the choice of religion is something that only a competent adult, fully aware of the facts, can make. Filling children’s minds with superstition and fear of divine punishment, all while giving them no say in the matter, is a form of child abuse, little different than punching or kicking them.

Children and Religion: Harmful Indoctrination

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  • Why Dawkins thinks religion has exerted a harmful influence on human society
  • How Dawkins concludes that the existence of God is unlikely
  • The 3 arguments that challenge the existence of God

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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