Dawkins to moderate Religious Child Abuse Panel

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"Nobody would seriously describe a tiny child as a 'Marxist child' or an 'Anarchist child' or a 'Post-modernist child'. Yet children are routinely labeled with the religion of their parents. We need to encourage people to think carefully before labeling any child too young to know their own opinions, and our adverts will help to do that." – Richard Dawkins


At the American Humanist Association conference in San Diego, on Saturday June 1 at 9am, Richard Dawkins will moderate a panel entitled “Religious Fundamentalism & The Abuse of Children.” (Register here: http://ahacon13.eventbrite.com)  This has long been an area of primary concern for Richard Dawkins.

I come to the same focus from a different angle. Shortly after law school, I served as an Assistant Attorney General in my home state handling child protection cases.  This motivated me to become very involved in children’s advocacy during my ten years in the Maine legislature.  It is disheartening how often religion is used as a justification for policies that would never be acceptable – but for the imprimatur of religion.

Janet Heimlich approached me about doing a panel on this topic at the last American Humanist Association convention.  Janet is author of Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, which examines religiously-motivated child abuse and neglect. Ms. Heimlich also heads the Child-Friendly Faith Project, a nonprofit organization that educates the public about the impact that belief and faith practices have on children in America.

Also participating in the panel will be Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. She started her career in journalism working for investigative reporter at The Village Voice and has written for many publications.

I had the opportunity when starting at the Richard Dawkins Foundation to interview Liz Heywood who suffered horribly as a child in a faith-healing home. She will recount some of her experiences on the panel as well.

My book recounts ten areas of American public policy in which there exists religious bias — then sets out a specific strategic plan to organize for a secular America.  Perhaps the most wrenching (and one of the least known) of these ten topics is religious bias in numerous areas of children’s law. I will serve on the panel as well.

It is almost cliché to say “Let’s do it for the children” but, in this panel, we will face the wrenching reality of what has been done to the children in the name of religion.  It is a far more wide-spread and ugly problem than most Americans realize.  With the sponsorship of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science and the American Humanist Association we will shine a light on this serious widespread American injustice.

Sean Faircloth is Dir. of Strategy & Policy at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science.  His book, Attack of the Theocrats, How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do AboutItoffers a specific plan for activists to re-secularize America. Faircloth served ten years in the Maine legislature, his last term as Majority Whip.

 

Written By: Sean Faircloth
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31 COMMENTS

  1. I think that Marlene Winell, Ph.D. should be invited to attend the Religious Child Abuse Panel
    This is her website: http://journeyfree.org/rts/rts-its-time-to-recognize-it/ . She might have a lot to say about the mental trauma that religious “instruction” can cause children and adults who received such “instruction”.

    I recommend reading Parts 1-3 on that site because I think it sheds a lot of light on the subject of Religious Child Abuse..

    • In reply to #1 by CarlWong:

      I think that Marlene Winell, Ph.D. should be invited to attend the Religious Child Abuse Panel
      This is her website: http://journeyfree.org/rts/rts-its-time-to-recognize-it/ . She might have a lot to say about the mental trauma that religious “instruction” can cause children and adults who received…

      Yes, and if possible, I’d also invite 2013 Bertrand Russell scholar Elizabeth F. Loftus there too. Her research has been effective in changing the law courts’ view of child witnesses, and would have some good insights into these kinds of challenges.

  2. I initially agreed with Prof Dawkins about religious ‘child abuse’ and still do in many respects, but it has to be approached, quoted and written carefully. For instance, I’d agree that scaring children with the concept of ‘burning in hell’ is a form of abuse. I do not like the idea of a child being ‘brought up’ in a religion by parents, but it is so ubiquitous and in many cases, such as mild thing, that ‘child abuse’ is a strong term, which could have repercussions.
    I say this because there have been a couple of face to face interviews where Prof Dawkins has been put on the spot by the interviewer saying something like, “I read/teach passages from the bible/koran to my child. Am I a child-abuser?” In that case, Prof Dawkins has to back down and say no, because frankly, it could lead to slander in this age of litigation; or quite simply, the very act of face to face means treating it differently. Therefore the words have to be chosen carefully. There needs to be a concrete methodology around the word ‘abuse’ for instance the ‘burning in hell’ example, and a more concrete argument with less emotive words for bringing a child up to believe in a particular religion.

    • In reply to #2 by bootjangler:

      I initially agreed with Prof Dawkins about religious ‘child abuse’ and still do in many respects, but it has to be approached, quoted and written carefully. For instance, I’d agree that scaring children with the concept of ‘burning in hell’ is a form of abuse. I do not like the idea of a child being…

      IMO its not just an issue of confronting people in person. Its that child abuse is an emotional topic and using hyperbolic speech about it can backfire. I was born and raised a Catholic but my dad also hit me before I got old enough to hit back. Of the two behaviors the hitting (which was actually pretty normal at that time) was closer to child abuse than the Catholicism. I agree that its wrong to try and scare kids into obedience with stories of hell. But using emotionally tinged words like child abuse is IMO counter productive. It alienates more potential allies than it convinces.

    • In reply to #2 by bootjangler:

      “I read/teach passages from the bible/koran to my child. Am I a child-abuser?” In that case, Prof Dawkins has to back down and say no,

      This is not backing down. Reading to a child is not abuse and RD has never said it is. However, if you read a passage which advocates violence for non-belief and threaten the child with it, yes, it is child abuse. If you tell them that the passage is true even though it contradicts reality, yes this is abuse because you are trying to take away the child’s chance to see the true wonder of the universe in which it lives.

      The person posing the question to RD is purposefully missing the point. Reading is not abuse. The fact religion exists is not abuse. Claiming a child is a member of a religion and leaving that religion is punishable by death is abuse.

      • In reply to #7 by Rosbif:

        In reply to #2 by bootjangler:

        “I read/teach passages from the bible/koran to my child. Am I a child-abuser?” In that case, Prof Dawkins has to back down and say no,

        This is not backing down. Reading to a child is not abuse and RD has never said it is. However, if you read a passage which advocat…

        You can’t resolve questions about what words “really” mean. Saying “X is child abuse” can’t be proven or disproven with any theory or data because its a question of conventions, the meaning of words change all the time. The same is true for people who seem to think you can have sensible arguments about what marriage really is or isn’t.

        The question isn’t a factual one about what child abuse really is or isn’t its a question of does it make sense from the standpoint of public policy and the law to start treating all religious indoctrination as child abuse. I think it clearly does not. For one thing child abuse, as I use the term, is always immoral and often illegal. Do I really want to start telling my Jewish friends or my new age friends that having a Bar Mitzvah or talking about Mother Earth is immoral and bordering on illegal? They would laugh at me and I wouldn’t blame them.

      • The example was taken fron a real interview where the interviewer had said, (paraphrased) “You talk about child abuse….even teaching a child a religion….is that true?” Of course Richard had said that in the God Delusion if you choose to interpret the words. This is exactly why I made the point that care needs to be taken when using the word abuse, and for exactly what for, otherwise you can easily be caught out.

        In reply to #7 by Rosbif:

        In reply to #2 by bootjangler:

        “I read/teach passages from the bible/koran to my child. Am I a child-abuser?” In that case, Prof Dawkins has to back down and say no,

        This is not backing down. Reading to a child is not abuse and RD has never said it is. However, if you read a passage which advocat…

    • In reply to #2 by bootjangler:

      I initially agreed with Prof Dawkins about religious ‘child abuse’ and still do in many respects, but it has to be approached, quoted and written carefully. For instance, I’d agree that scaring children with the concept of ‘burning in hell’ is a form of abuse. I do not like the idea of a child being…

      Richard Dawkins has called 2 things about religion child abuse :

      1) Labeling a child with the religion of their parents, thus forcing the child in a certain category

      2) Frightening children with the concept of hell

      That’s all I ever heard him say, yet very often it is interpreted as if religious parents are automatically abusing their children.

      Labeling a child is child abuse. It’s a long time ago, but I can still remember one day in elementary school, I was asked by another child whether I was Catholic or Protestant, and I didn’t even know ( I vaguely said Christian, because I knew I was baptized ) . I still remember thinking : why does this matter ? I must have been 8 or 9 years old.

      However, in my opinion ( I don’t know Richard Dawkins’ view on this ) , if you force your religion on a child, when it clear they don’t want it, that’s also (perhaps unintentional ) child abuse to me.

    • In reply to #2 by bootjangler:

      I initially agreed with Prof Dawkins about religious ‘child abuse’ and still do in many respects, but it has to be approached, quoted and written carefully. For instance, I’d agree that scaring children with the concept of ‘burning in hell’ is a form of abuse. I do not like the idea of a child being…

      I feel that there should be a distinguishing between moderate religious upbringing and fundamentalist upbringing. I would describe my religious upbringing as ‘ moderate’ and not abusive. Misleading perhaps, but not intentionally so. My bf on the other hand, was raised extremely fundamentalist, in a religion that taught him to HATE gays, to hate catholics, and to be absolutely terrified of hell. They even tried to show him videos of ‘demonic possession’ in African children, and stockpiled weapons for the End Times ( for those churchgoers who weren’t raptured up to protect themselves with). This I would absolutely consider abusive. Again, not intentionally by the parents/church, but good intentions can have just as bad results. Luckily for him, he became an Atheist :)

      • In reply to #22 by CrockoDucky:

        In reply to #2 by bootjangler:

        I initially agreed with Prof Dawkins about religious ‘child abuse’ and still do in many respects, but it has to be approached, quoted and written carefully. For instance, I’d agree that scaring children with the concept of ‘burning in hell’ is a form of abuse. I do no…

        I think Crocko makes a good point. I think that it creates a can of worms to make a blanket statement about teaching your kids religious practices. To label it abuse is to put it into a legal category, in a sense, and many moderates just want their kids to have a set of values, and in many cases, to preserve their culture and heritage. I don’t think that should be thrown in with beating your kid for not committing his life to Christ and so on. I think we should open up a discussion about what is a fair way to teach your children values instead of lumping all religious people into one category and getting accusatory right out of the gate. People do teach their kids their values, explicitly and implicitly. They may teach them to say, give to the poor or work hard because of their personal, political or cultural values. You can have these values outside of religion or culture but people often intertwine them. I think we just should broach the subject in a non-inflammatory way that polarizes the discussion and reduces it to black& white definitions with no sense of context.

  3. Why do we need a panel on religious child abuse? Is it somehow worse or in need of a different kind of response than normal child abuse? There is a whole community of people who are very dedicated to fighting child abuse in all forms, why not just work with them? To use an analogy from other groups in the past that have advocated for equal rights would we condone a panel of black activists talking about “white child abuse” or a bunch of gay advocates hosting a panel on “heterosexual child abuse”?

    • In reply to #3 by Red Dog:

      Why do we need a panel on religious child abuse? Is it somehow worse or in need of a different kind of response than normal child abuse? There is a whole community of people who are very dedicated to fighting child abuse in all forms, why not just work with them? To use an analogy from other groups…

      Why ?
      Well first wth is ‘normal’ child abuse ? There’s nothing normal about it. But I take your point. The difference is that when discussing child abuse, the religious part of is is left out and forgotten about because many simply don’t see it as a form of child abuse. What Richard Dawkins is trying to highlight is that forcing religion onto your kids IS actually a form of child abuse. It needs to be given more awareness and that is why a panel, at it’s very least, is needed.
      Hope that helps answer your question.

    • In reply to #3 by Red Dog:

      Why do we need a panel on religious child abuse? Is it somehow worse or in need of a different kind of response than normal child abuse? There is a whole community of people who are very dedicated to fighting child abuse in all forms, why not just work with them? To use an analogy from other groups…if it’s not been said: because typically child abuse involves beating, verbal abuse, sexual abuse not related to any kind of indoctrination (unless it’s used to justify the above behaviors). So I think they’re trying to really reframe and rethink what we consider normal in terms of teaching your child your faith. It’s really a horse of a different color and not something that say, Child Protective Services would intervene in. I would say I had it to a degree (very very religious parent and lots of relentless pressure) but it’s really not the same thing at all. I would not compare my experience to a child that was beaten, neglected raped or abandoned. It’s really not in the same area at all.

    • In reply to #3 by Red Dog:

      Why do we need a panel on religious child abuse? Is it somehow worse or in need of a different kind of response than normal child abuse? There is a whole community of people who are very dedicated to fighting child abuse in all forms, why not just work with them? To use an analogy from other groups…

      Pardon my screwy formatting before… I agree that abuse is not quite the right term. But it’s sort of an emotional manipulation that is often done with the best of intentions. I truly believe my mom doesn’t want me to go to hell and wants me to join her in heaven. She thinks she’s helping me when she preaches almost every conversation. It’s just not the same as beating, neglect or rape/incest. It’s an odd category that needs to be addressed– I think we’re just in the stage of figuring out how to frame the issue and present the idea that you may be manipulating your child in ways you may not be aware of. It can be a way to rethink assumptions about appropriate parenting. Decades ago, harsh punishment was considered appropriate- then people rethought it and changed. That’s how social evolution can happen.

  4. Yep I vividly recall as a kid my reasoning brain going into a spin doing Catecism re: old/new testament scripture-conflicts, miracles, resurrections from the dead and whatnot and that was in 1970. It never ever quite added up, my youthful but analytical head was stubbornly trying to square all these circles to no avail. The Christian/Catholic belief haunted my doubting mind for decades afterwards, what a waste of mind energy, all burnt on nothing. All this head-bashing could have been better-focused on more tangible things like the here and now, the real world, or, as Richard Dawkins puts it, “The Magic of Reality”.

  5. “World Youth Day” is child abuse.
    The event in Australia was heavily subsidised by our government and advertised worldwide in schools and on tv. The climax of the event is “The Stations of the Cross” witnessed by the Pope, a macabre and bloody violent re enactment of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus on the steps of the Opera House, all to emotive music, with screams to punctuate the spurts of fake blood as the hammer blows cascaded over the crowds of crying kiddies, all watching on clutching their little gold crucifixes.
    Question to ponder; why were the broadcasting laws and censorship laws designed to protect children from violent content in broadcasting etc, not enacted, when the show was designed and advertised specifically for them? I asked and received no reply. Perhaps we should Guillotine King Louis and Marie Anne on Bastille Day, burn some heretics at the stake, hang some “strange fruit” in the school yards to commemorate Martin Luther King’s freedom struggle…. under the guise of historical facts for the betterment of child education and broadcast it in between, Sesame St and the Muppet’s.
    State sanctioned child abuse…. it’s time we insist on the law being applied equally to religion and not exempted under the guise of ‘freedom of religious expression.’ Just a thought.

    • In reply to #12 by Grahum Bin Larfin:

      “World Youth Day” is child abuse.
      I’m very surprised to read the description of this event taking place in Sydney. I suppose at least one doesn’t have to turn up to watch such things. However, the ubiquitous crucifixion image is most offensive to me, and hard to avoid, but it is rarely commented upon I think.

      I remember as a child being stunned when, on seeing the image I asked, and was told, what crucifying someone meant. I was definitely upset by the thought and sight of it, but being an ‘atheist’ child (!) it did not have major significance.

      In relation to this I once mentioned in the staff room that we wouldn’t tolerate sculptures/pictures in public places, such as many schools, of a kitten being tortured. It would be considered horrific. There were shocked, glazed looks all around me and no replies; I’m still not sure what that response actually meant!

  6. I agree with the sentement that the term is somewhat emotive which is a shame but it is almost always abuse.

    the question is one of responsibility. Personally I believe anyone who puts the needs of their religion before the needs of their children is taking part in abuse but if they’re conditioned that way can they be held responsible?

    most parents wouldn’t think twice about reporting a school or teacher that was mistreating their kids and see no problem in moving them to another school but if a child is given nightmares by the preaching of damnation would they consider taking them to another religion? In my experience, religious parents are children themselves. they may seem to know what’s best in all other respects but where their religion is concerned they’ll take no action without permission from their mother church. only need to look at the catholic cover up to see that parents must have been complicit for complaints to have been raised before they were buried

    most abusers start off as victims so it’s important to put more emphasis on the abuse than the religion as this will entrench religious parents further into thinking it’s all a liberal plot to interfere with parents’ rights

    that said, i’m fully in support

  7. I have posted the video of this panel, recorded from 2013 AHA conference, at http://youtu.be/dDERUr5JATw. The first 3 1/2 minutes of Dawkins’ talk is missing because his microphone was not turned on. I am going to try to contact him to ask if he would like to have it restored as subtitles. If you know Dr. Dawkins and think he would like to do this, please message me by going to http://www.youtube.com/user/beag00/about and clicking “send message”. Carl

  8. I can only say that the only positive thing that comes out of children who are taught dogmatic religion at very young ages, with all the fear tactics, fantasy epics and moral boulders cast down upon their heads day to day, is that if they somehow survive to the age of reason, (Oh about 15 or 16 years) they will emerge strong willed and fearless in their pursuit of the truth.
    Unfortunately there are those who succumb to the morass of pressure and guilt associated with parents and religious community. It is indeed a herculean effort to take off the handcuffs of dogmatic oppression. I am a recovering Catholic, and the scars are deep.

  9. As a child of a fundamentlist Christian, I was struck with all manner of implements in the name of god, whilst listening to the hellfire rhetoric. Now, as a mother of three I share custody with, I instill free thinking and the hopes their fundamentalist father will keep it too himself. The level by which I was tormented with was nothing more then extreme abuse. A child should never hear they will be tormented in hell, much less, beaten severely under the “god given” rights of god. In some aspects, the torture I endured only strengthened my resolve as an atheist. I have lost most of my family and friends but I am free.

  10. Stop teaching any and all religion as a factual subject in the national curriculum, end of story! References to it should be made in the History lesson were it should be left to be forgotten. Any teaching of it is restricted to places of worship or private homes. And the buggers can fund themselves, like they get tax breaks FFS!!

    Songfeather, be proud and defiant. Were they ever really friends or family? To have treated you in such ways and now simply disown you for holding the truth, I say no. It doesn’t remove the pain of loss or the frustration at their ignorance, but it makes truth and freedom all the more precious, and you have that now and your life will have meaning that theirs will always be empty of.

  11. I would like to point out the book “To train up a child”. It is written by a Michael and Debbie Perl, a priest and his wife, outlaying child abuse at its finest, all in the name of religion. It has been read and implemented by thousands if not millions of parents (mainly in the US but also the UK, and other countries. (The Perl’s self state that 1.5 Million copies of the book have been sold since 1994). I thought I should mention this appalling example of child abuse in the name of religion, and point out that it is still widely available (for example on Amazon). I would love for child abuse to stop entirely, and religious child abuse is a huge contributing factor to overall abuse of children.

  12. I remember when I was about 9 year old, I visited a local Catholic Orphanage, Clontarf For Boys, in a southern suburb of Perth W. Australia. They were having a fate of some sort, and while I was there, I got talking to one of the boys. As it seemed the ideal place with lots of kids my age to play football and such, I commented that it seemed a great place to live. The comment back was “Well it is until one of the brothers’ fancies you.”
    At that time I didn’t understand, that it was about the Christian Brothers raping the kids under their care. I was told later by my older brother, that the kids who had tried to escape were handed back to the Christian Brothers by the police, knowing full well what was going on. The police and the government at the time, kept closed eyes on the situation and let it happen. The state Labor Party was predominantly Catholic.
    Now around that time I remember my father took to me with a leather strap to the point my legs bleed. Now that was over 50 years ago and I have forgiven my father, and I rarely think about it.
    When it comes to child abuse, I think the boys at Clontarf had it far worse than I did, and I’m sure, the very least on their Catholic minds was the thought they’d burn in hell.
    Although we feel we’d like to stop child indoctrination into a religion. It is my opinion, focusing on the child being told they will burn in hell is rather a minor issue. Possibly, this is not what we should be aiming at to make a change. The mutilation of children’s genitals, and these Muslim fundamentalist schools in our suburbs teaching anti integration and are highly critical of our western views and morals, all with government funding, being far more pressing issues.
    There are still some Muslim doctors in western hospitals and clinics doing female circumcision. We need to encourage the nursing profession to help target these people. I know this has happened in Australia, as I was told once by a theatre sister of her horror on one occasion, so I’m guessing we are not alone with this problem.

  13. As a victim of “conversion therapy” which was forced upon me by my Evangelical parents, I strongly suggest that Professor Dawkins bring up the issue of continuing abuse of young homosexuals in fundamentalist families. It has taken me years to combat the Post Traumatic Stress that this farcical and egregious practice instilled in my psyche.

    • In reply to #29 by Darion.McGowan:

      As a victim of “conversion therapy” which was forced upon me by my Evangelical parents, I strongly suggest that Professor Dawkins bring up the issue of continuing abuse of young homosexuals in fundamentalist families. It has taken me years to combat the Post Traumatic Stress that this farcical and e…

      Yes a thousand times! Much “Conversion Therapy” is religion (often Christian) based. If you want to read about conversion-therapy-gone-bad, look up the story of Marshall Applewhite, a gay teacher forced to undergo conversion therapy. He became the leader of the suicide cult group Heaven’s Gate, in which, befitting his own mental castration, he ordered his followers to be castrated. He basically was a broken person who went on to break others. It’s psychiatric abuse all the way.

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