Children are Often Oppressed in Religious Households

“Children are often oppressed in religious households”; when I read that line in Mark Galli’s op-ed over the weekend, I literally stopped reading mid-sentence.  Here’s the whole passage:

But the fact that children are often oppressed in religious households suggests that there is indeed something in religion which tempts parents in this way. That temptation is the inherent human fascination with law and control. People become religious for many reasons, good and bad. One for many is that their lives are completely out of control morally and socially, and they see in religion a way to bring order to the chaos. Religion as inner police. Such adherents are attracted to religions, or denominations within religions, that accent discipline and obedience. This happens — surprisingly — even in Christianity.

Max Blumenthal documented the tendency of religious conservatives to control their children in his book Republican Gomorrah.  Describing James Dobson’s popular approach to child-rearing, Blumenthal observed that it was a response to the supposedly lenient and indulgent child-rearing of popularized by Dr. Benjamin Spock.  Dobson’s books – with titles like Dare to Discipline – include advice on how to appropriately beat your children into submission, including which size of stick to use while beating them.

Galli’s piece is part of the Room for Debate series at the NY Times opinion pages.  One of the op-eds, by Kimball Allen reads in part:

Years later, too afraid to confront my parents, I sheepishly wrote them a heartbreaking coming-out letter. My naivety gave me faith that the teachings of Jesus Christ would conquer all and touch the hearts of my parents. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” John 13:34-35 A few weeks later I received letters from my parents. My mother called homosexuality “repulsive” and hoped I would “never blame the church” for my actions. And my father wrote that it would be possible for me to escape the “clutches of homosexuality” and return to a God-approved lifestyle.

Asma Uddin writes of Islam:

Unfortunately, when rituals are prioritized over spirituality at this tender young age, religion can become restrictive rather than liberating. Many young girls want to wear the headscarf because they find it beautiful or comfortable or because they want to mimic their mothers. But in some cases, parents are convinced that Islamic modesty has to be ingrained in their child as early as 3 or 4 years old — and the best way to do it is to make them wear a headscarf even while they are still hanging from monkey bars.

Instead of helping them cultivate healthy relationships with the opposite sex, such strict standards of modesty, and gender segregation among young people, leave them confused about sexuality and, at worst, lead them to rebel and break boundaries.

Shoba Narayan writing about Hinduism says:

I believe that raising children within the broad precepts of a religion is good for them. Faith grounds them and gives them part of their identity. My hope is that it will help them later when life throws monkey-wrenches at them. I hope that chanting the mantras that they learned at home will give them the strength and resilience to deal with difficulties . . . [snip]

Although Hinduism is an easy religion to follow — we don’t have to keep kosher or go on pilgrimages, for example — there are some constraints that continue to make me uncomfortable as the mother of two daughters. Sons have to cremate fathers, for instance, and mantras like the Rudram, a hymn in praise of Lord Shiva, are supposed to be chanted only by men.

Such sexist rules anger me. I combat them through disobedience. And I try not to expose my daughters to them.

Religion can offer profound meaning and community but it has a shadow side.  When religious parents object to schools teaching evolution in biology class or acceptance for nontraditional family structures or comprehensive sexuality education, they often do so behind the cloak of parental rights arguing that such classes violate the rights of parents to control all the ideas to which their children are exposed.

Children have rights of their own, inherent because of they are people.  I like what the UN Convention on the Rights of Child offers:

It spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. The four core principles of the Convention are non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child. Every right spelled out in the Convention is inherent to the human dignity and harmonious development of every child. The Convention protects children’s rights by setting standards in health care; education; and legal, civil and social services.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes religious upbringing as abusive.  He argues that under the guise of religion, parents often claim extraordinary and harmful control over their children.  Some parents use religion as a reason to deny their children badly needed medical care.  Other parents use religion as an excuse to lock their children in the house at night and call it protecting their children.  Dawkins and other New Atheist writers point out that far too often if someone says “Oh it’s my religion” we automatically grant them leeway to do as they see fit, even if we know what they’re doing is oppressive to their children.

I won’t pretend to have the answers but I go back to Galli’s insight that many people are attracted to variations on religion that teach obedience and discipline as primary virtues for children.  Rather than a force for liberation religion becomes a force for oppression.  Valuing obedience and discipline in children, automatic deference to authority figures, is connected to the use of religion to support racism, sexism, heterosexism and other forms of bigotry.

  1. #1 by Richard Warnick on January 14, 2013 - 11:55 am

    James Dobson might find himself right at home with Islamic scholars who debate when and how Muslims ought to beat their wives.

  2. #2 by Larry Bergan on January 14, 2013 - 4:57 pm

    But James Dobson wouldn’t just beat his wife, he advocates beating your children.


    He also advocates showering with your male child and showing him your genitalia, which he surmises will prevent the youngster from becoming gay.

    They tell us this weird hypocrite has millions of fans who tune in to hear his radio show.

    I’ll pass.

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