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Atheist Richard Dawkins claims that teaching children to accept their families’ religious beliefs is child abuse.
Call it “child abuse” and you get everybody’s attention. That’s the latest headline-gaining tactic employed by atheists whose agenda is to “protect” children from their parents’ religion. The Daily Mail has tweaked the “twitters” once again by its article opening with “Professor Richard Dawkins has claimed that forcing a religion on children without questioning its merits is as bad as ‘child abuse.’”1
Atheist Richard Dawkins claims that teaching children to accept their families’ religious beliefs is child abuse. He considers this form of “abuse” to be more devastatingly and permanently harmful than sexual abuse. Though he has said this before, his remarks returned to headline status after he reiterated these claims April 21 at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival.
This gross misuse of the phrase “child abuse” by Dawkins is not unique to him. Just a few months ago, another outspoken atheist, Lawrence Krauss, labeled the teaching of young-earth creationism as “child abuse.” And a 1997 speech by Amnesty International spokesman Nicholas Humphrey proclaimed that “freedom of speech is too precious a freedom to be meddled with” and then just seconds later illogically and inconsistently proclaimed that society should protect children from their parents’ religious teaching.2
This misapplication of the moniker “child abuse” to “the teaching of that with which atheists happen to disagree” is not only a misuse of the term but also an insult to all people who have endured legitimate child abuse throughout history.
Actual child abuse is a heinous and hideous practice that includes physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Though common in cultures throughout the world for millennia (along with prostitution, slavery, and countless other evils), common legal practice—such as English common law, which carried over to America—made it easy for evil people to legally abuse their children and wives by classifying them as property. I mention “wives” here because Dawkins also incorrectly considers the notion that wives are property to have its roots in Bible-based religion. Dawkins recently wrote the following:
But if your whole upbringing, and everything you have ever been told by parents, teachers and priests, has led you to believe, really believe, utterly and completely, that sinners burn in hell (or some other obnoxious article of doctrine such as that a woman is the property of her husband), it is entirely plausible that words could have a more long-lasting and damaging effect than deeds.3
Neither child abuse nor the notion that children and wives are property, however, is biblical. A husband following biblical teaching loves and protects his wife and children. In the Bible, fathers are commanded, “
do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Still, secularists frequently make false assertions that Christians and all those of Judeo-Christian heritage advocate stoning their rebellious children, a topic we have explained before. But actually, Deuteronomy 21:18–21 protected rebellious children from private violence at the hands of overzealous parents while at the same time making it clear that Israel’s society would, through its legal system, protect itself from criminal behavior by punishing those who continued their rebellious practices despite any training they had at home. Of course, this is not the kind of “abuse” Dawkins is speaking of in the present context, but it is worth mentioning in order to keep in mind the nature of genuine child abuse.
Dawkins, Krauss, Humphrey, and countless others get a great deal of attention by claiming that teaching children to accept the religious beliefs of their parents is abusive. The particular anecdotal example Dawkins uses to “prove” his point—that religious teaching is a more crippling form of child abuse than physical abuse—is recounted in his 2006 book The God Delusion. Dawkins wrote the following:
I received a letter from an American woman in her forties who had been brought up Roman Catholic. At the age of seven, she told me, two unpleasant things had happened to her. She was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. And, around the same time, a little schoolfriend of hers, who had tragically died, went to hell because she was a Protestant. Or so my correspondent had been led to believe by the then official doctrine of her parents’ church. Her view as a mature adult was that, of these two examples of Roman Catholic child abuse, the one physical and the other mental, the second was by far the worst.4
Dawkins says, “But the mental abuse of being told about Hell, she took years to get over.”5
Dawkins and others, like Humphrey, are very much in the habit of engaging in logical fallacies in their rhetoric attacking both Christianity and religious teaching for children. They condemn biblical Christianity along with other religions, including those that do have oppressive doctrinal tenets. They unjustly and erroneously blame cultural and societal evils (like the view that children and women are property) on biblical Christianity. They lump biblical Christianity in with cultic aberrations like the Jim Jones Kool-Aid drinkers and with greed-motivated, power-mongering, historical misuses of religion by those seeking personal gain and political power.6
Biblical history, in contrast to the assertions in these straw man arguments, reveals that the real cause of such evils is the sinful nature of man. God created man and woman—Adam and Eve—as perfectly good people, but they chose to rebel against God. The evils in the world are not God’s fault, but man’s. And likewise the evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity are man’s fault, not God’s. (For that matter, all the evils perpetrated regardless of the excuse given are man’s fault, not God’s.) And a proper understanding of biblical Christianity should not only arm people against falling for cultic claims and false rallying cries but also enable them to see that the claims made by people like Dawkins just don’t hold water.
Dawkins claims that we should teach children about religions so that they can understand literature, but that we should discourage them from actually embracing any belief. “There is a value in teaching children about religion. You cannot really appreciate a lot of literature without knowing about religion. But we must not indoctrinate our children,” Dawkins says, adding, “What a child should be taught is that religion exists; that some people believe this and some people believe that.”7
Dawkins calls it child abuse for parents to teach their children that they should actually believe what their parents believe (unless of course the parents embrace the religion of atheism, which Dawkins fails to acknowledge is itself a “religion”—a belief that God does not exist). He labels religious teaching “indoctrination.” As one journalist correctly observes, “Religious people, though, would argue that advancing Dawkins’ views on evolution and the lack of a deity would also constitute a form of indoctrination, especially if these elements are trumped as ‘reason’ and held above theological standing.” 8 Thus, Dawkins is not at all opposed to indoctrinating children so long as they are indoctrinated to believe as he does. Let’s examine his take on religious teaching for children from several angles.
First of all, consider the rather preposterous notion that Dawkins would have parents teach their children that people believe lots of things, yet they should refrain from teaching what they personally believe. Going even farther, the Daily Mail reports he said that when teaching religion and parental beliefs, “scorn should be poured on its claims.”9 Dawkins would therefore encourage all parents with religious convictions (Christian, Muslim, or otherwise) to lie to their children. Such a practice would in fact require Christian parents to weave a whole web of deception. And they should weave this web of deception in order to deprive their children of knowledge they themselves believe is valuable and even essential for life.
Aside from the complete lack of integrity such a behavior would require, such a nonsensical scenario would deprive a child of any knowledge of what or whom to believe, trust, and respect. Children so raised would have no idea of how to gain knowledge and understanding of the world—at least unless the state stepped in and indoctrinated them in accord with a Dawkins-style belief system.
For in truth, even the atheistic belief that there is no God is a religion. Atheists claim they are non-religious, but they use their set of beliefs as a way to explain life without God—they worship and serve the creation rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). There is no such thing as a non-religious person—you are either for Jesus Christ or against Him (Matthew 12:30). Dawkins states that he is committed to a naturalistic worldview. Therefore, Dawkins has chosen to exclude all supernatural ideas about our origins and about his own eternal destiny. In essence, Dawkins is merely advocating that children be indoctrinated in accord with his beliefs rather than their parents’ beliefs. And because he is particularly bothered by the idea that there is an actual hell where some people will suffer for eternity, he labels such a teaching as “abusive.”
Secondly, Dawkins has a very distorted understanding of Christianity. In his oft-cited anecdote to justify the non-teaching of faith to children, he refers to “the mental abuse of being told about Hell.” In a January interview, Dawkins said, “‘It seems to me that telling children such that they really, really believe that people who sin are going to go to hell and roast forever … It seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse that will give more nightmares, that will give more genuine distress’ than being sexually abused.” 10
This world contains many horrors, and eventually children learn that some of them cannot be avoided. Hell, however, which lasts far longer than any worldly disaster, is completely avoidable. Knowledge of hell’s existence is not a bad thing! Jesus said, “
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4–5). The disaster of ending up in hell as a result of rejecting the salvation freely offered through the sacrifice of God’s Son Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:9; John 3:16; John 3:36) is not something a person will ever “get over.” How dare we not warn those we love that this is a genuine danger to be avoided!
How could any parents that love their children and actually believe there is a hell to be avoided not teach their children their faith? Scripture clearly states that those who reject the grace offered through the shed blood of Jesus Christ will discover the harsh reality of that eternal destination. How much would a parent have to hate his child to conceal from the child his knowledge of how to be saved?
Furthermore, biblical Christianity is not just about avoiding hell. We have sinned against the holy Creator who “
now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), and He loves us, including children (John 3:16;
Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). In fact, though God is holy and just, the Bible says God has “
no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (
When He was warning about the devil—who wishes to steal all the goodness and grace that God offers—Jesus said, “
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy” (
). But, in contrast, Jesus added, “
I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (
). Biblical Christianity results in a joyful and fruitful life in which a person’s redeemed heart is in fellowship with a loving Creator and Savior who, as Scripture reveals, also offers the only way of avoiding hell and spending eternity in heaven. Salvation is available only through faith in Jesus Christ alone (as indicated, for instance, in
John 3:16; Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:8–9; 1 Timothy 2:5–6; and Romans 10:9–10, 13
). Yet Dawkins would have parents who know “
the way, the truth, and the life” (
) keep it from their children, pretending their faith is a personal prop, a myth to make themselves feel better.
Finally, Dawkins seems to think that teaching a child to identify with the parents’ faith is the same as “forcing” a religion on the child. He says, “What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe. That's child abuse.”
Yet history, common sense, and the Bible make it clear that ultimately no person can be coerced to believe anything by another individual—God’s Word teaches that each person is held accountable for his or her own beliefs and actions. Freedom of religion is about being allowed to live in accordance with your own religious beliefs. (Furthermore, freedom of religion includes the freedom to teach your children your faith—the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children.)11
Throughout history parents have taught their children their own religious beliefs. And throughout history children have eventually evaluated these teachings for themselves—some reject their parents’ beliefs and others do not. We at Answers in Genesis emphasize the importance of giving children true biblical answers about life and life’s issues—not to indoctrinate them or to enslave their minds—but to equip them. We want children to grow up with the tools they need to make informed decisions about the most important decisions in life. The very name of our ministry, Answers in Genesis, makes it clear we are not indoctrinating and brainwashing with blind faith, but providing reasonable, scientific, and biblical answers for questions on origins.
Child abuse? We hate to abuse the term, as Dawkins and others do. Still, we have to point out that the very things Dawkins advocates—to deprive a child of living water (John 4:10–14) and the spiritual nourishment (1 Corinthians 3:2; Hebrews 5:14; 1 Corinthians 10:1–4) available in the Bible, to deprive a child of the knowledge that they were created by a God who loves them (John 3:16; Colossians 1:16; John 1:3–4,12–14), to deprive a child of the knowledge that the evils of life are rooted in man’s sinful decisions, to deprive a child of biblical answers for life’s greatest questions, to deprive a child of the truth about how to be saved now and forever, to deprive a child of the knowledge that “Jesus loves me” (Galatians 2:20)—can cripple and irreparably harm a child, for now and eternity.
As Christian parents, when you ponder your responsibility to teach your children what the Bible says, remember that they can best build genuine faith in Jesus Christ through God’s powerful Word (Romans 10:17; Romans 1:16; Hebrews 4:12). It is no wonder that self-appointed enemies of Jesus Christ—like Dawkins and Krauss—are afraid for you to teach Scripture to your children. It is no wonder that the enemies of God want to stigmatize religion—and especially Christianity—by the inflammatory epithet of “child abuse.” Take heart and don’t fail in your God-given responsibility. Don’t be intimidated by the twenty-first century echoes of the mantra espoused by so many parents during the last few decades of the twentieth—to let their children grow up with no religious instruction under the illusion they would one day seek out any information they need. Instead, remember daily what the Apostle Paul told to his protégé Timothy, recalling that Timothy’s mother and grandmother had taught him God’s Word from childhood:
But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 2:13–17)