One of the more controversial statements made by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion is that raising a young child as Christian, Muslim, Jew, etc., should be considered a form of child abuse. According to Dawkins, we should be appalled to hear someone talk about "a Christian child" because this reflects nothing more than the parents' religion and its imposition on a child too young to make up his or her own mind.
Is there such a thing as a Christian/Muslim/Jewish child?
The first question we must ask is whether there is such a thing as a Christian child, Muslim child, etc. I think that Dawkins is correct in answering that there is not. No child is born into the world with an established set of religious beliefs. These beliefs are acquired through a lengthy process of indoctrination. Thus, it is accurate to say that all children are born atheists because one cannot believe in something of which one has never heard. Of course, most children do not remain atheists for long, especially in America.
As the process of indoctrination unfolds, the child acquires religious beliefs. These beliefs are rarely questioned prior to adolescence - just as most parental messages are not seriously questioned during childhood. Throughout this pre-adolescent stage, we do not have Christian/Muslim/Jewish children but children of Christian, Muslim, or Jewish parents. This is a very important distinction.
When the child's brain is sufficiently developed to permit abstract thought, the child begins to think about his/her various beliefs. During adolescence, some of these beliefs are wholeheartedly accepted, and others are discarded. Is through this process that the adolescent now can meaningfully be described as a believer
Is raising one's child in a particular religious tradition abusive?
For now, forget about religion. Suppose that a couple decides to raise their child as sort of a prolonged experiment in child development. Make them a pair of unethical child psychologists if you like. They deliberately teach their child a bunch of nonsense (e.g., incorrect names for all the colors, incorrect terms for basic words, strange magical notions, etc.). They homeschool their child until high school, carefully controlling all the child's interactions and media exposure to make sure that their teachings go unchallenged. They then send their child off to high school and monitor the consequences.
Is this abusive? I suspect nearly all of us would agree that it is. The parents are deliberately providing inaccurate information without correction, setting the child up for what will surely be series of traumatic events.
Time for another example, one which is much more realistic and unfortunately common. A racist couple who belong to the Klan and various other white supremacist groups are firmly committed to raising their child to have similar beliefs. If you've seen any of the documentaries on hate groups on the History Channel or other cable networks, you've seen this. Disturbing images of babies in Klan garb or with little swastikas. Makes you sick, doesn't it? Basically, these parents raise their child from birth to hate everyone who they hate. And yet, when you see their toddler, you recognize that this is not a racist child but a child raised by racist parents.
Is this abusive? I suspect that most of us would agree that it is; however, I'd argue that this case actually goes beyond child abuse. How? In addition to damaging the child, these parents are raising a child who is likely to be a potential threat to the rest of us. If you are going to stand by the "I have the right to raise my child however I see fit" claim, note that this is exactly what these parents typically say.
Now look at the parents who raise their child in a particular religious tradition. Like the first example, they might end up teaching their child a bunch of nonsense, ranging from incorrect information about the natural world to magical (i.e., supernatural) rubbish. But like the second example, they do this because they genuinely believe it to be true. Worse, like the second couple, they teach hatred and exclusion. "But Christianity/Islam/Judaism is about love!" How is fostering an us-and-them mentality where children are taught that they are members of a "chosen" group - an island of good surrounded by evil - who must adhere to ancient superstition or risk the hell to which all the nonbelievers are condemned, about love?
Is this abusive? In other words, is raising a child to value irrationality (i.e., faith) over reason and to accept an inherently divisive belief system a form of abuse?
An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was edited in 2018 to remove several broken links and correct a few typos.