Religion is Harmful - Hell is Child Abuse
The subject of religious teaching as child abuse is a very touchy one, one that immediately evokes a knee jerk reaction. Some more extreme atheists will argue that all religious indoctrination is child abuse while some more extreme believers will argue that religious teaching is never abusive unless accompanied by physical abuse.
This subject of indoctrination is very personal to me because I myself was indoctrinated and I know of many other of my fellow atheists who were as well. For many religious belief becomes a part of your identity, an integral interwoven part of who you are, not merely a badge you wear. For some there is hope and beauty in the sorts of beliefs they were taught but for many others the experience is less than pleasant and can have lifelong repercussions and leave psychological scars.
In this hub I am going to talk about my own experiences with being indoctrinated. Far from isolated incidents there are millions of children around the world being indoctrinated right now with life altering beliefs that are unequivocally negative. Many other former believers have talked about their own stories and while I have mentioned some of these stories before they bear repeating. Particularly I am going to focus on the common Evangelical teachings of the End of the World, Demonic Possession and Hell and how not only can they do damage but they can be a form of psychological child abuse.
I feel the need to once again restate my No True Scotsman disclaimer here, those who would argue that “no true Christian” or “no true Muslim” would indoctrinate their child in the way I am talking about are committing a fallacy. I am not arguing that all religious instruction is abusive or that religion can only be harmful ever in all situations. I am not arguing that we treat religious parents with malice, even those who may unwittingly be abusing their children. Nor am I writing this out of bitterness or anger at the way I was raised.
This series exists to provide examples of how harmful religion can be to those that would blindly claim that religion is a force for good in the world. You may argue that much of this is anecdotal but we are dealing with a topic that is very much about the experiences of people and I know that I am not alone in these experiences.
Also language and sexual content, as well as Hell, are in this hub, and as such you get to enjoy it with ads turned off, yay for content filters!
Hell, Fear, Guilt and Dread
I, and millions of others, were taught about Hell when we were still children. Part of what inspired this hub was a recent Calvinist attempt to create a kids book about Hell called The Cage. Filled with disturbing and frightening imagery the goal of the book is clear, to give children an idea of the Calvinist concept of what Hell is like. While some forms of Christianity give children a free pass to heaven the form that I was raised in, a brand of Pentecostal Christianity, taught that the Age of Accountability was twelve years old.
Some 5 Years Old Kids Might Go to Hell?
Of course I was frightened of the idea of Hell long before twelve, as any human being would be. Hell was a dark place of endless torture from which there was no escape. There was no hope, no rest, and all it took to get there was one false move, one sin, one day without repentance. Salvation was not something assured, rather it was something you had to continuously, endlessly, reaffirm, begging on your knees weekly if not daily for forgiveness because if even a single un-forgiven sin was in your heart at death you ran the risk of burning forever.
Not only did you have to be on guard from your own sinful fallen nature but Satan was out with mouth agape ready to swallow you up, with pitfalls and temptations ready to drag you from the straight and narrow. The enemy was everywhere, and few were those who would actually receive God's mercy in the end.
I was not an adult learning this, I was a child, being told that I had to live right, stay right with God, or else when the Rapture came I would be forced to live through the tribulation. During the tribulation any Christian who remained loyal to God got their head chopped off by the Beast. So there I am, a mere child, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, being told that Jesus is coming any day and that if I have the slightest sin in my heart, be it a dirty joke, a sexual thought or a little white lie, I would either face seven years of horrible wrath from God or be decapitated for my faith. And of course if I forsook God for any reason I would end up in the place of everlasting fire for eternity, to have my burning flesh added to the “smoke that ascendeth up forever and ever”.
The Smoke from their Torment Ascendeth Forever
Sexual "Sin" and Hell
It is not an accident that the Age of Accountability is so young. It usually coincides with puberty and the start of sexual desire which, in the ancient world when lifespans were painfully short, was considered the start of adulthood. So as a teenager I was pumped full of fear and guilt regarding these sexual desires from all sides. At Church, at home from my Father, from the pages of the Bible itself where Jesus likened sexual desire to adultery a crime punishable by death in the Old Testament. Even masturbation was considered sinful because it was a selfish and lustful act.
I can remember nights of tearful guilt-ridden prayer asking Jesus to take away my sexual desires, to make it so that I didn't even want to masturbate, and to forgive me for doing so. For years any sexual act I engaged in was accompanied by guilt of the most excruciating kind. So much so that I wondered sometimes whether God should just give up on me, whether there was any forgiveness left. Fear of Hell drove me back to my knees time and time again, all because of perfectly natural desires that harmed no one.
Teaching someone that their natural desires are unnatural or are sinful abominations to be suppressed is drawing dangerously close to abuse and teaching a child that they are going to Hell for those new desires they feel and the new behaviors their natural sexual desires drive them toward IS emotional abuse. Why would you want them to feel ashamed of their bodies and their desires?
Sex was considered sinful unless it was between a husband and wife and all sex before or outside of marriage was considered sinful. And so rather than being told to start looking for a girlfriend, rather than being told to start developing the social skills necessary to form relationships I was basically told to go out and find a wife. This stunted my social growth quite a bit and exacerbated my already burgeoning social anxiety. But there was another aspect of Christianity that did even more damage to my motivation and desire to form long term relationships, the belief in the end of the world.
The End Times and Hell
One of the biggest anxieties I felt as a child was fear of the End of the World. I can actually recall being a child and asking my parents about the End of the World. Stupidly they recounted the story in the Book of Revelation in gruesome shocking detail, including one of the most chilling verses where the blood of God's wrathful slaughter flows so high that it touches the bridles of horses in the streets. It was pitched to me as a final battle where the faithful of God would finally put down the wicked government of the Beast and Jesus would ride in and end the world once and for all.
Most damaging of all was that this apocalypse was always a day away, always right around the corner - always ready to sneak up on you like a thief in the night. It was a terrorizing thought. Whenever I had doubts, or questioned my beliefs, or had what I believed to be sinful thoughts I would have to stop myself. It is a form of thought control, of mind control really, to tell a child that a wrathful King is watching from his throne and that every thought in your mind must be held captive to his commands. It'd be like telling a kid that not only would Santa give them coal for Christmas if they were naughty, but that Santa would tear out their entrails, blot out their eyes, rape their parent's in front of them, melt their skin off and then resurrect them to do it all over again for eternity. Hell and the impending Christian End Times are evil beliefs, sickening, despicable and manipulative and they are being taught to children right now.
Not only did this inflict me with guilt and revoke my freedom of thought but it impeded my desire to plan ahead. I have vivid memories of wondering to myself whether I should even plan for the future because of a sermon I'd heard saying that Christ would be back within the year And every year it was the same, every year Jesus was even closer to being back, the world tip-toeing toward Armageddon. I can remember the feeling of deep aching dread at the idea of going to Heaven, so much so that I became almost as afraid of Heaven as of Hell. I wanted to live my own life, I had no desire to see the End of the World or to know that some of my friends my roast forever in Hell.
Painfully I was told that the blood of those souls I failed to witness my faith to might be on my hands. That if I did not evangelize to my friends their trip to Hell for eternity might be my fault. This twisted and warped view got me to share “Jesus” with many of my friends.
Why would someone take heed for tomorrow when Christ advises against it? Rather, since the world is fallen and broken and ending any day now, there is no reason to attempt to fix the world or change your life or anyone else's life for the better (save selfishly saving brownie-points for Heaven). I can remember prayers asking Jesus to come quickly, “Come quickly Lord”. We were “prepared for the harvest” and just aching for the end of the World.
I can remember nightmares as a young teenager where I watched my younger siblings raptured away while I was left behind wondering why God had left me, wondering what sin I had committed that I had not repented of. Even as my faith weakened in my late teens and I became brave enough to question my beliefs I feared thunderstorms might bring the wrath of God and sometimes when hearing a plane fly overhead I wondered if God might rapture the pilot and send the plane crashing to Earth as the End began.
The End was on its way and that didn't simply mean that planning for the future wasn't necessary but it also meant that whatever future I did pick had to be chosen for me by God. Yes I can remember sermons about how God had given us all gifts and that all of us had to use those gifts for the glory of God. I remember when I turned eighteen I had finished my first attempt at a novel, a science-fiction story called Enigma, and given it to my Father to read. Essentially the story was PG rated with a very small smattering of bad language but that was too much for my Father, who handed it back to me and said “I can't read this” and gave me a diatribe about how I should start using my talents for God.
The only future I would be allowed to have was God's version of my future, whatever the hell that meant.
Left Behind on 9/11
I've probably told this story more than I've told any story but it bears repeating because it is a perfect demonstration of how fucked up indoctrination can be. On September 11, 2001 I was 13 years old and in my Middle School math class when an announcement came on. It was vague and didn't mention anything about airplanes rather all the announcer mentioned was that “something happened in New York... and it may be effecting the whole East Coast.”
My face blanched white and felt cold. I knew what this was. Instinctively I knew what it had to be. The Rapture was starting. I looked around to see if anyone in class was missing as class erupted into speculation and mindless chatter. No one was missing. I told myself that no one was raptured because we lived in such a fallen world and each of these kids was just as corrupt as I was. And I was corrupt wasn't I? I'd been left behind for one too many swear words, one too many dirty jokes, one too many erections while thinking about whatever girl in class I had a crush on.
My heart was deafening in my ears, it was so surreal wondering what had really happened. Was I right? Was my gut instinct correct? Was this the beginning of the end? Was I left behind?
We went to our next class, gym, and in the locker room I was shaking like a leaf as I got dressed. We came out and lined up and the gym teacher came out and explained what had really happened was a hi-jacking, two planes had been flown into the twin towers and two other planes might have been hi-jacked. Hi-jacked, taken by terrorists. Out loud I exclaimed something along the lines of “Oh, that's all it is.” and wiped the sweat from my brow.
When I arrived home my Father had the Bible open to a passage about the Whore of Babylon burning and all the merchants of the Earth mourning. I hadn't escaped the End of the World, for as my Father told me, it was right around the corner, Revelation was coming true, and God would be back any day now.
I can remember having a fear of becoming demon possessed. While some versions of Christianity hold that the saved cannot be possessed the version I was raised with did not. In fact Satan was actively looking for ways to possess the faithful and lead them astray. Scare tactics were common in Church services. I can remember being told that several teenagers became possessed by a demonic entity after watching the Blair Witch Project. Anything and everything was a door for demons who were apparently everywhere and far more prevalent than God. Rock music, Pokémon cards, Magic the Gathering and Scooby Doo were among the demonic evils to look out for. And of course Dungeons and Dragons which lead supposedly kids to become possessed and either kill themselves or murder others.
There are millions of superstitious people who actually believe in the Dark Age idea of demonic possession. As with Faith Healing there are those who misidentify metal disorders in their children, mistakenly believing their child is possessed by a demon, and rather than deal with the mental issues of their child they neglect the medical well being of the child to pursue superstitious solutions.
Such beliefs dehumanize the mentally ill, labeling them as in league with dark forces, and make light of attempts to use medical science to deal with their issues preferring a hypothesis about mental disorders that should have died out hundreds of years ago.
Furthermore it is terrifying to tell a child that just beyond what their eyes can see lurks a dimension of inhuman monsters the only protection against which is stricter and more fervent faith in God and even then you are not completely safe. This is another tactic used to frighten people into believing and just as with Hell and the End Times it is based upon irrational fantasies/nightmares and ignorance and misunderstanding of the natural world.
The depraved idea of Hell is not something that I was alone in being indoctrinated about. Millions of children, not just within Christianity but within Islam as well, as taught about the fires that await apostates, sinners and those who fail to keep the faith. Indoctrination creates a psychological dependency, a need for the tenants of that religion, to protect and act as an emotional crutch to those who are indoctrinated. How can you stay safe from Hell without Jesus cleansing blood?
As Christopher Hitchens once said religion convinces people that they are sick and commands that they be well or else face eternal consequences. We are all, according to the beliefs of Christians and Muslims, in a fallen and evil world of fallen evil people, born into sickness but commanded - under penalty of eternal torment – to be well.
It is no surprise then that rather than being widely accepted across the globe, like certain scientific truths, religion tends to follow geographical lines. A person born in the United States is most likely to be some kind of Christian. Someone born in Iran is almost assuredly going to be Muslim. Someone born in India will likely be a Hindu. These beliefs spread themselves, infect people, without any regard for whether or not they are genuinely true for all people.
While some learn a hippie-dippie version of religion that might make them feel good others are not so lucky. For many people religious beliefs can stunt social growth and social well being, create guilt, fear and dread and leave emotional scars that can take years to deal with or even remain for a lifetime. There are hundreds if not thousands of stories like my own, detailing how damaging religious belief can be. Parents who teach their children this sort of stuff usually don't know they are doing anything wrong. Their own beliefs are likely in place because of their parents, and so on, through the generations. But the cycle of ignorance can be broken and the beauty of reality found buried beneath the rubble of fucked up religious nonsense.