In the Image of God

I have written previously about many different religious beliefs that cause harm to human lives, but today I intend to target a new one. This is the belief that human beings have not come into existence as the result of natural processes – or at least, not solely as the result of natural processes – but rather, that we were created “in the image of God” and owe our existence to him.

On its surface, this seems like an unobjectionable and even noble teaching, one that has been used as justification to oppose violence and other outrages upon human dignity. But it has an insidious corollary, which is this: if we were created by God, so the religious say, then we do not own our own lives. We are not the masters of our own fate, the captains of our own destiny. Rather, this teaching makes us out to be slaves, possessions, with no rights except the “right” to obey the will of God – where the role of “God” is, as always, played by the beliefs of the society in which a person lives, the church authorities whom they obey, and the teachings they have been indoctrinated with.

This tyrannical belief manifests itself in a variety of ways among the monotheistic religions. One of its more prominent outgrowths is the Christian opposition to euthanasia, the desire to deny terminally ill people the ability to end their lives with dignity and without needless suffering. However, an even more widespread implication is the belief that human beings, and women in particular, should not exercise control over their own reproductive systems but should seek to have as many children as they possibly can.

Although this fertility-cult teaching has long been embraced by the Roman Catholic church – with the appalling result that millions of children are born each year into already desperately malnourished and overcrowded areas of the world – it is now making inroads into Protestantism as well, under the movement name “Quiverfull”, a reference to Psalm 127. If anything, devotees of the Quiverfull movement are even more extreme than Catholics, eschewing not just standard methods of contraception but also the rhythm method.

Quiverfull families with a dozen children or more are not unknown. And as one might have expected, the movement also comes with a large dose of oppressive, anti-woman rhetoric about how it is a wife’s job to be submissive, to obey her husband under all circumstances, and to turn her body over to him for his use and control. Mary Pride, one of the founders of the Quiverfull movement, wrote in one of its seminal books The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality: “My body is not my own.” And it is safe to assume that many of her followers share this attitude. (The most pernicious power of religion is its ability to persuade people to acquiesce in their own oppression.)

Devotees of the Quiverfull movement are extremely conservative as a rule, and usually choose to homeschool their children. This is one facet of a larger aspect of the movement, which is its stated goal to “take back” the nation and the world for Christianity by outbreeding followers of other belief systems. As an article by Kathryn Joyce in The Nation says:

In his 2004 column for the Times, David Brooks concluded that mothers like Welch and Mays are too busy parenting to wage culture war. A home-schooling mother of nine on the 2,700-family-strong online forum Quiverfull Digest (www.quiverfull.com) responded in irritation to Brooks’s misunderstanding of the movement’s aims. Raising a large family, she replied, was itself her “battle station,” as deliberately political an act as canvassing for conservative candidates, not to mention part of a long-term plan to win the culture war “demographically.”

…if just 8 million American Christian couples began supplying more “arrows for the war” by having six children or more, they propose, the Christian-right ranks could rise to 550 million within a century (“assuming Christ does not return before then”). They like to ponder the spiritual victory that such numbers could bring: both houses of Congress and the majority of state governor’s mansions filled by Christians; universities that embrace creationism; sinful cities reclaimed for the faithful; and the swift blows dealt to companies that offend Christian sensibilities.

Despite decades of evangelizing, Christian fundamentalists have failed to triumph in the war of ideas. Indeed, their numbers are shrinking, while nonbelievers are increasing. Quiverfull parents are a response to these trends; they see themselves as workers on a brainwashing assembly line, working to churn out more believers by raising huge families in an atmosphere of intense indoctrination and isolation from all outside viewpoints. It seems apparent that they value children not for their own sake, as loved members of a family, but as additional bodies that can be pressed into service to fight a culture war. In short, Quiverfull children are not considered people; as the movement’s very name implies, they are considered to be weapons.

The Quiverfull movement also serves as another tragic example of what happens when non-evidence-supported ideas are held and defended in the name of faith. Six or seven children, let alone a dozen or more, would be a major strain on any family – not just in terms of the parents’ ability to provide for their material needs, but in terms of the parents’ ability to give each child the individual love and attention they need to develop into healthy, normal adults. Yet most Quiverfull families are not wealthy, and many are grindingly poor. (A former member of the movement describes in stark terms the poverty and deprivation often suffered by these families, as well as the abusive methods of discipline some of them employ, although I think she speaks too soon in letting them off on other counts.)

This highlights, unintentionally, why it is so important to give women control over their own fertility and the size of their family through education and contraception, and what the good results are that ensue from doing this. Quiverfull families, on the other hand, usually scorn these concerns out of the belief that God will provide for their needs as long as they have enough faith. But there is no deity magically dispensing food and possessions, like Santa Claus, to those who believe in him, and these people’s adherence to this false and naive belief system causes needless suffering both for themselves and, more importantly, for their innocent children who did not make that choice. And this is true not only in terms of hunger and poverty. It is also true on an emotional level, because this theology encourages depression, bitterness, and low self-esteem – since if the family’s needs are not always magically provided for, which is bound to be the case at times, this will lead the parents to blame themselves since they obviously “didn’t have enough faith”.

The Quiverfull movement and other religious fertility cults pose a vexing problem for an enlightened and rational society. It seems wrong for any family to burden everyone else by taking so much more than their share of the common resources, but we can hardly allow their children to live in substandard and needy conditions because of their parents’ poor choices, and it would be a horrendous violation of individual liberty to make anyone submit against their will to means of controlling their fertility. For myself, I can’t come up with a good solution to this dilemma. Thoughts?

Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings
The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
ISIS Is Bleeding Human History
No, Belief in Satan Doesn't Make Us Moral
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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