I’m one of those people who wish that theists and atheists could just bury the hatchet and move on; I, personally, would benefit greatly from such a cease-fire, and I have no doubt that there would be plenty of atheists with theist friends and family who would benefit as well. I’m also one of those people wishing there were a magic button to push, or wand to wave, or lever to pull to make all weddings and births and holidays and deaths free of religious strife. Given the chance, I would pull that lever in a heartbeat…if such a lever existed, I think it would be more useful than a god.
Earlier this month, I saw the infamous Hillary Adams beating video, where a 16-year-old girl was beaten viciously with a leather belt by her father, a family court judge in Aransas County, TX. After watching it, the entire, horrifying, awful seven minutes of it, I was just sickened. Sickened that someone would feel it appropriate or justified to beat a child like that in any situation, sickened by his profession, sickened by his subsequent comments… but mostly I was sickened by how familiar the situation was to me.
I knew people who were beaten with all manner of weapons for minor to major infractions: belts, switches, paddles, wooden spoons, and spatulas. To them, parenting in this way is both a God-given right and a responsibility of the parent. And the household I was raised in was not what I would consider fundamentalist or extremist in any sense. My siblings and I were pretty normal kids with loving parents who came to my soccer games and school plays and always gave me a bit of money to go to those rock concerts they hoped were a fad. My parents are genuine, nice people… but the things that came from their church’s pulpit often horrified me.
Recently, I went back and attended a church service with them. On the day I was there, the church was performing a “child dedication ceremony” –- different from a baptism in the sense that the parents are being placed with the responsibility of raising the child according to Biblical principles. Choosing to participate in the ceremony indicates that the church members have a responsibility to ensure that the parents follow through. From my understanding, it’s a quite common practice in churches that reject infant baptism.
It wouldn’t have been a big deal… except for the fact that the “Biblical principles” that the preacher cited should have sent spidey-senses tingling down the spines of Amnesty International members around the world. The stuff was heinous.
Red flags were flying all over my mind when he opened the ceremony with an anecdote about a parent whose child had made a huge turnaround after the father converted to Christianity and adopted discipline “the way God intended it.” The pastor said that the man had been “deceived” by, of all people, the child’s pediatrician, who had advised the man not to employ corporal punishment. The pastor went on to ask the congregation if they would rather “parent the way the world wants them to” or if they wanted to “enjoy the blessings of parenting according to God’s will.”
He went on to make his case for corporal punishment by citing the following verses (conveniently organized in one place here):
- Prov 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
- Prov 19:18: “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.”
- Prov 22:15: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.”
- Prov 23:13: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.”
- Prov 23:14: “Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”
- Prov 29:15: “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”
This pastor is not alone, either. Here’s Focus on the Family’s Chip Ingram:
“When you spank, use a wooden spoon or some other appropriately sized paddle and flick your wrist. That’s all the force you need. It ought to hurt — an especially difficult goal for mothers to accept — and it’s okay if it produces a few tears and sniffles. If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t really discipline, and ultimately it isn’t very loving because it will not be effective in modifying the child’s behavior.”
It’s a commonly held belief that spanking will help mold a child’s character.
It doesn’t achieve that goal, but there is one thing that this tactic is remarkably good at: obedience and fear.
Instead of being able to explore right from wrong and discern it for themselves, scores of Christian children are being subtly taught that obedience to authority means avoiding punishment — not that it’s morally correct to avoid the behavior in question. Like so many others, I was obedient in order to avoid physical punishments (and, later, removal of privileges), which led me to focus more on finding the right path through the punishment maze rather than sorting out what I actually believed for myself.
The crux of the issue lies in the rabid desire for children’s obedience — rather than a desire to help them grow and develop — in mainstream Christianity, and it is two-fold: One, it complicates children’s abilities to know who is deserving of respect. Two, it prevents children from developing sincere relationships with their parents. It is an unfortunate fact that babies have no choice in who brings them into this world and cares for them, and there is no “opt out” feature when it comes to childhood indoctrination. It’s not a real choice if one party is wielding a weapon.
So why care, as an atheist? As a feminist?
Since there are a million and one reasons flying around my head at the moment, I’ll give you two to chew on:
- Extolling the virtues of “Biblical discipline” while vilifying medical professionals creates a culture in which abuse is preferred and promoted as morally superior. Just as the issue of pedophilia in the Catholic Church is not limited to a few misled individuals, the promotion of corporal punishment of children is not limited to your Focus on the Family readers, or the few thousand people that have purchased Michael and Debi Pearl’s book. Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church had this to say about discipline in a 2002 sermon transcript:
“Proverbs 23:13-14, “Do not withhold discipline from a child. If you punish him with a rod, he will not die.” Okay, a spanking should not wound, mortally injure, kill a child. I’m not talking about that. It’s a sting. It’s not an abuse. They will not die. They should not die. Now, will they sound like they are dying?
He goes on to say that “correct” Biblical discipline is carefully enforced and used for correction, not punishment. That’s all well and good, but how far back does your arm have to wind up before you call it abuse? What angle? What tool? Is a wooden spoon ok to use? How about some rubber tubing? How sore does a butt have to be before we can say that a spanking was too much?
The issue is the imperative to perform physical punishment at all when legitimate, trusted organizations and studies suggest that there is little to no benefit at all from corporal punishment. Dr. Alan Kazdin of the American Psychological Association says:
“There is a good deal of research that has already been conducted that shows that anything beyond very mild physical punishment does not work in the long term and has negative consequences. While not all child development experts agree, my advice to parents is to avoid physical punishment altogether; there are simply more effective ways to teach and discipline your child.”
We need to get serious about aiming our Laser Beams of Reason at religious institutions that harm children; while Hillary Adam’s father claims that she waited seven years to upload the beating video in order to exact revenge, all I could think was that she had to wait seven years until she felt safe enough to take action. Too often, the emphasis on obedience and conformity silences the victims until they escape the environment. We need to understand that Hillary’s experience is not unique; it’s being sold by many Christian families as morally right and proper.
When it comes to the rights of children, I think it’s important to level all of our vinegar and contempt at organizations that harm them. While the anti-theist in me is pleased at the black mark on the Catholic Church due to the pedophilia scandal, my background and experience tells me that the work is not nearly over… and it’s not just Catholics and their dogma.
- Parenting with an emphasis on patriarchal hierarchy and the need for obedience divorces parents from the realities of developing children. In addition to being horrifying, it’s just kind of sad. Patriarchal family structures place undue pressure on the man to “perform” as the head of the household; women and children’s options are severely restricted, both immediately and long-term; children are forced to fear rather than respect the parents. Listen to how Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism puts it:
My parents trusted that God would fulfill his promise of a perfect godly family if they only followed his guidelines as taught by [Christian apologetics sources and parenting guides] No Greater Joy and Vision Forum. Somehow, though, they can’t seem to trust him with their children when their formulas go wrong. Instead, they have to fight tooth and nail to bring their erring children back to “the truth.” I think this may be born out of confusion as much as anything else. Their system didn’t work. Everything they built their lives around failed. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
In some sense, though, the actions of my parents and others like them make sense. After all, my parents aren’t used to trusting their children to God. Rather, they’re used to trusting that God has promised that if they raise their children just so their children will turn out to be just right. This idea puts my parents at the center, not God. They are responsible for how their children turn out, not God. And now that we’re grown, that habit may be difficult to kick.
All too often, I hear stories that span every inch of the spectrum of estrangement, from emotional estrangement (“I can’t connect with them because they don’t see me as a real person”) to literal, physical estrangement (“I no longer speak to/visit them”). Too often, I hear about the hurt that people have suffered, present or past, that prevents them from having any sort of intimacy in their relationships with their parents.
This dogma, in addition to being potentially physically harmful to children, can create needless and senseless emotional strife. Children are being harmed, but parents, too, are being cheated out of potentially healthy relationships directly because of their religious belief.
Parents are being led to believe, through lies, dogma, and misinformation, that children are objects that can be led and molded and “trained”, and this belief has devastating ramifications — while not as incendiary as child abuse, it should also give us pause when we consider the belief’s long-term effects.
After all, it would be nice to be able to write this whole thing off as a Christian problem within Christian culture; annoying, but largely harmless enough to allow them to continue. Unfortunately, the effects of abuse and poor parenting ripple through society in all-too-frequently quiet ways. I don’t want my neighbor believing that she needs to shut up and be subservient to her husband. I don’t want the children in my future classroom believing that the beatings they might be receiving at home are justified. I don’t want to work or associate with the kind of men that needs to have a chokehold on his home — none of those scenarios add more scientists, teachers, or playwrights to society. If anything, we are robbed of the collective benefit that the women who could have become scientists and teachers and playwrights; we are robbed of who-knows-how-many children who could have gone on to do better, greater things had their options not been restricted by religious belief.
It’s not just those people who hurt and get hurt; it’s your coworkers and neighbors and friends and check-out clerks and lawmakers. For that reason, and for the betterment of The World At Large, the atheist movement should respond — loudly, and not in kind.