Religion and Harm: Examining the Claims 


“Religion is akin to child abuse.”

That’s the common assertion anyway. Thing is, it is itself a religious belief, a dogmatic belief at that. So, by its own logic it is harmful to teach it.

The question that needs to be answered is obvious: is this true. If it were, we should be able to statistically document it as a fact. There should be some objective means of verifying the claim.  Often the ones making the claim fail to substantiate the burden and shift it onto the person demanding evidence in support of the assertion.

The most often cited scholarly study used to support the claim is one published in 2014 that, according to its abstract,

…suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s dif-ferentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.

I would argue that, at one level, the argumentation in the study makes assertions that it doesn’t demonstrate as true and gets perilously close if not straying into being circular, but that’s worth a post in itself to demonstrate. The problem is that the study is on preschool and kindergarten age children. I assume that the vast majority of children that age have difficulty with the issue, but then we start delving into matters of presuppositions.

This post, will be responding to specific claims made in this post on the blog of Audrey Moffitt, which is written as a college research paper. Titled, “The Harms of Raising Children Religiously”, it begins somewhat benignly,

Religion is the norm in Western society; over 75% of Americans are religious, with 70% of Americans affiliating with Christianity. Given that the majority is religious, there is a commonly held notion that the best way to raise the quintessentially morally-sound, well-adjusted child is through religion.

Let’s just say, for the sake of the argument, that’s a true belief. We could make a very compelling argument that, given a recent study, it is reasonable to draw such a conclusion. But then, she goes sideways,

Teaching religion and faith may have some benefits in households with young children, but it also has been shown to have adverse effects as well.

We would have to have substantiation for such an assertion, as well as coherent grounds for defining terms such as “adverse effects”. This is where the above mentioned study and the problems with its reasoning comes into question.

Her opening paragraph continues,

Any kind of religion can harm a child in their formative years of development, those years being when children are most susceptible to influence while learning social, cognitive, and emotional skills, but the most dangerous harm comes from religiously conservative beliefs and ideas.

The problem with this statement is that it is a statement is conveying a religious belief: it falls into its own trap.    Notice that it asserts that, “… the most dangerous harm comes from religiously conservative beliefs and ideas.” This is a statement that will need hard substantiation.

She states,

The widely held misconception that religion is the best way to raise children is often supported with the claim that raising children in a Christian household results in “better behaved” kids who “appear happier,” as they exhibit “better behavior, self-control skills and social skills.”

She cites an article reporting such a claim, but misrepresents how it’s conclusions were reached stating that the researchers only interacted with only the parents when they, in fact, surveyed both parents and teachers of the children. This misrepresentation of the study invalidates her conclusion in trying to reject the study.

She brings up the above mentioned study of the difference between religiously raised and secularly raised children in dealing with stories, but does not interact with its own flaws and reasoning.

She then cites a blog post by a sociology and secular studies professor (do you have a sense of some possible bias in that?). She uses this to attempt to leverage the assertion that religious beliefs produce,

…negative impacts continue on throughout adolescence and into adulthood.

The problem is that the article she is drawing this from is a recounting that a father had with his daughter while on a trip to a historical site: a centuries old Roman Catholic mission in California that contained a number of rather graphic depictions of the crucifixion of Christ, to which he asks,

[How] does a secular parent explain such gore to a five year old?

It’s nice that he admits that he doesn’t have the necessary framework to explain such to his child, even as a historical event, which was the way that I explained to my own children, only unpacking the theology of it as they grew up. His article then proceeds to set up a number of misrepresentations that are beyond the scope of this post, the problem is that it is just the professor’s own opinion, it contains no research and no data.

In the end, she simply ends up repeating herself and not presenting any hard data that can back up the claims put forward.

Does this mean that I totally disagree with some of the claims that are made? No, I have seen the damage done by a rigid, unthinking fundamentalism. The problem is that those experiences, in a very small segment of the overall religious population, are often used to broad brush the entire endeavor. In the end, I am ultimately opposed to misrepresentation, poisoning the well, and fallacious reasoning. This post presents nothing authoritative in order to draw its conclusions.

Does this mean that religion is not harmful?

In order to answer that question meaningfully, we need to dig into presuppositions and follow them out to their logical conclusions.

Image source.

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