In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that religious belief is—what else?—delusional. He mocks the irrationality of believing in something that you cannot subject to scientific scrutiny; he rails against the so-called "immorality" of the Bible, like the sanctioning of slavery—untrue—and the alleged way that religion, especially Christianity, stands in the way of scientific progress—also untrue.
Just in case his readers are not convinced, however, he then pulls out the really big gun: Religious belief is a kind of child abuse.
By "child abuse" Dawkins is not, at least not principally, referring to the scandals involving sexual misconduct by Catholic priests. He means that teaching a child about Christianity can damage them psychologically and emotionally.
According to Dawkins, however "odious" sexual abuse is, he "suspect[s] that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place."
The "mental abuse" Dawkins refers to is the result of teaching children that nonbelievers will spend eternity in Hell. Dawkins calls this doctrine "an extreme threat of violence and pain" and "mental terrorism." He rhetorically asks, "If you can sue for the long-term mental damage caused by physical child abuse, why should you not sue for the long-term mental damage caused by mental child abuse?"
Obviously, what Dawkins writes about Catholicism is equally true about any Christian tradition whose teaching is grounded in Scripture.
Dawkins's accusations of child abuse are so absurd that it is hard to take them seriously. But someone will, so it is important to correct the record.
Yes, Christianity teaches that there is a Hell and that the unrepentant wicked will spend eternity there. But it also teaches that through His death and resurrection, Jesus freed those who believe in Him from that fate. To leave Jesus' saving work out of any discussion of Hell is a distortion of Christian teaching.
What is also unfair is to criticize Christianity for its teachings on the afterlife without discussing the atheistic alternative presumably preferred by Dawkins and the other "new Atheists": that is, when we die, we become worm food, and the universe soon forgets that we ever existed.
Now, that's the stuff of real childhood nightmares! The idea that there is nothing beyond the grave is the stuff of countless anxieties. And, as Dostoevsky wrote, without belief in a God who judges us, human evil goes unchecked—that is, there is no justice.
In addition, Dawkins's account of the effects of religion on children is, to put it mildly, incomplete. Surely, there is more to religion and children than teaching them about Hell.
There certainly is: Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton studied the impact of religious practice on American teenagers. They found kids who were described as "devoted" or "regular" participants in religious activities did better than their un-churched counterparts. They did better at school; they were more active in the community; and, contrary to what Dawkins says, they scored higher on measures of "emotional well-being."
In other words, Dawkins is completely wrong about the impact of faith on our kids—so wrong that, if he were consistent, he really might call atheism a form of "child abuse."
This commentary first aired on October 10, 2007, and is part three in a five-part series.
From BreakPoint®, December 27, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship