My daughter ran out of the large room, screaming in tears.
“Why did you bring me here?!” she sobbed. “Why?!”
She was five years old at the time, and just about as traumatized as I’d ever seen her.
It truly was a vault of horrors: blood, pain, anguish, wounds, gashes, torn flesh. Carcasses everywhere. And she was terrified.
Let me back up and explain.
It was about eight years ago. Our older daughter had a school assignment to visit a California mission. Built by the Catholics in the 1700s and 1800s, the California missions are a vital part of California history. And so we were excited to take our daughters to check one out, about 20 miles from our home.
And the mission was lovely: beautiful landscaping, old buildings, indigenous flowers, a trickling fountain. And then we walked into a large hall -- and that’s when my younger daughter lost it. The space was full of crucified Jesuses. Every wall, from floor to ceiling, was adorned with wooden and plaster sculptures of Jesus on the cross: bloody, cut, and crying in pain. Some were very life-like, others more impressionistic. But all exhibited a tortured man in agony. My daughter had no context to understand it; she had no idea what Christianity was all about and had never been exposed to this most famous killing in history. She just saw what it objectively was: a large torture chamber. And she burst into tears and ran out.
I followed her outside, and once I had caught up with her in the courtyard, she wanted any explanation.
But how does a secular parent explain such gore to a five year old? Um, well, you see…there are millions of people who think that we are all born evil and that there is an all-powerful God who wants to punish us forever in hell -- but then he had his only son tortured and killed so that we could be saved from eternal torture. Get it?
The whole thing is so totally, horrible, absurdly sadistic and counter-intuitive and wicked. Not to mention baldly untrue.
And ever since that day, I’ve been acutely aware of the ways in which certain doctrinal aspects of Christianity can be harmful for children.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are some specific ways in which the more ardent/literal forms of Christianity can potentially harm children:
* Christianity teaches children that they are intrinsically evil; they did nothing wrong, but just by being born and being alive, they are evil. This is a terrible thing to teach children, not only because it is false, but because it is the exact wrong message children should be taught, which is that they are intrinsically wonderful, noble, and lovable, and that they have boundless goodness inside them.
* Christianity teaches children that there exists a powerful, evil Devil. A most dangerous demon. Beware! This horrible falsity infuses their childhood with needless fear and dread, and teaches them that the world is a dangerous place, with a malevolent demon lurking in the wait. In my own research, I’ve interviewed many adults who describe the whole Satan thing as a decidedly traumatic element of their children, and in some egregious cases, unambiguously abusive.
* Christianity teaches children that God killed his own child to make up for our wickedness. In other words, we are evil, and by killing his own child, our evil is somehow wiped away and forgiven. Our guilt is cleansed. But how does that work? If I abuse my wife, and then a cop comes over and kills my son, does that atone for the wickedness I committed against my wife? How so? Only I can atone for my own wrongdoings and harmful actions. If I abuse my wife, I need to make amends in order to earn her forgiveness. I can’t kill our cat instead. And besides, why couldn’t God forgive us without killing his son? Does he require a blood sacrifice, like some pagan ogre? The entire story of Jesus “dying for our sins” makes no moral or ethical sense, and it is an extremely confusing/disturbing tale to tell our children.
* Christianity teaches children that those who accept Jesus as their personal savior are good/saved/going to heaven and those that do not accept Jesus as their personal savior are sinful and destined for hell. This can cause children to feel smug, superior, self-righteous, judgmental, and to look down upon and condemn others – be they kids on the schoolyard, neighbors, or even relatives.
* Christianity teaches children that masturbation is evil. It is not. It is natural, normal, and healthy. And pleasurable. Teaching children to feel guilty or ashamed of masturbating, teaching them that doing so is disapproved of by a son-slaying God, and can even land them in hell – this is all nonsense, but more than that, potentially abusive.
I could go on – but that’s enough for now.
And despite everything that I’ve said so far, I could surely write many pages on all the good that certain forms of Christianity can do for children; Christianity can provide comfort and hope for children in dire straits, it can prod children to be charitable and altruistic, it can develop within children an ability to be forgiving. I would certainly not argue that all forms or manifestations of Christianity are harmful; I myself attended a progressive Episcopalian Christian summer camp every year of my childhood – and loved every minute it. The camp was full of smiles, warmth, and water fights, with nary a word about devils or sins to be heard. Many versions of Christianity focus on Jesus’s ethical teachings, foster love, and bring out the best in our kids.
But we know all this. The notion that Christianity is good for kids has been trumpeted for centuries, virtually unchallenged and uncontested.
What hasn’t been trumpeted nearly enough – nor studied nearly enough -- is the potentially dangerous aspects of Christianity, aspects that stem from the very core/central tenets of the faith.
As a secular parent, I believe that we need to talk more openly about the potential harm Christianity can do to kids – not just the potential good. We mustn’t shy away from such skeptical scrutiny for fear of offending people.
For further reading, I’d recommend Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment by Janet Heimlich, Forced Into Faith by Innaiah Narisetti, Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse by Philip Greven, and my own Faith no More: Why People Reject Religion.