From Norman Levitt’s Prometheus Bedeviled:

[T]he authoritarian presuppositions that had to be defeated for democracy to emerge as our primary political paradigm were closely linked, and sometimes identical, with the obscurantist articles of faith that science had to sweep aside in order to gain its place at the center of our contemporary knowledge system…The entrenchment of dogmatic religion was (and, to some extent, still is) an important prop of a social order based on hereditary caste and class. Simultaneously, it was wedded to an epistemology that automatically excluded both the modes of inquiry on which science depends and the conclusions about the physical and biological universe to which it inexorably led.

This suggests, to me, a way in which religious indoctrination really can be seen as a kind of abuse – intellectual or cognitive abuse.

It’s not just the obvious: that dogmatic articles of faith represent a mistaken way to go after understanding about the world; it’s because dogma can’t be contradicted or refuted. That makes it a trap. It prevents, rules out, forbids, closes off precisely what we need, which is a permanent on-going process of questioning, examining, thinking, that goes with a sense that anything and everything can be questioned – that there is nothing walled off in a shrine, a sanctum, an ark of the covenant, a kaaba, a holy of holies.

When that is done to children, it is a form of cognitive or epistemic abuse. It trains children who are, precisely, too young to be skeptical of what they are told, to think in the wrong way – it disables a basic part of their cognitive functioning before they’ve had a chance to form it. Since they are too young even to be able to resist, this is a cheat, an abuse of power via age-difference. It’s like foot-binding in that way – like distorting young soft bones into a deformed, disabled shape.

In other words it creates an intellectual disability, a mental handicap. It’s similar to handicapping children for begging purposes, as some desperate parents do. Some former children can overcome the handicap later, of course, but many never get the chance. This is a basic injustice. It’s not one that can be fixed by laws or social workers, but that does not mean it’s not a real one.

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