What is child abuse

Ed Brayton wrote an open letter to Richard Dawkins after the, er, discussion at Pharyngula and Panda’s Thumb. Long story. There was a petition about religious indoctrination; Dawkins signed it; people had issues with the petition; P Z emailed Dawkins to raise the issues and ask if he really endorsed what the petition said; Dawkins said no, he didn’t, he hadn’t read the whole thing and it was a mistake to sign it, and he’d withdrawn his signature; Dawkins also posted on Ed Brayton’s post on the subject (but you have to scroll through some four million posts to find those from Dawkins). So Ed wrote this follow-up post, and a comment by Orac snagged my attention:

I keep asking myself the question: Why would Dawkins settle for such a tepid response to such an evil if he really, truly believes that religious indoctrination and labeling of children is often as harmful as child abuse?

My guess would be that it’s because it’s complicated: it is quite possible that religious indoctrination (at least in some cases) really is as harmful as child abuse, but also that it is harmful in a much subtler, more unobvious, long-term, invisible and intangible, difficult to demonstrate way than other kinds of child abuse are, and that that fact makes it pretty much impossible to interfere with the practice in general without being monstrously coercive and doing more harm than good. This also ties up with that ‘often’ – ‘that religious indoctrination and labeling of children is often as harmful as child abuse’ [emphasis added]. Often but not always. In short what we have is an opinion that religious indoctrination and labeling of children is often but not always as harmful as child abuse, and that religious indoctrination and labeling of children is often as harmful as child abuse but is not identical with child abuse; along with the fact that religious indoctrination and labeling of children, if and when harmful, will be harmful in much less self-evident ways than, say, beating. That constellation presents a problem. It’s an existing problem, and a real one – there are kinds of child abuse that are terribly harmful but are much much harder to detect, and thus do anything about, than physical abuse is. It’s a problem that is of its nature pretty much impossible to correct without massive totaliatrian intervention and/or surveillance – without some kind of social work system that would employ half the population, and be unworkable. In other words we all sort of know, though we don’t confront it or think about it much, that in fact there are huge numbers of children who are indeed abused but can’t be helped, because there is simply no workable way for anyone to know they are abused. There are parents who, accidentally or on purpose, mangle their children emotionally. It seems safe to guess that that’s not even rare. But how is anyone going to know that? And the same applies to religious indoctrination. I would say that certain kinds of abusive religious indoctrination – repeatedly telling a child she was going to hell to be tortured for eternity, for example – should be a reason for social workers to come calling. But it never will be, for the same reason that repeatedly telling a child she is stupid and ugly won’t be.

In other words, there’s a real problem, not a pseudo-problem. I think it’s wrong to think that Dawkins is just daft to say that religious indoctrination of children is often as harmful as child abuse, or that he’s mistaken in saying that and still saying that government intervention in the matter would be a horrible idea. He’s not being inconsistent, in my view, he’s simply recognizing that there are two evils and government surveillance of all families would be by far the worse of them. But that does not entail that the lesser evil is not an evil. It damn well is an evil. Every despised child who is fed and clothed enough and sent to school but is constantly told she is a worthless nuisance is an evil. Many problems of life can’t be fixed, but that doesn’t mean they’re not problems. It’s as well to be aware of that. Especially since some of them can be at least alleviated by education, by as Dawkins says consciousness raising, by changes in the culture, by altering the climate of opinion. There is growing awareness that emotional abuse is harmful; it seems probable that more people make an effort not to abuse their children that way than would have without that awareness; so the same could in principle be true of religion.

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