New Internationalist

Suffer little children

Issue 370

Religion is not always on the side of the angels, suggests Marilyn Mason.

Everywhere, children’s rights are disregarded and childhood is threatened by poverty, war and disease. Religions too often misuse their power and add to children’s problems. Of course, the secular world fails children too. But religion does seem to contribute to the damage when one might have hoped for better.

Is there something peculiar to religion, I wonder, that encourages acts that no reasonable, humane individual should tolerate? Perhaps it is the pernicious belief of some faiths that children are born sinful, destined for hell, and that ‘to spare the rod is to spoil the child’. Perhaps it is the fatalism that often accompanies faith, the idea that suffering is God’s will, to be accepted without complaint and compensated for in the afterlife. Within some religions there lurks a distrust of human nature, and particularly of sexuality, that causes a misogyny damaging to girls in particular. Whatever the roots, religious groups have generally lagged behind in recognizing children as autonomous individuals with rights and interests distinct from those of their parents and communities.

The Christian churches have a poor record on physical abuse; indeed Christian conservatives are among the few remaining supporters of corporal punishment in the westernized world, probably because of their belief in original sin and the literal truth of the Bible, with its frequent references to physical punishment of children:

Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.’ (Proverbs)

Most notorious, of course, has been the scandal of child sex abuse by Catholic priests, aggravated by the habit the Catholic church shares with other powerful authoritarian institutions of first ignoring, then denying and covering up, problems. Protecting the innocent and telling the truth seemed less important than preserving the reputation of the Church, now of course doubly damaged.

In another Christian denomination, the tragic torture and murder of Victoria Climbié went undetected partly because the North London Universal Church of the Kingdom of God congregation believed that the eight-year-old brought to them was possessed by evil spirits. Their credulous pastor prayed and fasted, but took no useful action. Fears of offending and being accused of religious discrimination have encouraged, for example, social workers to take a relativistic approach to practices that would normally be condemned. Forced marriage, for instance, usually involves deception and violence or threats of violence against the young, removal from educational opportunities, and may involve underage sex or rape – but religious tradition is invoked by families to support the practice and to demand toleration. Children sent to poorly regulated mosque ‘schools’ may also be abused. Young children recite the Qur’an for punishingly long hours; pupils who are assaulted are silenced by fear of their teachers and may be told that the laws of the land do not apply inside the mosque; complaining parents are pressured by threats of ostracism.

Abuse of the young by religious groups often takes psychological forms, and assumes that children are the property of their parents. Parental rights to ensure ‘education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions’ (European Convention on Human Rights) always seem to override children’s rights to ‘freedom of expression? to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds?’ (Convention on the Rights of the Child). Children everywhere – apart from the US and Somalia which have not ratified the Convention – have this right to be exposed to new ideas and a range of worldviews and opportunities. In the US biblical literalists insist that evolution is not taught in schools and that sex education takes the form of ineffective ‘abstinence education’, trends emerging in Britain too. Parents have the right to withdraw their children from parts of the school curriculum of which they disapprove: sex education, religious education that goes beyond their own worldview, and even, in the case of some religious sects, anything involving modern technology. The right to opt out of worship or classes on grounds of conscience is not extended to children themselves.

It is doubtful that children’s rights are fully recognized in the private and publicly funded faith-based schools that are expanding so rapidly in many parts of the world. Many of these exist to support and perpetuate one religion, not to enable the ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion? [including] freedom to change his religion or belief?’ that have been established internationally as human rights.

If children are born into religious families and educated in segregated religious schools, can they really be prepared for life in a plural and complex world, or have the chance to develop their own beliefs? Many will not even have the opportunity to play a full part in society – some religious schools fit their pupils for little besides the seminary or the family business; or, in the case of girls, early marriage. Scottish inspectors recently criticized a Muslim school where ‘pupils had little chance of developing the abilities necessary to function as effective citizens in a multicultural society.’ Children are rarely consulted about their beliefs and ambitions before parents choose religious schools.

Children are in fact labelled with their parents’ religions and given very little choice in matters of belief, a practice that scientist and humanist Richard Dawkins ridiculed in a letter to The Independent in April 2001: ‘? if we hadn’t become historically habituated to the idea, we’d find it bizarre to classify small children by their inherited cosmological and ethical opinions. We’d be aghast at the branding of “Pro-Euro children” or “Neo-Keynesian children”, on the basis of their parents’ economic opinions. We presume that children either are too young to know what they think, or if old enough might disagree with their parents. Why, then, do we accept, without a murmur, the existence and separate education of “Catholic children”, “Protestant children”, “Jewish children” and “Muslim children”? Of course it is very convenient for the religions that we do.”

Many writers have described the intellectual and educational constraints of the narrow religious beliefs imposed on them. Claire Rayner recalls how unsatisfactory as a child she found her teachers’ and other adults’ answers to questions like ‘Why is there so much green in plants and trees?’ She was told that God had chosen to make them like that – to her no answer at all – and realized that she would have to seek the truth for herself with whatever help she could get.

The fear of damnation so vividly described in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was recently evoked again by broadcaster Terry Wogan describing his Irish childhood: ‘There were hundreds of churches, all these missions breathing fire and brimstone, telling you how easy it was to sin, how you’d be in hell. We were brainwashed into believing.’ Losing his faith at 17 was a relief.

For gay adolescents, the attitude of many religions adds to any difficulties in coming to terms with their sexuality. Imagine what a gay or lesbian teenager feels when Christian or Muslim traditionalist parents or teachers describe any physical expression of his or her sexual nature as sinful?

Of course some groups are resisting the stunting of children’s lives and denial of their rights.

In 2002, the London-based South Asia Solidarity Group and Asian Women Unite tackled the religious and patriarchal oppression of girls when they wrote: ‘For girls, single-faith schools can become yet another agency that polices their behaviour. Who defines these so-called values and culture? The state is once again identifying Asian tradition and values with those of the patriarchal forces within the community and excluding other voices that challenge those stereotypes?’

So, what can be done? As a humanist educator, I believe that good secular education offers the best, perhaps the only, hope of progress. Education can transcend religious differences, offering children the chance to meet and understand those with different beliefs. Even more importantly, it can offer them the opportunity to learn more about the world than their parents ever knew. Perhaps that is what some religions fear.

Marilyn Mason is Education Officer of the British Humanist Association. http://www.humanism.org.uk

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