Religious Freedom, Equality, and Child Abuse

By Sherry Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss a German court's decision to outlaw non-medical circumcisions of male children.  I conclude that the prohibition is under-inclusive relative to similar secular harms that parents inflict on their children.  In this post, I want to explore a different sort of under-inclusiveness that we find in the German court's prohibition of circumcision:  an under-inclusiveness relative to religious harms that courts and legislatures regularly tolerate, when the religion in question is a dominant one.

What harms does religion inflict?  One need not be a devotee of the so-called fundamentalist atheists (such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens) to acknowledge that some religious teachings can cause significant distress in young children.  Religious parents frequently teach their offspring that God is watching their every move and surveilling their every thought, searching -- like a CIA agent gone rogue -- for anything sinful.  If the search indeed turns up something sinful, then the punishment will in some instances promise to be an eternity of burning in Hell.

For a young child, this threat can be terrifying.  Because children have a more difficult time controlling their thoughts and their behavior than adults do, moreover, children are likely to experience intense guilt, shame, and fear about what are really quite ordinary thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in growing children.

Depending on the particular religion, examples of commonplace but sinful thoughts and behavior might include doubts about the existence of God, sexual fantasies or dreams about people of the same sex or  opposite sex,  hatred toward a parent or a teacher, masturbation, and the list goes on.  Consider the seven deadly sins within Christian tradition:  wrath, pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, envy, and greed.  Many of the acts and feelings that religions designate as sinful are among the most common human acts and emotions, and the latter include the seven deadly sins.  Adults (perhaps) understand this reality and regard the desire to be without sin as an aspiration rather than a realistic mandate.  A child, however, may perceive the inevitability of his own sins as a reflection of something uniquely wrong with him, something that consigns him to eternal agony in damnation after his death.

A religious person might object that Hell is real, and that telling his children about it is the kindest thing he can do to protect them.  It might be similarly traumatic for a child to learn about pedophilia, but child sexual abuse is a threat, and keeping this truth from a trusting and vulnerable child might place her in harm's way.

From the perspective of a religious person, then, it is necessarily right to instruct one's children in a manner that will maximize the ability and motivation of  those children to conform their behavior to God's will and thereby court Heaven and avoid Hell.  From the perspective of a secular person or a member of a religious faith that rejects another religion's particular requirements, by contrast, an action that causes physical or emotional distress and trauma in a child -- religious circumcision or lessons about the consequences of sin in the afterlife -- will look like glorified child abuse.  For a Jewish take on religion-as-child-abuse, Shalom Auslander's books make very interesting reading.

It is far too easy, then, for one culture, whether religious or secular, to look critically at the conduct of other cultures, while finding much less obvious the comparable harms perpetrated by its own culture.  This is the meaning of "hypocritical" -- being insufficiently critical, when it comes to looking at oneself.

When examining religious practices that seem wrong or abusive, we must accordingly proceed with humility and an awareness of our own shortcomings.  This does not mean that we can never judge a religious or cultural practice that falls outside of our own traditions.  We must sometimes do so to protect those whom Professor Karima Bennoune has insightfully called "the others' others", individuals who live within a minority community that itself encounters discrimination.  But we must do so with care and sensitivity, lest we be guilty of hypocrisy and, thus, of de facto discrimination against those who differ from ourselves.