Is a religious upbringing child abuse?


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By Jennie Pollock

I became a Christian when I was eight years old. 

To many, this sounds like I was subject to brainwashing or even child abuse. How could responsible parents coerce their child into accepting their understanding of the world and force her to live by some standard of behaviour dictated by an invisible force? How can an eight-year-old make an informed choice about something as controversial as religion?

Well, whatever kind of upbringing you had, your parents did it too. And you will do it to your kids. In fact, it is happening every day. Maybe not around religion, but around all kinds of beliefs, values and life choices.

Let me give you an example. My parents also taught me to love books. They bought me books before my eyes were able to focus on the pages. They read to me before I understood the words. They filled the house with books, and enrolled me in the local library, and encouraged my earliest signs of recognising the shapes of letters. 

They did this because they loved books, and they believed that the ability to read would enable me to live well both on a functional level–to do well in school, and thus increase my chances of getting a university degree and a well-paid job—and on a recreational level. They believed reading would improve my chances both of success and of happiness.

No-one today accuses them of brainwashing me over that issue. But when I was taken for my first visit to school, the woman who was to be my first teacher was rather disapproving, and disbelieving, of my parents’ claim that I could read already. She was convinced that they must have taught me wrong, that I was too young to have really understood, that these matters were best left to fully qualified educators, and it was not the parents’ place to interfere. 

That was a fairly common belief in the seventies. It seems ridiculous now, doesn’t it? We look down on parents who don’t invest the time and energy required to help their kids learn to read before they enter school. It is incomprehensible that anyone would think reading was a bad thing.

I don’t suppose anyone had to convince you of the benefits of reading, they just seem self-evident. But how could something so obvious not have been apparent even 40 years ago?

Or think about clothing fashions. The sixties, seventies and eighties were really a hideous time for fashion, but the thing is, those clothes genuinely looked good at the time. I really did think shoulder pads, big hair and blue eye shadow looked nice, and normal, and I have to believe my parents thought the same about flower power and corduroy a decade earlier.

Were we brainwashed? Yes and no. There was no evil conspiracy by the shoulder-pad manufacturers to pipe subliminal messages to us in our sleep, but somehow some unknown force did shape our views on what was acceptable. 

This is a trivial example, but it is illustrative of much bigger ones. The things a culture finds acceptable to think and believe are always shifting. In the post-#MeToo world, the films and sit-coms of just a decade or two ago look so problematic on so many levels. We can’t believe we used to think like that. It is so much the norm now to accept and celebrate the lifestyles of all different kinds of people, respect differences and value diversity, that we simply can’t comprehend that there was a time when good people didn’t agree. 

My point is that the things you consider right and wrong are not necessarily eternal, universal truths. You have a worldview, and most likely you have never really thought much about where it came from. The way you look at the world and understand right and wrong is not neutral or automatic or self-evident. You didn’t come into the world with a fully formed worldview – it has been shaped by your circumstances, your experiences, your education and your relationships. And if you have children you will feel duty-bound to teach them your belief system, and the associated set of behaviours.

Because the worldview given to me by my parents was not the culturally accepted one of the day, as I grew older I was forced to examine it more carefully. I examined the Bible’s claims more closely, and both my experience and the literature convinced me of their truth. So while some may accuse me of having been brainwashed into believing someone else’s worldview, ironically, I have probably over the years been forced to consciously choose it more than most people choose their belief systems. It’s much easier to go along with the accepted view of how the world is than to challenge it. 

Introducing a child to Christianity is no more brainwashing than introducing them to books, flared trousers, Ed Sheeran or tolerance. The purpose of parenting – and of life, to a certain extent – is to help those you have influence over to live well. We do that by exposing them to the things we believe make for a good life, and by giving them the freedom to assess those claims and decide for themselves, possibly changing their tastes, passions and beliefs many times as they grow in maturity and experience. 

Exposing our kids to our beliefs, then, is less of a problem than the fact that many full-grown adults wander through life blindly accepting the dominant cultural views of the moment. Have you ever examined why you believe the things you do? Or do you just accept them as the things all right-thinking people believe in? After all, chances are you’ve been brainwashed too.

If you’d like to explore some of these questions further, it is not too late to join the Salt Course, a six-week course exploring Christianity.

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Question or comments? Email Jennie