Monday, March 1, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on “Is Religion Child Abuse?”

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city."

In Chapter sixteen, “Is Religion Child Abuse?” Hitchens questions the authority that religious leaders have over children.

Hitchens begins by recounting several scare stories told to children in order to get them to listen and obey their parents and religious authorities. Hitchens asserts that children are targeted specifically because they have not reached the age of reason. As Ignatius of Loyola said, “Give me a child until he is ten, and I will give you the man.” Since children do not have mature reasoning skills, it is “abusive” to manipulate them to immoral beliefs and practices. Hitchens claims that this is precisely what religions do.

With regard to immoral beliefs, Hitchens cites the church’s position on abortion. I have to admit, I was shocked as I tried to follow Hitchens’ logic here. (I will elaborate below.) Hitchens claims that science has thoroughly discredited the old claim that an embryo was merely part of a woman’s body, comparable to an appendix or a tumor. They are correctly called “unborn children.” However, recognizing this begins a discussion; it doesn’t end it. Since abortions happen naturally (we call them miscarriages), we can only assume that nature or god recognizes that there are certain circumstances in which it is undesirable or less beneficial for a pregnancy to result in a live birth. Contrary to this common sense, religions (and the Roman Catholic Church is the target here) have insisted upon a black-and-white stance on abortion and contraception, making IUDs “murder weapons.”

With regard to immoral practices, Hitchens cites genital mutilation—including both the Muslim practice of female circumcision and the Judeo-Christian practice of male circumcision. He exposes the disinformation about the health benefits of either of these practices and asserts that the “real” reason why they are practiced is to decrease sexual sensation and thus exercise control over the recipient’s sexual behavior.

I see three main points to this chapter. First, the thesis of the chapter is that compulsory religious education of children is child abuse. Supporting this thesis are the claims (1) that religious beliefs are immoral, and (2) religious practices are immoral.

Is compulsory religious education immoral? Is any kind of compulsory education of children immoral? I have two children whom I responsible for raising. Part of my parental responsibility is to teach my children the ways of the world and how they can be successful in it. So, I am teaching them to read, even if they don’t want to learn how to read. I will teach them how to count, even if they don’t want to learn how to count. I will teach them to play nice with others, to share toys, to work hard, to be persistent, to do their best, to be honest, to be charitable, to be a good friend, to look both ways before crossing the street, to wash their hands before dinner, to brush their teeth, to exercise, to pray, to pay their taxes, to participate in the government, to honor the elderly, and a whole slew of other things.

I will also tell them stories. I will tell them about my great grandfather who ended up in Pennsylvania because he got on a train and said, “Take me as far as this money will go.” I will tell them about my parents, and how my dad’s military career took us all around the country. I will tell them how I met their mother at my high school youth group. I will tell them about the founding fathers and how this country was formed on the principles of freedom and equality. I will tell them about human slavery and the racial inequalities that have haunted our country since its inception. I will tell them about how when I was a kid there was this place called the Soviet Union and how we all just assumed that the world would end when we eventually went to nuclear war with them. And yes, I will tell them that God created the world and that Jesus died for our sins.

Some of the things that I will teach my children will come from my religious convictions. Some will derive from my experience living in the context in which I have lived. If it’s not abusive for me to insist that my children get a dental check up every six months and that they get a medical physical every year, than it isn’t child abuse for me to insist that they be in church. Religion is a part of who we are, what we do, and what we believe. What else can any parent teach their children except the ways of the world as they have experienced it? That’s our calling as parents.

If compulsory education isn’t wrong in and of itself, then perhaps it is the religious content of that education that amounts to child abuse. Are the beliefs and practices of religion immoral?

The short answer is “yes, some times.” Any time that you make a broad, sweeping judgment like “religion” or “religious people,” you are going to find a mixed bag of beliefs and practices—some moral; some immoral. (Then again, that does raise the question of the standard for judging something to be “immoral.” Nobody thinks that their practices are immoral.)

So, what about the immoral practices that Hitchens cites? This is a tougher issue than he lets on. All cultures have liminal experiences through which they require people to go in order to become part of the group. Those who go through the process are stressed for a time, but they come out on the other side as “part of the group.” It is the shared traumatic experience that produces group solidarity. The best example that I can think of from our culture is the generation that went through World War II together. They were all stretched, and they have a solidarity that other generations can’t understand. (Think, if you played sports, of how the grueling practices and fierce competitions bonded your group.) Some liminal experiences in American culture are high school, learning to drive, college, and marriage. Other subgroups have experiences that bind them together—things like medical residencies, internships, graduate school, field work, dissertations, fraternity pledge week, etc.

Religious rites are liminal experiences. Some, like baptism, are relatively tame. Some, like female circumcision, are horrific to outsiders. But it’s these shared experiences that produce group cohesion. Groups are defined by insiders and outsiders, and the difference between the two is often determined by going through some kind of rite. So, are the rites abusive? That depends on how you define abuse. Harshness is not the same as abuse. A medical residency that requires you to work 70 hours per week is harsh, but few people would call it abuse. Two-a-days are harsh, but few would call them abuse. Compulsory military service is harsh, but few would call it a human rights violation.

The most extreme religious rite is female circumcision. It is performed on grown, pre-pubescent girls, and it is very painful. Following the procedure, sex also can be very painful. But it is also an ingrained part of some cultures, so that women who refuse to undergo the process are branded “whores.”

If you were a parent of a young girl in a culture that placed a high value on female circumcision, and your daughter said, “I don’t want to do it,” would you force her to do it? (Keep in mind that refusal to undergo the procedure would alienate her from her peers and make finding a husband difficult.) Let’s contextualize to America. What if your child didn’t want to go to school? Would you make him or her? (Of course you would.) What if your child had a physical deformity that could be treated with cosmetic surgery, only your child was afraid to have the procedure done—would you force the child, reasoning “you’ll thank me when you’re older”?

We need to be careful about judging cultures from the outside. We don’t understand why other cultures find female circumcision to be reasonable, therefore we find forced participation to be abusive. But these cultures do find it to be reasonable, or they would abandon the practice (every young girl who undergoes it has a mother who also went through it). Since I don’t come from a culture that practices female circumcision, I find the practice disturbing. But then I think of the Bible and God’s command to circumcise all adult male converts to Judaism. If I was thinking about converting to worshipping the true God, but the catch was that I would have to undergo an operation, would that be a deal-breaker?

I don’t think the question is as simple as Hitchens makes it out to be. As outsiders to the cultures that undergo female circumcision, we look on in disgust and say, “No way! I would never make my daughter do that! Those people are barbarians!” If we were part of that culture, we might think differently.

There is no theological justification for male circumcision in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Apparently, there is no medical benefit to it, either. It was just something people did to identify them as “Jewish”—a liminal experience that produced group cohesion and distinguished outsiders from insiders. (Note also that this practice is not a Christian practice. I don’t know why non-Jewish westerners do it, but the answer is found in history/sociology, not in theology.)

As someone who was circumcised (too much information, I know), I was a bit perplexed at this choice as an example of gross religious immorality. Hitchens writes:

“Full excision, originally ordered by god as the blood price for the promised future massacre of the Canaanites, is now exposed for what it is—a mutilation of a powerless infant with the aim of ruining its future sex life. The connection between religious barbarism and sexual repression could not be plainer than when it is ‘marked in the flesh.’ Who can count the number of lives that have been made miserable in this way, especially since Christian doctors began to adopt ancient Jewish folklore in their hospitals?”

Really? Ruining its future sex life? Do you really think that?

So, Christians are immoral for circumcising their infant males (but people who pierce their daughters’ ears are okay). And what about those immoral beliefs? As I said above, I was shocked by Hitchens’ moral reasoning.

Hitchens grants that an embryo is “a separate body and entity, and not merely (as some really did used to argue) a growth in the female body.” Yet, he insists, “this only opens the argument rather than closes it.” I agree so far. Removal of a tumor is not a moral issue; termination of a human life is. But this doesn’t end the discussion, since termination of a human life may be acceptable under certain circumstances.

So, I was waiting for Hitchens’ argument with regard to when and why abortion is acceptable, and why Christians are immoral for their position. Before I quote Hitchens’ position, I should note that the Christian position is not monolithic. I don’t think there are many people who would argue that abortion is always wrong. In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, where the embryo’s chance of survival is nil and the mother’s life is at risk, abortion seems to be the ethical choice. Other cases in which an unborn baby has a chance at survival and the mother has a slight health risk are grey areas. Most Christians are against abortion for convenience (the vast majority of cases).

I don’t really feel the need to respond much to Hitchens’ moral reasoning. His argument pretty much speaks for itself:

“There may be circumstances in which it is not desirable to carry a fetus to full term. Either nature or god appears to appreciate this, since a very large number of pregnancies are ‘aborted,’ so to speak, because of malformations, and are politely known as ‘miscarriages.’ Sad though this is, it is preferably less miserable an outcome than the vast number of deformed or idiot children who would otherwise have been born, or stillborn, or whose brief lives would have been a torment to themselves and others. As with evolution in general, therefore, in utero we see a microcosm of nature and evolution itself. In the first place we begin as tiny forms that are amphibian, before gradually developing lungs and brains (and growing and shedding that now useless coat of fur) and then struggling out and breathing fresh air after a somewhat difficult transition. Likewise, the system is fairly pitiless in eliminating those who never had a very good chance of surviving in the first place: our ancestors on the savannah were not going to survive in their turn if they had a clutch of sickly and lolling infants to protect against predators.”

Abortion is moral because even nature recognizes the need to eliminate the “deformed or idiot children,” whose “lives would have been a torment to themselves and others.” Adolf Hitler said, “Nature is cruel; therefore we, too, can be cruel.” How is this different from Hitchens’ argument? If this is the basis for making moral decisions, what reason do we have for helping people like this man, who, apart from the benevolence of others would be eliminated by the pitiless system?

Hitchens writes, “If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in quite a different world.” Indeed.

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