November 03, 2006

Religion as Child Abuse, and About Hell Houses

Relying in significant part on the pioneering work of Alice Miller, I have discussed the profoundly destructive effects of a deeply religious, fundamentalist upbringing on children in a number of posts. Some of them are listed at the conclusion of this entry.

A very kind reader has just sent me Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. (Thanks once again, K.H.! And my deep gratitude to all those who have sent items off my Wishlist and made donations recently.) I looked over the Table of Contents, and was immediately drawn to the chapter entitled, "Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religion." I will have more to say on this general subject soon, but since Ted Haggard is in the news at the moment, I thought I'd provide this typically fascinating excerpt. (Earlier today, I offered a brief, somewhat humorous post about the Haggard story and Rush Limbaugh's comments on it, although there was a serious point underlying that entry, actually several serious points.)

Dawkins writes:
I am persuaded that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.

In the television documentary Root of All Evil? to which I have already referred, I interviewed a number of religious leaders and was criticized for picking on American extremists rather than respectable mainstreamers like archbishops. It sounds like a fair criticism -- except that, in early 21st-century America, what seems extreme to the outside world is actually mainstream. One of my interviewees who most appalled the British television audience, for example, was Pastor Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs. But, far from being extreme in Bush's America, 'Pastor Ted' is president of the thirty-million-strong National Association of Evangelicals, and he claims to be favoured with a telephone consultation with President Bush every Monday. If I had wanted to interview real extremists by modern American standards, I'd have gone for 'Reconstructionists' whose 'Dominion Theology' openly advocates a Christian theocracy in America.


Another of my television interviewees was Pastor Keenan Roberts, from the same state of Colorado as Pastor Ted. Pastor Roberts's particular brand of nuttiness takes the form of what he calls Hell Houses. A Hell House is a place where children are brought, by their parents or their Christian schools, to be scared witless over what might happen to them after they die. Actors play out fearsome tableaux of particular 'sins' like abortion and homosexuality, with a scarlet-clad devil in gloating attendance. These are a prelude to the piece de resistance, Hell Itself, complete with realistic sulphurous smell of burning brimstone and the agonized screams of the forever damned.

After watching a rehearsal, in which the devil was suitably diabolical in the hammed-up style of a villain of Victorian melodrama, I interviewed Pastor Roberts in the presence of his cast. He told me that the optimum age for a child to visit a Hell House is twelve. This shocked me somewhat, and I asked him whether it would worry him if a twelve-year-old child had nightmares after one of his performances. He replied, presumably honestly:
I would rather for them to understand that Hell is a place that they absolutely do not want to go. I would rather reach them with that message at twelve than to not reach them with that message and have them live a life of sin and to never find the Lord Jesus Christ. And if they end up having nightmares, as a result of experiencing this, I think there's a higher good that would ultimately be achieved and accomplished in their life than simply having nightmares.
I suppose that, if you really and truly believed what Pastor Roberts says he believes, you would feel it right to intimidate children too.

We cannot write off Pastor Roberts as an extremist wingnut. Like Ted Haggard, he is mainstream in today's America.
In my view, to call such methods "child abuse" is far too kind, by several orders of magnitude. More on this subject, and more from Dawkins, soon.

Here are some earlier essays on this general topic:

When the Demons Come -- which discusses common barbarities in child rearing (such as "hot saucing" and the methods championed by James Dobson), the psychological dynamics instilled by such means, including most notably obedience and denial, and how those dynamics lead to atrocities committed by adults -- using the U.S. experience in Vietnam as a primary example, one we now repeat in Iraq.

The Monstrous James Dobson, Further Explained -- providing further background about Dobson's horrifying beliefs on child rearing.

The Roots of the Monsters They Became: How People Murder Their Own Souls -- a further examination of this particular psychology, with an example from Jerry Falwell's autobiography.

Mel Gibson. A Public Case Study in Obedience and Denial -- the title of which is self-explanatory.