Have you ever that experience where you start a conversation with someone, or start writing about a topic, and through the course of the interaction, discover that you don’t really agree with what you stated or wrote? Sometimes it’s just small points, and other times it can be a total reversal of view. I’m convinced these interactions and journeys are one of the best parts of life and a defining factor amongst those willing to continue personal development. I recently found myself in this position. I wanted to write a blog post about how so many religious communities use control and fear to perpetuate belief and conformity. After my initial venting, I started to research and examine the topic from various points of view. I hope the following thoughts will help in someone’s journey, being provocative, transformational, and hopeful.
Those familiar with world religions will immediately recognize the phrase, no compulsion in religion, an of quoted phrase in support of Islam being considered a peaceful religion. (Surah Al-Baqarah [2:256]) the verse essentially says that there should not be compulsion in accepting religion. Those who have studied history and follow current events know that there is daily evidence to the contrary of this claim worldwide, (not to say that all Muslims believe or practice coercion in faith). Many Muslim majority governments still follow the Conditions of Omar (established by Omar bin al-Khattab c. 584 CE – 3 November 644 CE) who was one of the most powerful Muslim caliphs. He established a pact with conquered Christians that forced them to accept specified conditions as dhimmis, essentially lower- class citizens without the same rights as Muslims. Those conquered who did not agree to the pact and pay jizya to their Muslim “protectors” had the choice to convert to Islam or be killed. I’ve worked on religious freedom in countries that still apply the Conditions of Omar with members of other faiths, including Christians who rightly criticize the lack of choice within Islam.
Within the conservative Christian community in which I was raised and long worked, I saw how many Christians prided themselves on having a faith which is an individual choice, to have or not have a personal relationship with Jesus. Moreover, these Christians claim that they have no fear of individuals investigating their faith, because if they research, they will discover that the existence of Jesus, his life, and his teachings can be proved true. I recall receiving a book to answer faith questions as a high school graduation present, presumably because I was entering the big, secular world and may suddenly doubt my faith. Withstanding the “lies” of secularism as a young and independent adult was the theme of many books, programs for teens, and the cautionary tale impressed on us before leaving home.
Armed with my lifetime of Christian teaching and the assurance that nothing could disprove my faith, I attended BIOLA University (an Evangelical Christian University that requires all students to sign a faith statement, code of conduct, and get a minor in Biblical Studies). Fresh off four years of further education, I had no doubts and embarked on my career in international human rights, specializing in the protection and promotion of religious freedom worldwide. I immediately started learning about the beliefs, practices, and forms of government/religious institutions in other countries and how they controlled populations, often attempting to enforce conformity with a state approved religion.
I continued to learn about other faiths and political entities utilizing faith such Hindu nationalists in India who are responsible for the killing and attacks on numerous Muslims and Christians, in an effort to purge the country of religious minorities. Buddhist adherents in Laos and Vietnam have colluded with communist/nationalist government authorities to persecute those who convert away from Buddhism, resulting in beatings, attacks, and expulsion from their homes and villages. I have met and know of many more ex-Mormons who have faced shunning from their families, or lower level hostilities preferring that individuals pretend to still have faith, whether they do or not. History is replete with this behavior, be it the Catholic inquisition, Puritan laws in the New World, or the Salem Witch trials.
Yet, I was satisfied and confident that there was no compulsion in MY Christian faith…that is until I had friends leave Christianity, until I was mistreated for having different views within my Christian faith from Evangelical employers and pastors, and when I was challenged with how I would approach faith as a parent to my two young children in a shared custody situation with their Dad being an Evangelical. Recently, I’ve been contemplating how compulsion was utilized in my religious upbringing and that of many I’ve encountered through my life, from a variety of religious backgrounds. A theme began to emerge. One that seems universal, control. People of faith often use fear and compulsion to keep their families and communities believing in a specific faith.
I started typing my thoughts and completed a blog post. Within a few hours I realized that I had successfully vented my frustration in the article and addressed some important topics, but it wasn’t a balanced approach. My goal isn’t to badger people who disagree with me, but to educate and demonstrate a better way for people of faith. So, I decided to share my frustrations and concerns, but also to share the legal protections for parental rights within the rights to freedom of religion or belief because true improvement will only come from parents willing to chose less controlling methods and to have rational discussions with their children, instead of utilizing control and fear.
I’ve come to believe that there are other forms of compulsion used in religion, not as blatant as those previously mentioned in Islam, but ones that prevent children from proper cognitive development and having the ability to confidently make choices based on their own investigation and convictions. Many of these forms of compulsion are broadly accepted in American society. They are religious systems in which children are isolated from the outside world, often educated in home school or religious institutions affiliated with that faith group, ones which punish children for daring to think outside that religious system, and ones that physically prevent those children from exposure to outside ideas and interactions. In this way, many children in modern countries are essentially raised in cults or cultish environments with a focus on absolute control of thought and behavior. These children are prevented from proper cognitive development to recognize the spiritual, and often accompanying physical and sexual abuse.
I’m thinking of missionary agencies who raise children in boarding schools such as my personal experience in Panama under absolute control, children raised in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints in polygamous communities in which girls are married to older men in plural marriages, not of their choosing, and in which some young boys are chosen for abandonment on the side of a road without education, money, or any real world experience, all because the older FLDS leaders view them as competition for the younger girls. I’m thinking of children raised in Amish communities in which they are educated and raised without modern technology. After their time of “Rumspringa” in which they can explore the outside world, they have to choose whether to leave the only community they’ve every known, or to be shunned and try to assimilate into the secular world without any proper education or socialization. These children are raised with major handicaps in that they rarely have a suitable education to pursue further education and success outside their own isolated communities. Moreover, their only support system is within that religious community, so choosing to leave without money, a place to live, or the basics necessities of life is scary and often considered an insurmountable obstacle. What choice do these young people really have moving forward in life? They’ve only been raised and educated to function within a controlling religious community.
Having been an Evangelical and working in public policy, I’ve had a LOT of contact with the Conservative Right which is constantly pumping out information about not losing religious freedom in America. There are numerous scholars/fellows who focus exclusively on these issues, publishing reports, followed by advocacy campaigns from these institutions to promote policy that supports their views. How does this relate to compulsion in religion?
Individuals of this persuasion cling dearly to their rights to raise their children according to their principals. The fear of state intervention in raising children within one’s own faith is so great amongst this community, that the US is the ONLY country that has not signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, despite former Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s administrations participating in negotiations and offering amendments. Conservative Christians contend that signing this treaty would undermine US sovereignty, and parents’ authority in raising their children. They often use fear tactics citing rare stories of children being removed from a home by social services, or parents being unjustly accused of child abuse.
These tactics are SO prevalent, that I did not contact any NGO or state agency for help when in an abusive marriage, all for fear that if I involved a government authority, I could lose my children. In retrospect, this is the first thing I should have done. The harmful teachings by this community demonstrates how complete power and authority of adults over children is most important to them, so that they can ENSURE their children believe as they do.
My personal experience was bad, but not as severe as kids raised in religious groups such as the Church of Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, FLDS, Amish, and Full Quiver Movement who often have even less access to education and outside information.
A number of faiths, including most strains of Christianity, teach that unbelievers will go to hell. No matter how much a pastor teaches about God’s love, mercy, and grace, you can’t get around that fact that this deity will punish you for eternity if you do not believe and act in accordance with those teachings.
The pressure is intensified in the case of children who not only face the external compulsions, but also learn, often from the very beginning of their life, that they will go to hell unless they accept their parent’s beliefs. This was certainly the case with me. I clearly remember my “conversion.” I was three years old and my family lived in Panama where my parents had just started their missionary career. My family was discussing the Sunday sermon which focused on a Jewish man who “got saved.” I asked if I was going to be saved and go to heaven. I was told that I would not, but that my parents and siblings were going to heaven because they had “gotten saved.” Terrified that I would be left alone and go to hell, I immediately agreed to recite a prayer for salvation. Millions of individuals worldwide have had a similar experience and it forces me to ask if children raised in this way really have a choice? Faced with eternal damnation, constant teaching by one’s parents and religious community promoting fear, and limited access to any other information, results in “believers” of compulsion.
Whether you are an Evangelical Christian forcing your child to home school in avoidance of secular teachings and social interactions, a conservative Muslim forcing your daughter to wear a head covering and limiting her social and academic options, or a Scientologist giving your child to the Sea Organization and allowing them to be educated and used for labor by the Church of Scientology, they all have a commonality…they control the children’s access to education, information, socialization, and most importantly from being allowed proper cognitive development and the ability of maturing to make decisions on their own, without fear of immediate punishment and/or eternal condemnation.
The importance of empowering children to think and make decisions for themselves was driven home to me by one encounter my son had a couple years ago with my husband. My son was about 5 years old and asked my husband if he believed in God. My husband told him that he did not, and my son immediately became very upset and distressed. It became clear he thought my husband would go to hell for his lack of belief. Imagine the weight of that belief and “knowledge” on a young child…thinking they have the truth and know who will and who will not be worthy of salvation.
Over the last couple of years, I started to change the way I discussed faith with my kids and now present a variety of viewpoints, rather than only give them one and insist it is the truth. I’ve told them since they were very young that I will never force them to believe what I do and that I want them to be free to explore and come to their own decisions…and that I would love and support them, regardless of the faith or lack of faith they eventually choose.
As I read accounts from numerous Exvangelicals, this is a constant theme…compulsion in choosing their faith. Individuals grieve the loss of their childhood and how their parents and spiritual leaders utilized brainwashing and punishment, robbing them of the ability to learn and make decisions for themselves.