Why was I and so many of my counterparts subjected to deceitful, cruel, and controlling religious abuse? I think the answer is fear.
What do Religious Believers Fear? I have a few ideas.
1) Fear that children will leave the faith
2) Fear that their authority and resources will be diminished by an increasingly smaller community of believers
3) Fear of losing political power and influence regarding laws…particularly those dealing with moral issues such as marriage, abortion, churches, marijuana, LGBTQ issues, and children’s rights
4) Fear of women attaining equal status with men and challenging their patriarchal society
5) Fear of societal change that no longer matches their narrative of how things should be
6) Fear of discovering that some long-held beliefs may not be valid, requiring a change in thinking
If your belief is true, why is fear needed to gain adherents and conformity? If it is true, why not allow your children to learn about other beliefs systems and trust that they will be able to discern the same truth as you?
Yet, it appears a large portion of religious believers are terrified of allowing their children and communities the most basic freedom to investigate beliefs and make decisions without exercising compulsion.
I’m sure there are many more fears, but ultimately, I convinced the reason that so many religious believers refuse to recognize children’s rights in regard to religious freedom is based in their fear. The irony of course is that those who have been excessively controlled, such as me, seem to be the most likely to abandon those beliefs and chart a new path. Those who are afforded the freedom to learn and make decisions for themselves often become committed believers. And those who walk away, have done so of their own accord and often have great respect for their parent's support and trust in their cognitive abilities.
This is where the “all or nothing” approach of so many religious groups most obviously rears its ugly head. I believe these phrases from the Convention on the Rights of the Child are critical…ensure that children’s beliefs are “given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” And treating children as individual right’s holders according to “the evolving capacities of the child.” Children develop at different speeds, but the intent is clear here. Parents should give their children greater and greater autonomy regarding their religious beliefs as they develop. In this way, children will eventually become vested believers, or they will choose a different way. But most importantly, they get to choose, rather than have those beliefs dictated to them.
Unfortunately, many religious communities do the exact opposite. They limit the information young people can access. They limit their socialization and education. They discipline and punish young adults as if they were toddlers. This of course is a generalization of Evangelical and conservative religious parenting that clearly does not apply to all. Yet, it applies to a large enough group of Evangelicals and religious believers as evidenced by the attrition rate amongst churches across the US.
But, if Evangelicals could muster the humility to listen to many of those who have left the church or their parent’s version of the “truth,” they’d find this is one of the main issues behind their departure. The dissonance and overwhelming sense of betrayal that young Evangelicals and other conservative believers experience in the world outside their controlling parents and communities is nearly impossible to reverse. Many of these individuals feel robbed, and there is little parents can do at this point to recover trust or convince their adult children of the validity of a faith and faith practices that prevented them from developing and experiencing life as it should be.
It reminds me of an oft quoted Bible verse, Matthew 7: 5
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of belief/unbelief, I think we should all consider what compulsion in religion means. I hope these ideas will challenge all to consider if and how we are utilizing compulsion or experiencing compulsion in our religious lives. And where we find compulsion, I hope we will have the courage to find more loving ways to communicate and practice our beliefs. And if you have children like me, let’s work together to bring up a new generation of children who are raised in the family environment with their parent’s values, but who also are trusted to make decisions according to their evolving capacities.
I know this is a volatile topic but would love to hear your feedback and ideas. If like me, you were raised in an authoritarian religious environment, it would be great to hear how you have processed that experience and if you’ve made any changes in how you convey faith, or lack of faith now, and how you teach your children about faith.