Phil Zuckerman Ph.D.The Secular Life

Does Christianity Harm Children?

We need to talk more openly about the abusive aspects of Christian theology

Posted Aug 04, 2014


My daughter ran out of the large room, screaming in tears.


“Why did you bring me here?!” she sobbed. “Why?!”


She was five years old at the time, and just about as traumatized as I’d ever seen her.

It truly was a vault of horrors: blood, pain, anguish, wounds, gashes, torn flesh. Carcasses everywhere. And she was terrified.

Let me back up and explain.


It was about eight years ago. Our older daughter had a school assignment to visit a California mission. Built by the Catholics in the 1700s and 1800s, the California missions are a vital part of California history. And so we were excited to take our daughters to check one out, about 20 miles from our home.


And the mission was lovely: beautiful landscaping, old buildings, indigenous flowers, a trickling fountain. And then we walked into a large hall -- and that’s when my younger daughter lost it. The space was full of crucified Jesuses. Every wall, from floor to ceiling, was adorned with wooden and plaster sculptures of Jesus on the cross: bloody, cut, and crying in pain. Some were very life-like, others more impressionistic. But all exhibited a tortured man in agony. My daughter had no context to understand it; she had no idea what Christianity was all about and had never been exposed to this most famous killing in history. She just saw what it objectively was: a large torture chamber. And she burst into tears and ran out.


I followed her outside, and once I had caught up with her in the courtyard, she wanted any explanation.

But how does a secular parent explain such gore to a five year old? Um, well, you see…there are millions of people who think that we are all born evil and that there is an all-powerful God who wants to punish us forever in hell -- but then he had his only son tortured and killed so that we could be saved from eternal torture. Get it?

The whole thing is so totally, horrible, absurdly sadistic and counter-intuitive and wicked. Not to mention baldly untrue.




And ever since that day, I’ve been acutely aware of the ways in which certain doctrinal aspects of Christianity can be harmful for children.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are some specific ways in which the more ardent/literal forms of Christianity can potentially harm children:


* Christianity teaches children that they are intrinsically evil; they did nothing wrong, but just by being born and being alive, they are evil. This is a terrible thing to teach children, not only because it is false, but because it is the exact wrong message children should be taught, which is that they are intrinsically wonderful, noble, and lovable, and that they have boundless goodness inside them.


* Christianity teaches children that there exists a powerful, evil Devil. A most dangerous demon. Beware! This horrible falsity infuses their childhood with needless fear and dread, and teaches them that the world is a dangerous place, with a malevolent demon lurking in the wait. In my own research, I’ve interviewed many adults who describe the whole Satan thing as a decidedly traumatic element of their children, and in some egregious cases, unambiguously abusive.


* Christianity teaches children that God killed his own child to make up for our wickedness. In other words, we are evil, and by killing his own child, our evil is somehow wiped away and forgiven. Our guilt is cleansed. But how does that work? If I abuse my wife, and then a cop comes over and kills my son, does that atone for the wickedness I committed against my wife? How so? Only I can atone for my own wrongdoings and harmful actions. If I abuse my wife, I need to make amends in order to earn herforgiveness. I can’t kill our cat instead. And besides, why couldn’t God forgive us without killing his son? Does he require a blood sacrifice, like some pagan ogre? The entire story of Jesus “dying for our sins” makes no moral or ethical sense, and it is an extremely confusing/disturbing tale to tell our children


* Christianity teaches children that those who accept Jesus as their personal savior are good/saved/going to heaven and those that do not accept Jesus as their personal savior are sinful and destined for hell. This can cause children to feel smug, superior, self-righteous, judgmental, and to look down upon and condemn others – be they kids on the schoolyard, neighbors, or even relatives.


* Christianity teaches children that masturbation is evil. It is not. It is natural, normal, and healthy. And pleasurable. Teaching children to feel guilty or ashamed of masturbating, teaching them that doing so is disapproved of by a son-slaying God, and can even land them in hell – this is all nonsense, but more than that, potentially abusive.


I could go on – but that’s enough for now.


And despite everything that I’ve said so far, I could surely write many pages on all the good that certain forms of Christianity can do for children; Christianity can provide comfort and hope for children in dire straits, it can prod children to be charitable and altruistic, it can develop within children an ability to be forgiving. I would certainly not argue that all forms or manifestations of Christianity are harmful; I myself attended a progressive Episcopalian Christian summer camp every year of my childhood – and loved every minute it. The camp was full of smiles, warmth, and water fights, with nary a word about devils or sins to be heard. Many versions of Christianity focus on Jesus’s ethical teachings, foster love, and bring out the best in our kids.


But we know all this. The notion that Christianity is good for kids has been trumpeted for centuries, virtually unchallenged and uncontested.


What hasn’t been trumpeted nearly enough – nor studied nearly enough -- is the potentially dangerous aspects of Christianity, aspects that stem from the very core/central tenets of the faith.


Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds


Religious belief appears to have negative influence on children’s altruism and judgments of others’ actions even as parents see them as ‘more empathetic’


Children from religious families are less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious households, according to a new study.

Academics from seven universities across the world studied Christian, Muslim and non-religious children to test the relationship between religion and morality.

They found that religious belief is a negative influence on children’s altruism.

“Overall, our findings ... contradict the commonsense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind towards others,” said the authors of The Negative Association Between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism Across the World, published this week in Current Biology.

“More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that secularisation of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness – in fact, it will do just the opposite.”

Almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa participated in the study. Almost 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% non-religious. The numbers of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and other children were too small to be statistically valid.

They were asked to choose stickers and then told there were not enough to go round for all children in their school, to see if they would share. They were also shown film of children pushing and bumping one another to gauge their responses.

The findings “robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”.

Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.

The study also found that “religiosity affects children’s punitive tendencies”. Children from religious households “frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions”, it said.

Muslim children judged “interpersonal harm as more mean” than children from Christian families, with non-religious children the least judgmental. Muslim children demanded harsher punishment than those from Christian or non-religious homes.

At the same time, the report said that religious parents were more likely than others to consider their children to be “more empathetic and more sensitive to the plight of others”.


The report pointed out that 5.8 billion humans, representing 84% of the worldwide population, identify as religious. “While it is generally accepted that religion contours people’s moral judgments and pro-social behaviour, the relation between religion and morality is a contentious one,” it said.

The report was “a welcome antidote to the presumption that religion is a prerequisite of morality”, said Keith Porteous Wood of the UK National Secular Society.

“It would be interesting to see further research in this area, but we hope this goes some way to undoing the idea that religious ethics are innately superior to the secular outlook. We suspect that people of all faiths and none share similar ethical principles in their day to day lives, albeit may express them differently depending on their worldview.”

According to the respected Pew Research Center, which examines attitudes toward and practices of faith, most people around the world think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. In the US, 53% of adults think that faith in God is necessary to morality, a figure which rose to seven of 10 adults in the Middle East and three-quarters of adults in six African countries surveyed by Pew.



Children Exposed To Religion Have Difficulty Distinguishing Fact From Fiction, Study Finds



Young children who are exposed to religion have a hard time differentiating between fact and fiction, according to a new study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science.


Researchers presented 5- and 6-year-old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories — religious, fantastical and realistic –- in an effort to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements as fictional.

The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.


By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine intervention (e.g., Jesus transforming water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorizations.

“In both studies, [children exposed to religion] were less likely to judge the characters in the fantastical stories as pretend, and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children,” the study concluded.


Refuting previous hypotheses claiming that children are “born believers,” the authors suggest that “religious teaching, especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.”

According to 2013-2014 Gallup data, roughly 83 percent of Americans report a religious affiliation, and an even larger group — 86 percent — believe in God.


More than a quarter of Americans, 28 percent, also believe the Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, while another 47 percent say the Bible is the inspired word of God.

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