A religious “education”

September 19, 2010 • 11:59 am

Pope Ratzi won’t read this, but Karl Giberson—he of the “it’s-great-to-teach-your-kids-religion” school—might well.

Over at one of her websites, ex-catholic girl, Miranda Hale has written a sad and eloquent account of what her Catholic upbringing did to her.  She didn’t experience physical molestation, but it’s abuse nonetheless, and the effects have lasted into adulthood.  Go read it—it’s seven short paragraphs that distill a lifetime of damage.

. . . Catholic childhood religious indoctrination is chillingly effective. Its most powerful weapons are guilt and the fear of a literal hell. When a child is taught that the simple act of doubting or questioning any of the Church’s teachings is a sin, and that even the tiniest of sins can result in an eternity spent in a literal hell, they quickly learn to suppress those doubts and to feel intense shame, guilt, and fear when they fail to do so. . .

Then there is the guilt. According to Catholic teaching, humans are born sinners and cannot help but continue to sin throughout their lives. The only way for a Catholic to atone for these sins is to confess them to a priest, do the required penance, and be absolved. As a child, I obsessively recorded in a little notebook anything that I had said or done that could possibly be considered sinful. Then, when the time came for confession, I would recite this list to the priest, my head hanging in shame, my cheeks burning. I’d do my penance and be absolved. For a fleeting, blissful moment, I would feel light and pure and holy. But soon I would sin again, the guilt would return, the little notebook would be filled up with a record of my indiscretions, and I would return to the confessional and repeat the process over and over again. .

. . . The Catholic Church loathes children. Loathes them. To the Church, children are Catholics first and humans second, and the lifelong trauma caused by childhood indoctrination is mere collateral damage in the Church’s battle against the outside world.

I hope Giberson, and those who defend “mainstream” religious indoctrination, are listening.  There are thousands and thousands of stories like this one (many appear in the 1200+ comments on Giberson’s article), and most will remain unknown.   Why is it okay to teach politics, language, diet, and morality to your children but not religion? Because teaching religion almost invariably means teaching lies.  And in Miranda’s case, horrible hurtful lies.

73 thoughts on “A religious “education”

  1. The thing about teaching religion to children is people almost certainly won’t be religious unless they are indoctrinated early. Math, science, history, art–they can be learned and believed in at any stage. But religion only takes in the early years. Kind of like how a person who doesn’t start smoking before they are 18 has almost zero chance of ever taking it up.

    1. But religion only takes in the early years. Kind of like how a person who doesn’t start smoking before they are 18 has almost zero chance of ever taking it up

      Forgot about Francis Collins, didn’t you? 😉

          1. My understanding is that Collins was raised in a very unusual secular home where he was home schooled on a subsistence homestead, emphasizing rational thought and science. It could be the social isolation accompanying such an upbringing that is more the culprit of his embracing faith later on, especially when he was confronted with death in his role of a doctor.

    2. It is like languages that way.

      And I assume for much the same reason: you have to form vast interconnected structures (language interpretation and expression, religious interpretation and expression), and so more or less automatically interpret stuff symbolically. It certainly helps to learn “religion-ish” early.

    3. It is uncommon, but hardly unknown, for people raised in secular families to embrace faith as adults. Being able to say that one possesses extraordinary knowledge is powerfully attractive to some, I guess. That and the adulation for being the angel raised by demons.

  2. When a child is taught that the simple act of doubting or questioning any of the Church’s teachings is a sin…

    About 6 years ago, I attended the first communion of the daughter of friends. The presiding priest sternly warned the candidate children “do not question!” and then turned to the congregation and repeated the warning, signaling with his waving right hand and pointed finger that this was a big no-no. This was the most chillingly evil part of the whole ceremony.

    1. .. and I bet you wished, at that moment, that you had the courage to stand up and loudly object: exCUSE me?

      (but I know, I know .. they were your friends.. been there, (not) done that)

    1. There may have been something else going on. My mom raised me Catholic but in practice, she thought that many of the rules were too strict. But I DIDN’T; I knew what they said and what the so-called “consequences” were.
      Most of my Catholic friends had enough social intelligence to disregard much of the damaging stuff; I didn’t.

  3. Interesting. I too was raised Catholic. No, I wasn’t molested. But I was one of those who took what the church said about sex seriously; hence I was tortured by my feelings, reactions, etc. for much of my young adulthood. I actually RESENTED any female I found attractive.

    Those who blew off the church’s teachings actually had a much easier time of it, even those many of these types are still attending. 🙂

  4. Strange, it took me much longer to break away from the bondage of childhood, and I can get just as emotional Miranda when I remember the indoctrination that I endured as a child. Since the school I attended was a Protestant one, I didn’t have confession to go to or absolution to receive, which may have made the terror that much deeper, since there was not way to escape it. But I can remember days and nights of reading the Bible compulsively — I used to know great tracts of it by heart in the old KJV — in an attempt to find some comfort for the sense of guilt that pervaded my early life, and is not quite gone even now. Which, of course, is one reason I want to say to Karl Giberson to get a life. His sentimental stories about children in church are just that, sentimental stories; they do not reflect what happens in the minds and consciences of little children.

    I offer this quote from Joachim Kahl’s The Misery of Christianity (the Introducton). He is speaking about the great Swiss theologian Franz Overbeck:

    “If have learnt a great deal from Franz Overbeck’s writings — so much that his personal fate terrifies me. At the end of his long period as Professor of Theology at Basle, he admitted: ‘I can honestly say that Christianity cost me my life. To such an extent that, although I never possessed it and only became a theologian as the result of a ‘misunderstanding’, I have taken my whole life to get rid of it.’ Does this situation have to be perpetuated? Christianity has already cheated too many people out of their lives. That is why I want to get rid of it, right away.” (Pelican translation, p. 21)

    Don’t let Karl Giberson get away with gibberish. It’s a lie that children are not harmed by religious indoctrination. Not only are their minds permanently scarred by the experience. Joy in life is also severely restricted. Christians talk a lot about ‘true joy’, but it is my judgement, after a long life spent in the church, that what Christians call joy is not joy at all. It is an artificial construction designed to replace what might have been true joy, but was stolen away by the ruinous myths of faith.

    1. I should add something to the above, and did not think of it until I had pressed the submit button.

      The problem about religious indoctrination is that, because religious beliefs are not supported by reason or evidence, meaning tends to be overdetermined in religious contexts. What I mean by that is that, despite the lack of empirical or critical context, the amount of meaning that is injected into the smallest detail means that it is impossible to escape the frame in order to assess it adquately. You can always be redirected to details within the story, within the maze of doctrines and dogmas, and there is never a reason to go outside of it. Indeed, going outside of the story is known as apostacy, and is not only frowned on, but often punished physically, and certainly with stern disapproval.

      This related to the problem faced by the scientist, when the question arises whether the world “out there” really exists as it does “in there” in the theories. Hawking and Mlodinow, in The Grand Design, choose to describe their philosophy of science in terms of what they call model-dependent realism (which shows, by the way, that their statement that philosophy is dead is wrong!). There is no way to stand outside the system and see whether there is a close correlation with what exists “out there” with the reality that is modelled by the theory. The theory responds to empirical confirmation, but can be undermined by a later theory that accounts for everything included in the present theory, plus whatever else needs to be modelled in order to give a more adequate theory of what is discovered to be “out there”.

      So much for the philosophy of it. The difference of course is that in religious belief the model is not a model at all, though it pretends to be one; what it does is to imprison the believer within the confines of the model itself.

      Theology can never lead outside of itself. That is what I mean by meaning being overdetermined (whether that’s a good word or not is another question). But this is why children are so easily caught in the net, because the only way to get “confirmation” of the model is to go to some authority, the priest or leader of the confessional group into which the child is being inducted. But once in, there’s no way to get out, except to reject it all, lock, stock and barrel. I think this is a very real dimension of the problem which needs to be more adequately discussed.

      In relation to moral education, for instance, if we take Lawrence Kohlberg as a standard (for the sake of argument), moral conflicts and dilemmas, never issue, at least at the end of the process, in asking an authority, though this may be an earlier stage of moral development; eventually, if the education proceeds as it should, children will be in a position, not only to make their own decisions, but to argue reasonably for the decisions that they make. This is something that, in religious indoctrination (that word is deliberately chosen, because there cannot be education where there is no error theory, or procedures for choosing one judgement over another, besides authority) does not happen, and therefore it is, by its very nature, a violation of the child’s freedom and the child’s right to choose.

      Since families are — it seems to wrongly — seen as the only social groups that have human rights, as groups, the status of children as entitled to freedom tends to get marginalised, and this is something that needs to be more seriously looked into by those who are concerned for human rights. The assumption is that parents have only their children’s best interests at heart, and therefore that their decisions regarding their children should outrank the decisions of anyone else. This is something which may protect children from state interference, but it does not protect them well enough from the influence of their parents, which can be equally destructive. No doubt Russell Blackford will have something to say about this in his new book, but it seems to me, in relation to Giberson’s sentimentalism, some cold hard reason needs to be carefully focused, and children’s rights should be more carefully considered. So far in the theory of human rights, too little has been said about the status of children, and this needs, I think, to be corrected. (Sorry to be so frightfully longwinded, but it did seem important to say.)

      1. Excellent points, thank you.

        So much needs to be delineated regarding the problematic nature of religious indoctrination. We are just beginning to tackle certain angles, and we need to continue to focus clearly.

  5. I’ll be forwarding Miranda’s post to several people. Those of us who had similar upbringings will recognize much of what she wrote.


  6. Reading Miranda’s story is fascinating for me, because her reaction to the notion of sin and absolution is extraordinarily similar to how I deal with my own Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I know my OCD is irrational – unlike religious believers and their beliefs – and it’s not the threat of a post-death hell which causes the problem, more (I presume) issues with the functioning of the brain, but the emotional reaction is the same.

    I unwillingly associate a negative idea – usually to do with the health of family members – with a physical action, ie shutting a door, turning off a light switch, and immediately feel uncomfortable and distressed, as though part of brain is convinced something bad will then happen to said family member as a result of my actions. Only by rewinding my steps and repeating the action, along with a ‘neutralising’ mantra, will I feel like I have rectified the situation, and, like Miranda, I will feel ‘light and pure’ (if not particularly holy) for a short period, until I next undertake an action which has past associations with Obsessive Compulsive thoughts.

    This association of negative thoughts with ritual patterns and ‘cleansing’ actions is one which I have often noted to myself as having remarkable similarities with religious behaviour, less only the external framework – does anyone know of any neurological research in this area?

    1. I don’t know of any neurological research, but Orson Scott Card (of all people) dealt with the similarity in “Xenocide”.

    2. I highly recommend the following talk by Stanford Professor of Neurology and Author, Robert Sapolsky: http://blip.tv/file/2204956/

      In it he discusses how aspects of Schizophrenia, Schizotypal Personality Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy relate to religion and religiosity.

      It would be great if this information were more well-known.

  7. “Because teaching religion almost invariably means teaching lies.”

    Not sure why you included the qualifier “almost” in there, Prof. Coyne.

    1. To cover the (rare) cases in which parents simply teach their children the contents of various religions as a means of secular instruction. Believe me, if I hadn’t qualified it I would have been inundated with people saying, “I don’t mean to be nitpicky, but. . ” and then giving me examples of people teaching their children not religious doctrine itself, but simply about religion in general.

    1. The Catholics at my home, church, and school certainly did. And Church teaching supports their actions, i.e. (from here:

      Heresy is a sin because of its nature it is destructive of the virtue of Christian faith. Its malice is to be measured therefore by the excellence of the good gift of which it deprives the soul. Now faith is the most precious possession of man, the root of his supernatural life, the pledge of his eternal salvation. Privation of faith is therefore the greatest evil, and deliberate rejection of faith is the greatest sin. St. Thomas (II-II, Q. x, a. 3) arrives at the same conclusion thus: “All sin is an aversion from God. A sin, therefore, is the greater the more it separates man from God. But infidelity does this more than any other sin, for the infidel (unbeliever) is without the true knowledge of God: his false knowledge does not bring him help, for what he opines is not God: manifestly, then, the sin of unbelief ( infidelitas) is the greatest sin in the whole range of perversity.”… It cannot be pleaded in attenuation of the guilt of heresy that heretics do not deny the faith which to them appears necessary to salvation, but only such articles as they consider not to belong to the original deposit. In answer it suffices to remark that two of the most evident truths of the depositum fidei are the unity of the Church and the institution of a teaching authority to maintain that unity. That unity exists in the Catholic Church, and is preserved by the function of her teaching body: these are two facts which anyone can verify for himself. In the constitution of the Church there is no room for private judgment sorting essentials from non-essentials: any such selection disturbs the unity, and challenges the Divine authority, of the Church; it strikes at the very source of faith. The guilt of heresy is measured not so much by its subject-matter as by its formal principle, which is the same in all heresies: revolt against a Divinely constituted authority.

      1. “Catholics do not teach that doubting or questioning any of the Church’s teachings is a sin.”

        They do to children. Did in my case. Then later on they’ll qualify it, saying ‘something is a sin according to an individuals conscience’. Of course, by that time, what conscience a person has left is usually polluted by dogma. Sadly, or happily, I have a crap ability to apply lessons learned after time passes. It means I never quite retain and build on what I read in philosophy, at least not without difficulty, and learn science by rote more than by understanding. It also means that I have no guilt about having left dogma behind me. Or I could be a lazy sociopath. 🙂

        1. Scratch the sociopath bit. It pisses me off regularly that others get fucked over by religion. That means I have empathy of some type. Rules out having antisocial personality disorder. Guess I must just be lucky.

        2. Miranda is right. I attended a secondary school run by Jesuits, and they certainly told us that to criticise the church in matters of doctrine was sinful.

          What if your conscience tells you that the church is wrong? Then it is your conscience, and not the church, that must change. Conscience, we were told, is only a reliable guide if it has been formed by the teachings of Holy Mother Church.

          Right from its earliest days, the Catholic Church has always seen itself as a kind of Thought Police. Hence the persecution of heretics (i.e. anyone who thinks differently). The term heresy has gone out of fashion nowadays, but the mindset is much the same.

    2. I guess her parish was Not A True Catholic parish, like the vast majority of them on the planet. It’s sad that Miranda still has that psychological trauma. I was lucky and either far too stupid or far too thick-headed to ever let any of that garbage get to me. When questioning got me punished by being seated for an hour each time in an empty room, I just stopped asking questions of the Inquisitors and substituted pranks instead. Maybe that was some other form of psychological damage – I know I’d be punished for the question I’d like to ask, so I got even with the bastards even though they hadn’t punished me yet. I was never caught being nasty and it was hilarious seeing how the damned priest and his staff were stumped by the strange things happening – their god was apparently powerless to tell them who the devil was.

      1. I love that. Sounds like you were an awesome child. Precociousness is the trait that is most feared by the religious heirarchy because they realize how dangerous it can turn out to be to their power and authority.

    3. That would be a lie, Schafly. It is not their “official doctrine,” but they do “unofficially” teach it to children.

    4. Riiight.
      No one was ever burned at the stake for “doubting or questioning any of the Church’s teachings” either.

  8. Today, Professor Dawkins hammered the very last rusty nail into the cult of Jesus Christ so hard that even Adolf Hitler (d.1945) was left squealing. That’s the problem of arguments from authority, they are just inauthentic sentimental claptrap. Jesus left not a single thing of creative beauty to the world, except an exquisite and awe-inspiring public death, and Christ was nothing more than the product of the wild ramblings of St. Paul. Good riddance to the lot of them, except the hard-working and talented intellectual, of course.

  9. “…Miranda Hale has written a sad and eloquent account of what her Catholic upbringing did to her. She didn’t experience physical molestation, but it’s abuse nonetheless…”

    …”It’s a lie that children are not harmed by religious indoctrination. Not only are their minds permanently scarred by the experience…”

    “…the lifelong trauma caused by childhood indoctrination is mere collateral damage…”

    Is this hyperbole or a legally valid accusation? What does the law have to say about cults, indoctrination, and the rights of children?

    I would really love to hear what knowledgeable lawyers have to say about this, because if childhood indoctrination could be lessened or stopped, it would be the death knell of organized religion.

    1. There are laws against physical, mental and emotional abuse…

      However, there are carve-outs for churches. They basically get free passes.

      Unless the immediate welfare of the child is involved. (Ie, praying a diabetic girl to death instead of getting her insulin.)

      And you are SOOOOOOOoooooooooooooo not changing those laws anytime soon.

      1. And half the time, even that is ignored.

        There was a case in Oregon City, Oregon last year of such a family who refused to take their 16 month old daughter to see a doctor when she became ill, resulting in her death. They were acquitted.

        1. Sadly it varies from state to state (this is not federal jurisdiction) and *most* states let religion get away with murder. In the case of that young teenager (barely 12 I think) who died of ketoacidosis due to diabetes for example, the parents may have been found guilty of negligence, but the church folks who put that stupid notion in their heads gets away without so much as a “tut-tut!” In most states no one would be convicted for their part in allowing a child to die in such a horrible fashion.

        1. All well and good, but this doesn’t address my question about the legal issues involved with cults, indoctrination and the rights of children.

          Look. We have been reading more than one article of late about the evils of religious indoctrination, articles using terminology such as abuse, harm, trauma. These are terms that have legal and moral implications. If they are inappropriate to the discussion – then they should not be used as such use will only generate blowback harmful to our efforts.

          But IS this line of attack – that it is immoral and psychologically damaging to inculcate children with the institutional irrationalism of religious cultism, and that such practices should be reconsidered – worth championing? It certainly is an approach that New Atheism has not yet dared to utter publicly. But it might be a very good idea to do so.

          We need only look at the efforts of the right-wing in America to see that ideas that are initially viewed as outrageous can become mainstream if repeated often and long enough. Moving the Overton window with this issue might make fighting creationism in schools and various Church/State efforts more legitimate.

          It seems to me to be an idea worth our attention.

          1. “These are terms that have legal and moral implications.”

            I don’t understand why you are pressing this point. Reasonable responses range from “so?” to “yes exactly.”

            If they are inappropriate to the discussion – then they should not be used as such use will only generate blowback harmful to our efforts.”

            I can guarantee that the pope believes that such words are inappropriate to the discussion. So what?

            You seem to be suggesting that accommodation or framing should trump straight talk in this “discussion.” I think it is very evident that the people speaking out here have some measure of confidence, based in many cases on direct observation, in their assessment of the effects that a religious upbringing often has on a person.

            So, what you seem to be asking is whether or not these people are serious, or if they are just using such words for rhetorical purposes. And I think that is rather disingenuous of you. Are you sure that your intent was to ask a question? It seems rather that your intent was to make a statement.

            1. “So, what you seem to be asking is whether or not these people are serious, or if they are just using such words for rhetorical purposes. “

              You misunderstand me, which is no doubt my fault.

              I am saying that these highlighted words also have specific meanings as far as our legal system. If the high-profile people who are the public face of the atheist movement are going to use them to describe religious indoctrination, then they (we) need to be able to back that up with cogent argument. If we can’t, we should expect blowback regarding the Free Exercise Clause.

              The other day, Dr Coyne said that religious indoctrination was child abuse and “must stop”. I was surprised he said it and pleased that Bill Donohue didn’t pick up on it. But perhaps there is a good constitutional case to be made after all?

              Protecting the physical and psychological safety of children is the basis for certain exceptions to the First Amendment.

              Does the Free Exercise clause even apply to children vis a vis religious instruction? How can a young child freely exercise his religion if he can not understand any of the concepts and has never been exposed to the panoply of religious choices available?

              I think this is an interesting and pretty darn relevant topic to explore if we are going to be talking about child abuse and actually mean it. For if we mean it, aren’t we obligated to prevent it?

  10. I went to a Catholic elementary school, but I got lucky. The nun who ran the school had rather liberal interpretations on some of the subjects, and the religion class tended to ignore things like Hell, Eternal Damnation, and Original Sin in favor of having us sing various annoying religious songs.

    Of course, we were also given a sex-education class that was so watered down that I left it knowing that the only kind of safe sex was no sex, which didn’t really help because I didn’t actually know what sex was. Not much of a problem in my case, though, since I didn’t start getting interested in that until my late teens.

  11. I guess there may be some regional variation in the attitude of the clergy towards all this hell stuff. I was brought up in a fairly typical Irish Catholic environment in Ireland and can’t remember much about the burning in hell stories. The sermons were mainly vapid interpretations of some letter by St Paul to the Corinthians, Romans, Gas Company or whoever. I did all the usual stuff, communion, confession, confirmation, mass every Sunday etc, but, for my generation (I’m 42 now) there was never any serious consideration about whether the more ridiculous aspects of church teaching were true. For instance, when myself and my friends reached mid-teens and started to seriously consider losing our virginity our biggest dilemma was in obtaining condoms – NOT in worrying whether it was a sin to have sex or to use condoms in the first place. At the time condoms were illegal in Ireland and we had to get them in pharmacy shops when we went on school trips to the UK.
    I’m sure that Miranda is telling the truth – the sort of US based catholic clergy I see on TV are often more similar to evangelical Christians compared to the Irish clergy of my youth – but be aware that her story may not be typical of the sort of wishy-washy catholicism that many in Europe have experienced.

    1. And yet, condoms were still illegal, so the church obviously had a fair amount of influence, even many of their parishioners didn’t take the teachings seriously.

      1. Indeed, but it was really a generational thing. Irish politicians were terrified of the power of the church in those days, mainly due to the fact that the older generation tended to do what the priests ordered them to do. This older generation never changed – they simply died off and the drop in the proportion of this demographic group shifted the balance to a more tolerant attitude to birth control. There is still a ban on abortion but it doesn’t affect almost anyone in a practical way due to the existence of cheap transport services to the UK (the tried and trusted solution for generations of Irish women) where abortion services are readily available.

  12. I’m giving all this up to become a Pirate, fighting for what is right on the high seas. Anyone who is bored too is welcome to join me, but from now on I want to be called Captain Cutlass.

    Didn’t you Yanks ever used to play Cowboys and Indybums as kids?

  13. We are already inescapably immersed in a hell realm, the knowledge of which arrives early and sears us for life. It consists of two inescapable facts: we die; and
    the universe appears to have no purpose.

    Put another way: unless you pass away as an infant or toddler, you simply cannot escape the relentless movement of your consciousness from its garden of innocence to the hell realm of this experiential knowledge. William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche have always been right: life is a war against fiery Dionysian and entropic forces, nobody gets out alive, and you appear to be nothing.


    Contrast this hell realm with the religious one. At least with the religious one, death and nihilism vanish instantly—you are relieved of them—for everything that you do is eternally consequential; suddenly, you’re really, really important to the grand scheme of things, and others are important as well. The only ones who burn in hell, after all, are those who treat their neighbors as objects without lasting value. You might expect to find a nihilist like Nietzsche, but not a lover like Gandhi, in hell.

    Below is a link to a Twilight Zone episode that depicts rather nicely the hell of atheism. And if you feel compelled to reveal this inescapable gnosis to your children someday, don’t call it abuse. But also don’t be surprised if he or she one day flees to religion for some relief from it:



    1. I feel a bit bad to burst your bubble but there is no hell, and judging from the representatives your god sends to guide your life, heaven is apparently a safe haven for rape. So have fun?

      Personally I find accepting reality to be much more satisfying, interesting, and fulfilling.

      1. I’m an agnostic, not a theist, and I don’t believe that hell exists.

        I’m simply suggesting that psychological hell realms do not just belong to the religious side of the fence. Children brought up by atheist or agnostic parents have different existential terrors to wrestle with.

        It’s hardly surprising that so many people turn to religion to escape the hell realm of suffering, mortality, and nihilism that faces nonbelievers.


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