I would like to start out by recognizing there are many different philosophies regarding the Christian upbringing of children. My upbringing was filled with physical disciplining, emotional manipulation, cajolery, religious threats, and – above all else – a focus on obedience*. Obedience was taken as a fundamental requirement of the Christian deity and nature (here’s an example). More than that, obedience was a gateway to godly living, the vehicle by which young humans would be able to appreciate all the other benefits of living in a religiously acceptable manner.
This upbringing did permanent damage, although I don’t like admitting it. Early on, I was able to cope by believing that such pain was a natural and unavoidable thing. After all, a deity commanded that I be obedient as a young person. Any time I felt like something was wrong, I had to dismiss it internally because it didn’t fit with what my religious narrative had to say. And before anyone says this is an aberration or small subset of Christian parenting, I would like to point out that my own parents were simply following what their church and other religious experts told them to do (the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod isn’t a small denomination, and Focus on the Family has made its author, James Dobson, rich).
Watching people go back on their religious principles reminds me of what I went through.
I can remember that all of my religious instruction held fast to the idea that this was IMPORTANT STUFF. There really is an omnipotent being. It created the universe. It cares about everyone. It gave instructions on how to follow its divine mandates. Not following them is wrong. Following them is everything.
What does it say when these precepts can get ignored on a whim? For example, obedience is important, except when godless government wants to let two guys get married. Or, it’s important to exercise mercy and charity towards others, except if those others happen to be immigrants or scary evil Muslims. If hitting and manipulating children into submission is paramount to instill virtue in them, how come these virtues are so ephemeral later on in life?
Suffice it to say that I was barraged with the idea that everything inflicted on me was necessary for my own personal development. The ultimate goal was to produce a good Christian who would obey a deity no matter what. To that end, it worked until I literally had to choose between life and death. If I had been successful in past suicide attempts, I would have died a Christian.
When I see all of this get thrown away, I cannot help but attach it to the futility of trying to be religious without question. I cannot square the idea that my suffering was necessary, but the principles underlying it can be ignored with impunity. What gives license to a world where pain must be forced on others for no good reason?
Then I am faced with trying to accept it was all for nothing.
Efforts at controlling children are useful to propagate church attendance, and they’re useful for parents who are afraid of parenting. Other than that, blind obedience can be quite harmful in ways most people don’t usually think about. And when there’s no agreement that a divine agent even exists, all the reasons for manipulating a child disappear entirely.
I don’t know the extent of how people might suffer because they were abused until they became obedient Christians. The effects might be so ubiquitous that they can’t be measured. All I can do is relate my own experience as to why I think religious ideals aren’t as universal or necessary as their proponents say they are.
I wish I had more answers for people who suffered abuse in the service of an angry deity.
Right now, I think that my own parents did what they did because they wanted to be good parents, and their church communities offered a promise of well-behaved children at no moral cost. From that perspective, I could see why any parent would buy into Christian demands for strict obedience. It promises that parents won’t need to be embarrassed by their kids, that they can lash out without consequence, and that the end result will produce a certified decent Christian human being.
Understanding this has made the pill a little less bitter for me to swallow. I see now that when people buy into a lie like this, it is going to be inevitable that there’s going to be a point where hypocrisy has to take over. The values some Christians need from their kids are not the same that they will need to maintain the faith as an adult. Either a person must pretend the values don’t exist anymore, or they have to face some really difficult questions.
One last thing also helps me when I consider that children today might be subjected to treatment similar (or worse) to mine. It pains me that it happens at all, but I have to recognize that I cannot control others. Instead, I can do what I must to make sure I treat anyone – regardless of age – as a person rather than a subhuman extension of his or her parents’ whims. As long as it helps improve someone’s well-being, I think it might be worth doing.