Child’s Play from Dawkins
By Tom Gilson
Religion Isn’t Bad for Kids
Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, has been a New York Times bestseller for more than twenty weeks. Why so popular? Dawkins is the professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, and in some ways he is remarkably well suited for a job like that. His writing is marvelously clear and engaging. His early book, The Selfish Gene, an explanation and defense of evolutionary theory, has been called the best popular-level science book ever written.
He leads the “Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science” and calls his website “A Clear-Thinking Oasis.” He pointedly contrasts his own rationality with what he calls religion’s irrationality. His attacks on religion are shrill. For example: through one full chapter of The God Delusion, he maintains that teaching religion to children is child abuse. This is not just an arresting figure of speech, an exaggeration to make a point; Dawkins soberly compares religious upbringing to sexual abuse, and finds religion the worse of the two.
The famous scientist supports this with no systematic data, just a few pages of anecdotes, stories of people who suffered at the hands of ill-advised religious education. Stories like that, sadly, can be found; but what do they represent? If religious training is thought to be child abuse, an obvious scientific hypothesis follows: Children with religious upbringings should show some of the symptoms that are typical of abused children.
These symptoms are well known. They include fear, panic attacks, eating disorders, depression, low self-confidence, irritability, difficulty relating with others, substance abuse, and so on.
Not every abuse victim experiences most or all of these, but outcomes like this are typical. If a religious upbringing equals abuse, there ought to be signs that something like this happens to children of religious families.
There is data to test such a hypothesis. It was published well before Dawkins’ book, so he had ample opportunity to know what science had to say. Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led a massive, authoritative study called the National Study of Youth and Religion. The results were published in the 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers (with co-author Melinda Lundquist Denton), published by Oxford University Press (yes, that’s Dawkins’s university). It is the best study of its kind to date.
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