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Yes Paul, Religious Instruction is Child Abuse

Those who watched Q&A on Monday night might have been taken aback by US Biologist and Ecologist Dr Paul Ehrlich’s claim that religious instruction is child abuse.

Host Tony Jones had asked Dr Ehrlich whether he sang the US national anthem when he was at school. “We did, but we didn’t have child abuse required in those days. We didn’t have any religious instruction in the schools,” Dr Ehrlich said.

He went on to say, “That’s what Richard Dawkins and lots of other people have said; that you teach people details about non-existent supernatural monsters and then behave in reaction to what you think they are telling you. That’s child abuse. You don’t raise your kids that way,” Dr Ehrlich said.

If there is one thing I feel I am qualified to comment on, it is Catholic religious instruction in the 1950s and 60s. Make no mistake, it was child abuse and I am one of those “lots of other people” Ehrlich was referring to and I have been saying it for years.

Imagine if you will, an eight year old in grade three at a Marist Brothers’ College in Melbourne in 1953. Every day we had one 40 minute period set aside for Religion, i.e. Catholic instruction.

Fundamental to that period was to learn the Catechism, a simplistic question and answer booklet that gave the brothers the authority to brainwash, bully, threaten and physically punish us for not learning.

The particular version we were taught was approved by the Irish hierarchy in 1951, and was specially intended for teaching primary-school children, who were required to memorize each prescribed answer by rote.

You can view it here.

That teaching, delivered as it was with all the certainty and ferocity of a tyrant stayed with me for decades before I was finally able to shake it off.

At a recent catch up with some old school friends, I found that I wasn’t alone. While some were able to dismiss it as superstitious rubbish from the moment they left school, others like me weren’t so lucky.

But we all agreed it was psychological abuse, deliberate and unyielding. So, when I listened to Paul Ehlrich describe it for what it was, I said, ‘Bravo’.

One of the Catholic Church’s principle teachings is that of free will. We choose either to resist temptation or succumb to it. More rubbish.

It took some time to realise that all our actions are determined by a long chain of prior causes in our lives; for example, bad genes, an unhappy childhood, good or bad experiences, good or bad education.

Am I exercising free will writing this article? No, I am responding, perhaps reacting to a comment heard on Q&A. This article is written conditional to that. If it is conditional, it cannot be free.

Religious instruction is meant to instruct us into believing something and to react accordingly, bypassing free will. When that instruction is based on a false foundation, unsupported by science, it is psychological abuse.

For any govnorway ernment to sanction such instruction in the classrooms of our most vulnerable, is unconscionable. Unfortunately, Ehrlich then stated that we should respect people who want to do that and in saying so, he let the monster back in the classroom.

Why should we respect people who want to fill our childrens’ heads with such rubbish as the Catholic catechism? Why should we allow our children to be taught human values dressed up as divine instruction?

Are there not enough nut cases out there who, on the basis of false information have reacted in ways that have caused untold damage and heartbreak to otherwise normal, gentle law abiding citizens?

When will we learn?


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  1. johnlord2013

    In my case it was adult abuse.

  2. Ginny Lowndes

    And fascism is and always has been the political arm of the Catholic Church.

  3. Spiral

    Amen brother

  4. RosemaryJ36

    I was educated in the UK where the monarch was the Head of the Church of England and it was taken for granted that everyone was a Christian, although the few who were not were not abused.
    Catholics were tolerated but not dominant in any way and the C of E secondary school which I attended taught the Scriptures as an academic subject. We had the same teacher for History and Scripture.
    No one bothered whether we were christened or confirmed, they were matters of choice,
    My parents belonged to a non-conformist sect which was a close cousin to puritanism. I could play the piano on Sundays as long as I played hymns!
    We were very much guided by moral tales like Aesop’s Fables and Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies so that we were expected to learn the difference between right and wrong at increasingly sophisticated levels.
    Now an agnostic, I still cherish the approach to ethical behaviour which guided my childhood and I am the sternest critic of my ability to behave morally.
    By contrast, the concept of weekly confession, with the obvious temptation to sin again once last week’s sins have been absolved, is something I find unacceptable.
    If knowing you are doing wrong does not stop you then absolution by a priest is apostasy in my books!

  5. Dagney J. Taggart

    Religion is child abuse? Maybe, maybe not. But perhaps we should err on the side of caution and not allow practicing adherents of any religion, particularly ones still stuck in the Middle Ages, in the country. It’s for the children.

  6. Kaye Lee

    Are you suggesting we deport Catholic priests Dagney?

  7. Roswell

    We were given religious instruction in primary school. They wasted their time on me. The only enjoyment I derived was that I got to draw pictures in my exercise book.

  8. Florence nee Fedup

    Must say, one develops a wonderful guilt complex that can take a lifetime to overcome

  9. Florence nee Fedup

    Well Dutton is busy deporting everyone else.

  10. Kaye Lee

    Off topic….sorry…but sometimes I find these ads amusing. There is a big one telling me (3) People Unfriended You Discover Who Unfriended You Now! 100% Free and Easy to Find Out.

    Considering I don’t do the “friend” thing, as they would say on Get Smart, I find that hard to believe.

    Edit: It changed to “Top 25 Dividend Stocks Looking for income ? Download your free report now !” after I posted this comment. Should I treat it with the same validity?

  11. mars08

    Florence nee Fedup:

    … one develops a wonderful guilt complex…

    Seems to me that some develop a magnificent superiority complete they then use to dismiss any twinge of guilt…

  12. mars08

    … magnificent superiority complex…

  13. Backyard Bob

    The author’s use of a photo of Anders Breivik is sufficient cause to dismiss this article as absurd. Really. seek help.

  14. susan

    As someone who also went through the catholic school system with nuns, I agree totally with the child abuse label. Unbelievable nastiness from those preaching compassion and love instilled deep cynicism in me. It irks me no end to see religious studies included as a subject for the HSC – what a blot on our education system.

  15. Florence nee Fedup

    mars08, I think I was referring to myself Yes, you are correct They then take advantage of the likes of me

    Loosen up Bob.

  16. Maureen Walton (@maureen_walton)

    I was Brought up as a Catholic in a Melbourne Roman Catholic school. Their Schools, Churches, Priest and Nunns are nothing But bad orders of a bad Cult. I grew up scared of my own shadow and that the Devil that was going to put me in Hell to burn forever. All because I may have missed church one Sunday. I had a Nun who told the other 60 odd children that I loved the Devil. I was so petrified and all of 6years old..Shame on them all as they were the Evil ones..

  17. kerri

    In the US they are promoting adult abuse with religious arbitration being mandated over legal action in cases involving dispute resolution. Tthis article in the New York Times today.

    And RosemaryJ36 the Church of England was started by Henry VIII so that he could legally divorce Catherine of Aragon. That’s why he made himself the head!

  18. Matters Not

    John you opened with ‘When will we learn?” And while I suffered a prolonged ‘religious’ experience in my formative years, I did ‘learn’ Hopefully.

    One of the Catholic Church’s principle teachings is that of free will. We choose either to resist temptation or succumb to it. More rubbish.

    For me, the notion of ‘free will’ resonated. Indeed, I embraced ‘same’.

    And now accept ‘responsibility’ for my thinking, my judgements and the like. More importantly I now don’t blame the ‘other’ for how I think or how I respond. What about you?

  19. Roswell

    Backyard Bob, that was a rather odd comment.

  20. Backyard Bob


    How so?

  21. Roswell

    Because you’ve attempted to discredit the author and the article because you didn’t like the choice of one image. And to suggest that John needs to seek help because of this is, in my opinion, extremely poor form.

    If I were John I’m sure I’d find it very offensive.

  22. keerti

    Given that the “gentleman” concerned uses his suspect religion (they all are!) to justify his rantings it is quite appropriate to use the photo.

  23. keerti

    Somehow it has become one of the requirements of election that polititians advertise their belief in the christain god. In time that may become a belief in allah and then perhaps the pagan gods! I’ve got a hammer, could I be thor please? Ah, “but” (I hate that word. It reminds me of something nasty!) I digress.Surely to be considered intelligent enough to run a country our polititians should demonstrate an ability for rational and intelligent thought? Believing in fairy stories should immediately disqualify them!

  24. John Kelly

    Backyard Bob, Breivik was a religious nut case who caused untold damage and heartbreak. Can’t see how you could object.

  25. Backyard Bob

    Roswell and John,

    If you can find a single psychiatrist who will stipulate to religious education being causal to Breivik’s myriad mental disorders I will cede the point. Till then I’ll continue to regard it as absurd. The use of him as some sort of examplar is as silly and illogical as those who cite Stalin and Pol Pot as examples of what atheism produces.

    There are other issues of logic with this article and I’ll address them in due course. This is not to say I don’t have sympathy for the general idea that religious education is a bad thing. Being an anti-religious atheist I necessarily do, but I’m not sure this is a valid way to argue it.

  26. Backyard Bob

    Actually speaking of “religious” nuttery, my next reply might be a few hours away; I just realised there’s cricket on today.

  27. randalstella

    I am a longtime investigator into sexual abuse by a priest who then sought to hide in the Catholic Church. He’s the litmus test on which of the two biggest denominations has the highest walls against accountability. He chose prudently.
    The Church’s insularity seems to excuse far too much among its own.
    It might be part of the mind-set of the dogmatic.

    What does Roswell’s intervention mean? Don’t question our little fraternity.
    A poster is lashed for his ‘highly offensive’ one line.
    The poster’s comments are restrained, given the irrationality of the article.
    RI is poor excuse for indiscriminate accusations.
    RI causes mass murder? That is unreasoned beyond any justification, whether an RI background or not.
    And the stuff about causality compared to free will is logically self-defeating, but adamant – like dogma.

    Some time ago a raving racist abuser, depicting Palestinians as Untermenschen, was able to post repeatedly on this site without a word of intervention from admin. It was only after I objected to this acquiescence that he was eventually stopped.
    That was ‘extremely poor form’.
    I would not have bothered making any comment on the piece. But Roswell’s intervention reminded me of something.

  28. Jaq

    I went to a convent school. The nuns were mostly vicious and spiteful. My mum was a devout Catholic and remained in an abusive relationship for over 50 years, because she had made a vow to God. My uncle is a priest in London. He drinks the best whiskey, drives a new BMW, is a member of several mens’ clubs, and regularly dines at Quaglino’s. I wonder if all the antiques he has been given by members of his parish, will go to the poorer members of the parish, or to the Church, when he dies.
    Catholicism has a lot to answer for…

  29. Richard Kopf

    John, unlike you I was born to to a couple who had given up on religion many years earlier, one a Catholic and one a Methodist. Despite the stern protests of their respective churches, they married, in a Registry Office. Consequently, religion never formed part of my life. My first experience of “child abuse” was religious instruction at primary school. Stories of ghosts, angels, devils, mythical beings and miracles had no effect on me. I simply ignored it all.
    My wife is a Catholic. We never question each other’s beliefs or lack thereof. We are both happy. But I am so glad that I avoided the indoctrination or “abuse” that she suffered.

  30. Backyard Bob

    Lunch at the cricket….

    I’m somewhat torn with respect to this article because on one level I agree with its essential premise, but on another disagree with what I see at its hyperbolic nature, exemplified by the use of a photo of Anders Breivik, which for me wholly undermines what cred the article might otherwise have had.

    On a conciliatory note:

    At a recent catch up with some old school friends, I found that I wasn’t alone. While some were able to dismiss it as superstitious rubbish from the moment they left school, others like me weren’t so lucky.

    I was educated in the Catholic system through the 60s. I guess I fall into the somewhat more fortunate group who were able to simply dismiss that experience and the ideas being offered as “superstitious rubbish”, despite some of my experiences, particularly of the seemingly arbitrary nature of the “discipline”, being deeply troubling. I concede completely that everyone experiences these things differently, be that as a result of their specific environment or of their personal psychological makeup.

    But there are problems here, not the least of which is Anders Breivik being a poor choice of “example” of where religious teaching can supposedly lead people. Beyond the point I already made, it is highly contentious to describe Breivik as a religious nutcase. He was only nominally religious – i.e. religious conviction appears not to be his primary motivating force. His “manifesto” was essentially political and cultural in nature and he said himself that it would be a lie for him to say he was overly religious. This is partially evidenced by his desire to enlist the support of Norway’s Humanist community into his own little war against Islam. Breivik was quite the ideology whore. Anyway, beyond that ….

    For me there’s no direct correlation to be made between the catholic catechism – which is a perfectly typical and mundane array of Xian religious delusions – and the manner in which it was taught by certain groups or individuals. The catholic catechism is silly but it’s hardly trauma or tyranny inducing. Were there tyrant pedagogues permeating catholic institutionalism through the 50s and 60s? You bet there was!, but that’s also true of just about every other educational institution of the era, including the State School system. Some of the nuns that taught me were horrid; at the same time others were utterly lovely, one in particular continued to write to me decades after.

    There is nothing uniquely horrific or demonic about the catholic catechism. Nevertheless, like almost all forms of childhood religious indoctrination it is – at least from my point of view, psychological harmful, as well as being bollocks. My personal view is that religious instruction (indoctrination) of any kind ought not be directed at any child until they’ve reached high school age and are in a position to make meaningful judgements about the truth value of it. That’s never going to happen, of course, but it’s what I’d prefer to see. But then there’s the broader point that none of us can avoid indoctrinating our children. None of us. The best we can say is that some forms of indoctrination are arguably, if not demonstrably, less harmful than others.

    The other problem with the article is the seeming contradiction that arises for the author in raising the issue of free will verses determinism. Now, I’m a hard determinist who argues that free will is merely an illusion; an illusion that we’re pretty much stuck with, but an illusion nonetheless. Leaving aside that “causes” and “conditions” are not the same thing and that a “condition” based argument against free will doesn’t really work, it’s the case that a deterministic view is an all or nothing proposition. The author declares, based on this particular ontology:

    Am I exercising free will writing this article? No, I am responding, perhaps reacting to a comment heard on Q&A. This article is written conditional to that. If it is conditional, it cannot be free.

    The principle being articulated here applies equally to the Marist Brothers who apparently so egregiously treated the author. If the author has no choice in his action because of “conditions”, then neither did those Marist Brothers, due to their own “conditions”. Perhaps the author could speak to the seeming double standard here? Maybe he doesn’t hold those religious persons responsible for their behaviour in an ultimate sense. The tone, after the passage of 50 years doesn’t appear to suggest that, and yet the deterministic model espoused basically demands it. But some clarification would be useful.

    Religious instruction is meant to instruct us into believing something and to react accordingly, bypassing free will.

    Well, it can’t bypass that which you’ve argued doesn’t exist.

    When that instruction is based on a false foundation, unsupported by science, it is psychological abuse.

    For me, telling people that metaphysical constructs require a scientific foundation is also a form of psychological abuse. It’s certainly intellectual abuse. Science cannot speak to certain ontological – and more especially – metaphysical constructs; it just can’t. i.e. science cannot disprove God because primary theological constructs transcend empiricism and therefore science is impotent to speak to them. Logic and philosophy, however, are not, and those are the areas from which our arguments need to arise.

    Why should we allow our children to be taught human values dressed up as divine instruction?

    Because people believe this shit and we cannot tell them they can’t. Yes, it’s tragic and frustrating, but the alternative is a tyranny of our own.

  31. Friday

    (Richard, the main point is child abuse and what your wife and you believe is as adults. What are the influences on your children?)

    My grand children at 6 and 8 are sorry that I won’t go to heaven. I tell them don’t be sad, of course I will be in heaven to see your grandfather.
    An ex-friend on Facebook scrubbed me for an answer to her post on how good god was to give us puppies for the children.
    I wrote how clever she was to invent Mosquitos to transfer the heart worm from dog to dog. I am not sure whether my reference to god as a women was the insult or the mossies?? Presumably the devil can be creative as well??
    bob ignore murderers we are talking about children??

  32. Sean

    Regardless if one believes that religious education is child abuse or not, how bloody refreshing was it that someone was prepared to challenge some taboos and bring the debate outside of the usually mindnumbingly mainstream narrowness?

    “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….” Noam Chomsky

  33. Pingback: Yes Paul, Religious Instruction is Child Abuse | THE VIEW FROM MY GARDEN

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