Is This Child Abuse?

Arch-creationist Ken Ham wants to train up a spiritual army of young Christian creationists.  Does that count as child abuse?

I’m no creationist, but I just don’t think so.

Ham trumpeted the training of a new generation of young “soldiers” at an Answers In Genesis conference at Atlantic Shores Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  By teaching young people the truths of young-earth creationism, Ham claimed he was “preparing them for the spiritual war going on around us.”

Image Source: Answers in Genesis

Image Source: Answers in Genesis

This language of child soldiers makes me nervous.  Plus, I don’t like the notion that young people are being turned away from real evolutionary science by this sort of religion posing as science.  To me, this seems like another painful example of the ways faith has been tangled unnecessarily with real evolutionary science, resulting in bad science and tortured theology.

But it is child abuse?

Leading skeptics have called it that, folks such as physicist Lawrence Krauss and biologist Richard Dawkins.  They assert that cramming this false science down young people’s throats counts as abuse.

Let’s look at both sides of this argument.

Why might someone call this child abuse?

1.)    These young people are being told things are true, when they really aren’t.  They are being taught, to cite just one example, that dinosaurs and humans coexisted a few thousand years ago.  Worst of all, relationships of close trust between parents, teachers, and children are being exploited to promote the veracity of this false science.  Loving mothers, loving fathers, caring teachers tell innocent young people that this is scientific truth.  Ingenuous young people take their word for it.  Such deception is abusive.

2.)    In this essay, Ken Ham explicitly calls them soldiers—spiritual soldiers, but soldiers nonetheless.  This seems a terrible violation.  Young people should not be exploited as culture-war cannon fodder.

Why might defenders disagree?

1.)    There is no threat or coercion here.  Though it may come as a surprise to outsiders like me, Answers In Genesis makes it very clear that believing in a young earth and recent special creation are not required for Christian salvation.  In other words, Ken Ham and his colleagues do not threaten young people with terrifying visions of hellfire if the children don’t embrace creationism.

2.)    The parents and teachers seen here are apparently sincere in their belief that creationism is true.  They are trying to pass that truth to their children and pupils.  There’s nothing abusive in passing along the best knowledge to the next generation.

3.)    Though science pundits such as Bill Nye have argued against it, believing the young-earth creationism of Answers In Genesis will not hurt the life chances of these young people.  According to Gallup polls, nearly half of American adults share a belief that humanity has only been around for a few thousand years.  And as I’ve argued elsewhere, careers in science-related fields do not seem thwarted by a belief in young-earth creationism.  Consider the case of US Representative Paul C. Broun Jr. of Georgia.  Broun is a fervent creationist, a medical doctor, and a member of Congress.  Not a bad career!

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Is it child abuse?  No.  And calling it that is irresponsible.  After all, there is real child abuse out there.  It is horrific and terrifyingly common.  Calling this sort of science/religion education ‘child abuse’ is only an ill-considered scare tactic.

Perhaps this argument could use some illustration from another religious tradition.  Consider the recent career of child abuse in the Catholic Church.  As we all know only too well, the despicable actions of some priests and prelates in that church have caused untold suffering.

But the abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church does not extend to its anti-scientific teachings.  After all, the Catholic Church teaches young people that certain wafers and wine can magically transform into flesh and blood.  And then young people are taught to eat that flesh and drink that blood.  For outsiders like me, teaching children to engage in this sort of ritual cannibalism is creepy and anti-scientific.  It is also demonstrably false: the wafers and wine are always really just wafers and wine.  Nevertheless, it is not child abuse for Catholics to teach their children this mystery of transubstantiation.  Calling such teaching ‘child abuse’ would disrespect the real suffering that real child abuse has caused within the Catholic Church.

A similar logic may apply in this case.  The young-earth creationism peddled by Answers In Genesis is not true.  But it is sincerely believed by its adherents.  Teaching those ideas to young people is not child abuse.

Unfortunately, we can picture what real abuse might look like in similar cases.  As Billy Graham’s grandson has pointed out recently, evangelical Protestant organizations have also engaged in real child abuse.  They have conspired, just as did the Catholic hierarchy, to cover up that terrible real abuse.  We could imagine a scenario in which a Protestant organization such as Answers In Genesis called together thousands of children and abused some of them.

But that is not the case here.  This was an educational gathering.  To call it ‘child abuse’ makes a mockery of the all-too-real threat of abuse.


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  1. I agree; the language of abuse is too strong here, even accepting that there can be more or less severe levels of abuse. But I do think Ham is suggesting something unethical. I think it’s alright to induct children into a worldview, but at the first opportunity, they should be taught how to interrogate the presuppositions and basic beliefs of that worldview and consider other options. I’m not sure Ham is even capable of that; I’ve never seen him present any worldview other than his own in an accurate way.

    • Thanks, Jonny. But how about this devil’s advocate question: Do I then need to teach my daughter, or the kids in my classes, that we need to interrogate our presupposition that racism is bad? That is, do I need to encourage young people to consider the idea that racism might have its good qualities?
      Obviously, I don’t think so. Why should Ken Ham (or anyone else) have to teach young people ideas with which he has strong, fundamental disagreement?

      • That’s a good question. Actually, that is the kind of question I would think about, because I’m given to philosophical analysis, but I recognise that spending time interrogating all our most basic beliefs would take up too much time and result in not getting much done. A concern I have about the creationist education I’ve seen is that it actively discourages the children from questioning and often does a poor job of equipping them with the cognitive equipment to do it if they want to.

      • But what about those informants (like GE [Anna] below) who report that their creationist educations made them intensely critical of all received wisdom? As GE says, she was taught a lot about evolution, probably more than most kids in public schools. Plus, she was taught to be skeptical of the ‘received wisdom’ of evolutionary theory. I’ve heard that from other kids raised in YEC homes and schools.

      • Anna’s case is a really interesting one to me, because it hits on the heart of what I’m trying to answer with my research.

        We’ve all come across cases of creationists who are absolutely rigid and unwilling to consider alternatives. Some people I’ve seen with a creationist education seem to show good critical thinking skills in all areas except creationism, which is somehow compartmentalised. There is a body of research in psychology around things like belief persistence in the face of contradictory evidence (and of course these are problems we all suffer from, to varying extents). Some people rigidly hold to creationism no matter what, and some people, like Anna, don’t. I want to know why. I’m in between the two. From Anna’s story, it sounds as though she accepted evolution fairly quickly and easily. I doggedly resisted for quite some time. I don’t know why I changed my mind.

        Anna (if you’re reading the thread), would you be up for discussing this more?

  2. Educational neglect due to religious beliefs, in my opinion, can be child abuse. But when I refer to educational neglect, I mean parents that homeschool for religious reasons and choose to deny their children any actual education. This, I believe, violates the rights of the child and therefore is abuse. However, I strongly agree with you that teaching creationism does not even come close to this level of educational neglect. It is silly, yes, but if one group of people unilaterally gets to choose what silly ideas are taboo, then we really do have an issue of encroachment on our freedoms. I might add that I was raised homeschooled for my entire childhood and taught nothing but creation science. I am now college educated with a B.S. in Physics and an M.S. in Astroparticle Physics, and my rather silly science background in highschool did not impede me at all.

    I find it funny how many people give me sympathetic looks and say “how hard it must have been for you to get a degree in science when you were taught creationism your whole life.” It really was a non-issue. For one, I strongly suspect that creationist-taught children probably understand evolution just as well or better than most evolution-taught children because we were expected to understand it well enough to refute it! If I had never heard the word “evolution” in my life, then yes, it probably would have been a confusing transition for me, but that is almost never the case with the A.I.G crowd. Secondly, as long as I was smart and savvy enough not to try to interrupt my science classes to argue about the big bang or to purposely fail my test on evolutionary biology, it was easy for me to sit by and absorb enough information in college to decide that my beliefs were silly and embrace modern science. It is quite easy to adapt to these new opinions if you open your mind to them. I was an avid creationist as a kid, sitting in the front row of Ken Ham’s many lectures at the NC Homeschooling Convention and then coming up behind the lectern afterwards to ask him more questions and take notes. Seriously, I was that kid. And yet, my beliefs in creationism fell away easily.

    Now the part that DOES make me uncomfortable is the “soldiers for creationism” part. I was also raised in a culture-war mindset and, even though it was not half so severe for me as it was for many, it still was a very, very unhealthy mindset. Children should not be taught that they are so separate from other children. They should not be taught that the survival of the souls of other people are depending on them (more on that in my blog post here, if you are interested They should not be taught that everyone around them is either an ally or an enemy (even if you are supposed to love those enemies, it still breeds fear and resentment and segregation.) However, when people use words like “creationism is child abuse” it makes me cringe up inside because those sorts of overreactions are exactly what fed these culture wars. It was an attack. It was an us-against-them moment. It was a dire warning that “you, my child, are going to be persecuted and hated and reviled by these people” which was a frightening and dangerous thing to be told. These kids don’t deserve that. And thus, for the sake of the kids, I think it is imperative that people like you call the bluff of those who would call creationism child abuse. It isn’t, and it’s putting more kids like me at risk of REAL emotional abuse.

  3. pgaikin

     /  September 27, 2013

    Ham wants to train an army “of young creationist soldiers.” It has already happened to an alarming degree in the US military where Christian Fundamentalists are either generals or moving up the ranks. Check out Military Religious Freedom Foundation

  4. Patrick

     /  September 30, 2013

    Great points here, especially that “To call it ‘child abuse’ makes a mockery of the all-too-real threat of abuse.” Much, in my opinion, like calling voter ID laws “racist” makes a mockery of genuine racial injustice. But in our world, you don’t seem to get much attention for your cause if you don’t use overblown language.

    As for those objecting to the “soldier” metaphor: if this is such a problem, shouldn’t we be wringing our hands over the Salvation Army?


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