The way we ask the question says a lot.
We could ask it this way: Is it abusive to encourage children to have certain religious experiences?
Or we could put it like this: Should children and toddlers be coerced and terrified?
Either way, these questions are prompted by a new church-camp video that is making the rounds these days. In the video, we see young children experiencing some of the typical manifestations of charismatic Christian worship. They jerk their limbs, fall to the ground, engage in babbling speech, cry and shout.
Adults surround the children, clearly encouraging them to behave the right way. Some children seem to participate enthusiastically. Others seem confused, intimidated, or tearful.
There’s not much new here. These sorts of behaviors have been manifestations of charismatic worship for a long time. For just as long, they have been criticized by critics. In the first Great Awakening of the 1740s, Boston minister Charles Chauncy famously attacked the revivalists for their embrace of “enthusiasm.” Their emotional services prompted false conversions, Chauncy believed. Attendees at big revival meetings found themselves caught up in the moment, jerking their bodies, crying out, falling down, but not becoming truly Christian.
More recent critics focus on the way young children are bullied into a traumatic emotional experience. Atheist pundit Jerry Coyne, for instance, puts it this way:
It’s brainwashing, pure and simple. The kids have no choice. Is there anyone who wouldn’t call this abuse?
These behaviors seem bizarre to me as well. But I don’t call it abuse. The adults in this video, to my mind, don’t appear to be victimizing children, but rather trying to share an authentically held belief with them. That’s a big difference.
I know this is a difficult topic to discuss. I also know that I have absolutely no personal experience with this sort of thing. And I sympathize deeply with those who found themselves traumatized by this sort of intense religious upbringing.
But if we call it “abuse” we are doing more than simply insulting these adult believers. If we call it “abuse” we open the door to government intervention in these religious ceremonies, and others.
Perhaps some other examples will help make the case. It is sadly not uncommon for religious people to insist on alternative medical care for children. Instead of chemotherapy, for example, some believers may lay hands on a child who is suffering from cancer. This is abusive. The child is being substantially harmed by being denied effective treatment.
It is also sadly not uncommon for religious organizations—and, to be fair, non-religious organizations—to cover up sex abuse of minors in the name of religious solidarity. Here, too, the government must intervene. This is abuse.
Again, my heartiest sympathies go out to those who are struggling to overcome religious upbringings they found coercive. Writers such as Samantha Field and Jonny Scaramanga have educated me a great deal about the ways religious beliefs can cause emotional harm and long-term trauma.
I’m not dismissing that. But the church-camp activities here seem to be something different than “abuse.” Am I wrong?