The idea that religion is harmful to the process of human development has no scientific support, but religious conviction has been associated with a number of tragic experiences within families.
Little David’s parents should have urgently sought the help of doctors when the baby was born prematurely at his grandmother’s house in Oregon. But all they did when the child’s condition began to deteriorate was to anoint him with oil and pray for his healing. Nine hours later, the child was dead.
Standing before the jury, Dale and Shannon Hickman had to face the reality: if they had called the doctors, there would have been a 99% chance that the little one (who had breathing problems typical of premature babies) would have lived. The defence lawyer insisted that the religion of the two forbade them to seek medical assistance. Furthermore, even if the mother wanted to call the ambulance, religion forced her to obey her husband’s will. Nevertheless, none of these arguments could save the two from punishment. The Oregon judge handed down a six-year prison sentence.
Religion and abuse
In the “Followers of Christ” church, to which the Hickman family belonged, other equally sad cases were recorded, part of the statistics that say that the rejection of medical care for religious reasons, in the USA, led to the death of 140 of children between 1975 and 1995. Such incidents are often mentioned when religion is referred to as “child abuse” (in the words of well-known atheist activists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens).
In the case of Muslims, one of the most well-known forms of abuse in the name of religion is the marriage of 10-year-old girls to men of any age. In 2010, the Children’s Fund program, within the UN, disclosed the case of a 12-year-old girl from Yemen, who died, three days after her wedding, due to internal bleeding caused by the fact that she had sexual relations with her older husband of 24.
A thinking defect?
In the US, Bill Nye—known in the 90s as “The Science Guy” from the Disney Channel and PBS Kids—issued an appeal to parents, warning them against causing a ‘cognitive disability’ in their children by educating them to believe the creationist theory regarding the origin of life.
But Nye’s idea is not new—the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had a similar speech in the 19th century. In “On Religion—A dialogue”, the philosopher argued that childhood religious indoctrination is responsible for young people’s inability to question religious ideas as adults. The fear of the flames of Hell, of eternal punishment, and guilt for normal sexual impulses are two of the most often criticised effects of religious education.
“Holy Fear” versus science
The leitmotifs that critics of religion use have been statistically contradicted by studies that show that religious people have a brighter perspective on life (which has countless benefits: a higher self-esteem, lower incidence of depression and suicide, lower incidence of heart disease), and that they even have a more satisfying sex life than non-religious people.
The idea that religion is unequivocally harmful to human development has no scientific support. Instead, according to studies, children raised in Christian families do better in life and are happier than those born into secular families. Moreover, it is very important to note that, often, in the case of an unfortunate incident associated with religious persons, the influence of religion cannot be perfectly isolated from the influence of other variables on the outcome of the incident. This is easily observed, looking into history at the atrocities committed in the name of religion, but which actually had political and economic interests or mental ailments behind them.
Healthy religion is not harmful
It is true that the attitude towards religion can make a radical difference between a tragic outcome, such as in the case of the Hickman family, and a normal and happy life. However, situations where religious influence has been harmful are the exception, and by no means the rule, and usually these situations are associated with religious fundamentalism/fanaticism or mental illness.
Most believers understand that a healthy attitude towards religion implies a healthy and beneficial philosophy for the human being, which also deals with the well-being of the individual both on a physical and mental level (health, hygiene, work, intellectual development, etc.), not just on a spiritual one.
Moreover, healthy religion aims at and works to educate the human in a balanced way, without undermining the importance of the exercise of reason.
Healthy religion does not place the requirements of tradition before moral principles. It promotes love relationships (friendship and family), instead of a spirituality in isolation for the sake of asceticism. In a healthy religion, the divine (and human) authority respects the human’s freedom of conscience, and as a result, the human free conscience respects the divine (and human) authority. Without this balance, we cannot speak of a healthy religion.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Signs of the Times Romania.