7 Nov 2008

Religion and Child Abuse

From the website of the Council for Secular Humanism

Religion and Child Abuse

by Innaiah Narisetti

Innaiah Narisetti is the chair of the Center for Inquiry/India. This article is excerpted from a paper that he was to present at the Center for Inquiry’s congress in China in October 2007.

Over the years, the abuse of children has received substantial attention worldwide. The United Nations, through its member organizations such as UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), has focused on this issue, recognizing the worst forms of such abuse. These include child labor, in which an estimated 250 million children are engaged in some form due to the practice of slavery, bondage linked to family debts, or serfdom; as well as the forced recruitment and involvement of children in armed conflicts, child pornography and prostitution, and the production and trafficking of illicit drugs.

The International Labor Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and UNESCO hold regular discussions at various levels and organize international conventions. The UN has adopted a world declaration for the protection of children, the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


The human rights of children and the standards to which all governments must aspire in realizing these rights for all children are most concisely and fully articulated in one international human-rights treaty: the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention is the most universally accepted human-rights instrument in history. It has been ratified by every country in the world except two: the United States and Somalia. It places children at center stage in the quest for the universal application of human rights. By ratifying this instrument, national governments have committed themselves to protecting and ensuring children’s rights and have agreed to hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community.

While it is unfortunate that a powerful country such as the United States has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN’s efforts are salutary and place much-needed emphasis on improving the lives of children globally.


However, despite all the effort and rhetoric about protecting children and their rights, there is a severe shortcoming in the global campaign to protect children: the influence of religion and its continuing contribution to many forms of child abuse all around the world.

Such abuse begins with the involuntary involvement of children in religious practices from the time they are born. All religions, through ritual, preaching, and religious texts, seek to bring children into day-to-day religious practice. This gives holy books and scriptures, as well as those who teach them, an early grip on the developing minds of young people, leaving an indelible impression on them. In many cases, most notably in the Catholic Church, this forced and prolonged exposure of children to religious institutions has also been a key factor in the physical, mental, and sexual abuse of children by religious leaders.

This early grip is so strong that very few people, once grown, ever get an opportunity to change their minds, despite being exposed to science and rational thinking, or even other religious systems. Religious beliefs thrive by imposing themselves upon impressionable minds and gaining their blind adherence to certain dogmatic practices. In some ways, this lays the groundwork for sustained psychological abuse of young children by allowing adults the use of religion as a pretext for various other forms of abuse such as forcing them to fight in wars in the name of religion and ethnicity. During 2004, about 300,000 children served as soldiers in national armies, worldwide.

When it comes to the forced inculcation of religion and the resulting abuses of children in the name of religion, the UN, all of its affiliated organizations, and almost all national governments remain steadfastly silent.


In one form or another, all religions violate the rights of children. Yet a body like the UN, which allows the Vatican to be represented among its member countries, is unaware of—or more likely—unable and unwilling to stand up to the Vatican regarding the religious abuse of children. There is significant pressure from the Vatican to pull back on or dilute any resolutions that point to religion as a cause of abuse or strife. Add to this the unwillingness of the UN to confront its member countries, especially those in the Muslim world, which can also exert a lot of pressure when it comes to issues related to the abuse of children by their religious schools (madrassas) where, for example, very young children are forced to memorize six thousand verses of the Qur’an, a process that involves both mental and physical abuse.

As a result, the UN and its affiliated agencies tend to focus on addressing just the symptoms rather than the root causes of some of the most insidious forms of child abuse. For example, while everyone speaks out against genital mutilation, UNICEF is unwilling to acknowledge and condemn it as a religious practice. Instead, it talks about educating communities and spends millions of dollars on medical kits to treat those children who have already been mutilated. By not forcefully pointing the finger at the real culprits—religious practices—the UN is not only missing a good opportunity to fix the problem at its source but also putting too small a bandage on a very deep wound.


Another area in which religions contribute to child abuse is through explicit and implicit gender discrimination that leads to unequal rights and opportunities between boys and girls and contributes to further abuses. While economic factors are also to blame, the roots of this inequity lie in religious and social mores. How can the UN hope to tackle the problem of child labor or a lack of educational opportunity among the children in 130 developing countries who are not in primary school, the majority of them being girls? In the Islamic world, some female students are allowed to attend certain madrassas. However, they are forced to learn in classrooms, or even buildings, separate from their male peers.

There is a global unwillingness to acknowledge that all religions use their educational institutions and programs, be they Sunday schools, madrassas, or Jewish or Hindu temples to indoctrinate children. Sometimes, this is in the guise of conveying good moral values, but, while it may be much more rigid and overt in, say, a madrassa, it is no less influential on young minds in a Christian Sunday school.

Ultimately, all such programs try to instill a belief in the superiority of one religion and inculcate an unquestioning faith in that system.


Just as we all stand up against child marriage, because marriage is an institution meant for adults, and just as we do not let children participate in certain civic duties, such as voting, until they reach a certain age, the time has come to debate the participation of children in religious institutions. While some might see it as a matter better left to parents, the negative influence of religion and its subsequent contribution to child abuse from religious beliefs and practices requires us to ask whether organized religion is an institution that needs limits set on how early it should have access to children.

There is no doubt that this will be a controversial position. However, there is nothing to prevent the UN from organizing a world convention on the issue of the religious abuse of children, a forum where the pros and cons of childhood exposure to religion and its influence on children can be openly debated. The world body cannot remain silent on this vital issue just because it is a sensitive and difficult subject, even given its member nations and their religious interests. A convention like this would also be an opportunity for those who might want to argue for the benefits of the influence of religion on children, so the UN should not shy away from debate of the issue.

If such a convention clearly shows that religion contributes to child abuse globally, the UN must then take a clear stand on the issue of the forced involvement of children in religious practices; it must speak up for the rights of children and not the automatic right of parents and societies to pass on religious beliefs, and it must reexamine whether an organization like the Vatican should belong to the UN.

Until this happens, millions of children worldwide will continue to be abused in the name of religion, and the efforts made by the UN will continue to address the symptoms but not the disease.

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