(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
I have no problem with religious people wearing funny clothes and taking part in funny rituals and practicing all kinds of funny customs in the private sphere. It’s a free world (at least parts of it) and people have a right to practice their religion in any way that they see fit, and what consenting adults do is none of my business, though I fully reserve the right to be amused by such things and to point out the absurdities. Just as they have the right to practice their religion, others have the right to be make fun of them for doing so. But what is absolutely unconscionable is when these people impose their beliefs (religious or otherwise) on children.
Take for example, the practice of circumcision in Judaism and Islam. This strikes me as weird and indefensible. There has been an understandable outcry against the practice of female circumcision (dropping the euphemism and calling it by the more accurate term ‘female genital mutilation’) but it surprises me that there has been nothing similar against male circumcision. Why isn’t it called male genital mutilation? If adults want to circumcise themselves they should be allowed do so, just as we allow body piercing and tattoos and the like. But subjecting an infant to such things is simply wrong and it is only because it is a practice that is protected by long standing religious tradition that we do not say anything. Imagine if there had been no circumcision at all and some group came along today and said that they wanted to cut off the foreskin of their newborn male infants. Child protection agencies would be on them in a flash and their children would likely be taken away to protect them from potential abuse. But because it is done under the name of religions that have been around for a long time, it is given a pass.
It is like tattoos. We do not prohibit the practice of adults getting tattoos. But what if a new religion was started that required tattoos as a mark of faith and new born babies were given tattoos as a symbolic gesture of their parents’ commitment to having the child grow up in that religion? Would we, or should we, allow the practice? Shouldn’t the government step in and protect the rights of the most defenseless members of its community?
To me the issue is one of protecting the bodily integrity of a child that cannot give informed consent to mutilation. In Sri Lankan and other societies, female infants have their ears pierced and earrings inserted soon after birth and this practice is considered quite harmless and acceptable. But I refused to let this be done to my own daughters when they were infants (to the surprise of relatives who wondered why I was opposing a long-standing and unquestioned tradition) because I felt that since this was their body, this was a decision that they should make for themselves when they reached an age when they could make an informed choice. (When they were older, one of my daughters chose to have her ears pierced and the other declined.)
It is bad enough that religious people indoctrinate children’s minds with foolish ideas when they are at an impressionable age so that they find it hard to let go when they become adults. But some people go to such an extreme that they are willing to put the lives and health of children in danger. The number of such tragic cases is overwhelming and reading about them breaks your heart.
For example, we have the case of a child who died after receiving only homeopathic treatment. Another Wisconsin girl died because her father prayed for her instead of taking her to a doctor for a form of diabetes that could have been easily treated. Another boy died of a ruptured appendix while his parents prayed. In another case, children starved because their mother, who did not try to get a job or money in any way, said that they had to wait for god to provide. (This idea that god will take care of things resulted in the death of a man who injured his knee but could not afford to get it treated because he had no health insurance. So he simply sat in his recliner and prayed for healing for eight months.)
A member of a Christian religious cult starved her child to death on the instructions of her cult leader who claimed the child was a demon because he did not say ‘amen’ after meals. Prosecutors struck a deal with the mother in which she pleaded guilty and received a 20-year sentence but it will be reviewed if the child is resurrected from the dead. One hopes the prosecutors were only humoring the obviously deranged mother in order to get a guilty plea and do not really believe that there is any chance that the child will come back from the dead. The cult leader and two other members were found guilty of second-degree murder and child abuse and can face up to 60 years in jail at their sentencing in May.
A Haredi woman in Israel was arrested because she was starving her child and the members of her religious community rose up in protest and got her released.
There were apparently moves to cover Christian Science prayer treatments in the health care bill but fortunately it seems to have been stripped from the final bill that was signed into law.
The trouble with religion is that it encourages people to think that (1) their god is all-powerful and (2) that he will take care of those who faithfully worship him. Should we be surprised that some people (especially the more devout believers) take this message seriously and think that god will solve all their problems? One should not judge such people too harshly, though their acts are undoubtedly criminally stupid and they should be prosecuted in order to deter others from following their example. They are simply ignorant and gullible.
The people who are really culpable are the religious leaders and educated and sophisticated religious people who know better. They should be denouncing the idea that god will heal people. They know that god is not going to heal their own children and know enough to take advantage of modern science and medicine for themselves and their families when the need arises. But while not believing it themselves, they cynically endorse and propagate this message of a loving god who will look after the physical needs of his followers.
It is at the feet of these ‘moderate’ religionists that the ultimate blame for the suffering and deaths of these children should be placed.
POST SCRIPT: Children’s guide to religion