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help_The past couple of weeks there has been a lot of discussion about religious indoctrination and abuse.  A couple of weeks ago I received a good bit of pushback from my readers because I asserted that you shouldn’t call teaching creationism “child abuse.” If you check out that article (linked here) and sort the comments by number of upvotes you’ll find that the top six or seven comments disagree with the original post. The same pattern seems to have played out in almost all of the social media platforms where the article got passed around.

My contention was that creationism per se—considered separately from the rest of the Christian fundamentalist dogmatic structure—is not by itself equally as detrimental to childhood development as are other aspects like everlasting punishment. Some of the pushback centered around whether or not those varying aspects of fundamentalism really can be rightly considered in abstraction apart from each other.  Or perhaps since for so many those things occurred together (hellfire/brimstone preaching and Young Earth Creationism), why not simply take them as a single unit and judge them both the same?  I think that’s a matter worthy of debate.

Other aspects of the debate centered around the proper limitations of the term “child abuse.”  I could have probably done a better job than I did of explaining what that phrase indicates to me, and I’ll attempt to do that in a little bit more detail as a guest on the Atheist Analysis podcast Sunday night. The short version is that I approach that specific phrase as an educator whose profession imbues that term with legal significance, carrying drastic consequences which include a possible removal of the child from his or her abusive parents.

Now Balance What I Said With This…

I don’t want to rehash that complex debate in this post but perhaps provide a balance to my own previous words about this topic by sharing a fantastic article written by Libby Anne over at Love, Joy, Feminism a couple of days ago. You can read her full article here, but I’d like to pull out an excerpt or two which I found particularly poignant.  At the risk of sounding self-contradictory, despite what I said the other day about the term “child abuse” I have to say that I love and agree with everything she says in this article.

I have come to feel that love is a neutral thing, not an automatic good thing as most seem to assume. It is in and of itself neither good nor bad. There is a selfish love, there is a smothering love, there is a love that seeks to control, a love that does not let go. This is not a good love, it is not a kind love, it is an abusive love. And so I find that I care less about whether someone “loves” another person than I do about how they treat them.

Loving someone does not get a person off the hook for treating them horribly—nor does it soften the treatment. Indeed, it makes it worse.

I’ve never heard someone put it exactly that way before, but she nailed it.  We have loaded down the word “love” with so much import, but the word itself shouldn’t carry the weight that it does. By itself it doesn’t really indicate whether the actions being done by the love-er really benefit the recipient. Ultimately that is the more important question: Does this behavior help the recipients to flourish, or does it bring them harm?  Loving motives could produce either effect, which means that by itself love isn’t enough. She develops the idea further:

Years ago my aunt told me that when she became engaged to my uncle her father asked her three questions: Do you love him? Does he love you? Does he treat you right? Note the inclusion of the third question. If love implied good treatment, that question would not be necessary. We make a mistake when we assume that love means right treatment. This is a mistake because too many people end up in abusive relationships, held their by the belief that their partner (or mother, or what have you) loves them. And love must mean right treatment, so if there is love, all must be okay—even when it’s not.

Love must mean right treatment. Exactly. The last few years have brought this distinction home to me in ways I never expected. People close to me have made harmful choices and have said hurtful things to me which they intended to benefit me. They acted in love, but their love only brought damage.  I wrote an article once entitled “Your Love Is Toxic,” spelling out four kinds of “love” that aren’t really love:

  • Shunning
  • Withholding
  • Crusading
  • Giving gifts with strings attached

In retrospect I think Libby Anne has put it better. It’s not that they’re not loving.  It’s more that love in itself isn’t enough. Love can be abuse.

And yeah, I know, I sound like I’m totally contradicting myself here.  Perhaps it’s a semantics discussion, a question of using loaded terminology. Like I said above, to me the term “child abuse” evokes legal ramifications due to the intensity of harm done. Maybe it’s the grouping of the two words together into a familiar term. I see a hierarchy of harm within the structure of dogmatic beliefs of Christian fundamentalism wherein creationism (in itself) occupies a lower position than preaching hellfire and brimstone or even body shaming and other guilt-inducing topics. I suppose it is possible to more generally use the word “abuse” to indicate a wide spectrum of recurring harm or of disadvantaging children during their formational years. I could even include in that category “educational neglect” through cutting children off from the rich diversity of learning resources available in the digital age, even if the emotionally charged term “child abuse” feels less appropriate the further we move away from any experience of trauma.

But the mere word “abuse” taken alone? Somehow that makes me get it in a different way. I’ll let Libby Anne drive this point home herself because–especially after the things I’ve seen over the last few months—I just cannot agree more:

There is little that means less to me than a parent’s statement that they love their child. Do you have any idea how much abuse parents have justified in the name of love? Love serves as a sort of get out of jail free card, as though all that matters is that you love your child, and how you treat your child is irrelevant. I’m sorry, but no. Right treatment matters. There is little I have more anger for than a parent who says they love their child while treating them like shit. What does this do to the mind of a child? Here is this person who says they love you, and yet they’re hurting you. What does that tell the child about love?

Love is overrated. Kindness isn’t.

Amen, sister.  Well put.

Read the rest of Libby Anne’s post here.

[Image source: Shutterstock]


Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...

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