Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘childhood religious indoctrination’

My episode of the Skeptic Canary Show

I had a fantastic time on the Skeptic Canary Show today. The hosts, Tom Williamson (blog/Twitter), David James (blog/Twitter), and Paul Hopwood (blog/Twitter), are lovely and intelligent gents who do a great deal of much-needed and important work for the skeptic community, both in the U.K. and online. We had an interesting, fun, and thought-provoking discussion about a variety of topics, including:

  1. Skepticism and skeptical activism
  2. The scope of the skeptic movement (and the difference between skepticism as a movement and skepticism as a methodology)
  3. Applying skepticism to the testable claims made by religions
  4. The crucially important role that rhetoric and effective communication play in skepticism/skeptical activism/the skeptic movement (i.e. determining and making use of the most effective method of informing/persuading/communicating in any given situation and adapting one’s message and argument to whomever our audience happens to be, always making use of the principle of charity, the importance of acknowledging the fact that many people hold on to their irrational/potentially dangerous beliefs for emotional reasons and thus almost certainly cannot and will not be persuaded by facts alone, the brilliance and wisdom of Ray Hyman’s “Proper Criticism“, etc.)
  5. The fact that many of the things that I teach in my rhetoric/composition courses (critical thinking, why it’s absolutely necessary to support all claims and assertions with evidence from quality sources, how to determine whether or not a source is reliable/credible/etc., applying skepticism to everything we read (including our own writing), etc.) can also be valuable tools for skeptics/skeptical activists.
  6. Teaching how to think instead of teaching what to think
  7. Teaching critical thinking
  8. Atheism, how/why/when I became an atheist, and how being an atheist in the U.K. is almost always a very different experience than being an atheist in America
  9. Catholic childhood religious indoctrination and Catholic guilt (and my experience with both)
  10. Skeptic conferences/events (primarily TAMQED, and SkeptiCamp)
  11. TAM 2013 (only a month away now! :) See my recent post about it here)
  12. And, with the help of my favorite Bob in the world, Bob Blaskiewicz (who very kindly took the time to call in during the show), we discussed the Skepticism Across the Curriculum workshop that Bob and Eve and I will be doing at TAM 2013.
  13. (& I’m sure that we talked about lots of other interesting things that I’ve forgotten to include here (I haven’t yet had the chance to listen to the entire podcast of the episode))

And speaking of the podcast: if you’d like to listen to/download the show, it’s available both on the show’s website and via iTunes.

Thanks again to Tom, David, and Paul for having me on! Be sure to listen to the Skeptic Canary Show live each Wednesday (or download the episodes/podcasts) and visit/”like” the show’s Facebook page if you’re so inclined.


Catholicism’s rhetoric of suffering

I’ve been thinking about Catholicism’s celebration of suffering. Despite the strange and disturbing nature of this perspective, it is rarely discussed or questioned. This is unfortunate. A celebration of suffering lies at the heart of, and, in the minds of many Catholics, justifies emotionally abusive childhood religious indoctrination, and acknowledging and questioning this rhetoric of suffering is, I’d argue, one way to assist in removing the taboo that often prevents open discussion of the negative after-effects of Catholic childhood religious indoctrination. I’ll offer a few brief thoughts here and I encourage you to offer your own, in the comments section or elsewhere.

Read more

Child abuse and Catholic indoctrination: on being ‘kindling wood for Hell’

I would not for my life destroy one star of human hope, but I want it so that when a poor woman rocks the cradle and sings a lullaby to the dimpled darling, she will not be compelled to believe that ninety-nine chances in a hundred she is raising kindling wood for hell.

Robert Ingersoll

No one, let alone a small child, is “kindling wood for hell”, yet it is that message that is at the core of Catholic childhood indoctrination.

I’m in complete agreement with the sentiments and assertions expressed in this recent article by Richard Dawkins. I think that teaching small children to believe in a literal Hell and to believe that there’s a very real possibility that they will spend an eternity in this literal Hell is child abuse (relatedly, teaching small children that they are worthless and that their guilt, fear, and anxiety are valuable blessings from God is also child abuse). The Catholic Church hierarchy loathes and abuses children.

To be clear: I certainly do not believe that the vast majority of those who raise their children in the Catholic faith are child abusers. For the most part, they’re just continuing the cycle. Their parents permitted the Church to indoctrinate them, and now they are doing the same to their own children. This mindless continuation of the vicious cycle of indoctrination may never stop, but we can at least try to raise awareness of the fact that the core tenets of Catholic childhood indoctrination are indeed abusive to children.

I rarely write about this topic anymore. Doing so requires me to write in a way that makes me rather uncomfortable. I don’t  like writing about my personal life or personal experiences (I’m a very private person). I’d much rather create a rhetorically-effective, well-reasoned, and thoroughly-supported analysis/argument than discuss my personal experience with any given issue.

But, when it comes to this topic, personal stories can be extremely powerful. I learned this two years ago, when I first wrote and published the essay that I’m reproducing here. Of everything that I’ve written on Catholicism (and I’ve written quite a lot), it has received by far the most attention and responses, both positive and negative. For me, the most important and moving responses came from people who could relate to my experiences and who were relieved to know that they are not alone. That meant the world to me. However, a little over a year ago, I started to feel uncomfortable having something so personal posted online, so I took it down. This week, though, I finally decided to repost it, and I’ll also reproduce it below. I’m still a bit squeamish about it, but, if it helps you to feel less alone, or if it helps you to understand why/how the core tenets of Catholic childhood indoctrination are abusive and often cause life-long emotional damage, then reposting it is absolutely the right thing to do.


A dirty little girl, her head hanging in shame

(This essay was originally published on September 19, 2010. It was reprinted at and excerpted at The Daily Dish)


I cannot remember a time before I knew I was a Catholic. I knew it just as clearly as I knew that I was a girl, or that I had brown eyes. These traits were inherited, fixed, unchangeable. It took me a few years to understand that I hadn’t actually been born Catholic, and many more years after that to realize that Catholicism was optional.

Why did it take me until I was sixteen years old to figure out something so obvious? Simple: Catholic childhood religious indoctrination is chillingly effective. Its most powerful weapons are guilt and the fear of a literal hell. When a child is taught that the simple act of doubting or questioning any of the Church’s teachings is a sin, and that even the tiniest of sins can result in an eternity spent in a literal hell, they quickly learn to suppress those doubts and to feel intense shame, guilt, and fear when they fail to do so.

Think for a second about how cruel that is. To ensure that the Catholic mind virus is passed down through the generations, the Church is willing to crush children’s curiosity and to stifle or completely destroy their ability to think critically.

Then there is the guilt. According to Catholic teaching, humans are born sinners and cannot help but continue to sin throughout their lives. The only way for a Catholic to atone for these sins is to confess them to a priest, do the required penance, and be absolved. As a child, I obsessively recorded in a little notebook anything that I had said or done that could possibly be considered sinful. Then, when the time came for confession, I would recite this list to the priest, my head hanging in shame, my cheeks burning. I’d do my penance and be absolved. For a fleeting, blissful moment, I would feel light and pure and holy. But soon I would sin again, the guilt would return, the little notebook would be filled up with a record of my indiscretions, and I would return to the confessional and repeat the process over and over again.

Although I left Catholicism fifteen years ago, on occasion I still catch myself wondering what I need to do in order to rid myself of the guilt, shame, and feeling of dirtiness that, in one form or another, is almost always my companion. I sometimes find myself feeling frustrated: why, I wonder, can’t someone just tell me what penance to do? I obviously no longer think in terms of sin or feel the need to go to the confessional, but the desire for absolution remains, like an itch that cannot be scratched.

Who can deny that this is a form of child abuse? The mere act of writing this is making my hands shake and my stomach churn with anxiety. Fifteen years ago, I made the choice to leave Catholicism, something that, among the family and community I grew up in, just isn’t done. This choice was, without a doubt, the best and most liberating choice that I have ever made. However, I do not have a choice when it comes to the ever-present guilt, shame, and anxiety that resulted from my childhood religious indoctrination, and which, to varying degrees of intensity, will always be with me.

The Catholic Church loathes children. Loathes them. To the Church, children are Catholics first and humans second, and the lifelong trauma caused by childhood indoctrination is mere collateral damage in the Church’s battle against the outside world. As is so often the case, the Church unashamedly places their own interests above all other concerns, including the welfare (physical, emotional, and mental) of children. And an organization that despises and preys upon its weakest and most vulnerable members (who haven’t even chosen to be members) is undoubtably a force of great evil in the world.


Thank you so much for reading. ♡

Please adopt me, Bill Donohue

The Catholic League has started an “Adopt An Atheist” campaign.

Bill Donohue explains:

[Let] them know of your interest in “adopting” one of them. All it takes is an e-mail. Let them know of your sincere interest in working with them to uncover their inner self. They may be resistant at first, but eventually they may come to understand that they were Christian all along.

If we hurry, these closeted Christians can celebrate Christmas like the rest of us. As an added bonus, they will no longer be looked upon as people who “believe in nothing, stand for nothing and are good for nothing.”

I hope that Donohue will consider adopting me as his personal atheist. Fingers crossed, you guys!:

John Haught, Jesuit education, and the real-life consequences of Catholic teachings

When an educational institution prioritizes adherence to a religious ideology over rigorous academic inquiry and intellectual development, students suffer. They are not only deprived of the opportunity to develop and utilize critical thinking skills, they are also, to varying degrees, actively discouraged from doing so. True academic and intellectual growth cannot occur in an educational institution in which a specific ideology and its associated tenets are actively protected from questioning and scrutiny.

These arguments are widely-known and widely-accepted. There’s another important aspect of this issue that is rarely discussed, though, and a recent event made me realize that it’s also worth consideration. Like students, some members of the faculty of religious schools, particularly religious universities, are also deprived of the opportunity to engage in legitimate and rigorous academic inquiry and intellectual growth. However, while I feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy for the students who attend these schools, I feel no such compassion for the faculty, particularly those who actively and vociferously discourage both their students and their colleagues from questioning, critiquing, scrutinizing, or applying their critical thinking skills to the ideology in question.

Through their actions, these faculty members create a comfortable, insular, and safe little bubble for themselves, one in which both their religious beliefs and their pedagogical/andragogical/scholarly actions are protected from scrutiny. Jesuit educational institutions are a textbook example of this. Jesuits believe that they are called to educate. And, to be fair, their educational institutions often do a wonderful job of educating students on the subjects that pose no threat to Catholicism. My first-hand experience with Jesuit education was at the high school level. The school I attended is a “preparatory school” for a Jesuit university (most Jesuit universities have one or more affiliated “preparatory” high schools). In many ways, this school provided me with an outstanding education, offering academic opportunities unavailable to students at most public high schools. However, the critical thinking skills and intellectual abilities that I developed in certain courses and areas of study were not welcomed in the (mandatory) courses that focused on Church history, doctrine, tenets, or teachings. This was extremely jarring. It forced me to develop of a particular form of cognitive dissonance and it further reinforced what I had been taught from a very early age: Catholicism must never be questioned.

While the actions of these high school teachers is motivated by a desire to indoctrinate children, professors and other educators at Jesuit universities aren’t as concerned with indoctrination. They don’t have to be: their students are adults who have, most likely, attended Catholic schools and/or participated in Catholic religious activities since they were small children. The indoctrination is done. Free from that responsibility, these professors can instead focus on creating and maintaining that insular academic bubble, one in which they can express their opinions and beliefs without facing scrutiny or rigorous academic inquiry. This bubble is an echo chamber, filled with “yes-men” who are fully committed to a religious ideology that is not only their personal belief system, but also their livelihood. And there is no better example of this phenomenon than a professional theologian, for they are the ones who have the most to lose. A theologian’s primary job is to produce faux-sophisticated nonsensical apologetics intended to distract from the actual teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. Their work is so utterly and transparently meaningless that it cannot stand up to even the mildest of scrutiny.

As long as these theologians remain within their echo chambers, they are safe from criticism. Within their protected bubbles, they never have to acknowledge the true harm done by the Catholic Church. They are coddled, surrounded by yes-men who ensure that they will never have to face true academic scrutiny.

But when they step outside of that comfort zone and are confronted with the teachings of the Catholic Church and the real-world consequences of those teachings, all bets are off. The bubble bursts and their “sophisticated theology” is quickly exposed for the obfuscatory nonsense that it is.

Enter Catholic theologian John Haught of Georgetown University (a Jesuit institution). Long story short: recently, at the University of Kentucky, he debated Jerry Coyne on the question of whether or not science and religion are compatible, a debate in which Haught performed poorly. Then, a few days ago, Dr. Robert Rabel, the head of the institution that sponsored the debate, the Gaines Center for the Humanities, informed Jerry that Haught had demanded that the video recording of the debate not be posted online (Jerry had been eager to post the video on his site). Rabel, for whatever reason, decided to give in to Haught’s demand. Further, Rabel refused Jerry’s request for a copy of the video with Haught’s parts edited out, and, together with Haught, proceeded to deny Jerry’s other reasonable requests. Haught’s reason for refusing to release the video? The debate: “failed to meet what [he] consider[s] to be reasonable standards of fruitful academic exchange”. Back to that in a minute.

Yesterday, Jerry posted about Haught’s refusal and Rabel’s enabling of that refusal. This post received a great deal of attention, put Haught and Rabel under scrutiny, and gave both men a crash-course in “Streisand effect“-ology. After engaging in blackmail of a sort, Haught has apparently now agreed to release the video. Anyway, be sure to read Jerry’s two posts (1, 2) on this for a more detailed explanation of the whole mess.

Haught’s claim that the debate wasn’t a “fruitful academic exchange” is very telling. Although I imagine that it’s primarily an attempt to “save face”, it’s also indicative of Haught’s warped notions of academic standards. Haught’s experiences in the echo chamber of Jesuit higher education have led him to conclude that rigorous academic inquiry is acceptable and “fruitful” if and only if it presents no real challenge to his beliefs or to the career that he has built around those beliefs. Remember, theologians have the most to lose.

He wasn’t prepared. He didn’t realize that Jerry was going to confront him with examples of the real-life harm that the Catholic Church causes. Haught was forced to acknowledge the fact that all Catholics must eventually face: whether or not they personally adhere to the most damaging dogmas and practices of the Catholic Church, their support of the institution makes them at least somewhat complicit in the harm that it causes. And Haught has a lot more to answer for than the average Catholic, for he supports and defends the institution much more publicly and vociferously than most of his fellow laypeople. Haught is angry because Jerry provided a clear explanation of the horrible consequences of various Catholic beliefs and actions. In other words, when Haught claims that the debate “failed to meet what [he] consider[s] to be reasonable standards of fruitful academic exchange”, what he’s really saying is that “Coyne dared to question me. He had the gall to question my Church. I didn’t want to be challenged. I shouldn’t have to be challenged. Such scrutiny is unacceptable”.

Haught’s warped view of what constitutes “fruitful academic exchange” is the direct result of the Jesuit echo chamber in which he and so many other educators reside. The Jesuit motto is Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, “all for the greater glory of God”. And it’s more than just a maxim, for when academic inquiry and Catholicism come into conflict, Catholicism wins every time. In the Jesuit world, God trumps all. Over the past few weeks, Haught has learned the hard way that when he ventures too far outside of his protective bubble, he will be confronted with the dangerous beliefs and actions of the Catholic Church, the institution that he has dedicated his life to promoting and defending. Many of the Church’s actions aren’t pretty, and, until Haught is willing to acknowledge that, he shouldn’t be surprised or angered when he gets thoroughly trounced in a debate.

How should we help adults deal with the after-effects of childhood religious indoctrination?

To varying degrees, and in a variety of ways, childhood religious indoctrination fills the most trusting, eager, and vulnerable of minds with intense fear, shame, and guilt. This indoctrination can damage or even destroy a child’s curiosity and critical thinking skills. Many of us who experienced such indoctrination are left with lifelong scars of one form or another. Our rationality, intellect, and skepticism are often no match for the pernicious after-effects of childhood religious indoctrination.

And this indoctrination isn’t going to stop anytime soon. We may not want to admit that, we may wish that it weren’t true, but it is. It’s just not reasonable to think that all forms of childhood religious indoctrination can be stopped, at least not in the near future. Such indoctrination has persisted this long for one reason: it works. It keeps the churches full. Most children who are indoctrinated into a particular religion remain members of that religion for life and grow up to indoctrinate their own children into that same religious tradition. They perpetuate the cycle. And as for the permanent scars caused by childhood religious indoctrination? From the perspective of someone whose primary concern is perpetuating his or her religious tradition of choice, the emotional trauma caused by such indoctrination is just collateral damage: unfortunate, perhaps, but inevitable.

So, while raising consciousness about childhood religious indoctrination is a vitally important endeavor, we must also acknowledge the fact that this indoctrination isn’t going to end anytime soon and adjust our actions accordingly. As such, I think that it would be worthwhile to divert some of our time and resources towards helping (in what way(s)? What does “helping” mean in this context? How can we avoid making this seem like some sort of touchy-feely group therapy thing?) adults deal with the after-effects of childhood religious indoctrination. The consequences of such indoctrination are rarely given the consideration or attention that they deserve. Despite the fact that most children remain in the religious tradition into which they were indoctrinated, there are many of us who, at one point, decided to leave our religious faith behind. Yet most of us are at least somewhat reluctant to discuss our experiences. It’s a rather taboo topic, even among atheists. I suspect that many of us are afraid that we’ll be accused of using our experiences as an “excuse” for something or other. We (quite understandably) don’t want to play the victim card, so we pretend that we’re strong enough to completely rid ourselves of the pain, fear, and guilt that never really goes away. But many of us aren’t. And admitting that doesn’t mean that we’re weak or that we’re making excuses. Our feelings are nothing to be ashamed of. They’re simply an understandable response to a specific kind of childhood trauma.

The problem is, I’m not really sure how such an endeavor could/should be accomplished. I do have one idea, though: I think that, if we’re comfortable doing so, it’s important for those of us who experienced any form of childhood religious indoctrination to share our experiences and to encourage others to do the same. Sharing our stories and engaging in the conversations/discussions they spark can be helpful for both ourselves and others. It’s always a relief to know that we’re not alone and that others can relate to our experiences and feelings. Additionally, discussing our experiences may help make this topic less taboo and convince others that it’s something that deserves to be taken seriously. I think that it might be worthwhile to set up some sort of website that could serve as both a repository for these stories and a collection of helpful resources (what kind of resources, though? I’m not sure) for individuals who are struggling (in one way or another) with the after-effects of their experiences with childhood religious indoctrination. In order to to make such a website as useful and effective as possible, I think that it would probably be best to divide it into separate sections for different religions (ex-Catholic, ex-Christian, ex-Jewish, ex-Muslim, etc.).

That’s just one idea. As I said, although I think that this is an important issue that deserves our time and resources, I’m not sure what, precisely, can/should be done about it or how our time and resources could best be utilized. Education is the most effective tool we have in the crucially important goal of raising consciousness about childhood religious indoctrination. However, because such indoctrination isn’t going to end anytime soon, I think that we should also try to find ways to help those who have left behind the religious tradition in which they were raised.

Do you have any suggestions or ideas? Any answers to the parenthetical questions I’ve posed in this post? I’d love to hear them. Thanks!

%d bloggers like this: