Mar 03 2016

Intellectual Child Abuse

On  February 29th Ken Ham posted on his Facebook page:

Intellectual child abuse: when kids are taught they’re just animals in an evolutionary process. This morning I taught kids the creation/gospel message!

The young people today in Alabama learned they’re not made in the image of an ape — they’re created in the image of God.

Ken Ham, as many likely know, is a young earth creationist. He believes in the literal truth of the Bible and therefore that the universe is 6,000 years old. This is an article of faith, but Ham also tries to support his faith with science, which means he gets the science entirely wrong. That’s what happens when you start with the answer and then work backwards.

The various aspects of evolutionary theory, on the other hand, are a matter of scientific consensus. They are the result of an open and transparent process of examining the evidence, conducting experiments, testing hypotheses, and engaging with a community of scientists who have worked out their answers over the last 150 years.

That is the process of science – that is what is and should be taught in science class.

What parents teach their children, however, is generally considered to be a private matter left up to the parents. This is one of those situations in which as a society we strike a balance between different ethical imperatives that often come into conflict.

On the one hand, we generally recognize that society has a responsibility to protect the innocent and defenseless. It is generally accepted that the state has a right to intervene if children are being physically abused or neglected. Parents do not have the right to starve their children to death, for example.

On the other hand, we also generally recognize the right for parents to raise their own children as they see fit, as long as they don’t abuse or neglect their children.

As is always the case when we have to draw lines at the intersection of different ethical principles, that line is going to be fuzzy (philosophers call this the demarcation problem).

Let’s take physical abuse, for example. If a child shows up at the hospital with a broken arm (caused by a parent), the law is pretty clear about that – this is abuse. What if a parent spanks a child on the bottom once with their open hand? Most people would not consider that child abuse and think that protective services need to be involved.

There is a smooth continuum between these two extremes, and no sharp line demarcating discipline from abuse.

The same is true of neglect. The state takes it as their responsibility to ensure that children are fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated and that they are kept safe. They can mandate child safety seats in cars, mandate that children get proper education, and that they receive medical attention as necessary (although even there we have some controversy).

However, while it may be optimal and there is even evidence that it affects life outcomes for children, the state does not mandate that homes have books in them, that parents read to their children every night, that they limit their TV watching, etc. In other words, the state does not legally enforce current opinions about parental best-practices.

Some, however, might consider it “intellectual child abuse” to raise a child in an intellectually impoverished environment. What lengths are we willing to go to in order to correct this, however? How much deference do we give parents in raising their own children?

This is a very emotional issue. Many of us have parental instincts that cringe at the very idea of a child being abused or neglected. Those same parental instincts, however, make us fiercely protective of our own parental rights. Imagine if the state required you to do something to your children that you fundamentally disagreed with.

Of course I think Ken Ham is objectively wrong. Evolution is the current scientific consensus. It should never be considered abuse to teach children what we think to be the truth (as part of a transparent process of due diligence). What Ham is essentially saying is that it is abuse to teach children something other than his personal religious views.

This is, of course, absurd (but then Ham was never known for his intellectual prowess).

Many people, however, have made the argument the other way. Richard Dawkins, for example, has argued that it is child abuse to indoctrinate children into a religious faith. He said:

‘What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe. That’s child abuse.’

I understand where he is coming from, but this view is highly problematic. By calling religious indoctrination abuse you are implying that there is cause for the state to act. Do we really want the government to be involved in deciding which world views parents are allowed to teach their children? (I am not claiming that Dawkins or anyone else is advocating for this, just that framing religious education as “abuse” has certain implications.)

We could also extend these arguments to teaching children to be racist, or even to believe in pseudoscience.

Obviously I disagree with indoctrinating children into hateful, regressive, pseudoscientific or unscientific belief systems. But I think that parental rights trump those concerns. As a society we just have to deal with the result. These children, at some point, with have to interface with the broader culture, and that is where other ideas have their chance to have an influence.

34 responses so far

34 Responses to “Intellectual Child Abuse”

  1. deciuson 03 Mar 2016 at 8:49 am

    There are aspects to religious indoctrination, such as instilling the fear of eternal punishment for imaginary transgressions (e.g. not believing), which indeed constitute emotional and psychological abuse.
    In my view, Ham’s and Dawkins’s arguments are not specular and directly comparable.

  2. mumadaddon 03 Mar 2016 at 9:24 am

    There are some efforts underway to get ‘Religious Trauma Syndrome’ entered into the DSM. I wonder if having a formally recognised disorder, with associated set of symptoms, would increase state intervention in cases of ‘abuse’.

    Does the state often intervene in psychological abuse cases in general? (I think probably not).

  3. pdeboeron 03 Mar 2016 at 9:45 am

    What are some examples of psychological child abuse in which the government does get involve? If child beauty pageants don’t count, I don’t think much does.

  4. Steve Crosson 03 Mar 2016 at 9:52 am

    Regardless of where anyone stands on the entire spectrum of potential parental “rights”, it is literally impossible to enforce any kind of laws dictating what is or is not “intellectual child abuse”. Even highly repressive regimes with terrifyingly powerful secret police (i.e. KGB, STASI, etc.) have never been able to control what parents teach their kids.

    Far better to ensure that children are exposed to “broader culture” as early as possible. IMHO, this means NO private religious schools, vouchers, home-schooling, etc. Every child deserves an equal opportunity to integrate with and benefit from society, but too often the “formative years” make it difficult or impossible for people to accurately judge opposing opinions or even “reality”.

    This does NOT mean indoctrination of any kind — unless, of course, learning how to think critically is considered to be indoctrination. It should be possible to acknowledge that people do believe many different things while still emphasizing that often MOST people tend to believe a lot of MOSTLY similar things.

    If, from the earliest possible age, we focus on WHY people eventually settle on a consensus and HOW to determine if the consensus is likely to be true, then we will have made a huge step in the right direction. And more (hopefully most) people will be able to recognize pseudoscience, magical thinking, etc. on their own.

  5. mumadaddon 03 Mar 2016 at 9:55 am

    Steve C,

    “Far better to ensure that children are exposed to “broader culture” as early as possible. IMHO, this means NO private religious schools, vouchers, home-schooling, etc.”

    You beat me to the punch there. I would personally do away with ALL private education, and mandate that everyone attend a state school with regulated and quality controlled curriculum. No home schooling except for medical reasons.

  6. deciuson 03 Mar 2016 at 10:05 am

    Steve Cross, I disagree. While history shows that political indoctrination by authoritarian regimes is bound to fail, better education enforced by the same systems tends to succeed.

    You specifically cite the DDR (or GDR), which in truth almost entirely eradicated religion in just a few years. To date, many decades after, in the former East Germany, it’s still nearly impossible to find a young person who believes in god.

    An education based on science and reason better contributes to one’s darwinian fitness compared to religion and superstition, which are inherently maladaptive and nearly useless to competently navigate the world.

  7. deciuson 03 Mar 2016 at 10:14 am

    Sources re my previous post:

  8. hardnoseon 03 Mar 2016 at 11:20 am

    There is a philosophical problem involved here that goes much deeper than anyone seems to acknowledge. The idea that science and religion are adversaries has been around a long time, and is often reflected at this blog — for example in this post and its comments.

    It is an old idea which is held by many. But is it reasonable?

    No. Only when science and religion are both misunderstood. Then it seems that they are at odds.

    Science is misunderstood when people like Dawkins claim that science understands and can explain life (or will be able to very shortly, go ahead and hold your breath for that).

    Religion is very often grossly misunderstood by the religious right, as well as by atheists such as the inhabitants of this blog.

    Neither science nor religion has the big answers. Both are ways of knowing, approaches to learning. During the course of our lives we can improve our knowledge and understanding greatly, even though we can’t ever explain it all. We can learn from people who have used the scientific method and mathematics to discover facts about the world, as well as from our own experiences.

    We can also learn from people who have devoted their lives to spiritual searching, as well as from our own internal experiences of the divine aspects of reality. (If we want to, of course none of you here would be interested in that).

    There are people like Dawkins on one side, who claim to know how and what everything is. And there are religious politicians like Cruz on the other side who also claim to know how and what everything is.

    Both are wrong and I think the world would be a saner place if everyone could ignore them.

  9. mumadaddon 03 Mar 2016 at 11:47 am

    If hn really has a doctorate it’s got to be in the humanities – that was pure post-modern bs.

  10. Steve Crosson 03 Mar 2016 at 12:05 pm


    Umm … not really seeing any disagreement here. For starters, I never even mentioned religion.

    Many sources indicate that a lot of East German citizens were anti-communist and/or religious. Short of having a STASI representative at every kitchen table, there was no way the DDR could control what parents TRIED to teach.

    On the other hand, in addition to indoctrination, the DDR had a strong interest in providing a good education (especially math and science) in order to compete with the West.

    The point is, a good education helps people better recognize reality. Thus, religion and communist indoctrination were both at a disadvantage.

  11. Steve Crosson 03 Mar 2016 at 12:38 pm


    “I would personally do away with ALL private education, and mandate that everyone attend a state school with regulated and quality controlled curriculum. No home schooling except for medical reasons.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Private education of any kind caters primarily to the wealthy and powerful (and often to ideologies). More importantly, when the powerful have (relatively exclusive) access to the best schools, they have no incentive to improve the quality of education anywhere else.

    Our PRIMARY goal as a country should be to improve the quality of all education to equal that of the best available. Who knows how many potential Einsteins are being overlooked by our horrifically inconsistent educational system.

    I think one of the most unfair and frankly obscene concepts that exist in this country is the idea of basing education funding on property taxes. Wealthy areas have a huge advantage and poor areas will never catch up.

  12. hardnoseon 03 Mar 2016 at 1:19 pm

    I think all children should be raised by the state and only see their parents on birthdays or holidays. And all wealth should be confiscated.

  13. Steve Crosson 03 Mar 2016 at 1:31 pm

    “I think all children should be raised by the state and only see their parents on birthdays or holidays. And all wealth should be confiscated.”

    Well, Okay … As long as they aren’t religious holidays.

  14. RCon 03 Mar 2016 at 1:44 pm

    @mumadd, Steve C

    I could not disagree more with the idea that private schooling should be removed.

    I grew up in an area that was largely white, and largely catholic. My parents sent me to large Jesuit highschool – not only did the Jesuit school have a significantly greater mix of ethnicities than my home town (30 minutes away) – it had a significantly larger religious mix.

    And that doesn’t even get into curriculum – yes, there was a prayer at the beginning of assemblies, but we also had “Religion” class – where we read the whole Bible, the whole Quran, the Talmud, chunks of Hindu and Bhuddist texts, etc.

    My education was much broader (and consequently I’m an atheist, not a catholic like my parents) because religion was openly discussed. Forcing religion on kids is a bad idea, but so is keeping kids ignorant about it – its one of the major driving forces in most world conflicts – understanding the motivations of other cultures is always a good thing.

  15. mumadaddon 03 Mar 2016 at 1:48 pm


    Religion wasn’t the focus of the point I made, really. More generally, I think that everyone should have the same opportunities, and you shouldn’t be able to ‘buy’ a better deal for your children OR send them somewhere that caters to your particular ideology. Tangential, I know — sorry for not being clearer.

  16. Steve Crosson 03 Mar 2016 at 2:05 pm


    What mumadadd said!!

    Also, while Jesuit schools often have a reputation for very high quality education, most “alternative” schools don’t. Mumadadd and I want equal access to the same, highest possible quality education for everyone.

    I absolutely agree that everyone should learn about many different religions. At a minimum, it should cause someone to ask “why are there so many if only one could be true?”

    In addition, “what the government doesn’t want you to know” (i.e. forbidden fruit) is always more tempting and kids are often rebellious. That’s one of the things the bible got right.

  17. RCon 03 Mar 2016 at 2:16 pm

    mumadadd –

    I agree that everyone should have the same opportunity – I mostly agree with you here. The issue for me is that I don’t think the current public system aims for that – schools in poorer areas receive drastically less funding than schools in richer areas – they do more to reinforce the ‘opportunity gradient’ than anything else. The ideal solution is that we stop giving poor people shitty schools – but poor people aren’t allowed to have nice things in this country. (OMG, Food Stamps for STEAK!)

    The Jesuit schools I’ve dealt with tend to have big endowments, and they use a lot of that money on scholarship and aid programs. When I was in 7th grade, my town’s high school lost it’s accreditation – I went to private school on a significantly reduced tuition because of that.

    Now, maybe the argument could be made that if rich people didn’t have the opportunity to pull their kids out and send them to private schools, they’d fix the broken system, but I just don’t agree with that. I live in Henrico county in Virginia now – Henrico is basically a horseshoe around Richmond – the western part of the county is affluent, the eastern part is poor and rural. The schools are good in the west, the schools are terrible in the east. Even within the context of one county, the richer people refuse to help educate the poorer people’s kids.

  18. Steve Crosson 03 Mar 2016 at 2:25 pm


    You are undermining your own argument. OF COURSE “the richer people refuse to help educate the poorer people’s kids” — that’s the problem.

    They wouldn’t have a choice if all education funding was distributed equally and fairly — and if they didn’t have alternative ‘better’ schools to send their kids to.

  19. RCon 03 Mar 2016 at 2:45 pm

    Distributing school funds equally and fairly is a different issue than removing private/charter/etc schools.

    Without fully socializing education in the USA, all it would do is funnel more money into rich districts school systems. Right now, with the system as it is – the private schools (and their aid programs) act as a release valve that lets some poor kids ( like myself) get out of the system.

    Now, of course – the ideal situation is burning down the whole system and starting over with essentially each school having equivalent resources and student pool sizes, and setting the curriculum at a national level – but with the Teacher’s Union fighting any sort of standardized curriculum, the entire south and Midwest fighting for “state’s rights” in any issue that allows them to either keep poor people poor, or minorities marginalized, and the general stigma in this country for ‘entitlement’ that’s a huge undertaking.

    Maybe once we get healthcare sorted out, socializing education will be more of a palatable suggestion. Maybe once the generation that believes life should be like the great depression, where people need to scratch and fight and claw for every little thing they get, dies out, we’ll be able to have some good social services.

  20. Johnnyon 03 Mar 2016 at 2:48 pm

    I think there is a cultural divide here that will be difficult to overcome in a discussion like this. Americans tend to place much greater emphasis on parental rights than Europeans. Being a European (Swedish), I have my bias. But I must admit I’m somewhat shocked at what at least some Americans are willing to let through in the name of parental rights.

    I think Richard Dawkins has very sound ideas about education:

    “The author of The God Delusion, who has previously described religious education provided by faith schools as a form of child abuse, said he would want pupils to be taught to be skeptical and to appreciate the value of evidence rather than receive “indoctrination” about atheism.

    He also said that his “free-thinking school” would provide lessons about the gods of ancient Greece and Norse legend, and would treat the Bible as a work of literature rather than a basis for morality.”

  21. Steven Novellaon 03 Mar 2016 at 2:52 pm

    Also keep in mind that not all homeschooling is religion based, and kids generally do better academically when they are homeschooled.

    The other way to approach this is to ensure that all children receive a certified education, whether public, private, or at home. But then you really have to enforce the certification for quality control.

    I always find the “freedom vs whatever” debated interesting, in this case freedom vs social engineering. People feel strongly, but it comes down ultimately to what you value most. Most people are also ideologically consistent. If they value liberty when it comes to school choice, they will also be on that side economically, and with regard to other social issues.

  22. Johnnyon 03 Mar 2016 at 3:00 pm

    “The other way to approach this is to ensure that all children receive a certified education, whether public, private, or at home. But then you really have to enforce the certification for quality control.”

    I agree with this. I don’t think either private o public is inherently preferable.

  23. Steve Crosson 03 Mar 2016 at 3:40 pm


    “Distributing school funds equally and fairly is a different issue than removing private/charter/etc schools.”

    Yup … and I said as much in my original comment. The problem is that without both, it is difficult to have either. I freely admit that I’m advocating for a perfect world, but I honestly see no other way to even begin to overcome the huge economic and cultural divide that currently exists in this country and seems to be getting worse.

    The problem is that even if we could eventually make every school as good as Harvard or M.I.T., the wealthy would still try to ‘get an edge’ by hiring private tutors or anything else they could think of to give their kids an edge — every parent wants their own kids to excel but the wealthy have a distinct advantage.

    Allowing private, prestigious schools is just one of the things that perpetuates the many advantage of members of “the old boy’s club”. The cachet of a Harvard or Yale diploma opens many doors. Ensuring that all schools are top notch while eliminating ‘prestige’ schools only accessible to the wealthy will not solve all of the worlds problems, but it will at least guarantee that everyone is equally exposed to ‘normal’ people during their education and it will keep the wealthy from simply being able to buy a ‘golden ticket’.

    Again, I know this is completely idealistic and not easily done or even necessarily possible in the country now or perhaps ever. Nevertheless, I think it is the right goal to aim for, even if we can’t ever get all the way there.

  24. BBBlueon 03 Mar 2016 at 5:03 pm

    I agree with Ken Ham!

    Intellectual child abuse: when kids are taught they’re just animals in an evolutionary process.

    Human kids are not just animals in an evolutionary process, they are wonderful, thinking, creative, self-aware primates who can influence their own future and the future of others. And when given the freedom to do so, they can reject their parent’s ideas and limitations.

  25. Steve Crosson 03 Mar 2016 at 5:14 pm


    Human kids are not just animals in an evolutionary process, they are wonderful, thinking, creative, self-aware primates who can influence their own future and the future of others. And when given the freedom to do so, they can reject their parent’s ideas and limitations.

    So … by this definition, it seems that Ken Ham is not as capable as the self-aware primates you describe.

    Sounds about right.

  26. hardnoseon 03 Mar 2016 at 7:23 pm

    There is nothing wrong with teaching children that they are animals in an evolutionary process. It is a fact.

    But teaching them they were created by a series of random accidents (plus natural selection, blah blah blah) is just another creation myth. There is nothing factual or scientific about it.

    And it’s a creation myth whose goal is to demystify and minimize life. If there were any logic or evidence behind it I would accept it, however depressing it might seem. But there are no good reasons for believing that particular myth.

    And the religious right, as portrayed at this blog, is too stupid to see the real problem with the way evolution is being taught.

    The truth is that we are animals in an evolutionary process, and we don’t know how or why it happened. Most of us (excluding any of you here of course) believe it’s all meaningful and mysterious and amazing.

    Teaching children it is nothing but random accidents is not only teaching them something demoralizing, it is teaching them something that is wrong.

    All religions are ultimately about the mysterious and incomprehensible fact that we are alive. There is plenty of stupid nonsense in religion, just like there is in everything, but throwing religion away is not the answer.

    No one needs religion to live, just like no one needs music or poetry. But lots of people want these things. That is what none of you even try to understand.

    You got the idea that religion is a bad thing, and/or that it is unscientific, and you honestly want it to be destroyed.

    Your attitude towards religion creates the crazy backlash. You can’t see that. You just react to the reaction, and you can be just as crazy as they are.

  27. hammyrexon 03 Mar 2016 at 8:33 pm

    Requesting that religion not be taught in a science classroom is not the same thing as requesting religious philosophy or instruction be “destroyed”

    Next straw-man.

  28. Sarahon 03 Mar 2016 at 9:41 pm

    “But teaching them they were created by a series of random accidents (plus natural selection, blah blah blah) is just another creation myth. There is nothing factual or scientific about it.”

    Boy Hardnose, if that were true, you might actually be onto something.

  29. Steve Crosson 03 Mar 2016 at 10:01 pm


    If anyone has discovered fire in your reality, I suggest you keep it far away from all the straw men that you create.

  30. hammyrexon 03 Mar 2016 at 10:25 pm

    “Guys, I don’t mean to be too militant here, but do we really need to teach pottery in computer programming?”

    “Wow, what does that guy have against pottery? Those uppity atheists are at it again!”

  31. slmon 04 Mar 2016 at 4:55 am

    @ mumadad waaay back near the top

    Does the state often intervene in psychological abuse cases in general? (I think probably not).

    True. I did this work for less than 10 years, all in, but it gets intense. (We used to joke that a year in Child Protective Services litigation equaled 7 years in regular litigation.) The bottom line is resources. I would be consulted as counsel as to whether or not the described situation amounted to abuse under the relevant Act. I would then get to advise if we went after the guy or gal breaking the kids’ arms or if we went after the guy or gal being a total jerk. Usually, if we had no spare workers/lawyers/court time we went after that arm breaker.

    Once in awhile, we got an extreme case involving emotional abuse, which was prohibited in law. Intellectual abuse was not a defined term in law. I did a quick search before commenting and turned up nothing in my jurisdiction using such terminology. Emotional abuse is the term. That would include parents who said to the child that if the child masturbated, his or her entire family would burn in hell forever (religious end), on to parents who told a child that he or she was responsible for the messy divorce because he or she had been too difficult or needy (secular end). There are child protective services that are religiously based, Catholic or Jewish being pretty common. Guess what, teaching the child the religious tenants relating to those faiths was NOT considered abuse.

    Is it abuse? I think it could be. Will the state intervene? If there is a lull in the battering, burning, starving, beating, freezing, terrorizing, not getting medical treatment, neglecting, drug abuse exposure, etc. And there rarely is a lull.

  32. mumadaddon 04 Mar 2016 at 7:34 am


    Thanks for your reply. In your experience, was it common to find any cases of emotional abuse without other types of abuse also present? My thinking was that where you find emotional abuse, you would be highly to also find physical abuse, or neglect, or poverty; the emotional abuse would rarely the sole reason for the state to intervene, and the other forms of abuse would be much easier to measure, evidence and prosecute. So I’d imagine the emotional abuse would just put to one side because it’s difficult to prove and unnecessary when you already have a strong case based on more tangible forms of abuse.

  33. BillyJoe7on 04 Mar 2016 at 3:35 pm

    You are all much too kind to the resident troll.
    This might help:

  34. slmon 07 Mar 2016 at 1:10 am


    I’ve taken some time to think about that. I know sometimes someone reported suspected abuse, and the social worker went out to investigate, although the description of the problem might not be too clear. Younger the child, less you needed to get someone moving. I recall one case where it seemed that was all we had, straight up emotional abuse with the rest of the child’s needs being apparently met. It seemed really strange. Why would you care for a child really well, except you would constantly verbally harangue it? I think that one required involvement because the abuse turned out to be a symptom of a deep problem, a developing mental illness, and this parent became unreliable as a caregiver. I remember it got quite complicated and did encompass more that just verbal abuse although it started that way with the child showing distress, with wetting pants, stopping talking or playing much, general malaise with no apparent physical cause.
    Closest I can come. I believe your summary of the most common situation is correct. You go after the more severe issues and sometimes the rest clear up, too. The hard part for me was that most often the parents wanted to do right by the child, but could not due to addition, mental illness, low cognitive development, etc. It was so sad to remove a child then, because you wanted to the parent to be able to do better, but the risk to the child was too high to leave him or her in place.

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