P.R. Claim: Religion fosters family closeness and family values.
Last night I watched “Polygamy USA.” I am aware that polygamous LDS is not standard LDS. And, further, LDS isn’t standard “Christian.” But what I saw that disturbed me, had nothing to do with the differences in these religious cultures, and represented, rather, obvious similarities. It had nothing at all to do with the polygamous aspect of the environment, and everything to do with how religion can strain ties between parents and children—putting distance between them by fostering irrational intolerance.
What I see over and over again, is that religion damages some aspect-X of society, but then successfully spins itself as beneficial to aspect-X. A commonly observed example would be religious groups that promote restricting access to both contraception and comprehensive sex education, as a means to reduce unwanted pregnancy. But sometimes the instances are not so obvious, even if they are just as common. Repeatedly, I see the P.R. claims slide through society unquestioned and unexamined. It appears that all religion has to do is continue claiming it’s good for aspect-X, and after a time, the claim, “it’s good for aspect-X,” takes hold, even among nonadherents.
What I’m about to discuss is not a problem restricted to religion, but rather a problem that religion compounds. In other words, without religion, there would be one less cause for this harm. Additionally, being a massive and well regarded institution, it has the potential to continue causing extensive damage, more than other ideologies that are not so socially far reaching, nor as lauded.
A person entering into an interracial relationship might encounter friction from racist parents. And such situations do strain family ties. However, “racism,” even for the many complex forms and social issues it raises, is broadly regarded as a negative social influence. When we think of racism, we think of negative things, negative people, negative histories—something we struggle against. But when we think of “religion,” and “church,” and “god,” most of our population still gets a warm fuzzy. And this protects it from examination and criticism. If racism included children’s classes, where the little ones got together with their little friends to sing songs, eat cookies and hear stories, people might be hard-pressed to attack it, as well. “Aw, but I remember all that fun? It was a good time. What sort of malcontent are you to crap upon such good fun? What is wrong with children singing songs? Who has a problem with cookies?” Well, nobody—but are cookies and sing-songs worth the cost to society to continue propagating something like “racism” in our society? Racism isn’t, at least any more, lauded by most people. It’s regarded as an ugly word. But “theistic religion” still sports a halo—without having earned it, and without, far too often, very many people stopping to consider whether it’s deserved. But that’s religion’s main defense: The hope that nobody will focus too closely on what is actually being promoted—the religion, itself. The hope we will be distracted by the red herring claims of all the “good” it does. And make no mistake; it need only toss out a “good” bone that isn’t really that impressive, every once in a blue moon, for people to forgive any atrocity it perpetrates, or any social harm it generates. After all, what is losing your family compared to the comforting memory of a soft cookie? What are 3,000 deaths compared to fun children’s songs with friends? What is threatening children with existential horrors for all eternity to a nice Bible Story Hour?
In sum, then, unlike other issues that strain families, religion is insulated and praised. This is why it is the hydra’s head I tend to focus on the most when it comes to my attempts to dismantle socially harmful institutions and ideologies. Rather than religion promoting family closeness, I see religion actually abusing the family as a mechanism to ensure its own, continued existence. It hijacks family bonds to use as leverage in ways that demonstrate the underlying dishonesty of what it’s actually claiming to accomplish—as I will discuss later, below, in a letter to a viewer.
But back to the television program. The episode I watched highlighted a father and son. It had nothing to do with polygamous aspects of their beliefs. The father wanted his son to go on a mission trip. The son had no interested in doing mission work. For most of us, that would be a small thing. The child isn’t interested in taking the trip. He’s nearly an adult. And there are many other opportunities for a bright, young person to pursue in life. Not going on a temporary mission adventure—well, what does it amount to in the end, really, compared to a father’s love for his son?
Apparently, it amounts to quite a lot. The father was relentless in his nagging about this mission trip, and obvious in his excessive time spent with his “mission boys”—young men who were not his son, who had decided to go do mission trips. The father made it clear to his son that the mission work was necessary to gain his love, acceptance and approval.
This represents emotional blackmail. Aimed at one’s own minor child, over a small matter, it amounts to emotional cruelty.
Don’t get me wrong. I realize it’s no “small matter” to the father—and that’s the religion’s doing, making a mountain of a molehill. Any reasonable person, and loving parent, should be able to see this is a nonissue when it comes to “do I love and accept my child?” and “Is my child a good person, of whom I should still approve and be proud?” A father’s love and acceptance should be light years beyond “I want my child to go on a trip.” It certainly should, by no means, hinge on it. And yet this religion has this father, punitively, spending more time with his “mission boys,” than his own son—constantly showing his son that the only way to earn his love and approval is to conform to his every minor whim. You want dad’s attention? Dad’s approval? Dad’s love? The family’s acceptance? Then you’d better get in line and get with the program and start buying into this religion, because until you start acting like these wonderful other mission boys, you’re stuck squarely on the outside of my love, acceptance and approval.
If this were one stranger to another, I wouldn’t think twice. But when it’s a parent to their minor child—an understanding of human development and social species should make it clear why this is grossly unacceptable parental behavior. Love, acceptance and approval are required by developing human beings who are solely reliant upon parents as their caregivers. It’s very important that children understand these things are secure. Withholding these things from a child and demanding compliance as ransom—in areas that are of little matter—constitutes abuse of parental power and resources. Parents who do this are severely in the wrong. And religion cannot begin to justify such irresponsible parenting.
As I said earlier—this is not restricted to some small LDS cultish outlying ideology. And it just so happened that the same evening I watched the program, I also answered an e-mail from a young woman who is trying to figure out how to come out to her religious mother as an atheist. Like so many young people who write to us, she has similar concerns. She had written in one of her responses that her mother did not ask if she was participating in church while she is away at college, and she speculated that her mother likely was afraid of the possible answer. Here is part of what I offered to her, just before she replied that I had described her situation exactly. And this is, as well, where I note the obvious dishonesty involved in what the adherents claim to be doing, versus what they’re actually doing:
This is extremely common and so weird to me. A Christian parent, specifically, often seems more concerned about how things look, than how things *are*. Often in these homes corporal punishments are used—basically artificial, exaggerated consequence, to control the child through fear. I’m not saying *your* parents hit you. I’m just saying that many Christian parents do, because the Bible endorses hitting kids as “loving” and “teaching.” Anyway, when a parent has a kid come out as atheist, very often, they put huge pressure on the kid to just stop being atheist and come back to church. They treat the child in such a way that it almost seems like you can “punish” someone into believing something; but in reality, you can’t—and who doesn’t know that? Certainly you can be punished into ACTING in accordance with what they want—like going to church and shutting up about your lack of belief. But you can’t control someone else’s actual beliefs using social pressure or threats.
So, it seems clear they’re mainly interested in controlling behavior, and not beliefs. And this is really odd, because the core of Christianity is that it’s all about what you *believe*. What you *do* is not totally irrelevant, but certainly useless if you don’t believe. And it’s interesting that these parents would be quite content to have their kids attend church and keep their mouths shut–and end up in hell, than be honest to them and end up in hell. Basically, they’re saying:
“I don’t care if you lie to me. I don’t care if you go to Hell. Just don’t make me look bad or have to cope with what is really going on.”
I find it disturbing. And I wish I could say that you’re likely misjudging your mom. But you’re likely not. This is probably exactly how she views it. Even if you don’t believe [and will suffer eternity in hell]–it’s all good as long as she doesn’t have to deal with it and can go on pretending that nothing has changed.
Later that night, I posted a blurb about Polygamy USA on a social networking site. And someone posted back to say add this:
I’m an ex-Mormon of 20 years, and I’ll tell you it’s social suicide for a male to decline a calling for a mission. Parents refuse to allow their daughters to date a non-Elder, friends no longer speak to you. Mind you, it gets worse depending on how big the LDS community is around your ward. My friend in Salt Lake City was shamed out of his job for a refusal. I won’t even go there if you decide to leave the church…That’s just the main stream LDS church. The fundamentalist compounds are much, much worse.
Bear in mind that the Mormons, specifically, promote themselves as extremely family-centric.
But it’s so easy to see, it’s not the religion keeping the family maintained. It’s the family keeping the religion maintained. It’s not the family using religion as a tool to stay close. It’s religion using the family ties as tools to control each of the members, and keep them conforming, so much so that even if they no longer accept the beliefs, they will stay in line out of pure fear. Religion isn’t helping families—it’s using and abusing them as leverage. It’s not concerned about family welfare, it’s completely self-concerned.
“Ask not what religion can do for you—ask rather what you can do for religion.” That’s what he religion is all about here.
So, we’re left with this question: How does an ideology that so often abuses family members as weapons against each other, to selfishly thrive, get a reputation of being beneficial to families?
Answer: The best damn P.R. machine you’ve ever seen.