Image credit: www.xkcd.com
“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.” Martin Luther King Jr.
In January, I heard that a group who called themselves the “Young Skeptics” were forming a club that would meet at my kids’ elementary school. The Young Skeptics are lead by a group of atheists who wanted to offer an alternative to the “Good News Club,” a Christian group that also meets at the elementary school. Both groups are community groups, and are not sponsored by the school district. Initially, the leaders of the Young Skeptics club insisted that their mission was not to debunk Christianity or any religion; in fact, they wouldn’t be discussing religion at all. Their aim was to expose kids to critical thinking skills, weighing scientific evidence so that they could make their own decisions regarding things like Big Foot, aliens, and, we have to assume by extension, deities, Christian or otherwise.
No problem, except that the Young Skeptics are sponsored by “The Better News” club. Ouch. That was enough to make this rather quiet Christian feel defensive and a little ornery. So I did what any ornery suburban Christian mom would do: I contacted the Good News Club coordinator and offered to help out with snack.
The Young Skeptics first meeting took place a day before the GNC (Good News Club) met together. Their debut made news, both local and national. Everyone expected that the Christian community in Churchville Chili would make a big stink about the club and try to shut it down. As far as I know, no one has brought any sort of complaint against the Young Skeptics, nor has anyone shown up to protest their meetings.
At the next meeting, held in our elementary school’s cafeteria, I was prepared to hand out Dixie cups full of water or milk to a bunch of wild elementary school-aged kids, and to be on guard against potential food allergies. (Being the snack lady is a very important job.)
The GNC leaders were woefully unprepared for what happened next. A woman showed up- an atheist- wanting to observe the goings on of the GNC. It was clear that the GNC leaders had not established a protocol for this situation. Community groups are not exclusive: anyone can come. Even an adult to a kids’ club.
One of our leaders became immediately defensive.
“I have a right to be here,” said the visitor.
“And I have a right to ask you to leave,” said the leader. (She didn’t, actually.)
The visitor eventually did leave, prompting the atheists to ask the obvious question: What doesn’t the GNC want us to see?
What is the Good News Club? According to their website, the Good News Club’s purpose is to “evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living.” Having been involved with evangelical churches all my life, and having now sat through several GNC club meetings, I would say the club is like being in a Sunday School class outside of the church basement.
That the GNC clubs meet in school makes atheists, humanists, and others uncomfortable. Their position is that holding a religious class within a school is confusing for the children, many too young to differentiate school-sponsored learning from private, religious learning. The opponents of the GNC took their cause all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost. You can read all about the case here, with its exceptions and clauses and other law talk. The Churchville-Chili GNC opponents know this, which is how and why they formed the Young Skeptics Club (which honestly sounds like a great program, though I wouldn’t send your first-grader there if he or she still believes in Santa Claus. These people are like the no-nonsense mother in Miracle on 34th Street.)
When the Young Skeptics formed a couple of months ago, Good News Club participants didn’t make a stink about it. They didn’t rally together to protest. Most realize that doing so would be hypocritical, as the law applies to all groups, regardless of religious belief. Again, free speech, and all that. You will find no evidence that the GNC club did anything to try and hinder the Young Skeptic Club. None.
At the next GNC meeting, the humbled leaders admitted there was absolutely nothing to hide from the community at large, so they pulled together and developed a plan for dealing with our visitors. When I came in to help with snacks, I noted they had set up a table specifically for guests. Their strategy was to be polite and not engage. Some were excited about the opportunity to show hospitality to self-ascribed atheists, because honestly, the opportunity doesn’t come up often.
74% of Americans believe in God. (The percentage has declined over the years.) Most of the non-believers and skeptics aren’t evangelical about their beliefs (or, rather, non-beliefs.) Example: my best friend since high school claims complete atheism, and has (over the years) regarded my Christianity with bemusement. Or amusement. Or maybe both.
At the second GNC meeting after the Young Skeptics Club was announced, no atheists showed up. The table sat empty. The “welcome visitors” sign was taken down. We thought the drama had subsided, and that the atheists were going to leave us alone. We were wrong.
At the next meeting, nine atheists showed up to observe the going-ons at GNC. They skulked around in the background as the kids divided up into small groups for memory-verse memorization, and then continued skulking as everyone came into the cafeteria for snack and story time. They sat with their notebooks and, with grim faces, stared and whispered amongst one another.
“Should I serve them snack?” I asked our group’s coordinator, who is a kind, soft-spoken person.
“Oh, I don’t know. We’re supposed to ignore them. Of course there’s hospitality and all that… go ahead! Offer them snack.”
So I did. They mostly said no thank you. I heard one woman whisper to the man next to her that I “had been trained to offer up hospitality,” as though I was brainwashed, or was trying to brainwash her. She was too smart for me, though. I continued my evil plan by asking if they wanted anything to drink.
I offered them Kool-Aid.
I was trying to break the ice with a little joke. A couple of them took me up on my offer, and I said, teasingly, “You really want to drink our Kool-Aid?” They finally got the joke and rolled their eyes. One of the men looked at me intently and asked why he wouldn’t want to drink our Kool-Aid. I said we didn’t have any Kool-Aid, just water and milk in dixie cups. He requested water. Ice was not broken, literally or figuratively. They were not going to engage in friendly banter. They were going to stare at us with their arms crossed. Like mobsters in a courtroom.
Why, if they knew there was no way to kick the group out of the elementary school, were they coming to observe us like they were involved in some great anthropological experiment?
“Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.” Kurt Vonnegut
According to the Young Skeptics website: “The Better News Club feels the approach of Good News Clubs is a form of psychological abuse, akin to telling small children they’re flawed or evil, and must subscribe to a dogma in order to avoid eternal punishment. It’s a fear tactic that accompanies extremism and is a dangerous, albeit effective, technique when performed on children who trust adults and believe what they’re told. This is why Young Skeptics originated at Fairbanks ES… to give children (and parents) an alternative.”
Psychological abuse is a really heavy term to be throwing around. It’s also not an easy term to define. While looking for a standard definition, I found one article from a medical journal entitled: Emotional and psychological abuse: problems of definition. Here’s the closest thing I could get to a concrete definition, though it seems to mostly pertain to women who are in abusive relationships: Psychological or emotional abuse involves trauma to the victim caused by acts, threats of acts, or coercive tactics, such as those listed below.
- Humiliating the victim
- Controlling what the victim can and cannot do
- Withholding information from the victim
- Getting annoyed if the victim disagrees
- Deliberately doing something to make the victim feel diminished
- (e.g., less smart, less attractive)
- Deliberately doing something that makes the victim feel embarrassed
- Using money that is the victim’s
- Taking advantage of the victim
- Disregarding what the victim wants
- Isolating the victim from friends or family
- Prohibiting access to transportation or telephone
- Getting the victim to engage in illegal activities
- Using the victim’s children to control victim’s behavior
- Threatening loss of custody of children
- Smashing objects or destroying property
- Denying the victim access to money or other basic resources
- Disclosing information that would tarnish the victim’s reputation
I cannot speak for other Good News Clubs in the country, but I can personally attest that psychological abuse is NOT happening in Churchville Chili. There is teaching from a Judeo-Christian worldview, which believes in the veracity of gospel of Jesus Christ: namely, that all who believe shall have eternal life in heaven. The GNC leaders teach a story from the bible, a story about missionaries in foreign lands, and have kids work on memorizing bible verses. The parents of the children attending GNC mostly already ascribe to Christianity, and have signed a permission slip that allows their children to attend. Since I signed the permission slip, that means that the leaders of the Young Skeptics believe that I have subjected my children to psychological abuse, and by extension, am probably abusing them at home by espousing my Christian beliefs.
I have a serious problem with that accusation, which was made publicly on their website and has been distributed through local and national media. We live in an age where a mother can have Social Services harass her for years because she left her child in the backseat of the car while she ran into the store for five minutes to grab just one item. There is nothing more disconcerting than having someone question your capability as a parent, especially in a public forum. Threatening the loss of custody of children is so unsettling that it, itself, qualifies as psychological abuse.
“Declare your allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, or you get no supper!” said no Christian parent in the Churchville-Chili school district ever.
Christianity fits under a rather large umbrella: there are extreme liberal Christians and extreme conservative Christians, and then there are those in the middle. There can be a wide spectrum of Christians under the roof of one church: some people in my own church, for example, wouldn’t touch alcohol with a ten-foot pole. Then there are people like my husband, who ran around all weekend wearing a Guinness cap with a built-in bottle opener.
Sure, there are instances where people use Christianity in order to psychologically torment their children. I’ve met them. They do exist. Most of the evangelicals I know are really good parents, and their children are physically and emotionally healthy. Yes, they expose them to Christian values and the concepts of heaven, and yes, even hell, but from what I’ve seen and from what I know about these parents, the focus is not on the depravity of their souls, but rather the love of Jesus Christ. The “Good News,” so to speak. Some of these kids grow up to become Christians; a large percentage opt to leave the church. We evangelicals are actually doing a pretty crappy job of indoctrinating our children. After all, we’re allowing the public school system to instruct them for the vast majority of their waking hours.
“If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe.” Soren Kierkegaard
Religion and philosophy and ethics are not easy things to talk about. Just look at the list of great thinkers who have struggled with the question of their own existence: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Beethoven, Cezanne, Descartes, Rousseau, Galileo, Auden, Galileo, among many others. The Young Skeptics group teaches kids critical thinking and scientific truth. What if a first-grader asks what happened to her deceased grandmother after she died? Is it psychological abuse to describe the decomposition process, and the annihilation of her grandmother’s consciousness? Perhaps a first-grader can’t handle that information yet. Perhaps the instructors tell the child that her grandmother’s body simply returned to the earth from which it came, and then move swiftly on to the next topic.
Perhaps the same child asks her agnostic mother if she will ever see her grandmother again, and her mother tells her, “Yes, grandma is in heaven, and you will see her one day.” And that brings the child comfort. Is it better to tell the child what you believe to be true, or what will comfort them in their time of distress?
Is just telling your child that they’re someday going to die psychologically abusive?
Is sending your child to middle school a form of psychological abuse?
“David, I’m going to hell! The worst place in the world! With devils and those caves and the ragged clothing! And the heat! My god, the heat! I mean, what do you think about all that?” Elaine from Seinfeld
What about consequences? After all, what are heaven and hell but extensions of the earthly justice system? When he was younger, my son wanted to know what happened to kids who did really bad things. I explained to him what juvenile detention centers were. He became obsessed with the idea of going to a juvenile detention center, a place where mean people separated children from parents, where freedoms were taken away, and where you had to eat disgusting food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I assured him there was no way he was ever going to end up in a juvenile detention center, but he worried about it incessantly. Although he had heard the concept of hell over the years, he didn’t seem concerned about it. It was not in the present. It was an abstract concept, something he couldn’t wrap his young mind around. Hell was just a word, not yet a place. He was much more bothered by my telling him about juvenile detention centers.
The Better News Club insinuates that mainstream Christianity uses shaming techniques to control our children. Evangelicals really don’t “shame” their kids more than non-believers shame their kids. We put our kids in timeout when they misbehave, or take away privileges. Christianity accepts that fact that all people do bad things- that it is a part of human nature- but that we are loved by a perfect, all-powerful God anyway.
The leaders of the Young Skeptics Group don’t actually care that we believe in God. They may roll their eyes at liberal Christians’ devotion to their Marxist Jesus Christ, but as long as their political beliefs are to the far left, it’s cool. The leaders are opposed to evangelicals who vote Republican. They’re concerned about the rights of the LGBT community, and other social issues. (Social issues that are not discussed at GNC. Also- the group is not comprised all fundamentalists. I am not a fundamentalist. I support LGBT rights, including their right to marry, and I consider myself a political moderate. I do not wish for a political theocracy- the thought is terrifying- and I can honestly say, I don’t know any Christians who do.)
The far left’s hatred of conservatism is a big, broad topic that couldn’t even begin to be covered in one blog post, so I have to stick to the issue at hand: A group of left-wing atheists alleging that the Good News Club, and by extension, the parents who support Good News Club, are psychologically abusing elementary school-aged children. These accusations perpetuate a growing culture of intolerance and hatred toward people who ascribe to evangelical Christianity.
I asked my most liberal atheist friend to read this blog post. (Credentials: He used to work for the ACLU.) His response:
Speaking for all atheists everywhere, I can honestly say there is nothing inaccurate or objectionable in it (the post) , at least as far as I can determine. The only problem I have with the GNC program is simply that, from my point of view, it’s encouraging kids to believe a fantasy, which does nothing to further their development into reasonable adults. Notably, however, I’m not Dear Leader of the United States, and it’s not my place to tell parents what they can and can’t teach their children (thank God – I mean, um, Mother Earth or something). The claim of “psychological abuse” is nonsense – I would never say that. These Young Skeptics folks seem to be acting like rude boors, and in my opinion that’s a worse offense than anything the GNC people are doing. So I agree with your response.
A couple of Thursdays ago, the entire Churchville-Chili school district was put in lockdown after a disturbed person called and threatened our children and our school’s staff members. (My oldest was thrilled: he got to spend two hours in gym class.) The caller intimated that he might already be on campus. I first heard about the lockdown by the cashier in Rite Aid; the first calls to parents failed, and I hadn’t received a text or phone call yet. When I left Rite Aid, which is not too far from the schools, I noticed that there were police cars on every corner. I went home and turned on the news.
They soon found the man, arrested him, and lifted the lockdown. The kids came home, safe and sound, excited about the excitement. Parents were a little shaken up.
“You’re not wrong. You’re just an a#$hole.” The Dude from The Big Lebowski
The day after the lockdown, my daughter came down with a stomach bug and we were unable to attend GNC. We missed another visit from the Young Skeptic leaders, who decided the day after a lockdown was a good day to come in and videotape and take pictures of the club’s leaders, and glower at them and the kids. (In most cases, a bunch of adults coming to stare at a bunch of kids during a club meant for kids would be weird and creepy.)
The day after the lockdown, this group of individuals felt that intimidating a bunch of suburban moms during a community gathering was appropriate.
They don’t target churches, where they are vastly outnumbered. (Can you imagine these white, far-left atheists sitting in the back of an African American church while the black pastor preaches about fire and brimstone?)
They don’t harass Christian school teachers, Young Life groups, or VBS leaders.
They target volunteer suburban moms, taking advantage of the community group bylines that allow anyone to attend community clubs. Do they have the legal right to be there? Yes. Are they trying to close down a legitimate club through the very tactics they denounce on their website?
One of the main leaders of the Young Skeptics club is a member of The Atheist Community of Rochester. The Atheist Community of Rochester’s web page says the following:
Our mission is simple: bring the local non-theist community together in a warm, welcoming way, where every member can speak openly and honestly about his or her lack of belief in supreme beings or deities without being judged and without the fear of reprisal or condemnation from society at large.
We ask for the same. Oh, and that the false and total crap accusations of psychological abuse stop.