Toronto
3 min

Lock up the children

Religious information akin to child abuse

I hear Stephen Harper wants to raise the age of consent from 14 to 16. Excellent. We can work with that. Although I’d go further and make it 21 plus the successful completion of a postsecondary degree.

After all, it’s a scary world out there and we owe it to our kids to protect them. Especially from noxious intellectual influences, including religion.

Never have I been more aware of that than one day sitting in a Tim Horton’s just north of the university district. I was reading the paper when I suddenly heard the words “prayer” and “God” repeated over and over again. Not just a gentle affirmation of spirituality and the mystery of life, but a Jesus-is-the-way kind of thing. I looked up expecting to find some hillbilly from the provinces. Instead I saw the epitome of mainstream — white, middleclass and tasteful, one of those women who look like they’ve been groomed since birth to look attractive but not overtly sexual. The woman could have been my sister 20 years ago.

Except that she was talking about prayer and God with a fervour indicating that not only could she not think outside the box, she was probably trapped inside it.

As far as I could tell, she was distraught because somebody had told her she shouldn’t be spending two hours a day praying with her best friend’s husband. A male friend listened while she studied a Bible spread on the table before her.

“‘Pray continuously,'” she told him, stabbing a key passage with her finger. “It doesn’t say anything about pray now and then, it says ‘pray continuously.'”

Eager to join her, the male friend unzipped his own Bible and stared raptly in her direction. He was besotted and she was oblivious. Locked in her tiny, tidy notion of the world, she couldn’t even understand basic human emotions like lust and jealousy. This, of course, is the problem with organized religion. It attracts people with a hunger for a narrow, one-point view of the world. If you happen to believe in a more open-ended approach to life, with multiple avenues to health, happiness and a pleasing relationship with the sacred, this is a problem.

Here in the deep downtown of Canadian culture, I don’t think we quite realize the extent and influence of religion in the heartland. It’s one thing to flip past the fundies on CTS or Vision TV and laugh at their funny hair and forced rhetoric. It’s quite another to inhabit the mindset that makes them possible. In fact, for most us, it’s pretty much impossible. This is a mistake. While it’s true that the fundies have far less influence in Canada than they do in the US, nothing that happens there is without implications for us here (see the aforementioned Stephen Harper) and in the US their influence is only growing.

A new book called American Theocracy suggests that one of the three most dangerous trends afflicting public life in the US today is Christian extremism. This isn’t a liberal fantasy or nightmare. The book was written by a longtime Republican stalwart widely credited with predicting the rise of the right in the US as early as 1969.

I was doing some research for another project recently when I discovered a website devoted to Billy Sunday, a fire-and-brimstone evangelist from the 1920s whose most famous quote was, “Whiskey and beer are all right in their place, but their place is in hell.” Sunday has been dead since 1935 but his influence lives on. He’s quoted here and there on the Internet, perhaps boosted by referrals from what you might call the central organizing committee of rightwing thought.

Turns out, much to my surprise, that there are at least two major sites funnelling readers to popular sources of fundamentalism, Fundamentaltop500.com and Baptisttop1000.com.

Follow the links long enough and you’ll quickly find such useful topics as “Preventing Homosexuality In Children,” “How to Make A Lady Out Of A Girl” and the highly predictable answer to the second- most frequently asked question on the very popular Got Questions website, “What does the Bible say about homosexuality? Is it a sin?”

Should you object to any of their answers (including the idea that homosexuality is both a sin and a consequence of sin), you’ll be told that they’re just quoting the Bible and the Bible is of course the incontestable, immutable, unchanging word of God.

Absolute nonsense, of course. The New Testament as we know it wasn’t formally established until about 200AD and there were lots of other contenders for inclusion, including texts that sound as much Buddhist as Christian. If the Bible is the word of God, it’s a highly edited version — edited by men (and women?) with agendas specific to their own time and often deeply offensive to ours.

Educated adults tend to know this sort of stuff. But kids don’t. Which is why exposing them to the fundies’ fictions without some form of training in history, translation and the mutability of ancient texts is really akin to child abuse.

If society is going to block kids’ access to sex and other markers of adulthood, they should certainly block access to religious misinformation. Fundamentalism is far more dangerous than booze, sex or driving, as anyone in the Middle East can tell you, and ought to be restricted to adults.