Believe it or not, I’m not much of one for atheist evangelism (for lack of a better word). I’m just not that concerned with changing other people’s personal beliefs (but of course I’m always willing to offer my opinions, and always trying to promote accurate information). I think there’s a case to be made for religion as mental illness idea (and have pushed that idea myself), but when it really comes down to it most religious people (at least in the US) are mostly harmless. My friend and colleague Trevor Blake often points to a correlation between religious belief and committing violent acts. To paraphrase him, you never hear about atheists burning down Christian stores for sex, but you frequently hear about Christians burning down sex stores for Jesus. However, correlation and causation are not the same thing. We can learn from this that religion is not a necessary or sufficient source for morality, but little else.
So my main concern, with regards to religion, is theocracy: when one group’s superstitions become law. So I’ve stopped taking much note when an individual Buddhist priest is found guilty of molesting a woman, or someone commits a murder in the name of their religion. There are laws against these sorts of things, and I’m not sure someone commits these sorts of acts because they’re religious, or if their attraction to religion stems from the same source as their attraction to rape and violence. In other words, I’m not sure religion is a symptom or a disease. I’m more concerned with sovereign nations that organize child-rape syndicates and the institutional oppression and murder of women and homosexuals in countries like Saudi Arabia.
Sometimes it’s not so cut and dry, though. One kicker is parents and their children. I was raised Christian, and I think I turned out ok. I could have done without the paranoia inspired by the notion of an invisible monster watching everything I did, but I don’t hold it against my parents. So I’m generally inclined to believe that parents should be free to teach their kids whatever sort of nonsense they want, and that if the kids are smart they’ll grow out of it eventually.
But what happens when parents take it too far? Recently, an 11 year old girl died of a treatable form of diabetes because her parents choose to pray instead of seek medical help (via Pharyngula). This obviously crosses the line between believing something crazy and behaving in a malicious way. What is the response of the local police?
The girl has three siblings, ranging in age from 13 to 16, the police chief said.
“They are still in the home,” he said. “There is no reason to remove them. There is no abuse or signs of abuse that we can see.”
The girl’s death remains under investigation and the findings will be forwarded to the district attorney to review for possible charges, the chief said.
At least the case is being investigated, but how can the police chief say there is no abuse? I know people who have had their kids taken away from them temporarily for far less. Sadly, this is not without precedent. Trevor wrote last year about parents who withhold medical treatment for religious reasons. None of the parents of children who died preventable deaths were charged with a crime.
This is not a case of religious freedom, or of individual belief. It’s theocracy. If the parents had let their children die for any reason other than religion, they would be charged with crimes and their other children would be taken into state care.