In an article in the April 1998 issue of The Interim, entitled “Atheist Fundamentalism,” I wrote about the book Deadly Doctrine by Canadian psychiatrist and humanist Wendell Watters, in which he argues that religion – especially Christianity – hurts children’s psychological development and thereby leads to mental health problems in society.

He suggests in the book that perhaps the government should take action against religion in order to protect youngsters’ well-being. Though in the end he rejects the idea – largely on the grounds that by the same token the state could curb the expression of his humanist creed – in a recent article posted on the Internet his position is less equivocal. Adults have the right to practise whatever faith they like, he says, but they have no right to impose it on a child. He goes on to compare infant baptism to child labour and cites various “experts,” such as a former Carmelite nun, to bolster his credo of religion’s damaging effects on children. Just as smokers should be warned of the dangers of second-hand smoke to their kids, so Watters describes concern for children as a primary motive behind his anti-religion campaign.

Watters’ statements pack quite a wallop. Most people, whatever their beliefs, would probably not put religion and passive smoking on the same level in terms of their potential harm. Others might find his comparison of baptism to child labour offensive, in that it trivializes the suffering of children who have been and even today are exploited by unscrupulous employers in various parts of the world. I personally consider his use of children as a means of furthering his anti-religious agenda self-serving and even hypocritical.

The majority of Canadians would also see Watters’ proposal to prohibit people from raising their children in their own faith as an unjustified intrusion into family life and a violation of parents’ rights. While we can all agree that the government should intervene to protect minors from parental abuse and neglect, most of us – whether liberal, conservative, religious or non-religious – do not think the state has any prerogative to tell us how to bring up our families. For example, no government – or anyone else for that matter – can make me teach my kids English if I prefer to speak to them in Italian. The same should be true with respect to my choice of religion for them.

Whether I raise my children in English, Italian, or any other language probably has no impact on their ultimate well-being. Furthermore, in a democratic nation such as Canada, the government can only play a limited role in dictating citizens’ family life, even if such interference might arguably be of benefit to children.

Nonetheless, supposing that the government did have a duty to dictate parents’ lifestyle choices for the purpose of creating a better environment for children, according to humanist logic, the state should certainly not forbid child baptism or other forms of religious initiation. In fact, in such circumstances Big Brother would force mothers and fathers to haul their youngsters off to a church, synagogue or other place of worship, because the overwhelming majority of studies have found that children in religious families enjoy better mental health than do those in more secular households.

These studies are called controlled studies. They either compare children raised in religious households to those in secular ones or they contrast the psychological development of children in families with varying degrees of religiosity. With very few exceptions, such research reveals that in almost every area – self-esteem, family relations, avoidance of drugs and delinquency, freedom from emotional problems and so on – children and youth from more religious homes fare better. This finding holds true for a variety of family types – two-parent, single-parent, adoptive and others – and for different countries and races. While these studies don’t justify legally requiring non-religious parents to send their youngsters to church or mean that religion is a cure-all for child psychopathology, they argue strongly against Watters’ equating baptism with child labour and second-hand smoke.

Such research contradicts many of Watters’ points on the specific harm supposedly done by religion. For example, despite his belief that Christian teaching damages children’s self-esteem, at least four controlled studies have discovered that the more religious the family is (and Christianity is generally the faith in question), the higher is the child’s self-esteem. Connections between better family relations and greater religiosity in parents similarly don’t jive with his statement that churchgoing and prayer hurt home life because they emphasize the human-to-god over the human-to-human bond. It is clear that most of Watters’ contentions are based not on research published in scholarly journals but on his own biases (for instance, he blames some of his patients’ problems on their Christian upbringing even though other events in their past could be responsible for their situation) and on selected experts – most of whom also don’t bother providing hard data to support their pronouncements – who share his views on the threat of religion to human happiness.

Watters and other militant humanists either ignore or dismiss the above-mentioned research. While he claims Christians are incapable of adopting a “truly scientific approach,” Watters himself is perfectly content to throw science to the dogs when it fails to suit his purposes. Controlled studies, in his opinion, are the love object of “scientists for whom mathematical-type proof is the new religious dogma.” His own unscientific statements seem however to have become articles of faith for some of his fellow humanists. For example, in an essay in Humanist in Canada abortion provider Henry Morgentaler speaks of Watters’ “remarkable book” Deadly Doctrine and praises its documentation of the “harmful effects of religion on the emotional development of children.”

Religious-minded parents can take comfort in the fact that most humanists, even those who take Watters’ contentions seriously, oppose legal prohibitions on mothers and fathers bringing their kids to church. Nevertheless, the history of places like the former Soviet Union, where people were often harassed by the state if they tried to raise their children in a faith, makes it clear that there have been other humanists as fanatical or more so than Watters.