Reports broke today of the death of Sally-Anne Jones – more commonly referred to as the “White Widow” – and possibly the death of her 12-year-old son too, in a US drone attack. Among other things, Jones was renowned for her efforts to recruit western women to Isis, once declaring herself as the head of “a battalion of jihadist women”. She was one of many caught up in religion and ideology who often pay a high price – and who may well have condemned her son to paying the ultimate price as well.
Children are so often at the mercy of their parents’ beliefs. Dr Nazim Mahmood – known to friends and family as Naz – killed himself two days after his religious parents confronted him about his sexuality and his plans to marry another man. You may have heard the song by the Young’uns Be The Man, which was directly inspired by his story.
You may also remember the story of Leelah Alcorn in 2014, a transgender girl whose Christian parents told her that “God doesn’t make mistakes”, before taking her to see Christian therapists to “cure her” of her transgenderism. Leelah killed herself when she was 17, leaving a suicide note detailing how her parents’ beliefs directly contributed to her death.
Then there are the victims of so-called “conversion therapy”, people like Jayne Ozanne – now a campaigner against the practice within the church. The General Synod recently backed a ban on conversion therapy, thanks in no small amount to Ozanne’s tireless campaigning, but reports like Josh Parry’s for the Liverpool Echo only a couple of months ago reveal just how widespread the dangerous and damaging practice continues to be.
Religion tears families apart. My own grandmother was born into the secretive and fundamentalist Exclusive Brethren group (the “Plymouth Brethren Christian Church” is what they officially call themselves.) When she ultimately made the decision to leave, she was “withdrawn from” – which meant that she was allowed absolutely no contact with anyone in the group (including the rest of her family), nor they with her. The Brethren is quite an extreme example, but one very much alive in the UK today (a registered charity, in fact.) I’d recommend Rebecca Stott’s excellent and deeply personal book on life in the Brethren, In The Days of Rain, if you’re interested in learning more about it.
It would be unfair of me not to highlight the excellent work that people like Jayne Ozanne, Rt Rev Paul Bays of Liverpool (patron of Liverpool Pride), Matthew Ogsten (former fiancé of Naz Mahmood) and others are doing within religious institutions and with religious communities in certain areas, but they are often lone voices in a sea of dissent.
It would be easy to just consider these people victims of their parents, but actually the parents are victims themselves – victims of a culturally embedded and long unquestioned “inheritance of religion” that begins during our formative years. This is taken for granted in our culture, but I think we should be outraged. Religion isn’t genetic, so this is nothing more than systemic indoctrination.
From birth, children are compelled to go to church, to mosque, to temple, with terrifying promises of damnation or similar such terrible retributions should they not comply with inscrutable rules. Some religions of course do frame this all within a narrative context of love, but at their core is always fear.
Children believe every word they are told unquestioningly. “Believe this because we are telling you it’s true” is not an argument most people would ordinarily engage with, so why do we abuse children by leveraging it against them? Once you take that leap (of “faith”, if you will) you leave yourself open to indoctrination and manipulation by anybody, open to being seduced by any ideology that you happen to be exposed to. In many cases, children are exposed to ideologies and moral frameworks which contravene the basic human rights of certain groups of people – groups into which the child themselves might fall.
Religion at its core instils in children the notion that they somehow have privileged access to the one truth, and embeds the idea that they are “right” (based exclusively on what they have been told). This implies then that everyone else is somehow “wrong” or inferior, and sets them at odds with people who don’t believe what they do, from an incredibly young age.
The state will never be able to prevent parents from indoctrinating their children in the home, so this cycle of religious victimhood at first glance seems inevitable. However, the “faith” schools much-beloved of Theresa May are a mechanism by which the state endorses this process: rather than a religion-free space where people of whatever beliefs can come together in solidarity and togetherness, we segregate from the very beginning of education, teaching children that they are “different”.
In an increasingly divided world, where so often, both historically and contemporarily, religion provides the kindling for the flames of conflict, surely we should not be categorising our children by religious belief at such an early age. Instead we should be encouraging engagement with reason, rational thought and investigation, focusing on what unites us all: our humanity. To protect our children from fundamentalism is to protect them from potentially the gravest end of all.