Fear Mongering Religious Manipulation on Children
Issue 7, Volume 112
By Suyeon Ryu
In historical American societies, religion was a system used to justify social classes. Priests, who were at the top of the social hierarchy, were feared by lower classes because priests administered punishments to those who rebelled, preventing the lower social classes from confronting the injustices present in their social system. In modern-day America, we like to believe that we have moved past this inequality and consider religious freedom a defining factor of America.
However, for many children, including myself, religion remains a tool of oppression, as many of our beliefs are rejected for being shameful. People often take advantage of children’s emotion-driven natures to pressure them into joining a religious community. The method by which the religious afterlife is introduced to children before they can fully understand the concept of death forces them to submit to the religion they are taught out of fear rather than devotion.
My parents, despite being religious, protected me from most forms of religious propaganda during my childhood. However, while I was waiting for Korean school to begin one day, I watched a church pastor read a letter he claimed was from Hell. He started with a sequence of threats to scare those who didn’t already believe in God, claiming that their fates were fixed in Hell, where they would be tortured by Satan. Though this comment may be a common statement for a pastor to begin with and most adults would have expected it, it was a life-threatening statement to me.
I had never thought about what lay beyond death, so having a large group of adults I trusted agreeing with this one statement was shocking. Two extremes of Heaven and Hell split by one factor, the belief in God, made religious faith a must, and my lack of faith made me unworthy of even hoping for a peaceful afterlife. I panicked, knowing I was not a Christian, and was convinced that converting must be the right choice. I made the choice purely out of fear that God would punish me with Hell, not on the morals and faith that make up the fundamentals of religion.
My thoughts were only further confirmed when I started to ask my friends about their religious beliefs, oblivious to the fact that they, like the adults in that church building, had been drilled with the traditional Christian belief of the afterlife. When I, intimidated by their pride in Christianity, told them I was unsure of God’s presence, they were shocked and proceeded to pressure me into becoming Christian, telling me it was the only chance I had to save myself and my loved ones.
I do not blame my friends for this peer pressure, as I know their intentions weren’t malicious. However, the adults were wrong to have tried to lure me into believing in religion, because they took advantage of my naïve perception of death and turned it into a tool to manipulate my decisions. They knew that behind my fear of death was the fear of the unknown, and they used this emotion to make religion seem like a definite answer to my questions about death. I was desperately searching for an answer about death and was vulnerable to conclusive claims about the afterlife that provided some knowledge of what lay ahead.
As my parents eventually exposed me to different kinds of religious beliefs, and as I realized that no one knows what happens after death, I stopped trying to convert to a religion I didn’t believe in. However, my lack of religious faith still gave me guilt and stress as I grew up. It was a source of trauma that I avoided talking and even thinking about to prevent bringing back the fear that I felt that day in the church. I was anxious about making the wrong choice, and that anxiety held me back from exploring my religious identity.
Children have not had enough time to develop the emotional maturity to become comfortable with the concept of death and are likely to accept the idea of the afterlife because Heaven and Hell are concrete fates that are easier to rationalize than the unknown. When children learn about the afterlife, they are given hope that there is a possibility that happiness can exist beyond death, even if there is a possibility of Hell, and that they are able to control this fate by following a set of rules. This portrayal differs from the uncertain fate of death, which gives no control over the afterlife.
Unfortunately, children’s gullibility is used to make them accept giving up their religious identities for other people’s approval. Older adults only show a singular perspective on religion and refuse to show children that religion is a vast range of beliefs without a concrete answer. Repetition of this kind of religious exposure causes children to be robbed of a chance to make an unbiased choice that reflects their own values.
This cycle of fear mongering psychological manipulation passes through generations and not only harms the children’s religious identities, but also prevents them from making independent realizations about philosophical questions of life and hinders the natural progression of religion. Religion no longer keeps its core principles of compassion and expression but becomes a power struggle; religious communities compete with each other for who can manipulate the most people into converting because a larger religious community translates to more religious power.
Children should raise their own inquiries about religion and be given a chance to explore their beliefs rather than being assigned a religion by someone in a higher social position, such as a parent, and then being expected to abide by it. Religion is too complex of a subject to be introduced at a young age when people are easily influenced by authority and peer pressure. As young children do not have their own values, they cannot have their own religious beliefs; they can only follow the orders of the influential people around them. Children should be allowed time to develop and then be introduced to the whole spectrum of religion without fear or favor to truly have religious freedom and choose the religious views that they feel align with their own morals.