Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
This is how I prayed before going to sleep as a child. My mother and I would be kneeling beside my bed and we would say this prayer together. After the prayer we would ask God to bless everyone in our family and anybody else who came to mind–I’m certain the family dog and cat.
I wonder how this prayer affected me. That line–“if I should die before I wake” is so haunting. How can a child sleep peacefully when acknowledging the possibility of dying in their sleep? Maybe I didn’t think about it. Maybe I did. I can not recall but I wouldn’t be surprised if this prayer has caused residual anxiety in me to this day.
Today, with children of my own, I would not dare have them say this prayer before bed. I know that it would surely cause anxiety in them.
Do I think my mother was abusive by having me say this prayer every night? No. She did what she believed was right. Was it right? I don’t think so. I suppose the prayer could be looked at as reassuring that a sky daddy will take care of you if something terrible happens in your sleep but who wishes that a child even entertain the idea of dying before going to sleep?
Was the prayer said to ensure that my soul would be taken to heaven? If we were not to say this prayer, would the penalty be hell? It appears it is worded that way. And I knew, even as a child, about hellfire and brimstone. So this prayer not only brought to mind death but the possibility of eternal damnation if ‘the Lord’ did not answer my bedtime prayer. How could I be sure as a child if I had all my t’s crossed and my i’s dotted in order to guarantee my place in heaven?
Richard Dawkins has equated religious teachings to children as mental abuse. He has been criticized for making such accusations. Though parents believe they are doing the right thing, I surely can see that religion retards a child’s ability to think rationally and with reason. It also creates anxiety–unnecessary and unfounded anxiety based on a belief with no evidence to support it.
When taken to the extreme, religion can surpass mental abuse and become physical abuse. Extreme fundamentalist have beaten their children to death based on biblical teachings. But even at its most simplest form of mental abuse, teaching a child that he or she is inherently sinful and could burn in hell for eternity is quite harmful indeed. This harm is even lurking beneath the surface of what would appear to be an innocent rhyming bedtime prayer.