The good of the faith community takes priority

Valerie Tarico interviewed Janet Heimlich last May, on the subject of Heimlich’s new book on religious child maltreatment.

Tarico: Some people would say that religion prevents child abuse – that a supportive spiritual community or a personal relationship with a higher power, or a strong moral core is the antidote to maltreatment.
Heimlich: As I state in the book, families generally benefit from participating in religious activities. Still, we are only beginning to understand how children are harmed in certain religious communities.  In my research, I found that, in these problematic cultures, the good of the faith community as a whole takes priority over members’ individual needs, and this is particularly true with how those communities view children.

And women.

Tarico: Are some kinds of religious communities more prone to maltreatment than others? What are the patterns?
Heimlich: In writing Breaking Their Will, I felt it was imperative not to simply expose problems but answer the question: What makes religious experiences healthy and unhealthy for children? I came to the conclusion that children are more vulnerable to abuse and neglect if they live in religious authoritarian cultures. There are three perfect-storm factors that identify a religious culture or community as authoritarian: one, the culture has a strict, social hierarchy. Two, the culture is fearful. And three, the culture is separatist. The more intense these three factors are—the more authoritarian the culture is—the more likely children will be harmed. It’s important to note that it doesn’t matter whether the community is Christian, Jewish, or Muslim; whether people worship a deity called “God,” “Allah,” or “Jehovah”;  or whether they read from the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Book of Mormon. Any religious culture has the potential to subscribe, and be subjected, to authoritarian “rule.”

A very important point. We’ve been learning about how it plays out lately from Vyckie Garrison and others at No Longer Quivering and Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism and the people at Broken Daughters.

I met Tarico and Heimlich, and a lot of other great people, last night. Not an authoritarian in the bunch.


  1. Ken Pidcock says

    Heimlich seems rather supportive of a religious upbringing for children. As I state in the book, families generally benefit from participating in religious activities…I think the most important message of my book is this: Religion can provide children with a wonderful upbringing, but…Initially, I couldn’t understand why.

    But as I was doing my research and telling people about the subject of the book, I found that liberal believers strongly agreed that religious child maltreatment is real and a serious problem. I can’t tell you how many people have expressed relief that I wrote this book.

    Ah, it’s the book. Never mind.

  2. says

    Oops; link fixed. Thanks Dan.

    Not exactly supportive, I think (she was amusing on the subject of her own godless childhood), but addressing the punitive kind as opposed to the non-punitive kind. She said she’d learned from all the people she talked to that the more authoritarian the religion they grew up in, the more difficult their childhoods were.

  3. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    We see, time and time again, religious parents beating their children to death. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Or parents praying over their children instead of getting them medical treatment. Or religious leaders sexually abusing children. More and more I think Dawkins is right, religious upbringing is a form of child abuse.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Uh, wait. Is she talking about churches or nations (insofar as there’s a difference any more)?

  5. Marie-Thérèse O'Loughlin says

    From the moment most babies are born to Roman Catholic parents, baptism is foisted upon them by the parents and the church respectively. Move forward. At the age of seven years old, the baptised children are then expected to make their first communion. In preparation for this special church occasion, they are indoctrinated by the church with the help of their schools. Some parent’s even avail of this opportunistic time, to use it as a kind of beauty pageant to display their pretty children. The competition can be so fierce that it wouldn’t be unusual seeing some children actually arrive at the church by horse and carriage. It’s all part and parcel of the cultural norms in place in their society. Ironically, it can be those coming from the lower socio-economic sections, who have the propensity to compete, as they can be the ones who would be highly influenced by the church practices. The rituals go on for Confirmation, Marriage and Death. It’s ideology lives on.

    “I believe the boundary between religion and child abuse is not fragile at all.”

    Exactly. It’s life long ideological insidiousness that is so dangerously controlling.

  6. Luna_the_cat says

    I don’t know if you had seen this profoundly disturbing story:

    The parents kept the family isolated from non-relatives, home-schooled the children and followed strict religious principles described in the Christian parenting book titled “To Train Up a Child,” investigators said.

    According to court documents, their 16-year-old son told investigators that Hana “was kept in a locked closet and the only light switch was on the outside of the closet. He stated that his mother would take her out every other day to walk and exercise. They played the Bible on tape and Christian music for her while she was locked in the closet.”

    But Prosecutor Rich Weyrich insisted that issues of faith were not a factor in the case against the couple. “Religion’s not an element we have to probe. We have to prove that the children were assaulted, tortured and died,” he told Reuters on Thurday.”

    …Yabbut, religion is expressly why they did it; from other stories (don’t have the link to hand), she was being punished for “rebelliousness.” Ironically, too, her 10-year-old adopted sibling was also subject to beatings and starving as punishment for “not listening” — and he was deaf.

  7. Luna_the_cat says

    Drat — sorry, I had missed that post. Sorry about that.

    And…yes. That. Although I would add something about “hazardous to the health of your child” along with the legal warning.

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