A mission to the preachers

Janet Heimlich wants to get atheists talking to clerics in order to do a better job of fixing the (enormous and terrible) problem of religious child abuse. She has a post on the subject on her blog.

I’ve been speaking on the subject of religious child maltreatment for some time, and a glance at my speaking schedule shows what groups have been most eager to have me come talk about this topic. While some religious organizations have extended invitations, I have been welcomed by atheist groups more than any other by far. I can think of all kinds of reasons why this would be, but the fact remains, atheists are willing to learn about religious child maltreatment more than any other group. And that’s commendable. I live with these cases of psychological and physical torture and death every day, and it’s not for the faint of heart. So, thank you, atheists, for taking the time and paying the money and whatever else you do to learn about this god-awful and hellish subject.

But, she adds, it’s preaching to the choir. Atheists have to preach to the preachers.

What I mean is, atheists should put aside their theological differences, focus on common goals, and sit down with faith leaders and teach them about religious child maltreatment. Why faith leaders? Because they can have a direct impact on perpetrators, the ones who need to learn about healthy alternatives to raising kids. After all, isn’t this how these problems get started in the first place, with pastors, rabbis, imams and cult leaders telling parents how to treat their children?

I propose we use that powerful force for good, so, atheists, I ask you to have a heart-to-heart with members of the clergy. You, atheists, who rarely need it to be explained that religious child maltreatment is a serious problem; who know we can’t accomplish much with just a lot of hand-wringing; and who want to see change happen to stop child abuse and neglect enabled by ideology and ignorance. I ask you to encourage faith leaders to teach parents about compassionate childrearing and to use healthy disciplinary techniques in ways that would bring a smile to the face of any child development expert.

I completely see her point, but I think it’s difficult. I wouldn’t volunteer to try to do it, because I don’t think I would do it well. I would get too argumentative. I think people who do terrible cruel things because they think there’s a god who wants them to are in need of a lot more than just advice to be kind instead of terrible. I wouldn’t be able to agree with their belief that there’s a god who wants them to do things and disagree only on the particulars of what the god wants them to do. I think the whole idea is horrendously dangerous, so I’d be bad at trying to bargain with it.

But as I said, I see her point. I hope she and others can get through to the preachers.


  1. Robert B. says

    How do you even start that conversation? “Hi, Pastor So-and-so, I’m not a member of your church, or of any church, but I’d like to talk to you about how religious groups like yours abuse children.”

    I see the problem with preaching to the choir, but on the other hand, you can’t preach to folks who won’t come to the sermon.

    (How did I end up in a metaphor where the preacher represents the person who doesn’t go to church, and the person who doesn’t go to church represents the preacher? That is not how figurative language is supposed to work.)

  2. aziraphale says

    “because they think there’s a god who wants them to”

    I don’t think that’s it. In the UK we have a number of recent cases of child abuse in the entertainment industry. I think child sexual abuse results from some combination of internal drives, opportunity, ability to cover-up and moral weakness. Surely no Christian could believe that God “wants him to” (and I say that as an atheist)

  3. Gordon Willis says

    That is not how figurative language is supposed to work.

    Ha! Supposed is part of the problem. Preachers are professionally supposed to know. And people who suppose they know don’t make good listeners. Neither do people on the defensive. You wouldn’t need to start shouting, Ophelia: a mere mention of the problem will be enough to crank up the institutional backlash (now there’s a mixed metaphor!)

  4. Gordon Willis says


    I read Ophelia’s remark as somewhat more general in the context. However, Yes, it’s hard to believe that religious people can believe such things, when they claim to be the only ones in contact with the seat of all that is most pure and good. But they do, nevertheless, and they have plenty of authority in their scriptures and their traditions and their habits of exegesis and justification.

    I’ve been reading an article by Martin Sixsmith, further to his book “Philomena”: when you believe you have the authority to silence questions suspicions of baby-selling by the RCC in Ireland by condemning people to everlasting damnation then you are giving yourself holy permission to commit any outrage. People who can exploit fear are not easily going to be persuaded to give it up. You can more easily regulate behaviour in the secular world: religion has peculiar defences.

  5. says


    I think it probably varies.

    As in: certain kinds of mistreatment, there’s no real ‘god wants them to’ motivation behind it. Or probably rarely is. A clergyman molesting children behind closed doors is unlikely to justify it that way–tho’, seriously (and I feel like I should put a huge trigger warning on this whole comment) I guess I wouldn’t rule that out, either. Human minds can be… odd. And you almost certainly would get confused middle cases, at least, where the perpetrator does experience some sort of gratification from ‘discipline’ they say they believe the god expects them to perform. And again I feel like this so needs trigger warnings, but I can easily enough picture such an authority imagining their shame or discomfiture over this is somehow their being ‘tested’…

    I’m suddenly wishing I wasn’t even going here. But anyway. Think of it as one more reason we could do without gods, I guess. People get twisted up enough without them, never mind these particular gymnastics.

    And beyond this, other kinds of abuse, absolutely are very explicitly justified on theological grounds by their perpetrators. Spare the rod/spoil the child does tend to get along pretty well with certain sects’ views of what is the role of the child relative to the god and the parents. At more extreme and lurid ends, we get ‘exorcisms’ that get quite brutal, starvation as a means of discipline, denial of medical treatment due to various religious convictions, so on, and well shy of what makes such tabloid headlines, there’s a whole continuum of a certain casual cruelty that looks to me to rub off from the noted attitudes of certain gods especially. The practitioners do clearly enough say they’re doing it because they think that’s what their god or gods expects. So yeah, ‘they think god wants them to’ (or at least say they do) is quite right, there, pretty clearly.

  6. John Kruger says

    If you have the time, read over this summary of a history of child abuse (fair warning it is a bit lengthy). The religious institutions enabling all these terrible things are only a few hundred years behind the rest of western society. It seems very possible that they could catch up.

    Of course, when you have ideas like dogma and priestly moral superiority it puts a very significant drag on changing things, even when those things are very much for the better. Secular morality wins again.

  7. Matt2 says

    What I mean is, atheists should put aside their theological differences, focus on common goals, and sit down with faith leaders and teach them about religious child maltreatment.

    F that noise. The best way to “teach” religious leaders about why you shouldn’t cover up sexual abuse within the church is to ENFORCE THE LAWS already on the books. Perp walk Dolan and the rest of the racketeering / child abuse / RW lobbying organization formerly know as the “Catholic Church” and seize their properties under RICO.

    If the rest of the churches don’t get the message, they can get the Henry VIII treatment too.

    Seriously: literally any other organization / company that spent five decades RAPING CHILDREN and covering it up would have already been shuttered by now.

  8. aziraphale says

    Gordon Willis, A J Milne, Ibis3:

    Thanks for helpful comments, and for the link to Love, Joy, Feminism. I agree, Ophelia’s wording applies perfectly to a great deal of abuse. I probably shouldn’t have quibbled.

  9. medivh says

    I think the key factor in atheistic moderation of religious child abuse is dealing with it on the same level that the religious do. The RCC sees child abuse as a PR problem; hide it away and it can’t hurt. A royal commission in Australia has recently found that other religious organisations, the YMCA in particular, have actually contacted the RCC for a guide on how to deal with child abuse cases. I have no doubts that similar things have happened elsewhere.

    The problem with atheists engaging the religious, though, is this: if you try to engage Catholic clergy who aren’t abusing on the topic, and they don’t want to hear. Attempt to engage abusive clergy and you’ll likely get a more thorough hearing, albeit onto deaf ears. But find abuse, shine bright harsh light on it, and the RCC has a PR problem. Then, encouraging the RCC to out abusers in order to disassociate the abuse from the church as a better way of fixing the PR problem, and we’re on the same page – abusers get outed quicker, and all the bad of the act falls on the abuser’s shoulders rather than the RCC shouldering much of the burden. Unfortunately, the RCC doesn’t seem to be getting that last step. I’m not sure if it’s because no-one’s trying to tell them, or if it’s because they don’t listen to outsiders. If the latter, atheists can’t really help, can we?

  10. says

    I didn’t make it clear enough in the post. (The other minds problem. I’m always assuming shared background, partly in order to avoid giving lots of information that most of you already know – but that means I err on the side of assuming too much. Often.) The kind of abuse Heimlich focuses on is the kind that is treated as what god wants – the type of discipline, the kinds of rules, the impermissibility of getting medical treatment, that kind of thing. Not so much the secret crimes. More parents watching their children die of treatable diseases, less priests raping children.

    And that’s why it really is a hard nut to crack for atheists talking to the clerics. What can we say? “You don’t know that your god wants you to do that, you just think you do. You need to stop thinking that, and focus on what is good for the child, here and now.” I don’t see that working.

  11. says

    @12: Yes, more likely to be heard coming from less-extremist Christians. People who can talk the same language, send the in-group signals that elicit a priori trust, and thus a hearing. To the Christian Patriarchy crowd (read Libby Anne, Vyckie Garrison, et al, for their experiences) we’re the tools of Satan trying to take away their children by stealthy corruption.

  12. Gordon Willis says

    @Ophelia #12

    Yes, sorry. I did see that, at first, but it’s hard to remember the difference, especially when bishops pronounce death to pregnant women and muslim clerics openly support paedophilia. It goes to the very heart of faith, doesn’t it? You can’t easily tell them they think they know, because they know they know. Any attempt to persuade them to see reason would be a direct attack on what they hold dear, at least if it comes from us.

    Then there’s the risk — if one can persuade a few clerics — that the religion will split into more and more fanatical groups (as the C of E is struggling with at the moment over gay and female clergy). I wouldn’t know where to begin talking to someone who believes that if the worst happens it will really be the best because god has a special place in heaven for their little one, and everything is always for the best, whatever it is. And also, we know how perilous it is to let a draught into the comfort zone.

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