Using children as a weapon of religious coercion

One of the most powerful weapons that highly controlling religious groups have to prevent defections is to threaten apostates that leaving would mean they would lose contact with family members, especially their children. We know that Scientology does this as do fundamentalist religious groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church and the Exclusive Brethren. Mormons who defect also tend to be shunned by those who remain but it is not a formal policy of the church or as severe an excommunication.

Farah Halime writes that ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups also practice this form of ostracism and discusses the case of Shulem Deen and others who have left the closed communities of like-minded people and struggle to come to terms with the secular world.

Deen, 40, left the cloistered ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave of New Square, a village in Rockland County, New York, seven years ago. He is one of a minority that has stepped off the derech, the devout and religious path.

Like others who have turned their back on the Hasidic way of life, Deen has lost contact with his five children and has been ostracized from the community for being a heretic.

He could not attend his daughter’s wedding and his letters to them get returned unopened.

He holds an unopened, undelivered letter he tried to send to one of his children three times. “The mailman needed a signature, so they [his family] couldn’t trash it.”

He says he will try to send it again, but he looks defeated after years of trying to make contact with his estranged children. “If I knew I was going to lose them, I would not have left. It’s like saying you would be prepared to take a step to cause a death in the family; there’s no way you’d do that.”

His words are poignant. When I declared myself to be an atheist, there was absolutely no danger that I would lose contact with my children. I wonder what I would have done if that were a real possibility. My guess is that losing contact with them would have been too painful for me and I would have been a closeted atheist.

Which makes me wonder how many closeted nonbelievers there are in these groups, feigning belief only because they do not want to lose their families.


  1. enkidu says

    Not being an American, I am totally ignorant of the relevant law, but I would have thought that someone in this situation would be able to get access through the courts? Generally both parents are recognised as having rights in cases of family breakdown unless criminal behaviour can be proven. Probably the sect would make it as difficult as possible, but surely not impossible.

  2. Anne Fenwick says

    I’m surprised that the law doesn’t uphold and enforce visiting rights. Is that the If I’m Religious I Can Do Whatever I Want Act at work again?

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