What Is Religious Child Maltreatment?

When I began writing my book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, the term religious child maltreatment did not exist. At least, Google had never heard of it. I found its absence indicative of just how little had been said about religion’s potential to harm children. Very few books had looked at this problem in a comprehensive way. I learned, too, that the topic made many people uncomfortable, even defensive.

What is religious child maltreatment? It is child abuse or neglect that is enabled by religious beliefs held by perpetrators, victims, and the surrounding community.

It’s not news that religion in the wrong hands can be dangerous. Religious wars continue to be waged around the globe. Yet, many have a hard time believing that religious faith can also lead to child abuse and neglect. In fact, the worst perpetrators tend to be those who seem perfectly pious—those who claim to have “the one truth.” Cardoza School of Law professor Marci A. Hamilton writes in God vs. the Gavel: “The United States has a romantic attitude toward religious individuals and institutions, as though they are always doing what is right. The unrealistic belief that religion is always for the good . . . is a hazardous myth. . . . Horrible things have been done to children beneath the cloak of religion. Children have been raped, beaten, and permitted to die excruciating deaths.”

Isn’t it time we begin to ask whether religious belief should be considered a risk factor for child abuse and neglect?

breaking their will book coverNeither Breaking Their Will nor my website Religiouschildmaltreatment.com is a diatribe against all faith or any particular religion. Rather, they focus on a particular kind of religiosity—that which is cultivated in religious authoritarian cultures. According to my research, children who are raised in these cultures are at the highest risk for religiously motivated maltreatment.

How to identify a religious authoritarian culture? There are three “perfect-storm” characteristics: The culture is 1) strictly hierarchical, 2) unusually fearful, and 3) socially separatist. Members tend not to be just casual worshipers. Rather, they strongly identify themselves by their faith. It’s also important to point out that children are religiously harmed due to the way their parents and guardians are affected. Specifically, mothers and fathers tent to adopt child-rearing philosophies and methods that fail to attend to children’s needs.

Raising awareness of the issue of religious child maltreatment is just the first step toward eradicating the problem. As psychology researcher Bette L. Bottoms notes in a University of Illinois at Chicago study, “If religion-related child abuse is not acknowledged now as a problem by our society, it will be our legacy to the future.”


  1. Thank you for this book, I’m so glad that this problem is being looked at and discussed. I have suffered much pain at the hand of religion. My religious community was the perfect-storm scenario that you described. Thanks for this book.

  2. I have added your book to my reading list of books to read. Since I am on a limited budget, I will have to wait until my library obtains a copy. I will put in a request to them soon.

    Although my research over the years has uncovered many of the excesses you write about, almost no one talks about the damage religious child grooming does to a child’s intellect. Young children are intensely curious and inquisitive people because nature created them this way. But if children are discouraged from asking pointed questions they get the idea that it is wrong for them to think for themselves. Which is precisely what the religious grooming process is designed to teach. Indoctrination does not allow children to question what they are being told. The second big objective of indoctrination is to teach children to be obedient. I write about these aspects of religious child abuse in my blog.

    • Dear Richard,

      Thank you for highlighting a significant and widespread problem. Others should visit your excellent blog, including this entry: http://www.endhereditaryreligion.com/2011/06/forcing-children-into-faith-is-ethically-objectionable/
      I have added your blog to my resources page: http://religiouschildmaltreatment.com/resources/

      The psychological abuse you speak of — religious indoctrination — has a name: exploitation. Exploitation is one of six commonly accepted forms of emotional child maltreatment. Until I began writing about this subject, no one had associated religious indoctrination with exploitation, but it meets the criteria hands down. In my chapter on religious exploiting (and isolating), I state that I believe it is the most common form of religious child maltreatment. An egregious, publicized example of religious exploitation can be viewed in the film, “Jesus Camp.” Of course, cameras normally do not offer such glimpses, which raises the question: How often does it occur in religious communities, places of worship, and homes where the cameras are not rollling?

      Best to you,

  3. AP Mama says:

    I am very excited to read this book! I was abused and neglected as a child growing up in a Christian authoritarian environment. Even when it got so bad that the church couldn’t ignore it and stepped in, they still managed to fail to adequately protect me for fear of “hurting my good Christian parents’ reputation”. I have so many scars – not only from the abuse itself, but also from crying out for help & being ignored, shushed, forced to forgive, or even blamed.

    Thank you for bringing light to a horrible tragedy going on right under our noses!

  4. Wow, thank you so much. What a great post. Thank you for speaking up for those who cannot speak up for themselves & for those children (who don’t know any better). <3

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