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?
Neither 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.”