Are you raising your child in a religious authoritarian culture?

As I stress in my book, Breaking Their Will, children are at most risk for being religiously abused or neglected when they are raised in religious authoritarian cultures. These cultures are homes and communities in which members strongly identify themselves by their faith. And, as in any authoritarian community, people care more about meeting the needs of the overall culture than the needs of individuals.

It’s important that people of faith distinguish between religious authoritarian environments versus those that are progressive and more tolerant. The former can often be harmful to children (as well as adults), because they negatively influence how parents raise their kids. In these groups, mothers and fathers usually adopt authoritarian, one-size-fits-all approach to childrearing; sometimes parents justify abuse or neglect with doctrine or scripture.

There are a number of ways to identify a religious authoritarian community. Breaking Their Will offers three “perfect storm” characteristics, as well as a list of questions parents can ask themselves to determine whether they are raising their kids in such a culture. In addition, members tend to dogmatically cling to certain extreme beliefs. Below I list ten of those beliefs, as well as questions for parents to ponder.

If you are a mother or father whose church or community maintains some or all of these beliefs, I urge you to look elsewhere to worship. While you might benefit from being part of a tightly structured community, you are putting your children at risk for emotional and physical abuse or neglect.


#1: Children must honor you unconditionally.

The Ten Commandments is clear that your sons and daughters should honor you. Colossians 3:20 goes a step further in requiring that your offspring honor you “in all things”. Do you take that to mean that you have the right to expect your children to always honor you? Are there ever times that you do not deserve that honor? What about the idea of parents honoring their children, a phrase that is absent from the Bible?

#2: The Bible requires that you spank your kids.

The book of Proverbs includes numerous passages stating that parents should use the “rod” to discipline and “chastise” children. Proverbs also says that spanking is a form of love and even helps bring children eternal salvation (23:14). Do you find that these passages justify the physical punishment of children? What if that “chastisement” leaves marks on the skin? What if this treatment leaves your child terrified or confused about what parental love means? I have yet to locate a study that shows that spanking improves a child’s well-being. Do you believe it does?

#3: Females must always be “pure”.

Who gains from girls and women being instructed to cover their heads, not lead religious services, suppress their sexuality, and devote their lives to being wives and mothers? So many girls are raised, as one female reader wrote, “to cover [themselves] to protect them from being abused or lusted over by men.” It is a way of “honoring and protecting women, not controlling them,” she stated. Is that your experience, that all men are to be feared and that this belief about female purity does not lead to the control of women? Even more importantly, can you, mothers, raised to submit to your husbands and other men, adequately protect your children from abuse by men?

#4: Children are sinful.

Here I am speaking only to Christians who are not part of the Mormon church. Do you believe that children are born sinful and that sin jeopardizes your children’s chances of reaching eternal salvation? If so, what are you willing to do to “cleanse” them of this sin? Terrify them about eternal damnation? Beat them, as Proverbs commands? Do you feel that you are being a bad parent if you don’t?

#5: Abuse victims should forgive their perpetrators.

In Matthew 18:21–22, Jesus commands individuals to forgive their sinners mot just once or twice but  “seventy times seven.” Many believe forgiveness brings peace of mind. Do you believe that children who say they have been abused should forgive their abusers? What about getting the victim counseling? What about turning the abuser in to civil authorities. Just whom does making children forgive their abusers serve?

#6: Religious leaders can do no wrong.

Do you believe that your priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam is closer to God than you are? If so, does that mean that he could never harm your child? If your child were to tell you that your religious leader had sexually abused him or her, would you believe your child? Would you report the accused abuser?

#7: The faithful must avoid scandal at all costs.

How important is it to protect the image of your religious leaders, your place of worship, your religion? Do you believe that non-believers want to persecute you? What ends would you go to to keep problems secret from non-believers, such as child abuse. How willing are you to tell police or child protective services if you suspect that a child in your community is being abused?

#8: Marriage/sex between a man and a virgin/underage girl is a form of piety.

The  Talmud (Sanhedrin 69a) says, “A maiden aged three years and one day may be acquired in marriage by coition.” The Mormon text, the Doctrine and Covenants (132:61–62) states that men who marry many virgins are not adulterers “for they belong to him.” The Bible includes numerous stories of men being promised, or having sex with, virgins. What are your rules about how old a girl should be before she marries or has sex?

#9: God wants you to have many children.

The idea that couples should “be fruitful and multiply” was important in biblical times when the size of a tribe largely determined its chances for survival. Do you feel the dictum to procreate is also important today? Some pious parents have gone so far as to adopt children even after they already have many biological children. Sometimes, these parents can’t handle the stress and the children suffer from neglect and abuse.  Is it fair to your children-to-be if you are not ready to handle a large family, psychologically or economically?

#10: Faith healing is superior to medical care.

Jesus supposedly cured people through faith healing. What do you do when your child gets sick? Do you believe that prayer is the only answer? Do you see seeking medical care as a sign that you are not faithful to God? If prayer doesn’t work, are you willing to admit it? How much would you let your child suffer before you call a doctor? Do you think Jesus would have condoned the suffering of children due to illness if good doctors had been available in his time?


  1. If there is one thing Janet Heimlich’s work makes clear it is that religion is not benign. Ironically, all of the 12 toxic beliefs that she lists are extracted straight from the Bible and Koran. The closer believers adhere to iron age texts, the more they have iron age priorities, including the subjugation of women and children, warmongering, and a host of other immoral behaviors sanctioned by men of old. The Bible was written during a time when women and children were owned, as were foreign slaves, and the murder rate was 50-100 times what it is today. The only way we will ever get past the kind of abuse that this blog exposes is to stop worshiping ancient books.

  2. Kat Caldera says:

    This blog makes very important points that need to be exposed. Janet Heimlich’s journalistic nature and willingness to deal with topics as polemic as religion are doing humanity a favor. I find # 1 the most compelling. I have first hand experience with parent’s who are so stubborn in their belief that they will always be superior to their children and that they have the “god given right” to their children’s perpetual respect and honoring. The results are disastrous for the children in relationships like this with their parents. We can either submit to our parent’s every judgement on our being and lifestyle and in return receive the financial and familial support from their parent’s through out our entire lives. . . or we can be true to ourselves at the cost of losing the common safety nets and “leg-ups” that parents tend to offer their adult children.

    Also, to Tarico, about your post. . .Well Said! Would ya re write it as a blurb that can be used out of the context of this blog!? Would love to be able to quote it easier. 🙂

  3. I consider myself as a religious person. I worship at an Evangelical church (Covenant) and try to do Gods will. None of what you write applies to me. The strict (mis)interpretations that you list must belong to wayward individuals. My God and my beliefs include love,forgiveness, reconciliation, sin, atonement, healing etc.
    Why focus exclusively on the potential pathologies of some when you can embrace all the potentials of His promises.

    • Frank,

      Thanks for writing. I have just revised the post and wonder if you would read it. Not only does it take on a less snarky tone, it also aims to clarify something that might be needed, especially in light of your comment.

      If you read my book, I think you would understand that I am not opposed to all faith. What I am trying to do is protect children who are victims of religious child maltreatment, and this happens the most in religious authoritarian settings.

      Just as you indicate, there are different degrees to belief and religiosity. Authoritarian believers tend to take things to extremes, which is often harmful for children, and everyone for that matter. I do not advocate against believing in forgiveness, honoring parents, etc. (with the exception of people being born sinful which I think is an unhealthy belief across the board) but I do think it’s important not to be rigid in these beliefs. Religious authoritarian cultures are all about rigidity. While some adults do better in that environment, it is not a place for children.

      I see no reason why your Evangelical church should not believe in love, forgiveness, and the other things you mentioned. It can certainly do that and not be authoritarian. If, however, your church has a rigid social hierarchy, relies legalistically on dogma, shuns those who don’t subscribe to its belief system, that’s another matter. (My very first blog and my book describe in detail what makes up a religious authoritarian church or community.)

      You ask why I focus exclusively on “the potential pathologies of some” when I could “embrace all the potentials of His promises”. Frank, don’t you feel there are already many, many people already doing that? My focus is to protect children from religious abuse and neglect. Therefore, I am concerned with exposing those problems and trying to get people to see how they develop. If we were to understand the harm done by religious authoritarian cultures, we would have a better chance to eradicate religious child maltreatment and ensure that a religious upbringing is healthy for all children.

      Best regards,

      • Bruce E. Ford says:

        Although I believe in God, I think that believing in original sin is easier than believing in God. Just open your eyes and you see evidence of it everywhere.

        And, by the way, I am not and have never been a religious fundamentalist.

  4. Henry Westin says:

    Ms. Heimlich is right on. Examples of religious cruelty abound, from Islamic Sharia law to Fred Phelps’ vicious Westboro Baptist zealots. The latter is especially troubling, because Pastor Fred Phelps ruled his wife and 13 kids with an iron hand. He fit Heimlich’s exact description. Hot-tempered, rigid, demanding, Fred beat his wife and kids, even making them sell candy on cold nights to support his “ministry”. When his son’s gym teacher noticed welts and bruises, he informed school authorities. Phelps narrowly escaped arrest because the boy was terrified to testify against him. I know of few religious zealots who were ever held accountable for abusing others. Yet if you or I so much as jaywalk, we’d be handcuffed.

  5. Charles Savoie says:

    Faith healing is superior to medical care, in some sense. That being, the faith an individual gets when they hear an inner voice instructing how to solve the issue faced. It involves no church, no bible, no minister, no funds donated to a yelling hooligan. It might be called insight, and it makes use of a lifetime of submerged memories, seldom recollected, but stored for emergency access, if we attune to them. They are not always able to function, for instance, any severe cut needs surgical intervention, and there are other examples. In my case, I had arterial (not cardiac) pain, at the end of a day when I had engaged in strenuous chest exercise. It didn’t coincide with the exercise, but that was what brought it to light hours later. I realized I had hardened arteries, I also sensed subclavian aneurysm, VERY dangerous! But I solved the issue better than all the MD’s in the world could have done, because they’d have resorted to invasive vascular surgery and very harsh pharmaceuticals. Within seconds I realized what my issues were and thought “emergency room,” but I didn’t want to undergo their type of treatment. Memory surged, and recall came—years earlier, a dentist (yes, a type of MD) told me lemon juice is the riskiest substance to teeth enamel, because its citric acid can remove enamel! Not as in some lemon in ice tea, but as in if eating lemons straight. Some months earlier I noticed small patch of varicose veins on leg, bought combo of horse chestnut/butcher’s broom, big in Europe for vascular pain relief, took one lozenge, in 25 minutes, the arterial pain was GONE. But I realized the issue remained. I felt the aneurysm while pushing resistance overhead and vowed to not exert again unless I normalized, a violent sneeze came, I felt blood unnaturally squishing in the diseased artery. I continued taking the 2 herbs, they have vasoconstrictive properties, the aneurysm symptoms went to zero as long as I stayed on these, when I suspended dosing, after 3 weeks, still no symptoms. I took the juice of large lemon in plain water twice daily on empty stomach for 170 days, rinsed well with water. No arterial symptoms, no pain, no shortness of breath, moving heavy load overhead or prone, NO discomfort. I believe the issue was gone within several weeks. I also dosed on taurine, known to protect smokers arteries, I never puffed. These 4 modalities resolved the calcification and the weakened vessel wall. Can I prove it? My sole regret is I didn’t get printed medical confirmation of my deteriorated condition first. Big Pharma is not out to help anyone but its own coffers. And give me magnesium for overall health, versus EVERY drug in any pharmacy. Our medical system cannot be blindly trusted, it gave us lobotomy. And why are surgeons selling joint surgeries when human growth hormone injected into the joint space can usually cause cartilage regeneration? (“Greed!!”) That must be why implantologists aren’t telling the public about Dr. Jeremy Mao’s tooth regeneration process, they want your funds and those of the insurer. Medicine is also an authoritarian religious culture.

  6. Vincent says:

    After questioning my authoritive parents who were Angelicans or Church of England goers in my young times.

    I am also a Child of An Alcoholic as well before being fostered with these religious parents. I believe most of mainstream religion teaches Gnostic Doctrines for start including Mormon Church. Gnostic Doctrines is considered as Doctrine of the Devil. 1 of the Beliefs of Gnosticism is human are evil and spirit is good because Humans were created by an Evil God called Demange (Whatever u spell his name) giving it a way to accept Jesus Christ (Grace) and carry on sinning.

    So having Religious parents who are quite strict on you and really try to control, this seemed to affect more males than females. I am quite distant with these parents still and have been quite socially awkward since child as well. I appear to have the Charatisitics of a Child from Dysfuntional Families too almost mistaken for Autism. These parents don’t go to Church but when they talked about sex in my present (I was quite religious at this time) I was very hard on them and had a go at them, my mum responded “You have a narrow mind”. Sex is still a taboo subject between me and parents. Most of time I feel totally Asexual anyway (sex does not interest me).

    I have been quite religious in sense of being part of these organisation which opened many cans of worms with me as I became to realise that Gnostic Teachings of Repression is very harmful (Including Sexual I believe is cause of hyprocisy in a Christian Church). Gnosticism is believed to be teachings from the Pharasees whom constructs a lot of rules including Anti Sex doctrines. I see your sex drive as in something you either use it or lose it.

    I was a Mormon before as well and I was becoming quite Authoritive on people around me who I thought was trying to corrupt me, even trying to be christian I found the same thing. I don’t go to a church because I don’t agree with any Church System. I tend to stay with the bible and not a pastor as I do see it as Pastor worship which to me is idolitary. Many friends who saw me in a religious way has said you was lot more happier when you was not in these religions. I just felt these religions I was involved in were doing me more harm than good.

    These religious parents used to spank, verbel abuse, name call you, or sometimes tell others about your thing ie the 22 year old brother getting expelled from school to many people, My brother tried to run away (he died at 22 from drug overdose), my real brother was kicked out for crime related issues, I last saw this one when I was 18 after he came out of jail. I lived their the longest and they took on my neices (Fostered because the parents biological sister neglected them) which forced me to move out shortly after a brain surgery, I was pretty glad to move out in a lot of ways.

    There was 1 time I was very close to wanting to live back with my alcholic mother and there was a controversy which lead to making the choice. The Foster mother was telling me if you lived with her she be wanting you to buy her drinks for her and all of that. This lead to very harsh view of my real mum. When I last saw my real brother he said the real mum stole off him, had sex with this other guy I remember very well and didnt care about him. So we both spoke about the real mum in similar manner.

    Another thing I have witnessed with these religious parents is their condemnination towards sex which I believed I learnt as well. They were very harsh towards my real brother for having porn. I believe this is why I cannot watch anything sexual around these parents and probley still cant. I will not socialise with them when they are drinking at all because their conversations often lead to sex and I don’t want around them. I don’t celibrate Christmas or anything like that.

    Also they cannot toloerate lying and used to smack me and my brother for it. I realise Uneccessary lying exists with people of problems of this kind.

  7. Been There says:

    “Do you believe that children who say they have been abused should forgive their abusers? What about getting the victim counseling? What about turning the abuser in to civil authorities. Just whom does making children forgive their abusers serve?” Here’s the problem, though. It’s a bit of a closed system masquerading as “help.” The secular world is no better. The forgiveness mentality has thoroughly pervaded the mental health field–perhaps because sexual abuse is rampant there too, as blogs like “Surviving Therapist Abuse” and books like “Sex in the Forbidden Zone” make clear–and with the rise of “restorative justice”, the penal system is becoming pretty bad too. So unfortunately, seeking help from a counselor or the legal system may just steer the victim back to the same old cruel coerced-forgiveness mentality. Just wanted to let you know that things are basically awful all over. :/

    • Thanks for your comment. I have never been a fan of the “forgiveness” movement because, as you point out, it can be exploitive. I think some adults use the concept as a way to move past painful conflicts. Some find peace in doing this, but like any belief system, it’s a personal thing and if promoted to others can serve to re-victimize both children and adults. And yes, I am aware that abuse runs throughout our society and not just in religious cultures. It’s important to nuance this. As you can see, I don’t point the finger at all religious cultures, just those that are authoritarian. I think the same kind of parsing needs to be done if people are going to cast blame on other communities, such as those in the therapeutic fields.

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