What Can Atheists Do about Religious Child Maltreatment?

girl_blue_eyes I’ve been talking about religious child maltreatment for a while now. Our closed Facebook group has grown to more than 350 members and has become a supportive and safe place for survivors and others to share ideas and feelings. My book Breaking Their Will is still selling. All good stuff, right?

That question deserves to be met with a shrug. No, it’s not enough, because there is so much else we can do to save a child’s psyche, body, and life. But I’m not going to provide an overwhelming list of ways to stop these abuses, because the way I see it, there’s truly only one way to really get at the problem: Atheists and faith leaders need to talk.

Wait, don’t click away yet, non-believers. Let me explain why this partnership has to take place and why you are a big part of solution.

As I said before, 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.youth-looking-at-candles-150x150

Still, though, it’s not enough, and the reason is clear: In speaking to atheist groups, I’ve been preaching to the choir. Instead, activists must 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.

A few more specific ideas:

1) Register for my nonprofit’s conference. This is a first of its kind event where clergy, lawyers, social workers, pediatricians, teachers, and anyone else who cares about kids will come together and talk about child maltreatment that occurs in faith communities and cultural groups. There will be a great party the night before!

2) Contact religious leaders, any religious leaders, and see if they want to learn what child-friendly faith is all about. Give them a copy of my book or pass on their names to me and I’ll send them a copy. Tell them I’ll speak at their place of worship for free in person or over Skype.

3) Forward this email to others you think might want to take part in this educational movement.

I, myself, have been reaching out to faith leaders. Next week, I’ll be meeting with clergy groups to see if they’ll partner with my nonprofit organization. And you know, I think some of them will rise up and agree to be part of the solution, whether that means leading workshops, speaking at our conferences, reaching out to problematic faith communities, or just agreeing to learn more about the issue.


The conversation about religious child maltreatment has begun, largely in part to the atheist community. Now it’s time to get the message to those who can instruct the pious on how to treat their children with compassion and understanding.


  1. Jan, you are so right. We’ve got to take this discussion to the religious groups in a way that helps them meet with us. As a survivor of religious child maltreatment I’m grateful for your input and example in this matter. As an amputee as a result of childhood religious medical neglect I could be the last to endorse your cause. I’m glad to say you have challenged me into a wider scope of thinking than I might have had.

  2. Janet,

    I really love the message of this letter. We need that boost to get out there, get off our computers and start making meetings and talking. Thanks for all your work. I am also glad to hear about your conference. I am thinking of representing the US Alliance to End the Hitting of Children at it. I too, an atheist, have to look more to larger bodies of people if we are going to make change happen.

  3. Hi Janet, i am sorry to disagree! I know you are committed, but i also think this is naive, and a litlle patronising! Why are you so surprised that it is atheists who show more compassion? I am an atheist, and a survivor of clergy sexual abuse,co-founder of Survivors voice Europe, we met in Oxford. Those of us who are really active in this field have been battling these people for many years. We are not in need of being condescended to in this way! I understand that you have an interest in this issue, but believe me, those of us who have suffered at the hands of these people have no desire to talk to them! You cannot teach compassion! you either empathise or you do not.They do not. Even by their own admission, they are not there as a philanthropic organisation, they see their role as for the glory of god. So individual happiness is insignificant, and people like us are collateral damage. There is a whole cottage industry that has grown up around this tragedy, please do not add to it!

    • Sue,
      I deeply regret that you found my message patronizing. My message was not specifically directed at survivors but atheists, as a group. It is disheartening that you have hit such a wall in trying to get religious authorities to care about the rights of children. However, I have not been talking to any religious leaders who are powerful or conservative. Rather, they are generally liberal leaders who oversee a single church, synagogue, or mosque, although in some cases, their place of worship is part of a large organization (that still tends to be on the liberal side.) That may make a difference. We’ll see. Either way, I will report back the results.
      Thanks for sharing about your valuable experiences, and I again apologize for offending,

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