“People don’t you understand
the child needs a helping hand
or he’ll grow to be an angry young man someday.
Take a look at you and me
are we to blind to see?
Or do we simply turn our heads
and look the other way?”
Mac Davis, In The Ghetto
“Psychological maltreatment, also known as emotional abuse and neglect, refers to ‘a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or extreme incident(s) that convey to children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting another’s needs.'”
A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice
quoting Hart & Brassard Psychosocial evaluation of suspected psychological
maltreatment in children and adolescents: APSAC practice guidelines
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
This essay deals with childhood spiritual abuse, it may not be appropriate for all readers.
First I would like to say a word about where I see this work around religious subjects fitting into the context of the concerns those mindful of ecology have. I see no way to gain religion’s support for healing the rupture between earth and humankind other than to call out its dark side for what it is. It could well be that as the collapse of Homo Colossus proceeds people will eventually turn on the institutions and traditions that failed to help the human race in its hour of need. The political, religious, and educational institutions have all, so far at least, utterly failed to take the seriousness of our overshoot predicament seriously. Of these institutions only religious traditions speak directly to the question of whether we find ourselves in a universe worth living in or not. Since we are collectively acting suicidally, it is an important question. If the die-off due to ecological collapse proceeds as expected between now and the year 2100, as the costs mount and the wars rage, the question of whether or not self-conscious awareness is worth the price will live in people’s hearts, not as an academic question but as one deciding between life and death. Mainstream society today is incapable of realistically imagining the next few decades as the ecologists have sketched out their most probable trajectories. Instead, the mainstream society swings from total denial (“Power Through Impossible” the oil industry teaches us) by the Wall Street crowd on the one hand, to denial that it matters (on “The Late Great Planet Earth”) by the Christian Rapture crowd on the other. I believe both positions are mistaken and that this will become obvious to everyone eventually. As one ugly year continues to follow another, and another, and another. . . eventually we can expect a type of psychological tipping point when denial and repression, fantasy and wishful thinking no longer work to paper over the very real disasters eating away at our stable climate and food supplies. I am interested in how mythology, and the religions of today that have institutionalized bits of it, will fare at that time.
There is great strength to be found in faith for dealing well with difficult times. Faith believes this is a good life in a basically good universe. It is a message all but lost by those who “do the work of satan while they dress like saints” as Bowie had it. Perhaps religion can be purged from the lies and liars currently spreading little more than confusion in its name. That, anyway, is my hope. There is a role for contemplatives in Dark Ages, perhaps we should use this time to prepare what we can. We need to learn how to stand up and say NO to god as bully. (Hence my use of a small ‘g’ at times).
The title of this essay could be misunderstood. I do not think we can say this religion is right and this religion is wrong. I do believe we can say, if we are humble and careful, that this way of being religious is right and that this other way of being religious is wrong. This is an important step forward. We need to call a spade a spade to understand the dark side of religion.
This is not to say all religions are equal, far from it. I do think some religious ideas are inherently dangerous, meaning that believing in them will lead you astray, away from a meaningful human life. One such, with relevant dangers for a nuclear armed world under accelerating ecological collapse, is the ancient belief that humans can gain favor with God, immortality, and magical powers by shedding the blood of others, typically children — be it on altars or battlefields. I consider Frazer’s Golden Bough, particularly the newer abridgement, required reading for anyone interested in religion, as indispensable in its own way as William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.
Religious indoctrination that amounts to little more than sewing double binds to trap minds into fear-based loyalty to god’s self-proclaimed and self-selected salesmen is wrong. In fact, from the point of view of the precious uniqueness of each sentient being, that mysterious something we call a personality and recognize to likely be unique across all of deep time, it might be the most wrong of the wrongs human beings can commit. When this happens religion has then enslaved a human bodymind, through the creation of trauma, with the purpose of demanding their allegiance to institutionalized abstractions, in place of an allegiance to their actual life as it is given to them to experience it. Possessed, souls enchanted, they may come to the end of their days only to discover that who they personally were never really fully showed up in their own life, that the potentials of the little boy or little girl they once were had been buried alive under ceaseless role playing.
“Let the children to come unto me.”
Life is hard. Religious stories are meant to aid us, strengthening us to meet the inevitable tragedies of our lives and carry on with a modicum of peace and joy in-spite of them. They embody the wisdom of how self-consciously mortal creatures can walk with dignity through well lived lives. Many of the lessons in our religious stories deal with very adult issues related to suffering, death, evil, and loss. Here is the rub. The stories are necessarily first introduced into the minds of children who are incapable of fully and properly understanding them. Knowing this causes us to seek means of correcting this error without compounding it (Eggs and Santa). We say the faith of childhood must be replaced with that of adulthood. There is a lot of psychology packed into that phrase. It involves enthroning reason above imagination and the day consciousness of the ego and its survival goals above the night consciousness and its labrythian meanderings. It is as if we were born upside down. With great care biology and society prepares the bodymind of the child as if it were an egg shell that will break to allow the adult to emerge. Religious symbolism plays a part in that preparation because it is intimately linked to our physiology.
The bodymind of the child, and of the older people around them, know that soon the all the powerful force of evolutionary deep time’s engine is going to awaken in their crotch. When that happens it will turn their upside down world right side up, and do so by turning their childhood ego upside down, humbling it in the process. It involves the ego learning what it must serve, which is so much more than only reproduction as evolutionary theory would have it, but never is it separate from the obligations of reproduction either. Ego is confronted with its unexpected responsibility: that it has a soul to care for as it works its way along its path to a grave, that it is involved in a mind and body that is one in thought and feeling.
It is a real struggle to set aside the magical thinking of our childhood and accept the evidence of our senses that those we love, and we ourselves, must die. Though our stories are filled with tales of immortality and spirits soaring among the stars sustained by magical powers, our lives are inevitably lived, in fact, with our very clay feet on the ground. An adult fundamentalist simply cannot believe with the same naivety that a child can. This I think is what many well meaning adults do not understand and it causes considerable unnecessary tragedy. We should also understand this as a society better than we do. It could be put this way: when it comes to “faith” the child will walk off a metaphorical cliff, whereas a non-psychotic adult will suddenly find the power of rationalization and be overcome with a sudden bout of common sense under the same circumstances. The adult’s reaction may not be a stellar example of making sense, but it will make sense in a way the mind of the child simply cannot before it has been restructured into the adult brain. There is a spectrum of the literalism error, with children who are taught deceptively occupying the farthest outpost.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to sin, it would be better for him if a great milestone were put around his neck and they were thrown into the sea.”
Children of the human race are voracious story sponges. Brains building life long scaffoldings are calling the shots from deep time in all the little people around us. This process is vulnerable to traumatic events that can thwart the intended outcomes. It is obvious that children are vulnerable physically. What we have learned by studying the psyche is that they are emotionally and cognitively vulnerable as well. Children who have had their vulnerability exploited, far beyond the necessary lessons around our innate gullibility, have brains altered by the trauma they have known. Life long brain changes become linked to their destiny, their fate. Instead of the egg of adult personality being broken by the emerging psyche from the inside in its own good time, some clumsy oaf has broken into it with all the gracefulness of a jackhammer.
Deep time has hosted traumatized human brains since the beginning and has ways of dealing with the disproportionate fear and terror their unhinged imaginations can cause. Those shamanistic ways are symbol rich because they must deal with the underlying physiological “tensions” traumatic events have anchored in the body. Symbols, as we have discussed, turn one side towards conscious understanding but the other side remains oriented towards the dark depths of biological intelligence. Ego can communicate with what is beyond ego in this way and, in that sense, religious symbols play an indispensable role in the formation of the human psyche.
What, then, is religious child abuse? How do we talk about crossing the line between the religious education of children and religious child maltreatment? Does religious child abuse always involve sexual or physical abuse as well? No. Does it always involve strange satanic rituals? No. Does religious child abuse always involve emotional abuse? Yes. An internet search on the term ‘spiritual abuse’ will turn up numerous definitions, many quite good, others just fodder in the atheism wars. Here are a few of my thoughts to add to the mix.
Religious Abuse is creating serious mental health issues in the name of God. Or, to state the same thing in the language we used before psychology: creating serious wounds in the soul, damning it on earth to a life of confusion, self-destructive behaviors, and inescapable terror filled nightmares, all of which steal any chance at unscarred happiness that person may have had in the one and only life that personality will ever know.
The Trauma God:
Let me introduce you to the god of the evil cosmos we touched on last week. It appears when we worship god as trauma: life twisting, joy destroying trauma. This is not a god of Love but a god of Hate, forever angry at you every minute of your life and “justly” looking forward to watching you suffer in hell for all eternity. He (and it is a ‘He’ and only a ‘He’) hosts an eye in the sky watching your every move, recording and never forgetting or forgiving your every slipup of an obscure rule set, one less clear than the accusations against Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial. Oh, and he knew you were predestined to your fate of eternal torture before he created you, which he did because he loves you. . . What a crock of shit. This is nothing more than a thin veneer on the ultimate “I am doing this for your own good” abuser fantasy.
A meaningless universe created purely by chance is preferable to this malignant nightmare. At least in a meaningless universe even though love might be delusional it is not sickly twisted and, importantly, I get to roll my own dice. A meaningless universe created purely by chance is just the universe science posits, as it turns out, perhaps in no small part as a reaction to this Gnostic heresy gaining such ground among the fundamentalist fringes both within and without the mainstream monotheisms. Faith in the non-trauma God is, of course, a belief in a good universe where what love teaches us about its innermost workings is seen as worthy of our trust. Those who have suffered religious abuse biologically believe in this trauma god and its universe, their bodymind learned from the evidence of the abusive experiences that their life in the world will only lead to days of more suffering and pain without hope of healing or redemption. Such hurt people are, in my experience, best off spending some years away from all religions. They need to learn to go play as if God had said only one commandment: “go, and be happy.” The scientific point of view of a neutral universe can bring considerable healing and freedom from the superstitious fears that have been planted in the unconscious mind of those who were enslaved to the trauma god’s evil universe like this. The jump from evil universe to good universe is too much to take in one leap if you bring your integrity with you. Where was this so-called good God when your soul was crushed and skewered? Only time has the real balm for those hurts because in time you will be able to trace how the wound becomes a gift of character (assuming it does not destroy you during the transformation process).
Religious Abuse is using religious imagery to unhinge the reasoning mind, remove emotional balance, and create physiological anchors that trigger panic anytime the victim begins to question the truth of the cultic dogma, the authenticity of the cultic authority, or in any other way attempts to leave the cult. The core of spiritual child abuse is seeding the child’s mind with fear of their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations. Ultimately, the evil in this abuse aims to interfere with an individual’s unique sense of conscience about what is right and wrong, “the still small voice.” The natural understanding our mammalian bodies are born with, knowing how to feed the personality on the nourishment of love and compassion, is changed into a fear of the same. Hate is offered as love. To believe what you are told as a victim of such confusion, that what you are experiencing is love, is to create a civil war between what your mind thinks and what your body knows.
Religious Abuse is using religion as a scapegoat mechanism. Dysfunctional families tend to choose one member to be the scapegoat, the black sheep. This dynamic already is a difficult one to deal with. Add the self righteousness of a fundamentalist family and the shadow projection onto the one chosen as scapegoat becomes extreme, an extremity poets might capture by calling it a demonic injection. Adults with real problems can displace their unhealed burdens into their children culminating in the creation of the black sheep. The black sheep has been chosen to not succeed in life, to fail spectacularly. That will confirm the white sheep in their faith. The family role of the scapegoat is to display what the rest of the family fears, namely, that a life lived outside the cult is one ruled by demons.