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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

How Can Beliefs about Children Cause Religious Trauma?

Updated: Nov 5, 2023

Nothing says innocence any better than a newborn baby! How could our excitement over a precious new life be anything but healthy? Remarkably, what we believe about this baby is where the seeds of Religious Trauma (RT) can begin.

Last week I asked the question, Did Religious Trauma impact your childhood?

For many who read, the answer was a resounding, “Yes!”

If you answered yes, you may have longed for the nurturing family of the first child. If you said no, you may have wondered how the second home could cause RT. If the home of the third child described your childhood home, you likely felt validated by your experience being identified as traumatic. (See here for descriptions)

No matter where you fell in or between these three scenarios, the number of readers and comments indicated to me that it was a topic worth exploring further.

When I write about RT, I have two categories in my head that result from my story and those that are shared with me. There is no question that evil occurs in religious settings. Cult-related Ritual Abuse (RA) belongs in this category. So does sexual abuse and the additional suffering caused when church leaders ignore or hide the abuse or protect abusers. What I say in this blog in no way applies to these atrocities. There is no explanation for actions that are pure evil.

The second category is RT which is caused by religious beliefs or church teachings. These are beliefs and teachings that influence how children are treated by both the church and parents. Children are often harmed despite the good intentions of people who interact with them. Good intentions do not negate the harm, most of which is rooted in misguided teachings on “original sin.”

My concerns with these teachings are because of the practices that result from believing children are born “sinful." What adults believe about the innocence or non-innocence of a child will impact the ways they interact with children. I can say this with confidence because my doctoral research validates the claim. Whatever your story of RT is, what the adults in your life believed about you is embedded in how you were treated in both religious settings and your home.

My research identified three views of the child that my work now correlates with the three homes discussed in the previous blog. I traced the following views throughout ancient history and Christian traditions.

  1. The child is born without sin and is innocent.

  2. The child has a propensity to sin but also retains innocence.

  3. The child is born sinful or non-innocent.

If an adult begins with the “biblical” premise that children are born evil, it often follows that they must break the child's will to ensure salvation from eternal damnation. This is a common theme in Christian parenting books over the last half century. In these homes or churches, abusive treatment can easily be justified as love. The concept of "tough love" comes from these beliefs. It involves punishment or removal of love to stop undesired behaviors as essential for the eternal welfare of the child.

This view of the child is one that is familiar to many who have experienced religious trauma and shows up in stories that are shared with me over and over. One friend's father said, "Do you know when my daughter got her first spanking? At three weeks! I already saw that sinful nature coming right out of her.” Again, the view of the child leads to the actions of the adults.

Please know that you were an innocent child who deserved to be nurtured. You did not deserve to walk away from your childhood layered with shame for being a child with legitimate needs. You should not have been told your heart was evil. You should not have been afraid you would go to hell because of normal childhood behaviors resulting from a nervous system that was easily overwhelmed. You needed the adults to be your calm through co-regulation so your nervous system could learn how to regulate. Relational accountability does not shame the child.

Practices that grew from a non-innocent view of you as a child, along with fear-based religious teachings, harmed children. Any time religious teachings diminish the innocence and worth of a child it is spiritually abusive. If combined with physical and/or emotional abuse, it is Religious Trauma. You may have internalized this view of yourself as a child and find it difficult to believe you are worthy of love. Recognizing the root cause of this is one place where healing can begin.

Again, be gentle with yourself as you reflect. This was a foundational blog and in the coming weeks, I will be offering insights and resources on other religious teachings embedded in various aspects of Religious Trauma.

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