Psychological and religious abuse of children

Post Traumatic StressWe are very conscious of violent physical abuse of children because of the publicity around resulting deaths. However, neglect and psychological stress can be at least as important, or even more important, a problem as physical and sexual abuse. We also seem to be unaware of the long-term psychological results of child abuse.

Our ignorance of non-physical child abuse and its long-term psychological effects means we often don’t acknowledge the harm done to many children.

Child abuse survivors suffer from long-term post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive negative thoughts, low self-esteem, compulsive behaviour, anger, disturbed sleep, hyper-vigilance, shame, guilt, etc. are common.

Persistent psychological abuse of children can result from continual disparaging comments or continual exposure to physical and verbal violence between adult care-givers and parents. Psychological stress can also result from the controlling behaviour of care-givers.

Religious abuse of children

Religion is beginning to be recognised as a possible source of psychological stress on children. This is particularly so for children raised in exclusive religious cults and sects.

Jill Mytton, a former member of a religious group called the Exclusive Brethren, is a counseling psychologist who works with child abuse survivors and has many escapees from such sects among her patients. She was interviewed about this by Richard Dawkins for the TV series “The Root of all Evil?”

The uncut video of this, and the other interviews made for this series, is now available on DVD. I found this hour-long interview one of the most interesting and recommend it to anyone interested in the problem of religious abuse of children and its long-term effects.

Suppression of a personal moral sense

Mytton stresses that although religious child abuse is not restricted to cults like the Exclusive Brethren a religious upbringing can be healthy – provided it occurs in an open and flexible atmosphere. If this is absent the child can suffer from the stultification of a personal moral and intellectual sense.

This happens when the naturally inquisitive mind of the child is suppressed and a religious “truth” and morality are imposed. The child is not brought up to develop their own belief system, or even to be aware that there are other belief systems. They are dependent on a system imposed by their religion or parents.


Some religions produce a childhood dominated by fear – a real fear of hell, of disapproval in the present and of eternal damnation. This is a trauma which has effects lasting well into adulthood.

The judgemental atmosphere of some religions produces a stunted appreciation of love in the child. All she gets is conditional love and continually seeks to avoid judgment and to search for limited rewards.

As well as preventing critical assessment of information closed religious sects also restrict the availability of information through control of education, access to TV, films and compiuters. Social activity ios also restricted.

Limiting the natural inquiring mind

Mytton describes how she now has difficulty understanding the concept of ‘friend’ because of social restrictions in her childhood. She is also aware that she feels the need to ask for permission to investigate controversial issues – her natural sense of inquiry has been restricted. Escapers from such cults usually have great difficulty dealing with normal social activity. Personal decisions are difficult because this experience was denied them within the cult.

Unhealthy religions don’t allow children to ask questions – consequences can be harsh for an inquiring child. The natural inquiring mind of the child is suppressed.

As with physical and sexual forms of child abuse the motivation of the abusers, the relgious leaders, is usually their desire to control – to have a sense of power.

See also:
Bishop Richard Harries (On line video of uncut interview for The Root of all Evil?)
Alister McGrath (On line video of uncut interview for The Root of all Evil?)
‘Root of All Evil? The Original Program’ available now on DVD
‘Root of All Evil? The Uncut Interviews’ Released on DVD

Similar articles:
Facing up to child abuse
Putting the Bible in its place
From faith to hatred

38 responses to “Psychological and religious abuse of children

  1. Well said… thanks! There needs to be more awareness of all forms of child abuse. Blogs such as yours help make that happen. Some forms of abuse are so subtle that only the damaged child is aware of the abuse on some level below the language necessary to describe it, although often the child’s altered behaviors are screams for help.


  2. Good to see this article. In the EB, even in my day, prior to 1967, there were rumours of abuse of children, teenagers, and several brothers and sisters were withdrawn from because of homosexual relationships, male and female, and husbands and wives had affairs. To think of it, the EB in those days were pretty awful. The system works on fear.Fear of being cut off from family and friends. I know of a case where a young son left the EB and all his childhood photos, books, and all pertaining to his life were destroyed. Only what he escaped with is what he has to this day. The trouble is the control is so great that people can’t face leaving and they put up with it.


  3. There should be an awareness drive or campaign for child abuse. Parents could be unaware that they could be harassing their child with their custom or beliefs…



  4. My experience within the EB was that parents do not now they are putting their children under stress and strain. How seemingly intelligent people allow this to happen is beyond belief. Very interesting to note that In Australia the show the Big Brother will have as a house mate an ex EB. What he may say regarding his experiences will be very interesting.


  5. It can be dangerous to conflate religion in general with extreme cults or sects. Non-religious ideologies can of course include brainwashing and repression and have just as pernicious effects on children. A climate where children’s behavior is too controlled or repressed, or where they cannot ask questions, seems to be the main circumstance of abuse you are alluding to, and it may be a valid point for study. But to confuse that with ‘religion’ or imply that it is a necessary outcome of a religious upbringing is a dangerous generalization and weakens your main point.


  6. Well said, Matjew.



  7. Interesting Matjew. You seem to have interpreted my post as conflating “religion in general with extreme cults or sects” despite my referring to Mytton’s comment that “a religious upbringing can be healthy.” She refers to the religious involvement is such matters as cover a whole spectrum from good to toxic.

    I don”t think you are justified in attributing to me the claim that child abuse is a “necessary outcome of a religious upbringing.” Of course such a claim would be “a dangerous generalization.”

    Perhaps you are hypersensitive to any criticism of religion?

    I think for Mytton, who works with victims of child abuse in general (not just religious abuse), but is also a survivor of the Exclusive Brethren experience, it is only natural she would include that form of abuse in her studies. This is valuable because religious child abuse (as non-physical child abuse in general) is general underestimated or even not recognised.

    I agree with you that: “A climate where children’s behavior is too controlled or repressed, or where they cannot ask questions, seems to be the main circumstance of abuse you are alluding to, and it may be a valid point for study.” I would widen this to include the general persistent psychological stress that can occur despite the lack of controlling or repressing environment.

    Of course we should be aware of, study and highlight child abuse that occurs within non-religious groups. (Actually, I have a hard time thinking of any specific non-religious group where this may be a problem currently – perhaps you could suggest some Matjew?). However, let’s not allow sensitivity to criticism of religion prevent us from studying, or even being aware of, the abuse that can, and does, go on within cults and similar toxic religions. (Let’s not forget what his happening even within the mainstream Catholic Church).

    To ignore, or excuse, this abuse is to abandon helpless children.


  8. I am currently living in the US and the media coverage of the polygmaist comound story is fascinating. Over and over people go on about how this should effect how we see ‘Mormonism’. But nobody has every suggested it has anything to do with Mormonism as far as I saw. Funny how pretty much the same people are happy to generalise terrotism to islam and expect Muslim leaders to apologised for and distance themselves from stuff they had nothing to do with in the first place….


  9. just a random thought, but if it’s psychological abuse of children we’re on about, then I’d want to raise the question of whether or not various forms of advertising aimed at children could be seen as a form of abuse. I think it’s a compelling idea.


  10. Maybe, Dale, in the sense that we are all influenced to conform, to purchase, etc., by advertising. And I agree that some advertising today is aimed at developing inapropriate responses in chidlren – anything to create a market.

    However, I think this pales compared against the effects of persistent psychological or physical abuse. I don’t think it causes the sort of psychological damage we see in child abuse survivors – lasting for the rest of their lives.


  11. Ken, I just think you’re not being careful enough with your language, and it weakens your point.

    You say “Some religions produce a childhood dominated by fear – a real fear of hell, of disapproval in the present and of eternal damnation.” That’s not just talking about cults. It might even be true, but ‘some religions’ needs to be qualified. You do quote Mytton’s positive statement but in such a way as it might only be referring to ‘Suppression of a personal moral sense’.

    Look, generally I agree with you. I’m just saying that if you want your (valid) warning of the prevalence of harmful patterns towards children in organized religious behavior to be HEARD, you need to be more careful and accurate about the specific patterns and behaviors, not just say ‘the mainstream Catholic church…’


  12. Matjew, I think you are nit-picking here – possibly because you are sensitive to criticism of religion. “Some” is a qualification. A detailed analysis of religions would be nice – but inappropriate for a short post.

    I think that while cults may be an extreme example the problems Mytton referred to are also common with some other religions. (I like Mytton’s characterisation of a continuum from toxic to healthy). Judgementalism, guilt and an “assembly” rather than personal version of morality is quite common. I hasten to add that I think we find this in non-religious groups do (The Maoist groups of the 60s and 70s come to mind). So, if I say “some political groups” (for example) can produce a climate of fear and guilt please realise that I have provided a brief qualification – although of course it would be interesting (in a more extensive article) to desctibe which ones are more prone to this behaviour.


  13. Two more cents…

    …Judgementalism, guilt and an “assembly”…

    A negative (yet, of course, real) spin on the very normal,human activity of moral guidance…

    …personal version of morality…

    personal… hmm… you don’t mean ‘individualistic’ do you?

    Don’t get me wrong, physchological abuse is real and a tradgedy. It’s just that it’s (you’ve heard me say this before) more complicated than simple denouncements imply…
    Moral guidance is tricky business, but still a very needed thing in families, groups, communities, and society in general. There’s more than one extreme here, and the opposite extreme of Jugmentalism (which I agree is toxic) is Apathy…


  14. I was impressed by the important issues that Mytton brought out in her interview. It’s a real pity it’s not available online (as far as I know).

    Her personal experience of becoming aware that the assembly imposed morality actually denied her own development of a personal moral sense was very enlightening to me. Of course the same thing happens when the imposition of “religious truth” (by the “assembly) squashes the development of the normal healthy enquiring mind in the child.

    Of course, none of this denies the role of parents and society in providing moral and intellectual guidance. But it’s extremely sad when an adult doesn’t know, within herself, what is right and wrong or what her likes and dislikes are without appealing to someone else (parents or assemblies). It’s also sad when an adult cannot consider ‘controversial’ ideas because they think to do so (without permission) is wrong.

    Moral and intellectual guidance in a healthy, open and flexible atmosphere is quite different to imposition and motivation through fear.

    Interesting though, Dale, while you seem to be equating one extreme with the other I actually experienced (within the family) the apathy you refer to. Technically I suffered abuse as a child – from neglect and psychological stress rather than judgmentalism (although we all got plenty of that from society in general). I know I have been able to develop my own personal moral sense and preserve a natural enquiring mind. I don’t know for sure, of course, but I suspect this may not have happened if I had suffered the abuse Mytton talks about.


  15. Yes i agree Matjew maybe seems to be a little hypersensitive to any criticism of religion . And thats probably not something thats at all to scarce these days .And neither has it been to scarse for many thousands of years .After all if so called christians were more willing .Had been in the past more willing to look at these things without trying to make avenues for excuses or scapegoats .It is very much less likely these cults and sects would come to pass in the first place .As a ex member of this cult myself ,it sickens me but i dont find it at all surprising that these proud christians feel the need to be so defensive . After all false pride is the reason that keeps these cults and sects from appearing from many many differnt dominations from time to time .And is most likely one of the very reasons that many youth today dont bother to join .

    Psychological religious abuse sadly cannot often be seen with the naked eye .Unlike sombody who has suffered a punch in the face that might produce a black eye ,the sufferers of this abuse often need to try to put up with the effects of this abuse for the total length of their lives .Doing the best they can to live with it , as it is something unseen and only just becoming in this day and age to be slightly understood for the hidden effects that it has.

    But there is hope !! .Because no matter who trys to soften the problem with words of pride and suggestions of purity .

    Thank God these days society not quite so often allows the religious the right to hide amongst beliefs , with the ease that they in the past have had the free reign to hide within .

    And though it is early days of change yet , the time is coming when these things will be looked at for what they truthfully are .


  16. I’m writing a book about the subject of religious abuse and looking for survivors to interview. If you’re a survivor, especially if you were raised evangelical and told that you were possessed by a demon, please e-mail me at if you’d like to be interviewed. I can keep your name, the names of your family members and any identifying details completely anonymous.

    Yes, Matjew is being very defensive for some reason.

    I was religiously abused as a child. I was not part of a cult. We went to mainstream evangelical churches. I was made to very afraid of God’s judgment, Satan, demons and Hell. When I was about twelve years old my mother told me I was possessed by a demon, just because we had disagreements. I believed her. I thought I was possessed by a demon until I was about thirty years old, when after two years of therapy I finally figured out that I’m not.

    I think the phrase “religious abuse” is perfectly appropriate. There are other forms of psychological abuse, but religious abuse is a specific type of abuse that uses religion as its medium. We cannot ignore the fact that in these cases, the use of religion is central to the abuse.


  17. Pingback: Psychological abuse of children « Open Parachute

  18. The question is asked whether religious abuse of children happens only in extreme sects and cults, or is part of mainstream religious upbringing such as Christianity. My experience is that religion can hurt children even through what are considered mainstream beliefs. The Abrahamic tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teaches that nudity is shameful, masturbation is wrong, and sex is a sin. When I was five and quite ignorant, a neighbor girl was showing me how to play doctor. My father whipped me with a belt for 15 to 20 minutes and told me “Don’t you ever do that again!” over and over. My family was Methodist. There were no cultish aspects about our practice or beliefs. This has been borne out over the years since then by many Christians who confirmed that sex is properly subject to all of the restrictions in the Bible— women belong to men, adultery violates the property rights of men and God, the passion of sex is sinful in every venue except the reproductive purpose of a sanctified marriage, thus barring homosexuality, fornication, masturbation, and even letting yourself think about such things. Only the most pure expressions of sexuality in a church-sanctified marriage between a man and a woman are acceptable or forgiveable by God. The ways this can be done sinfully are many, can be subtle, and we are greatly admonished to be on vigilant guard against such temptations in ourselves, our spouses, our children, and our neighbors is known as one of our most sacred religious duties. None of this is in any way unusual or extreme by the standards I have heard expressed by Christians of many denominations. Anyone who suggests that it is more important to be loving and patient with people who break these rules is warned that weakness about these matters imperils their souls with eternal torment in Hell. Though there are Christians who find this troubling, they are considered as slackers in zealousy as followers, servants, and soldiers of God by fundamentalist Christians, and their tolerance is considered to be a doctrinal error. If you ask a fundamentalist about this, they will bend your ear for as long as you sit still for it with endless Bible verses, considered Holy Scripture, that supports the doctrine of sexual uncleanness. They will tell you that to be a Christian means the strict following of the Biblical commandments against sinful sex. If you do not accept this, they will dismiss you as someone with whom they cannot associate as friends or neighbors, nor discuss non-sexual matters of propriety and morality because your whole life is considered to be tainted by your sexual uncleanness and doctrinal error. You can try using Biblical evidence to reach a more balanced and gracious view of alternative sex practices, but when I have tried this, I have never succeeded in changing anyone’s mind any further than for them to say they will not actively throw stones to kill sinners, and even after they say this, they immediately resume their persecution of sexual sinners. Having lived with this for fifty years, I had almost no sex before marriage, I wasn’t married until I was 37, and my marriage has become sexless for years. I am depressed, anxious, and fearful about even discussing sex. I don’t think this is right, but I have little hope I will ever see this change, nor that I will ever have sex again.


  19. I agree with you Larry that even the more “normal” religions have got a lot to answer for. Particularly in the area iof sexual attitudes they have done a lot of damage. To some extent our generation has lost out irretrievably. But perhaps more enlightened ideas are common in modern society so younger generations will have less problems. And hopefully society will be less tolerant of such anti-human attitudes promoted by modern religions.


  20. I just posted a list of research papers on my blog that address the link between religion and child abuse. The abuse is not confined to cults or what some researchers call “high maintenance groups”. There is a very strong link between violent discipline (spanking) and religion.


  21. What part of ‘indoctrinating the impressionable minds of children with gobbledygook’ do people not understand?


  22. This makes me incredibly happy this issue is actually brought into the light. It is certainly contravercial, since the people who are doing it feel justified. Yet, the children, or even other adults that it happens to are left with invisible scars.
    I was in a Bible thumping regular church, and I can tell you that the impact of being told I was never good enough to them, or God, and having demons cast out of me has been very scarring for me. It is so sad, because there are no visual scars, and the entire thing is dismissed. My mother has said she had done nothing wrong, which makes it even more painful as an adult trying to work through this, yet alone step foot in a regular church again.


  23. I’m amazed at how many have suffered because of ignorance. The Bible has been twisted and scriptures taken out of context to fit the need to control.
    I was raised in a very strict and controlled home. I was not allowed to have friends at school or in the neighborhood, only kids who attended our church. I could not attend any school functions and education was not that important. We were not allowed to dress like kids at school or wear any makeup. We were also told if we sinned we were in danger of fire and brimstone.

    Thanks to all that share.


  24. Religion is a disease which prevents it’s victims from taking a break from being total idiots.
    I don’t suffer from religion…in fact, I’m not even an Atheist and anybody who lives their lives according to the ‘observations’ of a bunch of camel jockeys in the desert of 2,000 years ago need to get out more.
    What you have to remember is that the your fellow ‘human’ will go to great lengths to deceive ‘followers’ in order to maintain powerful positions.
    You will do an awful of trawling through the net to find facebook pages authored by the Vatican campaigning against corrupt governments of countries where poverty is the ‘norm’.
    Without poverty there would be no churches.


  25. Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA wants to keep something hidden. Children have been harmed.



  26. A somewhat caustic view of religious abuse of children in the form of a letter to a child:


  27. This is a fascinating topic. Ken, I have no problem with your “caution” in language. And I respect matjew’s persnickety response.

    One thing has always fascinated me–especially as I encounter “defenders of the faith” from various religions. Many of these people, and their religious hierarchies, espouse a belief in an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God.

    If this God exists, then why do they think he needs defending? Ought not a god who can do anything, knows everything, and is everywhere at once defend itself?

    And isn’t this the essence of “religious abuse” — that certain individuals seek to elevate themselves to a godlike position? A position of judgment (and damnation) over others?

    I don’t know. Just wondering.


  28. I see religious abuse as any verbal chastizing or physical punishment for an act considered sinful. One example would be for a child getting frustrated and exclaiming ” Jesus!” And the adult chewing them out for hiding the lords name in vane. I find it cruel, useless, and unnecessary for many reasons….some of which are found within their own religion.


  29. Stoning them to death or beheading them isn’t that cool either


  30. Dad was a preacher. Evangelical baptist. Christian missionary alliance. Worked as a missionary preacher on a reserve. Grew up in fear. Can remember praying all night worried of burning in hell if I didn’t feel saved. Would pray the sinners prayer over and over never having it feel right enough. Socially awkward. Developed an alcohol Problem in teens. Constantly thinking everyone was evil unless they were born again. Even thought non christian friends


  31. The emotional abuse manages to find its way to you even if you’re way past childhood. For example, look at this explanation of how Muslim parents psychologically pressure their children into arranged marriages:


  32. I note your comment: “Unhealthy religions don’t allow children to ask questions – consequences can be harsh for an inquiring child… The natural inquiring mind of the child is suppressed.” And don’t I know it! Having been bought up in the Exclusive Brethren (or now newly named Plymouth Brethren Christian Church), and been ‘shut-up’ as a child for asking questions about why we only did some of what the Bible said and not the rest,(being ‘shut-up’ for the uninitiated, means being punished along with my family due to association, by none of us being allowed to attend any church or social gatherings, which included me as the guilty party, not even being allowed to eat or have normal relations with my own family!!). Suffice to say, I learned very quickly to just shut up and think my own thoughts and plan my escape from this controlling cult when I was old enough to leave without the police being sent to drag me back, which did happen a few times before I realized how pointless it was!

    Sadly though, many children are of different mental and emotional disposition to me, and by way of not rocking the boat, allow themselves to be totally controlled and brainwashed as they do not have that inbuilt survival ability to do one thing and think another to get through this kind of ritualistic child abuse and control of ones own thoughts and beliefs and actions. And I did not escape completely, I still had to take 20 years to undo and reprocess all the emotional, mental and psychological abuse that was imposed upon me, not to mention the physical abuses too. I do not believe that many people understand the level of control that one feels the compulsive need to escape from, to knowingly put yourself in a position as I and many others have, to leave these groups knowing that this would mean never being able to have any relationship with our own families again… I am not even allowed to phone up for a chat or call in for a cuppa.

    However, the kind of abuse of children’s freedoms that I have spoken about here, is only allowed as we have a warped sense of what ‘religious freedom’ means in our world – and that is NOT allowing cult members total control of those who belong to that group, especially not the children of adherents to these controlling groups. I believe the law needs to be changed to prevent this from happening, as no religious freedom should be allowed to contravene Human Rights Article 9, which allows for freedom of thought, conscience and religion. As soon as one of those is broken, we have an abuse of Human Rights by the group involved… and that is totally unacceptable in our world today. But how do we stop this?


  33. I believe that God made the Universe, but I’m thinking about leaving religion all together. Thinking about religion just makes me sick. If you’re not part of this religion you’ll burn in Hell. If you don’t follow our doctrines you’re evil. You have original sin and you’re not worthy. Teaching kids about Hell is a horrible thing to do and we’d be better off without kids learning about religion.

    Why do parents teach kids about religion? No child can understand what they are talking about. The reason is to brainwash children when they’re young. Of course rational adults wouldn’t follow of this, so parents need to indoctrinate their kids.


  34. Ken, what a fantastic article. I am actually blogging extensively about this subject at the moment, especially with regards how my religious abuse turned me into an abuser myself due to the lack of self value and the modelling I had been shown, despite being non-religious myself.

    Religious abuse is disgusting in the fact that it denies children a childhood but also a healthy adult life as well. How many Christian families do you hear of where tragedy strikes their children through suicide or drug addiction when they are older. This is then perpetuated as the Christian abuser can say that this a test from God, thus further expanding their image within the church as a deeply spirtitual and remarkable Christian. Some religious addicts almost want the pain so they can enjoy a religious trial.

    I have blogged specifically about this post at where you can also find links to my other articles detailing the pain that I am currently going through in my life, in part to my religious upbringing and the damage that it did to my self-value.

    While I do not deny that religion can be healthy, it can be an addiction and one worse than alcohol or drugs, as it virtually guarantees to develop new religious addicts or resentful and angry people who also abuse. It is a generational things – as I call it a chain of abuse.


  35. I have never been so happy in my life to realize such a big idea on my own. I had this huge thought about what if religion is why I struggle so much and if there is any proof or theory so I looked and stubbled across this.
    I live in a nightmare sometimes because I love to grow but was always limited within the religion I was raised. I got kicked out of my parents home 10 months ago. Growing up I was so depressed and hiding who I was and what I believed. And even though Im on my own now, I am so socially awkward and afraid of people or what they think and this article is just spot on. I think they should do a research into this. Its something Id fight for, freeing minds.


  36. I was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I was told that it was wrong to dance, wear jewelry, drink coffee or alcohol, play cards, and listen to most secular music. My family and I didn’t have meat in the house except for Thanksgiving or maybe Christmas. From sunset Friday until sunset on Saturday we couldn’t watch TV, go swimming, listen to the radio, go to any secular event, play or watch sports, or basically anything unless it was church or nature related. My sister and I attended SDA church schools that were far away and so we had a long commute every morning we went to school. Our lives were consumed by the Church.
    My sister and I finally left the church behind after we turned 30. It took us that long to question everything and walk away from it. I still am tied to it somehow because I have lots of SDA relatives and have to live with my mother now, as I can’t afford to move out.
    I am still trying to find my identity and learn how to navigate the world outside the SDA system.
    I realized how difficult it was for me to be assertive, make decisions, and to stand up for myself.
    The SDA church itself is a very abusive organization.
    I worked for SDA schools in Korea and I also worked at a SDA summer camp when I was 20. I kept getting hurt by people.
    I have been going to Baptist churches lately and I am much happier.


  37. Pingback: The family: is rigid Christianity a good or bad influence? – Sex and Gender Diversity

  38. David Fierstien

    On the other side of the coin is the scientific abuse of children, although this probably isn’t as common as the religious abuse of children.

    Dr. Josef Mengele was nothing if not a scientist.


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