​​Benjamin Abelow

​Childhood Trauma and Religion


​​I study how childhood corporal punishment, abandonment, neglect, and other potentially traumatizing childrearing practices have shaped religions and other systems of myth. Christianity is the religion I have studied in the greatest detail. I also have examined and published peer-reviewed articles and book chapters that discuss Judaism, Islam, and the system of karmic-reincarnation that underlies Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Taken together, these religions account for approximately 70 percent of the world's population. I also have studied several Greek myths (e.g., the Rape of Persephone, which is foundational to the Eleusinian mystery religion) and several "secular" myths that I believe are likewise rooted in childhood trauma.


My main conclusions can be summarized in a sentence: widespread childhood trauma, much of it occurring in the family as part of traditional norms of corporal punishment and discipline, has been a major driver in the development and cultural persistence of many religions and myths.


My work may be of interest to those who (a) seek to understand why religions arose and persisted culturally; (b) have particular interest in early Christianity and Christian origins; (c)  have endured abusive or neglectful childrearing practices and are trying to free themselves from the consequences of those experiences; (d) wish to better understand the nature and effects of childhood trauma, including psychotherapists; and (e) are students in divinity schools or related training programs, as well as persons who work in religious communities.


To read my print or on-line writings, please visit the Writings page of this website. The video of a power-point presentation I gave in 2017 at an international conference on the evolution of religion is viewable (and also linked directly to youtube) on the Presentations page. For background information about me, see the About page.


The rest of the information on this page will be of interest primarily to scholars of religion who want to better understand my work before reading my peer-reviewed writings. This material may also be on interest to some "lay" readers (non-scholars) as well. It summarizes aspects of my work, makes explicit its methodology, and offers some terminology and conceptualizations that are relevant to the connection between trauma and religion.



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My work synthesizes insights from biblical and religious studies, the historical study of childhood, and several areas of psychology, including the psychology of trauma, memory, and symbolic thought. The approach fills a gap in traditional academic scholarship on religion, in that it investigates a potentially important yet poorly studied route by which social context shaped text and tradition.


Christianity is the religion that, to date, I have studied in the greatest depth. Largely because the entire structure of Christian belief is built around the relationship of a Father and his Son, Christianity is also the religion whose links with childhood are the most transparent. This transparency lets Christianity function as a clarifying lens through which one can gain insights into other religions. For these various reasons, I will say a few introductory words about my work on Christianity.

I explore how widespread corporal punishment and abandonment of children in the Roman Empire, along with norms of punishment in Jewish culture, have shaped New Testament theology and salvation teachings. My work on Christianity addresses seminal New Testament teachings, such as: (1) The Son submits to his heavenly Father’s will and suffers accordingly [e.g., Mark 14:36, Acts 2:23, Romans 8:32]; (2) Human beings are punished for disobedience (Adam) and saved from punishment by obedience (Jesus) [e.g., Romans 5:18-19];  (3) God’s human "children" provoke the wrath of the heavenly Father through their disobedience [e.g., Ephesians 2:2-3]; and (4) The Father’s wrath is terrifying [Luke 12:4-5].

These and other New Testament teachings thematically parallel actual father-child (especially father-son) interactions in the Roman world, where corporal punishment was normative, widespread, and enacted in a highly patriarchal context characterized by the Roman laws of patria potestas ("fatherly powers"). For example, in Roman society, children (especially sons) suffered corporally according to the will of their fathers, thematically paralleling the New Testament's central theological narrative about Jesus' Passion and Crucifixion, which occurred according to the will of the Father. Likewise, children were punished for disobedience and saved from punishment by obedience to their fathers, paralleling Paul's salvation teachings. The precision of these and related parallels raises the distinct possibility that endemic childhood traumas provided a thematic template for foundational Christian teachings.

Much the same can be said of Jewish childrearing culture in both Palestine and the Hellenistic diaspora during the late second-temple period, as evidenced by passages in Sirach, Philo, and Josephus, as well as Paul. Thus, whether one's preferred model of the New Testament's formative context emphasizes Roman Imperial pagan culture or Jewish culture in either Palestine or the diaspora, striking parallels exist between norms of childhood experience and both the narrative myth (e.g., the Gospels) and theology (e.g., Pauline soteriology) of the New Testament. These parallels, when viewed in the context of other evidence, suggest that much of the foundational mythic structure of the New Testament is rooted in childhood experience.

Given enduring norms of corporal punishment in the ancient world, the childhood parallels I consider also suggest that New Testament teachings resonated with early believers and potential pagan converts. Such resonance likely promoted faith and facilitated the spread  of Christianity during the early centuries of the Christian era. This possibility is consistent with statements in both the New Testament [1 Thessalonians 1:9-10] and, later, the writings of Augustine, about the role that fear of Paternal wrath played in conversion.


Further, there is evidence that similar processes were at play during the medieval and modern periods; and there is reason to suspect that these processes remain active even now, especially within Christian denominations that continue to use corporal punishment. Focusing more directly on the psychological dimension of these phenomena, I describe how engaging with Christian narrative and salvation myths may function to palliate, or self-medicate, anxiety and emotional pain rooted in early trauma. 


Methodology


Because this approach emphasizes the symbolic, metaphoric, or thematic core of religious myths, some readers have incorrectly assumed that it is rooted in, or requires the acceptance of, a psychoanalytical approach. In fact, the approach is fundamentally empirical and has no necessary connection with particular psychological, sociological, economic, or other theoretical constructs.


Methodologically, the approach ultimately is rooted in a simple fact: that notwithstanding appropriate scholarly cautions that "correlation does not imply causality" (which essentially amounts to an admonition to guard against the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy), the reality is that correlation does imply causality when specific criteria are met, about which I'll say more below. In this case, the correlations have to do with thematic parallels between (1) the core myths (narrative and salvational) of a religion and (2) the childrearing norms and practices in the cultures where those myths originated and persisted.


​To clarify these points, I'll say a few words about two different disciplinary streams that make extensive, appropriate use of the process of drawing causal inferences from correlations: epidemiology and biblical studies.


Epidemiology. Through involvement in the field of epidemiology (I worked and published peer-reviewed research in epidemiology before and during my medical studies), I was sensitized to the fact that striking correlations among data suggest a cause-and-effect relationship when three specific criteria are met: (a) statistical significance (i.e., the correlation is too precise and extensive to plausibly be accounted for by chance); (b) control for "confounding" variables (i.e., ruling out or controlling for other potential causes); and (c) demonstration of "biological plausibility" (or, more generally, "mechanistic plausibility") of the proposed causal connection (i.e., showing that a known intermediating mechanism can plausibly explain how the proposed cause produced the effect). A sensitivity to these three criteria underlies all of my conclusions.


Biblical Studies. Within the wold of biblical scholarship, an especially interesting and productive area of exploration pertains to the so-called "synoptic problem," the existence of extensive overlaps (as well as specific non-overlaps) in wording and narrative structure among the three Gospels traditionally attributed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the so-called "synoptic Gospels"). Biblical scholars have long recognized that these overlaps, which are usually conceptualized as "parallels" among the three texts, are far too extensive and precise to be accounted for by chance. These parallels are therefore appropriately taken to indicate that one Gospel (most scholars now point to Mark) likely underlies the others; that is, that this foundational Gospel, or an earlier version of it, was copied by the other Gospelists.


It is noteworthy that the assumption of textual copying, in the context of the synoptic problem, is really just a specific instance of drawing casual inference from certain kinds of well-defined correlations, just as epidemiologists do. In fact, drawing causal inferences from correlations is just what researchers in all empirical natural and social sciences do.


With respect to my work on religion: just as the precise textual parallels among the synoptic Gospels indicate a particular causal sequence, so, on a macro level, do thematic parallels between childhood experience and myth indicate a particular causal sequence. In both cases, as in epidemiology and science in general, the strength of one's conclusions depend (regardless whether this fact is recognized or referred to explicitly) on how well the above "epidemiological" criteria (labeled above as a, b, and c) can be met. When they are met well, explicitly or implicitly, it is remarkable how powerful an argument can be mustered.​


Traumatogenic Theory of Religious Myth

To provide a framework for presenting these ideas in a structured way, I sometimes package the approach and conclusions in the form of a theory, the "Traumatogenic Theory of Religious Myth," which can briefly be defined as: "The theory that religious myths can arise and persist in response to endemic, stereotypical childhood trauma."

By referring to "endemic" and "stereotypical," I mean to indicate that the trauma is both widespread and homogeneous in its basic sequence and structure, as one would expect when trauma is caused by a culture's childrearing norms. To articulate this theory, I use a number of specific terms and concepts, which I'll summarize here:

Traumatogenic (n. Traumatogenesis). The adjective "traumatogenic" (gen- = create, cause) has been repurposed from its common medical usage, to indicate a myth arose in response to psychological trauma. Note that the word traumatogenic can potentially mean either "causing trauma" or "caused by trauma." I currently use it exclusively in the latter sensed.

​Traumatomorphic (n. Traumatomorphism). The neologism "traumatomorphic" (morph- = form, shape) is used to designate a myth that, in its plot-theme, portrays the form of a trauma. A traumatomorphic myth is one that can readily map onto a pattern of trauma.

Isomorphic (n. Isomorphism). To speak of a specific parallelism between a myth and a pattern of trauma, the adjective "isomorphic" (literally, "same form") can be used. For example, one can say that a myth and a pattern of trauma are isomorphic, or that a myth is isomorphic to a pattern of trauma.

From a research perspective, "traumatomorphic" and "isomorphic" pertain to the empirical layer, the layer of data, that is, to the observed parallelism between childhood patterns and mythic themes. In contrast,"traumatogenic" pertains to the interpretive or causal layer, the layer that attempts to explain and make sense of the correlated data.

Narrative Amelioration. I use the term "narrative amelioration" to refer to the process by which traumatomorphic myths often are (to put to it simply) given a "happy ending" or a "Hollywood ending." This ending typically arises through a partial or complete reversal or "undoing" of the trauma that is being portrayed in the narrative. For example, many ancient myths portray infant exposure and child abandonment, a phenomenon that was historically widespread and typically resulted in the death or servitude of the abandoned child. However, in these myths, the infant is often found, reared by a loving parent or even reclaimed by the biological parent, and then goes on to become the leader of a great nation. This mythically imagined outcome is obviously much different, and better, than what typically occurred in reality. One sees similar narrative ameliorations in some religions.

Ameliorated trauma narratives appear to arise through the confluence of two processes: (1) the trauma is projected onto the "blank slate" of reality, thereby creating a theologically or mythically imagined cosmos that portrays the trauma; and (2) the narrative is modified so that it ends well, or at least much better than the underlying pattern of trauma typically did in reality.​ Psychologically, narrative amelioration may allow those who engage with the myth to vicariously participate in an outcome that was longed for in childhood but never actually experienced--a kind of cultural wish fulfillment, to use a Freudian formulation.


Mythic amelioration. If a non-narrative traumatomorphic myth (e.g., a salvation theology) is ameliorated, the generic term "mythic amelioration" can be useful.

Applicability of this approach.  So far, I have studied traumatomorphism and traumatogenicity in five world religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, plus the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. These traditions encompass those that are Eastern and Western, monotheistic and polytheistic, extant and extinct, and those that are rooted in both divine "agents" (e.g., God) and those that are based in seemingly naturalistic metaphysical assumptions (e.g., karma). This diversity raises the possibility that the theory applies to at least some religions and myths that I have not yet studied.


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