I study how cultural patterns of childhood corporal punishment, abandonment, neglect, and other potential sources of childhood trauma have shaped religious texts and traditions. To date, I have studied, and done either detailed or preliminary writing on, the following religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and the system of karmic-reincarnation that underlies Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. These religions together account for 70 percent of the world's population. I have also studied the story of the abduction of Persephone, as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which mythically portrays cultural patterns of arranged marriage, and probable de facto rape, in ancient Greece.
For those who are exploring their own early life circumstances and psychology, my writings examine the profound personal resonances that can underlie a variety of religious beliefs, including those about innate sinfulness and divine punishment. For these individuals, my work can offer liberating personal insights. Because the same mechanisms are at play in both religious and non-religious responses to trauma, my writings can likewise be of value to non-religious individuals, including agnostics and atheists, whose childhoods were characterized by corporal punishment, neglect, and similar painful experiences.
With respect to the broader political context, my work provides insight into fundamentalist rage and violence. To the extent that childhood themes related to abuse and trauma are embodied in religious myths and rituals, intense childhood emotions, such as those arising from corporal punishment, can be displaced to the arena of religion. Thus, religiously experienced rage and humiliation, and religiously enacted violence, may actually arise as unwitting reactions to long-past experiences of child abuse, humiliation, and neglect. Recognizing this pattern can potentially assist in the treatment of violent fundamentalist offenders and possibly lead to strategies that are implementable on a societal level.
From a scholarly perspective, my work synthesizes insights from biblical/religious studies, the historical study of childhood, and several areas of psychology, including the psychology of trauma, memory, and symbolic thought. This research 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. My research provides a framework for understanding religion as an integrated cognitive-affective-behavioral response to endemic childhood traumas.
A Comment on Terminology and Method
To help communicate my ideas to those who seek a precise terminology, I have coined the adjective "traumatomorphic" (morph- = form, shape) to designate a myth that, in its plot-theme, portrays the form of a trauma. As a corollary, I have borrowed the adjective "traumatogenic" (gen = create, cause) from its usual medical context to mean "caused by trauma." Using this term, I sometimes refer to my work on the origins of myth, religious or otherwise, under the heading of "the traumatogenic theory of myth formation." Note that the word traumatogenic can potentially mean either "causing trauma" or "caused by trauma." I currently use it exclusively in the latter sense. From a methodological perspective, "traumatomorphic," and its cognate noun "traumatomorphism," pertain to the empirical layer, the layer of data, whereas "traumatogenic" pertains to the interpretive or causal layer, the layer that attempts to explain and make sense of the data. Using these two terms can be helpful, in that if encourages one to make a clear distinction between the data and the causal interpretation of the data.
Introduction to My Work on Christianity
Christianity, the most important religion in the industrialized West, is the religion that, to date, I have studied in the greatest detail. Largely because the entire structure of Christian teaching 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 reasons, I will say a few introductory words about my work on Christianity. There is no need to read this introductory material before approaching my published writings, but I am including these comments for those who wish to quickly get a sense of my method and thesis.
I explore how widespread corporal punishment and abandonment of children in the Roman Empire, along with norms of punishment in Jewish culture, may have fundamentally 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 wrath 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 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. 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, there is strong evidence that childhood experiences parallel and provided a thematic template for New Testament narrative myth (e.g., the Gospels) as well as theology (e.g., Pauline soteriology).
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 facilitated the spread of Christianity during the early centuries of the Christian era. This possibility is consistent with statements in both the New Testament [e.g., 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10] and, later, the writings of Augustine, about the role that fear of Paternal wrath played in conversion. I also explore and emphasize the possibility that endemic childhood corporal punishment in the medieval and modern periods, as in the earlier period, contributed to spread and cultural persistence of Christianity.