I study how cultural patterns of childhood corporal punishment, abandonment, neglect, and other potential sources of childhood trauma have shaped religious texts and traditions. In addition to contemporary world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and the system of karmic-reincarnation that underlies Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism), I also examine the "Rape of Persephone," as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a 7th century BCE text that mythically portrays cultural patterns of arranged marriage, and possible marital 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, exploring the childhood sources of religion can also be of value to non-religious individuals whose childhoods were characterized by corporal punishment, neglect, and similar painful experiences.
With respect to the broader political context, studying the childhood origins of religion 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.
Christianity is the religion that, to date, I have studied in the greatest detail. 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. There is no need to read this introductory material before approaching my published writings, but I include these comments for those who'd like 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.
I endeavor to write even my scholarly publications in ways that are clear, meaningful to a general audience, and free of jargon. However, to help communicate my ideas to scholars and clinicians who require a precise terminology, I have coined or borrowed several specific terms, which I use on occasion. I introduce these terms here to provide additional background for those wishing to quickly grasp the essence of my approach; though, as with my above comments on Christianity, it is not necessary to read what follows in order to read my articles.
Traumatomorphic. I coined the adjective "traumatomorphic" (morph- = form, shape) 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. The noun form is "traumatomorphism." In a somewhat similar fashion, one can speak of a myth that is "isomorphic" (literally, "same form") with a pattern of trauma.
Traumatogenic. I borrowed the adjective "traumatogenic" (gen- = create, cause) from its common medical usage to mean "caused by trauma." Using this term, I sometimes refer to my work under the heading of "the traumatogenic theory of religion and myth." 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 research perspective, "traumatomorphic" pertains 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 data. Using these two terms can be helpful, in that doing so encourages one to make a clear distinction between the data and the causal interpretation of the data.
Narrative Amelioration. I coined the term "narrative amelioration" to refer to the process by which a traumatomorphic myth is, to put it simply, given a "happy 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, there are many ancient myths that portray infant exposure and child abandonment, a phenomenon that was historically widespread and typically resulted in 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 rises and goes on to become the leader of a great nation.
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. The narrative "undoing" of trauma has much in common with what the psychiatrist Lenore Terr, a pioneer in the study of childhood trauma, termed a "post-traumatic compensatory fantasy." If a non-narrative traumatomorphic myth (e.g., a salvation theology) is ameliorated, the generic term "mythic amelioration" can be useful.