Christian Sadomasochism

Sadomasochism – Gratification, especially sexual, gained through inflicting or receiving pain; sadism and masochism combined.

This lecture will glance at the extreme fasting that was taken up by women saints and mystics in 13th and 14th century Europe. I shall discuss the self-denying life stance of earlier monks called the Desert Fathers, who influenced the women saints. Then I shall turn to the flagellation and self-flagellation practiced by monks, nuns, women saints and some laypeople.  Flagellation, and particularly self-flagellation, was advocated by the monastic reformer, Peter Damian, from about 1035 CE to 1070 CE.  The practice endured in an ever-shrinking group of religious orders, until about the middle of the 20th century.  

The lecture will also glance at the Flagellants, religious processions of self-flagellating people who went from city to city during the years of 1348 CE to 1349 CE, and then vanished by about 1400 CE.  I shall describe the practices of the Cryptoflagellants, active from about 1364 CE to the 1480’s CE, and their adversarial relation to the Christian religion.  Then the lecture will move to the present-day United States and focus on contemporary religious child abuse.

I have previously given a lecture on Christian hatred and rejection of sex at  But it is also necessary to address the historical Christian detestation of other natural functions. The Church and its historians appear to have forgotten that holiness was once equated with rejection of the physical body. The Church and its theologians often encouraged sadomasochistic practices, which were touted as exemplary imitations of the mythical Jesus Christ. Fasting to extremes was considered saintly behavior in both men and women. Psychologically inducing or self-wounding to acquire stigmata, the imitation of the bleeding wounds of Jesus on one’s own flesh, was another sign of holiness. Public and private flagellation came to be regarded as ascetic rites that recreated the suffering of Christ on the bodies of the penitents. With the ascendancy of the Catholic Church, the punishment of the human body became a highly regarded practice.  During the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, such punishment was seen as the path to breaking one’s individual will and opening one’s heart to the Christian god. The texts, the art and the folktales of the era coalesced into a culture that prized suffering over living.

Some conservative religions in the present-day United States continue to advocate the physical and emotional abuse of minor children.  The ostensible reason given for such treatment of children is to forcibly break their wills so their hearts will be open to god and moral behavior.   Many people who embrace fundamentalist doctrines believe that it is necessary for children to become malleable and docile. They claim that they are showing love when they beat and subjugate their children.

 They insist that obedient children will develop moral behavior and fear of god, which will guarantee their salvation and eventual entrance into heaven.

This lecture will argue that there is a hidden motive beneath the sadomasochistic practices of the Desert Fathers, the women saints, the flagellants and the religious adults who abuse children in the present day.  That motive is sexual gratification through pain, either inflicted by other people, inflicted on other people, or self-inflicted. Nevertheless, the people who embraced fasting and flagellation during the Medieval Era did so voluntarily from their own need to control their bodies and experience erotic pleasure.   But contemporary children, who are cruelly beaten, emotionally terrorized, needlessly circumcised, and medically neglected, have no choice in the matter. It is adults who find pleasure and sometimes sexual satisfaction when they control and abuse children. Sexual gratification is not the singular motivation for religious sadomasochist practices, but it is an important element.

 The issue of the relationship between religiosity, fasting and food is a complex one. 20th century writers and psychologists often regarded the religious practice of extreme fasting as an unhealthy hatred and rejection of the physical body.  Some contemporary scholars have found the earlier assumptions incomplete and have looked to Church history to elucidate the reasons for religious starvation. Their explanations have added to the understanding of extreme fasting but have failed to take into account the erotic element that often accompanies the mortification of the flesh. The saints’ exigencies were masked by pious justifications. But beneath their own explanations for their practices may be seen the erotically charged imaginations that controlled them.

I would like to glance at the mainstream practice of fasting during the early years of the Church. It is helpful to understand the historical development of the custom because there was a complex relationship between fasting and religious pursuits. The Medieval asceticism of refusing food, combined with the symbolic feasting and worship of the Eucharist, had its roots in the early Christian Church. Two early Church theologians, Augustine (d. 430) and Hilary of Potiers (d. 367), wrote that all people who were members of the Christian Church, “are present in the sacrifice and Resurrection of the cross, that Christ, in dying, digests and assimilates believers, making them new flesh in his flesh.”

 In the later Middle Ages, women and men in religious orders, as well as some lay people, became preoccupied with identifying themselves with Jesus.  They wanted to suffer the same mortification of the flesh their founder had been forced to endure. According to Caroline Walker Bynum’s 1987 Holy Feast and Holy Fast, fasting and worship of the Eucharist became two of the most important medieval religious customs. The Eucharist is the ritual changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The members of the Church then consume the allegedly transubstantiated matter during the sacrament of communion.

 Early and medieval Christians believed they paid honor to their god’s power and confessed their sinfulness when they practiced the renunciation of food.  They feasted symbolically when they partook of their holy meal, the communion, during which they believed Jesus became present in the bread and wine. 

Early on, the Church mandated times of fasting from food and feasting on the Eucharist that were in alignment with the natural world, the seasonal abundance of the harvests and the scarcity of the winter months.

The Church believed that fasting was a practice that brought Christians together. In her book, Bynum lists various other reasons that motivated people to fast. “It was gratitude for god’s gift of the harvest. It was obedience to god’s command of abstinence, violated in the Garden of Eden but fulfilled on the cross. It was charity toward their neighbors, who would benefit from alms. It was a foretaste of union with the saints in heaven.” “It was the choosing of lack, they believed, that would induce god to send plenty.” Christians also hoped to propitiate god, or nature, to show restraint and refrain from sending fire and other disasters to the earth. Fasting days were laid down by the Church and can be inferred from medieval cookbooks, which provided less rich versions of identical dishes to be utilized on fast days.

The Old Testament narrative that claimed Adam brought original sin into the world by his disobedience when he “feasted” on the apple in the Garden of Eden remained standard 13th and 14th Century Church theology. The Adam tale was considered an important reason for fasting because the fast was a sign of man’s return to obeying god’s command.  The sinful feasting of Adam was redeemed by the obedient Christians’ renunciation of food. 

But it is not the garden variety of Christian fasting that is the focus of this portion of the lecture. 

The extreme fasting and the cult of the Eucharist host is the focus, with its starving devotees’ exaggerated, masochistic adoration and consumption of what they believed was literally the body and blood of Christ. It is important to glance at the growth of the mystery and impressive drama associated with the Eucharist to understand the woman’s passion.  By the late 13th century, the communion cult was firmly established and spread rapidly.  Certain customs, such as the host’s elevation by the priest, an elaborate and very successful form of theatre, took longer to become entrenched in Church practice. 

There were other customs connected with the host which added to its mystery and consequence. The role of the priest as the exclusive receiver of Christ’s body and blood became more pronounced with each century.  The exposition and benediction of the host became increasingly popular, and on feasts such as Corpus Christi, were separate from the mass. The host was frequently carried uncovered and then allowed to remain for days on the altar, exposed for adoration.  The alleged changes that had come about in the host’s physical elements made for many Christians revering it as a magical and supernaturally powerful object. As a result, some worshippers became ambivalent and fearful of taking communion.  There was a once a year obligation to receive communion, but many theologians advocated frequent partaking of the host.  Other writers warned that numerous communions would trivialize and profane the rite.

The flour wafer, usually served without the wine, which was reserved for the priest, was often embossed with the face of Jesus, variously portrayed as a glorious man, a baby or a dying man.

It has been noted that many visions of Jesus came during the mass, and especially to extreme fasters.  A deeply devout nun or lay woman, starving from extreme fasting, surrounded by the heavy odor of incense, cloudy candlelight and the sound of bells, was already in an altered state.  As the priest raised the wafer of unleavened bread, praying in an inaudible mumbling, a devoted believer might easily suppose she had suddenly seen Christ.

During the 13th and 14th Centuries, there were dozens of tales about the fasters’ miraculous encounters with the host. Here is one chronicler’s narration about the experiences of a certain Mary of Oignies. The chronicler claimed that she “…sometimes happily accepted her lord under the appearance of a child, sometimes as a taste of honey, sometimes as a sweet smell and sometimes in the pure and gorgeously embellished marriage bed of the heart. And when she was not able to bear any longer her thirst for the vivifying blood, sometimes after mass was over, she would remain for a long time contemplating the empty chalice on the altar.”

Women saints and mystics became quite prevalent during the 13th and 14th Centuries, outnumbering their male counterparts. Such women denied themselves food as much as they could and suffered from sleeplessness as well as hunger. Some extreme fasters were rumored to take no food of any kind, receiving nourishment from nothing but the communion host. The fasting women sent the food they did not eat to the poor, so some good came from their extreme self-mortification. Many ministered to the sick, including lepers, and would drink pus from festering wounds.  Such women frequently neglected their bodies, seldom washed or cared for themselves, but were said to emanate sweet odors wherever they went.

Rumors grew that their breath or touch, or even wash water from their bodies (when they washed!) or hair would heal the sick.

The extreme fasting of the saintly women of the past appears quite similar to anorexia, the psychological illness that afflicts contemporary women who starve themselves. But there is some question about whether the medieval women’s psychological state was truly anorexia. Women in the present day are occupied with body image and appearing thin, neither of which was considered important or desirable in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, some psychologists believe that the two practices have manifested the identical motivation – ultimate control over the body.

The medieval women who fasted, some denying themselves not only food, but also attempting to do without water for long periods, believed that their nourishment was derived from the communion wafer.  Many of them forced themselves to vomit ordinary food.  When they ingested the consecrated host, they often reported such visions as drinking from the wound in Jesus’ side, or having the sensation of the host expanding in their mouths, accompanied by a sweetness of taste beyond earthly sweetness.

The starving saints engaged in various masochist behaviors beyond the refusal of ordinary food. Catherine of Genoa ate both filth and diseased items. She caught the plague from kissing a person afflicted with the disease, rubbed her nose in pus, and ate scabs and lice. During that time, she developed a burning desire for the communion host. Many fasting and starving women of that era manifested the same self-punishing habits and the same ardor for the host.

Catherine of Sienna once reported a vision that Christ pressed her mouth to the wound in his side and nursed her on the blood. Her letters also made references to nursing at Christ’s breast.  The ill-concealed eroticism of such imaginative descriptions betrays the deeper motivation of the saintly women- Jesus was both lover and mother to them. 

Fantastic tales grew up around the fasting female saints and mystics. I have already mentioned their alleged curative powers. There were other miracles attributed to them, such as the claim that the food they provided for the poor multiplied in quantity. Some of the saints were said not to have eaten for years except for taking communion, and yet it was averred that such women always appeared fresh and rosy. The truth was that the extreme fasters were pale, sick, lost circulation to their limbs and developed many health problems.  If they went too long without eating healthy portions of food, some eventually died, like the aforementioned Catherine of Sienna, who succumbed from starvation in 1380 CE.

Some of the starving saints and mystics developed an interesting physical manifestation.  The affliction was called the stigmata, and there were women who exhibited various forms of it.  The stigmata imitated the wounds Jesus was said to have suffered when crucified.  The saints developed bleeding wounds in their palms, on their feet or their sides, which were said to be in the same places where Jesus had been injured when crucified.  It is still unclear whether psychological issues can create physical stigmata on the human body.  One fasting woman was said to have used the nail of one finger to dig into her other hand, in this way imitating Jesus’ wounded hand. 

The sublimated sexuality of red markings resembling rings that appeared on some of the women’s wedding fingers, symbolizing their marriage to Jesus, is telling.  So are their fantasies of drinking blood from the wound on his side.

It is important to keep in mind that Jesus was imagined as both mother and husband to those women. Most of them refused marriage to suitors their families brought forward. Their erotic desires were centered on their fantasies and were probably more fulfilling to them than ordinary sex. If married, sometimes against their will, they continued with their practice of extreme fasting and often persuaded their husbands to live in chaste marriages with no sex.  Such continent marriages were often held up as the highest ideal for lay persons in that era, further reinforcing pious women’s rejection of earthly physical pleasure.

Bynum is a brilliant researcher on the issue of medieval fasting by women, but fortunately she is no apologist. Here is her statement on the renunciation taken up by both women and men of that era. “The notion of the renunciation of the world- i.e. following the naked and suffering Christ by renouncing status, power, personal comfort and family- was at the heart of medieval Christianity. Increasingly, as many historians have noted, such renunciation was practiced within the world.  Friars, tertiaries, and even lay people rejected the wealth and status their families might have provided; they practiced, sometimes even within marriage, not only sexual continence but also a studied ignoring of the special demands of family love and loyalty. Late medieval women, like men, saw a certain rupture with ordinary worldly life as a mark of religious commitment.”

Now I would like to journey back to an earlier period in Church history, and glance at religious men’s relationship to food and sex during the 4th and 5th Centuries.  I shall discuss the ascetic life of the Desert Fathers, who literally renounced the world by taking up residence on the edge of the desert.  Some of the later female saints and mystics I have mentioned patterned their practices on those of the Desert Fathers.  Peter Brown, in his 1998 Body and Society, states that: “By the year 400 CE, nearly five thousand monks were said to have settled at Nitra alone, and many thousands were scattered up and down the length of the Nile and even the Red Sea.”  The monks’ struggle with the temptation of sex was overt, in contrast to the unspoken desire of 13th and 14th Century females.  But both groups’ habits of fasting and renunciation of sexual activity were closely related.  The rejection of the world and of the normal needs and functions of the human body that radiated throughout Christian Church doctrines may be seen in the practices and aspirations of the men who retreated to the desert.

Those men saw their renunciation as a path of liberation, one more complete than remaining in their original cities. The myth of the desert and its potential for the man seeking self-transformation from the perceived evils of fornication, greed, egotism and so on, had much purchase and endured for some two centuries. The seeker of holiness who entered the desert left behind his birthplace, his family, sometimes wealth, his status and the desire for a wife and children. The desert was an alternative world, where radical Christians could pursue what they believed were higher goals.

 One of their most important goals was the transformation of their private, individual will to the will of god. Their other objective was to raise the common clay of their bodies, born in original sin, to “a place on the throne of god.” Gaining entrance to Paradise was their ultimate aspiration, where they believed there would be perfect beauty and harmony.

John Climacus, (579 CE–649 CE), wrote what is said to be a “masterpiece of Byzantine spiritual guidance,” The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Here are some quotations from his volume. He wrote that the monk “…finds himself in an earthly and defiled body but pushes himself into the rank and status of the incorporeal angels.” John believed that the awful physical labor the monks endured was necessary because it was impossible to abandon the body. He stated: “Violence and unending pain are the lot of those who aim to ascend Heaven with the body.” He went on to insist: “For a man cannot conquer what he actually is…” He believed that the hand of Christ, and only that, could raise the monk “above the body and Nature.”

 Another revered monk/sage of the desert, called the Great Old Man, counseled a younger seeker: “Torture your senses, for without torture, there is no martyrdom…Trample on the passions by meditating on this letter.” It was believed that with fasting, sexual abstinence, hard physical labor and continued watchfulness over temptation of all sorts, a desert monk could transform his personality and even alter his consciousness. John Climacus wrote that the most “truly astonishing” lesson to be learned in the desert was “…that the immortal spirit can be purified and refined by clay.”

There was a prevailing belief that the physical body must be tortured for the soul to become purified.

 Most of the men had left civilization to free themselves from the exigency of sexual desire. But the pursuit of food in the barren desert overshadowed all other demands. Food grew in the fertile valleys the monks had abandoned, not in the barren desert where they now lived. Many people who lived at the borders of the desert were awed by the new type of person, men who chose to pursue salvation in a land without human food. Farmers would sometimes come to collect small amounts of sand from where the monks had walked.  They would then spread the sand on their farm lands, believing that the crops would flourish. 

In order to survive, the monks were forced to perform continuous intensive manual labor. They then took their wares to village markets in exchange for bread.  They also obtained temporary jobs as migrant harvesters, carrying out back breaking labor in the fertile valley fields in order to obtain food. The monks learned that the genuine lack of food and the consequent pursuit of it created a constant ache of hunger that was more pressing and difficult to conquer than sexual desire.

Even when they did have sufficient food, they fasted voluntarily. But there were untended consequences as a result of extreme fasting and lengthy prayer vigils. Some of the monks would become afflicted with a dreaded condition. They called it “Adiaphoria, a state that was depicted in their writings as a kind of breakdown. A monk beset by the disease would begin to wander around the desert in a driven state, gnawing on the scattered herbs he encountered there.

Peter Brown writes that in such a state: “…the boundaries of man and desert, human and beast, collapsed in chilling confusion.” At such times, the spiritual perfection the monks were striving to achieve must have seemed despairingly remote.

I have already mentioned that the extreme fasting of many religious believers was tied to the widespread belief that the first sin of Adam and Eve was not sexual but the result of ravenous desire for food, in other words, gluttony. It was thought that Adam and Eve broke the perfect equilibrium of their Paradise on earth by failing to “contemplate the majesty of god,” and instead gave in to greed and ate the forbidden fruit.  For ordinary people, fasting for Lent was a small undoing of Adam’s sin. But to go into barren desert, devoid of food sources, and to face Adam’s temptation and to overcome it, was considered a major physical and spiritual undoing of man’s fallen state.

Nevertheless, sexual desire was still a major hindrance to spiritual transformation.  Food temptation was the most pressing difficulty but sexual urges continued to be an obstacle to the men’s sought out spiritual perfection. The monks had left society in order to quell their urges, and even though they found hunger their primary difficulty, sexuality’s exigencies invaded their bodies and their consciousness very often.

Many stories were told about the relentless sexual desire that a man aspiring to Paradise had to stuffer and then extinguish. A popular tale was about the life of Anthony, a monk who finally settled in the Eastern Desert near the Red Sea about 313 CE.  He was said to be about twenty when he began to struggle with sexual temptation.

That age is a time of life when a young man, says the Talmud, “…is like a neighing horse, adorning his person and longing for a wife.” According to the tale, Anthony overcame his urges after many years of struggle. Somewhat older men were known to have achieved living in continence with their wives, and many of them eventually made their way into the desert.

The monks’ excessive fasting, sleepless nights and heavy labor substantially reduced their sexual desire. But they were very aware, and watchful, of the permanence of sexual urges, which they came to see as part of human nature. They had learned that sexual desire was omnipresent in humans, that it manifested itself even in dreams and nocturnal emissions.  The Desert Fathers equated the resilience of sexual temptation to the private will, the closed heart of the monk to the love of and the will of god. They believed the private will must be broken. By frequently consulting a spiritual mentor and by aspiring to become like Christ, it was thought that a monk might actually achieve abatement of desire, a signal victory over a closed heart. 

There was a concrete sign of this victory over sexual desire which the most sincere monks achieved, or claimed to achieve.  When a Desert Father finally ceased experiencing nighttime emissions, he believed that he had achieved victory not only over the devil, but most importantly, over himself. If the monk continued nighttime emissions that came from sexual fantasies in dreams, it was a sign that he remained in a divided state.  His public virtuous self during the day was given the lie by his clinging to the private will and experience of a closed heart at night.  

It was believed that triumph would come when he melded the two, public and private, and could be the same virtuous, open person whether alone or in a crowd. 

According to Brown, Philoxenus, a Desert Father, spoke of the way “… a novice’s growing capacity for the love of god could even take sexual forms akin to the passion of fornication.” He went on to say: “How difficult this is to understand.” The contemporary secular mind will have no trouble understanding that the monks attempted to sublimate their sexuality by passionately seeking the love of god.  E. R. Dodd and other contemporary scholars have spoken with great insight into the monks’ “…contempt for the human condition and hatred of the body.” The monks’ and the women saints’ attempts to deprive their bodies of food and of sexual satisfaction reveal a masochism stunning in its will to suffer.  The overcoming of the individual will they touted was a self-deception of the first order.

The eroticism connected with the asceticism of the Catholic Church is more easily discerned in the sadomasochistic practices of flagellation and self-flagellation.  There were three forms of the custom most prevalent in the later medieval era- flagellation as punishment, flagellation by others and flagellation by oneself. Peter Damian, (B. 1006 CE), the monastic reformer mentioned earlier, was the primary advocate for the practice of flagellation in monasteries.  He had spent 1035 CE to 1036 CE in the mountain valley of Umbria, and he claimed, probably exaggeratedly, that not only the clergy in that area performed flagellation, but that the laymen were devoted to it as well.

Flagellation as punishment in monasteries and abbeys was well known and accepted in the earlier years of the Church as a penalty for violating rules of the order.

But Damian advocated what Niklaus Largier calls: “… a radical, voluntary self-chastisement with a very specific ascetic-mystical aim, as already practiced by earlier individual monks.”  Largier comments that the spirit of the age was apparently “open to such thoughts.” The zeitgeist of the later medieval era enthusiastically embraced the masochism of extreme fasting as well as the sadomasochist eroticism of flagellation.  The excesses of both practices were very exaggerated and harmful to their practitioners.  Catholic Christianity, in its most powerful manifestation as the “Church Triumphant,” was beset by the inner corruption and doctrinal rigidity that had begun to weaken it from within.  Were the extreme practitioners of fasting and flagellation symbols of that corruption or were they engaged in an attempt to cleanse it? They did not break with the mainstream church, but their efforts at holiness and salvation went far beyond customary Church practices.

Peter Damian, pretended, or actually believed, that his approach to flogging was in accord with Catholic tradition. In reality however, he introduced novel aspects to the practice of flagellation.  Formally, flagellation had been a public punishment carried out by another person’s hand.  Now Damian added to that method by proposing the practice of carrying scourging out in private and by one’s own hand.  The traditional public chastisement had been a drama of punishment, penance and atonement for some type of wrongdoing.

But the private practice of flagellation became the focal point for what would ostensibly be spiritual transformation in an imitation of the suffering Christ.

Damian cleverly harkened back to the earlier times of the Desert Fathers when he undertook his monastery reform.  He wrote biographies of hermits in the desert, and held them up as models.  By asserting that it was an ancient tradition, he attempted to introduce the practice of flagellation, especially self-flagellation, to the monasteries of his day. His claim that it had been a praxis of the Desert Fathers was disingenuous. At best, it had been the habit of a few individual monks in the past. Damian’s real motive was to have flagellation carried out in a systematic manner and as a continuous practice in monasteries. His insistence that scourging was a revival of a venerable custom was not true. He was arguing for a novel type of practice.

Around 1055 CE to about 1060 CE, Damian wrote letters to try to refute the persistent and accurate charges that he had introduced a new practice. His type of flagellation was becoming more prevalent, but there were many monasteries that were quite satisfied with the old dispensation, as they believed it was the traditional one.  But Damian exhorted them with references to the Gospel.  He questioned: “… did our Redeemer not endure scourging?” He pointed out that the apostles and many saints had been flogged and that Jerome and other early Church Fathers had spoken of flagellation. Damian’s only concession to critics was to admit that those model figures had not practiced self-flagellation. But he side-stepped that difficulty by arguing that to try to do away with self-flagellation was to completely nullify the goal and doctrine of attaining a perfect imitation of Christ.

He pointed to the writings of the Desert Fathers to demonstrate the radical lengths they went to in their attempts to achieve perfect spirituality.  Damian cited not only the Gospels, but Moses and the Old Testament as well.

In 1069 CE, Damian went further, writing a treatise-like letter to the Benedictine monks of Montecassino to urge them to resume the habit of flagellation on Fridays.  They had begun to lapse in the practice, apparently because of the issue of nakedness or partial exposure during the whipping.  According to Largier, “… self-flagellation was not only an exercise and mortification of the flesh in Damian’s eyes. It was also drama before the eyes of god in which the soul plays all roles in the eschatological tribunal.  The ritual of penance becomes a staging of the Last Judgment and also the symbolic self-sacrifice that repeats the divine sacrifice in a rectification that begins by destroying and desecrating the holiness of the body.” Damian dismissed what he deemed the monks’ petty concerns about the shame connected with the partially naked body. He argued that fasting and flagellation were the best approaches available to humans to become one with Christ in suffering, and provided clever rationalizations to bolster his claims.

Damian built a case for nakedness during public flogging in the monasteries. He stated that it was the devil that caused the monks to blush with shame at the nakedness of the flogged person. The blushes of the monks were caused by the demons who sought to deter them from seeking spiritual perfection and put them at odds to the original condition of Adam. 

Damian considered pride as the demonic cause of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and fall.  Once they had sinned, he argued, they became ashamed of their naked bodies and tried to conceal them. According to Damian, in order for humans to return to man’s primeval state, they must submit to flagellation, and not be ashamed of their nakedness. He castigated the monks for not honoring Christ, whom they claimed they sought to emulate.  Jesus, he stated, had been flogged while stripped and then crucified in the same way.  Yet the monks were reluctant to show bare flesh, an insult to the suffering Jesus.

Damian then waxed prophetic, with frightening and horrendous descriptions of the Last Judgment.  He told the monks that on the final day, the sun would lose its light, the moon become obscured, the mountains would tremble and the stars would fall from the sky. Water, air and all the elements would mix together. The terrible judges, he averred, would appear in order to pass judgment on humans. The saints of the early Church years would be there, with all the scars and rod marks of their suffering displayed.  How would these present day soft monks, well-fed and clothed, appear to the great martyrs? Christ did not blush at the shame of the cross, Damian argued, yet these soft monks blushed at their sagging flesh being seen, flesh that would be food for worms when they died.  From all indications, his arguments carried the day. Friday flagellations were resumed at that monastery.

The practice of public flagellation, and private self-flagellation, spread with the coming decades.

By the 13th Century, the acceptance of flagellation as a common religious practice had become well-established. Monks and nuns practiced both types of flagellation, and so did lay brothers and even some laymen.

My sources state that “…rods, whips with leather straps, knotted cords, iron chains and various instruments furnished with hooks and barbs were used.” Sadomasochism became entrenched in monasteries and abbeys.

Largier explains that flagellation rituals were carried out in synchronization with schedules that were regulated by the Catholic Church, sometimes by its ecclesiastical calendar of the year or at the monasteries’ prayer times. But he states that the rites were often closely connected with the praying of the Psalter. Some monasteries and abbeys whipped every day or every other day. In most orders, Friday was a favorite time for flagellation, particularly Good Friday. Advent and Lent were usually de rigueur for carrying out flagellation rituals as well. The rite was usually bound up with the notion of individual confession, penance and pain and often, where common sense prevailed, it was not too injurious. 

Flagellation was generally undertaken in a spirit of imitation of the innocent Christ. Monks and nuns believed Jesus had suffered flogging for the salvation of sinning humanity, and so they did penance by being whipped or whipping themselves.  There were elaborate rituals followed, with very exacting and minute instructions to be carried out, according to the rules of disparate religious orders. The rituals are too elaborate to detail within the time limits of this lecture. 

But Lager’s 2007 In Praise of the Whip, provides readers with well-researched texts and descriptions of the rites of flagellation.

One striking portion of the ritual was the correlation reported by participants between prayer and the whip.

There was often an intense focus on the Fifty-First Psalm of the Old Testament, which King David was supposed to have sung after his affair with Bathsheba. There were other penitential psalms used as well, but David’s was a favorite. Damian’s Letter 56 compared the blows of the whip with the harp playing evoked when the David Psalm was recited. The sisters of one abbey had the notion that the ear of god opened to the sound of the whip and with the sight of their bodies resonating with the psalm’s text. The comparison of flagellation to music is a further indication of the unhealthy sensuality of the rite.

But, as with the rite of fasting, there were people possessed with greater zealotry.  They desired more intense punishment than the ritualized penitence of the religious orders, painful as such rites were. There were well-known saints, some of them founders of orders, who regularly whipped themselves in the most painful and punishing manner.  Some of those saints were Francis Xavier, Ignatius of Loyola (founding father of the Jesuits), Catherine of Sienna, Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi and Teresa of Avila.  The author of a 1698 volume on flagellation stated that all of the saints I have just named “…whipped themselves with a passion… in order to liberate themselves from temptation.” He claimed that Saint Teresa “… although she was slowly wasting away, tormented herself with the most painful whips, frequently rubbed herself with fresh stinging nettles and even rolled about naked in thorns.” He described the penances of Rosa of Lima, Peru, who stitched small needles everywhere within and beneath her hair shirt (hair shirts were worn on the naked skin and were most uncomfortable and painful).

He maintained that Rosa also wore a crown of thorns, stuck quills into her head and girded her loins with a triple iron chain.

The hagiographer of Saint Clare of Assisi, wrote that she “… tore apart the alabaster container of her body with a whip for forty-two years, and from the wounds arose heavenly odors that filled the church.” Saint Dominic, the founder of the Order of the Dominicans, suffered his own long and bloody flagellations every night, using a whip and three iron chains. Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia had herself whipped by her attendants; and the pious French King, Saint Louis, had his Dominican confessor or his servants flog him every Friday.  One may discern the sadomasochism of the practice.  Some contemporary academic apologists attempt to find other explanations for it, emphasizing the dramatic quality of the ritual.  But the descriptions of flagellation cannot be separated from what we know about religious cruelty.  The Catholic Church that reigned over the age was well known for its egregiously vicious treatment of people who differed from it or its doctrine in any manner. Self-torture in order to imitate Christ and to try to turn away the temptations of the devil must have made the torture and fires of the Inquisition, ostensibly undertaken to save sinners and heretics’ souls, seem quite reasonable and just.

A scholar of the early 1700’s was discerning enough to understand the eroticism connected with flagellation, and I shall return to his volume on the subject.  But I would first like to devote some time to discussing the very public theatre of the Flagellants, groups of penitents who wandered in processions from town to town, whipping themselves in collective rites.

Their dramatic public rites often included not just self-flagellation, but recitations of religious works, the singing of holy songs, and the wearing of distinctive garments.

A similar phenomenon had occurred earlier in the middle 1200’s, but the more radical movement of the Flagellants rose up in 1348 and 1349 CE.

The newly formed Flagellant groups were surely responding to the hysterical fear of the 1347 CE plague. The Black Death, as the plague was called, reduced the population of Europe from about 450 million to around 350 million.  Many regarded it as a punishment from god. In the beginning, a few people in a town would gather, each one whipping himself publicly in penance for having committed sins.  Then larger groups of penitents formed processions through the towns where they resided.  But those early manifestations soon grew into the phenomenon of processions from city to city by large groups of penitents called the Flagellants. Their primary purpose seems to have been to do penance for their sins by whipping themselves, but they probably unknowingly spread the plague with them wherever they went. 

Historians state that at the processions’ most popular heights, there were hundreds of people who took part in them, occasionally over a thousand penitents.  Not only men, but women organized their own processions.

The general duration of the processions was thirty-three and a half days, which corresponded to the years that Christ had lived on earth, and consisted in size of about fifty or sixty people.  They often wore pointed white hats and white clothes. 

When they reached the public square or some other conspicuous place in a city, the Flagellants threw themselves on the ground and by signs, let it be known what their sins had been. For example, perjurers raised a finger and adulterers would press their lower bodies to the earth.  The master of the group would then step over the first penitent, touch him with a scourge, and absolve him of his sins.  He would repeat the procedure with each member. Then the Flagellants would all stand up. They would proceed to scourge themselves for three rounds while chanting prayers and singing holy songs. Many flogged themselves at night in private, as well. 

The emphasis of their rituals was on the need for penance, in order to bring man closer to god.  The entire process was very moving for the citizens who watched the drama, according to the accounts given by chroniclers of the time. Their songs and hymns were quite popular and well known. In addition to song, the Flagellants used choreographed movements, throwing themselves down, rising simultaneously after absolution and other coordinated actions.  Their movements can be seen as a kind of dance, and probably were regarded as such by the bystanders.  Self-flagellation had moved from the realm of the private to the realm of theatre.  The dramas the Flagellants staged had become a form of entertainment which was sometimes frightening, sometimes emotionally charged, but always impressive.  By whipping themselves, the penitents were attempting to take the place of the suffering Christ. Their self-flagellation was an imitation of the pain he was said to have suffered on the cross. Around 1400 CE, the public Flagellant groups suddenly disappeared as quickly as they had arisen.

However, there were other varieties of flagellant groups which were regarded with suspicion by the Church. Cults such as the Cryptoflagellants appeared in Thuringia in the late Middle Ages. Such groups, which often met secretly, were in an adversarial position vis-à-vis the Catholic Church. They were more focused on the Last Judgment than the travelling penitents had been. They were also engaged in a serious rejection of the Church as a mediating authority in achieving salvation.  Those beliefs and their often secretive behavior constituted what the Church considered heresy. The Inquisition rooted them out, persecuted them and burned some of the most intransigent offenders.  A great deal of our knowledge about the Crypoflagellants comes from Inquisition documents of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Some of the most devout Flagellants were focused on what they believed was the soon-to-come end of the world, were anti-clerical, and whipped themselves on Good Friday and many other Fridays of the year. The most excessive Flagellants embraced the baptism of blood which they believed had replaced water baptism and they spurned the other sacraments as well.

The sacraments were deemed by the mainstream Church to be an important route to salvation. But the Cryptoflagellants believed that all sins would be forgiven by practicing the rites of flagellation. The worst persecutions of the dissidents occurred in Central Europe.  The Italian churches had earlier incorporated many flagellant groups into the Church’s rites and processions. It was a wise decision because it allowed the penitential drama of the Flagellant processions to be played out under the domination and auspices of the mainstream Church. 

The volume I cited earlier, In Praise of the Whip, contains an excellent chapter on the Flagellant groups and their practices for any readers interested in pursuing the topic. The 1957 Ingmar Bergman film, the Seventh Seal, set in Sweden at the time of the Black Death, is well worth watching for its understanding of the issues which gave rise to the Flagellants.  Its title, the Seventh Seal, is a reference to the Last Judgment. The movie fails, though, to depict the various emotional effects the drama had on the viewers. In the film, the townspeople appeared frightened and horrified by the procession. According to the historical accounts of the time, viewers were not always frightened, but entertained, and sometimes moved to tears by the performance. Some bystanders were so impressed that they attempted to flagellate themselves rather than merely watch the performance.

Jacques Boileau wrote a scathing critique of the practice of self-flagellation in 1700 CE.  Although the Flagellant processions had been played out and had ceased, the practice of self-flagellation and other types of flagellation continued.  It lasted up until the early 20th Century in some quarters.

It is of interest that a religious man like Boileau, who was a Catholic abbe, would write a censorious history of flagellation at such a relatively early date. He took care to keep himself apart from the Protestant enemies of the Church, such as Martin Luther, who decidedly abhorred the practice, and from the Calvinist position on scourging. Boileau was nevertheless decidedly in disagreement with the Catholic Church on the issue. His volume was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1703 CE.  Boileau’s attack on self-flagellation was intelligent, scathing and quite convincing. 

He opposed the practice with common sense, which is always disturbing to the religious mind.

Boileau mounted his attack from several different positions. He pointed out that the early Desert Fathers had not voluntarily tormented themselves “on the back or hindquarters,” with “whips, cords, and rods.” He stated that both “the upper discipline” of the shoulders and back, and the lower discipline, “on the buttocks,” had no part in early Church history.  Such practices, he argued, contradicted piety and any sense of shame. Pretending piety and mortification, those who had introduced such rites had done it in a “spirit of idolatry and superstition.”

Boileau firmly believed that self-flagellation had not arisen from any justification in the Old Testament. We need to keep in mind that self-flagellators usually flogged themselves until blood flowed from the broken skin. Boileau argued that in Mosaic Law, god forbade self-mutilation.  He demonstrated that flagellation, instead, was of pagan origin. The pagans had made use of it as part of some religious rituals, or as a form of punishment. 

Boileau was very cultured and well-read, and quoted from Plutarch, Cicero, Lucian and other venerable ancient authors on the origin of flagellation.  He convincingly argued that the practice originated with Isis’ cult, where men and women whipped each other, and cited Diana’s festival and other ancient Roman rites where whipping was prevalent.

Boileau then pointed out that Jesuit scholars had mistranslated older Church texts, using “flagellate,” “whip,” and “beat,” in place of the precise words, which were “chastisement,” “penance,” and “mourning.”

He repeatedly emphasized that the practice of flagellation contradicted both Christian life and the ideal ascetic pursuit of perfection. He charged that its ritual framework was an ascetic praxis that could be depicted in painting and was able to cause sexual arousal by such depictions. Boileau was quite perceptive in his observations.  The aforementioned volume, In Praise of the Whip, contains numerous plates from medieval book illustrations, painting and prints. Some of the pictures depict Mary Magdalene and other female penitents whipping themselves.  They are most often slightly undressed, and very voluptuous.  Sometimes the works picture satyrs from the ancient world spanking very fleshy nymphs.

Boileau’s linkage of flagellation to paganism caused him to argue that it did not so much “bear witness to a great piety”, but instead was a source of “lascivious arousal.” He believed that the nakedness that had been promoted during the scourging led to shamelessness and unregulated desire.

He stated that “every use of the whip has a tendency to awaken not piety, but erotic desire, with which all arousal through flagellation will now be identified.” He proceeded to itemize such types of arousal.  He was quite correct.

The well-researched In Praise of the Whip cites several actual cases of a confessor using the rite of confession to elicit the sexual thoughts and desires of young girls. The confessor would then claim the girls needed to perform penance by being whipped by him.  Some of the priests would carry their deception even further. They would seduce the girls into sexual compliance. 

Boileau made reference to such cases, as well as pointing out that some men “were unable to satisfy their raw desire and became intoxicated with the shameful pleasures of the whip.” Boileau wrote centuries before Sacher-Masoch, Freud, Dodd, and other psychologists and authors. But he was most perspicacious in his understanding of the sexual motives that were the underpinning of flagellation rituals.  Most secular thinkers would readily agree with him that flagellation was a “…shameless practice that contradicts all decency.” In concluding this portion of the lecture, I would like to quote Boileau’s brother, a poet and literary theorist, who spoke of flagellation but especially about its practitioners, thus: “Who through severity and repentance, under the cover of mortifying desire, know how to kindle the fire of the flesh.”

The contemporary world is replete with many heinous kinds of religious sadism, but the focus of this portion of the lecture will be the egregious religious cruelty that can be found in the treatment of many children in the United States. 

I shall be discussing some of the reasons fundamentalist religious parents and their churches claim to have for abusing their children.  They insist that they rely on the Bible when they punish the children, but it is not difficult to suspect that some of the parents and some of the ministers have darker motives.  The unhealthy and disquieting practices used to subdue and “save” children might satisfy power and dominance needs, and in some cases, it is quite possible that tormenting children also results from some sexual exigency.

I am gratefully dependent on Janet Heimlich’s 2011 volume, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, for this portion of my lecture, both for its facts and for its organization.  According to Heimlich, there are four main types of religious child abuse: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and medical neglect. The circumcision of baby boys in the United States falls into the last category of medical abuse.

Deeply conservative Christians believe that the Bible condones spanking, sometimes even beating, of children.  Here are some quotations from the Book of Proverbs on the issue. “He that spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him properly. (13:24) “Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with the rod and deliver his soul from hell.” (23: 13-14). There are many other quotations from the Bible on the same theme, and despite quibbling from religious liberals about mistranslation of the word, ‘rod,” it is quite obvious that the word has been accurately translated.

It was a type of staff that was often used to strike and/or beat children. One of its contemporary dictionary definitions is: “… a stick used to hit or whip someone as a form of punishment.”

Contemporary theologians, ministers, syndicated columnists, as well as religious authors of parenting books, contribute significantly to the belief that children have wicked natures that must be curbed as brutally and quickly as possible.  Here is a portion of a quotation that has been passed around the Internet, particularly by conservative Christian sites: “Every baby starts life as a little savage.  He’s dirty, he has no morals, no knowledge, no developed skills. 

If given… full reign to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist.”

The overt goal for spanking and beating children would appear to be to cleanse them from sin and evil, which if not removed, will condemn them to eternal hell.  Religious counselors and conservative Christian writers reiterate this point ad nauseam.  They counsel people that the parents who spank their children for various misdeeds are saving them from hell. To add to the many difficulties parents encounter in child-rearing, conservative religious advice seems bent on removing any natural joy in parenting. Such advisors frighten religious parents with the notion their children might become candidates for hellfire unless they are properly brought up.

The admonition to break a child’s will is another dictum that well-meaning parents are exposed to by religious conservatives. The well-known pastor, Gwen Shamblin, exhorts parents that “…you are really going to have to break those kids.”

According to Heimlich, “… a 1995 study shows that in physical abuse cases where perpetrators were trying to rid children of evil, most were fundamentalist or Protestant.” The same study also finds that “… conservative Protestants feel little guilt if they use corporal punishment because of their religion-supported belief in the necessity and effectiveness of corporal punishment.” It seems that such parents spank or beat a child until he or she responds not just with obedience, but immediate and unquestioning obedience.

Some of the methods used to subdue children are well known.

Conservative religious parents do not only use their hands, but make use of objects such as hairbrushes, paddles, electric cables, and four-inch plumbers supply line.  Disobedient children are deprived of food, and sometimes water, until they capitulate. One large congregation, the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter-Day Saints, used water torture.  Although there has been no confirmation, there is some suspicion the group may still make use of that practice.  Carolyn Jessup, a former member, states that: “They spank the baby, a baby, mind you, and when it cries, they hold the baby face up under the tap with running water. When the baby stops crying, they spank it again, and the cycle is repeated until the child is exhausted.”

There are many reported instances of parents who engage in corporal punishment repeating the spanking or beating until the child is not only instantly obedient but also has learned to completely stifle his or her crying, or at the very least, to cry as quietly as possible.

So not only are the children’s so-called transgressions punished, but their feelings and pain must be stifled as well. Such practices are truly designed to break a child’s will. The punishment is frequently administered on bare skin.

There is no telling how much psychological harm such treatment produces.  Adult survivors of religious physical abuse report years of attempting to undo the psychological damage they have experienced. Many children, too many, have experienced grievous injuries and many have died from such abuse.  Frequently the abused children have simply committed trivial acts of transgression and paid for their misdeeds with their lives. Fortunately, such parents have been prosecuted and jailed for abusing and even killing their children.

There are many other methods, healthy ones, which will help bring up happy and responsible adults. But conservative religious believers entertain the notion that a child whose will is broken makes him “malleable to god.”

The second category of conservative religious child maltreatment is religious child emotional abuse. Heimlich lists six actions of this type, with subcategories. They are (1) Spurning, which consists of verbal or nonverbal acts which degrade or reject the child; (2) Terrorizing, which is behavior that threatens or is likely to physically hurt, kill, abandon or place the child or the child’s loved ones or objects in recognizably  dangerous situations; (3) Isolating, which consists of acts which consistently deny the child opportunity to meet needs for interacting or communicating with peers or adults inside or outside the home;

(4) Exploiting or corrupting, which are acts that encourage the child to develop inappropriate behaviors; (5) Denying emotional responsiveness: acts that ignore the child’s attempts and needs to interact, which includes no emotion when interacting with the child; (6) Neglecting mental health, medical and educational needs, which are unwarranted acts that ignore, refuse to allow or fail to provide necessary treatment for the mental health, medical and educational problems of the child. Circumcision of male children is included in this category.

It is difficult to spot and easy to deny emotional abuse, and it is nearly impossible to prosecute.  Emotional child abuse is usually not episodic, but generally chronic.  Its chronic nature is virulent because of its long-term effects, which may take years to manifest themselves. Worse, children, even as adults, do not always understand they have been victimized. 

Rather, they tend to accept their treatment as a normal part of life.  Children who have been emotionally abused often develop emotional effects which range from depression, estrangement, anxiety, low self-esteem, inappropriate or troubled relationships, and lack of empathy. Many of them develop psychosomatic difficulties such as headaches and hypochondria.

Abused children are often forced to live two lives, one at school and one at home.  They are compelled to help their parents spread the faith if their religion is an aggressively proselytizing one.  Other families make their children feel unworthy because they do not come up to the tenets of their faith. Most of the children in the situation of abuse that is not physical are forced to give up any intellectual autonomy. 

Innocent questioning about incidents in the Bible, or about statements related to the beliefs of their faith community often result in punishment or disparagement. Groups that promote faith healing burden children that are sick, either episodically or chronically.  They are taught to feel that their faith is too weak, that they are in error and not in correspondence with god. Some faith communities, says Heimlich, force children to behave as “happy robots,” by never allowing them to express their opinions. This insidious treatment of children undermines their self-worth, keeping them from trying to cure their difficulties for many years.

The category of child sexual abuse has received the most publicity in the past few years, and more details of abuse of children by religious figures have emerged in the media than those involving other types of religious mistreatment. Many churches have now put guidelines in place that require their authorities to report such sexual encounters to the secular justice system.  

The Episcopalian Church, for example, has crafted excellent guidelines for its ministers and others in responsible church positions to follow. But most churches’ guidelines are concerned with internal investigations.  Internal investigations are just that- they generally remain within the church. 

 Jehovah’s Witnesses cite Deuteronomy 19:15. The passage speaks of needing two witnesses for anyone to rise up and speak against a man. According to Heimlich, Jehovah’s Witnesses require two witnesses to prove their case, unless the wrongdoer confesses or repents. Other churches, such as the Catholic faith, most notoriously have not reported the facts of sexual child abuse after internal investigations. 

Many instead have engaged in very complex and insidious cover-ups. Orthodox Judaism is another religion which conducts internal investigations. The rabbinical court that deals with such inquiries is called a Beth Din. But with regard to sexual abuse, there is apparently the same ineptitude in those courts as has been observed in other faith communities. More and more victims of Orthodox abusers have become disgusted and are reporting their experiences to the police.

Ultimately, the devastating treatment that many victims of religious sexual abuse are forced to undergo is extremely harmful.  Some have reported that when they were sexually abused as a teenager by a minister, priest, teacher or other authority figure in their religious community, they did not initially blame their church.  They felt the abuser was the bad apple and that their church was still good.  But then many of those same young people were betrayed by their church’s authorities. Carolyn H. Hegen has written that “… when the pastor and the church turn their backs, the victim is left with a terrifying sense of abandonment. 

When abuse survivors feel deserted and betrayed by the pastor, the church, and god, it is no wonder their despair sometimes finds tragic, poignant expression in suicide.”

Now I would like to turn to the fourth form of abuse, a type of child abuse that is chilling and reprehensible, religious child medical neglect. The sadism in such cases is often simply due to the arrogance or ignorance of religious practitioners and churches which undertake faith healings of one sort or another. 

Sometimes parents, too, are so certain of the truths of their religious beliefs that they cruelly, but unintentionally, refuse medical intervention for a grievously ill child. Heimlich’s volume discusses the beliefs and notions that motivate such religious parents.  She has discovered that there are many reasons they do not provide medical intervention for grievously ill children, but instead choose to use the faith- based practices of their particular churches.  

Researchers have been unable to find other religions that practice medical neglect of children as extensively as Christianity. One reason may be that Christian Biblical scriptures are replete with examples of Jesus’ healing of blindness, deafness, paralysis, fevers, epilepsy and so on. In the New Testament, Jesus also declares that those who believe in him can “lay hands” on the sick and they will recover. There are other New Testament passages that state people can be cured with prayer and sometimes with the application of oil. Many Christians have received inspiration from such texts and have come to believe in their healing abilities. The best known religions that accept faith-healing include some Christian Scientists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Prayer is the most popular method for such religions, followed by various other customs and traditions.

The United States Legislature passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act into law in 1974.  Its aim was to prevent child abuse, but it imposed a new regulation that required states to grant religious exemptions in order to receive federal grants for child protection work.  Heimlich states that prominent Christian Scientists, some of whom were high-ranking individuals in the Nixon Administration, spearheaded this move.

The regulation was lifted in 1983, but by then most states had the exemption on their books. As of 2010, thirty states still retained the religious exemption, even though other states have repealed it. This is a deplorable situation, as religious parents who deny their children medical care, even in the face of the children’s horrendous suffering and death, have a certain amount of legal protection.  As a result of the legislative religious exemption, those parents frequently cannot be punished by the law.

Fortunately, some states have begun to mount successful prosecutions involving medical neglect of sick children. Internet sites which expose the extent of the neglect have helped raise public awareness and many citizens who learn of such abuse in their local areas demand to know why children should have to suffer from treatable medical conditions. There are organizations, such as Children’s Health Care is a Legal Duty, which work against the exemptions.  But the legal process remains too little and too slow to save a number of the children deprived of proper treatment. It has been estimated that at least a dozen children die each year in the United States from being treated by faith-healing. Studies have shown that most of the children who have died from the practice had good odds of survival if they had received medical care in a “timely” fashion.

Breaking Their Will recounts some of the reasons religious parents give for their failure to summon medical aid for their children. Such parents state that they wish to prove their faith is strong enough to heal their child through prayer.  Others believe their child’s illness is given from god and is a test of their faith. 

In addition, the practitioners and church congregations who practice faith healing often strongly discourage parents from turning to medical science. Peer pressure is a large factor in such situations, because failure for the child to get well is taken as a sign of weak faith or sometimes hidden sin.  Then there are some believers, such as conservative Christian Scientists, who have the notion that physical illness is not a biological condition. They claim that sickness is an illusion brought on by the human mind’s blindness to god’s presence.

Parents give other reasons for medically neglecting children, such as thinking they need only wait for god to intervene to heal a sick child.  If god does not cure their child, they believe they must submit to his will.  Astonishingly, there are parents who seem unworried as their children get sicker, suffer and then die. The reason they give for their tranquility is that they trust the child is not truly dead but simply sleeping until the Last Judgment.  Some parents have reported believing that the dead child would be resurrected in a few days or weeks.

Faith-healers and some religions look upon the mainstream medical profession with suspicion and influence parents to do the same.  The Christian Science Church claims not to prohibit members from getting medical care, but most of its practitioners make it a point not to pray for those who do consult medical doctors.  

Some deeply conservative Christians have been taught by their ministers to believe that going to doctors brings on death and illness.

They are told that when they visit a medical doctor, Satan’s grip on them is strengthened. Many children and some adults have needlessly died as a result of such beliefs.

Heimlich has included female and male circumcision of small children, either as a religious or cultural practice, as child abuse.  Female circumcision has been illegal in the United States since 1996.  However, the removal of a baby boy’s foreskin is a common medical proceeding in America. The foreskin protects the penile organ and contains fifteen inches of future adult sexual tissue. There are complications involved in the operation, even including death in some cases.  The child is often given no anesthesia or a local anesthetic, and the procedure involves great pain for the infant.  It has been claimed that removal of a boy’s foreskin prevents penile cancer (very rare), male bladder infections (also rare and easily treated with antibiotics), and HIV/AIDS infections, which are best prevented with condom use. The truth is that circumcision’s positive effects are nil.  Circumcision of girls and boys is definitely a form of medical child abuse. For more statistics and information on this issue, please see “Atheist Ethics” at

There is a common thread that runs through each of the three types of sadomasochism glanced at in this lecture. That thread is the one of “will”. Significant emphasis was placed on the breaking of the individual will when undertaking or advocating extreme fasting and flagellation during the Middle Ages.  The same motivation is stressed by advocates for religious child abuse in the present-day United States. 

In all three instances, the rationale given for self-punishment and child abuse has been said to be for the purpose of breaking the selfish individual will.  Breaking the individual will is claimed to make the human heart open to receive god.

 But a great deal of self-will may be discerned in the practices of both fasting and flagellation, including self-flagellation.  Those saints, mystics and ascetics who undertook extreme self-mortification went to great lengths to achieve their goals. Monks left their families and hometowns and fasting women refused marriage and children. They explained their zeal to undertake self-punishment was because of their desire to unite with god. Their true purpose, shrouded under the guise of holiness, was most likely the pursuit of an unhealthy eroticism. Did those pious masochists really break their own wills when they took up their penitential practices?  Those self-abasing saints appear to have shared a perverse willfulness, willfulness that led some of them to the brink of death and beyond, to actual death from their ascetic practices.

The case of religious child abuse in the contemporary United States is quite different. It is important to keep in mind that the Medieval desire to subdue the will was always an individual choice. The monks and saints of the Middle Ages did not undertake their self-harming behavior until they became adults.  Contemporary children whose will religious parents and faith leaders believe must be broken have not been allowed any choice. They are minors. Their healthy willfulness is wrongfully quelled by ignorant and sadistic adults.  Children do not gain character by being beaten. 

A child needs to be guided with patience, understanding and gentle firmness into making his or her own choices.  If guided well, the child will, step by step, begin to make his or her own decisions, decisions that are healthy, sound and fulfilling.  A confident child will make some mistakes, but will learn from them and go on to make better choices. 

The sadomasochistic motives involved in extreme fasting, flagellation and self-flagellation are easily perceived.  In certain types of child abuse, the sadism is often masked.  The adults who torment children claim that they are trying to save them from the eternal fires of hell. Some of the adults who abuse children are ignorant believers who have been frightened by religious advice and instruction.  But others are sadists who enjoy the power involved in making children fearful of them, who enjoy the pain they inflict on the innocent.  Some gain sexual satisfaction as well. 

The behavior of religious child abusers resembles the unbalanced, willful practices of the medieval saints. Parents and religious leaders who try to break children’s wills with physical and emotional abuse are acting from unhealthy motives. Worse yet, there are those religious adults who must have their own way when their children fall seriously ill. They are careful not to claim it is what they want, however.  They argue that it is the will of god.  They reject reason and turn away from medical intervention even when faced with the failing results of their faith-based “cures.”  Forged by custom, ignorance, stubbornness and fear, unsound self-will prevails over reason. The same is true of those parents, religious mentors and cultures that insist on the circumcision of boys and girls.

To break a child’s will using various forms of physical and mental abuse is an act of heinous betrayal.  Adults are there to protect, care and usher children into not merely adulthood, but personhood.  The healthy individual will is necessary for human achievement. But what use is a healthy will to religion? Religion needs people who are perpetual children, puppets who will dance on religion’s master strings. Religion seeks control of men who will proceed to subjugate women.  When those men and women become parents, they are instructed by religion to subjugate their children.  

The negative results of such subjugation can be seen by looking at the past.  When religion reigned supreme, there was an egregiously dangerous delay in the formation of democracies, scientific achievements and technological advances.  Open, secular societies need strong, healthy and self-willed people to forge new directions, discover new paths and better the old dispensations. I can foresee the day when religion no longer holds any sway. I look forward to the time when religious child abuse becomes a legally prosecuted practice. We owe it to our children to see they grow up in a loving, explorative and open society.  Children must flourish if our human race is to endure.

I would like to finish with a quotation from Nelson Mandela:

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.”


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