(Content note: Child abuse.)
In 2014, news broke that a former Catholic-run home for unwed mothers in Tuam, Ireland had a hell of a lot of death records for a hell of a lot of babies and children–but no burial records for them. This week, that story busted wide open when investigators there discovered a large number of human remains underground at the former home–including some found in a structure thought to have formerly contained human waste (not a septic tank, just something similar). This story comes on the heels of another story that broke this week about a fundagelical Christian sect that allowed yet another of its children to die without medical care. These stories of systemic child abuse are related. They both reflect an endemic issue within toxic Christianity: its broken system’s inability to recognize basic human rights.
Toxic Christians Are Right About One Thing.
As much as modern Christians might try to square the circle otherwise (in ways that are genuinely painful to witness for their desperation), the Bible has nothing within it to suggest that its many mostly-anonymous authors understood anything about basic human rights. You’ll search in vain through its pages for any suggestion that the Bible’s writers understood anything about bodily self-ownership, about considering women as anything but chattel for men to trade, exploit, and use at will, or even about any conceptualization of workers’ rights.
The only model of authority recognized in the Bible, really, is feudal theocracy: a god who owns absolutely everything who grants authority to act in his name to a ruler, who grants limited authority to those under him, and so on down the line. This model is explicitly described in the Old Testament, and one can certainly see echoes of it in the political machinations of Christians even today, as right-wing Christians wrestle with the question of which candidate was raised up by their god for them to vote for.
So when one sees these hardliner Catholics and fundagelicals trying to destroy women’s hard-won advances or insisting that they literally own their children like they own their own shoes, you need to understand that they’re actually spot-on with regard to the Bible’s prescriptions for human relationships.
In that world, everybody is a slave to somebody else, all the way up to the top; absolutely nobody owns themselves. Social and familial relationships are hierarchical and rigidly ranked from top to bottom, like the rungs of a ladder. The higher up the ladder one stands, the more power that person has and the more authority they possess over the actions and decisions of everybody below them. This power and authority is considered absolute, and the person wielding it is allowed and encouraged to take whatever means are necessary, often up to and including lethal violence, to resolve any pushback against their overreach.
In this model, the parent owns the children, the husband owns the wife and children, on up the line to the pastor, who of course owns all the laypeople in his church. The pastors are at the top and are enslaved to Jesus himself, which in practical matters means that they aren’t enslaved to anybody. In larger denominations, the denominational leader owns the pastor and all the rest of the line on down to the bottom. Literally the only person who doesn’t answer to anybody else is the person at the very top of that religious group. (Dintja ever wonder why there are so damned many non-denominational churches? It’s sure not because they’re just soooo much more discerning of doctrine than any of the denominations out there.)
Any conceptualization of human rights that we’ve ever come up with, therefore, has happened at the expense of the Bible’s credibility and perceived authority structure.
Every time we’ve expanded our understanding of the topic of human rights, it’s whittled away a little more at Christian leaders’ theocratic authority over everyone. Little wonder, therefore, that they so strenuously oppose any such expansion of human rights. They only come on board with the idea of rights for a particular group once it’s a long-foregone conclusion–and even then, not all of them manage to find a way to reconcile their theocratic leanings with those foregone conclusions. (There are still, after all, plenty of proudly super-duper-racist Christians who oppose interracial marriage and want to bring back Jim Crow laws, as well as fundagelical-dominated communities that still segregate their high-school proms.)
And you can absolutely bet that the leaders of these Christian organizations are well aware of their precarious situation in the modern world. Every time a group they’ve marginalized starts gaining ground, they know perfectly well that they’ll lose more of their onetime power. As we covered in great detail earlier this year, they only managed to hang on as long as they did because they possessed great powers of coercion over society. Take away that coercion, and people won’t do what they demand.
Sanctity of Life, Defined.
The Tuam story gripped the world this week, it’s safe to say. Back in 2014, when Ireland first found out about the Catholic Church’s treatment of women and babies at St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, they didn’t know exactly where the dead babies were at the time. They just knew that a whole lot of babies were missing and presumed dead. The thought occurred at the time that a great many of them might well be buried on the home’s property, yes, but without proof, it was just a thought.
It was still a very powerful thought. So was the fact that nearly 800 babies were involved. The more we learned about the home itself and the ones like it, the less savory the whole thing sounded. Without question, a great many pregnant young women had been basically dumped into these homes by their outraged families, and once they’d delivered their infants those babies had been torn from them without their permission to be adopted out elsewhere (often to delighted parents in the United States!). Instead of finding charity and kindness at these homes, the women themselves received only the most rudimentary medical care in the most squalid conditions, if even that, and way too many of them died along with the babies.
So when an intricate-sounding mass grave got uncovered near a septic tank at the now-closed facility recently, it put the cap on an already-ghastly story.
Then someone realized that there were a whole lot of other similar facilities in Ireland, all run by the Catholic Church, all doing basically the same thing as the St. Mary’s facility had, and they began doing some mental arithmetic about how many other babies and women might have been victimized. Even worse, someone realized, a lot of the doctors and social workers involved in those babies’ trafficking might well still be actively operating in Ireland and would therefore need to be brought to justice on this matter. The Irish have been grimly warned that this whole scandal “will only get more shocking.”
In the United States, a similar scandal is slowly growing in the public’s awareness.
See, in a lot of areas in this country parents are allowed an unconscionable amount of power over their children, to the point where they gloat about physically owning them–you know, like people used to own actual slaves. They think that parents should decide all matters of life and death over their children, even to the extent of abusing and even murdering them if they wish. Any time a law is proposed that whittles away that parental life-and-death power over children, it’s fundagelicals who come front and center to oppose it–and they do so viciously and with claws fully extended to shred and rend anybody who suggests that children have rights that transcend their parents’ whims.
Because they think that everyone is owned by someone, fundagelicals think that if parents aren’t the total owners of their children, then obviously someone else is–and in this case, that total owner would be “the state.” The idea that nobody owns anybody is a completely foreign one to them. It’s not something they can relate to. They think it’s a liberal lie spawned by Satan to trick people. Back in my day as a Christian, we exulted in being slaves “to Jesus,” and even sang songs about how wonderful that was. We knew that some sinners thought that ownership of humans was bad, but we just pitied them because they didn’t understand that they were slaves themselves–in this case, to “Satan,” to the world, to sin. By contrast, we’d chosen to be owned by “Jesus,” which was about the best a person could do in our eyes. If you had to be enslaved by somebody, at least you could choose to be enslaved by the entity that could save you from Hell if you obeyed as a slave should.
Nothing’s changed. That culture of slavery still exists, and if anything it’s only gotten stronger with the vastly-increased polarization of Christianity.
That’s how a situation could evolve in our culture like the one we saw unfolding at Faith Tabernacle Congregation in Pennsylvania. That’s a super-fervent fundagelical cult that, among other things, believes that adherents should not seek modern medical help for their illnesses and injuries. Instead, they anoint each other with oil and pray really hard–and in the process let their own children die of neglect.
Last week, the two-year-old granddaughter of the sect’s own pastor died of very treatable pneumonia. Experts think the toddler would have had a 95% chance of survival if the parents had only taken her to a doctor for antibiotics when they saw that she was sick.
Instead, she got magical thinking and died in agony, drowning in her own bodily fluids before her parents’ very eyes.
And it is very close to totally fucking legal for that sect to kill its kids.
Pennsylvania has a law that at least partially shields religious parents who withhold medical care from their children if they think their magical invisible wizard friend in the sky told them to.
It’s not the only state that allows this exemption, by the way. As Pew Research has discovered, the vast majority of American states allow some sort of exemption for parents who wish to abuse or neglect their kids–as long as they say they’re doing it for religious reasons. That’s how you get horrifying images of a graveyard full of cheap wooden markers outlining the deaths of babies that lived perhaps a day, perhaps a week–all dead because their parents considered themselves the supreme arbiters of those children’s fates.
Almost every single time a legislator proposes ending that religious exemption, nothing comes of it. It doesn’t matter how many kids die through religious-based abuse and neglect; that culture of ownership and slavery cannot be disturbed without significant pushback from Christians. It’s not that they intend to change anything about their culture to stop these deaths, of course; it’s that they can’t bear the idea of someone else owning their kids besides themselves.
Really, nothing says “culture of life” and “sanctity of life” like these two stories, eh wot m8s?
It’s a grisly irony that toxic Christians have latched onto human trafficking as hard as they have as their new overwrought cause du jour when they have these scandals on their plates to resolve, but when one understands that new cause in context of their love of power, it’s a little easier to see why they can reconcile it all and still stay in their pews and sing songs to their master about how wonderful it is to be his slaves.
Arena Fights, Held Every Sunday.
Sensible modern governments have already stripped away Christian coercion in large part–though Christians still claw for power in some backward parts of the world. Their leaders are quite aware that the more enlightened people get, the less power they’ll be wielding. They export their ideas to cultures that they think will respond to their universal message of threats, authoritarianism, fearmongering, and blatant hate speech, or they try to maintain a hold over culture through force of law, histrionic threats, or appeals to a barely-remembered past that didn’t actually look in reality like the rosy picture painted.
The lengths that Christians will go to to maintain their hold is considerable–because they are following a meta-religion that transcends mere Christianity. They know exactly what happens to people who don’t hold power over others. They know that if they aren’t the ones wielding power in their system, then they will be the ones controlled by someone else. They know what it means to be powerless. Their entire system is a constant jockeying for more and more power, to keep and retain what they have, and to expand that to get more. The goal is to get to the very top of the ladder somehow, to get as high up as they can within their limitations so that as few people as possible have power over them.
And one simply cannot overstate how important this jockeying for power is in right-wing Christianity. You won’t ever understand a thing they do unless you understand how important power is to them. But once you understand that, you’ll be well on your way to comprehending that which would be otherwise utterly incomprehensible–even totally unthinkable:
Such as the callous, ruthless trafficking and murder of children, the imprisonment and abuse of women, the theft of newborn babies from mothers, and the dumping of little bodies in unmarked graves.
Christian leaders don’t let children die neglected just for kicks. They don’t bury babies in human waste because it’s fun. They don’t confine women against their will in subhuman conditions because it’s how they get their jollies (oh, egad, I certainly hope not).
They do it because the people they trample underfoot are nothing more than a means to an end. And the end is always going to be power for themselves.
There’s no other way this whole religion works. That’s the purely natural result of its conceptualization of hierarchical systems and the flow of authority. That’s the outgrowth of its doctrines that we should expect to see. When self-ownership is pared from one group and handed to another group to exercise unilaterally, all that can possibly result is abuse.
If any Christian group out there is managing to be any different, to be anything but a total cesspit of abuses and dark secrets waiting to be uncovered, to be anything but an arena for those who fight like gladiators over the gaining and retaining of personal power over others, it is done at the complete expense of the religion’s authority as a whole–which is why those benevolent groups, wherever they may be, are bitterly opposed by their more toxic brethren and denounced as fake Christians, even called “cultural” or “casual” Christians” or “Christians in name only” by the members of those awful groups. And yes, that’s why people who call for reform, who insist on bodily rights for all human beings, who demand an equalization of power within the religion, are ignored until they gain traction–and then brutally slapped down and rejected as pariahs by the majority of Christians, even those who most folks would consider “nice Christians.”
That these more benevolent and rights-respecting groups seem to have suffer less abuse and way fewer scandals doesn’t matter to toxic Christians. That these groups’ children survive more often and are healthier and better-adjusted is hand-waved away somehow as a fluke, even perhaps a sign of demonic meddling to make those groups’ sinfulness sound more appealing to Christians. Once a group’s leader convinces people that a real live god demands that they raise their kids in this way, that they treat women in this way, that they conceive of relationships in this way, it’s hella hard to walk that back and say “shit, guys, sorry, we were totally wrong there, dang, dunno what we were smokin’ on that one.” I’ve seen some Christians try it, and it always invites the same pushback from their tribe: if this idea is wrong… what other ideas do we believe that are wrong?
And that, friends, is a question that’s presaged many an ex-Christian’s tumble right out of the religion.
Of course, once that new ex-Christian’s found their feet again, they’ve got a whole new set of things to ponder.
Building a New Worldview.
That’s why it’s so massively important that when someone finally makes that all-important roll to disbelieve (ROLL CREDITS!), they take the time to examine their underlying beliefs about relationships and about human rights. The further right-wing someone was on the Christian spectrum and the older they were when they escaped, the more of their underlying beliefs about people and relationships are probably wrong.
Deconversion doesn’t automatically enlighten someone about all that stuff. People don’t magically become part of human progress just because they came to understand that Christianity’s claims are pure fiction. Unless they deconverted in earliest childhood–and sometimes even then, in particularly regressive sects of the religion–or unless they’re from a really liberal flavor of the religion, ex-Christians are still programmed with a lot of inherent beliefs about the relative value of men, women, and children–and still very possibly dealing with the teachings about who owns who that form the bedrock of toxic Christianity.
Undoing that programming may take some time, but it’s absolutely essential work to be done. Otherwise, there’s not only a huge risk of that person falling right back into religion, but they’re very likely to perpetuate and maintain the broken system that they learned as Christians. That, literally, may well be why so many ex-Christians and even lifelong atheists still manage to be complete racists and total asshats toward women. They rejected the window-dressing at some point, but kept all the rest of it. They pat themselves on the back for being oh-so-evolved for knowing Christianity’s specific supernatural claims are dead wrong, but don’t realize that they’re playing straight into Christian leaders’ hands by keeping the cultural and relationship teachings intact. Deconversion is only the very first step of many.
Once we build a worldview around consent, it’s far less likely that these abuses will occur around us. Self-ownership, full representation, and the complete necessity of consent must be written into the operational structure of the groups we join, as well, or else these scandals will keep happening. There’s no way to stop them from happening in such cases; the group will always be playing catch-up and cover-up because without that value being written into its DNA, predators will always find a way to infiltrate their ranks and wreak their damage upon the group members that are considered inferior to the leaders, and the group’s leaders will always protect them at their powerless victims’ expense.
Shit rolls downhill.
And then, I suppose, horrendously evil Christians bury babies in it.
I just wonder how many little lives must be cut short to make people start waking up to the damage that religion causes in our society, and consequently stop cutting zealots special slack that nobody else gets just because they’re extra-delusional.
We extend our deepest and most sincere condolences to the families affected by both of these unacceptable and grotesque scandals, and hope with all our hearts that our respective countries bring swift and unswerving justice to those responsible.