Child Abuse or Church Camp?

The way we ask the question says a lot.

We could ask it this way: Is it abusive to encourage children to have certain religious experiences?

Or we could put it like this: Should children and toddlers be coerced and terrified?

Either way, these questions are prompted by a new church-camp video that is making the rounds these days.  In the video, we see young children experiencing some of the typical manifestations of charismatic Christian worship.  They jerk their limbs, fall to the ground, engage in babbling speech, cry and shout.

Adults surround the children, clearly encouraging them to behave the right way.  Some children seem to participate enthusiastically.  Others seem confused, intimidated, or tearful.

There’s not much new here.  These sorts of behaviors have been manifestations of charismatic worship for a long time.  For just as long, they have been criticized by critics.  In the first Great Awakening of the 1740s, Boston minister Charles Chauncy famously attacked the revivalists for their embrace of “enthusiasm.”  Their emotional services prompted false conversions, Chauncy believed.  Attendees at big revival meetings found themselves caught up in the moment, jerking their bodies, crying out, falling down, but not becoming truly Christian.

More recent critics focus on the way young children are bullied into a traumatic emotional experience.  Atheist pundit Jerry Coyne, for instance, puts it this way:

It’s brainwashing, pure and simple. The kids have no choice. Is there anyone who wouldn’t call this abuse?

These behaviors seem bizarre to me as well.  But I don’t call it abuse.  The adults in this video, to my mind, don’t appear to be victimizing children, but rather trying to share an authentically held belief with them.  That’s a big difference.

I know this is a difficult topic to discuss.  I also know that I have absolutely no personal experience with this sort of thing.  And I sympathize deeply with those who found themselves traumatized by this sort of intense religious upbringing.

But if we call it “abuse” we are doing more than simply insulting these adult believers.  If we call it “abuse” we open the door to government intervention in these religious ceremonies, and others.

Perhaps some other examples will help make the case.  It is sadly not uncommon for religious people to insist on alternative medical care for children.  Instead of chemotherapy, for example, some believers may lay hands on a child who is suffering from cancer.  This is abusive.  The child is being substantially harmed by being denied effective treatment.

It is also sadly not uncommon for religious organizations—and, to be fair, non-religious organizations—to cover up sex abuse of minors in the name of religious solidarity.  Here, too, the government must intervene.  This is abuse.

Again, my heartiest sympathies go out to those who are struggling to overcome religious upbringings they found coercive.  Writers such as Samantha Field and Jonny Scaramanga have educated me a great deal about the ways religious beliefs can cause emotional harm and long-term trauma.

I’m not dismissing that.  But the church-camp activities here seem to be something different than “abuse.”  Am I wrong?


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  1. These behaviors seem bizarre to me as well. But I don’t call it abuse. The adults in this video, to my mind, don’t appear to be victimizing children, but rather trying to share an authentically held belief with them. That’s a big difference.

    That was my reaction. Several atheist blogs have shown the video clip as an example of abuse, but I don’t see that it is.

    I agree that it is bizarre. It is not a camp that I would recommend. But I think we should be cautious in throwing around criticism of abuse.

    • Bo Gardiner

       /  July 29, 2014

      I’d like for you all to answer this honestly: Imagine you saw this video for the first time with the audio turned down, and it was titled: “Secret Footage Revealed from Rapidly Spreading New Age Cult.”

      What would be your reaction?

      • Whenever I see terms such as “secret footage” and “cult,” I assume the video is bogus and hopelessly biased. Putting that aside, no matter what the video was called, I honestly think I would consider it very strange behavior. But I would not call it an obvious example of child abuse. As Anna pointed out, that sort of behavior MIGHT include coercion and abuse, but I don’t see any in the video itself.

      • Bo Gardiner

         /  July 29, 2014

        Do you have children, Adam? You’d honestly not object to nonChristian parents sending their children off without them to be be shouted at by big scary men, manhandled by teams of adults, bombarded with maniacal screaming, and forced to watch people writhing and convulsing all around them?
        I rather doubt that.

      • That’s a different question, though. How would I feel if MY daughter was in a video like that? Very angry. But that’s the point: These people are not my children; I don’t assume a right to know what is best for them. I feel we as a society should only intervene with other people’s children when there is more clear-cut evidence of abuse. It is partly because of my strong feelings about what is appropriate for my own children that I feel a need to be very careful about telling other people what their children should and should not be exposed to. Let’s try to change the discussion a bit: How do I feel about young children drinking Mountain Dew? I think it is a terrible idea and I would be horrified if my toddler did so. But do I think that parents who give their children Mountain Dew should have those children taken away by the government? No.

      • Bo Gardiner

         /  July 29, 2014

        It’s very disturbing that hear what these adults are doing to these poor kids dismissed as comparable to giving them soda pop. Attaching the label “religion” to rituals that otherwise would be widely condemned should never be an excuse for them

      • Why does it disturb you?

      • I guess Bo doesn’t want to talk any more about it. Fair enough. But I think Bo’s attitude is a good example of what I find most troubling about some people’s ideas about religion and public life. I don’t know Bo, but it seems as if the behaviors displayed in these videos struck him as shocking and bizarre. As he said, he found my willingness to use analogies to discuss them “disturbing.” I also find the behaviors strange, but being somewhat familiar with the tradition of charismatic Christianity I don’t find them shocking. Reading through the other comments here, I see that those who are familiar with this culture–even those who have become staunchly anti-religious–don’t consider this sort of thing abusive. So what’s my conclusion? The horror some folks feel about this sort of ceremony comes largely from their own utter ignorance about it. The obvious irony is that most of those who find this sort of thing abusive would not like to admit that their sentiments are fueled by their own ignorance. After all, that is their go-to accusation against “fundamentalists” and other conservative religious types.

      • My reaction would be about the same as I already gave.

        I came upon this video already described as if cultish. I was expecting something like an earlier “Jesus Camp” film. But when I watched, it did not match the description.

        The kids who were crying might have been abused. Or they might have had an attack of homesickness, which is common at that age.

        In short, the content of the video had too much ambiguity for me to jump onto the criticism bandwagon.

      • Bo Gardiner

         /  July 31, 2014

        “I guess Bo doesn’t want to talk any more about it.”

        I was literally struck speechless at your question “Why is it disturbing?” after you’d already read paragraphs from me answering this here and in the YouTube description, and are surely aware of the thousands of comments this video is receiving from people discussing why they find it disturbing. It seemed disingenuous, which I don’t deal well with. I can deal much better with “Yes, well, I can see how it would be disturbing to an outsider.”

        “…he found my willingness to use analogies to discuss them ‘disturbing.'”
        I’m a she. Please don’t alter what I said — I’m hardly disturbed by someone’s “willingness to use analogies.”

        “Reading through the other comments here, I see that those who are familiar with this culture–even those who have become staunchly anti-religious–don’t consider this sort of thing abusive. So what’s my conclusion? The horror some folks feel about this sort of ceremony comes largely from their own utter ignorance about it.”

        I suppose one could conclude that from three commenters on a religious site. But that would be extraordinarily poor scholarship, considering there are hundreds of comments on the nonreligious sites carrying this video from people raised in this culture who do feel it was abusive.

        “The obvious irony is that most of those who find this sort of thing abusive would not like to admit that their sentiments are fueled by their own ignorance.”

        I was once a youth leader in a semi-Charismatic high school retreat series.

      • Bo, Sorry about the name thing. But I’m not sorry about the rest. I still want to know what you find “disturbing.” It’s not disingenuous. Saying that something is disturbing or offensive without explaining is just substituting attitude for argument. I think there are some good arguments to be made here, and I was hoping you might make some. Why should we consider certain religious ceremonies abusive to children? In some cases, I think it is clear cut. For example, if a religion demands physical mutilation. Or if a religion insists that young people submit unhesitatingly and unquestioningly to the unsupervised dictates of a religious leader, I would worry that such a situation could easily lead to abuse. I don’t see that in these videos. And as an outsider to religious practice, I have learned to trust some of the commenters on this site. These are folks who have grown up in a variety of intense religious environments. Most of them have abjured the religious practices of their youths. They are not apologists, yet they find this video unexceptional. I think that is compelling evidence. Finally, I think it is fair to compare this video to other parenting practices, including diet. The central questions of interest here are child safety and government involvement. If safety is not at risk, even some unhealthy parenting decisions should be left alone.

  2. Most parents have beliefs and values that they want to pass onto their children. Having attended a charismatic church for a year, it was my impression that the kids were healthy and happy. The adults’ method of worship is bizarre to outsiders, but within the church, it is seen as a way to experience spiritual ecstasy. Nothing abusive about it. Also not my cup of tea.

  3. I have had personal experiences with charismatic rituals as a child as I was raised Pentacostal. My experiences were speaking in tongues, shaking, falling down, and a variety of overwhelming emotional experiences that come with this. I wouldn’t say that anything that happened to me was abusive, although I can certainly see these experiences becoming abusive for some children, so I can’t speak for everyone. Considering the many experiences that I had that I feel damaged me deeply, the charismatic rituals don’t even rank on the list.

    That said, there are safety concerns with these things. For example, these rituals could go on for a very long time and there was a lot of pressure to have an experience (especially speaking in tongues since my church did not believe you were saved until you did). As such, I recall standing for what may have been more than an hour or two (I don’t know), surrounded by a tight press people with their hands on me, screaming and praying until my voice was so broken I couldn’t form words anymore. I suspect I was very dehydrated and overheated by the end of that session, and I could see that being a danger. I was certainly lightheaded. I think that adults need to be aware of the body limitations of people who are engaging in these rituals… especially children. In addition, in many of the scenes in the video above, there was no one to catch the adults and children that were falling. This is definitely a hazard, both for the person falling and those around them. The scenes where there was someone to catch each child and lay them down gently seemed much safer.

    As for the emotional impact… that is a very difficult thing to judge. For me, I enjoyed these rituals as a child because they were very emotional and made me feel connected to a higher power. I did not feel coerced into most of them, although there were certainly high pressures to experience speaking in tongues at least once. If one was coerced into these experiences or felt scared of them, I could certainly see it being an abusive issue. However, I can’t consider participation in a religious ritual to be child abuse in itself. These actions may seem very bizarre to most people, but are they really so drastically different than any other religious ritual? I don’t know.

    I don’t know if there have been many studies done about the effect of charismatic rituals (both Christian and other religious traditions, since we tend to forget that many, many other religions have featured similar rituals). I’d be curious to see some data.

  4. Interesting question. I never found meetings like this disturbing, and I went to enough of them (although I was eight or nine by the time the churches I attended started getting into this sort of stuff in a big way).

    There are dangers with this sort of thing. For one thing, the culture of sharing testimonies at this kind of meeting discourages critical thought. People get up in meetings like this constantly and say “I just smashed my glasses on the floor because God healed my eyes and now I can see perfectly!” or “On Tuesday the doctor told me I had a tumour, so I came to the revival meeting. Today I had another scan and the tumour was gone! God healed me!”

    In that culture, anecdotes are evidence. Not only are they evidence, they border on sacrosanct. It would be breaking a very strong social taboo to suggest that there could be another explanation for these testimonies. So children grow up with this idea that “Well this old lady at church said…” is solid medical evidence, which obviously discourages rational thinking in a number of ways.

    Also, frequently in meetings like that, someone starts screaming. The explanation most commonly given for that is that this is a demon coming out of the person (so for at least a short time, there is a demon flying loose in the air of the church). You can imagine how some children might find that terrifying, although I don’t think I did. But more importantly, the person screaming probably has some genuine mental health problem which isn’t being seen to because everyone is attributing it to the work of demons and/or angels.

    It’s also pretty alienating. It was harder to relate to kids outside of the culture when your weekends (and some week nights) are full of this kind of activity. No one else gets it.

    But yeah, I lean towards the view that this is not abuse (or at least, not sufficient abuse to warrant intervention). I do think it’s harmful, though.

    I might do my own post on this. Thanks for sharing, Adam.

    • Very interesting. I find it hugely significant that someone who has done so much to expose the dangers of some forms of conservative Christianity finds this sort of thing non-threatening. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for your post.

      • Bo Gardiner

         /  August 2, 2014

        But he didn’t say it was “nonthreatening.” He said it was “harmful, “discourages critical thought, “discourages rational thinking,” “alienating,” that “some children might find that terrifying,” and it could mask a “genuine mental health problem which isn’t being seen to.” .

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