26 November 2005

Under the Banner of Heaven and child abuse

I would like to write about this article in The New York Times and this book, which I'm currently reading. But I have little directly to say, beyond that I think y'all should read both of them.

The two pieces report on practices of polygamy and rape, the article in poverty-stricken northeast Africa, the book in Fundamentalist Mormon communities in North America. Both discuss the horrors of the systems where thirteen is not an uncommon age for girls (or are they now women?) to become second or third wives to men many decades older. Both mention the rape, physical abuse, and complete lack of freedom meted out to the young wives. Krakauer's book, Under the Banner of Heaven, is much longer, and he easily fills it, giving him time to also discuss the history and community that leads to and perpetuates such heinous behavior.

I would like popular reportage like these to mention modern psychological research in abuse, and perhaps Krakauer does later in the book (I'm only half way through), but he hasn't yet, whereas he mentioned most of his main themes early on. In fact, a complete understanding of rape, incest, child physical and sexual abuse, etc. needs more than an understanding of a "culture of obedience," for which Krakauer rightly condemns both the Fundamentalist Mormon and the larger Mormon communities. Discussions of "violent faith" skirt the issue too. These are important issues, no doubt — certainly a liberating theology would not make its adherents so prone to such victimization — but to understand how adherents can be prone to perpetration as well as victimization also requires understanding cultures of abuse. I have no doubt that child abuse rates are much higher among the depicted societies than among societies with healthier and less violent relations; Krakauer does not shy from mention of childhood beatings and incestuous sexual abuse. What needs to be connected better is how abuse begets abuse, how abusive societies can self-perpetuate.

There's another, related phenomenon about which I'm curious. Well-developed psychological theories to which I subscribe, and which have strong empirical backing, causally link a host of pathologies to a history of childhood abuse, especially abuse by a caregiver. In particular, syndromes in which forms of dissociation are central — Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), for instance, is an extreme case, but also hearing voices, certain forms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, amnesia of abusive events, and possibly out-of-body experiences — are primarily caused by variously intense (and possibly fear-inducing or violent) betrayal traumas. So, what about receiving Divine inspiration, a la Mohammed or Joseph Smith, or the many modern prophets described in Under the Banner of Heaven?

There is current, modern research on the similarities and differences between the voices a prophet hears and the voices heard by someone with a hebephrenic-schizophrenia-style dissociative disorder. But, with a long-range global trend of decreasing rates of child abuse, will we (or our descendants) approach the end of the age of religion? Will there be a time, after we have eradicated child abuse, when God and Satan no longer possess people and teach them to write great books? I myself would rather that than one mighty and strong building an even stronger patriarchal oppressive World Religion.

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