2007-10-07

Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (6): ever-present higher purpose

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by Neil Godfrey

(the full series is archived in the “RELIGION:Book reviews:Winell” category in the right column)

A dedicated religious life can be so busy (part of the problem but that’s another topic) that I used to draw up a priority list to help me keep my energies “correctly focussed” at all times. At the top of the list was always “God” or words similar to what that idea meant.

Life had a grand overall purpose. And there were hierarchies of subsidiary purposes below that but which were themselves facets helping me work to the higher purpose.

Under the various higher spiritual purposes which, after all, was what life itself was all about, came my wife, and then my kids. I don’t recall now, but I may have sometimes felt a bit queasy about having to make a decision over prioritizing between wife and kids — I probably rationalized any queasiness by reminding myself that I was doing my kids the best thing by showing them I loved their mother most of all — but there was never any thought of conflict over deciding between the “spiritual” and the “human” priorities.

(I sometimes see similar lists hanging up on colleagues’ work stations. My first impulse is to say, “Hey, relax, there’s no need. Do you really have to consciously allocate a specific order of priority for your own spouse and kids? Do you really have to keep them serially numbered on a list to remember to treat them the best you can? You look like you’ve reduced yourself to relating to them out of “duty” and “by appointment”. Is that really what you want?” But I don’t say it. I trust they’ll outgrow the yuppie-ness of it all if they don’t burnout first.)

The family can never be top priority in a life driven by a cosmically important purpose (Winell, p.122).

“The well-being of children can never compare to parental loyalty to spiritual matters. In fact, the more dedicated the parents are to evangelical causes, the greater the risk that the children will feel unimportant. Ordinary human relationships in the family rate a distant second to the importance of following God.” (p.122)

Families are temporary relationships in the fundamentalist belief system. Children are “temporarily lent” to the parents by God according to some church teachings. The real family is spiritual.

We know the verses underpinning this:

I have in other posts on this blog compared Jesus’ family relationships as they are portrayed in the gospels a little less favourably with Achilles, another god-man exemplar of another culturally foundational text for the Hellenistic world — here (1) and here (2)

Here is the hard part for many current believers to accept:

What happens when children become secondary to a greater good is similar to the neglect that happens to children in families where one parent is addicted to drugs, alcohol, work, or money. (p.122)

It can be worse in a religious family simply because both parents are addicted to God.

Even more troublesome is the insistence that devotion is a higher calling. Children cannot question this without feeling guilty, selfish, or absurd. (p.122)

At least the child of an alcoholic can call on sympathy and support networks from society. He/she can be given programs to help restore her esteem and emotional health. And the parents can be helped too. Or threatened with punishment if they don’t change.

But where abuse (even manslaughter in extreme cases) is perpetrated through the behest of socially respectable religious beliefs there is no recourse.

There is little enough acknowledgment of the exact nature of the problem in the first place. Subsequent family tragedies may be put down to “trials from Satan”, or “wrong decisions” or the cross one bears for godliness or anything that fails to comprehend what has really happened.

It’s surely obvious that this is not a problem exclusive to Christian fundamentalists. But Christian fundamentalism is one of the principle culprits in the society where most of us do have some influence.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (6): ever-present higher purpose”

  1. This was the first problem with my upbringing that I was able to recognize. As a fundamentalist MK (Missionary’s Kid), I was expected to be an asset to the “work”, not a hindrance. And if I couldn’t be that asset (as when I was sick or there was no school available for me), I was handed over to some busy overseer or left to work things out on my own.

    Talking, years and decades later, with other MKs, I discovered that it is a common feature of our lives. “God’s work” always, always, always comes first. And we kids were shunted from relatives to boarding schools to “good Christian families” in a variety of countries to allow that work to go on.

  2. “What happens when children become secondary to a greater good is similar to the neglect that happens to children in families where one parent is addicted to drugs, alcohol, work, or money. (p.122)”

    I believe in God, and a higher calling. I also work with abused and or neglected children. I’m not sure how bad abuse or neglect is in other countries, but here it is bad. And I wish the parents I dealt with were dealing with a higher calling, or anything besides dealing with themselves.

    Sadly.

  3. “And I wish the parents I dealt with were dealing with a higher calling, or anything besides dealing with themselves.”

    — such as the parents of MK’s as per Susannah’s post?

    (I get the impression that you are denying that Winell’s work — including the supporting clinical research that she draws on — and the experiences that she refers to, and that so obviously resonate with so many, are valid or serious issues.)

  4. I am saying that people do some terrible, terrible things for addictions. I don’t even want to give examples here, because I am sure you know. So, comparing those acts with those of an authoritative parent, is not ‘comparable’.

    Yes, there may be abuse or neglect in the latter, I am not denying this. But addiction is hard core.

  5. You appear to be singling out the “drugs and alcohol” comparisons and for some reason not seeing these in the context of a 4 fold comparison along with “work and money” — and hence misunderstanding or overlooking the actual point being made:

    “What happens when children become secondary to a greater good is similar to the neglect that happens to children in families where one parent is addicted to drugs, alcohol, work, or money.” (p.122)

    The point is the neglect of children, the “what happens when” in the above quote. There are many different ways that lead to child-neglect — 4 are specifically cited in addition to the self-absorbed god-addiction of others. You seem to be shifting the focus here to specific “acts” of parents associated with certain conditions.

    I use the word god-addiction here deliberately, because as a guest in the homes of some families where the parents are so addicted to their religion I and those with me have been completely ignored until a tv evangelist program or prayer session etc had finished. These moments have reminded me of times I have had to be kept waiting in another home until someone came out of a bender. It was clear as day that the issue of neglect of children in both families is the same.

    As for abuse and domestic violence, that is another issue that I will be addressing in a future post in this section.

    Till then, the point is the experiences of the children who suffer neglect. This is not just an issue restricted to families with socially undesirable problems, but is also a big problem within the socially respectable institutions, even god-fearing and faithful fundamentalist families. Society has institutions to deal with one, but the other is largely neglected by comparison — arguably it is not even recognized as a real issue.

  6. “What happens when children become secondary to a greater good is similar to the neglect that happens to children in families where one parent is addicted to drugs, alcohol, work, or money. (p.122)”

    Excellent points…not exactly “politically correct,” to make them, I’m sure! But let’s not forget to include addictions of all varieties. Power must head the list as it always seems defended as necessary to someone’s “greater good.” And fame manages to qualify as an excuse for addictive behaviors that have abuse and neglect of children as “collateral damage” or “unintended consequences.
    Although work and money would seem to include just about every other category of activity know to humankind, some “addictions” seem to receive greater acceptance by too many who simply refuse to see the obvious damage to others..especially children. Consider athletes, physicians, politicians, scientists educators, et al, who simply choose to believe whatever they are addicted to is for the “greater good” and therefore justifies any abuse and neglect of their children… or all children!
    Now that I’ve managed to depress myself thinking about all the activities taken to addictive levels and defended on the basis of some abstract concept of the greater good at the expense of children I’ll move on to my blog for some relief.
    That’s a bit of sarcasm…as http://childpersonfromthesouth.blogspot.com is focused on abused and neglected children.
    Take care…be aware,
    Nancy Lee

  7. children become parents and low self-esteem is one of the more strongly associated traits found in parents who neglect their children, often without fully realizing it i think. vicious circle and all that. parents need as much help as the kids. all are victims of ignorance in a sense.

    – imagine what PR firms and advertizing industries could achieve if they had an incentive to “target” such people to assist them towards real self-esteem — maybe they could be contracted out by departments of health or such. why not? if they can privatize armies and prisons . . . .

    Why not begin organizing and lobbying for something like this?

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