Religion and the Inner Child: Barbara G. Walker

By Barbara G. Walker

Ever since human beings began to develop concepts of religion, their supreme deity has always been envisioned as a parent: the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving and all-forgiving parent that every child is born wanting. Human parents invariably fall short of the child’s ideal, but the concept remains and is projected onto the universe as a whole, because of the consciously forgotten but emotionally ubiquitous inner child.

Every infant mammal is genetically pre-programmed to focus intently on its mother: to follow her, imitate her, learn from her, and to cry out for her if she gets too far away. She is food, warmth, comfort, reassurance. She is the only help of the helpless. In most species, males and other females usually ignore the orphan, or chase it away. The newborn mammal knows very little else, but it knows one certain thing: Mother is Life, and without her it can die. In the realm of Mother Nature, every day is Mother’s Day.

That’s why the supreme deity of humanity’s first two million years or so, before fatherhood was understood, was a Great Mother, creatress of the universe. She gave birth to everything because, to our remote ancestors, birth and beginning were the same. Her womb produced it all: plants and animals for human nourishment, the sun, moon and stars, the forests and plains, all the gods themselves. The deep sea was often symbolized as the Mother’s primal womb, as if there may have been a rudimentary sense of the beginning of evolution, for we know now that pre-Cambrian life really did arise first in the oceans.

About five or six thousand years ago, when some cultures of the world discovered fatherhood, the idealized super-parent began to be seen as male, as opposed to previous gods who were sons and consorts of the Goddess. Father-worship spread rapidly and has now taken over all the major religions.

Certain noticeable differences in the deity’s character accompanied the change. Father gods tended to be more demanding, more warlike, more given to unpredictable fits of wrath, and more severe in their punishments than the Mother Goddesses. Goddess religions never had a hell, never defined sexuality as sinful, never ordered genocidal slaughters, and never imposed so heavy a burden of guilt on the “children” as did the father gods. In general, the Goddess was more tolerant.

Various reasons have been cited for this. Some said the mother-child bond is the basis of all human connection, being the most durable of all “instinctive”–that is, hormonally generated–relationships. The Sanskrit word karuna, “mother love,” is an almost untranslatable blend of compassion, tenderness, kindness, sensuality, eroticism, and religious feeling, said to be learned through the warmth of physical contact in infancy. Men may partake of karuna but they are not its natural wellsprings and must learn it from women, from mothers.

Every mythology in the world has some version of the fall from paradise, or the loss of a golden age of happiness, or an eviction from a primal Utopia where life was infinitely pleasurable and easy. Psychologists have noted a correspondence between these myths and buried memories of early infancy, or even of the total comfort of intrauterine life, abruptly terminated by the birth trauma. The fact that babies arrive crying into the world shows that birth is felt as a painful separation from the ineffable peace of life in the womb.

Another feature common to most mythologies is the long-ago age of giants, set quite close to the initial fall from paradise. As the bible puts it, “there were giants in the earth in those days,” before the time when the gods began to mate with mortal women and beget “mighty men” (Genesis 6:4). Of course, infants and toddlers know about giants: they live in a world populated by people much bigger than they are and mysteriously competent, able to perform wonders. So the Greek myths have their age of Titans, children of the original Earth Mother. Norse myths have their Giantesses or Primal Matriarchs, robbed by the god Thor of their occult secrets of magic–but only after he was able to swim a river of their menstrual blood (corresponding to the Greeks’ River Styx) to reach their hidden land.1 It was a crude but psychologically interesting vision of the return to the womb.

Sigmund Freud defined religion as “an attempt to get control over the sensory world . . . by means of the wish world that we have developed inside. Religions originate in the child’s and young humankind’s fears and need for help. The common human cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. The whole thing is so patently infantile that it is painful to think that a great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.” The 5th-century teacher and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria had similar sentiments: “Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child’s mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can the child be, in after years, relieved of them.”2

Hypatia was murdered with extraordinary brutality by a gang of Christian monks led by the patriarch Cyril, who was canonized by Pope Leo XIII in the year 1882. Hypatia’s death was said to have marked the end of intellectual progress in Egypt.3

Most people do not automatically invent the super-parent for themselves. They are taught by the culture, trained from earliest childhood to think this way by a vast network of clergy and by earthly parents, who were themselves similarly taught. In a sense, religion constitutes an industry that must keep on creating its consumers with every generation. According to Dr. Joseph Beach of the University of Minnesota, those who resist the indoctrination experience “a great wastage of energy in each generation as they go through the painful process of throwing off the religious teachings of their childhood.” Jane Conrad writes, “There comes a day when a schoolchild realizes Mother Goose is a story, Santa Claus is Daddy, and the Tooth Fairy a parent. But some adults cannot reject their infantile Superman whom they named ‘God,’ and for them ‘God-belief’ causes intellectual retardation.”4

In Luke 18:17, Jesus says one can receive the kingdom of God only “as a little child,” which is usually interpreted to mean that faith must be as simple and unquestioning as a small child’s belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy–or the bogeyman that lurks in one’s dark bedroom closet, for fear is a large component of faith. Young children rarely distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality, and neither did our primitive ancestors, who often regarded their own dreams and visions as objective experiences. Even today, when science has revealed an objective universe, such as our ancestors never could imagine, some religious authorities still insist on denying the facts of that universe, to maintain childlike belief in their congregations. Ruth Hurmence Green writes; “For his companions in eternity, God prefers not the accomplished, the brilliant, the stimulating, not the outstanding achievers who may not conform, but the docile, the gullible, the childlike, the nondescript nonentities with nothing to recommend their selection but blind belief.”5

The word “religion” comes from Latin, meaning “re-linking,” or “re-binding,” in the sense of coming back to something once powerfully joined: possibly a re-linking with childhood’s time of innocence and trust, or even an umbilical link with the serenity of life in the womb. The word was coined in a distant past when the Mother Goddess was still very much alive in the collective mind, but the connection with her did not carry as much fear, guilt, or sense of sin that characterize father religions. Joseph Campbell writes: “Sentiments of identity are associated most immediately with the mother; those of dissociation with the father. Hence, where the mother image preponderates, even the dualism of life and death dissolves in the rapture of her solace.”6

The sense of guilt, of self-accusation, and the doctrines of original sin began with the accession of father gods, and reached a peak after the Goddess image was eliminated and the deity had become entirely male. Guilt was always confused with sexuality, because that marks physical adulthood and the abandonment of childish “innocence.” Father gods were intensely jealous of human sexuality, which seems to have been frequently viewed as a usurpation of godlike prerogatives. The Greeks’ Father Zeus was enraged by the perpetual sexual bliss enjoyed by the original Golden Age people, who were both male and female in one body. Zeus violently tore them apart. In his haste he left a piece out of the female stuck to the male. Thus woman was left with a hole that sometimes bleeds like a wound, and man was left with extra flesh that is under woman’s control and wants to return to its former place. Thus did the Greeks explain the origin of sex, declaring that each gender still longs to be “re-linked” with its lost other half. The biblical story of God taking Eve out of Adam was based on this classic concept. There were Gnostic traditions that said not only Adam and Eve lived together in one body, but God himself was once “one” with a female counterpart, the heavenly Eve, whom cabalistic Jews called Shekinah, and Christians called Sophia.7

The father god’s sexual jealousy has been psychologically connected also to the instinctual fear of a male mammal for any younger, stronger, more potent rival. But a rival’s challenge is fearful too, as he dares the anger of the alpha male and thus commits the sin that the Greeks called hubris, meaning both “lechery” and “pride,”8 both words associated with sexual vigor. Pride, we are told, was the sin of Lucifer, who was the rival cast down for his hubris, a challenger who failed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, written in 1944, declares that all humans owe God their respect and “loving fear,” a curious ecclesiastical oxymoron.9 But perhaps a child’s fear of punishment by its caretakers, on whom it is utterly dependent, helps to explain this ill-chosen term.

The infant thinks it can control the universe. It has only to make a noise, and its needs are fulfilled. The child learns that control must involve intermediaries: those giant people who can grant wishes if approached in the right way. Children learn to manipulate the adult world in the same ways that believers try to manipulate their deity. A reason for the believer’s traditional hostility toward science is that science depersonalizes the universe, showing that it is not a manipulatable parent figure but an objective reality indifferent to human desires. As Walter Lippmann once said, “The radical novelty of modern science lies precisely in the rejection of the belief, which is at the heart of all popular religion, that the forces which move the stars and atoms are contingent upon the preferences of the human heart.”10 Prayer is hardly useful if there is no actual super-parent listening and willing to comply.

Since the image of the super-parent is created by the culture, it may also be destroyed by the culture, and that is the real secret fear of believers. When a child no longer believes in Santa Claus, we regard it as an inevitable part of growing up. But when the inner child no longer believes in the superparent, those who still believe are outraged: especially those whose God has a jealous and vengeful nature. Like children anxious to disclaim responsibility for the broken vase or the spilled paint, they fear his retribution even when the fault is someone else’s. The dismal history of violence under patriarchal religions shows us the depth of this fear and the extreme lengths to which people will go to maintain their faith against any who believe otherwise.

And what could be more childlike than the Christian conviction that someone else has taken the blame and assumed the punishment for one’s own sins, so that the superfather may be constrained to forgive, and not consign one to his superhell for all eternity? Indeed these are concepts left over from the nursery age of humankind, and only the assiduous daily promotions of the religion industry keep them from fading away.

Nowadays, most religious authorities have made some room in their creeds for scientific understandings of the nature of Nature, having realized at last that our earth is not flat, not the center of the universe, and not designed merely as a proving ground for human souls. But some still maintain a childlike literalism in regard to bible passages. For example, Orthodox Rabbi Zvi Gafner proclaimed in 1993 that the Jurassic Park movies were “imbuing children with heresy,” and that modern encyclopedias do the same: “The dinosaur is represented in encyclopedias as an animal that is millions of years old, despite the fact that the world was created only 5,753 years ago.”11 Thus, Rabbi Gafner dismisses two centuries of geological and paleontological studies in favor of childlike myths written down by ignorant folk two millennia ago.

If literalism is religion for the childlike, then what might be a religion for grownups? Charles F. Potter, founder of the First Humanist Society of New York City, wrote: “Humanism is an adult religion for mature minds. The humanist has outgrown belief in fairy-tales about angels, demons, devils, or gods. In place of faith in miracles and the supernatural, his interest is in the slow steady improvement of human personality.”12 This may be, indeed, the best and truest purpose of religion.

The Reverend Shirley Ranck, a Unitarian minister who originated the “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” course, gives an interesting assessment of religious “inwardness” as an adult version of the inner child, adapted to modern psychological and philosophical realities. “We are trying to come of age as human beings, to give up our childish dependence on a parental deity enthroned in a supernatural realm. But . . . we are still faced with the ultimate questions about life and death and meaningful existence. The awareness of an immanent God or Goddess within each of us (is) an inner spiritual journey toward value and meaning as adults. Such a transformation of religion from outer to inner makes each of us responsible for our values . . . It gives validity to female as well as male experience. It challenges us to alter society whenever it fails to support harmony within the self, among selves, and in relation to nature.”13

What better purpose could there be in life than to achieve that harmony? What a pity it is that religions, which could have been such a powerful force for true enlightenment, have bitterly opposed every advance of human knowledge throughout history, have consistently tried to keep their congregations ignorant, and in many cases are still doing so today. What we now know about our universe, our origins, and ourselves has been learned against enormous pressures and persecutions on the part of religions, instead of with what should have been their encouragement. It seems the traditional God does not want “his” children to grow up.

Nevertheless (God to the contrary notwithstanding), this is a purpose worthy of our aspirations for our children and our children’s children; and perhaps some day humanity may indeed come of age. All too often, the super-Father has taught humans to be cruel. But as Miles Abelard sums it up, “A sentient and thinking being needs but to feel and to think in order to discover that which is due to himself and to others; I fee1, and another feels like myself; this is the foundation of all morality.”14 The words attributed to Jesus by Luke 18:17 say that no one can enter into the kingdom of God without becoming like a little child. But certainly, for the benefit of earth’s kingdoms, what we really need is more maturity.

In a sense, it may be said that our technology and our skillful manipulation of raw materials–for both esthetic and practical purposes–have matured well ahead of any psychological or emotional maturity that our species may attain. We know how to make things and do things, but we don’t know how to overcome our prejudices, intolerance, and bigotry. We know how to build cathedrals, but we don’t know how to stop fighting each other.

How incongruous it is, that when people gather together to appreciate the works of God, they are surrounded only by the works of man. Churches, temples and mosques express the creativity and craftsmanship of human artisans, not divine ones. “Houses of God” are really houses of man. Even their holy images have human faces. But the works of God, as most people envision them, are not indoors. They are out in the world of nature, about which the average person knows remarkably little.

Is the cathedral a place of beauty? Yes, but the wings of a dragonfly are even more beautiful than stained-glass windows. Is the flying buttress a marvel of engineering? Yes, but a spider’s web is even more marvelous in both structure and function. Do church spires inspire, as they point to heaven? Yes, but the shining towers of cumulus clouds in a bright sky are much more impressive. Does the idea of a fiery hell frighten you? Perhaps, but the original basis of its myth, volcanic fire erupting from the bowels of the earth, formed the real terror. Holy images may be adorned with faceted gems, but the naturally formed crystals of gem materials are more beautiful and also more enlightening. Serious study of them gives more insight into the forces that shape the universe than hours of contemplating the pallid painted face of a phony saint in sanctuarial gloom, even if the eyes are made of jewels.

When Buddha’s disciples begged him for the ultimate revelation, so the story goes, he said nothing, but held up a single small flower. This was the famous Flower Sennon, whereby Buddha underscored his dislike of lavish temples and pretentious theology, and implied that the proper object of human contemplation is not the supernatural, but the natural. Buddha was opposed to formal worship. He specifically charged his followers not to turn him into a god, not to build temples or make images in his honor, not to prostrate themselves in adoration. Of course, they disobeyed this command. Two centuries after his death, Buddha became one of the world’s foremost holy icons.

Churches live on money. The largest sums of money ever generated by human culture over the centuries have been poured into building and maintaining God’s houses with all their personnel and trappings, music, artworks, treasures, and political maneuverings. The greatest composers, painters and sculptors have toiled for the greater glory of churches. Also, the poorest of congregations have struggled to contribute their mites, tax-free, to dress the icons in gold and silver. Many of history’s best minds have been forced to curb their natural curiosity about the universe, and have been put to work on theological complexities having no basis in reality. Both material and mental resources have been funneled into a huge fantasy system, often to the detriment of true understanding or appreciation of the world in which we live all our lives.

It is sometimes claimed that scientific understanding of the world robs us of the awe and wonder inherent in a religious attitude; that the “secular” mind is devoid of transcendent intimations. On the contrary, the universe that science reveals is infinitely grander than any religious vision has ever been, and more awe-inspiring than even the biggest church. An ancient prophet could look up at a star and imagine it to be the face of an angel, or the essence of a blessed soul, or a window into heavenly brightness. But how much more expansive is our vision, when we can look up at the same star and know it to be a raging nuclear furnace, thousands of times larger than our earth, billions of miles away in the vastness of space? Surely it is science, more than religion, that opens the mind to wonder.

Science allows us to peer into the atomic interstices of matter, to discover new life forms in the ocean’s deeps, to learn how light rays nourish plants, and to study our own metabolic processes, teaching us to invent new ways of healing and relieving pains that our ancestors simply suffered, while begging God for relief that never came, short of death. Science has given us a more understandable and comfortable world. But religion clings to its “mystery”–a euphemism for its error.

God never bothered to tell his allegedly enlightened favorites that stars are simply other suns, that the earth is not flat, that the moon shines by reflected sunlight, that illness is not caused by demons, or that the world was not created in the fourth millennium B.C.E. God gave the wrong answers to human questions. Having attained an age of reason, would a child continue to trust a teacher or a parent who did that?

That so many still trust a patently deceptive God indicates that we have not yet, as a species, attained an age of reason. Superstitions abound in the world, and “holy” teachings often specifically exclude any training in rational thought.

Ecclesiastical authorities insist that the “children” of God need their elaborate ceremonials and their splendid churches in order to experience the spiritual: to feel that they are in the presence of the divine, which is sometimes envisioned as a communion with the inner self, or what the Hindus call atman. Personally, I have never had what is usually described as a religious experience–Sigmund Freud’s “oceanic feeling”–inside a church. I have had it when swaying in the upper branches of a tall tree, or standing in eternal snow on a mountaintop, or contemplating the moon-path glittering on the sea. I have admired some churches and enjoyed their man-made aesthetic, but that is not the same thing. True communion between one’s inner being and the outer world may be better found in the infinite complexity of Mother Nature than in the artificial houses of God. A living woodland, rich in its flora and fauna, may be far lovelier than the Gothic arches that cathedral builders called the “forest.”

Early churchmen themselves were misled by their own childish credulity into literalizing the common mythology of the ancient world, with its plethora of virgin-born, miracle-working, sacrificial savior figures, into pseudo-historical gospels that become more embarrassing as scholars find out more about their real origins. “People who were children in intellect took the grand parables and allegories of the esoteric wisdom and fed them to infantile minds as veritable history.”14 Having done so, they imposed this pseudo-history on Western civilization with fire and sword, outlawed rational inquiry, stifled critical thought, and destroyed schools and libraries throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, wiping out priceless literature and historical records. “Ignorance and unquestioning faith were championed, frauds were passed for sacred truths, dissent of any kind was labelled heresy, and within a short time, all of Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages.”15

“Fathers” of the Christian church insisted on their parental titles, and learned to regard the faithful as their naive children, who would accept any tale, however wildly improbable, that they were told. Early Christian writers, like Eusebius, liberally engaged in “holy lying” and many of his lies are still put forth as true. Even St. Augustine deemed it “expedient” to make people believe certain things that are false, and to conceal other things that the “vulgar crowd” should not know. Through the centuries, religious “fathers” have deliberately forged, fabricated and dissembled the beliefs demanded of their “children,” for, as St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote to St. Jerome, the people are childlike, and “the less they understand, the more they admire.”16

Today, those whose inner child still requires literal belief in mythic fantasy do not question the improbabilities they are told, nor dare to expose themselves to scholars’ investigations into the true historical sources of scriptures, rituals, liturgies, and the characters of the holy drama. Although most religious leaders well know the truths behind Bible stories and church history, many continue to demand childlike faith from their congregations, who are not considered mature enough to contemplate an adult philosophy.

Someday, perhaps this lack of trust will work to the churches’ disadvantage and carry away their pretensions to authority, just as Santa Claus rides away into the sunset when the Christmas child grows up.

1. Turville-Petre, E.O.G. Myth and Religion of the North. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964, p. 79

2. Smith, Warren Allen. Who’s Who in Hell. New York; Barricade Books, 2000, p. 559

3. Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. HarperSanFrancisco, 1983, p. 420

4. Smith, op. cit., pp. 83-239

5. Ibid., p. 458

6. Campbell, Joseph. Occidental Mythology. New York: Viking Press, 1964, p. 70

7. Ochs, Carol. Behind the Sex of God. Boston: Beacon Press, 1977, p. 121

8. Potter, Stephen, & Lauren Sargent. Pedigree. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1974, p. 176

9. Smith, op. cit., p. 52

10. Ibid., p. 675

11. Ibid., p. 602

12. Ibid., p. 879

13. Ranck, Shirley Ann. Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. Chicago: Delphi Press Inc., 1995, p. 11

14. Abelard, Miles R. Physicians of No Value. Winter Park, FL: Reality Publications, 1979, p. 86.

15. Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2004, pp. 150, 179

16. Ibid., pp. 49, 182

Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her many other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions.

Freedom From Religion Foundation