I believe that there are certain fundamental and intrinsic defects in the institution of the nuclear family that give rise to child abuse and mistreatment; but I also believe that the institution of the “non-esoteric religious community” or “practical philosophical community” would be able to help address and overcome those intrinsic defects. And, importantly, it would do so by complementing the nuclear family, rather than destroying or replacing it, or swallowing it up.
Let me say at the outset that, as a general matter, I do not want the state to be involved in trying to solve the sorts of family problems that I will be discussing (although I do think there may be a role for the state, at least for the time being, when child abuse takes less subtle forms of physical and sexual abuse, making it necessary for the child to be removed from the home). I also do not want to see any “Brave New World” scenario come about in which parents no longer play a central role in the upbringing of their children, and in which this job is given over to some irresponsible bureaucratic “collective.”
However, I believe that hysterical fear about the emergence of any such “Brave New World” scenario has actually been whipped up for the purpose of distracting people’s attention away from the fact that the nuclear family—when left on its own—is far from ideal. I do not believe that people should be content to assume that so long as parents are just “left alone to raise their children” without any outside interference from anyone, then everything will be all right—as many now believe, since “everyone knows” (because it’s said so very often) that parents love their children ever so much and would do anything for them.
So I realize that I’m going to meet with a lot of resistance when I offer the suggestion that the nuclear family—considered by itself, in a socially isolated state—is really not such a great thing after all. In fact, I restate my belief that considered by itself it is a fundamentally dysfunctional and intrinsically defective institution that cannot be relied upon to attend to the needs of children. And that is the reason why I believe it is absolutely essential that voluntary, non-esoteric religious communities be brought into existence in order to complement and give support to nuclear families, and help to compensate for their inherent weaknesses and limitations.
One basic problem with the nuclear family is its secrecy. As everyone knows, nuclear families, even more than extended families, have “family secrets.” It is highly significant that this problem of secrecy also happens to be shared in common with esoteric religion; and that is why I place so much emphasis specifically on non-esoteric religious communities as the solution to the problems associated with the nuclear family, rather than “religious communities” or “religion” in general. If the problems caused by family secrecy are to be overcome, it will have to be with the aid of groups, organizations, and communities whose dealings, beliefs, and values are fully public and transparent.
It is the authority exercised by a non-esoteric religious community in public that would help to ensure that the authority exercised by parents in private was not misused. It is necessary that there be some authority superior to the parents that is in a position to correct and chasten parents as parents if they show signs of needing correction and chastening. Having said that, I believe it is dangerous to allow the state to serve as this needed source of superior authority (as is now often the case, at least in more extreme types of situations), since there is no practicable way to escape from state authority, and so it will almost inevitably abuse its power. A non-esoteric religious community would serve as a compromise between no authority and monopolistic state authority. Since a non-esoteric religious community is a voluntary organization, parents would be free to exit it at any time along with their children; but the parents would lose the benefits of being associated with that community, including its moral and mental direction and guidance. As long as they were associated with the community, however, they would be subject to its authority and discipline. But at the same time, if a community were to abuse its authority over parents, large numbers of them might flee; and the possibility of that happening would also serve to discipline the community and prevent it from acting in an arbitrary manner, since any such “mass exodus” of parents would not reflect well on the way in which the community was conducting its affairs. So, even though there is an absence of any real “balance of power” as between parents and children when they are left to themselves, a kind of “balance of power” would exist as between parents and non-esoteric religious communities that could help compensate for that absence. For that reason, the non-esoteric religious community might be thought of as acting as the representative and guardian of the children—or, to put it another way, the representative and guardian of the adults that they will someday become. Each non-esoteric religious community would thus be exerting pressure on parents to think in a more “enlightened” manner with respect to the future of their own children, at the same time as that of the entire society.
When I speak of “family secrecy,” a distinction ought to be made. Needless to say, fellow members of a nuclear family live at close quarters, giving them an opportunity to witness each other in many potentially embarrassing situations. Showing discretion regarding the public discussion of such matters ought to be encouraged, so that people are not needlessly embarrassed. But if the reason why parents fear embarrassment is the way in which they are parenting their children, then I do not believe that this is the sort of secrecy that ought to be respected or honored either by the children in that nuclear family, or by the other members of any religious community with which the family was affiliated. If certain parents are not competent, then assistance and instruction ought to be given to them so that they can become competent parents. But that can’t happen when people—whether it be individual parents or members of society in general—refuse to recognize the existence of a problem, and instead work to keep it hidden.
Closely related to this, a problem that is frequently found in dysfunctional families is that of the “scapegoating” of certain children as “basically defective.” (However, I believe the practice is so common that I am reluctant to associate it only with so-called “dysfunctional” families, since by doing that I may give the impression that its occurrence is something rare.) I believe that “scapegoating”—but also child abuse and mistreatment more generally—are ultimately caused by parents’ desire to flee from a requirement that they be held fully responsible in public for any of their errors or failings that have caused harm to their children. The result of society’s permitting this evasion of responsibility is that the harm caused by parents’ erroneous ways of thinking and unconscious beliefs is allowed to compound over the years and even down through the generations, because those ways of thinking and unconscious beliefs are never made explicit and publicly revealed.
In fact, I do not think it would go too far to say that the institution of the nuclear family, as it is currently situated, is intrinsically opposed to a general social requirement that all members of society be held fully responsible in public for any of their errors or failings that have caused harm to others—including their children (which I believe is a social requirement that we ought to have and very much need). A person’s beliefs regarding how one ought to act—by which I mean, how one ought to act in general, but also more specifically, how one ought to go about rearing one’s children—never get tested or evaluated in a way that would lead to public accountability (on the part of both individuals and communities) for people’s decisions to accept those beliefs in practice, in the way that they act.
The practice of scapegoating allows parent and siblings in a nuclear family to first avoid emotional harm or a lowering of self-esteem in themselves—thus obtaining a kind of “benefit”—and then, they are able to disclaim responsibility for the damage done to others in the family in consequence of their obtaining that “benefit” of avoiding low self-esteem in themselves. The reason why they can do this is that they do not need to worry about their being personally judged on the basis of what happens to other members of the family. That in turn is made possible by the fact that people can always move on from a nuclear family—or else, people will often expect and demand that a childhood victim of such a family simply “move on”; or, the other family members might decide to just “move on” from the victim, perhaps leaving him or her effectively stranded. In fact, a person is supposed to “move on” from a nuclear family, as part of its very definition. In a word: Nuclear families break up. That’s what they do. They first come into being, and then they dissolve. And it all happens in a single generation.
Related to this, notice that unlike other formally organized groups of people—such as a town, or a religious community, or a business corporation—a nuclear family does not even have an actual ongoing name of its own; any name that it has is only a temporary one. For that reason, when adults speak of “my family,” it is not necessarily clear whether they mean the nuclear family in which they grew up (which has already broken up), or a family that they have helped to create (which is on its way to breaking up if it has not already done so). And so they are not definitely associated with either one exclusively. All they are left with, as an ongoing, continuing identity, is their own individual identity: their own individual name. If none of the family institutions with which they are involved even have continuing names of their own, how can any of those institutions ever get a bad one in the eyes of the rest of society? And if they cannot get “bad names,” then how can the (mostly implicit and unconscious) beliefs held by the parents in a particular nuclear family—the beliefs which were responsible for the ways in which the children in that family were raised—ever get a “bad name” in the eyes of the public? In more traditional societies, it was possible for a “clan” or a “house” to get something like a “bad name” or a “bad reputation,” since they would endure longer than a single generation, thus making it possible to discern some common “essence” in different generations of individuals; but, generally speaking, we do not have “clans” or “houses” in our society. And even then, it would have been difficult to identify what the reasons for that “essence” were, given that the actual beliefs held by the members of the “clan” or “house” that actually motivated their ways of behaving would have remained largely implicit, unconscious, and concealed from public view.
But carefully note the following: Unlike with a nuclear family, it is not possible to just “move on” in the same way from a real-world, intergenerational community of people with a definite, public identity that is known to the rest of the society. An individual father in an isolated nuclear family can beat his child mercilessly (in private, that is—a fact which is crucially significant), and then in his own individual mind (which is going to be a pretty demented one) he will always feel free to blame the child for having been “born rotten” or for having been a “bad seed” when—surprise, surprise—the child doesn’t turn out so great. And, for the most part, society is willing to go along with the judgment made by that father; and there is also a good chance that, at least to some extent, the child will do so as well. But what if that same father were situated within an identifiable community of people, one with a fixed, intergenerational identity, so that, in the eyes of the rest of society, he was associated with a group of other fathers who shared roughly the same beliefs and thought more or less in the same way that he did? Then (if that community chose not to take notice of such things) they could in theory all beat their kids in private to their heart’s delight—but the result is that their community would wither and thus be perceived as unsuccessful by the larger society. In response, those fathers might howl in frustration and have fits of rage in which they whaled on their kids even more mercilessly than they had before—but the community would just wither even more. And the result is that those fathers’ “bad seed” explanation for their children’s problems would have been disproved in front of the whole rest of society. Instead, the beliefs and ways of thinking associated with that community would get the blame for the bad outcome.
You see, parents who were members of a non-esoteric religious community of the kind that I have in mind wouldn’t be able to “scapegoat” certain children as “basically defective,” and they wouldn’t be able to “externalize the costs” of their own incompetence or dysfunction in the same way that the members of an isolated nuclear family can, by simply “moving on” from the wreckage that they themselves were responsible for having created. That is because the only way in which a person could leave such a community would be by making a conscious, deliberate decision as an adult, and not “by default,” merely as a result of having turned the magic age of eighteen years old (or whatever). Because of that, leaving a non-esoteric religious community—unlike leaving one’s childhood home—would not necessarily look like the “normal” thing to do. People are basically conservative, and their natural inclination, due to simple inertia if nothing else, would be to remain with the close network of associates with whom they grew up; so, all other things being equal, there would have to have been something quite wrong with a person’s childhood situation if he or she felt the need to seek out an entirely new close network of associates as an adult.
If other communities in society found that an unusually large number of adults were consciously and deliberately deciding to leave a particular non-esoteric religious community (or a particular network of such communities), then, as a general matter, they would be wise to view that as the mark of a “failed community”; and as a result, that community would get a “bad name” or “bad reputation” in the general society. If they were rational, those other communities would seek to find out what that “failed community” believed (or didn’t believe; or at least failed to emphasize in its teachings)—and then learn the appropriate lessons. And, because most communities would want to avoid being seen as a “failed community,” they would therefore have an incentive to take an active interest in how the parents in their community were raising their children, and to familiarize themselves with the signs that they were not raising them in a competent manner, instead of being content to remain in the habit of “not recognizing” or “not noticing” those evident signs. Moreover, the communities’ active interest in these matters would also be reflected in their teachings.
Observe, incidentally, that for the reasons given above the interests of the child and those of the non-esoteric religious community would essentially be aligned: The adult child would not want to have to leave the community, and the community would also not want the adult child to have to leave the community. Meanwhile, however, the parents may very well not care whether or not the adult child leaves the community; indeed, there is a good chance that they will find the prospect of this happening to be no more objectionable than the prospect of the child leaving the nuclear family—which, presumably, they will not find especially objectionable as a general matter, given the nature and purpose of the nuclear family. It is the authority exercised by the community that would make it possible to make the parents care about the decision the child made as an adult regarding whether or not to remain in the community —even if the parents were not already naturally inclined to do so—so that they would learn to share the concerns of the children and the community, in order that this shared concern be reflected in their actions as parents. And this would come about by means of the community’s teaching and disciplinary authority over the parents.
However, it would only be possible for other communities to “learn the appropriate lessons” from the failure of a particular community if the members of each community were allowed—and expected, and encouraged, and able—to speak clearly, openly, and publicly about what the beliefs of each particular religious community actually were, so that the content of those beliefs could become common knowledge in the general society. To create a situation in which that could happen in turn requires that the esoteric and secretive form of religious community be opposed entirely and in general—since the esoteric, cryptic nature of the sacred authoritative writings of these esoteric religious communities makes it very difficult for people to clearly identify what the actual beliefs of even their own religious community are (by which I mean, the beliefs that actually determine the behavior of the community’s members). The simple fact is that these members were never honestly expected to be able to find very much external, objective guidance for their actual, real-life behavior in those writings, since the writings are so wide-open to various individual interpretations, and are so thoroughly unconscious due to their heavily and ambiguously symbolic nature. In fact, I believe that this points to one of the great secret appeals of esoteric religion: the implicit recognition that, to some extent, it allows for an absence of meaningful constraint on a person’s thought and thus also his or her behavior. In other words, I believe that one of the most important factors fueling support for religious esotericism is people’s desire to flee from responsibility.
I do not mean to suggest that esoteric religious communities do not really have beliefs; they most certainly do have beliefs. The problem is that those are, to an excessive degree, implicit beliefs. They are private and secret beliefs, which vary among the individual members. They are unclear, hidden, and unconscious beliefs: unclear and hidden to outsiders, and unclear and unconscious to those embracing them. I believe it is the large measure of unconsciousness to be found in such communities that helps to give rise to the abuse of children, because the parents in such communities find it difficult to think clearly about what they are doing, and about what their true motives are when they act—with the result that they are frequently able to convince themselves that no matter how they act, whatever they do is necessarily “for the good of the child.” And, because there have so far been few realistic alternatives to esoteric religious communities as places where persons could to “escape to” and learn less dysfunctional and unconscious ways of thinking, families not affiliated with any religious community have generally retained more or less the same mental habits and ways of thinking that are found in the memberships of the esoteric religious communities—but with those ways of thinking having become, if anything, even more demented that those found in the families that are still affiliated with religious communities, because of the additional mental isolation and inward focus created by their non-affiliation.
The simple fact is that, viewed rationally and objectively, the scapegoating and abuse of children just doesn’t work; it weakens and undermines any society dumb enough to permit it. But our current American social system—which has been heavily influenced by the esoteric religion of Christianity—works to mask that fact. It does so by making disingenuous noise about “individual responsibility” at the same time as telling people that one should always “honor one’s parents”—regardless of whether or not they competently and successfully carried out the responsibility that they took on as adults (in most cases) when they became parents. If adult children try to call attention to the fact that their parents did not meet our society’s (alleged) ideal of “individual responsibility”—specifically, with regard to those parents’ parenting duties—those children will be condemned by society as “whiners” or “complainers” or “weaklings” in an attempt to silence them. They will repeatedly be told things such as, “No parent is perfect,” or “They did the best they could,” or “You need to move on.” The upshot is that in our current society, the great American ideal of “individual responsibility” doesn’t actually apply to parents. It only applies to the abused and mistreated children of those parents once the children have been “turned loose” or “let go” into the world, even though—by definition—abused and mistreated children never received socialization and preparation and emotional support adequate for successfully navigating the very world in which they are now expected to “be responsible.” If they ever fail to meet the basic responsibilities expected of them by others, and if the other persons confront them about their failures to meet them, suddenly no one feels obligated (nor should they) to accept nonchalant and dismissive responses from those adult children such as, “Oh well, I’m not perfect,” or “Oh well, I did the best I could,” or “You know, you really need to move on.” On the contrary: Responses like those will only make the persons confronting them even more angry and irritated and impatient with them. And thus in practice, because of its perversely selective assigning of “individual responsibility,” our current social system effectively works to encourage and facilitate the systematic scapegoating and abusing of children. And that makes it an evil social system—not to mention an irrational and self-destructive one.
One of the reasons why the institution of the “non-esoteric religious community” would represent a solution to the problem of nuclear family dysfunction that would be far superior to what is currently available is that individuals who wanted to leave one non-esoteric religious community for another would not—as is now the case—find it necessary to try to explain (perhaps futilely) to a psychotherapist or to the outside world in excruciating detail exactly what happened within their family or in their subsequent adult life, in order to (perhaps, if they are lucky) be able to enter into a different type of life situation. In other words, there would be no need for family “scapegoats” to put themselves into a vulnerable position in which they even could be denigrated by others as “whiners” or “complainers” or “weaklings”—or in which they might perceive themselves as such—for publicly speaking out about what happened to them. They would simply leave a bad situation behind and “move on”—just as everyone had always been telling them to do. And they would be implicitly making their own “public statement” in the course of doing so.
Individuals who were abused and mistreated as children always know, at some level or another, what happened to them; and in a social system composed of non-esoteric religious communities, they would be able to corroborate the sensed “wrongness” of their situation, by the fact that their own (non-esoteric) religious community—which refused to talk about the type of harmful situation they were in, or any of the factors that might have been causing or contributing to it—was failing—and failing in irrefutable, objective terms. Meanwhile, they would notice that other non-esoteric religious communities—the ones that openly and explicitly professed the very beliefs that had always instinctively “felt right” to them, but which their own parents and religious community spurned as “unimportant”—were dramatically succeeding in irrefutable, objective terms.
In a social system that was fundamentally built upon and that centered around the institution of the non-esoteric religious or moral community, individual adults would always have somewhere else to go where the members both held and openly professed some clearly and explicitly articulated set of beliefs which the individuals found appealing, and which was clearly different from the set of beliefs held and openly professed by the members of the non-esoteric religious community in which they grew up. In other words, it is important to emphasize that these two communities—the one in which the individual grew up, and the one in which the individual “sought refuge”—would both be non-esoteric religious communities. They would not differ from each other in that the second type of community would clearly and explicitly express its actual beliefs, while the first would not; rather, it would be the clarity with which each of their sets of beliefs was expressed—even if that meant clearly refusing to talk about certain matters—that would make it possible to readily discern exactly how they differed from each other in their belief-systems.
My expectation is that every (sensible) non-esoteric religious community would have a statement of belief and practice that would exist for the purpose of giving meaningful guidance and direction to people in their everyday decision-making and behavior. It would not be something to which the members would be expected to merely pay lip-service. Members would be expected to pay attention to it and take it seriously. If they disagreed with one of the points found in that statement, they would be expected to affirmatively and consciously dissent from it (even if only in their own minds). They would not be able to just mentally shrug their shoulders and say “I dunno” as a way of evading it and pretending it didn’t exist—since if the particular point were especially inconsequential, a sensible community would presumably not have chosen to waste its members’ mental energy by including the point in its statement of belief and practice. If a person were dissenting on what the community as a whole considered to be a relatively minor point, then the community might decide to allow the person to dissent and remain in the community. If a person were dissenting on a relatively major point, however, the community might decide to require that the person either obey the general consensus of the community on that point (that is, if the point related to a matter of practice rather than of belief), or else leave the community.
To the extent that a community’s statement of belief and practice did not help to guide and direct members’ decisions and actions, and omitted discussion of certain important matters, or left them imprecise, the community would not be carrying out its functions as a community, and would for that reason tend toward failure. And it is this very fact that would, in general and on average, make it possible for other communities to determine what a particular community’s actual beliefs were with a fair degree of precision. Society in general would allow a particular non-esoteric religious community to leave discussion of these important matters absent or imprecise if it wished, since the prospect of failure for the community would serve as sufficient discipline; the only requirement made by the rest of society would be that the community not make these points deliberately ambiguous or deceptive with regard to meaning, such that they would be potentially misleading to whoever read them—whether persons located within the community, or without.
In sum, what I am essentially suggesting is that all of us can ultimately escape from general social irrationality by means of permitting people to think and behave as irrationally as they please—provided they are not deceptive and misleading in their communications—but at the same time, encouraging them to unequivocally live out their irrational beliefs in the form of open and public communities, rather than, as is now often the case, keeping them hidden away in private, secretive nuclear families, in which the governing beliefs are especially likely to be unconscious, implicit, and unstated. And we would encourage them to do this so that other individuals—still living and working together with them within the same general society—would be able to form other communities that adopted more rational beliefs. These other non-esoteric religious or moral communities would then have the opportunity to demonstrate—in practice—the superior rationality of their beliefs with respect to the subject matter that fell within the scope of the “missions” that characterized them as non-esoteric religious communities; and that subject matter would most especially include child-rearing, education, and the moral and mental guidance and development of their individual members. By encouraging “creative experimentation” along such lines, and by setting up a kind of “beneficent competition” among various non-esoteric religious communities with respect to these particular areas of concern, it is possible to predict that the overall outcome would be a gradual rise in the average level of consciousness, rationality, compassion, and care in society—from which all members of society would ultimately benefit.