The Columbus Dispatch was criticized for reporting that religious symbols were on the car of a couple who were arrested for severely abusing their child. The symbols included a silver cross and a Jesus license plate. Some religionists alleged that the couple’s display of those items was insignificant to the story.

But the Dispatch’s handling of the story was proper, because religion is often a significant factor in child-abuse cases. The connection between religion and child abuse frequently stems from a literalistic, fundamentalist approach to ancient scriptures.

The Bible contains a number of verses that, if taken literally, support severe physical punishment of children. One example is Proverbs 23:13-14: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”

Also supporting extreme corporal punishment is Proverbs 20:30: “The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil: so do stripes the inward parts of the belly.” And Proverbs 13:24 seems to advise a quick resort to such punishments: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”

Those teachings lead some radical Christian fundamentalists, who interpret the verses literally, to engage in extremely abusive childcare practices.

For instance, in the early 1990s the media reported that a devout fundamentalist in Oregon had so severely and frequently beaten his six-year-old daughter that she became brain-damaged and comatose. While investigating the case, police found a Bible with passages about child “discipline” marked.

Moreover, a woman wrote to Ann Landers that her parents quoted the Bible as they “flogged away at my brothers and me. I have scars on my shoulders and back, partial deafness, and lumps on my head.” In another column, Landers said she has received hundreds of letters from people who agree with the view that “beating children” and “a good whipping” are God’s methods of enabling parents to control their children.

In a 1996 study sponsored by the University of Texas, researchers found that persons who view the Bible as inerrant are likely to spank or slap their toddlers and preschool children almost 50 times more per year than other parents. The study also revealed that fundamentalists are 50% more likely to spank or slap their grade-school children.

In a 1974 article in American Sociological Review, H. Erlanger cites surveys identifying religious affiliation as the best predictor of whether parents will apply corporal punishment in the home. He says a Baptist membership is more related to the use of corporal punishment than age, race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or any other sociological factor.

A problem with the fundamentalist approach to the Bible is that it frequently ignores the vast amount of knowledge that humankind has acquired after the book was written.

For example, scientific studies conclusively show that the practice of hitting children constitutes an extremely negative role model of adult behavior. It teaches youngsters that the use of physical violence against smaller and weaker persons is an acceptable method of dealing with problems. And it often causes them to be angry, bitter, and inclined to lash out at others.

By imbuing the younger generation with such attitudes, the cycle of child abuse and the high rates of other violent abuse are perpetuated. Many social ills are not going to be solved until people are taught – by word and example – nonviolent means of addressing problems.

Modern scientific research confirms that the great nineteenth-century agnostic Robert Ingersoll was correct in saying: “In my judgment, no human being was ever made better, nobler by being whipped or clubbed,” and “In the atmosphere of kindness, the seed of virtue bursts into bud and flower.”

On the application of those principles to the raising of his own children, Ingersoll explained: “I would rather die than strike my child, even with my hand, much less with whip or rod. My children never had from me an unkind word, and they never gave me an unkind word.”

He went on to advise: “Depend upon it, the Bible idea of using the rod is born of barbarism. Reject it as tyrannical, contemptible, detestable, and let your child grow up in the atmosphere of loving kindness always.”

[For more information on the harms of corporal punishment, please see the articles titled “Ban Corporal Punishment” and “Corporal Punishment of Children is harmful.”¬†Also see]