Natural mothering as religion: proselytizing and the condemnation of nonbelievers


On Friday I asked if natural mothering is really a religion, albeit one that replaces God with Nature.

I wrote about two features common to the stories natural mothering advocates tell about themselves, conversion experiences and submission to a higher power.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]For natural mothering advocates, belief in the perfection of Nature is a matter of faith, not reason.[/pullquote]

How to they know that what they believe is true? The same way religious believers know: they “feel it.”

As Chris Bobel notes in The Paradox of Natural Mothering:

It is clear that the reasons for natural mothering are often literally beyond reason. Rather than being rooted in an epistemology derived from the intellect, this type of “knowing” is intuitive, even instinctual and therefore defies explanation, the natural mothers imply. Decisions are not ultimately based on thinking, but on feeling.

Scholars of religion might refer to the distinction as “belief in” vs. “belief that.”

Epistemologists have not usually had much to say about believing ‘in’, though ever since Plato’s time they have been interested in believing ‘that’. Students of religion, on the other hand, have been greatly concerned with belief ‘in’, and many of them, I think, would maintain that it is something quite different from belief ‘that’… On this view belief ‘in’ is not a propositional attitude at all.

To put it simply, “belief in” is a matter of faith; “belief that” is a matter of intellect.

This distinction is critical when attempting to understand the behavior of advocates, professional and lay, of natural childbirth and breastfeeding.

Consider midwives like Sheena Byrom and Hannah Dahlen. They “believe in” the superiority of unmedicated vaginal birth. They — like creationists — might marshal what sound like scientific facts to justify their belief and to try to convert others, but the “belief in” the power and perfection of natural childbirth exists prior to and independent of scientific fact. And, like belief in creationism, it is both immutable and non falsifiable.

Why? Because they “feel” it to be true. It is a matter of faith, not reason.

Consider professional lactivists like Amy Brown, PhD and Melissa Bartick, MD. They “believe in” the superiority of breastfeeding. They — like creationists — might marshal what sound like scientific facts to justify their belief and to try to convert others, but the “belief in” the power and perfection of breastfeeding exists prior to and independent of scientific fact. And, like belief in creationism, it is both immutable and non-falsifiable.

Why? Because they “feel” it to be true. It is a matter of faith, not reason.

Both natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates recognize the distinction; hence the veneration of “intuition” over reason. What is intuition except a form of belief that is independent of reason?

The similarities with religion don’t end there. Like many faith based believers, natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates feel compelled to proselytize. They’ve heard the “good news” and want to share it with everyone else.

They don’t call it proselytizing, though, they call it “normalizing.”

The natural childbirth advocates who want to “normalize” unmedicated vaginal birth don’t merely want to make it acceptable or even common; they want to make it normative. Lactivists who want to “normalize” breastfeeding don’t merely want to make it acceptable or even common; they want to make it normative. Like supporters of theocracies, ideally they want to forge true believers, but they will settle for forcing others to behave like true believers.

Why? Because unbelievers are headed for Hell.

Not the literal afterlife Hell of religious believers, although quite a few natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates seem convinced that those who choose C-section on maternal request or formula feeding are destined for Hell. Natural mothering hell is a hell on earth made manifest by a baby that doesn’t bond, is stupid, obese, and suffers from immune disorders or — worst of all — autism, the natural mothering equivalent of leprosy.

The world is divided into communities of believers and unbelievers and unbelievers do not merit even basic human kindness. There is no limit to the mental cruelty believers feel entitle to inflict on those who refuse to mirror their beliefs.

I came across this gem yesterday, on Mother’s Day:


If you didn’t breastfeed you don’t deserve to celebrate Mother’s Day.

In what lactivists probably imagine as benevolence, they’ve appended an asterisk.

*Legitimate medical reasons excluded.

No doubt they’ll decide whether your reasons are legitimate reasons.

It’s a powerful illustration that natural mothering is not science; it’s religious faith.

That’s fine! Natural childbirth and breastfeeding proponents are entitled to believe whatever they want to believe.

And the rest of us are entitled to raise our children based on what the scientific evidence shows, not the self-serving, quasi-religious beliefs of natural mothering advocates.

  • Cartman36

    Anyone who would say something so cruel to another mother (even via a stupid meme) needs to get a life outside their lactation ability.

  • MainlyMom

    The kids and my fiance went on a mother’s day hike with me. Just off of the parking lot was an old cemetery, most graves about 200 years old. Omg i can attach photos? Here’s a cool told tombstone if it works.

    Anyway, of course the graveyard was filled with young women (three wives per husband was common) children, and babies. I just dont understand how lactivists, homebirthers, and antivaxxers reconcile it with their worldview. I left SO thankful for living when we do!! .

  • Cassandra

    I agree with your arguments as ever Dr Amy – but I’m pretty sure the image you have posted is from the satire site Sanctimommy (you can see the Sanctimommy watermark). Not that I wouldn’t put it past the lactivists!

  • demodocus

    Suicidal ideation probably doesn’t count to them. After all, it was all in my head. 🙁

  • Amy Tuteur, MD

    I wonder if lactivists think Daenerys a bad Mother of Dragons because she never even tried to breastfeed them?

    • KeeperOfTheBooks

      And if they do, are they going to tell her so? Because while I’ve never seen the show, it seems supremely unwise to piss off a mother of, well, dragons.

    • TheBlacksmith

      In the books, she does breastfeed them… for whatever that’s worth.

      • KQ Not Signed In

        …and I thought teething was rough.


    • AnnaPDE

      She’s not exactly a great mother if you ask me. She…
      * is neither willing not able to teach her children to respect others’ rights (“What do dragons eat anyway?” – “Whatever they want.”),
      * locks them chained in a basement for months/years (Mereen),
      * literally uses them as weapons of mass destruction and to murder civilians (King’s Landing),
      * and gets 2 out of 3 killed by being piss poor at planning and impulse control.

      And whether she breastfed those dragons or not doesn’t make a iota of a difference to all of this.

  • mabelcruet

    That is a truly vicious and appallingly offensive poster about breast feeding-whoever came up with that utter shite needs to take a good look at themselves and apologise to every mother. I’m not one to take facile offence at everything I read online, but that is disgusting.

    Another behaviour common to natural birthers like Byrom and twitterati fan girls, the lactivist lobby and religious cults is lovebombing. Her tweets are full-on endless girlish ‘I love my sister midwives’ and sharing sickly sweet honeyed messages about light and love and little angel sparkles. All nicey-nice until they are challenged-and then comes the mobbing, the accusations of bullying, accusations of victimization, the assembly of their flying monkeys.

  • rational thinker

    They also tend to use the word truth a lot. There is a difference between truth and fact and there are certain watch words that cults use regularly and that one is near the top of the list. Also very popular with anti vaxxers. Natural child birth and breast feeding advocates may have their “truth” but wouldn’t know a fact if the were beaten over the head with one. That mothers day card is disgusting someone should tell the poster that only human beings can celebrate mothers day so they arent eligible.

  • Alia

    Another gem that I’ve seen is that if you had a C-section, you should not be celebrating your kid’s birthday, because they weren’t born, they were taken out of you. So the kid may only get a “taking-out-day”.

    • PeggySue

      That’s breathtaking stupidity, that is.

    • LaMont

      Ugh how about a “you can kill Macbeth”-day

      • Mel

        *eyes light up!*

        OMG! I think I’ve got a Halloween costume for Spawn since he was not born of woman but untimely ripp’d from his mother’s womb! Followed by someone piping up “14 freaking weeks early, people!”

        Mainly because I think he’ll enjoy carrying a sword around at age almost 3…..

        • LaMont

          omg baby Macduff!!! I want to see these pics if this happens!! 🙂

          • demodocus

            Me too!

        • KeeperOfTheBooks

          Why can I only upvote this once?!

    • KQ Not Signed In

      I’ve been told to my face that I never gave birth because I had a c/s. In the last year I finally was able to use the line I promised myself I would. When he yelled that he wished he’d never been born (as all children eventually scream at their mothers), I shot back, “You WEREN’T, you were EXTRACTED.”

      Bucket list moment, that.

      • KeeperOfTheBooks

        Bonus points if the full line was “You WEREN’T, you were EXTRACTED, and you STILL need to clean your room/eat your vegetables/do your homework/whatever equally cruel expectation prompted this meltdown.”
        But then, I’m snarky.

  • EllenL

    If you didn’t breastfeed you don’t deserve to celebrate Mother’s Day.

    Fortunately, my formula-fed children don’t subscribe to that awful idea. They did a great job of spoiling me yesterday. We must have bonded somehow in spite of my choices.

  • Mel

    I’m always amazed how clear I am on a few things.

    I’d much prefer my son be dumb, obese, eczema-prone and have autism than be so hateful as to tell moms who formula-fed that they don’t deserve to celebrate Mother’s Day.

    You don’t have a choice about intelligence, body-type, allergies or brain development. You do have a choice about how you treat others – and that person failed horribly.

    • Who?

      Yes, this.