Updated: Jul 16, 2019
I am not against religion.
My background is in in religion. I have a Masters of Divinity degree, and for many years was a professional clergyman and public religious figure. Though I speak often about the abuses of religion, I have also been an advocate for genuine interfaith dialogue, goodwill and collaboration.
I am against the misuse of religion. I have often seen how religion has done more harm than good. Since leaving professional ministry and organized religion, I have worked with countless people through my religious trauma recovery and spiritual direction practice to help them address the damage incurred through their involvement in religion, and chart a new path forward. I have published five books on the subject, and created an online course to support and guide people in their shedding religion process and cultivating a non-religious spirituality.
Pathology is the scientific investigation of any deviation from a healthy or normal condition in the human body, mind and spirit. It is necessary to study abnormality in order to discover its source, its varieties, its stages, and its cure. For the past several years I have been observing how religious conditioning has an insidious impact in people’s lives. I’ve seen it in the people who seek me out for spiritual direction and those who contact me by email. Some cases are quite disturbing as this email sent to me describes:
“Fundamentalist Christianity told me I was depraved and in need of salvation. The message was loud and clear: I am bad and wrong and deserve to die. I've spent literally years injuring myself, cutting and burning my arms, taking overdoses and starving myself, to punish myself so that God doesn't have to punish me. It's taken me years to feel deserving of anything good.”
I am not saying that all religion is pathology. But in many cases religious conditioning has led to abnormality in one’s body, mind and spirit. Internalizing toxic religious messages is often the source of many kinds of dysfunction, inner malady and self-sabotaging mindsets and behaviors.
How religion damages children
The damage that religion does in a person’s life often starts in childhood. For example, here are three messages children often hear in one particular Christian denomination:
You are born into this world intrinsically bad, absent of inherent worth, and repulsive to God.
Your sinfulness is so bad that it left God no choice but to brutalize, torture and kill his son.
There is nothing good inside of you and you should not trust your thoughts and feelings.
In these religious environments, fear and shame are used to bind children to certain beliefs and practices related to God and the expectations of the religious group. Children also learn that the rejection, hatred or diminishment of other human beings with a differing belief system is an act of allegiance to God.
Is Christianity Stockholm Syndrome?
I no longer refer to myself as a “Christian,” but I believe that if Jesus is rightly understood that his life and teachings have universal significance and relevance. I discuss this further in this post. With over 20,000 different Christian denominations worldwide, I realize that no two are the same and can’t fairly all be lumped into the same category. When I am speaking of “institutional Christianity,” I am largely drawing upon my own experiences of Christianity as a divinity school graduate and involvements in protestant/evangelical-type Christian organizations, as well as what I have learned and encountered with the people I have worked with over the years in my counseling practice.
In my fourth book, Notes from (Over) the Edge, I devote an entire section to the subject of religion as pathology. In that section, I discuss the matter of institutional Christianity fostering a Stockholm Syndrome dynamic.
In psychology, “Stockholm Syndrome” is a term used to describe a traumatic psychological bonding that occurs when hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational given the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.
Stockholm Syndrome is named after the robbery of a bank in Stockholm, Sweden, in which several bank employees were held hostage in a bank vault for a week, while their captors negotiated with police. During this standoff, the victims became emotionally attached to their captors, rejected assistance from government officials at one point, and even defended their captors after they were freed from their six-day ordeal.
The primary components of Stockholm Syndrome are:
the captor is in control of everything good and bad
belief that every second without punishment is an act of love and a blessing from the captor
claiming the captor loves the captives, and they love him back
jumping to his defense even though he’s in an indefensible position
Some expressions of religion bring Stockholm Syndrome to mind.
In the case of religion, God is the one in control of all things good or bad, including all human beings that he created. God is presented as perfect, righteous and holy, while human beings are characterized as bad, sinful, unworthy, disgusting, and deserving of God’s condemnation, punishment, and wrath. This feeds the belief that every second without punishment is an act of love from God.
This comparison plays out further in the notion that one either does as God says or they suffer the consequences. What hangs in the balance is God’s blessing, and ultimately which afterlife one gets, Heaven or Hell. Heaven is for those who do as God says, and Hell for those who don’t comply.
Wanting to avoid Hell and garner a place in heaven, Christians abide by God’s demands, which include admitting your worthlessness, signing off on a particular theology about God, and following the commands and expectations of God, depending on the particular denomination or church.
So in essence, you have an agent, God, who has set up a hostage situation (denial of blessing, and impending doom) and the conditions by which one can escape (upholding certain beliefs, obeying God, following the prescribed religious program).
Faced by someone promising to do them harm if they didn’t do as they say, most people would at least regard such a person as the enemy. Christians, however, embrace this “person” as God. They praise and adore him, and even worship this God who has promised them eternal suffering if they don’t do as he says. They bow their heads in thanks, praising him for giving them a way out of the trap he has set for them. They even defend his honor and greatness: none greater or better, or more loving than this God. Never mind that he admittedly created evil, threatens, is jealous and possessive, misogynistic, and very controlling. This God, so we are told, is the highest form of righteousness.
This is exactly how hostages turn from a logical hatred of their captor to having “empathy and positive feelings towards their captor, sometimes to the point of defending them.” And what other reason is there to have empathy and positive feelings, even love, towards this captor-God other than he promises no eternal suffering if one does as he says? In such cases, religion fosters a “traumatic psychological bonding” with God, which becomes a codified program that seeks to create Stockholm Syndrome in others. It is even presenting it as a desirable condition
How can religion harm someone?
There are several ways that toxic religious messages can sabotage a person’s happiness, well-being and normal human development and maturation. Religious conditioning often causes a person to believe the premise that there is something hopelessly and incurably wrong with them. This includes the belief that their humanity and natural impulses are unacceptable to God, an obstacle to overcome, and an evil to repress or eradicate. Religion often plants the seed that a person cannot trust their own thoughts and feelings. They give church leaders and teachers the power and authority to determine their beliefs, values, opinions, goals, desires, and views.
In many religious environments, fear, shame, condemnation and rejection are used to engender obedience, compliance and devotion. Tight control and the repression of individuality occurs through a system of “accountability,” and an environment of sin management, behavior modification, checklists, do’s and don’ts, and keeping the rules. As it was put to me in an email:
“Overall, I have to say that I lost my individuality through my experience with organized religion…. I felt forced to fit in, to fit some type of mold or shape or way to be. I joined group after group looking for acceptance… I changed my appearance, my language, even some of the things I enjoyed I gave up in order to fit in. I lost me in the process, the real me. That has damaged me more than anything. Now I’m trying to find the real me.”
It’s very common for a groupthink dynamic to emerge – a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in a blind, irrational and dysfunctional allegiance to the group’s leaders. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.
In toxic religious groups, people repress their needs, desires, preferences and differences as a sign of spiritual maturity, referring to it as “dying to self.” The mentality is not to ask questions, rock the boat, challenge authority, think for yourself or listen to that voice inside, but to keep doing or believing what you’re told, even if it violates your own judgment and conscience. Group members put forth a valiant effort to project and maintain an image that lines up with the expectations of their religious community, and hide the ways they don’t. In this environment, church members adopt an isolationist or even hostile view toward those outside their religious group. This kind of toxic religious environment uses black-and-white thinking and judge outsiders through labels and stereotypes. The world is divided up as “sacred” or “secular” in which a limited number of subjects, activities, beliefs and practices or acceptable and the others are off limits and disapproved by God. Science and psychology are often viewed as “secular,” “carnal,” or “worldly.”
In conversations about “spiritual abuse” many people think of extreme cases like “cults.” But some of the most damaging churches or religious groups can appear culturally relevant, progressive, friendly, and family-oriented on the surface.
I define spiritual abuse as any religious view, belief, practice or relationship that induces fear, shame, guilt, or hatred, or separates people for God, one another, and their authentic Self. If truth in advertising standards were applied to religion, it would be mandatory for some churches to display a sign reading: “Warning: this church could be harmful to your spiritual and psychological health.”
It is a common characteristic of an abusive church or religious group to have an authoritarian and control-oriented style of leadership. The leader is typically dogmatic, self-confident, arrogant, and is the spiritual focal point in the lives of his followers. The leader assumes he is more spiritually in tune with God than anyone else. To members of this type of church or group, questioning the leader is the equivalent of questioning God.
There is also a spiritual elitism that characterizes religious groups that damage people spiritually. These groups see themselves as special. They have an elitist orientation, believing they alone have the Truth, and to question its teachings, practices, and leaders is to invite reprimand.
The manipulation of members is another hallmark. Spiritually abusive groups routinely use guilt, fear, shame, and intimidation as a means of controlling their members. Leaders consciously foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and interpersonally, by focusing on themes of submission, loyalty, and obedience to those in authority. This is often perpetuated under the guise of “accountability,” a practice that requires every member to be personally accountable to another more experienced person. To this person, one must reveal all personal thoughts, feelings, and discuss future decisions. This personal information is not used to help the member but to control the member.
Abusive churches see themselves as elite. They expect persecution in the world and even thrive on it. Any criticism is seen as evidence that they are the true church being attacked by Satan. These same groups enforce lifestyle rigidity, requiring unwavering devotion to the church from their followers. Allegiance to the church has priority over allegiance to God, family, or anything else. There are guidelines for dress, dating, finances, and so on. Such details are held to be of major importance in these churches. People begin to lose their personal identity and start acting like programmed robots. Many times, the pressure and demands of the church will cause a member to have a nervous breakdown or fall into severe depression.
Abusive churches actively suppress dissent, discourage questions, and will rarely allow any input from members. The “anointed” leaders are in charge, PERIOD! These authoritarian groups impose discipline, in one form or another, on members. Ex-members of these groups report that the discipline was often carried out in public, and involved ridicule and humiliation. The ultimate form of discipline in abusive churches is excommunication, followed by strict avoidance procedures, or shunning.
The denunciation of other churches or religious groups is another hallmark of an abusive church. They feel that they alone have the truth and all other churches are corrupt. There is a sense of pride in abusive churches because members feel they have a special relationship with God and God’s activity in the world.
As mentioned previously, not all Christian churches exhibit these characteristics. I know of many Christian ministers and churches that create and nurture environments of love, acceptance, compassion, belonging and wholeness. In my view, unfortunately there are streams of Christianity that don't truly represent the life, message and teaching of Jesus, which is what I discuss at length in the book, Inner Anarchy.
Breaking free from religion is one of the most difficult things a person will ever do.
Shedding toxic religion involves standing on your own two feet, taking responsibility for your spiritual journey, and escaping the groupthink mentality, which is the assumption that something must be true just because a group of people believe it and no one wants to rock the boat by questioning it. It’s accepting the lead role in the play called “My Life.” It’s letting go of the script you’ve been following, and listening to and trusting your inner guidance.
The path of shedding religion at first can sometimes involve fear, loneliness, and self-doubt. We often enter into our most significant relationships with a particular belief system in place. There are times when the ways we change puts a strain on our relationships, and sometimes certain relationships end. It can be a dark and painful time. Sometimes we are rejected by the people we most hoped would accept us. On the other hand, we find that understanding and support coming from people we didn’t expect. It’s a rollercoaster ride, and mostly you feel like no one understands where you’re coming from. Of course, at this point, you don’t even know where you’re coming from.
Addressing these issues is a lot of what I do as a spiritual director to those who are breaking free from religion. Many of these people are still interested in nurturing a meaningful but non-religious spirituality.
A path forward
I will often give a person the following questions to begin identifying what “spiritual” means to them:
What makes you come alive?
What satisfies you most deeply?
What fills you up?
What brings you joy?
What centers you?
What is a source of delight and pleasure for you?
What areas, fields, or subjects are you interested in exploring?
What makes you feel connected to yourself?
What forms of self-expression are the most gratifying?
What makes you feel strong and well in your body?
What would your sense of adventure tell you to do?
What way of being in the world resonates most deeply with your heart?
What injustice or suffering in the world lights fire in your belly to act?
What would you do if you didn't care what people thought?
Where does your sense of curiosity take you?
How are you most compelled to aid the liberation of others?
Where in life are you inspired to be a tangible expression of love, acceptance, and compassion?
What nurtures a greater love for yourself and others?
What is the plain and simple truth that most resonates with your spirit, heart and humanity?
Where do you need to step out of your comfort zone?
What would you do if you had no fear?
There are many issues a person encounters, breaking free from religion. I’ve written five books on the subject, and often share with people what I’m finding in my own spiritual journey along these lines and others I encounter. I recently wrote a blog post in which I clarify a few of the issues people contend with as they seek to live their lives beyond the mindsets and mentalities of their religious background. Some additional resources that relate to recovering from the harm done through religious involvement and toxic religious indoctrination can be found at Recovering from Religion.