In my last post, I enumerated about a dozen ways faith normalizes bad thinking, teaching us to view what the rest of the world deems logical fallacies as simply “the way you’re supposed to think.” My contention is that growing up in church diminishes your capacity to detect and question factual inconsistencies, effectively breaking your irony meter and ultimately rendering an entire voting bloc susceptible to con artists and charlatans of every kind.
Which reminds me: Have you ever noticed how popular multi-level marketing schemes are among church people? One could argue in fact that preachers of the prosperity gospel have been running the largest pyramid scheme in history, yet they remain above accountability because evidently you cannot question the finances of someone who speaks for God. But back to my original point…
Church doesn’t just impair your thinking, it also distorts your feelings.
Faith of the kind I was exposed to renders us susceptible to emotional manipulation of so many kinds that some mental health professionals have begun calling the resulting condition Religious Trauma Syndrome. Even in settings where diagnosable abuse has never occurred, faith still validates such a wide range of emotionally manipulative relational habits that it mimics the behavior of an emotionally abusive lover.
With that in mind, let’s take a moment to note some of the ways that faith breaks your feeler, damaging your ability to care for yourself the way you would care for a friend whom you love. In my personal experience, faith taught me to hate myself, and I know I’m not alone in this.
How Faith Behaves Like an Abusive Lover
1. Tearing you down. Just like an abusive lover would do, the Christian faith in which I grew up taught me from my youngest days that I am so bad, so wretched, so messed up and broken that I deserve to be brought back to life after I die just so that I can be punished for the rest of eternity. That’s even worse than normal abusers would do. At least they would restrict their criticisms to shortcomings that aren’t quite worthy of eternal suffering. But not the Christian faith.
This religion makes it okay to tell people they’re so wicked they deserve never-ending punishment. You really can’t get any more critical that that. Once you’ve established that a person deserves perpetual torture (or else permanent solitary confinement), you can justify any other criticism you can imagine. Every other critique is a step down from this.
But it’s not just about the afterlife. The Christian message is predicated on human inadequacy, which means it must spend an inordinate amount of time reminding you that you are not enough, not capable of handling whatever life throws your way today without divine intervention. That’s the basis for the entire enterprise. Remove human inadequacy and you remove the premise for the entire Christian religion.
Which means that, just as an emotionally abusive lover would do, this faith begins by tearing you down, telling you on a daily basis that you are nothing without someone else in your life saving you from, well, yourself.
“Apart from me, you can do nothing.” — Jesus
“Your most righteous acts are like menstrual rags in God’s sight.” — Isaiah
And the craziest part? When most kinds of Christian hear this terrible message they defend it. Far from pushing back, the majority of them will nod their heads in basic agreement that we are indeed wretched scum, even though they probably don’t approve of the way I’m putting it. It needs more sugar on top of it.
And that’s the trickiest part: Effective abusers can get away with tearing down their victims because they know how to make it sound like what they’re doing is actually showing them love. And if you know anything about the dynamics of relational abuse, you know that victims invariably defend their abusers because they believe they deserve it. Victims of abuse feel lucky to have their abusers in their lives because without them, they feel they would be nothing.
[Related: “The Dark Side of Grace“]
This is the way the Bible talks about you, about all of us. And you don’t have a right to disagree with it, which leads me to the second thing my faith had in common with such people…
2. Gaslighting. You are being gaslighted whenever someone compels you to doubt or even disregard your own feelings, perceptions, or memory surrounding the way you are being treated because you are somehow less capable of making that call than the other person is. This occurs when someone teaches you to distrust your own thoughts and feelings about your own story, or what is happening to you, when in reality no one knows who you are better than you do.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. — Proverbs
But if you aren’t authorized to judge for yourself whether or not what’s being said about you is true, then who is? The answer is everyone, even complete strangers.
How can they feel justified in doing this? It’s because the Bible tells them they can do it. It tells them that people like me deep down have the same theological beliefs that they do (how egocentric) but that we “suppress the knowledge” of these things without even being aware of it.
If I’m not even allowed to determine my own labels for myself, then where is my personal agency? It does not exist.
But what else would you expect from a religion which favorably compares us all to slaves that have been bought and paid for? Property doesn’t have rights of its own. When you belong to someone else, you don’t get to determine your own identity.
So in the end you’re not even qualified to disapprove of the negative talk inherent in the “good news” of Christianity. You don’t like it? Well, tough. Shall the clay complain to the potter about how it is being treated? You aren’t afforded the right to evaluate for yourself whether or not what people are telling you is true.
3. Excessive control. Abusers must control the lives of their victims down to the tiniest detail. Some versions of Christianity do this worse than others, which of course can be said for every trait we will look at in this post.
Some groups follow Paul (or whoever was pretending to be Paul in the pastoral epistles) and script out everything from the style of hair that’s acceptable (mostly for women but sometimes for men, too) and the acceptable clothing and jewelry (again, mostly for women) down to the kinds of words you can say, the kinds of books you can read, movies you can watch, and even the kinds of thoughts it’s acceptable to think. They seem most keen of all to control everything related to human sexuality.
The ones who do this the least are the ones who have found sufficient justification to disagree with the Bible itself because some other church sanctioned authority has given them permission to think for themselves on these issues.
My observation is that the groups which exert the least control over what their people do end up fizzling out over time because 1) tribal loyalties and group identities are strongest where the demands of membership are the highest, and 2) churches need money, and people give the most when they are made to believe God will take it personally if they don’t give enough. That’s why the tithe—which is an Old Testament concept—somehow survived the cross and made it into the practices of the church today even though it was a part of the Law of Moses.
Most forms of Christianity care a great deal how you think, speak, dress, and whether or not you touch yourself when you are alone. It’s really kind of creepy when you think about it. Personal boundaries simply do not exist.
[Related: “Christianity Has a Major Boundary Problem“]
4. Cutting you off from the rest of the world. Abusers tend to isolate their victims from the rest of the world because, if they get out more, they’ll be exposed to more gracious ways of seeing themselves and that would ruin everything.
Speaking as one with a great deal of previous experience in the Christian faith, I can attest to the visceral revulsion we learn to feel toward “the things of the world.” Note that’s not just an aversion to one or two competing groups but to the whole world as a single unit. The New Testament teaches you to think like that, seeing the rest of the world as your tribe’s natural enemy.
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. — Jesus
If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. — John
Religion capitalizes on the purity impulse that our evolutionary past has wired into us, sublimating it into a hundred other directions until people have internalized a highly complex and often self-contradictory array of Things You Must Not Do. The whole world is a dirty thing from which you must periodically retreat in order to cleanse yourself again, for eyes of God cannot look on an unholy thing.
I distinctly recall feeling my body recoil around people whom my faith taught me to see as threats to my purity, and in retrospect I’m ashamed to admit how deep my indoctrination went. They start on us when we are very small, and teach us to see the whole world as a kind of enemy we are to avoid, resist, and ultimately overcome. Only our own people can be trusted, and that keeps us locked in to the community quite well.
The most obvious example of this in the Christian faith would be Hell, although different versions of the faith will put their own unique spin on the idea. In subcultures which favor heavy-handed authoritarian leadership, God is the active agent who angrily throws sinners into the lake of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Historically, the church’s imagination on this has gotten quite gruesome in its detail.
But in less authoritarian social contexts, churches prefer kinder, gentler versions of Hell in which people willingly walk or run into their eternal punishment against the heartfelt, earnest pleading of a loving heavenly Father whose hands are somehow tied so that they remain spotlessly clean on the matter. As if that were even possible (it’s not).
Oftentimes the mode of punishment morphs from the biblical lake of fire or burning trash heap imagery into a kind of everlasting solitary confinement. Someone once said, “It’s like putting yourself into Time Out, but forever.”
But again, the threats aren’t only confined to those things which happen only after you die. When I first “came out” as an atheist to my closest relatives, I was informed by multiple people that my life would soon fall apart in every sphere if I didn’t get off “the path I was on.” Their predictions of my demise were as dire as they were intimidating.
[Read: “Is It Loving to Warn People About Hell?“]
The kicker with threats about leaving the fold is that, since almost all of the negative consequences result from the way others respond to our apostasy, these soon become self-fulfilling prophecies, which by the way are the only kind of prophecies that reliably come true. They never see how they themselves are the ones creating the consequences (e.g. exclusion, discrimination, etc) about which they are so earnestly warning us. “You are only doing this to yourself,” they say. Right. Let’s pretend that’s how it works.
6. “Love Bombing” followed by devaluation. I learned about this term ironically from someone who did this to me herself, and ever since then I’ve noticed how routinely it shows up in lists of behaviors among highly manipulative people.
Have you ever visited an evangelical megachurch? Particularly one that’s seeker-friendly with a flashy, market-driven presentation style? So many white teeth, cute families, and gushy catchphrases it makes you wonder what they’ve been putting in the water. “Come as you are,” they often announce, only to turn around after a few weeks and inform you that everything about you needs to change.
At the Reformed seminary where I did my graduate studies they called this “backloading the gospel,” luring people in with a bait-and-switch only to hit them with all the religion’s demands after the person has fully bought into the community. Calvinists prefer to whack you over the head with the hard stuff up front to save time, getting the initiation out of the way. Each style seems to attract a different kind of person.
But one way or another, the “free gift” of eternal life will ultimately cost you everything you are because: “You are not your own; you were bought with a price.”
7. Moving the goalposts. If you read my last post entitled “How Faith Breaks Your Thinker,” you’ll notice this one already showed up as a logical fallacy, and it is that. But it’s also a standard maneuver by manipulative people in order to keep their “loved ones” on their best behavior, never quite feeling like they’re living up to expectations.
I will never forget how sick to my stomach it made me the day someone very close to me gave her testimony in front of the whole church. One of the most steady, faithful, and conscientious people you will ever meet, she couldn’t resist beginning her testimony by recounting all the ways she had failed to be the woman she believed she should be. The self-abnegation was thick and heavy, and the dramatic music that accompanied her testimony matched the self-deprecatory mood of the moment.
I’ve been around long enough to realize that she was following a well-established template for how to frame your story as a Christian. But you’d be hard pressed to find any significant character flaws in this woman, and frankly I will never forgive that culture for teaching her to have such a low view of herself. It is abuse, plain and simple. Yet the church community applauded her and people all over the auditorium resolved to emulate her fine example.
No matter how good you are in this framework, it’s never good enough. The goalposts will always keep moving further away.
[Read: “Everything You Do Is Wrong“]
And the same goes for God’s part in this. As a part of the bait-and-switch tactic mentioned above, promises of good things coming your way get quickly redefined in increasingly vague terms until eventually it becomes impossible to say whether God delivered on his promises or not, if you can even remember what they were in the first place.
Sometimes they tell you the promises you were led to trust won’t come to pass until after you die. Which means, in effect, that you should not expect to see confirmation of your beliefs for the duration of your lifespan. Best just to put it out of your mind, I suppose. Also, shame on you for wanting things! (There’s that gaslighting again)
Which leads me to the last of the traits of an abuser that seem eerily like the Christian faith…
8. Projection and blameshifting. If there’s anything abusers seem to have in common, it’s the lack of self-awareness that it would take to see how they themselves are the source of most of the conflict for which they blame others. Blameshifting is second nature to narcissists, and since they cannot see their own flaws, they will forever be projecting those traits onto others, calling others out for doing what they themselves are actually guilty of doing.
I once compiled an entire list of things I hear Christians saying about non-theists like me that are more about them, if only they could see it: That we crave absolute certainty and are unable to change what we believe; that our worldview puts us at the center of the universe; that our system of morality is relativistic and we’re obsessed with sex; and that we are out to limit other people’s freedom of religion.
Or take for example the way that one particular Christian ethicist, Ryan Anderson of The Heritage Foundation, argues that marriage rights should never be extended to same-sex couples because they are incapable of producing children naturally, making the marriage entirely about their sexual union instead about starting a larger family.
Leaving aside the medical options available to modern people today, people like Anderson are themselves the greatest hindrance to gay couples starting a family because they write the legislation which prevents adoption among same-sex couples in the first place. In other words, he is condemning couples for not being able to do the thing that he himself is making sure they can never legally do. Self-awareness level: zero.
The whole religion does this, though, in more ways that I could list. Notice how whenever biblical predictions and promises fail to materialize, it always boils down to something you are doing incorrectly—either you didn’t have enough faith, your motives were selfish, you had unconfessed sin in your life, or you just plain read it wrong. The beliefs themselves can never be wrong; they are above reproach.
I used to think the Christian faith gave such deep insight into human nature that I wondered how anyone could really understand the human condition without this privileged lens. In retrospect, I could not have been more egocentric, which ironically illustrates my point. My faith didn’t make me more self-aware, it made me less so. I see that now, but I had to get out from under that mentality to finally see it.
What about you? How else have you seen your faith undermining your sense of dignity, self-respect, and self-ownership? To whatever extent it did those things, your faith has broken your feeler.
[Related: “Your Love Is Toxic“]
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
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