Evangelical Christianity and Low Self-Esteem

Evangelical Christianity and Low Self-Esteem June 11, 2013

depressedLike most swimmers, I try to get in some laps almost every day, but there is only one health club with a pool within decent driving distance from where I live. It doesn’t call itself a Christian gym, but it plays primarily Christian music overhead, holds prayer meetings and Bible studies, and incidentally it also leaves most of its hi-def televisions parked on the same 24-hour news network all the time (I’ll save that discussion for another time). Even though I don’t intentionally listen to Christian music, I find it difficult to escape it where I live. My regular readers have already heard me gripe about how it’s not this way only at a local health club but also at local restaurants, skating rinks, doctor’s offices, gas stations, and just about any other place you can go around here. That means I get a decent feel for what messages my Christian friends and family are exposed to on a regular basis. I already knew that fare pretty well, of course, since I was a devoted Christian myself for twenty years. But this way I guess you could say it keeps me current.

And the songs we listen to matter. They help shape the way we think. Andrew Fletcher famously said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” I would modify that to say that Sunday morning sermons can go in one ear and out the other, but the songs Christians hear replay over and over again several times a week, impacting them in their daily lives in a way no eloquent speech ever could. Back when I was a leader in my church group, I put a good deal of time into writing songs for our group (we often stole popular tunes and wrote our own lyrics for the group to learn and sing—loads of fun, by the way!) because I understood the weight that songs carry. Teachers and preachers like to think they shape the theology of a congregation but they can’t hold a candle to the music. The most forward-thinking leaders of Evangelicalism have known for years that if you can influence the music in people’s earbuds, you can steer an entire generation in the direction you feel is best. Of course, if you can also commandeer control over the hiring and firing of Christian seminaries and universities, that can powerfully reshape a culture as well. But that’s a topic for another day, perhaps.

So what do I hear when I’m working out at the local health club, or eating at the nearby Subway, or just pumping gas at the local gas station? I hear that I am a weak, wretched person, incapable of really living life well on my own, constantly needing saving from myself. And boy, lemme tell ya, nothing energizes my workout like hearing a scruffy twenty-something whining overhead, “Jesus, I’m weak! Help me, Lord, I can’t go on!”

This does not surprise me of course because I studied theology (at a Calvinistic seminary, no less!) and I know how central the concept of “total depravity” is to evangelical Christian thinking. Taking our cue from the apostle Paul, the circles I used to run in were experts at rehearsing our own weaknesses, frailties, shortcomings, needs, and trials. We learned well the art of self-deprecation, and we learned to revel in our own failures and incapabilities. But a low self-evaluation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It utilizes a powerful confirmation bias which dismisses strengths and successes (being careful to give credit to God alone for any of that) and focuses instead on losses and screw-ups (because, hey, that’s just who we are, right?). In retrospect, this is a sick, twisted approach to life that teaches us to see ourselves as innately unworthy liabilities in constant need of saving. Some well-meaning Christians will protest this, arguing that being created in the image of God means that we are valuable creatures, but this masks the reality that in the evangelical mind, all personal worth is derivative. It says that in your own self you are completely unworthy, but that someone else is worthy, and you can appropriate that worthiness by proxy.


What I didn’t see until after I left the Christian faith is that this low self-evaluation is crucial to the whole evangelical narrative. It’s absolutely indispensable. You must first convince a person that he is fundamentally unworthy and incapable of helping himself before he is willing to forfeit his life over to another person or ideology. For some evangelists, the focus is on Hell and on our own moral shortcomings (real or imaginary). Those tell us we deserve to be tortured for all eternity for the things that we do. Excuse me, but no we don’t. Most people don’t commit vicious enough crimes to deserve even a sudden death, much less eternal torture. In order to sell this concept you have to magnify the flaws of your listeners, causing them to feel so very, very bad about themselves that they’d even be willing to swallow something like an eternal condemnation. That’s why Christian evangelism has always gravitated towards the broken and downtrodden. It sells the best among people who are at their lowest. The Onion quite wittily parodied this very phenomenon a few years ago. It’s a time-tested tactic that works very well.

But not all evangelists use fear of punishment in the hereafter to reel people in. Some more positively promise a better life now—a life empowered by the Holy Spirit. But even those still must first convince you that you are not what you should be (or could be) now. You are incomplete as you are now, and you need something further to make you into what you are supposed to be. Either way, they must begin with taking whatever your current self-evaluation is and lowering it so that you feel your need for something more. Alternatively, they can wait until just enough bad things happen to you that they can swoop in, capitalizing on your lowest moment to share the “good news” with you. Just a few weeks ago I was interviewed at a local church for Interview an Atheist in Church day, and afterwards an older gentleman who knew me from childhood came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. He spoke to me in a grandfatherly tone, saying “I know you probably think you’re doing fine now, but where are you gonna turn when your life falls apart? Where will you get your strength?” I have my own answers to that (because my life already did fall apart, right about the time I started telling people I am an atheist), but do you see how inescapably evangelism relies upon magnifying neediness? It gravitates towards loss and pain like a moth to a flame.

This should send up some major red flags. Anyone who has worked with abused spouses will immediately recognize a striking resemblance between the way an abuse victim talks about his or her situation and the way that evangelical Christians are taught to speak about themselves. “I don’t deserve what I’m getting. I deserve so much worse. I’m just so grateful that he’s keeping me around, because I’m such a screw-up.” Again, if you will take just a few minutes to listen to popular Christian music, you will hear this same theme reverberating in almost every song.* As I pointed out in my last post, the crux of the evangelical message is: “You can’t; but Jesus can.” While some songs shrewdly gloss over the first half of that message, focusing on the more positive second half, other songs virtually wallow in self-loathing and remorse for simply being human. Now, I am NOT saying that anyone is intentionally seeking to be abusive; I am simply pointing out the striking parallels in speech patterns. They’re worth noting.

This pervasive negative self-talk has powerfully negative consequences. It teaches us to have less confidence in our own abilities both as individuals and as a collective group. Individually we undersell ourselves because we’ve learned to expect that we will mess things up if left to our own devices. We also attempt less both individually and collectively because we have such a low evaluation of what we can accomplish. We are taught that when mankind aspires to excessive heights (whatever those are), we will learn as the builders of the Tower of Babel did that God will not allow it to go on. Somehow it is bad to want humanity to overcome some of its problems. We must not be allowed to become too efficient or skilled at dealing with our own problems because then what need will we have for divine assistance?

Another consequence of the negative self-talk is that we are more likely to take whatever people dish out, no matter how badly they mistreat us. I must confess that I still struggle with this myself. After 35 years of growing up with a Christian worldview (twenty of which were driven by evangelical fervor), I still tend to allow myself to be overlooked, criticized, and slighted without complaining because deep down I do not trust my own sense of fairness and justice. I was taught that the human heart is so fallen, so black with self-interest and self-deception, that we can never trust our own evaluation of wrongs done to us. Consequently, I have at times become a doormat for others to walk across. That’s not healthy, and it leads to dysfunctional relationships, inequitable friendships, and even lopsided marriages.

Finally, this low self-evaluation teaches us to accept what we are told because who are we to disagree? It makes us docile followers because we don’t trust our own judgment. That’s a key element in all of this. It’s like a final piece of the puzzle, without which the entire enterprise collapses. Just as an abuse victim remains with her controlling partner because she feels she doesn’t deserve anything better, so do many people accept their indoctrination unquestioningly because from their youngest days they’ve been taught to see themselves as untrustworthy and broken, needing constant assistance from a higher power.

This takes years to overcome. And honestly, as one whose head got as far into this mentality as mine did for as long as it did, I may never totally get rid of this embedded sense of unworthiness. Just as an alcoholic must always call himself an alcoholic even after he quits so that he will always be reminded of his need to abstain, so people like me will likely struggle with these shadows for the rest of our lives. But you can bet that I’m gonna keep at it. It helps no one for me to view myself through such a dark lens. Thinking so lowly of myself actually disadvantages those around me because I don’t approach them as a healthy individual. I approach them as a drain on their resources because I think of myself as needing things that I really can supply myself.

It all starts with the self-talk, I think. It’s not so much what happens to us that makes us who we are, it’s the stories we tell ourselves afterwards that determine how we see ourselves. The narratives we accept and retell ourselves shape how we view ourselves and the events of our lives. Quite a few movies have dealt well with this idea in recent years (pick any movie by Chris Nolan) and it is a valuable lesson. Incidentally, this is also why I find I can’t enjoy the music of Mumford and Sons, as much as I’d like to. Like most creative artists whose work can be classified as “post-Christian,” their lyrics always smack of self-loathing and remorse, as if even though they’re not openly Christian, they’re still very sorry for who they are. But these stories we tell ourselves inform the way we see ourselves and the world around us. So that’s where the battle will always begin. The evangelical Christian narrative begins with “You can’t.” But I don’t buy it anymore. And that makes all the difference.

So how have you dealt with overcoming this problem? Have you struggled with this as well? If you’ve had some success with it, what sorts of things have helped you the most?


* To be fair, I should note that there has been a movement over the last few years in Christian music towards writing more songs which focus on praising the Christian God without direct reference to the unworthiness of the one issuing the praise. Some theologians have encouraged more “theocentrism” in worship music, and it has yielded some more positive, upbeat songs. I find these much easier to endure while benchpressing since they don’t go on and on about our own weakness and inability. Some are even musically superior to the stuff that circulated when I was younger. It’s both ironic and unfortunate that the same resurgence in Calvinistic theology among evangelicals which encouraged this also leads to a great deal of self-loathing and metaphorical self-flagellating the moment the sermon begins.

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  • nviktorkol

    I’ve never thought about the negative self-worth perspective of these messages. However, thinking about my persistent earworms (Michael W Smith & Fred Hammond are the most pervasive even ten years after I last listened to them!), I now understand the emotional reasons why those pop into my head! Thanks GID!!!

  • Strangest thing, for the last week I’ve been working on a blog about this same topic.

  • Great minds, and all that.

    Well now you’ve got an additional link if you need it :-)

  • Linda R

    You must be one of the most tolerant people ever! I would not be able to deal with the constant religious crap being thrown into my face day after day. I would become a worse “hermit” than I am even now.

    I hate the end of the year when I cannot step into a store w/o being hit by the ever playing Xmas music, your environment would be sheer agony, for me.

  • What Linda R said…I’ve often said I’d brave the southern US for barbecue, only for barbecue and leave shortly after barbecue, and the culture you describe is the main reason.

    I count myself extremely fortunate to live in a society that doesn’t really care whether you believe in god or not (notwithstanding a degree of panic related to Islam) but still grew up with the post-christian self-deprecation.

  • Having been raised by a fundamentalist preacher, attended Bible school, got kicked out (thank you Jesus!!) and have gradually made my way to Humanism (although it took most of my 70 years to get all the way there), I am appreciating your blog posts recently discovered. Thank you…

  • Dead on. I’m not the only one that sees this — thank you.

  • steve

    I’ve been impressed by how many fundamentalists also respect to male hierarchy. I was raised Mormon and the scams that people in authority pulled on those under them were impressive. My parents were scammed out of thousands of dollars and, thirty years later, believe it was their shortcoming and unworthyness and that the scammer couldn’t be held accountable as he was in authority over them. Utah is full of pyramid schemes. The culture also is tied to prosperity theology, which only amplifies this. To make it work you have to have a flock that doesn’t mind being fleeced.

  • Joe

    My last Church was the Orthodox Church(Eastern Orthodox). Orthodox self loathing makes evangelicals look like Norman Vincent Peale. “Lord have mercy” is the constant mantra throughout the liturgy and “The Jesus Prayer” is to be prayed throughout the day, a constant reminder of what a pathetic sinner one is.

  • First, I appreciate the Wayne’s World pic! I grew up with that movie. To be upfront, I am a follower of Jesus; I also appreciate your thoughts and blog. My question is on more of a personal level. I hope that is OK. When you were a practicing Christian, did you struggle with self-esteem? If you did, do you attribute it to Evangelicalism (in your post you say it leads to that, but I did not read myself that is why you personally struggled with it) or to just everyday struggles of being an adolescent and young adult? By the way, this is a trick question, I am really just interested.

  • Your story so closely parallels mine that it’s eerie. I was an evangelical Xian for over thirty years, an atheist for the last two. I’m basically going through adolescence and early adulthood now at age 41. The negative self-talk is part and parcel with that. It has been a rough few years on my wife and kids (we already have two teenagers in the house, so adding my angst into the mix has only exacerbated things). But fortunately I have an extremely understanding wife and I’m slowly learning to be ok with what is. I’m imperfect but that doesn’t make me bad or unworthy. It makes me human. Being honest about my humanity with myself and those closest to me is the healthiest thing I can do. Thanks for this post.

  • This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I had horrible self-esteem growing up. I’m sure some of it was normal teenager stuff, but I also think being told my whole life that I deserve to go to hell didn’t help. I often think about how terrible of a message this is to tell children, but I don’t usually consider how important it is to make the rest of their religion work.

  • Love your blog. I grew up atheist in a small town in Maryland and endured a lot of abuse from my childhood “friends” for not being Christian. Props to you…I could NOT live where you live! The Christian music alone would drive me insane. Anyone who wants to torture me can lock me in a room and play Christian music on an endless loop.

  • Amy B.

    Great post! For most of the time that I considered myself to be a christian (over 20 yrs), I thought and also spoke many of these ideas. I guess that’s why I wasn’t terribly comfortable being a christian. I also made a lot of other christians uncomfortable as well, speaking my mind and having too many questions. I couldn’t and still don’t understand the need to deny our very humanity, faults and all in order to be loved. They do have one thing correct, no one is without faults. Who really wants that? How boring! Being human and full of holes is what makes life interesting and wonderful. I love you James for who you are not what some book says you should be. Anyway, you put up with my issues as well. Besides, I wasn’t too keen on singing god’s praises for eternity anyway, how boring

  • AFL

    This is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to over the last year as someone who is also recovering from Evangelical Christianity. I can say with certainty that it shaped some aspects of my personality in negative ways. Thankfully I’ve been able to work around that as time has separated me from that period of life.

    Unfortunately I can see my family still struggling with it. I think that this kind of thinking has greatly intensified my mother’s issues with depression. I’m thankful to have avoided that and to have escaped before I was too old to change, but watching her struggles is very difficult sometimes.

    I really think this particular issue may be bigger than we realize. I’d like to see a serious long term study of incidences of depression, self-harm, etc. among Evangelicals versus other groups.

  • Wendell Neal

    Interesting. Impressive. Keep up the good dialogue.

  • I’m sure everyone struggles with self-esteem, especially during those awkward teen years. But let’s face it, man. There’s no affirmative way to tell someone you deserve to go to Hell. LOL

    Really. How could you feel great about yourself if you are told on a weekly basis that who you are and what you have done necessitated that somebody be beaten and hung on your behalf?

    But more than that, it’s the constant drilling into you that you can’t, you aren’t able, to do whatever it is that you are trying to do in life because you’re broken and needing saving. The older you get, the more intense and precise and navel-gazing the whole process gets.

    I could tell you stories about struggles that people close to me struggle with on a daily basis because they are model Christians. Notice I said it’s BECAUSE they’re model Christians. They have moved on to the expert level of self-deprecation so that no matter how well they imitate Jesus (or at least the version they were taught) they will always see themselves as failures. It breaks my heart and angers me to watch this pattern repeat itself over and over and I’ll I want to do is scream “RUN, BRO.” That stuff’s bad for your health!

  • Greg

    I agree with your assessment, GID. I have learned to tune out the manipulative message of evangelical Christianity. My fear is for the children (mine included) who have to be exposed to this garbage. It is up to us to expose this damaging message. Thanks for your part in doing that here.

  • My first reply i meant, “this is not a trick question.”

    I have never really thought of this issue like this before. I have taken the opposite approach to understanding the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. I’ve always been thankful that because of sin, God provided a redeemer. Do you think that perhaps it is more bad theology that says, “you can’t, you aren’t able, to do whatever it is that you are trying to do in life because you’re broken and needing saving?”

    Again, I really appreciate your honesty and your blog. I also find fascinating the other replies to your post. I really am not trying to debate or convince you of anything; I am really trying to understand where you are coming from especially since this is a new idea for me.

  • I appreciate your interest in understanding where I’m coming from. I love these conversations (as long as they really are conversations).

    Let’s keep it real, though, Bryan. Are you saying your theology does NOT say that we deserve to be tortured for all eternity?

    Putting a positive spin on the message is nice…but the message is still there. I am challenging the very notion that we need redeeming in the first place. Unless you are offering a version of Christianity which does not assert that, you may have to rethink your desire to distance yourself from such “bad theology.”

    So help me out, here, Bryan. Do we deserve Hell?

  • mk

    I’m an assistant prosecutor and have loads of experience with domestic violence. The overlap in mentalities/pathologies of battered spouses and the Christians about whom you write is noteworthy. Everything good – He/he is responsible. Everything bad – we/she is responsible. It’s wrong to ask too many questions, she is accountable to him but not vice versa…I could go on and on. “Low Self-Esteem” and then some.

  • Christian Kemp

    I was thinking about commenting on the same thing. I have friends who have been involved in abusive relationships that they have left thankfully. But the parallels are amazing between the you are bad and they can save you.

    What shocked me more though, was a minister that told a friend of mine. Stay with your abusive husband, god will make everything right again. This after years of abuse! Its shocking that ministers are not required to understand psychology better and at a much higher level.

  • Debi

    Thank you for this. It was really refreshing to hear someone talk about this. I was a worship leader at a church for 7 years and extremely committed. It wasn’t until new leadership came in that I started to see the subtle signs of manipulation and left. I left that specific church because of their actions but it wasn’t until I was away from the church environment for awhile that I began to realize just how pervasive these problems were in every church. I came to the realization that you cannot function in a church if you’re not broken. I was tired of feeling broken. I’ve always looked at abusive relationships and thought “How could they possibly stay there? How can they not see how distorted their relationship is? Why won’t they leave? It’s so obvious.” It’s amazing how long I went without realizing the parallels in my own relationship with the church. Thankfully, since then I’ve gone on to repair my relationships and for the most part my confidence in myself. Unfortunately, I still have those pangs of self doubt on occasion whenever an old church friend looks at me pityingly and talks to me like a wounded bird or an ignorant child who’s rebelling out of bitterness. But the results don’t lie. I’ve never been happier, more functional, or more competent than I am now.

  • Courtney

    As a former Christian, I often think about how odd it is that I still listen to Christian music [all the time], but I’m not sure I’ve ever considered that it may really have any kind of negative impact on my thought process. Definitely something to think about…

  • Madison J.

    I was raised without religion, but I was in an abusive relationship over 25 years ago. Reading the bible for the first time this year brought many bad memories and emotions to the surface that I’ve not had to deal with since escaping from that relationship that lasted only a year. The emotional and mental abuse in this book absolutely parallel what a battered or abused person goes through. I cannot imagine what it takes to escape the life long grip of religion. Your strength and courage are inspiring.

  • I have this debate often in my mind. I’ve gone over a year since regularly listening to groups I used to like because I had mixed emotions about it, but just the other day I discovered one that had re-recorded some old tunes so I downloaded them for fun. To my surprise I enjoyed singing along (it was rock music) like I used to and had the exact same positive emotions, divorced of any belief. Weird.

  • This post resonates with me so so much, I could have written it! I have spent the last 2 years trying to overcome the previous 20 years of self hate. It doesn’t help that I have been clinically depressed since my senior year in high school and went unmedicated until 10 years ago. Actually, this depression is what led to my “salvation” in the first place. Like you said, they prey on the downtrodden. I thought what I needed was god, but really I just needed medication. Like you, I still have to talk myself out of thinking I am not a worthy human being, and also struggle with not letting people take advantage of me. Though I am getting much better. Without medication, I think this self loathing, which was greatly helped along by the message of evangelical Christianity, would have eventually led to a possible suicide attempt. The horrible thing was, my brand of crazy Christian, didn’t believe in mental illness, they believed that it was demonic. So, I had to go against all of this and deal with the stigma of that girl who doesn’t have enough faith to overcome these demons and took the medicine, which is just going to make everything worse for her because she is out of god’s will. It didn’t, it made everything exponentially better. I think this was the beginning of my deconversion. I knew I had been lied to.

  • For some reason the site would not let me respond below to your last reply. I read your last post and have been thinking how I would respond all last night. I thought about giving a strictly academic answer, thought about discussing what hell really is, and all sorts of possibilities. But my response is I don’t want to get in a back and forth online argument, and I feel that is where this may be going. I watched your interview at the church and thought “here is a person who has a good balance and I would like to know more about his beliefs” So I am not sure about your line about really having a conversation; I just thought you would be open to sharing more about why you believe what you do. I am happy to share why I believe to further the conversation. So here’s where I am, I am not interested in challenging your beliefs or questioning you and vice-versa. I’m not afraid to “debate” but I don’t think that will do any good in a forum like this.

  • I think a lot of people identify with this. I keep getting messages because this issue is real and it affects people every day. It has to be fought every day, too.

  • Thanks for the reply. I’m definitely interested in more conversation, although in my mind debate and conversation are not mutually exclusive terms. So how about we move this to a private conversation? I’ll shoot you an email soon.

  • Sounds good

  • Anthony Magnabosco

    This specific discussion reminds me of a recent broadcast where Pat Robertson admonishes a woman who calls the show because she is having trouble getting past her husband’s infidellity: http://youtu.be/k_n-q_0qej4

  • Anthony Magnabosco

    Cause the disease and then offer the medicine. Then, tell the patient she will never be fully healed – at least, not in this life. Sickening.

    Thanks for your wonderful, thoughtful, and well-written post.

  • Anonymous

    This. This is why I left Christanity. Thank you for the article.

  • Ron Godin

    I’ll echo what Anthony Magnabosco said. I always thought that Christianity creates the problem of people being sinners and then offers the solution, only you have to die to get it! As one who grew up in the Catholic religion, I was amazed at the amount of guilt the church put on people, especially kids. Not a lot of self esteem in the Catholic church. Talk to most Catholics and you’ll hear that guilt was a big part of being a Catholic. Good business model – create a problem and then provide the solution. Only there’s nothing there!

  • Great Post GID.

    Several years ago, I was a Pulpit Supply (Guest Minister, basically) for a Methodist church that was in the process of dying, and I had to pick hymns out of the Methodist hymnal. I picked “How Great Thou Art,” which is a love poem to God, really, and talks about how beautiful the world is, etc. But the third verse! About worthlessness and SIN! I guess I didn’t remember that one – we skipped it when we sang it. (This is always a choice. In the bulletin, you just put “verses 1,2, & 4.”)

    Mostly, I picked, “How Great Thou Art” because Elvis sang it. And Elvis is awesome.

    I hear you about the music – John and Charles Wesley thought of this whole system to introduce theology though hymns (there’s a $6 word for this, but I can’t remember it, sorry). Their hymns were 36 verses long, though, just in case you fell asleep through verses 12-17.

    All of this to say, it is a troubling trend which you are pointing out!

    Also, I appreciate your response to bryskates up there – so often, people are simply not interested in dialogue.

    (Full disclosure – I found you from the reddit explosion of the “Humanists and believers cannot get along” post, and I’ve been to Union Theological Seminary. I am not, however, ordained in any tradition, as I have great discomfort with authority, Christianity, and organized religion!)

  • markhilditch1

    I often wonder how people who are so into this self-loathing ever get to a full grasp of the command to “Love others as you love yourself?” One need not be agnostic to realize that Calvin’s “total depravity” is extremely problematic for those of us captivated by pondering the limitlessness of God’s love for all humankind.

  • Kristi S

    Not a big Brad Pitt fan, but can relate to his quote, “When I got untethered from the comfort of religion, it wasn’t a loss of faith for me, it was a discovery of self.”

  • Tom

    It’s common for Christians to compare the relationship between humanity and God to that between husband and wife. God is the “man” of the house to whom humanity owes obedience, respect, and honor. Usually this relationship is portrayed as one of love, but in far too many ways, God is more like an abusive spouse who only knows how to love through intimidation and violence. A review of classic signs and symptoms of spousal abuse reveals how abusive the “relationship” people have with God is.

    Abusers instill fear in their spouses; believers are instructed to fear God. Abusers are unpredictable and given to dramatic mood swings; God is depicted as alternating between love and violence. Abused spouses avoid topics which set off the abuser; believers avoid thinking about certain things to avoid angering God. Abusers make one feel like there is no way to escape a relationship; believers are told that there is no way to escape God’s wrath and eventual punishment.

    Violence is a primary means by which abusers communicate, even with their spouses whom they are supposed to love. Abusers aren’t just violent towards their spouses — they also use violence against objects, pets, and other things to instill more fear and to force compliance with their wishes. God is portrayed as using violence to force people to comply with certain rules and Hell is the ultimate threat of violence. God might even punish an entire nation for the transgressions of a few members.

    In order to exercise greater control over a victim, abusers will withhold important resources in order to make the victim more dependent. Resources used like this include money, credit cards, access to transportation, medications, or even food. God is also depicted as exercising control over people by controlling their resources — if people are insufficiently obedient, for example, God may cause crops to fail or water to turn bad. The basic necessities of living are conditioned on obeying God.

    A further means of exercising control over a victim is instilling feelings of inadequacy in them. By getting them to feel worthless, helpless, and unable to do anything right, they will lack the self-confidence necessary to stand up to the abuser and resist the abuse. Believers are taught that they are depraved sinners, unable to do anything right and unable to have good, decent, or moral lives independent of God. Everything good that a believer achieves is due to God, not their own efforts.

    Part of the process of encouraging the victim to feel inadequate involves getting them to feel that they really do deserve the abuse they are suffering. If the abuser is justified in punishing the victim, then the victim can hardly complain, can she? God is also described as being justified in punishing humanity — all people are so sinful and depraved that they deserve an eternity in hell (created by God). Their only hope is that God will take pity on them and save them.

    Although abusers encourage victims to feel inadequate, it is the abuser who really has problems with self-confidence. Abusers encourage emotional dependency because they are emotionally dependent themselves — this produces extreme jealousy and controlling behavior. God, too, is depicted as dependent upon human worship and love. God is usually described as jealous and unable to handle it when people turn away. God is all-powerful, but unable to prevent the smallest problems.

    Another part of the process of making the victim feel inadequate is ensuring that they know how little the abuser trusts them. The victim is not trusted to make her own decisions, dress herself, buy things on her own, or anything else. She is also isolated from her family so that she can’t find help. God, too, is depicted as treating people as if they were unable to do anything right or make their own decisions (like on moral issues, for example).

    Victims are typically made to feel responsible for all of an abuser’s actions, not just deserving of the punishments inflicted. Thus victims are told that it’s their fault when an abuser gets angry, feels suicidal, or indeed when anything at all goes wrong. Humanity is also blamed for everything that goes wrong — although God created humanity and can stop any unwanted actions, all responsibility for all evil in the world is laid entirely at the feet of human beings.

    Why do women stay with violent, abusive spouses? Why don’t they just pack up and leave, making a new life for themselves elsewhere and with people who actually respect and honor them as equal, independent human beings? The signs of abuse described above should help in answering these questions: women are so emotionally and psychologically beaten down that they lack the mental strength to do what is necessary. They don’t have enough confidence to believe that they can make it without the man who keeps telling them that only he could possibly love such an ugly and worthless person such as they.

    Perhaps some insight on this can be gained by rephrasing the question and asking why people don’t abandon the emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship they are expected to develop with God? The existence of God isn’t relevant here — what matters is how people are taught to perceive themselves, their world, and what will happen to them if they make the mistake of trying to leave the relationship in order to make a better life for themselves elsewhere.

    Women who are abused are told that they can’t make it on their own and if they try, their spouse will come after them to punish or even kill them. Believers are told that they can’t accomplish anything of value without God, that they are so worthless that only because God is infinitely loving does he love them at all; if they turn their backs on God, they will be punished for all eternity in hell. The sort of “love” which God has for humanity is the “love” of an abuser who threatens, attacks, and commits violence in order to get his own way.

    Religions like Christianity are abusive insofar as they encourage people to feel inadequate, worthless, dependent, and deserving of harsh punishment. Such religions are abusive insofar as they teach people to accept the existence of a god which, if human, would have long ago been shut away in prison for all his immoral and violent behavior.

  • TL;DR: “Right on, Neil!”


  • This issue is the most important reason why rationalists need to constantly remind theists how pernicious (Adjective: Having a harmful effect, esp. in a gradual or subtle way. Synonyms: malign – noxious – baneful – harmful – pestilent – fatal) religion is. When Dawkins asserts that only religion can cause good people to do bad things, it is because of this message that we’re born in sin. Add to that the fact that most theists have answered the Epicurean Dilemma with the belief that whatever god wants is good, and you have the following line of thinking:

    I am totally depraved.

    I can only be saved by doing god’s will.

    God wills punishment on anyone who disobeys.

    I see you disobeying god.

    If I see you disobeying god and do nothing, then I will be complicit in your sins.

    Therefore: I must punish >youme< forever.

    If what I’ve posted above is true, then we can see how this line of thinking leads to “God Hates Fags” picketers and abortion clinic bombers, and to the less extreme examples of wanting to prevent legal recognition of same-gender marriage, and to never having a civil conversation with an atheist.

    In this original post and in many of the comments, folks have been speculating about the “soul crushing” aspect of religion and making what seem to be apt comparisons with abusive relationships. What has been written here seems logical, but it is just our opinion. Do any of the readers know if there are any peer-reviewed studies about the self-abnegation caused by religious belief and/or a scientific comparison between the thoughts and behaviors of religionists and those of abuse victims?

    I’ve had my share of bumps and bruises, illnesses, bad jobs, and goals unachieved. I consider all that to be normal in the ups and downs of human life. The only thing about my life that I consider to be a real, consistent drain on my life energy is my low self-esteem. As a father, one wish I have for my children, the wish that is more important to me than anything else, is that my kids do not suffer from the constant self-criticism I have running in my head, day after day. I teach my kids that it’s not the failures and successes one has, but how one reacts to them that determines one’s character. It is my job, not just until they leave the home, but for the rest of my life to help my children develop a healthy feeling of self worth.

    Because I have some empathy, though, I also feel the need to help others outside of my family who suffer from low self-esteem. I keep that feeling in check with the recognition that not everyone wants my help, and that it is too easy to appear to be criticizing someone when you are offering them your aid. So I wonder:

    Do we free thinkers have an obligation to “save” the theists from their irrational, abusive relationship with their religion?

    If so, how do we do it without ourselves coming across as “holier than thou”?

  • Part of my comment got erased.

    The last sentence in the line of thinking should read:

    “Therefore: I must punish _you_ for disobeying god so god will be happy with my works and not punish _me_ forever.”

    (I wish the comments had a “preview” button)

  • Fred

    Shucks. I think I would have enjoyed seeing the continued back and forth.

  • el_slapper

    I know I’m 1 year late, but a lady did begin her prayer like that the other sunday(my wife still needs me as a taxi to go to the church, therefore I’m listening)(rough translation from french) :

    “Lord, I’m humiliating myself in front of your face. Lord, Forgive us for everything we did since this morning, Lord”.

    Not “everything wrong we did”, not “Every sin we made”, no, just “everything”. Whatever we do is wrong.

    “GodlessInDixie”, you’ve successfully aimed for bullseye.

  • hannah

    Im recovering from ptsd, depression, and christianity. I thought I was just borrowing virtues from the familiar Book with which iv grown up, to be a virtuous person. I thought well I can love myself unconditionally like god would if he would ever come into my life if he exists somehow, and my counselor and mom keep reassuring me that in god.s good timing he will reveal himself and his love for me, which I have held onto with hope because I never had a good dad and hoped god would fill in the blank. I figured the bible is probably all good im just misunderstanding it, so I set out to compare virtues with scriptures and see what the bible says. What I have found is conflicting verses on love. My heart sinks so low as I contemplate that god doesnt think I am worthy of love, doesnt want me to treat others as worthy of love, doesnt want me to love him, doesnt want others to love me, considers love as exclusively an action performed, and places conditions on his love when he does express it, wanting me to do the same. This is devastating. The bible sounds so wrong! Yet in my mind I think I have to apply it because well its gods word and god knows best. In my heart of hearts I love unconditionally, I think I and everyone is worthy of love because I feel so strongly inside and because it feels right to think of others that way and because logically love is a basic need like water and food are basic needs and we are worthy of them. I think love is not unilateral, but instead we should love and be loved. I think sometimes it seems like someone is undeserving, that we give a little different love to people who are not loving, the kind where we do something nice then move away and hope for the best. I believe that love can be thought feeling and or action. I think love can fail but we can always give and receive it again with different people. I think self love is important. Sometimes im so confused, I dont know who is right the bible or me. Any thoughts for me?

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Hannah, which verses are you struggling with? Why do you think God doesn’t love you, or doesn’t want you to love him or others? I can tell you with confidence that if that’s the conclusion you’ve reached, that’s nowhere in the Bible. It’s the god of other religions like Islam who demands that you come to him as a slave. But God has already answered your cry for a father with a cross. If you are seeking love, that’s the measure of his love for you—the width of two arms outstretched on a tree.

  • It sounds to me like your instincts are moving you in the right direction, Hannah. You cannot love someone well and seek to harm them at the same time. A person may feel love, but how you treat the person you say you love is what matters. I would say anyone who tears you down and makes you feel less worthy or lovable is NOT on fact loving you, no matter what their feelings tell them. There are many people who say they love but who have a warped and self-absorbed idea of what that looks like. It sounds to me like you’ve figured that out.

    Honestly, I don’t think the presence or the absence of the Bible has much to do with it. I’ve seen it used as a tool for good and for evil :) In one man’s hands, it’s a good thing; in another, it becomes a weapon.

    I’d encourage you to contact some friends of mine at Recovering From Religion. They’ve got great resources for dealing with the struggle you’ve described here. I’ll be back later with a direct link.

  • hannah

    Thank you, yes that would be nice.

  • hannah

    Exodus 20:6

    Matthew 12:31-32

    Mark 3:29

    John 3:16, 14:21-24

    Luke 13:3

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Hannah, from your inclusion of verses like John 3:16, I’m guessing that you’re referring to the fact that the Bible teaches we can’t be reconciled with God unless we believe on Jesus. Is this what you’re struggling with? Are you unsure of why Jesus had to die, or why believing in him is necessary for salvation?

  • hannah

    God only does things to show how great he is. He never does anything out of love. He only shows mercy if he has something to gain by it. He’s always telling people how great he is and punishing any hebrew who showed the slightest bit of so-called “disrespect”.

    If someone were truly great, he’d be great by being great, not by telling others how great he is. Compare and contrast Ghandi to any dictator.

    If your child ran in the middle of a busy parkinglot, would you save your child because you loved her? Well, God would push your child into the street, then make sure the local news would be there to see him rescue her.

    That’s what John 3:16, and more than half the bible, is all about.The enslavement of people to an unloving God who tries to pretend he’s loving. Well, I’m not buying it!

    I’d advise you read your Bible again and see if God says or does anything that isn’t self-glorifying or destructive.

  • I am a progressive Christian universalist recovering from the annoying grip of evangelical conservative Christian teaching. I am kind of like a square peg in a round hole in my church context, but I am learning to adapt and evolve with the changes. I have gotten a lot of wonderful nuggets of wisdom and insight from this blog :) This article is so spot on about some of the swill that is taught and how holding onto the Bible as a literal rule book is so destructive for the human psyche. I really love your blog and wish everybody from and in the US a wonderful Independence Day! *Enjoying a Bourbon for *my* Independence Day from the Bible Bubble.