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HomeCommentaryTeachings that Disempower and Infantilize Spirituality, Part 1

Teachings that Disempower and Infantilize Spirituality, Part 1


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By Brien Pittman

It’s difficult to feel safe in the world with evil everywhere. In the repressive religious worldview, “the World” is a fallen place, ruled by Satan and his minions, a battleground for spiritual warfare where Satan disguises himself as an “angel of light” and children are taught to be very afraid of anything that is not of their faith.

At church, religious leaders condemn much of “the world” and parents are taught to control secular influences, or Satan will lead their children astray. Because of this, children grow up terrified of everything outside the closed religious subculture, most of which is simply unfamiliar.

“I was raised on fire and brimstone, speaking in tongues, believing the world was a dangerous and evil place, full of temptation and sinners seeking to destroy me/drag me down.” –Robert

The world was a strange and frightening place to me. I feared that all the bad, nasty things that I had been brought up to believe would happen to anyone who left the religion would in fact happen to me!” –Allison

“I’m pissed that I was so brainwashed for so long—smashing CDs, burning books, rebuking Satan . . . it’s like having your entire world turned upside down—no, destroyed.” –Brad

Virtually everything in the “world” is seen as treacherous, a temptation just waiting to entice faithful Christians into loving something more than God. Children and adults are taught to not only avoid the obvious temptations of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but also to beware of science, the arts, secular humanism, and even gardening if it takes your focus off Jesus. Emotionally and psychologically, the devout Christian is isolated and stunted regarding the world, their individual development, and the simple joys of modern life.

Some religious leaders place more emphasis on literal teachings about demons, and thus believers learn to be terrified of evil spirits prowling everywhere, even to the point of performing exorcisms on children who misbehave. Being saved is understood as a “covering” and one must put on the “whole armor of God” to go about everyday life.

A frequently quoted verse with a terrifying image is 1 Peter 5:8: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, he walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

In repressive Christianity, you need to be on guard from a very broad range of threats, and they extend to every area of life. Authoritarian, conservative Christians have been known to condemn meditation, relaxation techniques, massage, sex education, critical thinking, other philosophies, other religions, motivational training, self-esteem enhancement, dancing, music and movies.

In order to create a fear of falling away from God, these Christians use exaggerated metaphors: one small slip is portrayed as the beginning of a spiraling descent into a life of debauchery and sin. Playing bingo can lead to uncontrollable gambling. A slow dance can arouse your desires and lead to sexual promiscuity.

Your life does not need to feel like a tight rope act, where innocuous experiences represent an ominous free fall into wickedness. As you find the courage to experience the world with an open mind, you will find much that is safe, supportive and fulfilling. You will consistently learn to make sound judgments, growing in spiritual maturity, inner strength and wisdom. The world is truly full of diverse and wonderful experiences and ordinary people come in an amazing assortment of cultures and personalities that prove fascinating, and often rewarding, to know.

As a comparison, consider a few verses found in the book of Ecclesiastes, credited to the wisest man to ever live, King Solomon. Surprisingly, many Christians have never read the following Scriptures, because Ecclesiastes is frequently ignored by repressive religions due to its contradictory nature to many other books of the Bible, which are used to instill dangerous and threatening worldviews that minimize the joys of life.

Unfortunately, affirmative action cannot be credited to wise King Solomon, so we’ll pardon his gender-specific use of language.

2:24 “There is nothing better for a man (or woman), than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor.”

How did the wisest man who ever lived view the world?

3:11 “He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also He hath set the world in their heart.”

What a contrast to the “fallen” and dangerous worldview—God set the world in our hearts.

3:12 “There is no good … but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.”

8:15 “A man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.”

9:7 “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart.”

11:9 “Walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes.”

Check back for part two.

Brien Pittman
Brien Pittman
Brien’s articles for FāVS generally revolve around ideas and beliefs that create unhealthy deadlock divisions between groups. He has received (minor) writing awards for his short stories and poetry from the cities of Portland, Oregon and the city of (good beer) Sapporo, Japan. In 2010 he was asked to present several articles for the California Senate Committee “Task Force for Suicide Prevention” and has been published by online magazines and a couple national poetry anthologies in print form.

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Jan Shannon
9 years ago

Brien, while I agree that there are particular denominations and particular pastors that preach the repressive, and even unhealthy, doctrines that you mention, I wish you had not used quite so broad a brush with which to paint the church. Not all churches preach those doctrines, and some whole denominations reject that oppressive mindless form of Christianity, but yet much of your article depicts “church” as the place where this abuse happens.

As someone who used to be a member of a more conservative denomination, I can see the good that comes from those churches even while at the same time preach fear of God. Balance in our judgment of those denominations and pastors must bring us to a centerline where we can see both the good and the bad of any one denomination or pastor. No one church has all the answers or preaches a perfect doctrine, if in fact one exists, but like all individuals, houses both good and bad within one structure.

9 years ago

Hi Jan,

Thanks for your comment. I apologize for the confusion, certainly you are right in your statements. In no way am I trying to suggest throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The religions I’m speaking of are as described in the first article and will be better defined in
the subsequent articles; mainstream religions that use fear and manipulation in order to gain complete control over their member’s lives.

This is a very deep, difficult and unfamiliar topic for many and there are no short answers but I’ll try to explain myself better. The hardest part is for people to understand that
spiritual/religious abuse and trauma is much more common than we realize, and I mean no disrespect to you by saying that. Unfortunately, direct experience seems to be the best way to understand but with a little research one easily finds that mind control, mental and emotional abuse and physical and sexual violence is actually the norm for many large, mainstream religious groups in our own communities, and while they do perform some beneficial deeds, I don’t think we should look the other way.

The general irreproachableness of religion in our society makes it all the more insidious. When the religious communities are so large and the practices standardized, victims are silenced. Over the last 25 years I have worked with thousands of people who were traumatized and spiritually scarred from their mainstream religion. From an orthodox,
conservative point of view, many people who have left these religions and are suffering are seen as failures – they simply lack faith and devotion. A fundamentalist view is that they have been “rebellious”, guilty of “independent thought” and have brought about their own misery. Severe depression and anxiety are often experienced. Personal misery is seen as a natural result of leaving the church. Members are manipulated into believing if they change
churches God will completely abandon them. Basically, they have nowhere to turn for help.

In many ways, a person with Spiritual Trauma can be re-traumatized again and again through minimizing, denial and incorrect counseling. The current societal views are very similar to what sufferers from anorexia or bipolar disorder previously experienced before increased recognition and the development of standardized protocols for therapy and
treatment were established. Re-traumatizing can cause regression to an earlier state of hopelessness, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation by triggering the suffering caused by indoctrination and rejection.

Jason Leopold a two-time winner of the Project Censored Award was recently named the recipient of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s Thomas Jefferson Award for a series of stories he wrote that exposed how soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been pressured to accept Fundamentalist Religion. In a stunning admission, top officials at the Veterans Health Administration confirmed that the agency’s own statistics show that an
average of 126 veterans per week —6,552 veterans per year—commit suicide, according to an internal email distributed to several VA officials.

To date very little research has been done on the suicide rates among members/ex-members of fundamentalist religious sects. The available statistics suggest a suicide rate ranging anywhere from 5-10% above the average depending on the specific sect being examined.

There is so much more to the subject but the general public knows so little of it. I wont go into all the reasons for this. Hopefully, someday more attention will be devoted to this
area. I encourage people to do some research so they can see just how wide spread and common it has become in our society.

There are a lot of people out there who really need our help.

Tom Schmidt
Tom Schmidt
9 years ago

Joining the discussion late. I agree with what is being said. The anti-world attitude that many religions have, and the idea that God arbitrarily intervenes in the world to fix, or destroy it, does not serve us well. I know several people who value life but tend to take the approach that God will fix the problems. Therefore they tend to downplay the problems of climate change and war and disease and poverty with a let God take care of it, or merely ray with no action.
Often the New Testament writers condemn the world with fearsome portrayals of how evil it is, and how much we must be on guard. Often we now take these passages as speaking directly to us. However they were written for the people of the first through the third centuries. That was a time of brutal occupation, war and slaughter, with the expectation that God would very soon, likely in a matter of days, step in and change things for the better. We don’t often believe that way now, after 2000 years of waiting. Taking the condemnations of the world literally today just does not serve us well, and leads to many morally questionable assumptions. We do no have to act so afraid and in haste, and most likely we need to assume more responsibility for correcting the wrongs. not withdrawing to let God do it.

9 years ago
Reply to  Tom Schmidt

Thank you. You totally got the point of this article.
Thanks for your comment

4 years ago

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