Emotional abuse is a clinical term, and I am not a clinician. But abuse has been around a lot longer than the psychiatric arts. You do not have to be a doctor to know abuse when you see it. You just have to have the courage of your convictions to call it out. The old, old story is a tool for perpetuating emotional abuse. It should never go unchallenged.
Before we can address the abuse, we first, have to recognize it. This can be difficult because abuse is seldom seen with an evil grin, twirling its mustache. On the surface, abuse looks innocent, even good. Violent abuse of children is often disguised as firm discipline, hard love. Spare the rod, spoil the child. An abuser breaks many a rod over the back and shoulders of would-be, spoiled children. “Not on my watch!” says the abuser as he takes another swing. The church says, “Amen!”
Sexual abuse often begins by breaking down the boundaries of personal space. Once the victim is denied the ownership of the space immediately surrounding their own body, it is a short step from there, to accepting unwanted, physical contact. Once intimate contact becomes the new normal, and sexual awareness awakened prematurely, sexual abuse may not even be recognized by the victim.
Emotional abuse is even more difficult to spot. There are no physical signs, nor encroachment into personal space. Though more subtile, the effects may be even more devastating, perhaps due to their subtlety. Religious abuse is one of the worst forms of emotional abuse because it is socially acceptable. Here are three aspects of religious abuse:
Convincing a person that they are doing something wrong, when in fact, they are not, is a sure way of opening them up to manipulation. The greater the wrong they have supposedly done, the greater the debt they owe. The Christian story exploits this to the fullest. Part of a song sang by children proclaims:
He paid a debt he did not owe. I owed a debt I could not pay. I needed someone to wash my sins away. And now I sing a brand new song, “Amazing Grace”. Christ Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.
Many a preacher has harped on the notion that, even if we were the only person on the planet, Jesus would still have had to die on the cross. We, personally, killed the perfect, innocent Jesus. People of conscience can’t help but respond to this message. Just imagine how much more compelling this message is to an impressionable child, especially those who are at the age where everything they do is wrong. “You killed baby Jesus! Now, it’s going to cost you!”
There is no such thing as sin. Religious people define sin as a transgression of God’s law. But there is no such law to transgress, and no such god to give it. It is impossible to be in transgression of a nonexistent law, of a nonexistent god. Yet, what percentage of the world’s seven billion inhabitants are convinced that they are sinners in need of a savior? Too many! The knowledge of my sinful condition was drilled into me as a small child. I was baptized at age 7. How could it be anything other than abuse?
“How many lights do you see?” asked the Cardassian interrogator. Tired, hungry, and suffering from the ongoing torture, Picard squinted upward to consider. “There are four lights!” Knowing the answer to be correct, the interrogator contradicted the prisoner, asking him to look closer. “No! You are mistaken! There are five lights!” No reference is needed for fans of Star Trek TNG.
At the end of this episode, we find Picard admitting to the counselor that not only was he ready to claim that there were five lights, he actually believed there were five lights. His sense of reality had been broken. Once a person’s sense of reality is broken, they are no longer able to navigate reality. This may be religion’s most powerful tool for abuse.
Once you convince a person that at least one, invisible, magic being is real, that person’s universe becomes filled with all manner of invisible, magical beings. At any moment, that person may bump into a guardian angel, or the Angel of Death. There are baby angels with wings, and angels disguised as hobos. Or, are those demons? There are as many kinds of demons as there are angels. The skies are filled with warring factions of invisible, super beings.
Teach a person physics all you like. Once that person is convinced that miracles happen, all scientific thinking goes out the window. Who needs Newton when prayer can change the course of human events? In this world of unreality, there are two kinds of people: the saved and the lost. How might it effect our treatment of others when we are convinced that the vast majority of them will burn in hell, a punishment they richly deserve for defying your god? Might that warped view of reality limit one’s possibilities? You bet it does!
If you convince a nation that they were chosen by the god of creation, and that other nations will be your subordinates, how might that effect the course of history? What happens if the Germans start thinking that the Jews are subhuman? What could possibly go wrong? This is what happens when one’s sense of reality is warped by another. Parents take their small children into compounds every Sunday, to have professionals warp the child’s sense of reality. Once this abuse is accomplished, every other kind of abuse springs fourth. Teach enough children that two and two is five, and you will never run out of low-level servants. Flood their minds with guilt and magical thinking, and you will always have suicide bombers. At the very least, you will always have contributors to the collection plate.
Who could forget the words, “I don’t want to grow up. I’m a Toys R Us kid…”? At least, in the jingle, the immaturity was voluntary. Religion halts the maturation process, keeping adherents from fully growing up. We are made to address God as our father. We are to think of ourselves as children of God. At no point does this relationship dynamic ever change.
The bible teaches that we should never say that we will do this or that. Rather if it be God’s will, we do this or that. That means that we can never just decide that it is in our best interest to do something. Instead, we must forever second-guess ourselves. We can never trust our own judgement lest we like sheep, go astray. We will always be babies, never allowed to grow up.
We must ask forgiveness for every little thing we do wrong. We have to tell our heavenly daddy how much we appreciate every single breath we take, and how glad we are that he chose not to kill us in our sleep last night. We have to thank him for every scrap of food we scarf down, give him the credit for everything we manage to accomplish, convinced we could accomplish nothing without his help. We can never be allowed to accomplish anything on our own.
We must always be subject to daddy’s punishments when we make him mad. With God, you are never too old to be turned over his knee. Of course, like a good, Southern daddy, he beats us for our own good. He never spares the rod. Sometimes we just have to be bludgeoned into submission. He will starve us, deliver us into the hands of our enemies, and kill us if that’s what it takes to save us. Just look at how he treated the children of Israel when they disappointed him. After Moses spoke to him on the mountain, God killed almost every last one of those filthy sinners, you know, for their own good. As your Heavenly Father, he’s not afraid of loving you into submission, as well.
Breaking free of abuse might well be the single most difficult thing you ever do in your life. Freedom comes at a price, and that type of freedom is particularly expensive. The cost of breaking free from religious abuse is the loss of community, friendships, and sometimes family. You will also probably lose your sense of purpose, and a sense of who you are and what life is all about. You will find yourself disoriented, unsure of how to navigate reality when magical thinking has been your constant companion. I did it. It is sometimes messy, and never easy. I offer a few keys that helped me unlock my chains:
All types of abuse depend on an insular environment that isolates you, in some way, from the outside world. In this way, the victim may never realize she is being abused. Even if she does, she may not know of any alternative to the situation she is in. Conservative religion works the same way. You are discouraged from visiting other denominations. You are encouraged to attend a university sponsored by your particular denomination. Likewise, marriage outside of your church is frowned upon. Like the ancient Jews, isolation is the key to maintaining religious purity.
You have to find the courage to look up and see what is going on in the world outside your religion. Preachers are always telling you how bad things are outside of the church, and many accept those pronouncements at face value. Don’t! Much to my amazement, I discovered that non-religious people also find true love, and keep it. Marriages last, children are born, societal promises are made and kept with no less fidelity as with the religious.
I found that non-religious people lead fulfilling and happy lives. Faith and hope are not required. They get through each day without uttering a single word of prayer. They spend holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter with family and friends, enjoy all the same rituals, with the exception of God being absent from their festivities. This does not seem to dampen the experience. I have seen people curse God and not die. I have seen bad people prosper and good people suffer equally, with or without religion. I see graves greedily holding the remains of both the righteous and the unrighteous, alike, neither more likely to release their occupants.
Without much investigation, I found that the faithful suffer from as much depression and take as much Zoloft as the unfaithful. Their children are just as homosexual, just as addicted to drugs, just as likely to lie steel and cheat as the atheist child. I have seen no fewer instances of teen pregnancy inside the church as out. Suicide rates remain the highest in places where religion is the strongest. Look around, and you will find that life beyond religion is just as good, if not better than what you have come to know as the only life worth living.
I’m not suggesting that you dive in on the basis of a theory. Rather, dip a toe in the water to see for yourself. There are many small, safe things you can try when testing the waters. One of my first tests was prayer. I was not testing to see if prayer would change things in my favor. I had a lifetime of data on that. Rather, I wanted to know if things would change for the worse if I was to stop praying. This was a lot harder for me to put into practice, as I was used to praying reflexively.
Once I turned off the prayer machine in my head, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my life did not go straight to hell as I had imagined it might. Instead, I found no change in my life. Each day went pretty much as the last, more or less on schedule. I found that the little serendipities I once attributed to God’s providential answering of prayer, continued to happen long after I stopped praying. They still do. That told me that God was not answering my prayers. Rather, that sometimes, good things just happen to us. Sometimes bad things happen to us as well. Neither happens as a result of praying or not praying.
The same non-event took place when I stopped putting money into the collection plate and taking communion. My income did not grow smaller; it grew larger. No horrible plagues befell me when I stopped the cannibalistic pantomime of the Lord’s Supper. Small experiments are a big step in breaking the fear cycle.
This is not intended to be harsh, but freeing. Victims are kept in a childlike state by their abusers. I am simply encouraging you to grasp what is yours: the right to grow up to a state of maturity. Religion loses all hold on you once you stop believing in magic. Stop seeking magical answers, and you will cease to be swayed by peddlers of religion. You can only be taken in by the bible when you desire all the answers to life’s problems, and expect those answers to come from a magic book. Only in the context of religion can a magic book with all of life’s answers be taken seriously.
The same is true for all of the magic frameworks of religion. Invisible friends who have the power to keep us safe, and make all things work out to our good as long as we love him, are the imaginative ramblings of a 5 year-old. Call it religion, and you’ve got prayer. Childishly, we want all our bruises to be fixed by the power of magical thinking. But neither broken bones, bacteria, viruses, blindness, nor cancer responds to magic words. Outside of religion, this is obvious. Outside of religion, it is patently obvious that the emperor has no clothes.
The old, old story is a trap. It should never be told to impressionable children, or emotionally vulnerable adults. It is a little like recreational drugs: You find it was a lot easier to start than quit. You start depending on it for things it has no power to do. So much so, you forget how to depend on yourself to make it through a typical day. Like a payday loan, it’s a trap that places you into a debt that you can never pay. Give it a wide birth, and be the author of your own story.