“Re-examine all you have been told… Dismiss what insults your Soul.”
– Walt Whitman
In the South Pacific, “cargo cults” sprang up as religions with people longing for the return of white gods in their ships with amazing stuff – their cargo. It sounds quaint and innocent enough, just as hoping for Jesus to come back after 2000 years is quirky but “whatever gets you through the night,” right? But what is the real cost of having millions of people holding to a belief system with a decidedly magical view of the universe? The consequences may be hidden and far-reaching, personal and societal, even global. Certainly we have increasing evidence that individuals are harmed by mental and emotional trauma often unrecognized.
Two major factors seem to be responsible for this. One is the nature of the trauma itself. Unlike other harm, such as physical beating or sexual abuse, the injury is far from obvious to the victim, who has learned, as part of the abuse itself to self-blame. It’s as if a person black and blue from a caning were to think it was self-inflicted. Much like Alice Miller described, it would follow that because it is unconscious, we have thousands of walking wounded in society suffering deeply but at a loss about their fear and rage and lack of meaning in life.
The belief system of Christianity teaches avoidance of self-reflection. Even those who leave take with them their low self-awareness as well as their self-loathing. Understandably this is passed on to their children. Christians are warned not to engage their own minds and hearts, lest they be led astray. The most insidious Bible verses, reminders that humans are evil and foolish, are repeated so often most believers know them by heart:
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9)
“Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:5)
Former believers have to engage in a tremendous battle to have any clarity of mind. As one person put it:
I hear something, read something or think something and suddenly I feel panic about the decision I have made to leave Christianity. I start to question my reasoning. I just feel like a battered woman trying to leave an abusive relationship.
The second reason that religious harm goes unrecognized is that Christianity is still the cultural backdrop for the indoctrination. While the larger society may not be fundamentalist, there are references to God and faith everywhere in the U.S. The courts use the Bible to swear in witnesses and the President is made to put his hand on the Bible to be sworn into office. Having faith is a requirement in this country for being in politics at all. At President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, the invocation was given by a well-known evangelical minister and author, Rick Warren, who writes in his best selling book that people will be judged in the afterlife: “One day you will stand before God, and he will do an audit of your life, a final exam, before you enter eternity.”
Common phrases in our language are “God willing,” “God bless,” “God helps those that help themselves,” “In God we trust,” and so forth. A familiar song says “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” These things imply the sanctioning of theistic authority.
Even without the words, elements of a conservative Christian worldview are alive and well in institutions and public policies. The justice system uses dichotomous thinking of guilty/not guilty and puts individuals on trial instead of complex systems. We engage in blaming, punishing, and crediting with “meritocracy.” War is to punish “evil-doers.”
Religious trauma in the form of mental and emotional abuse is difficult to see because it is camouflaged by the respectability of religion in this culture. To date, parents are afforded the right to teach their own children whatever doctrines they like, no matter how heinous, degrading, or mentally unhealthy. Unlike physical or sexual abuse, the larger society has not yet worked out how to protect vulnerable children in other ways.
But the victims themselves may not grasp what they have been through, and most helping professionals still have the mind-set of Christianity-as-benign. However, beating children was once commonplace and victims often claimed they deserved their punishment because they were so bad they asked for it. We know now that corporal punishment can have very negative long-term consequences. Hopefully we will learn the same thing about mental and emotional abuse. Here is one way mental anguish has been described:
You can’t imagine how feverishly I’ve searched for answers to what
exactly is going on in my head and why I feel the way I do.
I’ve been in and out of counseling. I’ve cried out for help to anyone
who would listen, only to have my cries fall on deaf ears and turned
backs. I’ve listened to people tell me to “man up,” “get over it,”
“stop being so selfish,” etc. to the point where I just stopped
revealing my inner feelings altogether.
The change required.
The recovery and personal growth of an individual recovering from fundamentalist indoctrination involves a major transformation unlike healing from other kinds of trauma. This is because the “deep frame” that a person acquires and lives on the unconscious, cellular, all-encompassing daily experiential level includes assumptions that touch on every aspect of reality. The recovery process necessarily requires challenging and questioning and going through what can be a frightening collapse of all that is familiar. For the most sincere believers and the most indoctrinated, this can touch off an emotional breakdown or a complete existential crisis. Because social supports often fall away and professionals don’t understand, it can be a lonely time as well – a dark night of the soul requiring courage and stamina. The end result if and when a person weathers the storm successfully is a new construction of identity and a framework for living life with meaningful new commitments. In essence, an individual goes through a personal paradigm shift.
The concept of “paradigm shift” or “scientific revolution” was famously developed by philosopher and historian of science, Thomas Kuhn (1962), as a way of understanding scientific progress. According to Kuhn, a paradigm is a “constellation of beliefs shared by a group”, or “a constellation of findings, concepts, values, techniques etc. shared by a scientific community to define legitimate problems and solutions.” A paradigm shift happens when “anomalies ” appear, leading to questioning of the paradigm, a stage of crisis, and then the development of a broader science with a new paradigm. Periods like this have happened many times in the history of science, such as Copernican revolution, the Darwinian revolution, or the Theory of Relativity by Einstein.
For the individual going through the collapse of one worldview and the construction of another, there are striking similarities. The initial worldview of Christianity is, like a scientific paradigm, a tightly knit system of core assumptions. The believer goes through stages of doubt and questioning when “anomalies” are discovered that challenge what is assumed to be true. Gradually, information accumulates that contradicts the paradigm until it no long holds and a crisis is reached. The individual must release the old paradigm and find a new paradigm for life.
When individuals leave Christianity, an interesting and problematic aspect is the way the personal paradigm shift is embedded within a much larger societal shift. A giant change has been going on for hundreds of years, creating enormous conflict. Since there have been many shifts within it along the way, we could call it a “meta-paradigm” shift because it is so comprehensive.
This shift is going on as humanity learns about the natural world and turns from a supernatural view of causation by forces of good and evil in the world to a naturalistic explanation. It is no less than a transformation in the way humans understand the nature of reality.
For western civilization, the Enlightenment marked a leap forward in this change. The Christian church no longer rules Europe and cannot burn witches for causing epidemics. At least in public, gods and demons are less often used for explaining natural disasters, crop failures, or disease. However, despite progress, the world is still in the agonizing middle stages of the meta-paradigm shift, a bit stranded in the wasteland between the two paradigms where religionists will shout scripture while hard scientists scratch their heads.
What are these paradigms or worldviews? There are two that are clearly very different. At present, elements of each are quite apparent and active in the world, often in conflict.
1) The Supernatural Paradigmis the one from antiquity that posits the existence of an unseen spiritual world to explain the material world. It is mysteriously beyond human understanding but has ultimate power over human destiny. The response to this condition is generally passive, while seeking guidance and mercy from an external deity while waiting for a better existence.
2) The Natural Paradigm views the universe as unitary and natural. It is considered vast with many unknowns but available for human investigation. Explanations are sought within the natural world only. The approach to dealing with the human condition is to accept life as it is, despite its flaws, rather than leaving the planet. Making good choices and taking responsibility is the preferred method of improving the world.
In the following diagram, the Copernican revolution is depicted, which was an upheaval not just in science but in Christendom. It meant that the universe did not center around man, and challenged the Biblical view of reality. The lower part of the graph is the “meta-paradigm shift” which subsumes all of the other paradigm shifts in history contributing to the ongoing shift to a Natural view of causation in the universe.
Why is this important? Because when understanding the process of recovering from religion, it helps to recognize that both the individual and the culture (Western civilization) are going through painful throes of revolutionary change. For the person, everything they thought was true is up for question. The context of cultural paradigm shift makes this personal transformation anything but easy or clear. Moreover, the levels of analysis are embedded and inextricable, i.e. as “betrayal trauma,” the religious harm must be understood in relational terms and with contextual responsibility.
In the culture, large numbers of people with little self-awareness and damaged psyches battle to keep medieval social policies in the public arena and Bible teachings in school. While climate change and international conflict threaten all of humanity, these millions who are still convinced of supernatural forces ruling the cosmos wait for their promised rescue party in the sky. It looks just like the cargo cult. Little children sing the pretty songs they’ve learned about it but it’s not charming, it’s dangerous.
Why in this day and age do so many people still believe such fantastical things? It’s really quite amazing – a literal Adam and Eve, creation in 6 days, a virgin birth, Jesus’ resurrection, heaven and hell, a coming Rapture and Judgment Day, miracles, Satan, and so on. There is no way of understanding this mindset in a purely rational manner. With frame analysis, we can appreciate the power of deeply held emotional systems of metaphor and symbol. Christianity is also entrenched by social structures in the culture and passed on to vulnerable children. Human brains are wired in a number of ways to be receptive to religious ideas as well.
Finally, it is clear that there are primal needs that religion, and Christianity in particular purports to meet such as safety, connection, stability, and meaning. The terrifying human ability to envision the future and thereby imagine our own death is solved with the belief in an afterlife. The longing for a perfect parent and family is met with the symbol of an all-powerful Heavenly Father and a spiritual family. Jesus is a “Rock of Ages,” the rules for life are literally etched in stone, and God is unchanging – “the alpha and omega.” The religion offers clarity instead of uncertainty and the hope for permanence and perfection instead of constant change and cycles of death and renewal.
Religion gives pseudo-answers to big questions that can’t be answered. This is what adherents discover when they make honest inquiry. People in these meme systems do not grow up learning to make peace with life’s mysteries. Then when they lose their religion, they lose the ground under their feet.
Part of the scare in letting go of the old paradigm is the fear of the unknown, like the trapeze artist in mid-air, unsure of where or how to land. Perhaps on the cultural level of analysis, this is less of an issue since the culture does not have a personal psyche that has been damaged by emotional abuse that has left it feeling shame and helplessness. In the largeness of humanity we can hope, barring destruction of the earth by fundamentalists, there will continue to be a critical mass of strong, creative, and courageous souls who will lead on. We have already climbed down out of the trees and changed many barbarous ways, so it seems reasonable to expect homo-sapiens to keep moving in a humanistic direction.
Because Christianity saturates the entire culture, it would be fair to say that the wounds of religious harm belong to everyone, not just the traumatized. We are all charged with the task of preventing future injury as well in looking after society’s children. Helen Keller was one who favored an honest embrace of reality:
I do not want the peace that passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace.
How is a new paradigm reached? For the individual, there are definitely some important elements in the healing and growth process. To begin with, recovery begins with facing the facts of a failed worldview. While this may be terrifying, and bring on anger and grief, it is also a relief. The prohibition on having one’s own thoughts is more than lifted. The process of getting acquainted with and learning to trust one’s deepest instincts is the path of liberation. No longer is one a vile creature and no longer is the world a place of woe to leave as soon as possible. Strangely biblical, it is the truth that sets you free.
In the treatment of trauma generally, an important finding is that it is the personal telling of one’s story that generates the start of healing (Herman, 1992). It does not have to be a happy story, only a coherent narrative that gives rational understanding of what exactly happened. For the recovering Christian, a key ingredient is to grasp the dynamics of indoctrination. This is crucial in order to undo the constant tendency to self-blame and fall into the very content of the conditioning itself. This aspect of recovery cannot be overemphasized because the relief in discovering what one has actually been through is so intense.
Even though my heart felt ripped open the other night as I discovered the source of my persistent inklings of abuse, I was so happy knowing that now I could move forward and start a path of healing.
I have hope. I can flourish. I can learn. Best of all, this has helped me come to the realization that I am not alone. That there is help available. Thank you so much. I knew there was a reason why I had to hold on.
There are multiple areas of healing and growth necessary in recovery, depending on individual situations, but a commonality is to construct a new worldview for living. This can take some time because it involves every domain of life, including relationships with family and friends.
I have viewed my recovery from religion as a maturation process, both painful at times and immensely rewarding. Ultimately it has involved reworking my entire reality over a number of years. It has made me more accepting, less anxious, and generally more satisfied with my existence.
Parts of letting go of the religious worldview can be painful and frightening, with similarities to the difficult adjustments western civilization had to make when the earth was found to not be at the center of the universe and evolution put humans with other animals. Former believers have to get used to the loss of special status as a child of Almighty God on a cosmic mission and having plans to sit beside Him in heaven someday instead of returning molecules to the universe. However in time they realize they can live quite well without certainty about ultimate questions. They can mature in their own confidence and capabilities.
Finding the support of other “reclaimers” is of enormous help – probably more so than survivors of other traumas because there is a huge need to counteract the impact of the huge group influence of the religion. For many people leaving religion, the feeling of being alone is painfully real, and makes the fear intense when doubts set in about making a big mistake.
New images and metaphors are needed. For example, instead of standing on a “rock of ages,” imagine a bird perched on a branch, not concerned about it breaking because the bird trusts in its own wings. Over time, the recovering person develops a new worldview from new information, and acquiring new skills. Areas of human knowledge can be freely used instead of feared, even if they challenge the Bible. One of the most useful concepts in the new natural paradigm is to comprehend humans as animals. To be part of the animal kingdom, belonging to the earth, enjoying nature, and living fully in the present, is a new approach to life. With evolutionary psychology available to understand human behavior, new possibilities open up in very interesting ways. Without the concept of sin at the center of everything, the former believer can transform their view of self and others.
The move away from religion is not without sobering existential dilemmas. The challenges of being human in an uncertain world are real and it is a mistake to fall into the trap of rationalism as an answer. Fisher and Fisher wrote a brilliant book called The Psychological Adaptation to Absurdity: Techniques of Make Believe, in which they sought to ferret out the problems of self-delusion, chief of which was religion. What they found was that everyone uses fantasies to cope and “reality” is not at all what it is cracked up to be. That is, simply eliminating the false shield of religion does not solve life’s challenges.
We still live by the mental frames we construct, and we are learning more about this. In psychology and in neuroscience, we are finding out about the techniques and the benefits of quieting the mind and learning awareness. For the former Christian it is an exciting time. There may not be simplistic answers as before but the questions may not be as terrible as we thought. Uncertainty also means wondrous mystery and impermanence also means the continuing glory of change.
Many have noted the Christian preoccupation with death (Christopher Hitchens, for example). The focus regarding Jesus is his crucifixion rather than his teachings. Tragically, human life itself is completely denigrated in favor of dying to be with God. The psychologist Walter Davis (2005) discusses this anti-life escapism: “The longing for death is transformed into a sublime celebration of death. Life in its complexity demands too much of us. That in a nutshell is the fundamentalist message. Only death can deliver one from the threat life poses.”
Without supernatural beliefs, a person with a Natural Paradigm seeks to be fully alive now, instead of in the afterlife. Anais Nin said, “Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” The old paradigm centers around obedience as the central organizing virtue; the new paradigm necessarily requires it to be courage.
Although I still sometimes miss the religious feelings I enjoyed and the beliefs that I had, I don’t regret my decision to reject religious belief in favor of demonstrable reality at all. I am a stronger, better person because I am an atheist. I face reality as it is – even the most unpleasant parts of it – and I am good and moral because that’s a part of who I am as a person, not because I am trying to please God or because I am living in fear of him. I have discovered how wonderful it is to face life on its own terms, free of religious myths and lies!
It could be said that a nontheist is most prolife. When Alan Watts compared life to listening to music, he said we don’t sit waiting for the music to end in order to do something better; we enjoy the music while it is playing, remembering to sing and dance while we can. In working with former Christians, it has been my pleasure to share this most amazing, healing metaphor.
Davis, Walter A. 2005. The Psychology of Christian Fundamentalism. Available at: http://www.counterpunch.org/davis01082005.html
Fisher, Seymour and Fisher, Rhoda. The Psychology of Adaptation To Absurdity: Tactics of Make-believe, Psychology Press, 1993.
Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery, Basic Books, 1997.
Hitchens, Christopher. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJ2LehsA1dk
Kuhn, Thomas. Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1962.
Watts, Alan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERbvKrH-GC4