Thursday, June 30, 2016
JILL DERMYER - Why does religion turn from beauty into beast? // MICHAEL EDWARDS - Will the left ever get religion? // CHITRA NAGARAJAN - Put away the scriptures and follow justice
Comfort, guidance, support, solace and inspiration—religion offers all of these things in the best and worst of times. Yet religion also has a brutal and abusive face. I’m not just talking about the rampant sexual abuse that has taken place within the Catholic Church, but about all the other traumatic experiences that occur every day in religious communities. As a psychotherapist who specializes in religious and sexual traumas, I’ve worked with people who’ve suffered this kind of abuse for the past eight years, so what is it that turns religion from ‘beauty into beast?’
Although the doctrines that underlie toxic belief systems, abusive practices, and brainwashing or mind-control techniques vary across religions, the core issues are usually the same. First, in many faiths obedience is valued above all else. Religious authorities can ensure obedience by tapping into people’s primal fears of abandonment. Followers are taught that if they disobey or show dissent, not only will they lose their faith community but also the love of God or another higher power.
Relationships with these higher powers and the hierarchies of religious authority are based on dominance and submission, a dynamic that often paves the way for abuses of power and position. The pervasiveness of harmful practices such as sexual abuse or expulsion from the faith helps to normalize these practices, which in turn inhibits the urge to show dissent or speak out when they occur. ‘Don’t think, don’t feel’ is a common mantra when followers are taught to surrender free-thinking to religious leaders. Critical thinking and emotional intelligence are frowned on.
This presents major difficulties when a person chooses to leave the religious fold, because independent living in the secular world requires more of these qualities not less, including trust in oneself to make the right decisions for one’s life. That’s why many individuals report feeling indecisive and frightened after leaving their faith, which often leads to isolation and an increasing sense that they don’t belong in this new, secular world.
Secondly, these same authoritarian tendencies can reinforce negative and harmful messages about the Self and the secular world. The core teaching that the ‘Self is bad’ is common to many religious beliefs. In Christian teachings, followers are taught that God created human beings in his perfect image, an image which is polluted or destroyed by human sin—like same-sex marriage. The constant reiteration of the message that ‘we are bad’ establishes negative conditioning, and if internalized this can lead to depression and self-hatred, and on to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Individuals that have been abused in relationships are often asked why they didn’t leave their partner, a question that’s also asked of ex-cult members. In both cases the answer is the same—the dominant or abusive party will capitalize on the following kinds of behavior to ensure that the submissive party remains devoted to them: coercion and threats, economic abuse, intimidation, emotional abuse, male privilege, the use of children as leverage, and the act of minimizing or denying abusive practices—or blaming them on the victim.
Thirdly, leaving one’s faith involves a lot more than a shift in thinking and beliefs. It might also mean losing your interpersonal support system, namely your friends and family members. This is most commonly seen among the ex-Jehovah Witness community, whose members may be expelled for ‘unrepentant sin.’ Once someone has been expelled, members of the church are forbidden from keeping their company, and it is not uncommon for a mother to cut all ties with her ‘disfellow-shipped’ child, a traumatic interpersonal loss that can lead to feelings of abandonment, grief and depression.
Intrapersonal losses are also common, because many aspects of faith can offer adaptive coping mechanisms during times of stress. When someone feels lost or discouraged, prayer or religious attendance can offer valuable support and guidance, so the loss of these coping strategies can result in the use of practices which are even more harmful.
A common theme I’ve come across in my clinical work is that individuals who have left their faith experience a sense of desperation that comes from the loss of belief in a pre-determined destiny, or the sense that ‘everything is in God’s hands.’ The realization that one’s life is no longer following a pre-determined path can contribute to feelings of insignificance, and a crisis of identity. In an attempt to take control of their own destinies, people report seeking gratification and a sense of purpose from high-risk behaviors such as anonymous sex and substance abuse.
If the choice to leave is voluntary, individuals generally experience acute relief followed by multiple triggers that can induce psychological distress. But even if it isn’t voluntary, the shift to the secular world can lead to difficulties in many areas of functioning such as work and school. Social and cultural losses such as the rupture of families and social networks, employment issues, and/or financial stress can all contribute to problems of acculturation into a new, secular life. Individuals may experience difficulty with decision making and critical thinking, as well as identity confusion.
Also common are anxiety, depression and grief; concerns about death and the afterlife; a sense of shame; changes in sleep patterns and nightmares; substance abuse, and/or sexual dysfunction. Many of these problems are common to non-religious situations too, but there are some aspects of stress that make faith-based trauma unique, particularly the pressure that exists to return to the perpetrators. When someone suffers abuse at the hands of a religious elder, they are sometimes told to return to their church and ‘pray on it.’ This happened to a former client of mine whose husband sexually abused members of their congregation. When she sought support for her considerable psychological distress, she was met instead with the following message: “Strengthen your relationship with God, and all will be well.”
Her primary method of coping was recognized, but her pain was ignored. In cases like these, people are told that everything will be ok if they simply increase their faith, pray harder, or seek religious guidance, when in actuality what they need is non-secular support to address the realities of their psychological suffering. Consider how the same family members would react in the wake of a sexual assault outside the church. No parent would ever tell their child to seek out the perpetrator and ask forgiveness for their sin. A unique aspect of religious trauma is that it is often not recognized as a traumatic event, and this is what makes such events so dangerous.
Of course, religion can offer positive and helpful support in certain situations too—as in the case of another client who experienced one of the worst traumatic events I’ve ever encountered at the hands of his previous religious community after showing open support for his transgender son. After fleeing this community he only found solace when he discovered another church that openly accepted his and his family as their authentic and genuine selves. But in general, secular, evidence-based, psychological sciences such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic theory and emotion-focused therapies show that effective support can be offered to those suffering from traumatic stress in ways that faith-based treatments cannot.
Religion and faith can be beautiful things, and they can be brutal. Religious freedom is rightly valued in democratic societies, but the ways in which religious culture can foster the abuse and exploitation of individuals are real. At their core, the mainstream religions share the same beliefs: be kind, be good, and love your neighbor. But these beliefs must be practiced in community, and in communities power is often appropriated and misused by leaders.
If psychology has taught us anything, it is that influential people can shape how people view and think of themselves, of others, and of the wider world in which they live. Religious leaders have the choice of imparting values and behaviors that are true to their teachings, or translating those messages in ways that heighten their own sense of power and importance and provide a cover for abuse.
Can there ever be a truly successful, secular revolution?
Why does religion drive so many people nuts? That’s the question that opensand closes our debate on religion and social change. On the surface the answer is obvious, at least for progressives—it’s because of the damage that’s been done by religion to the causes they hold dear: independence and equality for women, gay marriage and LGBTQ rights, peace and protection from zealots and fanatics, and safety in the face of sexual abuse. How come the ineffable being is always a bloke with a beard who privileges others who look the same as him? Religion has become the mother-lode of patriarchy, stupidity, homophobia and all things conservative.
But the opposite is also true: religion gives tremendous strength and staying power to the struggle for equality and social justice. It’s a force that makes people go to jail for their beliefs, break into nuclear weapons facilities and daub biblical slogans on the walls, found social movements that change society, organize workers to stand up for their rights, and confront dictators at the cost of their own lives. Religious groups are also the mainstays of health, education, social welfare and community-level conflict prevention in many countries. For Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and many others, religion isn’t incidental to social change, it’s pivotal—it’s the reason whythey are willing to give so much to the cause.
Faced by these contradictory realities, what’s the best response for those committed to radical transformation? Ignoring, belittling or actively opposing religion all have their supporters, but active, open and critical engagement is likely to be much more effective, for at least three reasons.
First, the world is increasingly religious, and is likely to continue along this path. According to data from the Pew Center for Research on Religion, 84 per cent of adults in their global surveys said they were affiliated to one religion or another in 2010, a figure that’s projected to rise to 87 per cent by 2050—if for no other reason than the demographic growth of the Islamic population, which accounts for much of this extrapolated expansion.
But Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and what Pew calls “folk religions” like traditional African and Native American faiths are also set to grow. The exception is Buddhism—the result, perhaps, of too much meditation and not enough procreation along the spiritual path. Intriguingly, the trends are different among members of the millennial generation in the West, who are deserting established religions in favor of “unaffiliated spirituality.” In a new report called “How we Gather,” authors Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile write that “millennials are flocking to a host of new organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious,” but not defined along the lines or hierarchies of existing faiths.
Against this background, ignoring, insulting or attempting to eradicate religion can’t be viable options for anyone concerned with social transformation, since large parts of the required constituency for radical action will be marginalized as a result—far better to negotiate a democratic settlement between secular rights and religious freedoms. But this requires abandoning the absolutism that’s often the hallmark of enthusiasts on both sides of the debate—an attitude that leaves no room for forward movement except on terms that are unacceptable to the other. France’s ban on the wearing of the veil is one example.
Unfortunately such liberal-democratic settlements won’t work precisely where they’re most needed—the Islamic State for example, or Zionism, or the core of conservative Christian fundamentalism, but perhaps religion isn’t the key to any of these cases: if both conservative and progressive forces are at work in religion, then religion itself can’t be the deciding factor. So problems of ‘religious’ violence and discrimination may have less to do with religion versus secularity than with forces that stretch across and underneath this divide—like the urge to dominate and destroy, to accumulate more power for our tribe, to turn our fears outwards into the oppression of someone else, or to refuse to negotiate or to bend.
Fundamentalism of any kind is a threat to democracy and equal rights, but it springs from a generalized desire for hegemony and control. Is neo-liberalism more or less damaging than Catholicism? Is religious violence worse or better than the secular variety? Religion is a mask of convenience for those who need an extra dose of legitimacy as a cover for their sins, but there are many other, secular disguises waiting in the wings… read more:
During a visit to Bayelsa state in Southern Nigeria last year, I was taken aback to hear a male Christian leader quote Karl Marx to describe how trust in God reduces the potential for struggle and mobilisation: “religion is an opiate of the masses.” Belief in the divine can stop people from acting when those with power are seen as favoured, regardless of their corruption, crimes and human rights abuses. All too often, inequality is seen as God’s will.… read more: