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The serious consequences of childhood religious indoctrination

The concept of “Catholic guilt” has become a cliche, a joke, a truism. But it’s real. For many of us who experienced Catholic childhood religious indoctrination, Catholic guilt is a pernicious and inescapable burden with serious lifelong repercussions. It clings to us, a dark spectre of our pasts, a cruel and vicious voice whispering to us, reminding us of the lessons of our childhood: that we are unworthy, that we cannot do anything right, that we do not deserve to be happy, that we are dirty tainted sinners who must constantly punish ourselves and atone for our sins, and that we are nothing. Nothing.

And this voice cannot be reasoned with. It resides in a part of our brains that is immune to rationality. It’s not difficult to apply our reason to the question of whether or not God exists. We simply look for evidence, and, when we see that there is none, we realize that the only reasonable choice is to abandon our faith and to become atheists or agnostics. But Catholic guilt isn’t like that. The irrationality of the messages that we were told as children is irrelevant. Evidence and reason are powerless against guilt and shame that is this pervasive, vicious, and persistent. For those of us who grew up with this indoctrination, faith in God is optional. Catholic guilt, though, is not.

From a psychological standpoint, Catholic guilt makes a great deal of sense. It’s no surprise that a child who is repeatedly reminded of their inadequacy, dirtiness, and worthlessness will most likely become an adult who struggles with feelings of guilt and shame, one who never feels clean, worthy, valuable, adequate, or forgiven. One who is never at peace.

Despite this, few people, psychologists or otherwise, take it seriously. Unlike other forms of childhood trauma, Catholic guilt and other consequences of childhood religious indoctrination are rarely given the consideration that they deserve. I imagine that there are two reasons for this: 1) Catholic guilt is an extremely common and widespread phenomenon, so common that it is easily ignored, and 2) admitting that childhood religious indoctrination has lifelong consequences is taboo. For example, when I try to discuss my personal struggles with Catholic guilt, I’m often accused of blaming religion for my problems. I’ve even had people laugh in my face. And that’s the problem with treating Catholic guilt as a cliche and a joke: it creates an atmosphere in which it’s easy to dismiss it and to laugh it off. For those of us who struggle with it, the fact that it isn’t taken seriously adds insult to injury.

I think that we need to take it seriously. Because it is serious. It’s real and it’s immune to reason. And year after year, children continue to experience the indoctrination that, in one way or another, will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Until we as a society admit that childhood religious indoctrination has serious consequences and begin to give those consequences the consideration that they deserve, those of us who struggle with such issues will never be able to heal, even in some small way. And, more importantly, until society stops treating serious issues like Catholic guilt as a cliched joke, childhood religious indoctrination will never be seen for what it is: emotional and psychological abuse. We cannot even begin to fight back against childhood religious indoctrination until we admit that it does real damage and has real consequences, consequences that millions of people struggle with on a daily basis.

I don’t really know how to make this happen, though. How do we reclaim Catholic guilt, how do we make it clear that it’s no joke? How do we convince others that the after-effects of childhood religious indoctrination must be taken seriously? How do we destigmatize issues like Catholic guilt? Perhaps discussing it, bringing attention to it, and writing about our experiences with it can help. But other than that, I don’t know how to change things. If you have any ideas, please do share them.

  1. Beautiful. I myself am still living with “Catholic guilt”. I’m a recovering Catholic is my running joke, but as you have stated, it’s not a joke.

    I hope more blogs like yours end up getting the message out there that this is a very real problem and should be considered child abuse in my opinion.

    September 6, 2011
    • Thank you, Kevin. I really appreciate that. & Yes, I think that it needs to be discussed more openly & frequently. Unfortunately, because so many people struggle with the after-effects of childhood religious indoctrination, I don’t think it gets the attention that it deserves. There’s also the element of religious privilege, i.e. it’s not acceptable to openly criticize the religious practices of others, even when they may be considered abusive to children.

      September 9, 2011
    • Paul Kennedy #

      Of course it is child abuse.See Pat Condel’s blogs on you tube where he describes it as “sabotaging a young mind”(not just Catholicisim).They tell you that you have a guardian angel,so why does the pope drive around behind 3” of bullet proof glass,there’s faith in action for you!

      April 22, 2012
  2. Lilburn Lowell Decker #

    I went through a similar experience in the fundamentalist Southern Baptist church. The indoctrination/brainwashing method seems from my experiences and study of Christianity to be roughly the same in various churches: 1) they convince you that you are a terrible person in they eyes of God who will punish you unless you are “saved”; 2) they convince you that theirs is the only true church, the only way to escape the wrath of an angry god; 3) when you express doubts they tell you that there is something wrong with you (in the Baptist church it took the form of telling us that it was the Devil putting those doubts into our minds.

    I went through all that and finally realized that the problem was not me—it was the church and more exactly it was the fault of the core teachings of Christianity. What helped me to escape the guilt trip was realizing that I was the one who had been wronged, Making the victim feel like the offender is part of the brainwashing process designed to keep you in the church or sect, and not unlike blaming a rape victim for being raped. I was the one who had been deceived, and I got mad as hell. Whenever someone tried to play the blame game on me, my reply was and still is, “No, it was YOUR religion.” I have absolutely no feeling of guilt for renouncing religion and refuse to apologize for being an atheist.

    September 6, 2011
    • I think that you really nailed it here:

      The indoctrination/brainwashing method seems from my experiences and study of Christianity to be roughly the same in various churches: 1) they convince you that you are a terrible person in they eyes of God who will punish you unless you are “saved”; 2) they convince you that theirs is the only true church, the only way to escape the wrath of an angry god; 3) when you express doubts they tell you that there is something wrong with you

      & I imagine that this method/process is so commonplace simply because it works. It works disturbingly well. It’s extremely effective and it gets them what they want, sadly enough.

      I have absolutely no feeling of guilt for renouncing religion and refuse to apologize for being an atheist.

      I envy your lack of guilt. I never feel the need to be apologetic about my atheism, but I definitely still deal with the Catholic guilt, etc.

      September 9, 2011
    • Margaret Dobrowolska #

      Thank you both, Celeste and Lilburn Lowell Decker for nailing the problem, which was mine for decades. Shaking off entirely any faith and boosting my self-esteem helped me to rid of that imposed by Catholicism guilt, feeling that I am nobody and unworthy of love and happiness. I truly feel sometimes like rape victim; that religion has raped my mind, when I was still a minor (well, is seems that pedophilia, is the Catholic Church’s specialty). After over 10 years of various readings and thinking on the subject I become an atheist, free of planted by the church guilt, much happier person than I used to be.
      Celeste, that guild will eventually fade away with life experience. Loving, accepting ourselves and the others helps to build positive emotions, which wipe guilt. I wish you all the best in your live journey.

      September 16, 2011
  3. I was raised in the Churches of Christ, a fundamentalist Christian sect, and still have nightmares about being in church, and being condemned for my apostasy by other members. I escaped 24 years ago.

    My parents are still very much a part of the sect, and although I’d like to believe they still go more or less out of tradition or habit, it still bothers me that they won’t leave it since many of the more vile sermons they hear do not reflect their personal views of the world (they don’t demonize my gay friends, for example, and my mother, at least, is of that “moderate”, wishy-washy opinion that it’s not for anyone to judge the “state of grace” of another.

    If you ever do find a cure for the follow-on psychological ills that plague us escaped believers, then you could be a wealthy woman, Miranda.

    Darwin bless,

    September 6, 2011
    • Thank you, Alan. You’re always very kind and I appreciate it a lot. Have you ever written about your childhood experiences?

      September 9, 2011
  4. I would hope some of the research on guilt addresses questions such as “how is guilt beneficial or detrimental to the health and happiness of persons or societies?” My first thought would be to see what answers are out there, and to see how they apply specifically to religious guilt.

    September 6, 2011
    • Thanks for the link, Tim. In the past, I’ve done quite a few Google Scholar searches for more specific terms and phrases, but I hadn’t thought of searching just for “guilt”. I’ll definitely check out some of the results.

      September 9, 2011
  5. Yes! I too still carry around a lot of “Catholic guilt”, despite realizing how irrational and ridiculous it is. It’s comforting to know I’m not alone.

    September 6, 2011
    • Oh yes, it’s definitely a relief to realize that others can relate. The fact that we forget that is yet another consequence of society stigmatizing it and not taking it seriously, I’d argue.

      September 9, 2011
  6. Miranda –

    Like a couple other commenters noted, it’s not just Catholic guilt. I was raised in a fundamentalist church as well. It’s somewhat related to the Plymouth brethren movement of the 19th Century, I believe. We were Biblical literalists, and the emphasis was very much on one’s ‘walk with the Lord.’ We went to church twice on Sundays and had a Bible study every Wednesday night. The running theme was always how wretched we are, and how much we need Christ.

    But it was weird, too; it wasn’t a fire and brimstone kind of thing, but all the men (the only ones allowed to speak) seemed to revel in the fact that they were worthless sinners. And when they would opine on a passage of scripture, they would magnify the wretched state of whichever ‘antagonist’ was highlighted in the text.

    To me, Christian guilt is a vicious cycle that feeds on itself, snowballs, and leaves one needing Christ’s salvation but at the same time being weirdly happy about it. I almost think that the people who don’t escape this cycle and remain within their religious community probably don’t feel the same inner turmoil. But we others, we ‘free spirits’ as Nietzsche would say, experience it as a brutal conscience that tyrannizes, and seems to carry with it an incontestable paternal authority. You’ve described it perfectly. If one is unlucky enough to go through a clinical depression, this ‘voice’ can damn near kill you.

    Unfortunately I seem to have been born with a habit of introspection that borders on the morbid, and I’ve filled dozens of notebooks with thoughts, images, and analyses of this inner conflict. They covered about 10 years of my life – and I finally through them all away and went cold turkey with the journaling.

    I don’t know what the solution could be. I’m 39, and I would think that people in my age range and older probably have the worst of it. Given some of the latest encouraging polls, it seems that the youth of the world are getting less and less religious – so maybe the inoculation of Christian guilt doesn’t ‘take’ on them. We can only hope.

    Thanks for sharing this :)


    September 6, 2011
    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Juno :) And I think this is a really accurate description:

      But we others, we ‘free spirits’ as Nietzsche would say, experience it as a brutal conscience that tyrannizes, and seems to carry with it an incontestable paternal authority.

      It really is very conscience-esque, and there indeed is a very cruelly paternalistic and domineering quality about it.

      And thanks for sharing your experiences. I think that doing so is very helpful for both ourselves and others. It helps us to know we’re not alone. Plus, I appreciate hearing the experiences of those who grew up in a different, but equally damaging, religious tradition. I write about Catholicism because it’s what I know, but any religion that indoctrinates children causes a great deal of damage, and if more & more people speak out about that, perhaps it will help to raise awareness about the problem & about what needs to change.

      September 9, 2011
  7. How I can empathize, Miranda! Guilt and shame is just as pernicious in the Mormon Church, the main tools its authorities use to subjugate, manipulate, and castigate its members.

    September 6, 2011
    • Fellow ex-Mormon, here. You are right, and how! I seem to remember a virtually non-stop succession of face-to-face interviews with adult authorities, all meant to ascertain my “worthiness” for this or that. It was positively ridiculous how the most insignificant peccadillo (and, in retrospect, things I wouldn’t even consider peccadilloes) became a huge issue, either in the eyes of the interviewer or simply in my own mind. At 13 (!) I was denied the opportunity to go on a youth trip because I wasn’t a full tithe-payer! It was made very clear that you absolutely needed to have a blank “sin slate” before judgment day arrived, or you were going to be in for some pretty awful awfulness.

      I really can’t understand how those adults weren’t disgusted by their own behavior.

      September 7, 2011
      • Mark & musical beef: Thanks for sharing your stories about Mormonism. I think it’s important to talk about all sorts of childhood religious indoctrination, as doing so (one hopes, at least) can perhaps help both ourselves and others. It’s so important to let people know that they are not alone and that there are others who have gone through the same nasty and damaging experiences and can relate to the after-effects of those experiences.

        September 9, 2011
  8. Brenda Riggs #

    I, too,was made to feel worthless and rejected by my parents’ fundamentalist Church of Christ religion. I suppose my being different and unaccepted due to my sexual orientation had much to do with my being discomfited with religion. That and just feeling that Christian answers to questions were so inadequate and confusin, along with being disgusted and morally incensed by some of the stories in the bible. Nothing describes my experience with religion better than “psychological abuse” ( thank you Dr. Marlene Winell, who has described this so well). I too wonder how it is that others can experience religion in a benign way.

    September 6, 2011
    • Yes, “psychological abuse” is quite accurate. & I’m going to take a look at Dr. Winell’s work. It sounds interesting.

      September 9, 2011
  9. Brad MacInnis #

    Great post, Miranda, thank you.

    Even after years of being a happy and devout athiest I still suffer from Catholic damage. But what to do…hmmm…how about a class-action lawsuit (for psychological pain) against the Vatican? They seem to think that they’re above Earthly law, but one billion Catholics vs Ratzi should shake them up.

    In the meantime, I encourage everyone to mail condoms to the Pope, just for the hell of it.

    September 7, 2011
    • Thank you, Brad :) & Unfortunately, I think that it will take a government and/or U.N. crackdown to make the Vatican take legal responsibility for their various crimes. I’m not terribly optimistic that that will happen anytime soon, but it would certainly be satisfying if it did.

      September 9, 2011
  10. Miika H #

    This sounds like something Prof. Luke from Reasonable Doubts might be interested in. I’m sure guilt resulting from childhood experiences has been looked into by psychologists, but I wouldn’t know if religious indoctrination in particular has.

    September 7, 2011
    • Somehow, I’d never heard of Reasonable Doubts until I Googled it just now. I’m woefully out of the loop when it comes to podcasts. I really should try to remedy that :)

      September 9, 2011
  11. Excellent post Miranda. I see the doctrine of original sin as a denial of the fundamental integrity of human nature. Teaching a child that she must mistrust herself, blame herself, and fear herself is a contemptible lie and a potentially grievous injury. In my own recovery from Catholicism, I first lost my belief in guilt before I lost my belief in god. Once I no longer believed I needed protection from myself, god lost his job and I was able to drop my belief in him as well. Apropos of this, it seems like modern neuroscience is making it more and more untenable to believe in uncaused free will of the sort required for sin by Catholic dogma. Also in this connection, I’ve explored the worldview of Naturalism which integrates a lack of uncaused free will without fatalism or nihilism. These, and other twists and turns, have led me to a surprising and delightful discovery that not only is human nature faithful to itself, it is literally impossible for it not to be. It’s my view now that a full appreciation of that brute fact conveys with it absolute personal freedom to live a guilt free life.

    September 7, 2011
    • Thanks, Jack. & I think you’re absolutely correct about the doctrine of original sin. It’s an incredibly damaging, destructive, and powerful force that, in essence, trains a child’s brain to oppress itself.

      September 9, 2011
  12. Finbarr #

    Well said and thanks for bringing a serious issue to light. I was raised very Catholic, and got so seriously into it that I spent a year in a monastery. The guilt and shame and self-hatred it instilled in me led to some very serious depression and a suicide attempt. Catholic guilt is no joke.

    I am now an atheist and a lot happier than I ever was as a Catholic, but I still feel guilty for leaving ‘the faith’, and I cannot go into a Catholic church or look at a crucifix without feeling like that helpless little child again, being told I’m a ‘sinner’.

    Reason is enough to lead to atheism, but reason alone cannot get rid of the emotional response to such abuse.

    September 8, 2011
    • Thank you. And I really like how you put this:

      Reason is enough to lead to atheism, but reason alone cannot get rid of the emotional response to such abuse.

      Yes indeed. & That’s the problem: the emotional after-effects are, it seems, completely immune to reason and rationality. That’s what makes them so powerful, disturbing, and persistent.

      September 9, 2011
    • My experience has been that rationality can be enormously helpful. For me, the other side of the coin of guilt was the gold of virtue. If I had the power to betray myself, as I was taught, then I could claim the virtue of self-mastery when I didn’t. Rationality was extremely potent in dropping the coin altogether, so long as I was willing to give up both sides.

      September 10, 2011
  13. Private #

    Catholic guilt seems to sound a whole lot like PTSD caused by childhood sexual abuse.
    What I’m doing with my Doctor is getting into a frame of mind where I can confront the emotional issues from an emotional point of view, not just a rational point of view.
    Seems its possible to use a rational viewpoint to control the emotional viewpoint to confront the emotional issues but at the very least really hard to confront the emotional issues directly.

    As an aside: I cannot help but wonder if the reason that Religious institutions seem to attract so many Child abusers could be that the type of thinking that those institutions insist on appeals to Child abusers. After all there are plenty of other career choices that give these people access to children.

    BTW: love your mailing idea Brad :-)

    September 8, 2011
  14. “We are the heirs of the conscience-vivisection and self-crucifixion of two millennia: in these we have had longest practice, in these lies our mastery perhaps, certainly our subtlety; we have conjoined the natural inclinations and a bad conscience. A reverse attempt would be possible: to conjoin the inclination for the beyond, for things contrary to sense, reason, nature, in short all previous ideals, which were all world-slandering ideals, with a bad conscience.”

    – Nietzsche (1885-1886)

    September 9, 2011
  15. Has anyone here experienced what I would call an unfortunate ‘side-effect’ of their religious upbringing, namely, a non-religious sense of ‘superstition’? Let me explain.

    Even to this day (I’ve been an avowed atheist for about 11 years), I experience a very disagreeable, albeit fleeting, twinge of punishment or foreboding at certain times. It’s almost like a mental pinprick. These feelings do not carry any religious flavor; no religious cognitive content, so to speak. But there are times when a thought/feeling simply enters my consciousness either when contemplating taking some action, or sometimes even for no reason at all.

    It’s either a sense of a future retribution for something I am about to do or not do, or that bad luck is just around the corner. I’m not talking about premonitions – I should say that not only am I an atheist, I am a thorough-going naturalist, so I don’t believe in anything supernatural. Though I can’t rule out the possibility of something like premonitions occurring through natural means, what is generally meant by ‘premonition’ is something supernatural, I think. The other experience, though considerably less frequent, is that something I may do or refrain from doing will bring me good luck.

    An alternative hypothesis is that these experiences are the result of a more general proto-moral instinct that has evolved with our species and has been reinforced (positively or negatively) by not only our families but by society at large.

    But I really don’t know what to make of them at this point.

    September 10, 2011
    • pete #

      I get that too, but it’s more of a feeling like a sudden psychic clenching. Almost, physically, it occurs like a spasm in a limb or something. Might just be a ptsd thing from other experiences but often it occurs when I recall something I’ve done that in retrospect I would do differently now. Maybe it’s the impulse to right (what we then perceive as) our own wrongs, or a mental process educating ourselves to do differently what we’ve already conditioned ourselves to do incorrectly. Kinda’ over-writing a remembered response. It’d be really fun to look into… I hope I don’t get the impulse that I should have done that now later….

      September 10, 2011
      • Private #

        Sounds almost like a form of Anxiety attack. It can be controlled with practice, can take awhile but knowing what is being controlled and why it occurs is a big part of the battle. Quick Disclaimer: I am not a Doctor, simply an average guy who is in the process of dealing with what happened to myself(successfully I will add). I am not intending to recommend a particular treatment, simply making it clear that we can get better.

        September 11, 2011
        • I might have misspoke before. It is not a physical sensation, but rather an intruding thought that appears suddenly, but is also very quickly dispatched by a shaking of the head and counter-thought of “Juno, you’re not superstitious, remember?!”

          But its recurrence is annoying at best and disheartening at worst. Though I must say this tendency has gotten less frequent in the past decade.

          September 11, 2011
          • pete #

            Well I’m glad it’s abated a bit for you, Juno. And I see what you’re talking about with the differences.
            Private is right, except that it lasts an instant and I wouldn’t dare compare it to the people who have elongated panic attacks. But he’s right that there’re ways to deal with it that work. Practicing a bit of mindfulness decreases the likelihood that they’ll occur in the first place, etc. Sometimes my mind is such a mess though…

            September 11, 2011
  16. Thank you Miranda for a great post. I’m amazed at how similar so many of the comments are here. “Reason is enough to lead to atheism, but reason alone cannot get rid of the emotional response to such abuse”. Finbarr was sadly correct in this statement. After dealing with this for over 40 years, sadly I do not have an effective emotional palliative. But it does get better. Finding vestiges of this pernicious indoctrination in your life, is for me both embarrassing and extremely annoying. I can share a dream I had that illustrates some of the lifelong effects of early childhood religious indoctrination.
    I wrote that post at the end of July but for some reason was very hesitant to post it. After reading Miranda’s post up it went. Miranda wrote:
    “Each time I write about Catholicism, particularly when the post is personal in any way, I feel hesitant and nervous and guilty about it. I suppose that’s yet another indicator of the power of childhood religious indoctrination. Its after-effects don’t seem to ever fully disappear.”
    That applies to me also, and fully explained (to myself anyway) why i was reluctant to post that dream. So thank you Miranda for shining a bright light on another aspect of the church’s lingering effects in my psyche. Brad, You can sign me up for the class action law suit against the catholic church, anytime, anywhere. Those condoms your mailing to the pope, were they new?

    September 11, 2011
    • I’m so glad that you decided to post it. I know how difficult that can be. & It’s frustrating, because we know that there’s no good reason for it to be difficult, and that we should just ignore the guilt, nervousness, etc., but that’s much, much easier said than done.

      September 12, 2011
  17. Copyleft #

    Catholic Guilt (and its Jewish counterpart) has given us many of our greatest stand-up comics. It’s all in how you process your abuse. Some sink into depression and self-destruction, others use it productively to (among other things) tear down those abusive institutions.

    Even if you’re not a performer, find a way to tell your story and look for applications of your experience that will help prevent others from suffering the same experience. “Religious education” is a contradiction in terms.

    September 12, 2011
    • I think that’s quite true. It sounds sort of cheesy, I know, but it really does seem that telling our stories can be extremely helpful to both ourselves and others

      September 12, 2011
  18. Agreed it is a psychological assault on children. Every human who has ever lived, started life as an atheist. Religion is drilled into children like a cycle of abuse that rarely ends until a person in a family tree has the intelligence to break the cycle. Child indoctrination is essential in the manufacturing of a robot-like adult. Believers in a deity are without a doubt, skillfully manufactured.

    Fortunately or unfortunately I did not grow up around religion and therefore can’t relate, sometimes I wish I could. Miranda, I don’t understand why the guilt stays with you? After all that you have come to understand, why would you feel guilty? This is very perplexing to me. If it is personal, it requires no response of course.

    Perhaps if we think about how a child’s developing brain is wired. The young brain is inherently flexible and hard-wired to acquire like a sponge. Programming a child is easy. Many parents have a distorted sense of ownership of their children, instead of viewing them as adults in the making. Parents assume they have the right to indoctrinate their kids resulting in children doubting their own sense of reality, having low self-esteem, withdrawing from relationships, becoming mistrustful or misinterpreting the world around them. Miranda, you were manipulated at an age where you had no defenses. Shed that guilt. Don’t let what happened to you define you.

    In a perfect world, children should not be allowed in churches just as they are not allowed in bars until they are old enough to understand their choices.


    September 15, 2011
  19. Paul Fried #

    Maybe some of the foundation of Catholic (or other Christian, even other religious) guilt rests on a literal reading of scriptures. My way out was by reading liberation theologians and other progressive Catholic theologians in college–like Hans Kung, Edward Schillibeeckx, a few others like Jesus Seminar people (John Dominic Crossan, “Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography”). Some of the older ones had served as advisers at Vatican II and helped draft some of its documents, but in order to avoid censure, they’d make careful statements like “the resurrection was not the resuscitation of a corpse.” In effect, this puts me out in Joseph Campbell’s neck of the woods, with religious texts as metaphors, with many of the lost metaphors about the oppressions of the Roman occupation (“my name is Legion, for we are many”), and with too many insiders to the religion taking their own metaphors too literally. If God is a metaphor for something deep in human experience, it’s hard to get uptight about guilt unless one really has good reason for a guilty conscience.

    September 23, 2011
  20. This is very good, my wife is a recovering Catholic. I agree that it’s essentially child abuse, but the tough question is, how to you regulate how parent’s raise their kids? That’s a very difficult area, people are largely left alone to do what they will with their kids, so long as there is not physical abuse, but I can imagine a time when something is different so that this mental abuse is also not tolerated by society. California was considering a law preventing spanking, and I think this is a step in the right direction. Mandatory education for parents? I don’t know the answer, but it’s a question we need to keep asking. Thanks so much for your post.

    September 26, 2011
    • Thank you, Francis. And, yes, that is a tough question indeed. I don’t know the answer, either. But I think it’s definitely important to keep talking about it. Anyway, thanks again for the kind words.

      September 28, 2011
  21. Earl #

    It’s all about choice. I grew up in Catholic world and knew it for the irrational superstition it is from the age of 7. I was stuck there for another ten years with the idiocy, the condescension and the attempts at sexual abuse. I kept my thoughts to myself and as soon as I was done with school, I got out.

    I made a choice that it would not ruin my life, nor, indeed, have much effect on me at all. That choice is as easy to make as choosing to wallow in self-pity and shame. After all, when you do that, you’re only giving in to them.

    September 26, 2011
  22. Molly #

    I guess the catholic churches I attended were remarkably liberal compared to the ones the people here seemed to have attended. I was always taught that yes, we are sinful creatures, and we will never be perfect or as good as good, but we are still capable of being good.

    In mass, sunday school, and at home I was always taught that there is still good in all of us despite our flaws. That’s why god loves us, because we are worth loving. He knows we are going to mess up, just like our parents know that we will mess up from time to time. We’re human, it’s to be expected.

    October 25, 2011
    • ruth #

      Have you questioned why you are a ‘sinful person’? What have you ever done to cause sin? Look to your own clerics from the lowest to the highest (and I include your pope} for evidence of the most vile and covered up examples of sin.

      May 8, 2012
  23. I too grew up in a fundamentalist christian church called The Gospel Hall which is something like The Brethren I would say. The negative effect of hearing from as far back as I can remember that I’m a worthless sinner headed for hell not to mention I’ll be left behind when my parents are raptured any minute has been great. Their most used tool is fear, especially when they meet some resistance the fiery rhetoric gets amped up past 10; you name it I heard it including my mother showing me where she kept her will in the freezer when I was 9 because I was going to be left behind any day if I didn’t repent. I can go on all night with stories like that after being in the church for over 20 years. It’s so clear now that it was abuse but at the time that was all I knew. I’m just starting to search for answers and reasons for why I am the way I am today, this has been a help.

    November 7, 2011
  24. Try being raised Mormon. At least once a month from the time I could speak I was told to say the following: “I “know” the Mormon church is the only true church, I know Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God, I know the Book of Mormon is true, I love my Mom and Dad and brothers and sisters”.
    So Mormons not only have Christ guilt, but we have the connection ingrained between our love of family and our belief. I have recently decided to leave the Mormon church and it has felt like I was leaving my family as well.
    I would love to see a study linking the connection between the feeling of love and security linking me and my family to the Mormon faith as well do to this indoctrination done every week my entire life.
    I tell my story on I would love to have your comments there.

    November 21, 2011
    • ruth #

      You are not leaving your family, you have a greater family of concerned people who do not villify you for outrageous reasons.

      May 8, 2012
  25. Daniel Scully #

    I was searching the internet and Amazon for books on ‘Catholic Guilt’ and there seems to be little to nothing out there on the subject. Catholic Indoctrination is EVIL, it cuts us off from the God within, and fills us with fear and guilt! It is no accident! It is abuse for the sake of power. It is vile psychological abuse and programming! People who are ‘nothing’ are easy to control!

    December 10, 2011
    • ruth #

      When will you realise that there is no god within? God is just a word used as a tool for control, control, control and more financial control. Have you ever seen a poor religion? the Catholic church alone could ‘feed the world’ !!!! not to mention the other so called ‘caring religions’ so don’t start me on Muslims………………….

      May 8, 2012
  26. Jennifer #

    I see what you are saying, unfortunately some catholics have taught this way, but it is crucially important to understand that these negative ideals that u speak of is not what the church preaches.

    You say religion says “that we are unworthy, that we cannot do anything right, that we do not deserve to be happy, that we are dirty tainted sinners who must constantly punish ourselves and atone for our sins, and that we are nothing. Nothing.”

    NEWSFLASH: we are worthy because God loves us and so he sent his son to save us, We do deserve to be happy – that’s why God created us, we are not dirty tainted sinners- we are a loving good creation of God who he unconditionally loves, and even though we may be prone to sin, God still loves us, We do not need to constantly punish ourselves for our sins, God just wants us to tell him we still love him even though we fall, and in no way does the Church teach that we are nothing- it teaches that with God we are everything

    The problem isn’t teaching faith, The problem is improperly teaching the faith – instead of focusing on washing away everything with God we need to help those raised in the wonderfulness of faith that there are some that have misinterpreted God, and help these people understand the proper message of Jesus and catholicism- which is Love of yourself, one another and God, and as long as u love God and have a personal relationship with him , u are on the right path

    February 20, 2012
  27. I am finally learning to deal with my catholic guilt as I approach my 60th birthday, denounced as a heretic at convent school assembly for questioning the infallibilty of the pope at the age of 12, With a mother who wanted to make sure her child did not become to precocious, so appeared to put me down at every opportunity. I ended up pregnant at 17 shortly after the death of my father and ‘bless her’ I couldn’t have coped without her support (rip) she never failed to remind me of my shame and failures for the next 30 yrs. I married very unsuccesfully more than once because I had learned I had to be greatful that anyone who was prepared to take me on under the circumstances. I am finally learning I have worth and value in my own right but it has been an uphill struggle all the way and I am still working at it

    March 3, 2012
  28. Now in my sixties, it took me 25 years to “undo” the harm of my religious upbringing. The three phases for me: 1) shame and fear when I discovered I really did not believe at age 16. 2) Anger and ridicule at those that do/did believe, especially my family for many years 3) Eventual release and liberation and focusing on the joy of this life, but not till in my late 50s.

    My wife was born non-religious, and watched in amazement while I spent all those years going through this process.

    March 28, 2012
    • Margaret Dobrowolska #

      Ditto! Except for many years as a young person I have tried to conform to my religious friends. Being brainwashed from early childhood I could not understand what was wrong with me, that I lack that religious enthusiasm my friend exhibited. Years of readings, thinking, discussing things with other “doubting Thomas” finally helped me understand that there is something wrong with religions, not with me. What a relief and happiness it is not to bother anymore with “sin”, confessions, guilt, praying, trying to figure out the “mystery” of “holy trinity”.
      I am happy for you that you also shook off that burden. I am in my early 50-ties but for about 10 years now I am completely free of that holly crap.
      Live long and prosper!

      March 28, 2012
      • Hey Margaret, thanks for that. Of late I am am beginning to feel a sense of responsibility to push the gentle wave of reason to encourage more of us to find that release; or, better still not be infected to begin with.

        Societies that have left religion behind seem to function so much better on all fronts. In order to reduce strife and violence in this world, there needs to be a sense of urgency to speed up the spread of reason and encourage life without religion, or at least without the religious fervor that creates intolerance and hatred.

        This is a quest for the years I have left.

        March 28, 2012
        • Margaret Dobrowolska #

          Thank you Walter for your reply. I am always happy to hear from someone who have similar to mine agenda. Indeed we need to spread the word as far as possible. I think that evolution of human consciousness is working for us too. If you compare times, say 100 years, back, there are more rationally thinking persons now than then. I am quite optimistic in that regard. If I still believed in a god, I would say: thanks god for Internet! Thanks goodness, and human inventiveness for that wonderful medium of communication. Think-tank of atheists is growing, and in the next few generations, I hope, churches/faith organizations become only social clubs (like golf, or tennis clubs) without much influence on global politics, like it is now.

          March 28, 2012
          • Margaret, I share your hopes, but fear the reality that Sam Harris expresses in his book: the End of Faith. Our mission is somewhat urgent I am afraid.

            March 28, 2012
            • Margaret Dobrowolska #

              Still need to read that book. Harris’ other book, The Free Will tells however a very different story on the subject of urgent actions. I would not though agree with you more, that we need to create an atmosphere for secular world. Only by expressing our thoughts here, on Miranda (Thank you Miranda for that opportunity) blog, we send message to the world, stir some ferment in somebody’s mind.
              Do you know that even in that very catholic Poland, for over 10 years there is a website for rationally thinking people, and number of readers/writers is growing? See for yourself: I read it regularly and my hope is growing even more. Sam Harris’s blog messages are translated often as well as Matt Ridley, rational optimist (his books and blog are worth checking).

              March 28, 2012
              • “I cannot find in the entire bible, one word in praise of intelligence”

                Lord Bertrand Russell

                Replace “bible” with any of the “words of gods”, and it always holds true.

                March 30, 2012
  29. goldi #

    What you are experiencing is caused not by catholic upbringing but rather by lack thereof. You wrote that feel like this: “. It clings to us, a dark spectre of our pasts, a cruel and vicious voice whispering to us, reminding us of the lessons of our childhood: that we are unworthy, that we cannot do anything right, that we do not deserve t
    o be happy, that we are dirty tainted sinners who must constantly punish ourselves and atone for our sins, and that we are nothing.” This is not a catholic teaching. The basic catholic idea is that everybody is capable of doing good and everybody potentially may obtain salvation. Therefore if somebody told you in your childhood that you are worthless, damned, can not do anything right, then it was not an orthodox catholic teaching. Somebody most have told you some heresies :)

    April 21, 2012
    • Christopher Hitchens said it best……“Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: (organized) religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”

      This is the reflection of 2000 plus years of Catholicism. Please join the growing movement to rid our society of this millstone around our necks.

      April 21, 2012
      • ruth #

        Please add to that the rest of the world’s religions ( oh sorry Islam is a religion of peace!!!!!!!!!! Tell that to the dead of The Twin Towers!).

        May 8, 2012
  30. niklevan #

    I have just found your post and to say I found it comforting would be understating. I am Catholic and have recently become engaged to my partner of 7 years. The guilt I carry in having a relationship with the person I love can be crippling. The struggle is finding a manageable mix, I am not yet convinced it is possible.

    How does one hold onto faith in the modern era. I belief that change is inevitable and required to survive yet or faith remains unchanged despite the progress in society.

    Thankyou for normalizing my problem it had been greatly comforting.

    May 25, 2013
  31. Marc #

    (I seriously hope this comment will be posted…my workspace might block it, but at least the writing will be therapeutic…)

    Thank you very much for this post. I came across this after feeling a mess of depression in my head, and partly sourcing it to the overwhelming “shame” that I feel too often, and still lingering in relation to my Catholic upbringing.

    What’s worse is that most religious people (especially those with the best of intentions, rather than bad ones) like to tell me that “God so loved the world that he died for our sins.” In other words, I am saved because of one man who sacrificed himself and was killed. I should be happy, right?

    Nope. Thinking of that imagery (especially when fleshed out in something as horrific as Passion of the Christ) just fills me with MORE shame. It too often feels that ‘I’ killed Jesus…that ‘I’ whipped, crucified, and murdered him. I’m the ugly one here, and even if Jesus has “saved” me, I still feel ugly, and can never forgive myself for such a horrible thing, even if God can (bless Him…I DO know God loves me, in the end). There’s no healing power in it (for me, at least. It might be different for others).

    But maybe my previous point is the true healing factor. I prefer to see God as one who loves, and DOESN’T want us to be embroiled in shame or guilt. Perhaps I like to imagine him hurting when I am hurting, because we are so close. He doesn’t want us to feel bad for what happened to Jesus…he wants us to celebrate the fact that he’s still with us (hence all the celebrating on Easter, even though it feels like a “too soon” moment after Good Friday). He doesn’t want hate (from Him or from each other)–He wants love.

    I don’t worship God devoutly as I “should” by going to Church regularly or praying all that often, but I do carry one crucifix in my bedroom, just to remind myself that He is there for me when I need Him, and He loves. I seek Him as a source of comfort and release from that guilt, while trying to disassociate from all the pain and sadness and emptiness that I grew up with. Sadly, I still feel that guilt and shame when I go to Church, but I feel more of that love either by myself, or with a special person who looks past my stupid ugly human qualities and into those good ones that can be easily overlooked.

    I bet God loves you so much for what you posted and for opening us all up to talk to each other. :) In a world where so many people are killing and hating and doing all these horrible things for such stupid reasons, I feel better that you are here with a quiet, gentle voice, questioning logical things in a reasonable manner and helping us all to find reasonable solutions. Thank you so much.

    *hugs gently and warmly, and hopes the guilt and shame will go away real soon, so we can live and love to the fullest extent possible. :) *

    May 29, 2013
    • Margaret #

      Marc, you clearly suffer, and I am very sorry that you are hurting. I understand your anguish as I also has been brought as catholic. Being though a “doubting Thomas” all my life, I questioned the dogma, especially how suffering of a human being (Jesus) is necessary to “save” a lot of good people that I could see around me, who beg for forgiveness for…what? What are those sins, that someone must be mutilated for, tortured in such a nauseating way?
      Then I realized, that the “salvation” story is just a story, which serves clergy to keep control over millions of innocent people. I realized that sin has been invented for that only reason, so a person felt guilty so much, as to submit to an authority, whomever will offer a relief from that pain of guilt.
      The good new is (not a “Good News” brought by Jesus) that human inventions can be get rid off, shed like an old rug, like dirt that sticks to our skin to bother us.
      If God is merciful, as Catholicism claims, and if we are made on his image, it is virtually impossible that he/she let anybody suffer in order to “save” someone’s soul. Christian mythology is cruel and inconsistent, it insults our mind, but being conditioned from childhood to believe in it, we have problem with understanding that simple truth, that all that “salvation” story is just one more horror story sold to us, as little kids, to control us by ruthless, cruel, dishonest people, hungry for power only, not to ease our fear, and our need for spiritual life.

      As of me, I become an atheist after about a decade of reading books, discussing the matter with some wise people, and thinking about it. What a relief, and freedom I feel now!
      The process of getting rid off old beliefs, habits, routines is difficult, and takes time, but at the end, there is happiness, freedom, peace of mind.
      I wish you Marc, that some day you will achieve that goal of being free from guilt, that you are just a human.
      Love yourself first, accept your own mistakes, learn from them, and then you will learn how love other people, your life, this imperfect world, even those who brainwashed you when you were a child. Accept yourself who you are, and do not listen to those, who still live in the circle of fear, guilt, and confusion.
      I would like to hug you warmly just as we all should do to each other, human beings, show you tenderness and acceptance, love.
      Take care,
      ps. for me reading books of Dr. Raymond Moody about near death experience, and shared death experience has been a huge consolation when I felt lost in the dark, after I lost my faith. It is about light, love, and hope that there is life after death after all.

      May 29, 2013
  32. Francois Morin #

    Here is my story me being raised as a mormon child. The consequences were immense and very tragic. Mormon church is a fraud and a cancer of society. Therefor, I have initiated a formal lawsuit against the so called mormon church and my parents.

    June 26, 2013
  33. Larry #

    Now that my daughter is of Kindergarten age, my wife and I are having months long major disagreements about Catholic schools vs Public. My wife feels that Catholic schools provide a good education and more importantly a nurturing, safe environment. I have had the opposite experience; I am terrified of what could happen in Catholic schools as my experience mirrors this post. I’ve can think of at least 10 different therapists/psychologists that I’ve seen trying to shake my belief that I’m a sinner, impure and my fear of eternal damnation. I’m mostly OK now, but it still pops up from time to time. She insists my experience is rare and therefor won’t happen to our children, especially with parental involvement. But I don’t see how what we say will matter versus the alleged word of god. I would probably have thought my parents are fallible but the bible is not.

    This Catholic vs public thing is causing a major problem, no idea how to resolve it.

    July 11, 2013
    • Margaret #

      Larry, I see your point and the problem. I would ask your wife to explore reality of catholic schools by herself before she sends your child there. Especially experiences of catholic schools’ student from Ireland. “Nurturing” catholic environment may mean that your child will have the same problem down the road as you have now. Someone said that religion is like a dangerous disease – not only contagious, but also hereditary. You and you wife are standing before the decision whether to pass that disease to your daughter. I think that religion should be like movies rater R, for adults only. History of Catholic Church is like the most scary thriller, horror with pornographic elements and lots of violence. Ask you wife to learn more about the heritage of doctrine she consider so “safe and nurturing”, which denies people their humanity by calling their true nature sinful.
      I have sent my children to the first communion under family pressure. My smart daughter after that event, when asked to go to church again the following Sunday in order to get communion, said: ” I have already had communion, thank you very much”. That was the end of her religious experiences, as I did not insist either to continue that circus. My son, whom my mother-in-law lead to a holy mass (mess?) every Sunday called the church the center of boredom. Children often have healthy instinct, don’t they.
      It took me about decade to get rid of not even very aggressive religious brainwash from childhood. I am in my 50-ties now, finally free and happy. I wish the same to you and your family.

      July 11, 2013
  34. Dave #

    This is so cathartic. Miranda thank you for writing.

    I like others can related to the pain of religion. I was catholic and catholic damaged. When I was 15 I started rituals hard core to show my devotion to “god”. When I tried to stop (inside I knew something was emotionally wrong…I was not happy) I could not “find a way to stop”. My childhood was a nightmare.

    In high school I went to my parents ‘repeatedly” for help. They turned their backs on me. My mother had her own issues and my father I can still not figure out. His pride would not “allow” him to help me is all I can figure out. He just said I was “trying to draw attention to myself”…,.well yeah, I was in pain.

    In my teens and twenties I was lost…so many blind alleys desperate for help. Calling churches, community clinics. Trying to get support from my parents but to know avail.

    In my 30’s and 40’s prozac and other meds ebbed the pain. But, it was not until my late 40s I came to point and found that talking about what happened was wonderful. I have been talking with a psychologist for 4 years.

    At 53 I am practicing yoga, meditation and realizing that life is about joy, not pain. I am more at peace but still wrestle with the past. This blog is wonderful.



    July 18, 2013
    • Dave #

      Bottom line. My catholic “faith” told me life was pain. Wrong.

      Life…living…is joy.



      July 18, 2013
  35. Its such as you read my mind! You seem to understand a lot about this,
    such as you wrote the guide in it or something.
    I believe that you simply could do with some % to pressure the message
    home a bit, but instead of that, that is excellent blog.
    A fantastic read. I will certainly be back.

    July 20, 2013
  36. Kevin Beskeland #

    Thank You,… Indoctrination children into a religious belief system (christianity or Islam) is child abuse.. plain and simple

    August 1, 2013
  37. H.L. MADAY #

    It is a standard “joke” that Catholics are screwed up because they have been raised with the knowledge that whatever bad or negative things happen in their life — is their fault. This is a sad & cruel thing …. but yet, even if you know it’s not true, because you’ve been raised “guilty” … it’s always there!!!

    I’m tired of listening to Gospels & sermons that do not apply to the way we live in our present day lives. That’s why people like Joel Osteen make religion welcome in our lives!! Because he explains the way our present day lives are tuned into religion so that it is welcome …. instead of something we fear & don’t understand!!!!

    At the end of his program he says to get into a “Bible based church” …. I’m going to try & find one because his sermons make me smile!!!!!

    August 26, 2013
  38. Help is on the way. Research showing that emotions are guidance, designed to lead us toward thriving, is “in press”

    Humans are the only consciousness that wallow in bad feeling emotions. The purpose of bad feeling emotions is to let us know that our current thought on the subject at hand is not serving our higher purpose. Negative emotions should be resolvable. Complex negative emotions are constructs of man and not resolvable in the natural order. Shame is the worst of the bunch.

    When humans learns to use their emotional guidance as it was intended we can all thrive. As part of my work preparing a chapter for a peer reviewed textbook on resilience and coping I researched what I consider the six most poplar religions and found that their texts (if not what is heard from the pulpit) all point to this guidance. I have personally been using my guidance for many years and began thriving in unprecedented ways as soon as I did and continue to do so.

    September 1, 2013

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