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How should we help adults deal with the after-effects of childhood religious indoctrination?

To varying degrees, and in a variety of ways, childhood religious indoctrination fills the most trusting, eager, and vulnerable of minds with intense fear, shame, and guilt. This indoctrination can damage or even destroy a child’s curiosity and critical thinking skills. Many of us who experienced such indoctrination are left with lifelong scars of one form or another. Our rationality, intellect, and skepticism are often no match for the pernicious after-effects of childhood religious indoctrination.

And this indoctrination isn’t going to stop anytime soon. We may not want to admit that, we may wish that it weren’t true, but it is. It’s just not reasonable to think that all forms of childhood religious indoctrination can be stopped, at least not in the near future. Such indoctrination has persisted this long for one reason: it works. It keeps the churches full. Most children who are indoctrinated into a particular religion remain members of that religion for life and grow up to indoctrinate their own children into that same religious tradition. They perpetuate the cycle. And as for the permanent scars caused by childhood religious indoctrination? From the perspective of someone whose primary concern is perpetuating his or her religious tradition of choice, the emotional trauma caused by such indoctrination is just collateral damage: unfortunate, perhaps, but inevitable.

So, while raising consciousness about childhood religious indoctrination is a vitally important endeavor, we must also acknowledge the fact that this indoctrination isn’t going to end anytime soon and adjust our actions accordingly. As such, I think that it would be worthwhile to divert some of our time and resources towards helping (in what way(s)? What does “helping” mean in this context? How can we avoid making this seem like some sort of touchy-feely group therapy thing?) adults deal with the after-effects of childhood religious indoctrination. The consequences of such indoctrination are rarely given the consideration or attention that they deserve. Despite the fact that most children remain in the religious tradition into which they were indoctrinated, there are many of us who, at one point, decided to leave our religious faith behind. Yet most of us are at least somewhat reluctant to discuss our experiences. It’s a rather taboo topic, even among atheists. I suspect that many of us are afraid that we’ll be accused of using our experiences as an “excuse” for something or other. We (quite understandably) don’t want to play the victim card, so we pretend that we’re strong enough to completely rid ourselves of the pain, fear, and guilt that never really goes away. But many of us aren’t. And admitting that doesn’t mean that we’re weak or that we’re making excuses. Our feelings are nothing to be ashamed of. They’re simply an understandable response to a specific kind of childhood trauma.

The problem is, I’m not really sure how such an endeavor could/should be accomplished. I do have one idea, though: I think that, if we’re comfortable doing so, it’s important for those of us who experienced any form of childhood religious indoctrination to share our experiences and to encourage others to do the same. Sharing our stories and engaging in the conversations/discussions they spark can be helpful for both ourselves and others. It’s always a relief to know that we’re not alone and that others can relate to our experiences and feelings. Additionally, discussing our experiences may help make this topic less taboo and convince others that it’s something that deserves to be taken seriously. I think that it might be worthwhile to set up some sort of website that could serve as both a repository for these stories and a collection of helpful resources (what kind of resources, though? I’m not sure) for individuals who are struggling (in one way or another) with the after-effects of their experiences with childhood religious indoctrination. In order to to make such a website as useful and effective as possible, I think that it would probably be best to divide it into separate sections for different religions (ex-Catholic, ex-Christian, ex-Jewish, ex-Muslim, etc.).

That’s just one idea. As I said, although I think that this is an important issue that deserves our time and resources, I’m not sure what, precisely, can/should be done about it or how our time and resources could best be utilized. Education is the most effective tool we have in the crucially important goal of raising consciousness about childhood religious indoctrination. However, because such indoctrination isn’t going to end anytime soon, I think that we should also try to find ways to help those who have left behind the religious tradition in which they were raised.

Do you have any suggestions or ideas? Any answers to the parenthetical questions I’ve posed in this post? I’d love to hear them. Thanks!

  1. Grania Spingies #

    You raise some very important issues here.

    Darrel Rey, author of The God Virus, has started support groups for people who deal with a range of issues since leaving religion behind them. I think just being able to talk about it helps a lot, at least in some cases.

    It probably isn’t enough for people with more damaging scars, but it’s a start.

    October 5, 2011
    • Thanks for the link, dear. I’ll go check it out now. & I think you’re definitely right that being able to talk and/or write about it is really important.

      October 9, 2011
  2. I wasn’t bought up in a Christian home – I took myself there and took myself out. But my partner was bought up in a cult and then was ‘separated from’. Everyone I know that has come out of that same cult has similar problems with nightmares and fears that continue for decades. It is horrible when you have experienced what everyone defines as love and family and yet it wasn’t actually love at all – where do you go with that? You shut out real love because it resembles the childhood love in so many ways but you don’t want to become the evil person that your parents expect you to become – so you stand paralysed like a deer caught in headlights.

    October 5, 2011
    • It is horrible when you have experienced what everyone defines as love and family and yet it wasn’t actually love at all – where do you go with that? You shut out real love because it resembles the childhood love in so many ways but you don’t want to become the evil person that your parents expect you to become – so you stand paralysed like a deer caught in headlights.

      That’s one of the most accurate descriptions of it that I’ve ever seen. So much of it has to do with trust and fear. Trust issues (trust of people, of our feelings and emotional responses, of our perceptions of the world, etc.) often express themselves as a paralyzing fear, and, as you say, it can be very very difficult to escape that.

      October 9, 2011
  3. I have recently experienced some of the negative effects of leaving one’s childhood faith as an adult… It is difficult to feel constantly at odds with most of the people you love. I think the most crippling aspect of my indoctrination was the use of pretty serious guilt-tactics, which I still suffer from. A sort of support system is an excellent idea.

    October 5, 2011
    • Yes, the guilt is so very hard to get rid of. I honestly wonder whether or not it ever really goes away. Some people do seem to be able to reason their way out of it. For others (myself included), though, it’s not a matter of reasoning, as that guilt and fear resides in an area of my brain that is pretty much immune to reason. That’s why the process of becoming an atheist and the process of leaving Catholicism were two very distinct things, at least for me. Becoming an atheist was a matter of reasoning and thinking, while leaving Catholicism has been an emotional struggle, and not one that I’ve been able to cope with on a rational level.

      October 9, 2011
  4. I’m an atheist and a naturalist. After reading Alex Rosenberg’s “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality,” which I highly recommend by the way, I’m now also tempted to refer to myself as “scientistic.”

    I used to be a Catholic. I used to take it very seriously. I used to be a member of a Catholic lay organization that incorporated an intensely rigorous practice of Catholicism into daily life. I raised my children Catholic, and they still are.

    I understood the basic doctrine of Christianity to be that I had a corrupt nature, inclined to evil, in need of a blood redemption or it would receive its inevitable and just punishment of eternal torture. I needed protection against myself. Enter Jesus.

    What that boiled down to for me was a belief that it was possible for me to betray myself. For me, this belief entailed feeling ashamed, self-suspicious, afraid of myself and self-recriminatory.

    But here’s the good news. As terrible as that belief was, it was, after all, only a belief. Belief’s can be changed. For me, beliefs can be changed by evidence and reason showing that they are incorrect.

    There’s a wealth of recent advances in cognitive science, neuroscience, and neurophilosopy all affirming and explaining the many facets of the simple truth of autonomic self-fidelity. In addition, I discovered a very simple cognitive technique that helped me enormously in rediscovering, time after time, that it is impossible for human nature to betray itself, for me to betray myself, and that I need never fear it again.

    When I stop believing that it’s possible for me to betray myself, all of the emotional facets of that believe also stop. While I often relapse into that ingrained negative belief, it’s with less frequency as time goes by and I’m now able to quickly regain my perspective. I consider myself recovered. It can definitely be done.

    October 6, 2011
    • Jack,

      Thanks for this. I’ve never thought about the experience of raising children in a certain faith, to which they still adhere (let’s face it – indoctrinating them), and only later realizing the truth of the matter. It must be a source of some consternation. I consider myself profoundly lucky to have broken free before having children. Steven Pinker’s ideas notwithstanding, I want my daughter to go through her formative years with as blank a slate as possible.

      October 6, 2011
      • That’s quite perceptive Miranda. Yes, you’re very lucky in that regard. I wish more than anything that my children didn’t suffer such demeaning beliefs about their own nature. What’s more, I’ve been reduced in their regard for me by my apostasy such that I’m powerless to directly help them change that false belief. The best I can do right now is demonstrate the benefits that come from knowing my own freedom, such as a ready good cheer and a less impeded flow of compassion.

        October 6, 2011
        • Oh, just to be clear, I’m not Miranda. Just another reader.

          October 6, 2011
          • Quite perceptive JS1685. Less so of me.

            October 6, 2011
    • Thanks for the comment, Jack. It’s really thought-provoking. I think you’re right about the human brain’s ability to modify our responses to beliefs/thoughts/etc. The only thing in your comment that I can’t relate to (although I wish that I could) is:

      But here’s the good news. As terrible as that belief was, it was, after all, only a belief. Belief’s can be changed. For me, beliefs can be changed by evidence and reason showing that they are incorrect.

      For me, it was quite easy to stop believing in God, as it was a matter of reasoning my way out of the belief. It just got to the point where I could no longer pretend that there is any evidence of the existence of God. The Catholic guilt stuff is more difficult, though, as it’s less intellectual and more emotional. While my belief in God ultimately came down to whether or not I could continue to accept a claim that is not supported by any evidence, I can’t seem to reason myself out of every one of the negative after-effects of my Catholic childhood. I’ve certainly been able to get rid of some, but not all. It’s as if some of them reside in a place untouchable by reason and rationality, and I find that extremely frustrating, as I’m used to being able to use my reasoning and critical thinking skills to “fix” most things that need “fixing”, if that makes sense.

      October 10, 2011
      • Thanks for your reply Miranda. Please forgive my presumption, but in case you’re interested, here’s a website dedicated to the simple cognitive technique I referred to. I found it extremely helpful, though it was an effort at first not to be put off by its resemblance to any number of run of the mill self help fads. Ironically, the original insight underlying the method was made by a former Catholic seminarian turned therapist – and his insight leads to a decisive repudiation of any value whatsoever to feelings of guilt.

        October 10, 2011
        • Thanks! I’ll definitely check it out :)

          October 11, 2011
  5. I think religious indoctrination is especially pernicious because the faithful would not view its consequences as collateral damage. To them, there is no downside. Guilt and self-loathing are indicators of piety. It’s the old “not a bug; rather, a feature” gambit.

    October 6, 2011
    • Right. It went like this for me. “I may be a bad person, but at least I have the decency to hate myself for it!” It was the last remaining claim to righteousness. If I let the guilt go, I was truly lost.

      October 6, 2011
    • I think religious indoctrination is especially pernicious because the faithful would not view its consequences as collateral damage. To them, there is no downside. Guilt and self-loathing are indicators of piety. It’s the old “not a bug; rather, a feature” gambit.

      Yes, that’s quite true. In retrospect, I think that parts of my post may have been too generous. And yes: guilt and self-loathing are indeed both encouraged and admired in Catholicism, which is so very very depressing.

      October 10, 2011
    • I’m a committed Christian and I grew up Christian. I’m also raising my kids Christian and I teach Christianity to children as part of my job (OMG the horror!). I recognize that nothing I say will sway anyone here but it’s worth it to me to chime in here just to say that your statement is patently false. Guilt and self-loathing are not evidence of piety. They are evidence of distortion and confusion that should not exist in a healthy Christian. I say this with the full backing of the mainstream of Christian historical tradition.

      October 16, 2011
      • You’re right; I am absolutely unconvinced by the no’healthy’ Scotsman fallacy, and I am further unconvinced by your somewhat, um, interesting ce of history. I say this with the full backing of my cat.

        October 16, 2011
      • “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

        Hard to get more mainstream than Mr. Waats’ famous poem.

        Oh, I’m sure you’re thinking about how often you theists pat yourselves on the back because you’re all god’s special children! That doesn’t mean you don’t also have the gulit dial turned up to eleven. That’s cognitive dissonance. It’s what you guys do best!

        October 17, 2011
  6. MCH quote:

    What does “helping” mean in this context? How can we avoid making this seem like some sort of touchy-feely group therapy thing?

    I don’t think we can, but I would like to be wrong.

    However the thought of support groups gives me the willies ~ I’m in the Groucho, ex-Catholic wing of the naturalist, atheist & anti-theist club [UK, Solihull branch, one member] & if more people joined I would feel obliged to leave. I do my deprogramming of the mentally scarred down the pub with a touch of background Leonard Cohen on the jukie.

    October 6, 2011
    • I’m the same way: I instinctively recoil at the thought of touchy-feely support group type things. I’d like to think that there could be a way to create a useful resource of this sort without it having that support group-esque feeling attached to it, but I’m not sure.

      & Leonard Cohen always makes things better :)

      October 9, 2011
      • ZenSoapbox #

        I think posts like these, and the commentary that follows, go a long way. If people just write about it and talk about it so that affected people read it and hear it, there will be some healing that will come from it.

        October 13, 2011
  7. Joseph Ziehm #

    Agreed as a Baptist indoctrination is the first step toward “the vile and hyporcite filled society” as it allows no room for understanding. It takes a strong heart to question church leadership and leave. Takes a much stronger heart to stay in the faith, though questioning mine at one point; going to temple, studying Mosques, and studying Tao-Te-Ching helped me understand that with all doors closed the mind is destroyed.

    October 10, 2011
  8. Here’s a website that sounds like it might be the kind of place you’re talking about:

    October 12, 2011
  9. Not to be contrary here or anything, but is “Yet most of us are at least somewhat reluctant to discuss our experiences. It’s a rather taboo topic, even among atheists.” true? Or does it seem that way to others?

    I’m not so sure that it’s a taboo. I don’t talk about it much not because it’s uncomfortable for me or anything along those lines. It just doesn’t really have a role in my life, and for the same reason I don’t talk about my experiences of the Easter Bunny I don’t spend a good deal of time thinking about or discussing another imaginary creature from the same period.

    There’s a series of videos on youtube going back and forth with atheists discussing their process of deconversion. One of them I participated in was started by a theist (angelwriterspeaks) asking atheists explicitly about their experience of being in a religion and leaving it. She didn’t seem to be trollish about it at all, so I made a response video.

    And I see a few websites have been mentioned also.

    I just figured most people didn’t talk about it for the same reasons that I don’t. This is somewhat solidified by the fact that I’ve not run across an atheist who shirks the conversation when it does come up.

    Am I missing some obvious telltale signs here?

    October 13, 2011
  10. Donald Jalbert #

    A couple of hundred years from now, people are going to laugh at how silly and superstitous we were.

    October 15, 2011
    • I wish there was evidence in support of that. Instead we see the great Persian Empire transition to secular Iran and then “fall” to become revolutionary Iran. We see the numbers of those who accept /understand science in this country continuing to fall, with arguably the most overtly religious political contest ever firing up. No, it’s a constant struggle against ignorance, fear and superstition.

      October 20, 2011
  11. QuentinTheThird #

    Some of us never will recover from the groups we were raised in. I was raised in a dominionist group with a tendency to intentionally molest children. Much of the church was aimed at traumatizing the molested kids so much that they couldn’t possibly remember what they had been through, and most of them didn’t until much later. Sometimes when you’re in a church, you are never free of them even if you stop going. This church runs pornography sites in my area and, I found later, uses some of their women to target the victims of their pedophilia group. It is amazing the power and danger rhetorical manipulation can have on children, and the life-long trauma which can be caused by abuse and rhetoric.

    October 16, 2011
  12. Deborah #

    Thank you for posting the topic- “How should we help adults deal with the after-effects of childhood religious indoctrination?”. I was attended christian churches as a child, but my parents weren’t overtly religious. I think they sent their 8 children to sunday school and church so they could have a little quiet time at home on sunday mornings! I never really got the message of the story part of religion, but I got the emotional message, for me it was-“You are bad, bad, bad!” Patriarchal control by fear. The emotional message that was and still is most damaging to me was the “good mother/bad mother”. So contradictory to the part of the Jesus message – “To thine own self be true”. As an adult, I left church after a feminist awakening and have found a spiritual path that feels right for me, but the scars remain. Unfortunately, I had already indoctrinated my own children. My daughter is especially rigid in her acceptance of the christian religion story and won’t discuss it rationally. However, I keep sharing my ideas about spirituality with her and my grandchildren, hoping that their own damage can be minimized in some way.

    October 16, 2011
  13. mark #

    I was brought up in a paranoid independent fundamentalist/literalist christian family, and even lived “in the mission field” (Mexico, “saving” the catholics) in my teens. I recommend reading Frank Schaeffer’s two excellent memoirs, CRAZY FOR GOD and the new one, SEX, MOM AND GOD, as he offers healing insights through his own experience growing up as the child of Edith & Frances Shaeffer, architects of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist & Republican Party merger in the 1970s, as well as the highly political anti-choice movement. He recounts how, as an adult, he managed to free himself from the lies.

    October 16, 2011
  14. QuentinTheThird #

    “To thine Own Self be True” is spoken by Polonius in Hamlet, Shakespeare was mocking this philosophy as he was every word that came from Polonius’ mouth.

    Frank Schaeffer is pretty good, but he mostly functions as a street sweep for runaways. He is doing little to combat the movement the churches are engaged in, and more just acting as a placebo for apostates.

    Until people realize that fundamentalism raising often is child-abuse, this country’s children will be in danger.

    October 16, 2011
  15. The education of an individual should be secular, that is, not the interference of any religion – I’m finishing reading Bertrand Russell “Why I am Not a Christian” and intolerance that I see the political, religious and judges have when away from the office of the Russell professor at City University of New York – claiming that Russell was a man of moral tainted due to the fact of being an atheist and advocate sex outside of marriage – I think this act is equal to the courts of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages.
    I am a professor of history in Brazil – and scared me when I tell my students that I have no religion and I do not believe in God …

    October 16, 2011
  16. QuentinTheThird #

    Moral ideologies are relative. The indoctrination of narcissistic morals like fornication by the persons at the top is usually a facade meant to keep the lower classes in line. I hesitate to endorse Russel’s position on fornication in the context of his era given that birth control was not nearly as accessible in his era. Now that we have it, it seems far less necessary as long as people behave with caution and wisdom. If one reads John Locke’s chapter on “The Abuse of Words,” the self-perpetuating rhetorical system designed by lawyers and priests becomes apparent in its purpose as simply being a system of control that is inherently impenetrable by its nature of being self-referential for justification of imposition on free-will.

    More succinctly, as Blake said, “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.”

    October 16, 2011
  17. Brian #

    Religion is certainly a control mechanism passed down through the ages but I see no reason why one has to become an atheist to escape that historical mind trap. I myself rejected religious dogma years ago, but never lost sight of my own internal transcendent Spirit from which mind and reason spring forth. You’re God Miranda, we all are one. The appearance of separation is an illusion. The entire Universe is contained within your consciousnesses which transcends Matter, Time and space. The mear existence of your intuitive self is proof of that… Science and Religion are in the process of merging and morphing into a higher understanding of reality at this moment. We are alive to witness and experience this great transformation of our Civilization as the old system of thoughts are torn down, convulsing and lashing out as they go and are replaced by a new clarity of vision & love between us all. The Hyper Dimensional Torsion physics (Source Field) increasingly active in our Solar System is forcing the decision upon us as the Veil is lifted.

    October 17, 2011
  18. mavxp #

    One of the sad ironies of Christianity is that Jesus’ message was one of freedom and simplicity of belief, and an emphasis on teaching right motives and actions to everyday Jews struggling with the same religious tensions in 1st century AD that many of you talk of with your experiences of (particularly) Christianity. Clearly something, somewhere went wrong.

    Much of the writings of the Apostles Paul and John in the new testament try to explain how this new freedom works. How it is not by our good works that we are saved, but by what Christ has done for us. That we need only, simply, accept it. That despite our imperfections, we can know and be known by God. That is the ‘good news’ of Christianity.

    Somehow over the centuries people have not accepted how simple and revolutionary it really was, and returned to the legalistic religiosity of rules and guilt and thought control, much like the Pharisees (extreme religious Jewish sect) of Jesus day. In many Churches that freedom has been lost – if it ever existed.

    I agree people do need help to undo the damage done. I am not sure a complete break to atheism is the best way forward – for some it may be beneficial. For others it may leave them too adrift, and the break of belief too difficult to take. Perhaps then, a rediscovery of Jesus and the Apostles teachings – perhaps through solid bible teaching that is true to the authors intent would be the most healing way forward (not the manipulation of a few selected versus to make the appearance of validation for some moralistic rhetoric that passes for “teaching” at some churches).

    my 2c

    October 18, 2011
    • QuentinTheThird #

      I hate to tell you that Paul had the largest influence in bringing Christianity back into legalism. He is one of the most restrictive writers of the Greek Bible. So much so that I find it hard to believe he wasn’t working for the Sanhedrin even after his so-called conversion on the road to Tarsus.

      October 23, 2011
  19. Will #

    I agree there is a prima facie plausibility for assuming that religion is more likely to lead to “intense fear, shame, and guilt” than other systems of belief or codes of behaviour. After all, what could be scarier than an allegedly omniscient, omnipotent being? On the other hand, the propositional content may be entirely secondary to the modes of implementation. Non-religious ideals could just as easily be connected with double-bind messages, for instance. Individuation, breaking away from group norms ingested as a child, might always be necessary to some degree, and could always be accompanied by “fear, shame, and guilt” of various intensity.

    What is the evidence that social systems that might be classified as religious are generally more harmful than non-religious social systems? What is the evidence that ‘religiosity’ has any impact beyond the modes of interaction that can be harmless or harmful in any given social context, irrespective of propositional content?

    October 18, 2011
  20. rvandint #

    Whats wrong with guilt?

    October 19, 2011
    • What’s wrong with no guilt?

      October 20, 2011
    • Guilt is fine as long as it’s the result of some real wrongdoing, comes from your own conscience, and it prompts you to behave better in the future.

      But guilt imposed on you by others for not measuring up to some invented and impossible standard? In this case guilt becomes a tool used for manipulating people. Not acceptable. It’s not acceptable because it’s a dishonest and underhanded way of dealing with people and trying to get your way. It’s also not acceptable for the psychological trauma it visits upon the victims.

      October 21, 2011
  21. Aside from the mind control, the guilt and fear, the horrible confusing of mythology, history and science, there’s the lack of critical thinking skills that is a direct result from being raised in a no-questions-allowed cult. My belief is that many of our problems in being able to have a rational debate about, oh – ANYTHING, in this country is that so few people are actually capable of applying logical path or critical thinking skills. It’s much like learning another language, you can’t just “do it,” it takes training and practice.

    October 20, 2011
  22. I have been contacting different universities of Psychology asking if there has been any studies related to this subject. (I will keep you all posted)
    I was raised Mormon and I believe in addition to mind control, guilt, fear, lack of critical thinking, there is an additional aspect of psychological manipulation. From the time I could talk I was asked to say the following, “I know the Mormon church is the “only” true church, I know the Book of Mormon is true, I know Joseph smith was a true prophet, and I love my mom and dad and brothers and sisters.”
    I believe this is done (knowingly or not) to connect the belief in the church with the love of your family. This last year (my 35th year) I have made the decision to leave the church as well as the belief in Christ & God. This has caused extreme mental anguish and my Mormon friends would blame this on Satin and the feeling of the evil spirit. I believe it has to do with the subconscious connection I have between my past faith and my family. Not to mention the blaming eyes of other Mormons. Of course in their mind the only reason someone would leave the church would be due to sin.
    Love the opportunity to speak about this. Please look at my site and leave comments there. I have told my story:

    November 22, 2011

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