Monthly Archives: February 2019

Book Review: “Trusting Doubt – A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light”

I recently reviewed a book on Amazon, “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” by Dr. Valerie Tarico. (I have recently shared some of Dr. Tarico’s work on this blog, here).

I have to say that I didn’t like the book, and this is reflected in my review. In some of my own work, even though I might well present a dark picture of modern Christianity and even of some of its practitioners, I always nevertheless try to mitigate that darkness by giving a hopeful counter-argument of some sort. If this book produces such a counter-argument, then I did not read far enough to find it; I could only read about a third of the way into the book before I gave up for the sake of my own sanity. Also, bearing in mind that I feel like I am presently going into another ‘Dark Night of the Soul‘ (which is nowhere near as bad as it sounds!), if I had gone into such a Dark Night after having read this book, there’s a fair chance I woudn’t have come out the other side in one piece 😉 Actually, that’s not true; it is God Who carries the believer through the Dark Night (Ps 23:4, Is 46:4, Phil 1:6, Jude 24) but still I think I have made my point.

I would also say that I do not consider that my incipient Dark Night has influenced my perception of the book. As a scientist, I am well used to viewing things dispassionately and without letting my preconceptions influence my impressions.

Anyway, here is my review, for what it’s worth. It’s presented more or less verbatim from my review on Amazon (with a few extra bits added after further thought):

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light”
 – by Dr. Valerie Tarico.

I really wanted to enjoy this book, and having read some of Dr. Tarico’s articles on her blog, I looked forward to reading something with some substance and containing interesting, thought-provoking and ultimately upbuilding ideas. However, while I appreciated the clarity, forcefulness and honesty of Dr. Tarico’s arguments, I have to say that there is little to like in this book.

There are a few welcome episodes of dry humour, and a couple of ‘lessons learned’ where, despite the dark and hopeless conclusions she reaches at the end of most chapters, she does manage to salvage a few gems of wisdom and learning.

But, otherwise, the book would be more suitable for those who already believe There. Is. No. God. ; for those seriously considering leaving the Christian faith (and this book would indeed convince you to do so); or for Goths.

After a reasonably upbeat introductory section, the book rapidly goes downhill faster than a well-tossed anvil.

While Dr. Tarico rightly tears into the presuppositions and conflicting assertions of Evangelical doctrines, such as infallibility of scripture, original sin and the inequalities (racism, sexism and other prejudices) expressed in the Bible which are also enacted in today’s society by many Evangelicals, she also examines the rightness and ‘goodness’ of Jesus’s miracles, and even manages to conclude that because Jesus did not heal everyone, that in actual fact his miracles were cruel (she uses that actual word) because not everyone got healed, even if it’s just because they didn’t happen to be there as Jesus walked by.

Wait, what? Really??

Many of the author’s arguments against God being good are based on the premise of what would I do if I was God, which I’m not, and neither is she. We cannot presuppose that we know best. I have to say also that not all the arguments are based in correct axioms nor in logical presuppositions. I am not going to provide examples, because I don’t want to go back into this book again to find them, for reasons which will become clear.

There seems to be an underlying bitterness that everything in the world is not good, or, at least, a bitterness that Christians appear to try to explain away the fact that shit happens and life is full of it. In actual fact, however, everyone with half a mind asks life’s big questions, and nobody, not just the Christians, has the answers. So you can’t blame Evangelicalism for that.

Apart from a few upbeat anecdotes like ones about her grandmother, and even that story she then tears to pieces, there is nothing to rejoice about in this book. Even the good is denigrated and life is portrayed as empty, dark, bleak and hopeless.

I have to say that I got about a third of the way through the book before giving up in despair. The nihilism is simply soul-destroying, if you believe in the soul anyway. I am an upbeat, optimistic and positive person, but at the end of each chapter I felt like going off and drinking myself into oblivion, something I would never normally contemplate. Or maybe piling my car into a very solid tree or concrete wall. Except that my airbags would save my life. Damn.

At the end of every chapter, I thought, Oh well this must get better, after all I agree with a lot of what she says, so let’s keep reading. But no. The darkness and oppression are relentless. There is no place in this book for joy, no place for happiness, and even the spontaneous, joy-filled and free laughter of my severely disabled daughter watching something funny (in another room) seemed totally out of place in the presence of the cloud of darkness that seemed to emanate from this book.

There is no mention of life’s joys, the good things, the light, the scenery, people being nice for the sake of it, kindness, love and laughter. There is no mention of the tremendous good that Christianity has brought into the world, yes, along with all the horrific things it has done as well. The fault-finding of God in this book is unmitigated by any mention of his benefits. Indeed, it is as if the entire picture of God in this book is based entirely on the faulty image of Nasty God as espoused by the Evangelicals, and it doesn’t move on from there but stays down in the dumps. Instead of saying ‘Look the Evangelicals believe in this nasty God, BUT….’ , she instead goes on to explain why God, if he exists, is horrible just as the Evangelicals say, but giving her own reasons based on the bloodiness of nature and that life deals in crap on a daily basis.

No, this book is simply the apparently logic-based ranting of someone who has been damaged by Evangelicalism – as have I – and has gone on to get the qualifications and experience to be able to write an authoritative declamation against Evangelicalism, which undoubtedly deserves it!

But for those who want to see how someone else has approached the deconstruction of faith and come through, well, I didn’t get that far in the book so I don’t know if it has a happy ending, in terms of something solid and hopeful to take home at the end of the book. This book appears to have been written by someone in Fowler’s Stage 4 in the Stages of Faith (Google it) and has not yet come through to Stage 5. Like I said, the book may come through, but I can’t stand to read any more of it. I’m not afraid of logic; I am a professional scientist. I’m not afraid of deconstruction; I have gone through it myself. But it is possible to deconstruct one’s faith without destroying others’ hope too, something this book is more than capable of. But I also want to have a life, and I am not going to waste any more of my valuable time on reading this book of misery. Who would want to do that?

At the very least, the author could have given maybe a sneak preview. Like, hey, it all produces good stuff in the end, you’ll see. But in order to survive to that point, the earlier parts of the book need to have a little more upbeat stuff in there. Or maybe it does not in fact reach a good conclusion; maybe it stays dark all the way through. The occasional touch of humour, while welcome, is simply not enough to hold the reader in a place that is positive enough to encourage the desire to carry on reading. If you think things will get better, you might as well stop reading, because they don’t.

I gave this book a fair chance. I will be removing it from my Kindle, and cheering myself up by singing Python’s ‘Always look on the Bright Side of Life’. While still nihilistic, that song manages to put a funny and even positive spin on it. This book does not.

I did decide to give the book another chance, and actually dipped into later parts of the book to see if I’d misjudged it; to see if it does indeed get better later. It doesn’t. For example, the chapter on feeling the Presence of God, and how widespread it is amongst all types of churchgoers, I though would be great. Dr. Tarico begins the chapter on such a high note – like saying, ‘Look, folks, you believe you have a monopoly on God, well, you don’t, because other Christians feel that Presence too, no matter what their denomination’. And this is extremely admirable. But then it all gets shot down in flames as these ‘feelings of God’ are apparently essentially some sort of illusion or, I gathered, wishful thinking. Such a shame – but then I suppose it would appeal to some people who want ‘permission’ to deconstruct. But there is such a finality about each or Dr. Tarico’s conclusions that gives no room for further spiritual progress, at least in any mystical sense, and at least without having a whole raft of rational stuff to fight through. People in later places in their faith walk have learned to hold in tension the logical with the mystical. Neither stance gives a complete picture of reality, so to discount the mystical as illogical (which actually it isn’t; it’s irrational, which is a different thing) is to miss out on a whole slice of life.

I have actually gained something positive from reading the third of the book I did read. It’s this: up until now, I have had difficulty seeing the points of view of Evangelical Christians since I have moved out of their fold. Reading this book, however, has given me a new appreciation – because of the omission of this point from the book – of all the decent, honest and upright people in the Evangelical church, despite their mixed-up thinking, terrible ideas and their stifling, grey dogmatism. In contrast to this book, they really don’t seem so bad after all.

One final thing. If you are contemplating suicide, or if you are prone to depression, then in all seriousness, I strongly advise that you DO NOT read this book. It may well push you over the edge, figuratively or even literally.


“Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light”, by Dr. Valerie Tarico, is available on Amazon both as a paperback and as a Kindle eBook. The eBook was priced at GBP£7.46 at the time of writing. The link to the book is here.

00

Thinking In the Box

About twenty years ago, my lovely wife Fiona was making enquiries about going to a Bible week* – can’t remember whether it was Stoneleigh or New Wine, or even something else – and she was going to go with her friend Yvonne. In the end, they didn’t go, for whatever reason.

Anyway, as part of the ‘registration’ process, there was a couple of pages of Rules. Like, please keep quiet after 10:00pm, no cars allowed on site after initial unloading, no alcohol, please don’t block the toilets, that sort of thing.

One of the Rules, though, was a bit of a Legalism thing. Bearing in mind that, at the time, I had just begun my major detoxification-from-Fundagelicalism event which lasted fifteen years, so it was a bit of a trigger…

This particular Rule was that no unmarried, mixed couples were allowed to share a tent.

So, I guess if you’d wanted to go along with your fiancé/fiancée, forget it: it’s separate tents or no dice.

Quite who was going to police this Rule (and how they were going to do it) was not specified 😉

Anyway, I simply couldn’t resist it. I wrote to their admin people and asked if it was alright if I and my gay partner were allowed to share a tent, despite not being married (I don’t think gay marriage/civil partnerships were even a thing back then!) pointing out that given the Rules as written, we would still be ok as we were a same-sex couple/unmarried, rather than a mixed couple/unmarried..

No reply was forthcoming.

And so I wrote to them again expressing disappointment that my question had not been taken seriously/answered, and emphasising that because we were not a mixed couple, we would be abiding by the Rules and therefore where’s the problem?

Still no response.

I wonder why.

Maybe those religious people were in a ‘box’, perchance?

Still, that lack of any response was a great help for me in my deconstruction, illustrating that not only were such Rules ‘doctrines made by men’ (Mt 15:9) but also that, when it really came down to it, nobody in those religious groups ever think things through to their logical conclusions, probably because they’re not allowed to.

I still laugh about it now, of course. And it makes an excellent after-dinner joke amongst like-minded believers


*For those who don’t know, a Bible Week is a sort of Christian rally where thousands of Evangelical (usually) Christians have like a camping week, usually at an agricultural showground (because of good space and facilities). It’s usually in the summer, and it usually rains. The program normally goes something like this. Mornings: workshops and/or seminars where people can attend teaching sessions or learn basket-making. Or how to lead worship or write songs, as if people can do that without the proper gifting… Usually the workshops are quite arty-farty things and very rarely anything scientific (of course), although one I went to in 1984 (Festival ’84) at Staffordshire County Showground did, uniquely, have a workshop on Amateur Radio, which led me on to eventually qualifying as a Radio Amateur; Afternoons: Free to roam the surrounding area just like normal tourists; Evenings: An extended worship and sermon session (very much like a long Charismatic church service, which is not normally as bad as it sounds. In fact, they were good fun (although the sermons were usually boring) and we always used to learn lots of great new songs there. Then, after a week of that, its pack up your tent and join the traffic jam to get off the site. That’s a Bible week.

Here’s a link to New Wine’s website; their camping events are called ‘United’. Probably means you have to fit in in order to be allowed to go 😉

10

Dark Night – The NPCs

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Dark Night

For an  explanation as to why I have a row of Mormon boys as my header image, please see the footnotes 😉

In my last post, Theophilus*, I described how I feel like I am about to embark on another Dark Night of the Soul. While I could be wrong, of course, I did describe it as such because I felt I recognised the signs of its approach.

In the comments for that post, regular reader Jeremy suggested I try to blog a little on what my thoughts are, which would be helpful and interesting. I think that really is an excellent idea, because that then means that someone with a keen observational mind and an analytical brain (me!) would be making those observations and writing them down for others. The only downside to the idea is that the Dark Night might involve taking time off blogging or even taking time off thinking and observing too much. Sometimes the idea of the Dark Night is to take time off of having any commitments at all, so, subject to those caveats, I will do what I can. And I’m going to make it into a ‘series’ so as to keep the posts indexed in some fashion.

Let me make it clear right from the start that this Dark Night is not some form of depression or other mental illness. It is a normal and healthy part of spiritual growth, and, because I have been through it before, I am genuinely looking forward to the experience itself and also to the fruits it will produce. Granted, I am still heartsick from my loss of Fiona – even though that’s now 28 months ago – but this is a different thing entirely. This is spiritual, not emotional, and going through times like this only serves to highlight the difference.

Now, to my observations.

The primary observation at the present time is this: this particular Dark Night has been-precipitated, as was my first one, as a result of interactions with nasty grey legalistic people, my reactions to them, and the need to change my attitudes in my dealings with them. So, dealing with these people. And I need to spend time away from them. Fortunately, unlike those who have these people in their immediate families, I have the luxury of being able to remove myself from them.

My son refers to these people as NPCs. ‘Non-Player Characters’, you know, like in a video game. Every time you approach one of these in-game characters, they act all familiar and ‘Hey how are you, buddy?’ like they’ve known your game character all his life. If you come back to them in-game after half an hour or so, they say the exact same thing – because of course they are programmed to. And that’s what these people are like; they are programmed with all the ‘right phrases’ that they trot out willy-nilly and – more worryingly – they also have all the same programmed attitudes. It’s almost as if they have no colour; no personality. The NPCs. What a great analogy.

As my readers will know, about twenty years ago, my first Dark Night began, in which I avoided all church things like I would Flat Earthers 😉 Every time I went in a church, it reminded me of why I didn’t! That Dark Night lasted fifteen years as I was detoxed from all the harmful attitudes that my twenty-one years as an Evangelical Fundamentalist had given me.

Five years ago, I had a dramatic re-entry into the ‘things of God’ (although I was never really away from Him per se) and He has carried me through losing Fiona and all kinds of other stuff. And my faith life blossomed.

But recently something in me has just snapped. I have so had enough of the NPCs who take it upon themselves to ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’…whatever happened to ‘mind your own business’? And these people cast such a bad light on my wonderful Jesus and my Father God…and I have to make this observation that at present I feel that if I never go into a church meeting again it will be too soon. That, for me, is a characteristic of a Dark Night experience. In a way, being with other Christians – at least in a large meeting – is such a ‘trigger’ for me that it can be harmful. Also, being Aspergic does not help in this regard; I can think of many places I’d rather be than in a room with lots of people!

I’m not saying that people at my Church are NPCs; they’re not. They are lovely. And I know for a fact that part of what Father is doing with me at the moment is that He’s not asking me to go to Church, so in a way it’s almost as if that lack of Church prompting from Father suggets that He’s the One Who’s leading me into the Dark Night – and that would come as no surprise to me. And in a lot of ways I have been at this point for a long while, not having been to the main Church meeting for about eighteen months, although I was in a housegroup for a while (it recently came to an end; not my fault, I hasten to add!)

Regarding the NPCs, it’s always the same. If there are two possible interpretations of a Scripture, these people would always rather swing towards the ‘bad’ interpretation and call it ‘loving’, rather than swing towards the actually ‘loving’ interpretation. And coming up against this constantly has made it so that I’ve so had enough of them. I am so sick of religious people like these, and as a sad corollary to that, I am avoiding all things to do with faith at all, because there are just so many triggers. I’m staying off Facebook because there are people on there whom I care about but who also have a list of NPC ‘friends’ as long as your arm, who trot out the same programmed crap in response to my friends’ posts again and again. I just need a rest from it all, and that might take fifteen days, or it might take fifteen years again.

To quote my reply to one of my friends on Facebook, whose post was being ripped at by grey** NPC miseries,

But the truth of it is that I have had enough of these people. Completely had enough. From now on, it’s an instant block from me. We are giving dogs what is sacred and they simply turn and tear us to pieces. From now on, my job is to minister to the people whom these nasties would seek to destroy, while ignoring and blocking the nasty ones. These are deadly, grey, dull people who spread a gospel of horror, hate and lies, and I’ve had enough of them. There is enough poison in life in general without people like these, who claim to represent a loving god, from bringing even more toxicity. Enough is enough. Let them wallow in the mud of their shipwrecks.

(And that’s partly where my recent post. ‘Shipwrecks‘, came from)

One such grey person thusly replied to my exhortation to reconsider the doctrine of Hell:

“Don’t need to. Hell is forever. You don’t make the rules. God does. Your job is to obey, not figure out God’s logic.”

Case in point. Cold, grey, dull, lifeless. In fact the voice of the Pharisee is always cold, lifeless, grey, dry, dusty and joyless. By their fruits you shall know them (or in this case, the lack thereof)

Remember:

Dry

Dusty

Grey

Cold

Joyless

Lifeless

Jesus spoke of them as tombs – whitewashed tombs. Lookin’ good on the outside; full of rot and corruption inside. And these are the people who accuse all mankind of being ‘unregenerate sinners…’ for goodness’ sake! If your life looks like that, you need to get it sorted. But then, if your life looks like that, you probably are not reading this because you will have consigned my blog to the heresy pile long ago!

Another key phrase, when given a joke that falls outside the lines of what their group think acceptable, is ‘We don’t think it’s funny’.

Like this one, for example:

“We don’t think it’s funny”, they would say***. Who’s ‘we’? That sort of prohibition only has power when there’s a group of them all agreeing with each other, and presumably nodding sagely, and they find like-minded miseries to sit with.

Even talking to these people is a downer. This is not what the kingdom of God is about! If it’s not righteousness, peace and joy, then it’s not the Kingdom of God.

And I find, as a direct result of my interactions with grey NPCs, that when I’m reading my Bible, my reading voice – you know, the voice that I hear in my head as I read – sounds just like the grey NPCs. And so, unless I feel particularly inspired, I do not go to the Bible all that often. True, when I do get such inspiration, that voice is absent…maybe the lesson there is to not read the Bible unless that voice is absent… This is another of the signs of the Dark Night, and obviously one I have learned from already! 😀

Another thing is that, in some ways, I don’t feel as close to God as I normally do. I know He’s there; I still feel the Spirit burning inside. Or maybe that’s indigestion. And worship means little; once again, I can hardly bear to hear the Songs of Heaven. These are two more of my signs of an impending Dark Night.

I think that one of the main things I am looking for in this Dark Night (although of course Father probably has other plans!) is that I need to learn how to deal with the Grey People. The NPCs. If indeed there is any dealing with them. By ‘dealing with’ them, I mean how I personally deal with the effects of interfacing with them on a theological level. Certainly we’re not going to change them; not that I would want to – that’s not my job! And indeed, this brings me to another point about the NPCs and how to cope with them, and it’s this.

When we criticise the judgemental, their standard response is always [predictably] “Ah, but now you’re judging me!” It seems to be the privilege of the judgemental that, although they started it, still they think we are wrong to point out their judgementalism; that we are ourselves being judgemental in our pronouncements against their judgementalism. I sometimes think that they set these things up just specifically for that purpose. He who accuses first has the upper hand, it seems!

Talk about a no-win situation!

So, how do we solve this conundrum? How do we tell these people what they are doing without ourselves being judgemental, or even giving them the excuse to say that we are being judgemental? Is it even possible?

I’m 56 years old and I am still unaware of an answer. Maybe that’s something I will learn in this Dark Night. But I wouldn’t bank on it.

And please be aware that I am actually not blaming the NPCs; all I am doing is to describe how their actions and my responses/triggers have precipitated this new Dark Night. For others, their own entry into a Dark Night will be highly individual, and indeed probably unique to that person. Also, I have not been forced into this ‘course of action’ by these people, because a) it is not my choice anyway, and b) they are not that powerful. The main thing is my response to their trigger reaction in me; that’s what I need to work on.

This may well read like a rant, and I do not apologise for that. What I need to show, above all else in this series, is honesty. Because it will be of no use to my readers if it’s not honest.

And anyway I am allowed to rant. There are no rules in a Dark Night! 😉

I hope this is helpful.

Peace and Grace to you all.


*Pirated from St. Luke in Acts 1:1 😉

**What’s all this about ‘grey’ people? Well, one of the characteristics of being in a religious cult (which I believe Evangelical Christianity is) is that everyone has to be the same; everyone has to believe the same things, have the same sense of humour (none) and all that sort of thing. Imagine a group of Mormon missionaries lined up for a game of ‘Spot the Difference’ and you’ll get what I mean. And that explains the header image (it’s actually taken from a Broadway show called ‘Book of Mormon’ – and they’re not real Mormons; they’re actors...) 😉

(Not saying Mormons are NPCs; I don’t personally know any so I can’t say. But their missionaries, at least, do all dress the same and will therefore do for the purposes of illustration).

And so, despite each NPC being technically an individual, in terms of faith they are not; there is no colour, no variety, nothing interesting going on. Hence, grey.

***Clue: YMCA 😉


 

20

The Dark Night Beckons…

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Dark Night

As my regular readers will be aware, I am a strong advocate of the idea of the ‘Stages of Faith‘, which is a loose set of ideas describing the way in which some of us humans grow and change in our spiritual lives.

One of the Stages of Faith is of course the ‘Dark Night of the Soul‘, which is where God takes a believer into a place where old ideas and preconceptions are challenged and often deconstructed. Once this period is completed, the believer emerges into a new ‘era’, if you will, of freedom and light in the Spirit. As such, the Dark Night is therefore to be welcomed and, even though it might not always be pleasant, the blessings are nonetheless real.

But the Dark Night is not always, nor indeed is it usually, a ‘one-off’ experience. Several times in a beliver’s life, God might need to take that person aside for a discussion and contemplation of that person’s belief systems, attitudes, or whatever.

And I, personally, am beginning to enter another Dark Night. I am recognising the signs. Despite the lovely and sympathetic best wishes of my online friends, however, I actually relish the opportunity, because personal growth in God is one of my primary ongoing objectives. My appetite for new learning is insatiable, and in the Dark Night, we learn more about God, His secrets, and the way things work, than at any other time.

In practical terms, this means that my blog posts may or may not be intermittent from now on. I may not even do my monthly ‘Fiona’ articles on the 25th of each month. I would think also that those articles in which I present my own thoughts and ideas will be rarer, and as part of this Dark Night involves a general staying away from my usual external channels of fresh thoughts and concepts, I might not be getting ideas for blog posts from others all that often either. At the very least, others’ posts will be featuring more than my ‘own’. I have been writing this blog now for almost four years, and my output has been reasonably constant. But I don’t want to give my readers poor-quality articles that are not grounded in my deep convictions and deep thinking; I don’t want to short-change you. But, who knows? Maybe this season in my life might bring forth a torrent of inspiration…well, we’ll just have to wait and see, I guess!

So, there we have it. I am excited to see what God has in store for me over this next season, and I look forward to sharing the fruits of it with my readers in due course. It may take a few weeks, it may take a few years – although I would hope the latter is not the case. I just thought I’d better let you know ‘where I’m at’, because I cherish my readership, both those who comment and those who are the silent listeners; you are all welcome and all part of my journey. And I don’t want you to think I have abandoned you!

Peace and Grace to you all 🙂

20

The Not So Good News

Here’s a great piece by my friend Dave Griffiths:


The Evangelical ‘gospel’ so many of us believed and served for years is not much good news.

The lesson I was taught, which is being reinforced around the world all the time, is that we are essentially bad, and if we ask Jesus to be our saviour, he will save us from a bad place we will go to when we die. God is Holy and so cannot have dirty sinners in his heaven. Someone had to be punished very badly for us to be forgiven. That someone was Jesus – hence he is the saviour.

I’d almost go so far as to say that this is an ‘anti-christ’ message.

Christ means ‘anointed one’. What was the ‘anointed one’ sent to show us? How to bind broken hearts, open blind eyes, and share good news with the poor. This is good news for everyone. This is what Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue at the start of his ministry (Lk 4:18), quoting from Isaiah (Is 61:1).

So, being a CHRISTian is actually about becoming like Christ. Doing all that good stuff. We get to unmask and dethrone the powers of the world that are built on evil ways. We get to see the divine economy (Kingdom of God) shared among us.

We get to be possessed by the Holy Spirit and made more and more compassionate, forgiving, empathetic, nonviolent and non-judgemental.

Paul grasped this. John grasped it too. Peter to an extent. I reckon the Marys were probably way ahead of them.

I’m so sick of the message from the mainline church that basically destroys your sense of Christ within you and makes you a grovelling wretch that pleads with an angry god to forgive you because you’re covered in Christ’s blood. All you are is sorry, and then you try all your life to please god by behaving better. Well, that isn’t good news.

We don’t get to live for God. We get to live as God, and in God.

Friends. Reject all the negative, false gospel that tell you and everyone else that they are not worthy. You are and always have been. Made in God’s own image. You are invited to more and more love and goodness by simply discovering what you already have.

– rant over.

Shalom.


 

10

Religious Trauma Syndrome

As you have probably guessed from other articles on my blog, I have a strong interest in helping people to come to terms with large changes in their spiritual lives. These changes can be due to divorce, bereavement, spiritual growth and its associated ‘growing pains’, or more sinister things like dealing with spiritual abuse and religious trauma, where people are either trapped (knowingly or unknowingly) in spiritual abuse systems – which are loosely described in this article –  or where they have broken free from such systems and are having to cope with the trauma of what is essentially a major loss of part of one’s life.

This post, by Dr. Valerie Tarico, is quoted from the RawStory site, and the link to the original article is given at the end. In this article, Dr. Tarico quotes much from Dr. Marlene Winnell, who is a human development consultant, and who first used the term ‘Religious Trauma Syndrome’. Unsurprisingly, her use of the term made waves, most likely (my guess, anyway) amongst people who didn’t want their abusive ways brought to light. Here’s the article in full, with original links intact insofar as they work. Note that the title refers only to some, not all, organised religion.


Religious Trauma Syndrome: How some organized religion leads to mental health problems

At age sixteen I began what would be a four-year struggle with bulimia.  When the symptoms started, I turned in desperation to adults who knew more than I did about how to stop shameful behavior—my Bible study leader and a visiting youth minister.  “If you ask anything in faith, believing,” they said.  “It will be done.” I knew they were quoting the Word of God. We prayed together, and I went home confident that God had heard my prayers.

But my horrible compulsions didn’t go away. By the fall of my sophomore year in college, I was desperate and depressed enough that I made a suicide attempt. The problem wasn’t just the bulimia.  I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn’t fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God. It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.

Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. She is also the daughter of Pentecostal missionaries. This combination has given her work an unusual focus. For the past twenty years she has counseled men and women in recovery from various forms of fundamentalist religion including the Assemblies of God denomination in which she was raised. Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, written during her years of private practice in psychology. Over the years, Winell has provided assistance to clients whose religious experiences were even more damaging than mine. Some of them are people whose psychological symptoms weren’t just exacerbated by their religion, but actually caused by it.

Two years ago, Winell made waves by formally labeling what she calls “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) and beginning to write and speak on the subject for professional audiences. When the British Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychologists published a series of articles on the topic, members of a Christian counseling association protested what they called excessive attention to a “relatively niche topic.” One commenter said, “A religion, faith or book cannot be abuse but the people interpreting can make anything abusive.”

Is toxic religion simply misinterpretation? What is religious trauma? Why does Winell believe religious trauma merits its own diagnostic label?  I asked her.

Let’s start this interview with the basics. What exactly is religious trauma syndrome?

Winell: Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. The RTS label provides a name and description that affected people often recognize immediately. Many other people are surprised by the idea of RTS, because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. Just like telling kids about Santa Claus and letting them work out their beliefs later, people see no harm in teaching religion to children.

But in reality, religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. The public is somewhat familiar with sexual and physical abuse in a religious context. As Journalist Janet Heimlich has documented in, Breaking Their Will, Bible-based religious groups that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure and use harsh parenting methods can be destructive.

But the problem isn’t just physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin 2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.

Can you give me an example of RTS from your consulting practice?

Winell: I can give you many. One of the symptom clusters is around fear and anxiety. People indoctrinated into fundamentalist Christianity as small children sometimes have memories of being terrified by images of hell and apocalypse before their brains could begin to make sense of such ideas. Some survivors, who I prefer to call “reclaimers,” have flashbacks, panic attacks, or nightmares in adulthood even when they intellectually no longer believe the theology. One client of mine, who during the day functioned well as a professional, struggled with intense fear many nights. She said,

“I was afraid I was going to hell. I was afraid I was doing something really wrong. I was completely out of control. I sometimes would wake up in the night and start screaming, thrashing my arms, trying to rid myself of what I was feeling. I’d walk around the house trying to think and calm myself down, in the middle of the night, trying to do some self-talk, but I felt like it was just something that – the fear and anxiety was taking over my life”.

Or consider this comment, which refers to a film used by Evangelicals to warn about the horrors of the “end times” for nonbelievers.

“I was taken to see the film “A Thief In The Night”. WOW. I am in shock to learn that many other people suffered the same traumas I lived with because of this film. A few days or weeks after the film viewing, I came into the house and mom wasn’t there. I stood there screaming in terror. When I stopped screaming, I began making my plan: Who my Christian neighbors were, whose house to break into to get money and food. I was 12 yrs old and was preparing for Armageddon alone”.

In addition to anxiety, RTS can include depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning. In fundamentalist Christianity, the individual is considered depraved and in need of salvation. A core message is “You are bad and wrong and deserve to die.” (The wages of sin is death.) This gets taught to millions of children through organizations like Child Evangelism Fellowship, and there is a group organized  to oppose their incursion into public schools.  I’ve had clients who remember being distraught when given a vivid bloody image of Jesus paying the ultimate price for their sins. Decades later they sit telling me that they can’t manage to find any self-worth.

“After twenty-seven years of trying to live a perfect life, I failed. . . I was ashamed of myself all day long. My mind battling with itself with no relief. . . I always believed everything that I was taught but I thought that I was not approved by God. I thought that basically I, too, would die at Armageddon.

“I’ve spent literally years injuring myself, cutting and burning my arms, taking overdoses and starving myself, to punish myself so that God doesn’t have to punish me. It’s taken me years to feel deserving of anything good.

“Born-again Christianity and devout Catholicism tell people they are weak and dependent, calling on phrases like “lean not unto your own understanding” or “trust and obey.” People who internalize these messages can suffer from learned helplessness. I’ll give you an example from a client who had little decision-making ability after living his entire life devoted to following the “will of God.” The words here don’t convey the depth of his despair.

“I have an awful time making decisions in general. Like I can’t, you know, wake up in the morning, “What am I going to do today? Like I don’t even know where to start. You know all the things I thought I might be doing are gone and I’m not sure I should even try to have a career; essentially I babysit my four-year-old all day”.

Authoritarian religious groups are subcultures where conformity is required in order to belong. Thus if you dare to leave the religion, you risk losing your entire support system as well.

“I lost all my friends. I lost my close ties to family. Now I’m losing my country. I’ve lost so much because of this malignant religion and I am angry and sad to my very core. . . I have tried hard to make new friends, but I have failed miserably. . . I am very lonely”.

Leaving a religion, after total immersion, can cause a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, and the future. People unfamiliar with this situation, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create.

“My form of religion was very strongly entrenched and anchored deeply in my heart. It is hard to describe how fully my religion informed, infused, and influenced my entire worldview. My first steps out of fundamentalism were profoundly frightening and I had frequent thoughts of suicide. Now I’m way past that but I still haven’t quite found “my place in the universe”.

Even for a person who was not so entrenched, leaving one’s religion can be a stressful and significant transition.

Many people seem to walk away from their religion easily, without really looking back. What is different about the clientele you work with?

Winell: Religious groups that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave easily. The difficulty seems to be greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert. This is because they have no frame of reference – no other “self” or way of “being in the world.” A common personality type is a person who is deeply emotional and thoughtful and who tends to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their endeavors. “True believers” who then lose their faith feel more anger and depression and grief than those who simply went to church on Sunday.

Aren’t these just people who would be depressed, anxious, or obsessive anyways?

Winell: Not at all. If my observation is correct, these are people who are intense and involved and caring. They hang on to the religion longer than those who simply “walk away” because they try to make it work even when they have doubts. Sometime this is out of fear, but often it is out of devotion. These are people for whom ethics, integrity and compassion matter a great deal. I find that when they get better and rebuild their lives, they are wonderfully creative and energetic about new things.

In your mind, how is RTS different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Winell: RTS is a specific set of symptoms and characteristics that are connected with harmful religious experience, not just any trauma. This is crucial to understanding the condition and any kind of self-help or treatment. (More details about this can be found on my Journey Free website and discussed in my talk at the Texas Freethought Convention.)

Another difference is the social context, which is extremely different from other traumas or forms of abuse. When someone is recovering from domestic abuse, for example, other people understand and support the need to leave and recover. They don’t question it as a matter of interpretation, and they don’t send the person back for more. But this is exactly what happens to many former believers who seek counseling. If a provider doesn’t understand the source of the symptoms, he or she may send a client for pastoral counseling, or to AA, or even to another church. One reclaimer expressed her frustration this way:

“Include physically-abusive parents who quote “Spare the rod and spoil the child” as literally as you can imagine and you have one fucked-up soul: an unloved, rejected, traumatized toddler in the body of an adult. I’m simply a broken spirit in an empty shell. But wait…That’s not enough!? There’s also the expectation by everyone in society that we victims should celebrate this with our perpetrators every Christmas and Easter!!”

Just like disorders such as autism or bulimia, giving RTS a real name has important advantages. People who are suffering find that having a label for their experience helps them feel less alone and guilty. Some have written to me to express their relief:

“There’s actually a name for it! I was brainwashed from birth and wasted 25 years of my life serving Him! I’ve since been out of my religion for several years now, but i cannot shake the haunting fear of hell and feel absolutely doomed. I’m now socially inept, unemployable, and the only way i can have sex is to pay for it”.

Labeling RTS encourages professionals to study it more carefully, develop treatments, and offer training. Hopefully, we can even work on prevention.

What do you see as the difference between religion that causes trauma and religion that doesn’t?

Winell: Religion causes trauma when it is highly controlling and prevents people from thinking for themselves and trusting their own feelings. Groups that demand obedience and conformity produce fear, not love and growth. With constant judgment of self and others, people become alienated from themselves, each other, and the world. Religion in its worst forms causes separation.

Conversely, groups that connect people and promote self-knowledge and personal growth can be said to be healthy. The book, Healthy Religion, describes these traits. Such groups put high value on respecting differences, and members feel empowered as individuals.  They provide social support, a place for events and rites of passage, exchange of ideas, inspiration, opportunities for service, and connection to social causes. They encourage spiritual practices that promote health like meditation or principles for living like the golden rule. More and more, nontheists are asking how they can create similar spiritual communities without the supernaturalism. An atheist congregation in London launched this year and has received over 200 inquiries from people wanting to replicate their model.

Some people say that terms like “recovery from religion” and “religious trauma syndrome” are just atheist attempts to pathologize religious belief.

Winell: Mental health professionals have enough to do without going out looking for new pathology. I never set out looking for a “niche topic,” and certainly not religious trauma syndrome. I originally wrote a paper for a conference of the American Psychological Association and thought that would be the end of it. Since then, I have tried to move on to other things several times, but this work has simply grown.

In my opinion, we are simply, as a culture, becoming aware of religious trauma.  More and more people are leaving religion, as seen by polls showing that the “religiously unaffiliated” have increased in the last five years from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. It’s no wonder the internet is exploding with websites for former believers from all religions, providing forums for people to support each other. The huge population of people “leaving the fold” includes a subset at risk for RTS, and more people are talking about it and seeking help.  For example, there are thousands of former Mormons, and I was asked to speak about RTS at an Exmormon Foundation conference.  I facilitate an international support group online called Release and Reclaim  which has monthly conference calls. An organization called Recovery from Religion, helps people start self-help meet-up groups

Saying that someone is trying to pathologize authoritarian religion is like saying someone pathologized eating disorders by naming them. Before that, they were healthy? No, before that we weren’t noticing. People were suffering, thought they were alone, and blamed themselves.  Professionals had no awareness or training. This is the situation of RTS today. Authoritarian religion is already pathological, and leaving a high-control group can be traumatic. People are already suffering. They need to be recognized and helped.

—-  Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their ReligionMore information about Marlene Winell and resources for getting help with RTS may be found at Journey Free.  Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

 

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