Over the last few weeks, I have been discussing the impact of harmful religions publicly, on my facebook page, my blog and one on one with others. In this essay, I will clearly delineate what I mean by harmful religions.
To be clear, I will not be discussing the validity of religions or the truth behind them (or not). I will solely be focusing on the characteristics of a religion which causes emotional, psychological, financial and personal harm to its adherents. These issues cross all religions and borders. Though you may find them to be more prevalent in some religions than others, wherever they are found, they have similar effects on its adherents.
The three main characteristics of harmful religions are a fearful or scary God, encouragement to forsake your own will for that of God and commandments or requirements which are enforced by shame or social punishment.
As a young child, I knew exactly what God looked like. I don’t remember anyone telling me about this, but I was so sure that I didn’t ask anyone for confirmation. He was a stout older man with a long greying beard. In my mind, he sat atop each lamppost in my town and peered into every corner and would punish me if I did anything wrong. When I forgot to pay back my friend when I borrowed her pencil, I knew that He knew and I would pay for my crime one day.
This belief was further reinforced when I was in grade school and we were taught that before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, God would take a scale and put our good deeds on one side and our bad deeds on the other. If the bad deeds outweighed the good deeds, we would suffer and have a bad year.
In my childish mind, I clearly saw the old angry man taking the tarnished heavy scale out each year and slowly comparing my good deeds to my bad ones. I would shiver in fright praying that I would not be punished and would survive the year intact.
Over time, though the vision of the old angry man left me, the fear did not. Because of what I had been told when I was so young, I was sure that I would be punished if I was not perfect. When I got married at 18 and was treated badly by my young husband, I did not reach out for help, but instead assumed that I was being punished for my misdeeds. Until today residue of that deep fear remains, as I take steps to heal from that deep fear which was inculcated into me at such a young age.
Many people from harmful religions will recognize this fear. The type of punishment which is threatened varies based on the religion, but the fear of God is universal. In some religions it may be the fear of Hell; in others the fear of getting punished today.
In reality, the world is a beautiful and loving place, with many wonderful things to offer. Raising children and people to see the world through the lens of fear is wrong. I believe that it is at the root of so much dysfunction in the world and it stops people from becoming their best selves and instead encourages people to stay small and afraid
The second characteristic of harmful religions is the mandate to forsake one’s own beliefs and thoughts and replace them with those of the leaders, God or your parents.
As a very young child, I had a hard time believing that I deserve special treatment from God because of the nation that I was born in to, despite what I was taught. My natural belief was that all people were equal and deserved the same goodness and blessings of this world. However, I was told many times that my teachers, parents and Rabbis were always right and that my beliefs were not important nor true.
I never expressed those thoughts because I knew that I would be reprimanded if I did and eventually even stopped having my own unique thoughts. The ongoing pressure to think and believe what everyone else was believing, wore me down. I no longer knew what I believed or even what I liked. I became a follower whose only goal was to please those around me and do what was required of me.
As humans we are all born with our own thoughts, feelings and beliefs. In any environment, we will be influenced by others, however to live in a religion which actively encourages you to squelch your beliefs, thoughts and personality is very harmful. Healing from this is possible but can require extensive effort. First one needs to come to the realization that one has unique thoughts and beliefs and once that breakthrough occurs, begin to identify one’s beliefs and thoughts.
The third characteristic of harmful religions is that its required practices are enforced by shame or social ostracization. Expectations are to be expected as part of any functioning society. However in harmful religions, the practices are often enforced using shame or social ostracization. In some religions, adherents are expected to spend hours a day proselytizing and teaching others about their religion. In other religions, adherents are expected to wear only specific clothing at all times. These expectations can be challenging but what is harmful is when they are enforced through the use of shame.
Using shame or social ostracization to enforce behaviors can set up a person to a lifetime of agony. Social acceptance is one of the most basic human needs and creating a system whereby approval and social acceptance is only gained by practicing certain behaviors is very problematic. In addition, shame is one of the earliest emotions and is the underlying cause of the feelings of worthlessness that some many people have. By playing on these emotions, religions can cause untold damage.They are equating a person’s value to what they do or don’t do for the religion.
Fear of God, encouragement to quiet ones inner voice and shame combined with the threat of social ostracization are the three defining characteristics of harmful religion. By recognizing these issues and tackling them head on, you can truly heal and create an amazing life for yourself.
Were you raised in a harmful religion and are experiencing some of these issues? Are you ready to create an amazing life for yourself. Click here to schedule a 15 minutes call https://calendly.com/beatriceweber/15min and subscribe to my blog at beatriceweber.com
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Looking forward to seeing you there!!!