Marlene Winell, PhD, wrote a wonderful book – Leaving the Fold – on how fundamentalist religion indoctrinates and harms people and how people can escape. These are notes from her book. If you find the following information helpful, read the book.
Fundamentalism is dangerous in any religion, but I am most familiar with fundamentalist Christianity, and that is what Dr. Winell addresses. Many people are emotionally and psychologically harmed by fundamentalist Christianity. Some of the harmful messages are:
You are innately unacceptable because of original sin.
Your own feelings, thoughts and decisions can’t be trusted.
Wisdom, strength & love are not inner qualities but accorded only to God, scripture & church.
You are not allowed to love others just for their essence. Personal value must be earned.
Connection with “outside” people and the world is dangerous.
Tenets are more important than people.
Doubt is sinful.
Contradicting information is evil and dangerous.
Obedience to and dependence on God are the highest ideals.
Dualistic right/wrong thinking is exalted.
Believers are instilled with perpetual, intense terror at the prospect of hell and an ever-present but furtive and nefarious Satan. Fundamentalism preys on the almost universal fear of death and nonexistence and amplifies it into the horrifying prospect of eternal torture. Of course, believers are promised they will be saved from this inevitable terrorist threat and the equally terrifying, unpredictable but perpetually imminent Armageddon IF they don’t break any unforgivable rules, perform all the rituals properly, give up critical thinking for circular reasoning and tautologies, and give over their lives, decision making, personal efficacy, life purpose and meaning, to be completely obedient to God.
Religion uses many well-documented brainwashing techniques. Some are intentionally manipulative, and some are not. Techniques can be very difficult to recognize because they are so common.
Some indoctrination is seductive and enticing. Decision-making seems simple. You only have to discern God’s will and plan. The “burden” of free will and responsibility is lifted. Structure, an ultimate authority, a universal plan, and mysterious benevolent power are comforting. Believers don’t have to develop personal ethics, morality, meaning, and purpose. They are provided. That is especially comforting for those who do not trust their own judgment. But emotional maturity is sacrificed. Fundamentalism allows individuals to remain perpetual children by providing a never-ending relationship with a protective father who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. That is especially appealing to those with inadequate or dysfunction human parents.
Routine church attendance and rituals give structure and stability and support for major life transitions – baptism, marriage & death. Church meetings can be intensely joyful – singing, dancing, speaking in tongues – and produce ecstatic, emotionally intense experiences, always interpreted s godly. Evangelism and conversions, especially behind “enemy” lines, can be exciting. Perceiving mysterious, hidden dimensions of God in ordinary events is a thrilling “insider” experience.
Fundamentalism relieves the anxiety of living an accidental life in an indifferent universe. It argues that the world is not chaotic, that there is order. It removes ambiguity and uncertainty. It claims that father God has everything under control. It promises a beautiful dream of an eternal paradise.
Salvation brings forgiveness and acceptance by God. Being personally loved as a favored child is powerful. However, it depends on God, not inherent self-worth. If you leave the belief system, you lose your acceptance.
Religious groups provide a structure for community, social action and meaningful service to others.
Fundamentalism promises mastery of life, personal power and happiness through no effort at character development but only through God’s grace. It’s an appealing shortcut.. Although Satan’s power is stronger than human power, God’s power will win in the end. Being on the winning team and having access to supernatural power are extremely enticing. Fundamentalism appeals to the most basic human desire for eternal survival. It imagines a final spectacular military victory and spoils to the victors. God will even eventually punish all your enemies.
Of course, all families train their children according to their beliefs. Some child-rearing approaches emphasize nurturing the inherent good in a child. Fundamentalism believes harsh methods are required to overcome inherent evil and civilize the child. Children born into fundamentalist families are engulfed in a world view from birth. Children are unable to question or challenge any parental beliefs because their survival depends on not alienating their caregivers. And they are usually surrounded by a religious community that provides a distinct subculture with a common language, belief system and behavioral code. Children have nowhere to turn for alternative viewpoints.
The most powerful brainwashing technique is terror and powerlessness. Fundamentalism exaggerates the dangers of life and disempowers people to meet their own needs except through religious dogma. Fundamentalism uses the threat of an eternal hell, a terrifying Satan, and an imminent Apocalypse to control people’s behavior. There is no escape from perpetual scrutiny by an invisible but universal spy. The threat of sudden death and not being ready to meet their maker keeps people in line. According to Scripture, Jesus said two thousand years ago that he was coming “soon.” The need for continual, eternal vigilance of an ominous event is stressful. Children are especially vulnerable because of their vivid imaginations and immature reasoning.
Numerous world events have been proposed for centuries as evidence of an imminent “judgment day.” Some believe “once saved, always saved,” but even that belief brings the anxiety of whether you were ever truly saved. Other believers think salvation requires unending effort. Salvation rarely brings a permanent sense of security and serenity.
An impending Apocalypse also has other unfortunate consequences because it leads many Christians to ignore environmental concerns, global climate change and peace initiatives. Exploitation of the earth is valued. Fundamentalists have no motivation to improve or protect the world or even to plan for their own future because all is doomed anyway. Some even welcome catastrophic events and wars and refuse individual life planning in a potentially devastating self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another powerful fear is “sinning against the Holy Spirit.” Some Christians think they can never be forgiven for refusing to accept the teachings of their religion (apostasy). When does doubt become apostasy? Even wrong thoughts can doom a believer. Some religious denominations prohibit TV, movies, mixed bathing, or women’s haircuts to avoid any possible slip ups. The ambiguity of what constitutes a sin and the enormous penalty for error keeps some Christians in perpetual insecurity and anguish.
Fundamentalism indoctrinates followers with intense fear of the world outside their own group. New converts often have left lives of drug addiction, crime, suicidal depression, and other kinds of desperation, and that reinforces a view of life without Christ. The thought of leaving the fundamentalist fold brings phobic anxiety and panic. In addition, Satan and his demons are said to always be lurking just outside the protection of Jesus.
Believers are also taught that the only reason anyone would leave the group is that they couldn’t cut it. They weren’t serious enough, good enough, etc. Any “failure” is all the leaver’s fault. Or it’s simply a desire to sin without consequences.
Guilt is another common emotional weapon. Jesus died for you and your sins, so if you aren’t saved, his death was for nothing. Once saved, you have the responsibility to save others. Some see evangelism as their only reason to remain on earth. Preaching or “witnessing” to others requires a strong belief to avoid cognitive dissonance, so it’s a powerful reinforcer of fundamentalist dogma.
Fundamentalists are expected to live without sin. Since this is impossible because so much is considered sinful, they must continually repent and acknowledge their depravity. They are always responsible for their sins, but never for good things. Only God gets credit for anything good. Wanting to do things that feel good is considered selfish – another sin. The pattern of indulgence and remorse is a pattern of addiction. The stress of this pattern can cause headaches, back pain, sleeplessness, and other stress symptoms. Any coping alternatives outside the religious dogma are forbidden as blasphemy.
Most fundamentalist groups use music, prayers, repetitive preaching styles, symbols, and other mesmerizing rituals to create mystical trance experiences. Some preachers get very good at hypnotic induction methods that encourage inward focus and blocking of outward sensing. Emotional intensity alternating with quieting techniques of bowed heads, closed eyes, and soft music are powerful and very effective methods to increase suggestibility.
People already struggling with their lives are the most vulnerable to the message that everything about them is flawed and they must be rescued by God. They cannot trust their own thoughts, feelings, desires, or judgment. Once a person believes this, they will believe anything. No fable or fairy tale or ancient superstition is too nonsensical, contradictory or offensive to modern understanding to believe. Ideas that would never be accepted as justice today – such as, punishing an innocent person in place of the guilty, requiring a blood sacrifice for wrongdoing or to placate God, inheriting a parent’s or grandparent’s misbehavior, or punishing people who do not know right from wrong – are to be blindly accepted without question.
Fundamentalist devotees must discredit knowledge and evidence that contradicts their religious dogma. Dinosaur bones and carbon-1 dating are said to have been planted by God to test Christian faith. Believers must discredit what they can see in front of them but never question a God who is dishonest and deliberately deceptive. Fundamentalists are encouraged to remain aloof from the world because it is considered irrelevant and only temporary. When worldly knowledge appears to be reasonable, it is even more suspect as a temptation by Satan. To be worldly is sinful.
Conformity within the group is strongly reinforced. Questions and doubts are discouraged, criticized or even punished. Socializing is restricted to other believers. Going it alone or socializing outside the religious group is unacceptable. The only respected source of knowledge is the authority of God and the Bible. Truth is not “found,” it is “revealed.” Facts are irrelevant. Fundamentalists must only trust and obey. Information is highly restricted and controlled. Independent thinking is vigorously discouraged. Fundamentalism is a closed system of circular reasoning and tautologies. If good things happen, God is blessing you. If bad things happen, God is teaching you. Any problems you have are your own fault.
Words are redefined. Wisdom can come only from divine revelation. Human wisdom is foolish and wicked. Truth means correct scriptural doctrine, not facts or evidence. Love of God means obedience. Human love is frail and fickle. Happiness means being closer to God, even if that requires suffering. Therefore, happiness may mean suffering. Since personal pleasure is suspect, happiness is closer in definition to serenity. Words are given superstitious power because some are blasphemous.
Rigid religions produce judgment, discrimination and persecution of “others.” Dogma is always divisive. It defines the “in” group from the “out” group. While religious faith can satisfy core needs for security, meaning & community, eventually it results in disconnecting from self, people & the world.
Religious indoctrination combines with individual temperament, family dysfunction, social influences, life events and transitions, etc, to cause various types of psychological damage – anxiety, confusion, anger, depression, low self-esteem, etc.
Deciding to Leave
As human beings mature, most change, grow and become more complex. Adults learn to accept ambiguity and uncertainty. Moving out of a rigid religion may be part of this process. A restrictive religion may prevent developing critical thinking and trusting your own feelings. Fundamentalism is an example of arrested development. The good news is that maturity can develop once obstructions are removed.
Exposure to new information and ways of thinking may make old ways intolerable. Acquiring an open mind can be very enlightening and freeing. Christianity does not have a monopoly on truth. Life can be more enjoyable without constant censorship. Self-esteem, meaning and love can be found outside of religion.
A literal and inerrant view of the Bible creates serious problems. The Bible is filled with over generalizations; conflicts with science; internal contradictions and inconsistencies; moral difficulties of an angry, vengeful, deceptive God; and moral difficulties with original sin, the slaughter of innocent people, endless torture in hell, slavery, rape of female war victims, and ethnic intolerance. The Bible “borrows” many of its teachings and practices from other cultures. Our current Bible is written in hundreds of versions and is a rather arbitrary combination of numerous inclusions and exclusions of various ancient writings.
Rigid, authoritarian, black/white thinking becomes intolerable. Fundamentalist attitudes toward sex and pleasure seem archaic. Intolerance of a myriad of “others” becomes indefensible. Male dominance, patriarchy and sexism become unbearable.
Expectations of huge benefits of Christianity – love, joy, peace, abundance, mastery of life – bring depression and self-condemnation when not fulfilled. Many ordinary human foibles may be considered unacceptable by the church community, and lead to rejection or ostracism. Hypocrisy among church and family members can be faith-shattering. Stress, anxiety and depression are common consequences.
Leaving your faith can cause profound sadness and grief for lost time and opportunities, rage at being misled, fear of being thought gullible for former beliefs. However, leaving may also bring joy, freedom and relief.
Part 2 of this article explains what to expect and what to do once you have decided that staying in your faith is intolerable. Leaving can be a very difficult process but well worth the struggle.