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Shedding Light on the Shadows of Oppressive Religious Upbringings..

I In Northern Ireland there is plenty of evidence for poor mental health connected to living in communities which have experienced political violence, tension and deprivation. A fellow counsellor in one such area of Belfast tells me that many individuals who come to see him have lived for years with trauma.

However, I would argue that one other cause of poor mental health in our society is ‘unhealthy religion’. I am referring not just to the legacy of a repressive Irish Catholic upbringing though there are films, novels and biographies which testify to this as well as the painful stories told to therapists in the confidential space of the counselling room. While I am interested in religious trauma whatever its source, I am especially drawn to traumatic Protestant experiences.

Unhealthy religion occurs where a sect or denomination holds tight control over the emotional freedom of its adherents, insisting on a prescribed lifestyle, tied to unquestionable theological ‘certainties’. Unhealthy faith communities can be found in ‘new churches’ where excessive power is often exercised by an unchallenged leadership as well as featuring in exclusive and traditional denominations.

Religion of this kind is often reinforced by the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment for those who turn their backs on the narrow path of ‘true faith’. An ‘irrefutable’ selection of Bible texts is used to ‘prove’ God’s anger with ‘sinners.’ And there may be reinforcement of this message by means of teachings on a sudden ‘Second Coming’ in which believers are destined to taken ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ to heaven – and everyone else is left to face the coming Armageddon.


Those who are aware of the politically aligned trajectory of American Evangelicalism know that these fundamentalist views have huge currency in the USA where they have been coupled in recent years with a doctrine of Biblically foretold ‘end times’ involving a last great conflagration in the Middle East.

The influence of American religion on Ulster Protestantism has often been important, dating back to the import of revivalism in the 19th century and the role of charismatic evangelist JP Nicholson who brought the fundamentalism which he had absorbed in the Bible Institute of Los Angeles to the troubled streets of 1920s Belfast.

So it should not surprise anyone that American evangelists and American church formats can still bolster local patterns of faith.


But it is the negative impact on mental health which allows us to name many religious communities as ’unhealthy’. And the mental health problems can start for a young person when the enclosed spaces of a strictly policed faith meet the complications of adult life.

Often, it is the arrival of sexual impulse that is a destabilising factor. An adolescent who grows up in a fundamentalist home may come to regard their own sexual awakening as suspect or even damnable; sex can be secretly or shamefully indulged or else diverted into the ‘respectable’ channel of Christian marriage or banished from self-scrutiny only to re-emerge in later years as corrosive disappointment, depression, anxiety, relationship breakdown or physical ill-heath.

A key factor for many who end up damaged by a ‘high control’ religious upbringing is the childhood fear that caregivers are going to be whisked away to heaven when Christ’s returns, leaving the child alone to face the rule of the Antichrist. This terror can spark episodic panic attacks or a lifelong separation anxiety.

Deciding to ‘get saved’ is the Protestant fundamentalist pathway to heaven, rather than baptism and church membership, and many young people in ‘Christian homes’ have struggled desperately to pray the right prayer and feel authentic feelings of regeneration. Permanent existential insecurity can result. Indeed some individuals fear that because they lack assurance about their ‘born again’ status they have committed an unpardonable sin, predestined to remain outside the fold.

Other people who were not raised in a ‘high control’ environment can be drawn towards an authoritarian sect or denomination in later life. Very often this is a response to life’s dilemmas and sorrows. Yet as time goes by, converts can become disillusioned, witnessing corruption or infighting in their spiritual home; they may also feel reluctant to make the sacrificial commitment to the group which is often required. However withdrawal causes stress, regret, the bitter break up of friendships and the dissolution of morale.


However, no therapist who deals with religious trauma can ignore the reality that a deeply held belief system can be a source of succour and purpose. If religious certainties are manifested in a secure and loving home they can bring great stability to a growing child – at least for a while. It is also true that many individuals have been enabled as adults by the sudden discovery of a vibrant faith community. Many who do eventually quit such an environment still feel drawn to the pervasive solace that they once knew.

It is also clear that for many people who face the pain of emotional exile from a much-loved family and warm friendship group, the prospect of honesty is too awful. So they take the path of least resistance, living what they know will be a life dogged by the unsaid and the unlived.

In this article, I have not focused on what is commonly thought of as ‘religious abuse’ – by which I mean highly coercive behaviour, sustained physical punishment or sexual violation sanctioned by religious faith. In such a case it takes courage to name the abuser and face the elongated legal process that may lead to justice. Working with the victim of such violations is a specialised therapeutic task. However, I’d want to argue that religious abuse can also take the forms which I have outlined above, implanting the pain of self-repudiation in the human breast.


There is, I believe, such a thing as healthy religion. For me a healthy community of faith does not seek to impose stark religious structures on the slowly forming inner world of the child. It is also a community that exhibits confident if sober awareness of the wider world which that young person will face, which is often secular or non-Christian in its practice.

In a benign community, the life of the individual is not subservient to the collective life of the group and the power of leadership is accountable and transparent. The Bible, with all its ancient origins and complex structure, is not used as a stern or simplistic daily rule book in such communities. There is also an understanding that practical outcomes rather than words constitute the best measure of faith – as the Quaker leader George Fox once exhorted his followers, ‘Let your lives speak’.

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