Religion, in all its diversity, has a vast range of effects on people. For some, the interaction between religion and the individual is very positive. Religious beliefs bring them hope, peace, and a stable optimism that helps them to become caring and compassionate people. There are many ways to explain this, of course. It may be that these people are just kind people, and would be so with or without religion. Or, it may be that religion creates this kindness and stability within them. What is most likely, though, is that it is a combination of both: These people are naturally predisposed to being kind people, and religion both encourages this and provides ways to manifest these positive qualities. If this is the case, religion can have very positive effects for these people.
But of course, religion can reveal a darker side as well. In some people, it brings out anger, hatred, bigotry, division, and greed. With religious wars throughout history, the hatred espoused by the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), the violence that results from drawing pictures of Mohammed, and the greed of duplicitous televangelists, it is clear that religion can be tightly linked with these negative effects. And of course, the same model is likely true here too: These people may have a predisposition towards these qualities, but they can draw on religious principles to enhance and manifest them. Religion, it seems, can be associated with both good and ill.
But my point is not to claim that one side is “right” and the other side is “wrong” about what religion is or isn’t. What I would like to do is to discuss my own experiences with religion, and how coming to understand human psychology made me realize that religion can be very destructive for individuals with certain inclinations. Just like some people can use alcohol for pleasant social interactions while others spiral downward into alcoholism, the interaction between individual psychology and a given phenomenon is important to recognize. For some people, religion can be an unhealthy and negative experience, even if they truly believe in God and the existence of some blissful afterlife. It’s quite possible that some religious people will recoil at this and instinctively move into defensive mode. But I don’t wish to discuss whether this is the “right” way to interpret such-and-such a scriptural passage. I’m not talking about truth here; I’m talking about people’s perceptions. Whatever the “right” way is, people do approach religion from different angles, and some angles can prove disastrous. I want to talk about the intersection of religion and human psychology here.
My Own Experience
Growing up within the church and believing in the words of the Bible thoroughly, I would be the first to tell you that Christianity brought me hope and joy. The knowledge that God loved me was inspiring to me, and brought me peace. But such a message was not the whole truth. It was a message which had been force-fed to me for years. I was told that this was the “right” way to experience religion, and that if I didn’t experience supreme love and joy at thinking about God’s plan of salvation, I was doing something wrong. When waves of sadness or anxiety hit me, it must be simply the case that I was dwelling too much on fleeting earthly events and needed to turn my direction heavenward. Instead of being encouraged to find peace within myself and creating stability in my surroundings, I was informed that true happiness and peace could not be found on earth, but that it must come down from God himself.
Such a message was one that I continually forced myself to believe. It did not come easy to me. When all one’s joy and peace come from one source, being cut off from that source can be devastating. And when I sinned, the guilt became intense. While I would repeat to myself that God still loved me and had already forgiven me, that just meant that the guilt I was feeling was the result of my own inability to accept that truth. The fact that I fell into a cycle of perpetual sin and confession added to the guilt. God may have forgiven me, but once I had prayed to him for the thousandth time to forgive me for X, it was difficult not to blame myself for the perpetual failure. Each defeat merely made me put myself in the hands of God further, as it became impossible for me to stop myself from feeling shame at praying, “God, here I am to ask for forgiveness again…” God was my sole source of comfort, as I repeated to myself over and over again that he had forgiven me already, and I just needed to let go and accept that. And of course, since God was supposed to be my sole source of comfort and deliverance, this was somehow supposed to be a good thing. But continual guilt and shame at perpetual defeat and failure was not a healthy way to live.
The reactions to this from religious readers will be numerous. Some may merely utter words of disbelief or incomprehension at such guilt. Others may claim I didn’t trust God completely enough, and that the joy was lacking because I held something back from him. Still others may point out other ways in which I did something “wrong” in how I thought, behaved, etc. But stop analyzing me for a second. As I noted at the beginning, this is not about the “right” or “wrong” way to interpret religion. It’s about the way that religion interacts with certain personality types. And for me, it seems my personality clashed in a major way with religion. Let me draw from a few areas of psychology to demonstrate my point.
Back in 1958, a psychologist named Fritz Heider introduced attribution theory. It has since been expanded and refined, but his formulation of the theory is particularly relevant for my purposes. Essentially, attributions are explanations of the causes of behaviours or events. When something occurs, we spontaneously come up with an explanation for why it happened. If I do well on a test, for example, I may say it is because I am naturally gifted in that area, or because the test was easy, or because I studied hard for it, or because I drank an extra cup of coffee that morning and was very alert. However, people tend to develop fairly regular patterns of how they explain events. Someone who is narcissistic may generally attribute everything to how amazing they are. Everything good that happens is because they are a certified genius, and everything bad that happens is somebody else’s fault. Someone with low self-esteem, on the other hand, may attribute negative events to their own stupidity or character flaws, and good events to the actions of others. One of the dimensions that Heider proposed was internal vs. external attributions. If something is perceived to be a result of my actions or qualities, that is an internal attribution; if something is perceived to be a result of forces outside of myself, that is an external attribution. And the degree to which we attribute good and bad events to ourselves or others has enormous effects on how we act, on how we think, and on how we perceive future events.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this. In my Christian past, I developed a distinct tendency to attribute most good events to God, and most bad events to myself. Even if I did something right—like helping out another person for completely unselfish reasons—I simply said, “Look what God is doing in my life!” But if I failed, or sinned, that was my own wrongdoing. I blamed myself for screwing up yet again. So, for good events, I made an external attribution, and for bad events, I made an internal attribution.
But this pattern of attributions is simply unhealthy. People who consistently blame themselves for all their screw-ups and never credit themselves for their successes become consumed with guilt, shame, and defeat. They undercut their sense of self-worth and destroy their self-esteem. And of course, changing this mindset is not a simple case of pointing out the good things they’ve done. Once they fall into this pattern, they become skilled at making excuses for it, as I did with giving all the credit to God. I couldn’t even say, “Look at how I’ve improved!” It was always, “Look how God improved me!” On the surface, I was being a good Christian by relying on God, but inside I was unknowingly eroding my own confidence and ability to act in a healthy way at all.
The Abusive Boyfriend
There’s another way in which this can be viewed. In some ways, a relationship with God can become somewhat like a relationship with an abusive boyfriend.1 Abusive relationships often have similar patterns of positive and negative attributions. The abused partner will often make positive attributions to the abusive partner and excuse bad behaviour: “Deep down he’s a kind person, but he has a drinking problem.” And sometimes the abused partner will often blame themselves for the abuse: “I shouldn’t have made him angry like that.” This pattern of attributions mixed with the power the abuser has over them often leads abused individuals to return to the relationship again and again. They really do love the person, and without them they feel lost or worthless.
To draw out the analogy between a relationship with God and a relationship with an abusive partner, I’d like to share some of the signs of an abusive relationship that were mentioned on this website:
1. “Jealousy & Possessiveness – Becomes jealous over your family, friends, co-workers. Tries to isolate you. Views his woman and children as his property instead of as unique individuals. Accuses you of cheating or flirting with other men without cause. Always asks where you’ve been and with whom in an accusatory manner.”
The words of Exodus 20:4-6 seem relevant here: “You shall not make for yourself an idol…You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” God commands your total respect. Repeatedly, he accused the Israelites of worshipping other Gods and threatened to destroy them as a result. This passage suggests that his love is contingent on our devotion, and this message was repeated by Jesus: “‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Phrased in the opposite direction, it becomes this: “If you don’t keep my commandments, you don’t really love me.”
2. “Control – He is overly demanding of your time and must be the center of your attention. He controls finances, the car, and the activities you partake in. Becomes angry if woman begins showing signs of independence or strength.”
God demands complete control over your entire life. James 4:7 states, “Submit yourselves therefore to God.” Ephesians 5:22-24 notes that Christ is the head of the church, and states that in the same way that wives should be subject to their husbands, the church should be subject to Christ. We are continually told to submit, to be obedient, to be humble, and to fear God. And pastors often tell their congregation to “keep God at the centre of your lives.” We are told to cede control of our finances, our activities, our relationships, and so on and “give it all to God.” Being wholly dependent on God is seen as a virtue.
3. “Superiority – He is always right, has to win or be in charge. He always justifies his actions so he can be ‘right’ by blaming you or others. A verbally abusive man will talk down to you or call you names in order to make himself feel better. The goal of an abusive man is to make you feel weak so they can feel powerful. Abusers are frequently insecure and this power makes them feel better about themselves.”
Proverbs 3:5 states, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” And while God perhaps doesn’t call us “names”, the common epithet that Paul used to describe himself, “servant” or “slave” of God, is not exactly uplifting. As a child, I learned a song that included the lyrics, “I am weak but he is strong.” When Job is questioning what purpose God could possibly have had for allowing him to suffer and lose all that he held dear, God answers him by saying this: “Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” (Job 40:7-9). God then continues on for a chapter and a half about how awesome and powerful he is, and how lowly and insignificant Job is. At the end of it, he has Job groveling on the ground, saying “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Does this sound like a healthy relationship? If this were a husband and wife, would you think that they were treating each other with mutual love and respect? This passage led singer David Bazan to suggest, “When Job asked you the question / You responded, ‘Who are you / To challenge your creator?’ / Well if that one part is true / It makes you sound defensive / Like you had not thought it through / Enough to have an answer / Like you might have bit off / More than you could chew” (In Stitches).
4. “Manipulates – Tells you you’re crazy or stupid so the blame is turned on you. Tries to make you think that it’s your fault he is abusive. Says he can’t help being abusive so you feel sorry for him and you keep trying to ‘help’ him. Tells others you are unstable.”
It is difficult to show this one directly. Obviously, the Bible has a general pro-God bias to it, so it generally doesn’t depict him as “manipulative”. At least, not any more than a guy who created people with free will and then continually interferes with it to make sure that things happen the way he wants them to happen. But as I mentioned above, some religious people may very easily make the attribution to blame themselves for their failures and for God’s punishment. Even when the Bible acknowledges our worth and special status, it is always done in reference to God’s view of things. We are special because God formed us and saved us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:8-10). It’s not because we have any inherent worth. It’s only because God did something to make us special.
7. “Punishes you – An emotionally abusive man may withhold sex, emotional intimacy, or plays the ‘silent game’ as punishment when he doesn’t get his way. He verbally abuses you by frequently criticizing you.”
It’s clear that God punishes. That’s made very apparent all throughout the Bible. But does he withhold things from us to get what he wants? The Bible does say that he does not withhold good things, but look at the verse: “No good thing does the Lord withhold
from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11, emphasis mine). In other words, he won’t withhold anything, but only if we are obedient. If we mess up, he will (and has the right to) withhold things from us. And as I noted earlier (point #1), in some cases it seems that God’s love is contingent on our obedience. If we don’t do the right thing and obey him, he is under no obligation to give us anything good. And anything he does give us is an act of extreme generosity and benevolence on his behalf.
8. “Unwilling to seek help – An abusive man doesn’t think there is anything wrong with him so why should he seek help? Does not acknowledge his faults or blames it on his childhood or outside circumstances.”
Well, this seems pretty straight-forward, does it not? The Bible declares God to be righteous over and over again. In the book of Job, Elihu declares, “…far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong…. Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice” (Job 34:10,12). God has no faults, no sin, no evil, and many Christians would say this is the case by definition. So anything bad that happens to you could never be his fault. If it’s not his fault, maybe it’s yours.
Let me reiterate that I don’t think it is the “right” (or “wrong”) interpretation to see God as an abusive boyfriend. But for some people, with a certain personality and certain ways of seeing things, it seems that they may very easily fall into a similar pattern as those people who continually return to abusive relationships. It is not at all difficult for them to see God in this way. When a person believes that their sole source of all happiness and peace comes from one source, when all good things that happen to them come from one person, and when they believe they need that person to stop themselves from doing bad things, it is any wonder that they wind up coming back to that person again and again? And if such attributions are not healthy, they wind up in a destructive relationship that is nevertheless strongly reinforced by a community which tells them that this is exactly what they should be doing. If they are totally dependent on God for everything, they’re doing something right. If they feel lost and worthless without him, they are thinking correctly. And they are told that they have a “God-shaped hole” in their heart—that the purpose of all humanity is to serve and love God no matter what comes of it. The church community locks them into an unhealthy way of viewing the world, where they are their own worst enemy, continually failing over and over again and being rescued by God like a helpless animal. Instead of acknowledging that they are capable of doing good things, that they are actually kind and caring people, they begin to believe (and are told outright!) that they are evil sinners that are incapable of doing anything right without God.
Even if God is up there and completely in charge, it still doesn’t seem like a healthy way to see the world. A loving God who created humans with free will should have at least installed within us the capacity to do good of our own volition—without needing to remain a perpetual infant, with our sky-daddy continually looking over our shoulder to correct our many mistakes. Even a God with supreme power does not need to be a person who holds that over our heads like a supreme dictator. Some religious people are healthy, well-adjusted adults. But some seem locked away in mental childhood, with an abusive father or boyfriend who punishes them for being human. Unable to take any credit for their good deeds, they are continually plagued by a sense of failure. When religion interacts with people predisposed to this sort of mindset, it seems a situation ripe for disaster. Unfortunately, I only realized it once I left religion. Some who remain within its confines may never realize it at all.
- Again, I’m not claiming that all religious people have this sort of mindset. But it happens with some people. [↩]