Throughout my experiences working with others, I have encountered an alarming number of individuals that have the same stories regarding their religious upbringing. I must start out by saying that what I am about to write is not a criticism of religion and that my personal beliefs are irrelevant to the discussion. I am simply pointing out that I am witnessing the effects of what may be well intended lessons but is often too much for a developing mind to comprehend objectively. Christianity is the foundation from which most of these individuals were taught; therefore I will be using it to provide specific examples. In no way am I speculating that all Christians share their beliefs in a harmful or destructive manner.
Okay, so let’s start with the science. The logical/intellectual level of the brain is not fully developed until the mid-late twenties. This means that children do not have the same ability to think abstractly, to comprehend the difference of context or to grasp complex ideas as a mature adult. This is a crucial part of their development because most of their ideas about themselves and the world are formed by the age of twelve. They can be altered, but not without some difficulty. When young children are taught about God, their thinking is very absolute. “If you do not accept Jesus into your heart, you will go to Hell.” Simple. Done. “If you have sex before marriage, you are going to Hell.” Okay. Got it. “Sin is bad. God hates sin.” Yep, easy enough. “God sees everything you do. He knows what’s in your heart”. Oh, okay. “To doubt or question God’s existence is a sin and you will go to hell.” Yikes, okay. “All of your friends that don’t believe in Jesus are going to hell.” Oh man. “You must do everything to remain pure in the eyes of God. This means not only in action but in thought.” Wow, that’s a tall order. Can you see how I started with only negative teachings? I’m sure you have heard the phrase “Fire and Brimstone”. Some people use fear as a way to stress the importance of believing in God and it will definitely get the 10 year olds on their knees, asking Jesus into their hearts! But let’s take a look at what can happen next for the youngsters that now have these beliefs etched into their psyche.
*As you read these, fight the urge to insert logic where you see that it is lacking. Remember, we are looking at the experience from an underdeveloped mind.*
Six year old Nathan is in Sunday school when he hears his teacher say that the only way to go to heaven is to believe in Jesus Christ and to doubt his existence is wrong. He tries to process this in his head because, he does NOT want to go to hell. He silently asks Jesus into his heart over and over, but doesn’t feel any different afterward. “How do I know if it worked?” he thinks. “What if he’s not in there? I can’t ask anyone because then I will be doubting God and everyone will know.” Nathan continues to struggle with knowing whether he has been “saved” or not. He is silently terrified that he is going to Hell and has no idea how to make sure that God is in his heart. He continues to pray but does not feel a connection. He follows the teachings of the church and does his best to not let anyone know that he has no idea what he believes in and as a result, feels different from his peers. He has accepted the idea that he is not good enough and that something is wrong with him and it permeates all areas of his life.
When seven year old Sarah goes to a slumber party at her best friend’s house, she wakes up to find her friend’s 16 year old brother coaxing her to come into his bedroom. She does so, because she has no reason not to trust him. He proceeds to sexually abuse her and swears her to secrecy. Sarah is now left to figure out how to handle this experience on her own. She fears telling her parents because she believes that what happened was her fault because she went into his room. She feels dirty and impure. She knows that she is now going to hell because of what she did and is ashamed that God must know what happened. She decides to take this secret to her grave and to never let anyone know of how sinful and dirty she is. She becomes ashamed of herself and stops praying because she knows God hates her.
Fifteen year old Jason is active in his church’s youth program and has a strong belief in God. Despite seeing the blessings in his life, Jason often feels down and lethargic. He isolates in his room when he is home and cannot shake his feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. He contemplates suicide and immediately feels guilt for doing so. Jason reaches out to his father and asks to see a doctor. Jason’s father told him that he did not need a doctor and that all he needed to do was pray. His father stated that if Jason’s spiritual program was healthy then he would not feel this way. Jason continued to suffer in silence, begging God for relief and feeling ashamed of himself for failing God by not being able to overcome his depression.
Seventeen year old Mary is in love with her boyfriend. She knows that they will be together forever and that he is the greatest gentleman to ever walk the earth. One night, Mary and her boyfriend are at a friend’s house when they find themselves alone in the room. One thing led to another and before her brain could catch up with her biological response, they were having sex. Mary was riddled with shame and humiliation afterward. She knew she would be going to hell and felt terrified and alone. As time progressed, she became angry at God and began to rebel against the beliefs that she used to hold true; she began binge drinking and stepped away from her relationship with God entirely.
Now you may be thinking, “Okay, but the church teaches about God’s salvation and mercy and how you are not going to hell IF you seek Jesus….” And you’re right! But here’s the thing: The churches and/or individuals I am discussing are the ones that lead with the fear-based message. They intend to motivate people with the fear that if they do not do something, there will be consequences. Parents will even use the idea of hell as a way to get children to behave and learn what is right and wrong. This can lead to young minds fearing God and seeing Him as punitive and damning. We established that the last thing to fully develop in the brain is the intellectual thinking, so it is understandable that some children are unable to conceptualize the balance of sin and redemption when they are warned of Hell as a result of their actions and are less often reminded of the safety, compassion, grace and love that comes with a relationship with God.
By the time the individuals get to me, they tend to be one of three things: adamant that God does not exist, convinced that they are worthless and bad in the eyes of God, or so angry with God that they cannot address it. These types of experiences can produce a subconscious belief in the realm of “I am not good enough”, “I am a failure”, “I am inherently bad”, “I am unlovable” or “I am alone”. Inherent worthiness wasn’t stressed for these individuals when they were learning about Hell. They did not learn that sinning makes them human, as opposed to “bad”. The pressure that they felt to be sinless, pure and Godly was so overwhelming that, at some point, they decided they had failed God. That is HEAVY. We are talking about the value of your soul, your purpose on this planet, your afterlife destination, etc. It does not matter that they have the facts about Christianity a bit skewed or have taken them out of context, their perspective is all that matters. The fundamentals that they learned as a child that define their place in life are what matter. It’s pretty terrifying and sometimes even impossible to function in society when you have a rock solid belief that you are not good enough and that you are alone.
The idea of inherent worth: the notion that you deserve abundance and peace just because you were born, is one that many people did not learn. It is never too late to learn this truth and accept it as your own, but if you are anything like these individuals, you are going to have to tear down a lot of old beliefs in order to do so. I decided to write about this for two reasons: to perhaps share some perspective on the effects of fear-based teachings and to hopefully share insight and hope with those that have experienced organized religion in a similar way. I don’t care what you believe in regards to a higher power; what is important to me is that your beliefs foster self-love, hope, compassion, courage and security. I am intensely passionate about helping individuals untangle their beliefs and religious-based emotional trauma to find their peace.