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IEET > Rights > FreeThought > Personhood > Life > Access > Health > Vision > CyborgBuddha > Contributors > Valerie Tarico

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Religious Trauma Syndrome: How Some Organized Religion Leads to Mental Health Problems


Valerie Tarico
By Valerie Tarico
Away Point

Posted: Mar 26, 2013

At age sixteen I began what would be a four year struggle with bulimia.  When the symptoms started, I turned in desperation to adults who knew more than I did about how to stop shameful behavior—my Bible study leader and a visiting youth minister.  “If you ask anything in faith, believing,” they said.  “It will be done.” I knew they were quoting the Word of God. We prayed together, and I went home confident that God had heard my prayers.

Religious Trauma Syndrome- AnguishBut my horrible compulsions didn’t go away. By the fall of my sophomore year in college, I was desperate and depressed enough that I made a suicide attempt. The problem wasn’t just the bulimia.  I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn’t fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God. It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.

Marlene Winell portraitDr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. She is also the daughter of Pentecostal missionaries. This combination has given her work an unusual focus. For the past twenty years she has counseled men and women in recovery from various forms of fundamentalist religion including the Assemblies of God denomination in which she was raised. Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, written during her years of private practice in psychology. Over the years, Winell has provided assistance to clients whose religious experiences were even more damaging than mine. Some of them are people whose psychological symptoms weren’t just exacerbated by their religion, but actually caused by it.

Two years ago, Winell made waves by formally labeling what she calls “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) and beginning to write and speak on the subject for professional audiences. When the British Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychologists published a series of articles on the topic, members of a Christian counseling association protested what they called excessive attention to a “relatively niche topic.” One commenter said, “A religion, faith or book cannot be abuse but the people interpreting can make anything abusive.”

Is toxic religion simply misinterpretation? What is religious trauma? Why does Winell believe religious trauma merits its own diagnostic label?

Let’s start this interview with the basics. What exactly is religious trauma syndrome?

Winell: Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. The RTS label provides a name and description that affected people often recognize immediately. Many other people are surprised by the idea of RTS, because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. Just like telling kids about Santa Claus and letting them work out their beliefs later, people see no harm in teaching religion to children.

But in reality, religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. The public is somewhat familiar with sexual and physical abuse in a religious context. As Journalist Janet Heimlich has documented in, Breaking Their Will, Bible-based religious groups that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure and use harsh parenting methods can be destructive.

But the problem isn’t just physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.

Can you give me an example of RTS from your consulting practice?

Winell: I can give you many. One of the symptom clusters is around fear and anxiety. People indoctrinated into fundamentalist Christianity as small children sometimes have memories of being terrified by images of hell and apocalypse before their brains could begin to make sense of such ideas. Some survivors, who I prefer to call “reclaimers,” have flashbacks, panic attacks, or nightmares in adulthood even when they intellectually no longer believe the theology. One client of mine, who during the day functioned well as a professional, struggled with intense fear many nights. She said,

I was afraid I was going to hell. I was afraid I was doing something really wrong. I was completely out of control. I sometimes would wake up in the night and start screaming, thrashing my arms, trying to rid myself of what I was feeling. I’d walk around the house trying to think and calm myself down, in the middle of the night, trying to do some self-talk, but I felt like it was just something that – the fear and anxiety was taking over my life.

Or consider this comment, which refers to a film used by Evangelicals to warn about the horrors of the “end times” for nonbelievers.

 I was taken to see the film “A Thief In The Night”. WOW.  I am in shock to learn that many other people suffered the same traumas I lived with because of this film. A few days or weeks after the film viewing, I came into the house and mom wasn’t there. I stood there screaming in terror. When I stopped screaming, I began making my plan: Who my Christian neighbors were, who’s house to break into to get money and food. I was 12 yrs old and was preparing for Armageddon alone.

In addition to anxiety, RTS can include depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning. In fundamentalist Christianity, the individual is considered depraved and in need of salvation. A core message is “You are bad and wrong and deserve to die.” (The wages of sin is death.) This gets taught to millions of children through organizations like Child Evangelism Fellowship and there is a group organized  to oppose their incursion into public schools.  I’ve had clients who remember being distraught when given a vivid bloody image of Jesus paying the ultimate price for their sins. Decades later they sit telling me that they can’t manage to find any self-worth.

After twenty-seven years of trying to live a perfect life, I failed. . . I was ashamed of myself all day long. My mind battling with itself with no relief. . . I always believed everything that I was taught but I thought that I was not approved by God. I thought that basically I, too, would die at Armageddon.

I’ve spent literally years injuring myself, cutting and burning my arms, taking overdoses and starving myself, to punish myself so that God doesn’t have to punish me. It’s taken me years to feel deserving of anything good.

Born-again Christianity and devout Catholicism tell people they are weak and dependent, calling on phrases like “lean not unto your own understanding” or “trust and obey.” People who internalize these messages can suffer from learned helplessness. I’ll give you an example from a client who had little decision-making ability after living his entire life devoted to following the “will of God.” The words here don’t convey the depth of his despair.

I have an awful time making decisions in general. Like I can’t, you know, wake up in the morning, “What am I going to do today? Like I don’t even know where to start. You know all the things I thought I might be doing are gone and I’m not sure I should even try to have a career; essentially I babysit my four-year-old all day.

Authoritarian religious groups are subcultures where conformity is required in order to belong. Thus if you dare to leave the religion, you risk losing your entire support system as well.

I lost all my friends. I lost my close ties to family. Now I’m losing my country. I’ve lost so much because of this malignant religion and I am angry and sad to my very core. . . I have tried hard to make new friends, but I have failed miserably. . . I am very lonely.

Leaving a religion, after total immersion, can cause a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, and the future. People unfamiliar with this situation, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create.

My form of religion was very strongly entrenched and anchored deeply in my heart. It is hard to describe how fully my religion informed, infused, and influenced my entire worldview. My first steps out of fundamentalism were profoundly frightening and I had frequent thoughts of suicide. Now I’m way past that but I still haven’t quite found “my place in the universe.

Even for a person who was not so entrenched, leaving one’s religion can be a stressful and significant transition.

Many people seem to walk away from their religion easily, without really looking back. What is different about the clientele you work with?

Winell: Religious groups that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave easily. The difficulty seems to be greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert. This is because they have no frame of reference – no other “self” or way of “being in the world.” A common personality type is a person who is deeply emotional and thoughtful and who tends to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their endeavors. “True believers” who then lose their faith feel more anger and depression and grief than those who simply went to church on Sunday.

Aren’t these just people who would be depressed, anxious, or obsessive anyways?

Winell: Not at all. If my observation is correct, these are people who are intense and involved and caring. They hang on to the religion longer than those who simply “walk away” because they try to make it work even when they have doubts. Sometime this is out of fear, but often it is out of devotion. These are people for whom ethics, integrity and compassion matter a great deal. I find that when they get better and rebuild their lives, they are wonderfully creative and energetic about new things.

In your mind, how is RTS different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Winell: RTS is a specific set of symptoms and characteristics that are connected with harmful religious experience, not just any trauma. This is crucial to understanding the condition and any kind of self-help or treatment. (More details about this can be found on my Journey Free website and discussed in my talk at the Texas Freethought Convention.)

Another difference is the social context, which is extremely different from other traumas or forms of abuse. When someone is recovering from domestic abuse, for example, other people understand and support the need to leave and recover. They don’t question it as a matter of interpretation, and they don’t send the person back for more. But this is exactly what happens to many former believers who seek counseling. If a provider doesn’t understand the source of the symptoms, he or she may send a client for pastoral counseling, or to AA, or even to another church. One reclaimer expressed her frustration this way:

Include physically-abusive parents who quote “Spare the rod and spoil the child” as literally as you can imagine and you have one fucked-up soul: an unloved, rejected, traumatized toddler in the body of an adult. I’m simply a broken spirit in an empty shell. But wait…That’s not enough!? There’s also the expectation by everyone in society that we victims should celebrate this with our perpetrators every Christmas and Easter!!

Just like disorders such as autism or bulimia, giving RTS a real name has important advantages. People who are suffering find that having a label for their experience helps them feel less alone and guilty. Some have written to me to express their relief:

There’s actually a name for it! I was brainwashed from birth and wasted 25 years of my life serving Him! I’ve since been out of my religion for several years now, but i cannot shake the haunting fear of hell and feel absolutely doomed. I’m now socially inept, unemployable, and the only way i can have sex is to pay for it.

Labeling RTS encourages professionals to study it more carefully, develop treatments, and offer training. Hopefully, we can even work on prevention.

What do you see as the difference between religion that causes trauma and religion that doesn’t?

Winell: Religion causes trauma when it is highly controlling and prevents people from thinking for themselves and trusting their own feelings. Groups that demand obedience and conformity produce fear, not love and growth. With constant judgment of self and others, people become alienated from themselves, each other, and the world. Religion in its worst forms causes separation.

Conversely, groups that connect people and promote self-knowledge and personal growth can be said to be healthy. The book, Healthy Religion, describes these traits. Such groups put high value on respecting differences, and members feel empowered as individuals.  They provide social support, a place for events and rites of passage, exchange of ideas, inspiration, opportunities for service, and connection to social causes. They encourage spiritual practices that promote health like meditation or principles for living like the golden rule. More and more, nontheists are asking how they can create similar spiritual communities without the supernaturalism. An atheist congregation in London launched this year and has received over 200 inquiries from people wanting to replicate their model.

Some people say that terms like “recovery from religion” and “religious trauma syndrome” are just atheist attempts to pathologize religious belief.

Winell: Mental health professionals have enough to do without going out looking for new pathology. I never set out looking for a “niche topic,” and certainly not religious trauma syndrome. I originally wrote a paper for a conference of the American Psychological Association and thought that would be the end of it. Since then, I have tried to move on to other things several times, but this work has simply grown.

In my opinion, we are simply, as a culture, becoming aware of religious trauma.  More and more people are leaving religion, as seen by polls showing that the “religiously unaffiliated” have increased in the last five years from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. It’s no wonder the internet is exploding with websites for former believers from all religions, providing forums for people to support each other. The huge population of people “leaving the fold” includes a subset at risk for RTS, and more people are talking about it and seeking help.  For example, there are thousands of former Mormons, and I was asked to speak about RTS at an Exmormon Foundation conference.  I facilitate an international support group online called Release and Reclaim  which has monthly conference calls. An organization called Recovery from Religion, helps people start self-help meet-up groups

Saying that someone is trying to pathologize authoritarian religion is like saying someone pathologized eating disorders by naming them. Before that, they were healthy? No, before that we weren’t noticing. People were suffering, thought they were alone, and blamed themselves.  Professionals had no awareness or training. This is the situation of RTS today. Authoritarian religion is already pathological, and leaving a high-control group can be traumatic. People are already suffering. They need to be recognized and helped.

—-  Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion.  Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

Related:
Recovering from Religion? Give Yourself Time
From AwayPoint on Youtube: How Beliefs Change
The Fragile Boundary Between Religion and Child Abuse
Don’t Want Pro-Genocide Bible Lessons in Your Public School? Fight Back! Here’s How.
Ten Proofs That There is No God.


Dr. Valerie Tarico is a psychologist with a passion for personal and social evolution.  In 2005, she co-founded the Progress Alliance of Washington, a collective of future-oriented donors investing in progressive change.  She also is the founder of WisdomCommons.org, an interactive website that showcases humanity’s shared moral core via quotes, poetry, stories and essays from many traditions. Tarico’s book, Trusting Doubt:  A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light, offers personal insight into how we can apply “constructive curiosity” to our most closely guarded beliefs. 

As a social commentator, Tarico writes and speaks on issues ranging from religious fundamentalism to gender roles, to reproductive rights and technologies. A primary focus is on improving access to top tier contraceptive technologies.  To that end, she serves on the board of Advocates for Youth, a D.C. based nonprofit with wide-ranging programs related to reproductive health and justice.  Tarico co-chairs of Washington Women for Choice, serves on the Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest Board of Advocates, and is a Senior Writing Fellow at Sightline Institute, a think tank focused on sustainable prosperity. Her articles appear at sites including the Huffington Post, Jezebel, Salon, AlterNet, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and at her blog, AwayPoint


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COMMENTS


A good, clear article that differentiates between toxic and helpful religion. I did some training years ago that talked about spiritual abuse, which is more or less what Dr. Winell is talking about here. It is vitally important for people in the religious communities to be aware of the problem. It isn’t necessarily that this denomination or even this church is abusive. I have encountered programs within very healthy congregations that were spiritual abuse. They were run by one person or a small group and were not flagged by other leadership.





My only complaint is that the article proves too much.  Original Sin isn’t a “toxic teaching” if it can be revealed by nature, and if religion only identifies it and suggests its solution.  To claim that religion *creates* Original Sin is to place the rod in the hand of the taskmaster; something I think this article set out to decry.

So I don’t think Tarico really wants us to believe what she wrote; for if religion had the power to create Original Sin, it would have the power to create Redemption, and therefore wouldn’t be worth absconding.





Humanity never fell, Henry- there was no Garden of Eden where humanity fell in. Religion identifies it but offers no solution for the bulk of humanity—save for living in Christian intentional communities (suggested by the son of Irving Kristol). But Christians, no matter how pious, refuse to live outside the general population because they want to have their cake and want to eat it too; they want that old time religion yet they want modern gadgets, the want the modern life. “Sidesaddle on the Golden Calf”, which is doubleminded.
You can’t have it both ways… you cannot remain in the past psychically while living in the present materially. This, IMO, is where the doublething comes into play; I know because I’m attracted to the past—only difference is I know it, the religious do not.
You cannot serve two Masters, you have to eventually choose between the past and the present/future.





“if religion had the power to create Original Sin, it would have the power to create Redemption”


All of us are right on some matters, mistaken on others: you are right on the former (that religion postulates Original Sin) but are mistaken concerning the latter: there is no power to create Redemption- the only power is to create the illusion of Redemption; which is good enough to offer succor—nothing more.
We do not want to underestimate faith yet neither do we want to overestimate its power.
Problem I have with the religious is if I tell them I appreciate religion as escape (“opiate of the masses”), such does not play in Peoria; the religious want one to turn one’s life over to Christ.. it is all or nothing.
One cannot be 99 percent Christian. You don’t say to your wife you will be faithful 99 percent of the time; you don’t say to authorities you will obey laws 99 percent of the time; you don’t say to the manager of a market you’ll refrain from shoplifting 99 percent of the time- but you’ll steal once in a while. That is not acceptable.
Christian morality sets too high a moral bar; whereas Buddhism and Confucianism—for two examples—are more realistic re ethics. I mostly think of the charity work Christians do, for instance after a natural disaster the religious provide indispensable relief efforts.

You magnify faith too much, Henry





What religion creates is the dogma of Original Sin to explain why humans don’t improve morally. The humanists refer to it as our animal nature, some people as our instinctual or genetic nature. As Intomorrow says, it exists, what Original Sin attempts to explain is why. Like most such explanations it is only good so far, then it falls apart.

Original Sin becomes toxic when it is used to keep people within a group from doing anything that the group leaders tell them is bad. It is used to degrade and dehumanize. It becomes a trap rather than a release. The concept of Original Sin is a result of Augustine’s work, though you will find hints of it in the later epistles that pretend to be written by Paul. The authentic Paul is much earlier and is more interested in Grace. In fact both Paul and Jesus recognize the impossibility of living up to any ethical code so they emphasize intent and forgiveness rather than obedience to Law.

Again as Intomorrow states, you can’t be good just 99% of the time. The proper Christian faith recognized this reality and substitutes loving intent and grace for being perfect in this world. The idea of perfection in this world is actually a heresy. Thus Original Sin is supposed to function as a way to get rid of false guilt and deal with in a healthy way with the much smaller amount of real guilt that comes from the times we deliberately choose to harm another person.

Where faith comes in, and oddly it is very transhumanist, is that it is our faith that we can transcend what we are to become what we would like to be. The technology we use is building community through common goals and common music, meditation both on our weaknesses, but also on our strengths, passion to change the world.

It is unfortunate, again as Intomorrow says, that many Christians know as little about their own faith as they do about Buddhism or Islam or the rest. Which is to say, not a lot.





[Apologies:  this drifts off-topic]

Intomorrow, my question to you is how you know your interpretation of “in the world” vs. “of the world” is infallible.  In other words, it’s a hefty claim to set up the Christian faith as impossible to attempt from the word ‘go’.  Do you believe the Amish who ride buggies are living a legitimate faith more authentically?  I’m not asking rhetorically; I wish to understand why you find that important.  But as a corollary, from the indubitably eschatological implications of scriptural passages, what restricts spirituality, in your view, to a past-tense realm?





“Intomorrow, my question to you is how you know your interpretation of ‘in the world’ vs. ‘of the world’ is infallible.”

I do not know, but neither do Christians know if their interpretation of ‘in the world’ vs. ‘of the world’ is infallible—we are all the blind leading the blind. Again, the only difference between them and me is I know it, they don’t.

“it’s a hefty claim to set up the Christian faith as impossible to attempt from the word ‘go’.”

You might be right on this. Don’t know- if one doesn’t know, one doesn’t know.

“Do you believe the Amish who ride buggies are living a legitimate faith more authentically?”

No, they are only riding buggies, not living a legitimate faith more authentically; though it doesn’t appear they are hurting anyone outside their faith (what they do to those inside their faith is unknown to us). It can be said, though, that the Amish are not warmongers, they do not invade other nations. So we can say Amish are more spiritual—or at the very least less imperialist—than other faiths. Also true of Quakers, Jains, etc.

“from the indubitably eschatological implications of scriptural passages, what restricts spirituality, in your view, to a past-tense realm?”

Because I do not think anyone: not Karl Marx, John of Patmos, futurists, Edgar Cayce, Nostradamus, Jeane Dixon… can predict the future. Now, if Jesus Himself Returns to Earth to predict the future, that’s a different ball game. But until Jesus Returns, if He ever does, I will continue to think that no-one can predict the future.





I really appreciate this article.  I was “saved” at the film Thief in the Night at the age of 12 (38 years ago) and it formed a small part of my religious framework and viewpoint for much of my life that viewed God as something to be saved from rather than saved toward.

Since then, after 20 years in different forms of ministry as an ordained minister with training in counseling and MS level studies in a psychological field, I don’t blame religion for many issues that find their roots in that childhood (there was much more at work in several different areas) but I can clearly see not only how some of these teachings and beliefs were manipulated to bring about forms of abuse in my life but I have to concur that there are elements of some religious creeds that are in and of themselves toxic and harmful.  They also promote and create environments of hierarchical religious organizations and power that empower toxic and abusive leaders who seem to gravitate toward them as legitimate means to validate and exercise their abusive leadership practices.

No that doesn’t mean that all leaders are abusive or insincere in these contexts or that such abuses don’t occur in healthier religious environments, but I’d venture to say it’s a significant element.

I haven’t lost my faith through this, but as a result I’ve moved away from “religion” as an organized institutional expression of faith and toward spirituality which dwells upon experiential relationship with a God who is very different than the angry, wrathful and distant expression of God that some forms (not all) of organized religion appears to rely upon in order to co-opt fear of God to obedience of human dictates.





Canuckster, so far no one has demonstrated what makes a teaching “toxic” in itself.  Could you elaborate, or provide an example?  Per experiential relationships, I think that is precisely what’s at issue:  Dr. Tarico has not shown a difference between a creed being bad and one’s experience of its promulgation being bad, and I’m inclined to doubt first-person epistemological infallibility with regard to an objective teaching for the multitudes.





Henry,
you wont even write whether you believe in God yourself; your message is,

“I’m inclined to doubt first-person epistemological infallibility with regard to an objective teaching for the multitudes”;

meaning we are trapped in faith, as religion has existed for thousands of years and those at the bottom would be even more clueless than they are without faith. Scarcely a positive message.
You could also say without faith-based charity, State charity (welfare) would be astronomical in cost. You could mention how during natural disasters faith-based charity is sometimes indispensable.
What you are doing above is hiding behind philosophy: faith and philosophy are not identical—faith is soft-hearted, philosophy is more hard-headed. You cannot use philosophy in explaining faith save for in the most superficial manner.
Taking Christianity as the obvious example for the two of us (Christianity is naturally only one of many faiths) the teachings of Christ IMO are positive while the fairy tales of Heaven and Hell are nothing more than gobbledygook.. something out of the Wizard of Oz—When you look behind the curtain, there is no Wizard, only a homunculus.

We want people to be mature yet we push childish/infantile fairytales on them? Such is not softhearted, it is softheaded.





Intomorrow, Christ talked more about hell than he did about heaven.

Be not unbelieving, but believe.





Could we move this to a new take by responding to this article?:

http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/tarico20130411

Above piece deserves comments, although it it must be noted non-science comments in excess are almost certainly not appreciated by many writers and commenters at IEET. That is little reflection on you—because for starters you don’t comment frequently—however I tend to exhaust a topic such as this, in pursuit of resolution when no resolution exists. As has been written often: it’s akin to counting to infinity.
Readers of comments at IEET might not like seeing the same commenter going on about the same topic yet by varying the topics, the chances that we break up monotony increase.
BTW your comments are challenging, Henry; unfortunately the overwhelming majority (est. 98-99 percent) of Midwestern witnessing is done by fools/dullards. Not every fool is a dullard and not every dullard is a fool.. but 98-99% is IMO a bad percentage. Reason I persist with this topic is the hits are over 6,500 at this time,

“Religious Trauma Syndrome: How Some Organized Religion Leads to Mental Health Problems
by Valerie Tarico
Mar 26, 2013
(6549) Hits”,

thus one might conclude enough readers could be interested in at least your perspective, due to your commenting less frequently—and being a lib, they may want to humor me! So let’s move it over to the topic above, by your leave Sirrah.





Pastor Alex wrote: “What religion creates is the dogma of Original Sin to explain why humans don’t improve morally. The humanists refer to it as our animal nature, some people as our instinctual or genetic nature.”

In my view this is akin to presenting “climate change is real” and “climate change is a made-up conspiracy” as two equally valid beliefs, to be respected in balanced way. The balance we need to strike is not between different views on a subject, just because both have been voiced, but between open-mindedness and have the courage of one’s convictions.

According to my view of the history of the doctrine of Original Sin, it has its roots in the Garden of Eden fable, which was an early attempt of human civilisation to explain Why Life Sucks And Bad Things Happen. This was then taken up by early Christian theologians to incorporate both the problem (of evil) and the Garden of Eden fable, which had become canonised as scripture and therefore Must Be Regarded As True, into a coherent Christian framework. They did the best they could under the circumstances, I guess.

But civilisation has moved on since then. Darwin et al had know such constraints: he had no need to accept Garden of Eden as anything more than a fable, nor to reconcile our imperfect experience with the concept of an omnipotent and benevolent deity. He could just observe, look for patterns, and come up with good explanations. Terms like “animal nature”, and “instinctual or genetic nature” are only approximate, of course, and by no means tell the whole story, but they are a result of an attempt to explain that is unconstrained by orthodoxy and the need to take certain things to be true irrespective of the evidence. This is an important distinction.

Another point I want to make, in passing, is that the term “humanist” seems to have a different meaning among Christians than it does among the non-religious. For Christians, it seems more or less to be a synonym of “secular”, while for the secular themselves, humanism is one strand of philosophy, which emerged within Christianity itself and admittedly underpins much of Western values (human rights, democracy etc), but is certainly NOT a synonym of “secularism”.

In any case, there is nothing specifically “humanist” about believing in “animal nature” (if by that we mean that we explain our behaviour at least in part by our pre-human evolutionary heritage). It’s just good science.





Furthermore, as Intomorrow notes - and this is surely the main message of Valerie’s article, the main problem with the Original Sin dogma is that, not being based on an accurate understanding of human nature, and why we are the way we are, it offers no solution, or at least only very partial and not very effective solutions, to the problems that arise from that nature.

Once again, the balance we need to strike is between open-mindedness and the courage of one’s convictions: the balance I am striking in relation to the Original Sin dogma is that I have yet to find a good use for it. I am aware, of course - as I said recently at the Mormon Transhumanist Associations annual conference - that many have utterly compelling personal reasons not to want to abandon their religious beliefs. Such people may wish to remain true to doctrines like Original Sin, perhaps reinterpreting them in a way that avoids some of the problems identified in the article. But it does not necessarily display a lack of empathy for such people to believe that we would be better off just letting doctrines like Original Sin fade away into oblivion.





Intomorrow wrote: “I tend to exhaust a topic such as this, in pursuit of resolution when no resolution exists. As has been written often: it’s akin to counting to infinity.”

This, of course, is related to those “utterly compelling personal reasons” I refer to above. The power of an online comment to change what someone believes depends entirely on that person’s receptiveness. If we regard our mental states, including all our beliefs and attitudes, as complex systems, then an online comment can be considered a perturbation, which will only bring about significant change if that system has become unstable in some way.

In any case, I understand Intomorrow’s dilemma: it is the never-ending conflict between, “Surely I must have better things to do,” and “But it MUST be possible to convince this person, if only I put things in a slightly different way.” And since the latter conviction is of course unfalsiable, it never quite loses its power.

Do we have better things to do? Well that depends, of course, on our personal priorities. In may case there have certainly been times when it has felt like a bad habit. On the other hand, I don’t think commenters need to feel guilty about posting their POV, even ad nauseam, if they see fit. Neither the article authors nor other commenters are obliged to respond to them, and the moderator can always tell us if we’re overdoing it.

Meanwhile, Valerie’s article demonstrates one of the more important reasons why it is important to discuss, and perhaps even try to resolve, this type of issue.





And we don’t even have to take issue with the religion of the religious: only their politics. For starters they know a great deal about religion, so they are worth listening to on the topic of faith (which, Pete, you surely noticed in Utah). However their politics are nothing short of atrocious.. negating the positive in their religion.
This is to unfortunately also damn them with faint praise: ‘your politics are utter foolishness, but you know about religion so we’ll pay attention’—that is not what they want to hear. Plus in my case, it doesn’t sound ecumenical/interdemoninational to tell them I think their faith is poignant and quaint: ‘Your politics are bad yet you know about religion and are touchingly archaic’? No that wont cut the ice.
Usually they want to hear that one is willing to turn one’s life over to the deity, when they themselves often worship wealth. “The love of money is the root of many evils”, says the Bible- not all evil; so the religious are able to obfuscate on this. In Middle America, it is hiding out in the open.





That being said, we should be careful about generalising. The Mormons I stayed with in Utah, for example, had anything but “bad” politics. Indeed, the impression I was left with was of a bunch of good, highly intelligent people looking for different ways to reconcile their transhumanist and essentially secular worldview with their religious affiliation. I wish them well.

But you’re right, of course: step outside such inspiring communities as the Mormon Transhumanist Association and you don’t have to look far to see people who claim to love God but in reality worship wealth. It’s not that they don’t love God as well, but the God they love tends to turn a blind eye to their own failings, at least the ones they are not actively working on.

But in my view, we DO have to take issue with their religion, and not only (perhaps not even primarily) their politics. One of the better presentations at the MTA event - which you can find on YouTube - was made by Carl Youngblood, who stressed the importance of recognising religious myths as myths. Politics aside (and of course I may also have a problem with their politics) I have no quibble with someone who chooses to draw inspiration from their religion, and its associated myths. But like Carl, I do have a problem (Carl calls it idolatry) when people mistake their myths for the truth.

So going back to Original Sin vs Evolutionary Psychology, should we regard the latter, as many do, as no less a “myth” than the former. I think not. Evolutionary Psychology is a set of ideas based on a theory, namely the theory that much of our behaviour can be explained through consideration of our stone age and pre-human ancestry. To regard it as “theory” rather than “myth” is not to claim it as Absolute Truth, but rather to claim it as (one of) our best shot(s) currently at getting at the truth. Whereas an ancient religious doctrine like Original Sin, while it doubtless started out (in particular in the minds of those who developed it) as theory, has become obsolete as a theory. As a myth, by contrast, it continues to have evocative power, and is most likely to be helpful - rather than leading to abuse and resulting psychological trauma - if it is recognised as such.

Theory: “This is our best shot at the truth, currently. If you think you have a better idea, let us know.”

Myth: “This is a story that we tell ourselves, and just like other works of fiction it can be very inspiring. Suspend disbelief if you like, and join us in drawing inspiration from our myths, but if you are looking for accurate models of the world, including human behaviour, you are better off with science. Myths can illustrate and inspire, but they are not explanations, even if sometimes they appear to be, because they started out that way. Distrust those who say they are.”





You got it all, as usual.
By religion not being the negative, rather, politics being the negative, is meant:
i.  Religion tends to be far more pleasant than politics.
ii. Religion can only be more sincere than politics (liars ‘n lawyers).
iii. Besides, without power, the religious are constrained; for a random example, how could the Church in Spain five centuries ago torture recalcitrants without the Star Chamber? an Iron Maiden is useless without power—politics—to back it up.





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