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Psychological Harms of Bible-Believing Christianity
Valerie Tarico   Nov 2, 2014   Away Point  

“I am 30 years old and I am struggling to find sanity. Between the Christian schools, homeschooling, the Christian group home (indoctrinating work camp) and different churches in different cities, I am a psychological, emotional and spiritual mess.”   –A former Evangelical. If a former believer says that Christianity made her depressed, obsessive, or post-traumatic, she is likely to be dismissed as an exaggerator. She might describe panic attacks about the rapture; moods that swung from ecstasy about God’s overwhelming love to suicidal self-loathing about repeated sins; or an obsession with sexual purity.

By Marlene Winell and Valerie Tarico

​A symptom like one of these clearly has a religious component, yet many people instinctively blame the victim. They will say that the wounded former believer was prone to anxiety or depression or obsession in the first place—that his Christianity somehow got corrupted by his predisposition to psychological problems. Or they will say that he wasn’t a real Christian. If only he had prayed in faith believing or loved God with all his heart, soul and mind, if only he had really been saved—then he would have experienced the peace that passes all understanding.

But the reality is far more complex. It is true that symptoms like depression or panic attacks most often strike those of us who are vulnerable, perhaps because of genetics or perhaps because situational stressors have worn us down. But certain aspects of Christian beliefs and Christian living also can create those stressors, even setting up multigenerational patterns of abuse, trauma, and self-abuse. Also, over time some religious beliefs can create habitual thought patterns that actually alter brain function, making it difficult for people to heal or grow.

The purveyors of religion insist that their product is so powerful it can transform a life, but somehow, magically, it has no risks. In reality, when a medicine is powerful, it usually has the potential to be toxic, especially in the wrong combination or at the wrong dose. And religion is powerful medicine!

In this discussion, we focus on the variants of Christianity that are based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. These include Evangelical and fundamentalist churches, the Church of Latter Day Saints, and other conservative sects. These groups share the characteristics of requiring conformity for membership, a view that humans need salvation, and a focus on the spiritual world as superior to the natural world. These views are in contrast to liberal, progressive Christian churches with a humanistic viewpoint, a focus on the present, and social justice.

Religion Exploits Normal Human Mental Processes.

To understand the power of religion, it is helpful to understand a bit about the structure of the human mind. Much of our mental activity has little to do with rationality and is utterly inaccessible to the conscious mind. The preferences, intentions and decisions that shape our lives are in turn shaped by memories and associations that can get laid down before we even develop the capacity for rational analysis.

Aspects of cognition like these determine how we go through life, what causes us distress, which goals we pursue and which we abandon, how we respond to failure, how we respond when other people hurt us—and how we respond when we hurt them. Religion derives its power in large part because it shapes these unconscious processes: the frames, metaphors, intuitions and emotions that operate before we even have a chance at conscious thought.

Some Religious Beliefs and Practices are More Harmful Than Others.

When it comes to psychological damage, certain religious beliefs and practices are reliably more toxic than others.

Janet Heimlich is an investigative journalist who has explored religious child maltreatment, which describes abuse and neglect in the service of religious belief. In her book, Breaking their Will, Heimlich identifies three characteristics of religious groups that are particularly prone to harming children. Clinical work with reclaimers, that is, people who are reclaiming their lives and in recovery from toxic religion, suggests that these same qualities put adults at risk, along with a particular set of manipulations found in fundamentalist Christian churches and biblical literalism.

1) Authoritarianism, creates a rigid power hierarchy and demands unquestioning obedience. In major theistic religions, this hierarchy has a god or gods at the top, represented by powerful church leaders who have power over male believers, who in turn have power over females and children. Authoritarian Christian sects often teach that “male headship” is God’s will. Parents may go so far as beating or starving their children on the authority of godly leaders. A book titled, To Train Up a Child, by minister Michael Pearl and his wife Debi, has been found in the homes of three Christian adoptive families who have punished their children to death.

2) Isolation or separatism, is promoted as a means of maintaining spiritual purity. Evangelical Christians warn against being “unequally yoked” with nonbelievers in marriages and even friendships. New converts often are encouraged to pull away from extended family members and old friends, except when there may be opportunities to convert them. Some churches encourage older members to take in young single adults and house them within a godly context until they find spiritually compatible partners, a process known by cult analysts as “shepherding.” Home schoolers and the Christian equivalent of madrassas cut off children from outside sources of information, often teaching rote learning and unquestioning obedience rather than broad curiosity.

3) Fear of sin, hell, a looming “end-times” apocalypse, or amoral heathens binds people to the group, which then provides the only safe escape from the horrifying dangers on the outside. In Evangelical Hell Houses, Halloween is used as an occasion to terrify children and teens about the tortures that await the damned. In the Left Behind book series and movie, the world degenerates into a bloodbath without the stabilizing presence of believers. Since the religious group is the only alternative to these horrors, anything that threatens the group itself—like criticism, taxation, scientific findings, or civil rights regulations—also becomes a target of fear.

Bible Belief Creates an Authoritarian, Isolative, Threat-based Model of Reality

In Bible-believing Christianity, psychological mind-control mechanisms are coupled with beliefs from the Iron Age, including the belief that women and children are possessions of men, that children who are not hit become spoiled, that each of us is born “utterly depraved”, and that a supernatural being demands unquestioning obedience. In this view, the salvation and righteousness of believers is constantly under threat from outsiders and dark spiritual forces. Consequently, Christians need to separate themselves emotionally, spiritually, and socially from the world.These beliefs are fundamental to their overarching mental framework or “deep frame” as linguist George Lakoff would call it. Small wonder then, that many Christians emerge wounded.

It is important to remember that this mindset permeates to a deep subconscious level. This is a realm of imagery, symbols, metaphor, emotion, instinct, and primary needs. Nature and nurture merge into a template for viewing the world which then filters every experience. The template selectively allows only the information that confirms their model of reality, creating a subjective sense of its veracity.

On the societal scale, humanity has been going through a massive shift for centuries, transitioning from a supernatural view of a world dominated by forces of good and evil to a natural understanding of the universe. The Bible-based Christian population however, might be considered a subset of the general population that is still within the old framework, that is, supernaturalism.

Children are Targeted for Indoctrination Because the Child Mind is Uniquely Vulnerable.

“Here I am, a fifty-one year old college professor, still smarting from the wounds inflicted by the righteous when I was a child. It is a slow, festering wound, one that smarts every day—in some way or another…. I thought I would leave all of that “God loves… God hates…” stuff behind, but not so. Such deep and confusing fear is not easily forgotten. It pops up in my perfectionism, my melancholy mood, the years of being obsessed with finding the assurance of personal salvation.”

Nowhere is the contrast of viewpoints more stark than in the secular and religious understandings of childhood. In the biblical view, a child is not a being that is born with amazing capabilities that will emerge with the right conditions like a beautiful flower in a well-attended garden. Rather, a child is born in sin, weak, ignorant, and rebellious, needing discipline to learn obedience. Independent thinking is dangerous pride.

Because the child’s mind is uniquely susceptible to religious ideas, religious indoctrination particularly targets vulnerable young children. Cognitive development before age seven lacks abstract reasoning. Thinking is magical and primitive, black and white. Also, young humans are wired to obey authority because they are dependent on their caregivers just for survival. Much of their brain growth and development has to happen after birth, which means that children are extremely vulnerable to environmental influences in the first few years when neuronal pathways are formed.

By age five a child’s brain can understand primitive cause-and-effect logic and picture situations that are not present. Children at this have a tenuous grip on reality. They often have imaginary friends; dreams are quite real; and fantasy blurs with the mundane. To a child this age, it is eminently possible that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and delivers presents if you are good and that 2000 years ago a man died a horrible death because you are naughty. Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, the Rapture, and hell, all can be quite real. The problem is that many of these teachings are terrifying.

For many years, one conversion technique targeting children and adolescents has been the use of movies about the “End Times.” This means a “Rapture” event, when real Christians are taken up to heaven leaving the earth to “Tribulation,” a terrifying time when an evil Antichrist will reign and the world will descend into anarchy.

When assaulted with such images and ideas at a young age, a child has no chance of emotional self-defense. Christian teachings that sound true when they are embedded in the child’s mind at this tender age can feel true for a lifetime. Even decades later former believers who intellectually reject these ideas can feel intense fear or shame when their unconscious mind is triggered.

Harms Range From Mild to Catastrophic.

One requirement for success as a sincere Christian is to find a way to believe that which would be unbelievable under normal rules of evidence and inquiry. Christianity contains concepts that help to safeguard belief, such as limiting outside information, practicing thought control, and self-denigration; but for some people the emotional numbing and intellectual suicide just isn’t enough. In other words, for a significant number of children in Christian families, the religion just doesn’t “take.” This can trigger guilt, conflict, and ultimately rejection or abandonment.

Others experience the threats and fear too keenly. For them, childhood can be torturous, and they may carry injuries into adulthood.

Still others are able to sincerely devote themselves to the faith as children but confront problems when they mature. They wrestle with factual and moral contradictions in the Bible and the church, or discover surprising alternatives. This can feel confusing and terrifying – like the whole world is falling apart.

Delayed Development and Life Skills. Many Christian parents seek to insulate their children from “worldly” influences. In the extreme, this can mean not only home schooling, but cutting off media, not allowing non-Christian friends, avoiding secular activities like plays or clubs, and spending time at church instead. Children miss out on crucial information– science, culture, history, reproductive health and more. When they grow older and leave such a sheltered environment, adjusting to the secular world can be like immigrating to a new culture. One of the biggest areas of challenge is delayed social development.

Religious Trauma Syndrome.  Today, in the field of mental health, the only religious diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is “Religious or Spiritual Problem.” This is merely a supplemental code (V Code) to assist in describing an underlying pathology. Unofficially, “scrupulosity,” is the term for obsessive-compulsive symptoms centered around religious themes such as blasphemy, unforgivable sin, and damnation. While each of these diagnoses has a place, neither covers the wide range of harms induced by religion.

Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a new term, coined by Marlene Winell to name a recognizable set of symptoms experienced as a result of prolonged exposure to a toxic religious environment and/or the trauma of leaving the religion. It is akin to Complex PTSD, which is defined as ‘a psychological injury that results from protracted exposure to prolonged social and/or interpersonal trauma with lack or loss of control, disempowerment, and in the context of either captivity or entrapment, i.e. the lack of a viable escape route for the victim’.

Though related to other kinds of chronic trauma, religious trauma is uniquely mind-twisting. The logic of the religion is circular and blames the victim for problems; the system demands deference to spiritual authorities no matter what they do; and the larger society may not identify a problem or intervene as in cases of physical or sexual abuse, even though the same symptoms of depression and anxiety and panic attacks can occur.

RTS, as a diagnosis, is in early stages of investigation, but appears to be a useful descriptor beyond the labels used for various symptoms – depression, anxiety, grief, anger, relationship issues, and others. It is our hope that it will lead to more knowledge, training, and treatment. Like the naming of other disorders such as anorexia or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the RTS label can help sufferers feel less alone, confused, and self-blaming.

Leaving the Fold. Breaking out of a restrictive, mind-controlling religion can be liberating: Certain problems end(!), such as trying to twist one’s thinking to believe irrational doctrines, and conforming to repressive codes of behavior. However, for many reclaimers making the break is the most disruptive, difficult upheaval they have ever experienced. Individuals who were most sincere, devout, and dedicated often are the ones most traumatized when their religious world crumbles.

Rejecting a religious model of reality that has been passed on through generations is a major cognitive and emotional disruption. For many reclaimers, it is like a death or divorce. Their ‘relationship’ with God was a central assumption of their lives, and giving it up feels like an enormous loss to be grieved. It can be like losing a lover, a parent, or best friend.

On top of shattered assumptions comes the loss of family and friends. Churches vary with official doctrine about rejection. The Mormon Church, for all the intense focus on “family forever,” is devastating to leave, and the Jehovah Witnesses require families to shun members who are “disfellowshiped.”

The rupture can destroy homes, splitting spouses and alienating parents from children.

For Women, Psychological Costs of Belief Include Subjugation and Self-loathing.

Christianity poses a special set of psychological risks for people who, according to the Iron Age hierarchy found in the Bible are unclean or property, including women. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the combination of denigration and subservience takes a psychological toll on women in Christianity as it does in Islam. Not only do women submit to marital abuse and undesired sexual contact, some tolerate the same toward their children, and men of God sometimes exploit this vulnerability, as in the case of Catholic and Protestant child sexual abuse. But most of the damage is far more subtle: lower self-esteem, less independence and confidence; abandoned dreams and goals.

Why Harm Goes Unrecognized.  What is the sum cost of having millions of people holding to a misogynist, authoritarian, fear-based supernatural view of the universe? The consequences far-reaching, even global, but many are hidden, for two reasons.

One is the nature of the trauma itself. Unlike other harm, such as physical beating or sexual abuse, the injury is far from obvious to the victim, who has been taught to self-blame. It’s as if a person black and blue from a caning were to think it was self-inflicted.

The second reason that religious harm goes unrecognized is that Christianity is still the cultural backdrop for the indoctrination. While the larger society may not be fundamentalist, references to God and faith abound. The Bible gets used to swear in witnesses and even the U.S. president. Common phrases are “God willing,” “God bless,” “God helps those that help themselves,” “In God we trust,” and so forth. These lend credence to theistic authority.

Religious trauma is difficult to see because it is camouflaged by the respectability of religion in culture. To date, parents are afforded the right to teach their own children whatever doctrines they like, no matter how heinous, degrading, or mentally unhealthy. Even helping professionals largely perceive Christianity as benign. This will need to change for treatment methods to be developed and people to get help that allows them to truly reclaim their lives.

This article was adapted from “The Crazy Making in Christianity” Chapter 19 in Christianity is Not Great: How Faith Fails, edited by John Loftus, Prometheus Press, October 2014.


Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. Winell is 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 Subscribe at

Khannea Suntzu describes herself as cosmist, cosmicist, upwinger, socialist-libertarian, hedonist and abolitionist. Khannea is a woman of transgender origin, and currently lives in the Netherlands.


It’s cutting a fine line. Religion does all you wrote above; unfortunately the secular world is freer—yet colder. Obviously this is a crucial reason people join religious organizations. Good news is, alternatives to religion—and alternative religions—are more available each year.

Actually, only thing that can be demonstrated undeniably wrong with the way the religious think is how they usually wish to retain conventional ethics, yet physically they have altered the world out of recognition. Today life is quite different from the world before the Industrial Revolution. Who was it who changed the world so radically? Tree huggers?: no.

It’s based on subject-object dualism: the subject (us) is supposedly separated from the object (the world). Therefore, according to this we can pretty much do what we want because we are ‘in this world but not of this world.’ No problem with Jesus returning to save us as Plan A. But there’s no Plan B.

I’ve noticed a bit of false modesty and self-pity involved in Christian Apocalysm:

“Even though we are quite well off”, the attitude goes, “we’re just plain folks; and when the world ends, poor little old us will be with the Lord.”

“Rejecting a religious model of reality that has been passed on through generations is a major cognitive and emotional disruption. For many reclaimers, it is like a death or divorce. Their ‘relationship’ with God was a central assumption of their lives, and giving it up feels like an enormous loss to be grieved. It can be like losing a lover, a parent, or best friend.”

This perceived broken ‘relationship’ with God should not be underestimated, (as is often the case by Atheists). It runs as deep as relationships with family and friends, the consequences - crippling isolation.

Yet breaking one’s ties with a tradition/religion need not break one’s belief/relationship with God?

Spirituality, inbuilt


Yet breaking one’s ties with a tradition/religion need not break one’s belief/relationship with God?

No, it doesn’t have to be so. Many want to be spiritual, but they can’t be (which is why—one reason why—‘do as I say don’t do as I do’ is so prevalent). The bar of morality is set far up beyond the ability of the majority to pull themselves over. Such requires the ability of the saint; the Nietzcheian ubermensch. Don’t know what the UK is like however the US is way too materialistic to be spiritual. And Americans know it- which brings us around back to ‘do as I say don’t do as I do.’
Again, they want to be spiritual albeit they are similar to polevaulters attempting to jump 200 ft. up. And when they become frustrated, they often get nasty. 
Since this piece is focused on Christianity, you are informed enough to know the canonical NT scriptures do not allow for the ostentatious materialism we are so familiar with.

You’d have to describe the spiritual situation in UK/Europe for me to know anything about the region.

Cannot speak for Europe, yet the UK comprises..

Secularists, materialists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, and many, many others - all cohabit and tolerate each other, yet never the twain shall meet/extend to comprehend the wider picture - one planet, cooperation not competition/feudalism yadda, yadda, yadda

It’s not about pole vaulting to moral idealism, but rather Self reflection and facing realism - individuals cannot feed themselves. J.C teaching was noble, and also indicates the control of materialism, (especially pertinent today), and the way to freedoms from it, yet one can still be a consumer and seek solace in Spirituality/Humanism without the God Damned politics and mind poisoning of members clubs?

The problem in the US and Australia so I hear, is that escape from indoctrination is difficult to impossible, (as with some religious communities in UK)? I guess I have been lucky to be raised with an Anglican, (Protestant), background - responsibility for one’s own morality/relationship with God leads to Free thinking less indoctrination/instructions?

Religion = control, the antithesis of Spirituality.
Religion = assimilation of culture, ancient philosophies and morality.

Seek out the history of ideas and tenets?

If you have a troubling question ask God or Google, look it up, reason with it, ask family, a close and trusted friend.. if all else fails, seek a “Wise” man, (if you can find one/recognise one)?


You covered a great deal above, Cygnus, can’t think of much of substance to reply with, save for platitudes.
The first platitude is America is the best and worst of nations: positives include its being wealthy, creative, dynamic. The negatives revolve around your correctly linking here the US with Australia. They are both relatively new nations and—for starters—the religion in America (am not familiar with Australia) is crudely, transparently, commercial. Fairly reliable histories of Europe go back to the time of Alexander. America’s religious development need only be traced back to mid-17th century.
In the few centuries since America began developing its faiths, it has not evolved out of shall we say its Babbit-religion.

Now I’m going to enter into idiosyncratic opinion: the negatives of religion supersede the positives. There are positives- but can’t write much on what they are. One positive is cohesion offered to conventional families by Family Values.
Beyond that it gets book-length complicated to describe.

Biggest platitude in futurism is how some indices improve, some do not; some worsen. Overall, religion in America has improved somewhat. When I first moved out west from the NE, it was a real shocker. Would mention progressive notions, and the response would be “what kind of pinko nonsense is that?”

Today they are more circumspect: today it is “seek the love of Jesus” and He will cure your false beliefs. In the ‘70s, outside of bubble communities, in the interior of the US feminism was considered women’s lip. Today they say “Jesus loves women” as a catch-all.
The attitude towards gays has been modified in the same manner, yet possibly merely because rubes have gay kinfolk.. so they soften their stance. Now the trajectory is ‘love the sinner not the sin’—an updating of ‘hate the sin, not the sinner.’

All I can tell them without descending to their level of smarm, is it probably is better to live a ‘clean’ life. That is, excess leads to perdition of sorts; ‘course, that is another platitude. However such is the only common ground. What else to say? “I appreciate spirituality”? I do—but it’s yet another platitude!

Something I tell rubes isn’t a platitude: I could live a more ethical life albeit then would die of boredom. Ironically, a ‘bot can live a ‘moral’ life due to its non-animal existence. Ironically because to rubes a ‘bot is cold, inhuman. They are not taking into consideration the inhumanity of humanness.
Take Data of Star Trek as an example. He is imperturbable.. of course he is—he’s a cyborg. Rubes admire the quality of his self-control (if he possesses a ‘self’) yet it gets tedious for them after awhile. They want him to vaporize some enemies of the Enterprise to make the plot more humanly inhumane.

Naturally, patrimony is a part of this. Studying Korean and other religions, one can see ancestor worship is important. To a far lesser degree it’s important in the US, often rubes are simply parroting what their parents tell them.

There’s a great deal more- nevertheless it is pretty much all relatable to the past: heritage. God/the cosmos furnished us with our existences—to alter things is something of rebellion. Or to the more orthodox, Rebellion, high case ‘R’. You can see the centrality of ancestor worship in this: parents whelped us, rebelling against their ways is rebelling against the deity/the cosmos.
That’s a bit platitudinous as well, although bearing repetition.

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