Under the Pillow: Depression and Smothering Religious Doctrines

Aug 11, 2014 | Mood

Religious abuse affects us even after we’ve de-converted.

Ever have those dreams where you open your mouth to yell and nothing comes out but dust? You run from an attacker and you scream for help but make no sound, or you try to speak your outrage to an old bully and you just stand there and strain while your vocal chords refuse to emit anything audible. I used to have those dreams all the time. Especially as a young woman, when I was still inside a fundamentalist Christian sect. I also forgot to breathe. I held my breath for no apparent reason. Early in our relationship, my husband would say, are you breathing? And I’d realize something had triggered me to get so still and small that my breath became invisible micrograms of muteness, just enough to sustain my body functions but not enough to supply my brain the oxygen needed to make words out of thoughts. Stuckness. Silence. Shallow Breath. Tightness. Invisible Fear of My Own Opinion.

I grew up in a tradition that forbid women to speak or hold positions of leadership in church. That used to sound so normal to me. As I type it now, I can hardly believe it’s true. As a girl, I learned to sit silent, pretend to listen to men with average intelligence tell me what I should be thinking and feeling. I learned to contain my opinions so well, I forgot I had them. I grew up faking polite interest when I was BORED TO DEATH. Now, I see vestiges of girls’ boredom and outrage in my clients. Women who grew up thinking, like me, that it was acceptable to be taught to keep their mouths closed, their eyes averted, and their thoughts concealed. Yes, there are a lot of you out there. Sometimes I still catch myself chomping down on words, muting thoughts, gutting it through some lecture or diatribe. I forget I can take a big breath and say, I’M DONE LISTENING TO YOU NOW. I forget I’m in charge of how much boredom I tolerate, how much silence I allow. If my thoughts race ahead of the speaker, I can start writing or leave the room. Or grab the microphone. We depress as we stifle urges. Especially urges to speak and breathe. Religiously abused children learn to hold their breaths automatically – to conserve, compress, constrict, and camouflage themselves into spaces of less need. I believe the following ideas (and more) constitute repressive religious teaching and lead directly to the smothering reflexes described above.

  1. Children should be seen and not heard.
  2. Women are meant for marriage and childrearing.
  3. Men are meant for leadership.
  4. We are sinners at the mercy of an angry god.
  5. We are unworthy of redemption.
  6. We should be ashamed.
  7. Eve brought punishment to the human race.
  8. Men should hold authority over women.
  9. Anger is a selfish emotion and should be stifled or avoided.
  10. Spare the rod and spoil the child.

These 10 religiously based notions come straight from a dominator world view.

Our current dominator paradigm is based on control by threat of force, and it imposes hierarchies of all kinds (e.g., one race of people over another, humans over nature, one gender over another). But now, more than ever, people question the dominator model. Are wars necessary? Can we partner with the environment? Shouldn’t children’s feelings be respected? Gregory Bateson, a founder of the family systems movement, said, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” If we apply Bateson’s notion to my list of depressing doctrines, we might rewrite them like this.

  1. Children deserve protection and voice.
  2. Women have babies – and do many other things, including lead.
  3. Men nurture in many ways, sometimes through leadership.
  4. We are God’s treasured creation.
  5. We experience redemption every day – we are deserving of grace and love.
  6. Our thoughts, feelings, bodies, and experiences are beautiful and holy.
  7. We are not being punished for anything. The Creator knows we learn best through relationship – not punishment.
  8. Women and men can share authority for best and most creative work.
  9. Anger is a gift from God. It has purpose.
  10. Children learn best through their safe and loving (non-punitive) attachment relationships. Their bodies deserve reverence and respect.

What depressing doctrines can you rewrite for yourself? I’d love to hear them.

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