TW/CW: Discussion of religious trauma, cults, DV, coercive control, abuse.
Today, I’m going to discuss my experience of being raised into the Roman Catholic Church, how the culture of Catholicism shaped my life and cognitive processing in powerful ways and how that led to my eventual departure from religion and religious thinking. I use the terms victim/follower and abuser/leader interchangeably in the following entry. To be very clear, this is a personal opinion piece and a portion of my life experience; my story. It is not a criticism on anybody else’s choice to practice religion. The freedom to choose to practice religion or not, is a completely necessary human right and one I partly support. What I don’t support are the many abuses committed by people in the name of religion, but, that’s a blog of its’ own for another day. Let’s get into it.
Like many others, I was baptised at the vulnerable age of 8 months old. I, along with my younger brother were enrolled into a Catholic Primary School. I undertook my Holy Communion and Confirmation all before becoming a teenager. (All before my Pre Frontal Cortex was even close to fully developing.) For those who aren’t aware, these are ‘holy’ ceremonies whereupon one vows to live the life of a God-fearing, devout Roman Catholic. And vow, I did. We visited Church every Sunday morning. I sat still and listened, intently. I vividly recall weekly confession in a small room with the school’s ‘Father’, where I’d sleuth my mind, looking for things that I’d done wrong; ways in which I’d sinned, or misbehaved. Because of course, we’re ‘born sinners’. The hymns were hypnotic – this is where my indoctrination was the most powerful; with lyrics like “O Lord I Am Not Worthy” projected high above. Atop the projection, bright, white walls lead to a skylight on the ceiling, allowing light to beam through… from ‘heaven’.
One of the many doctrines reinforced in the Roman Catholic Church is that of the afterlife, or paradise. Some sins guarantee immediate casting to hell, after death. Some will score you a spot in purgatory, where you suffer punishment for an indefinite amount of time, before maybe redeeming yourself and earning a spot in heaven. We are chastised for completely normal biological and developmental processes such as masturbation or sexual thinking. We are discouraged to think critically, let alone question God’s motives or very existence. The very process of even thinking in a way that doubts God or strays away from his word will guarantee you a spot in hell, because the holy father is everywhere, you see, including inside your very own mind. Imagine my fear when I read about Darwin’s theory of Evolution! And what about the Dinosaurs? The Big Bang? Other religions? Atheism?!
I was a high achiever, book-smart, very well behaved, quiet and riddled with anxiety… One of my earliest memories in Primary School was thinking “Okay! What can I do to improve myself?” From as early as I can remember being, I held the belief that I was fundamentally flawed and unworthy. This continued into adolescence and early adulthood. It set the foundation for what would be a series of toxic familial, interpersonal and intimate relationships. Calm, emotionally-fulfilling and healthy relationships wouldn’t work. How could they? The blueprint for high-control groups, religious cults and other abusive relationships are structured so that the followers’ sense of unworthiness is fuel for the fire of the leaders’ sense of control. This is a pattern I’d continue to observe throughout my adult life, while dipping my toes into and back out of Agnostic Atheism.
Long after becoming a mother and survivor of numerous toxic relationships; I found myself practising New-Age Spirituality. Escaping my current reality and delving deep into the world of Twin-flames, Tarot Cards, Astrology and The Law of Attraction. Particularly with regard to Esther/Abraham Hicks teachings; I found myself spiralling into the vicious cycle of self-judgement, self-blame and unworthiness again until eventually, I found myself back into the pews of yet another Church, music of Worship intended to emotionally prime, tears streaming down my face, feeling defeated and thanking God for his grace in accepting my unworthy, impure self. That said, I am not unworthy, and I am not impure; so how did this happen? What brought me back to Theism and why was it so short-lived this time around?
The following Psychological theories and manipulation tactics are known to be at play, when vulnerable people are involved in high-control groups, religious and non-religious cults, and abusive relationships alike. I’ll be providing brief definitions, below:
A term coined by Sociologist Evan Stark in his exploration of non-physical types of domestic violence. Coercive control is defined as a pattern of behaviour which includes isolation, threats and intimidation, humiliation, monitoring and stalking, reinforcing gender roles, regulating a victim’s physical and financial autonomy, and gaslighting. It strips the victim of their liberty or freedom, and thus their sense of self and can be used in combination with physical abuse. To learn more about coercive control, check out Evan’s book here.
The term’s origins stem from and is most clearly defined in this gem of a film, psychological Thriller Gaslight (1940), directed by Thorold Dickinson and featuring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic whereby an abuser will distort their victim’s perception of reality by making purposeful changes in their environment and denying their actions. The abuser will then shift the blame onto their victim, claiming that they’re mental ill, or going insane. Gaslighting is predatory, cunning and can be incredibly unsettling. It is often used in combination with Trauma Bonds as a means to create dependence on the abuser/leader.
A theory developed by Psychologist Leon Festinger, whereby two sets of beliefs oppose one another, creating psychological discomfort. Strong forces of dissonance, will create more pressure to reduce dissonance, as described in this APA article. Confirmation Bias and Cognitive Dissonance, as defined below, is often what occurs when victims/followers stay in these highly problematic groups/relationships.
Cognitive Psychologist Peter Watson first described Confirmation Bias as the tendency to look for information to support our previously established beliefs, whilst ignoring information which may contradict said beliefs. It it well-known that Confirmation Bias plays a role in the reason that so many people believe in Tarot Card, Psychic and Astrological Chart readings and a key player in the Create–Your–Own–Reality concept a’ la Law of Attraction. Watch Telltale Atheist’s tribute to James Randi, who exposed numerous Charlatans, here.
Dr. Patrick Carnes first coined and defines the term Trauma Bonding as an individual’s attachment to somebody or something that is hurtful to themselves. Trauma Bonded people seek out and attract other people who are untrustworthy, dangerous or unhealthy for them, whilst overlooking, keeping secrets and making excuses for the damage that’s being inflicted upon them. To learn more about the signs of Trauma Bonds and how to break free from them, check out Dr. Carnes videos here and read his book The Betrayal Bond.
In my experience, all of the aforementioned points (the final three in particular) played a part in my entering, re-entering and staying in toxic intimate and interpersonal relationships, including but not limited to the Church. My indoctrination into the Roman Catholic Church at such a tender and vulnerable age set the foundation – the stage – the blueprint, if you will. Fortunately, my increasing knowledge and awareness of Psychology and Sociology coupled with many years of intense Psychotherapy has enabled me to better observe the mechanisms at play in these high control groups, religious and non-religious cults and abusive relationships alike. With the intentional use of scripture, hypnotic chants, and repetitive prayer, these groups inflict feelings of unworthiness and dependence upon leaders into the followers’ set of beliefs. The unworthiness bleeds out into the rest of their world and colours how they relate to themselves and other people. It’s unhealthy and severely damaging, as it’s driven by fear. Though there are solutions.
What that’s looked like for me, is going through the grieving process, enforcing healthy boundaries and discovering and nourishing my sense of self-worth. It looks like brief and regular moments of cultivating inner peace and stillness, using manageable amounts of spiritual practice which is grounded in reality and not on worshipping an Omnipresent being. It looks like giving myself a hug, reparenting my inner child. Holding myself accountable, when I need to. Apologising, when I need to. Taking the space and time that I need to, when I need to. It looks like checking in with my emotional barometer and trusting myself. The journey of healing from something like this is not linear and grief hits us not by our convenience, but, by its’ own.
Knowledge is power. Knowledge is liberation.
Featured image by Anuja Mary Tilj