Horns of a goat and a ram, goat's fur and ears, nose and canines of a pig, a typical depiction of the Devil in Christian art. The goat, ram and pig are consistently associated with the Devil.[15] Detail of a 16th-century painting by Jacob de Backer in the National Museum in Warsaw.

Toxic Teachings that Disempower and Scar Spirituality Part 1


By Brien Pittman

Demon possession: An abhorrent form of abuse occurs when children are actually accused of being demon-possessed. These accusations can happen when children misbehave, parents are incompetent, or when a child’s behavior is misinterpreted in spiritual ways, often with the help of religious leaders. I have heard many stories of this kind of labeling, which is of course the ultimate in both shame and fear. Forced exorcisms are all too common, even in this modern age, and certainly qualify as trauma, lasting into adulthood.

“When your parents exorcised you and said you had “unclean” spirits, that was very, very wrong. To believe a child can have demons just shows how seriously deluded your parents really were. You have spent your whole life being scared…being scared of your dad, of God, of hell, the rapture, the end of the world, and death as well as the dark,” —Ali 

Here is one of many Christian organizations that promote this type of violent abuse. How many more children will be scarred before we actually ban together to expose and fight this insanity?

Cycle of abuse: As a believer, you can never be good enough, and so you go through a cycle of sin, guilt, and salvation similar to the cycle of abuse in domestic violence. When believers in repressive Christianity say they have a personal relationship with God, they are referring to one of total dominance and submission, and they are convinced that they should be grateful for this kind of love. Like an authoritarian husband, this deity is an all-powerful, ruling male whose word is law. The sincere follower repents and re-dedicates, which produces a temporary reprieve of anxiety and a period of positive relief. This intermittent reinforcement is enough to keep the cycle of abuse in place. Like a devoted wife, the most sincere believers get scarred the most.

“I prayed endlessly to be delivered from temptations. I beat my fists into my pillow in agony. I used every ounce of faith I could muster to overcome this problem. “Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil” just didn’t seem to be working with me. Of course, I blamed it on myself and thought there was something wrong with me. I thought I was perverted. I felt evil inside. I hated myself,” Susan

Most religious counselors redirect a client such as Susan back to the church or religion, typically with biblical or other holy/religious guidelines, stressing the need to repent and become more devout. Abuse victims are encouraged to strengthen or rebuild their faith with perseverance of prayer, to beg for guidance and forgiveness, and ultimately to “surrender everything over to God.” The man or woman dealing with abuse is then likely to try harder to meet the impossible demands of the religion, much like returning to a situation of domestic violence. They will do this because of the authoritarian nature of such counseling, but will fail again and feel hopeless, evil or crazy, with no one ever concluding that it is the destructive religion itself which is at fault.

Don’t think—Don’t feel: Destructive theology is also damaging to intellectual and emotional development in that it explicitly warns against trusting one’s own mind and heart. “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?,” (Jeremiah 17:9)

Believers are not allowed to question dogma without endangering themselves. Critical thinking skills are under-valued. Emotions and intuitions are also considered suspect, so children learn not to trust their own feelings. With external authority as the only permissible guide, children grow up losing touch with inner instincts necessary for decision-making and moral development. To act otherwise would mean independent thought or dissent, and that is a highly punishable sin against the Holy Spirit—apostasy.

Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following:

  • Identify, construct and evaluate arguments
  • Detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
  • Reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values

No wonder independent thought is considered evil.

“For every question, there had been an appropriate, programmed answer. I was never allowed my own opinion; I had never developed the ability to choose,” —Robert

“Fundamentalism makes people crazy. It is a mixture of beliefs that do not make sense, causing the brain to keep trying to understand what cannot be logical,” —Matt 

“I really don’t have much experience of decision-making at all. I never made any plans for my adult life, since I was brought up to believe that the end of the world would come,” —Ali

“One of my biggest problems has been the inability to trust my own intellect,” —Robert

“I guess ultimately I’ve made my peace intellectually. I’ve been reading and learning religious history, philosophy, etc. for almost a decade. But I wonder… Emotionally, I can’t convince myself I’m really OK. Does it ever get easier? Does 20 years of intimidation, coercion, fear-mongering and bigotry take just as long to disappear?,” —Allison

“I suppressed a lot of my emotions, I developed cognitive difficulties and my thinking became increasingly unclear. My whole being turned from a rather vibrant, positive person to one that’s passive and dull,” —Kristine


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Jan Shannon

“When believers in repressive Christianity…”
You make some fairly sweeping statements in this article and its follow up. Are you speaking about a particular denomination? Because not every pastor or teacher within every denomination agrees with every other one, so, to lump them all in together is rather unfair. Isn’t it more fair to say that within any organization abuse can happen?


Jan you’re correct, abuse can happen in any organization, but this series of articles deals specific with teachings and abuses that for many have proven to be psychologicaly, emotionally and spiritually damaging – as demonstrated by the individuals who so bravely shared their experiences in the articles. While the majority of believers have very positive forms of faith and devotion there is a growing number of people who have not and the series has been written for them. While I attempt to not single out any particular denomination I have tried to cover teachings common to many denominations that have been recognized by professionals, but more importantly, by many individual members of certain denominations, as causing psychological, emotional and spiritual harm to them and their families. The majority of the people that make up this group have no where to go for understanding and support since they have been labeled pariahs by the rest of their religious community and at time the faith community at large.

I’ve deliberately wrote each article, not really as a generalization, but rather as an identifier of the most common teachings that have been reported by professionals and patients, with the idea that those who read the articles will identify and recognize teachings that they personally have experienced conflict with. For all of the other readers they will be able to recognize that those teachings or beliefs are not common to their particular belief system or have had no personal negative reactions to the teachings and so none of the articles apply.

As the series progresses, the articles will hopefully provide support and guidance for those who want to grow beyond their personal traumatic experiences, by providing ideas, practices, support and most of all the knowledge that they are not alone.

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