by Cassie Clark Dutton
As a young child I was afraid of the devil. Terrified. When asked to go down to our basement to retrieve an extra gallon of milk at night, it was never the boogie man that made the trip so daunting. Satan himself waited in the shadows. I “re-dedicated” my life probably more than 10 times before age of 10 to safeguard myself against hell. For some reason from the age of about 3 the prospect of hell and eternity made more sense to me than to most toddlers. And it made me paranoid.
As I got older, rather than dissipate, this fear only continued to manifest. I can remember spending nights, not all that long ago, unable to sleep for fear that demons were quite literally swarming around my head. My church specifically accented the sense that the bible was to be taken literally. When I began to see the world as a little more gray, the bible and its ability to make things black and white was unnerving. I believed simultaneously that God forgave sin and that I was to weed out any sin from my life for fear of separation from God and heaven. I simultaneously knew both that God’s will was set in stone, and that my success depended in no small part on my ability to fast and pray diligently. I felt increasing unable to identify with how my gender was frequently represented. When it came time to question my sexuality, I prayed to God that I wasn’t gay, and I was horrified with myself for any tendency that suggested I was less than straight. Because that was wrong. Because I would have to deal with that. Because we love them anyway, but God says that it's wrong. In big bold letters. When I had internal questions or complaints, I immediately corrected myself, because doubts were from the devil. I scrutinized my past for evidence of the unforgivable sin, still absolutely paranoid that was eternally damned. Alter call made my palms sweaty and sent my mind into a dark swirling tornado of panic. Pastor John said that anyone who doubted in their heart their place in heaven should come forward, but I was always questioning. The guilt of intentional sin threatened to swallow me whole until it drove me from the church completely.
Like any toxic relationship, religion makes you afraid to leave. Much like Big Brother, God is always watching, and doublethink is required to prevent unorthodoxy. I spent 13 years as a dedicated member to a very large Assemblies of God church in Springfield Missouri. After finally stepping away from the church, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about and critiques of religion generally. I do not believe that religion is all bad. Religion and religious organizations are homes and families for many. It can be a support system, a community, something to rely on. Religious organizations are responsible for large amounts of charity work across the globe. Religion is a part of culture, and therefore exhibits an incredible diversity. As a result perhaps not all religion is guilty of the same flaws. At the same time, I believe that there are some principle flaws to many belief systems that can be unhealthy for individual members and the outside world.
Religion, in many ways is a way to explain life, death, and everything in between. It is a rationalization, it is a comfort. Humans, like all animals, fear death. Humans, however, are a little bit smarter than most animals. As a result, we are painfully aware of the inevitability of death. But what if death wasn’t inevitable? What if we could live forever? And that’s what the church can give you. What’s more, not believing means an eternity in hell. Yeah hell. A burning pit of torture and desolation forever. Just like with the abusive partner, leaving supposedly means something much worse than staying. In fact, Lolly Daskal’s “35 Signs You’re In a Toxic Relationship” may not sound too unfamiliar for weekly church goers. Daskal specifically mentions feeling there is no way out as an aspect of a toxic relationship. Fear of damnation means that individuals in their “relationship” with a deity are not necessarily there because they feel it is positive and beneficial, but in part because they are afraid to leave.
Additionally, religious membership can play on another aspect of unhealthy relationships. “Empty Pretense” as Daskal calls it. When members only belong because they are afraid of not belonging, the actions they take to belong can be somewhat empty. Going to church, tithing, and worshiping can all become a part of an elaborate effort to be a good Christian and avoid hell.
Hypocrisy in religion also contributes to an unhealthy atmosphere. At least in Christendom, we are told that if we are saved then no matter how we sin, we will still reach heaven. At the very same time, each week brings about sermons on how to avoid sin and be better Christians to reflect God. The pressure is enormous and enormously negative. Constantly questioning where you stand and whether or not you are doing things correctly is stressful and imperfect. Especially when the standard you are trying to meet is set by someone can never truly confirm that you are doing a good job. We are told that no matter what God’s will is inevitable and already decided. But supposedly it is possible to change things and receive favor if you pray just right and just hard enough for God to guide you to what you want. It leaves individuals searching and stressing and pining for favor, believing constantly that they are not doing enough. And when something goes wrong? It could be both God’s will and your fault for not being in-tune enough with the path you are meant to follow and the expectations you are meant to meet. It doesn’t leave individuals in a very happy place.
Religion also can also tap directly into ethnocentrism. Each religious sect, for the most part, believes in that they are ultimately correct and that other sects must therefore be incorrect. Their group is superior. Ethnocentrism can lead us to marginalize or reject other groups or cultures that are different because of the belief that ours is superior. Or maybe it’s just more fear-mongering. Fear of a different belief system or culture that could corrupt mine or bring it into question.
Christendom specifically can antagonize members of the LGBTQ+ community. In the United States several states still have laws that enable businesses to discriminate against members. Discrimination against LGBTQ+ members is often religiously motivated. The absence of adequate protections communicates to members of these groups that they are not welcome, not valued, and considered second rate. Their right to participate in society is less than others. Pressures to prevent the enactment of non-discriminatory laws come from the value of religious freedom (“All We Want is Equality”). Certainly not every church or denomination supports discrimination, but those that do can have a negative effect on how members of these groups see themselves and their place in the world around them.
Today, I fearlessly retrieve gallons of milk from the basement mini-fridge without a second thought. The only things that keep me up at night are the stresses of my daily life, which I suppose can still feel like howling demons sometimes. When there isn’t a hell, my step is lighter. I know I cannot speak for everyone, my experience with the religious world is quite limited, and I understand many of the pitfalls of religion still exist in atheism. But I do believe that it would be beneficial for individuals to reassess their relationship with religion, and their religion with the world around them. Faith can be a pretty manipulative lover.
“All We Want Is Equality” | Religious Exemptions and Discrimination against LGBT People in the United States.” Human Rights Watch, 8 Mar. 2018, www.hrw.org/report/2018/02/19/all-we-want-equality/religious-exemptions-and-discrimination-against-lgbt-people.
Daskal, Lolly. “35 Signs You're in a Toxic Relationship.” Inc.com, Inc., 25 Jan. 2016, www.inc.com/lolly-daskal/35-signs-youre-in-a-toxic-business-relationship.html.