Monday, January 25, 2021

Fear Tactics: The Root of Religious Trauma


My first real memory of church is of being scared to death. Or being made to be scared to die. However you want to say that.

Actually, my first memory of church is of having the car break down on the way there. I was probably four or so, and we were going to some church way out on the edge of town, and we broke down on the highway. The next time we went to church was at this tiny little Southern Baptist church a few blocks from our house. We didn't drive; we walked. I think I was five. Not older than that, for sure, but I don't think I could have been younger unless I'm misremembering which house we walked from, not that that is important other than establishing the age.

This church was so small it didn't have any kind of childcare for during the service, so I was in "grown up" church. I was probably wearing my suit, because my mom believed at the time that you should always wear your very best to church. I had this little, light blue suit that I absolutely hated. Writing this, now, I'm wondering if it was maybe even Easter or something and that's why we were there. It's not like we went much to church when I was a kid. At least, not yet.

Now, I'm not going to try to pretend that I remember what the sermon was about. I have no clue. What I do remember, though, is that there was some hellfire and damnation in it, because I left that service deathly afraid that I was going to die and go to Hell. Seriously afraid. So afraid that I had nightmares for years of being chased by the devil... He was in a rollercoaster, by the way. I was running on my legs, and he was behind me in a rollercoaster chasing me so that he could catch me and drag me away to burn forever in a pit of darkness. That was the sermon that started my obsession with bedtime prayers, as if praying "now I lay me down to sleep" was somehow going to keep me safe through the night and keep the devil from getting me.

I was five.

I was traumatized. Not that I knew that. I mean, I was five! I can still remember that fear in my chest when I think about it. The terror of going to Hell.

I would like to say that what happened to me was an accident. That I wasn't supposed to be in that service and that that message wasn't meant for me. I would like to say that it was "parental error" due to the fact that we hadn't been to that church before. But it wasn't. There were no childcare services offered. Children were supposed to be there, and I'm sure I was not the only kid in that service.

And it wasn't just that church. The putting the fear of Hell and Satan into kids so that they will want to convert is standard operating procedure for fundamentalists. They teach it as part of their fucking preaching programs. "Get 'em while they're young" and all of that.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of raw data out there about religious trauma, but I spent a lot of years working in the church-industrial complex, and I can tell you that of people I have known who were childhood converts that the vast majority have said that their reason for becoming a "christian" was because they didn't want to go to Hell.

That's just sad.

Let's look at this another way for a moment:
"christianity" is supposed to be about love, so much so that Paul says that non-"christians" will be able to tell who the "christians" are by their... love. So the religion that is supposed to be, above all else, about love instead uses fear to drive conversions. The vast majority of people claiming "christianity" converted during childhood. That point was driven into us over and over again. Seriously, "Get 'em while they're young." And the way to do that is to make them afraid of the consequences.

Ironically, it's those heathen liberals who tend to appeal to love and fellowship and building people up. If you're going by Paul and looking for love in the world as identifiers for "christianity," you're not going to find that in "the church." You're going to find it with the liberals. "christians" are most certainly not known for their love.

To get back to the point, though: The vast majority of "christians" became "christians" because of a traumatic fear experience as a child, at least those in the USA. Maybe it didn't cause nightmares for everyone, but, when you feel the need to let some strange man, even if he is your pastor, dip you backwards into a pool of water to keep you from going to Hell, there is something wrong. Especially considering that Hell is make-believe, anyway. You may as well tell kids that Santa won't bring them any toys... oh, wait...

All of which is compounded because "we" want kids to believe that God/Jesus loves them and, yet, God/Jesus is also going to throw them away into Hell for all eternity for being bad. And, even after you're "saved," there is some unknown unforgiveable sin that'll get you sent straight to Hell no matter how good you've been, so you have to be the fucking best all the time, because you don't know when "god" might pop out and say "Ha ha!" and toss you in the pit.

This trauma is so deep and so pervassive that there may not be a way to heal it from those who have been affected. I'm 50 years old, and I can still have moments of fear and second guessing before I remember to engage the very rational part of my brain and talk myself out of it. I'm not convinced that most people have a very rational part of their brains or, if they do, it has never been used enough to be worthwhile. Possibly, the only thing we can do is to start trying to prevent this trauma from being visited upon future generations of children. And it's time that we start doing that.


  1. Boy, am I glad I wasn't taken to church when I was little. It would be interesting to do a study on kids who were terrified by the preaching when they went to church, kids whose preaching was about love, and kids who didn't go at all.

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