The Psychological Harms of Theism: A Recent Experience

doctoro
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The Psychological Harms of Theism: A Recent Experience

I recently interacted with a friend on the question of ethics, which I recently picked back up as a topic of study. Granted, this was not a close friend, but a person I interact with every couple months or so.

I'm not sure how the discussion even began. I explained my position on ethics not coming from God and that I base ethics on evolution, reason, and social consensus. In addition, our conversation diverted to overall questions of theism and atheism. This person was a Catholic, and I was a Catholic before I "reverted" to atheism. For this reason, I could empathize perhaps better than some.

Without ANY solicitation whatsoever, this person discussed a falling away from the church that was based on an act of infidelity in marriage. This person discussed feelings of guilt and worry over damnation that led to a suicide attempt. Let me repeat, this level of openness was not really solicited by me, and only resulted because my discussion offered some comfort from the insurmountable feelings of guilt caused by the Catholic tradition. To make someone feel so guilty that they would consider or attempt suicide is morally reprehensible. This person began crying -- in a very public setting.

In the end, I discussed how my own personal experiences and path to "redemption" from theist and Catholic guilt was based on intense study. She asked for a reading recommendation, and I wrote "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris on a business card. Since its 100 pages, a very easy read, and has other good recommendations at the end, it is the perfect recommendation for people starting to question their faith.

I'm somewhat in awe of this whole experience. But, my feeling at the end of our conversation was one of hope that my friend will break free from the shackles and guilt of Catholicism and Christianity.

Truly, this person's pain inflicted by the Church makes me want to cry. I grant that one cannot pin ALL of the causation for guilt on the Church as a scapegoat; but the fact that religion and Christianity prevents social structures and dissemination of information for people to rehabilitate after these events can be a major part of the problem.

Oh, how the world would be without the irrationalism of religion.
Perhaps people would stop feeling like shit, and start living their lives!

I affectionately dub the following passage my "atheist battlecry".
Bertrand Russell, "Why I am Not a Christian" page 23

"We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world--its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create."

Epictetus, A Stoic Philosopher ~100 CE in “The Art of Living” [interp. Sharon Lebell]:

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.

Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us. These areas are quite rightly our concern, because they are directly subject to our influence. We always have a choice about the content and character of our inner lives.

Outside our control, however, are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society. We must remember that those things are externals and are therefore not our concern. Trying to control or to change what we can’t only results in torment…

What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.

Stop Scaring yourself with impetuous notions, with your reactive impressions of the way things are!

Things and people are not what we wish them to be nor what they seem to be. They are what they are.”

Pink Floyd:

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell,
Blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

And did they get you to trade
Your heros for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.


Tomcat
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You hit an extremely

You hit an extremely inportant issue regarding religious faith, in that it can be psychologically damaging.  I am still in the midst of recovering from my own religious indoctrination as a child.  I too suffer from the fabled "Catholic Guilt."  It is more a Christian guilt I would think.  Being taught that your human impulses are wrong as strongly as Christianity does is indeed morally wrong.

A particularly strong memory of mine from Catholic school was my theology teacher's description of why masturbation is wrong and my difficulties in dealing with the guilt of each of my "failures."  The Catholic view on masturbation is that it is cheating on your future wife/husband because you are imagining someone else and having adulterous thoughts!  I hated myself every time I cheated on my imaginary wife.  I no longer believe this, but I still get the guilt sometimes.

Interestingly, through my education on psychology in college I got the courage to stop believing in god.

 

I hope your friend finds the same courage, doctoro.

The Enlightenment wounded the beast, but the killing blow has yet to land...


Vastet
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Stories like these make me

Stories like these make me wonder if there should be a hotline.

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.


daveyboy
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I suffered through years of

I suffered through years of Catholic school, and I have also witnessed the harm caused by religious guilt. When I was attending a Catholic high school, one of my fellow classmates commited suicide by jumping off a bridge because he was gay. He left a "public" suicide note, which was read to all the students. In the letter, he wrote that he couldn't bear the guilt of knowing that he wasn't the person God wanted him to be.

Of course, he was given a Catholic burial by the very people who killed him. Fucking bastards.

 

"You are 'atheist' simply you are PSYCHO or IGNORANCE. That's why even youself feel like not EXIST on this world."
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Brian37
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daveyboy wrote: I suffered

daveyboy wrote:

I suffered through years of Catholic school, and I have also witnessed the harm caused by religious guilt. When I was attending a Catholic high school, one of my fellow classmates commited suicide by jumping off a bridge because he was gay. He left a "public" suicide note, which was read to all the students. In the letter, he wrote that he couldn't bear the guilt of knowing that he wasn't the person God wanted him to be.

Of course, he was given a Catholic burial by the very people who killed him. Fucking bastards.

These horrible stories should be out there. But they should not be a rallying cry for atheists to demand goverment force of the end of religion. Merely a challenge for religious people think about how their claims and beliefs affect others. It should serve as a challenge to self examination and introspection.

This unfortunate person died because of society's sick stigma of them along with their own indoctrination because of the claims other people sold them.

No one likes to feel opressed or outcast, be they Christian or atheist. This is why openness and free inquery and debate is so important, so that people can see how their selfishness in defending a label insted of fostering natural empathy can dammage others.

If the age of bigotry is to be a thing of the past, it cannot be done by force, but by raising one's own voice. I commend those for bringing this story to attention.

But if we as atheists want people to look at what they claim we also must afford them the same empathy in expressing their emotions. No matter what is said by either side neither side should fear a government out to get them. 

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers."Obama
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20vturbo
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This is truly a tragic

This is truly a tragic story. My heart goes out for your friend. I don’t mean any disrespect but I have heard that the Catholic religion creates too much guilt and I've also heard that we don’t have enough (since you can go to confession and if truly repentant you are forgiven).

I was raised in the Catholic faith and don’t ever remember having this “guilt” that is talked about. I am just curious as to what everyone thinks. Is the guilt from earlier times when the nuns were teaching or what is it that causes this guilt when we know that we can be forgiven?


doctoro
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I agree with you Brian. I

I agree with you Brian. I think the battle we're fighting is one of information.  Period.  The first thing we have to do is get over the notion that it's taboo or wrong to simply discuss the issues.

Brian Stated:

"If the age of bigotry is to be a thing of the past, it cannot be done by force, but by raising one's own voice. I commend those for bringing this story to attention.

But if we as atheists want people to look at what they claim we also must afford them the same empathy in expressing their emotions. No matter what is said by either side neither side should fear a government out to get them."

I agree, we should not stoop to the same level as them with intimidation and hollow threats.  Emotional appeals are not good arguments, and EVEN IF my friend was suicidal because of theism, this does not make theism false.

I do believe stories like this illustrate the importance of the issue.  If there is no God, and belief is driving people to suicide, the harm in belief must be stated.

 -------------

About 6 months ago, I was over at a friend's house.  He and is wife belong to an evangelical megachurch -- that I actually think has more to do with business and social connections than actual belief.

 Anyway, I can't keep my big mouth shut on politics and religion, and I inevitably bring it up unsolicited on a lot of occasions.

 I had separated my friend from his wife, who was over watching TV in another room, but she could still hear our conversation.

 I think I was discussing my views on abortion (pro-choice), and he was actually agreeing with me on some of my points.

His wife shouts, "Jack, [my friend] you don't know what you're talking about, so you should just stay out of this."

No shit.

His wife took a stand for him and basically told me that I was not permitted to discuss these issues with her husband.

Something like this had never happened to me, and I was somewhat taken aback.  But I didn't let it stop me completely.

The next time I hung out with Jack and his wife, politics came up again, but I was not the initiator of the discussion.  I expressed my views VERY carefully in her presence.

 Now, Brian, you recommended that we have empathy for Christians and their beliefs.  I agree, and this is what I said:

 "You obviously feel very strongly about your beliefs and I obviously feel very strongly about mine.  We have a lot in common.  I'd like to hear some of the reasons why you believe what you believe.  Perhaps you can change my mind."

This worked quite well.  You put them on the offense, and all of your arguments are simply put in the context of their faith which views non-believers as miserable sinners who need compassion.  My arguments, then, were seen not as threats, but as some kind of pathology.

After a while of this style of debating, I basically took over the conversation on a soapbox.  I slowly tried to find points we could agree on before going to the one's we disagreed on.  I didn't have to play the part of the miserable sinner for long.

----

 On the other hand, I think social consensus can work to our advantage.  And RRS, the blasphemy challenge, and other media will get across the message that non-believers are not alone.  If the Christian community shuns them, they have somewhere else to go.  The social pressure can also force people to change irrationally.

 For instance, I would think it bad if our society were predominately atheistic, but the populace could not defend an atheist position with rational argumentation.  Indoctrinating people as atheists is not really a good answer to the problem.

-----

I think we can all agree that if theism is false, there are many harms to belief.  Yes, we should focus on the reasons why theism is false, but emotional appeals and discussions of the harms of belief should at least illustrate the importance of questioning the truth or falsity of religion.  There is a lot at stake.