WARNING: Things will get a bit personal in this post.
I will be talking about my experiences with religion as relates to my self-esteem and self-confidence. Will I be blaming all my insecurities on religion? Well, no, though I think there are areas where religious messages I received as a child took advantage of and exacerbated my natural insecurities. It’s probably only in very recent years that I’ve realized how much some of these messages have messed with my head.
Lets start at the natural starting point, the Christian sum-up of the human condition: Romans 3:23 : “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Yes, I know there is context around this one, but this verse was very often quoted on its own so I will leave it that way. Feel free to look it up if you like.)
So, what could a 12-year-old girl (as this is about the time I started really paying attention to this) have done to “fall short of the glory of God”? This is the message I was just starting to absorb, right in the midst of developing my personal identity. I would think and think and try to remember what I had done wrong so I could confess it, because believing you had not sinned meant you were a liar and full of spiritual pride. (see 1 John 1:8) Oh, there it is. It’s just inescapable…it was almost a relief to be able to name some way I had sinned because then I would at least not be guilty of pride. Oh, and if you didn’t feel bad about your sins your repentance wasn’t genuine right? So my religious reflections were often reflections on my guilt and unworthiness.
I can just see Christians out there saying “Wait, no! You misunderstood the message!” But really, I was only absorbing what I was told and carrying it to its logical consequences, and could you blame me for taking what I was told both seriously and literally? I didn’t have a lot of extra-curricular activities growing up, so I spent a lot of my time in quite thinking and reflection and when I thought of these messages I got from church I could come up with no other conclusion.
But, you might say, Jesus took care of that right? “God loves you!!!” Still, the idea that “God loves you” doesn’t help confidence if it is coupled with the idea of “you are sinner and deserve punishment.” What is it when someone says they love you but also tells you that you are unworthy of love? I knew I would never really measure up. And just about every Sunday morning, this message would be reinforced. Both in the weekly altar calls and in testimonies from others in church services who talked about how when they tried to take control of their lives everything fell apart and nothing was right until they tearfully came crawling back to God.
I determined I would never make their mistakes.
In the midst of trying to erase my doubts about God, I was being filled with doubts about myself. My own ability to succeed and thrive, and to get though Middle School with my sanity intact. I never did well socially at school, partly to do with my fear of doing anything wrong or breaking any rule (to step out of line was sin!). And also partly because my parents didn’t have a lot of money and it violated my sense of fairness and justice to beg them for expensive designer clothes as some of my friends advised. I feel the need to mention that my religious upbringing was not totally bad. While I never understood the stupid status games played in Middle School, and was never popular there, I found plenty of acceptance among my mother and her group of friends from church. They didn’t care if I didn’t wear makeup, or curl my hair, or wear the tight jeans that were in vogue at the time. When I was a teenager, I got along much better with adults than with my own peers. This was, no doubt, one of the factors that kept me from sinking into serious mental problems.
As you can see, the issues I had with the Christian theology was with the message itself and not with the people. The people, at least the mature ones, were generally wonderful. But this message: That I messed up because I was inherently evil and depraved and not because I was immature and still learning how to behave? And that my guilt is tied to some act of independence and rebellion that my first grandmother once committed? I now know that when a child tells a lie or behaves selfishly it is not because they are evil, but because they are immature.
This concept of sin gets in the way of personal understanding of why we do what we do, and how we change ourselves when we do things we do not like or that have bad consequences. Modern psychology (and honest reflection on one’s own mind for that matter) reveals that quite often we just don’t understand the real causes behind what we do–we do it, and then come up with the rationale after the fact. This is why people so often make the same mistakes over and over and over. It takes a lot of work and self-reflection to overcome the negative patterns. Merely attributing the wrong to “sin” and being sorry for it and resolving to repent is not good enough, and only results in believers getting caught in a cycle of “sin,” guilt, and repentance, and keeps them chained in whatever religious tradition they happen to be in.
And you know what? It’s ok to trust your own reasoning, because your mind is not depraved and sinful. The human brain is imperfect–since we are always stretching it beyond its evolutionary purpose (survival and reproduction). So we should always we willing to consider that we could be wrong. It takes courage and self-confidence to risk being wrong. But it is not a sin to be wrong, and if you find out you are wrong you can always change your mind. Don’t like your behavior? Don’t be mired in guilt, but try to understand your patterns and behaviors so you can make changes. And get help if you need it…this stuff can be hard. There are real solutions to these problems.
And one final point: there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that could make a 12-year-old child deserve hell, whether literal or metaphorical. For a trusted adult to teach a child otherwise is, frankly, abusive.
EDIT: Just to make sure I am absolutely clear on this point, no one ever personally threatened me with hell when I was a child or teenager. I did have experience one or two pastors and sunday school teachers who seemed to be fascinated with “hellfire and brimstone,” but the fact that my parents openly rejected that sort of fear tactic lessened its impact on me. However, even when it was not discussed, hell was always a part of the Christian belief system I was raised in, always lurking in the background as what was waiting for you after death if you did not commit your whole heart and soul to Jesus. So it was always an issue, even if it was not discussed often.
Here is the talk from Dan Barker from Skepticon IV. If you do not know Dan Barker, he is a former Evangelical Christian pastor and missionary who is now an atheist. His talk is not exactly what I am saying in the post, but it is very closely related and he says it so well. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, the main point starts about the 20:00 minute mark.)