Religious Morality?

Recently, I’ve been learning a lot about myself, mainly my personality type, strengths and weaknesses. A few of you might remember the “spiritual gifts” assessments from years ago. In the church world, they used to be all the craze, especially among evangelicals and charismatics. I’m not sure how popular they are now.

Incidentally, did you know religious “gift assessments” are based on the same analytics as secular personality tests? However, the match-up of personality types to spiritual gifts is rather janky and biased due to varied theological differences. Basically, they are cheap, pseudo-religious knockoffs of psychological tests, which simply swap recognized personality traits for choice spiritual gift terms. 

Obviously, there’s nothing “spiritual” about gifts assessments. Nonetheless, for the religious market, they have proven very profitable, not only in dollars, but also in the targeting of a gullible volunteer base eager to demonstrate their newly discovered gifts.

My Current Exploration

In the past few months, I’ve taken a couple of personality tests, and I’m not referring to ones you might find in your social media newsfeed. One was for work, and another was recommended by a friend.

Basically, I’ve learned I’m a cross between Albert Einstein, Agatha Christie, Vincent van Gogh and Stephen King. Eh… in my dreams… LOL! Both tests agreed, at my very core, I’m an observer, investigator and theorist who needs privacy to think: Enneagram Type 5.

As I’ve viewed myself under a magnifying glass, I’m forced to acknowledge I’ve entered into a season of intense deconstruction/reconstruction as it concerns my inherited belief systems, identity and purpose. For those who know me, this isn’t a surprise. Currently, my main curiosity is in investigating my relationship with religion and morality.

Religious Morality?

Generally, people believe their preferred faith (God) dictates their sense of right and wrong (morality). However, social psychologist Nicholas Epley and his fellow research colleagues, discovered the exact opposite to be true. In short, their experiments revealed that people’s individual moral opinions dictated their conception of God’s morality, and not the other way around.

When people were asked if God thinks a certain thing is right or wrong, they subconsciously accessed the part of their brain where their personal opinions reside. Then, they consciously attributed their own sense of morality for God’s morality, even if it contradicted the Bible, or whatever their preferred sacred text was.

With this in mind, perhaps it’s reasonable to conclude, the “divine voice” and the “self voice” are largely indistinguishable. The same experiment further revealed, when a person revised their moral opinion, they promptly updated their conception of God’s moral position. Does this surprise you, or not at all?

Personally, I can’t help but ask the obvious question: which came first, God or morality? Unsurprisingly, religion says God and psychology argues the opposite. I’m sure you have your own opinion though. And for some of you reading this right now, I wouldn’t doubt you believe God agrees with your current viewpoint.

The God Stamp

In our contemporary times, we are inundated weekly with headlines of horrific, immoral sexual-abuse coverups within the two largest sects of Christianity — Catholicism & the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The NY Catholic Diocese has already paid out $228 million to victims, and there are well over a 1,000+ known cases yet to be decided this year! Certain bankruptcy is predicted. Perhaps we’ll finally get to see what treasures the Vatican has been hoarding in their secret vaults, i.e. the Ark of Covenant!?

As it concerns the SBC, time will tell how much they will be forced to pay for decades of dismissing reported abuse and rape within their churches and associated schools/colleges. Just in the last 10+ years alone, over one million members have voted with their attendance by leaving! Clearly, the question of religion’s influence upon morality, for good or bad, is worth exploring. 

Dr. Epley’s experimental evidence revealed, a person’s sense of right and wrong is highly subjective and largely informed by peers and numerous cultural components, i.e. parents, friends, teachers, ministers, books, cable news, social media, YouTube, politics, documentaries, etc. Adding to this, I would suggest that when any one of these components infers or imposes a “God stamp of approval” upon what’s right or wrong, a vast array of social ills are at risk of becoming religiously justified and excused. For proof, one need only look to recent news headlines.

No Agendas

Obviously, you are free to draw your own conclusions and think whatever you want. I certainly am not concealing any hidden agenda to proselytize you one way or the other. Personally, I feel it’s more important how you behave, than it is what you believe.

It’s been my observation that beliefs/convictions tend to be like shifting sands, shaped and reshaped by the constant waves of experience and maturity. What remains in the minds and hearts of others, is how you treated them.

The only thing I would ask of both you and myself, is what a just, moral society asks of all persons regardless of creed, ethnicity or gender: To be honest and kind, to do your best, to avoid harming yourself or others, and to use breath mints. The hygienic component is my add.

Click & Listen

For an interesting, humanistic perspective concerning morality, click and watch the video below. In light of all the recent headlines concerning abuse and coverup within the religious world, the commentary is especially intriguing.

I know, for people of faith the thought of clicking below and listening can be distressing. After all, the fear of being deceived or “led astray” is vexing! But if you feel, as I do for myself, you’re capable of discerning right from wrong, then you have more to gain by listening to another viewpoint. Especially, when it’s a viewpoint other than the one you’ve religiously held to without question for years.


To view the entire debate, click here.

 

Addicted To Religion

Those who suffer from RTS are prone to a variety of trauma-induced dysfunctions, including addiction. Commonly, when the word “addiction” is mentioned, alcohol and drugs immediately come to mind. Rarely, do we think further, and certainly we don’t consider how religion may actually enable addiction. 

Actually, it’s common to view religion as being a cure for addiction. After all, many addicts in rehab begin their road to recovery by appealing to a “Higher Power.” With such a powerful connection to divine omnipotence, one would think the success rate of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous to be miraculous. It’s actually quite the opposite. Some researchers report it to be as little as 1%, while others indicate it’s no higher than 12%. It’s difficult to get accurate data from an organization that is anonymous. 

Breathing Under Water

As a former evangelical minister of 26 years, I’m interested in the connection between addiction and religion. Certainly, I’ve dealt firsthand with those addicted to substances and ironically, those addicted to religion. I know the connection is not something commonly thought about, but what can I say? I’m different! My life experience has given me a front row seat to a lot of “different” circumstances and experiences.

Early in my career, I observed many desperate, hurting people were attracted mentally/emotionally to religion. I also observed how a few among the masses testified of tremendous transformation, while unwittingly demonstrating an addiction to religious practice. Interestingly, both groups had a hard time seeing how much they both had in common. 

As a local church pastor, this troubled me greatly. In an effort to help both groups, I adapted “transformational” language in my sermons, and directed church programs towards a focus on helping people takes “steps” towards greater levels of freedom. I found Richard Rohr’s book, Breathing Under Water, a great resource. Actually, one of the most well-received sermon series I did, was based on it.

Magical Results?

I wish I could report incredible success, that I helped hurting people transform ashes into beauty and motivated religious people to transcend into Christ-levels of compassion and healing. But, my success rate wasn’t much better than AA. In admitting as much, I’m certainly not detracting from a handful of magical results and widespread impact for the good. I’m simply being objective and sincere with my confession.

What I often observed was, the initial “conversion experience” enabled many to continue through life, blinded to their deep level of personal and social dysfunction. And, as their time and involvement progressed, most became inoculated to internal reflection and evolutionary maturity. I suppose you could blame me since I was at the helm, but I can assure you, my experience is not uncommon, largely speaking.

Over time, I came to acknowledged the sad reality: all my efforts were encapsulated in a system that actually enabled addictive behavior. Sure, there were those who eventually kicked bad habits, albeit largely due to therapy, medicine and group programs. But, in the context of religious practice, many learned to exchange their dysfunctions for a religious form of codependency. Some even used religion as an excuse to not take their meds or seek professional help. How frustrating!

The common outcome for many was to throw themselves headfirst into services, volunteering, weekly groups and pastoral counseling sessions as often as possible. This was predictably a tradeoff, one addiction for another. Honestly, I saw the connection early on and quickly partnered with credentialed professionals who could counsel both myself and all those I referred to them. Sadly, they were all super religious themselves and encouraged the people I sent them to “do more” in the church.

Take a Break!

I can remember a number of times when I actually told people to “TAKE A BREAK,” to limit themselves to one service/group a week, to spend more time with their family and outside in nature. By their reaction, you would have thought I had told them “GOD IS DEAD!” They acted as if I were kicking them out the church, a classic sign of someone who’s codependent, even treating God like a drug. OMG!

With that in mind, consider this: Is it possible to become addicted to religion? In September of 2016, The Pacific Standard published an article on the subject. The following are questions the editorial staff posited:

  • Do you use religion to avoid social and emotional problems?
  • Are you preoccupied with religion to the point of neglecting work?
  • Does your commitment to a religious leader or institution take precedence over your children and family relationships?
  • Does religion isolate you from outside friends and activities?
  • Do you use religion as an excuse when you are abusive to friends or family members?
  • Would people who know you describe your religiosity as extreme or obsessive?
  • Are your religious contributions financially imprudent?
  • Do you feel irritated and act defensive when someone questions your religion?
  • Do you use guilt to beat up yourself or others?
  • Do you think of sex as shameful or dirty?
  • Do you use religion to manipulate or exploit others?
  • Does your religion threaten aggression towards people who believe differently?
  • Are you uncompromising and judgmental, quick to find fault in others or evil in the world?
  • Do you find yourself arguing against scientific evidence to defend your religion?
  • Do you wait for God to fix things in your life or blame your problems on supernatural forces?
  • Do you tell other people “what God wants” or the “right” way to interpret the Bible?
  • Are you preoccupied with sin and the afterlife?
  • Do you experience psychosomatic symptoms, like headaches and backaches?
  • Do you threaten others with divine punishment or otherwise try to control them?

I hope you spend some time with the above questions, answering them for yourself, and not for others as tempted as you may be. Whether or not you determine religion is addictive for you, is solely predicated upon how transparent you are with your answers. 

The First Step

For me personally, I had to sit with the questions for a prolonged season. Ultimately what followed was an enlivened season of deconstruction. Admittedly, I was initially terrified, but I quickly discovered even Jesus did not object! After all, consider how passionately he railed against the religious phrarisees of his day. And consider his impassioned call to the masses: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion?…Get away…rest…learn to live freely and lightly.”

The first step with every addiction/dysfunction is admitting the truth to yourself. Then, where you choose to go for help will determine how successful your next steps will be. Consider wisely and don’t fear the process of deconstruction/reconstruction. It may seem overwhelming at first, even terrifying! But, I can assure you it will be worth it in the end.

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For inspiration, check out Love Is My Religion by Ziggy Marley.

Religious Trauma Syndrome

Recently, I did an interview with an east coast journalist who’s researching Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS).

  • RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD.

Over the course of our hour long conversation, we discussed the latest research and questioned whether RTS is limited only to fundamentalism. I emphatically stated it is not, and that all genres of faith-practices which demean gender, sexuality and inclusion should be brought to task.

I wish I had confidence in the Church-at-large to police themselves, but I do not. Whether Catholic or Protestant, all too often, the standard SOP has been to cover-up abuse, silence traumatized victims and continue business as usual. Ironically, it has taken outside investigative reporting, such as recently done by the Houston Chronicle, to challenge the status quo. See Abuse of Faith.

Leading up to my recent interview, I’ve been exploring how religious, faith-base belief systems are woefully susceptible to becoming cultures of control, abuse and victimization. Within the context of my former evangelical experience, I’ve been reflecting on the impact of fear-based theology, which leads to splintered personalities, and stunted psychological development. See The Damn Dark Room.

Even though Dr. Marlene Winell, Ph.D. published her groundbreaking RTS research a few years ago, her findings still remain unknown to many. With this post, I hope to enlighten a few more.

The following are key RTS dysfunctions she identified:

  • COGNITIVE: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociation, identity confusion
  • AFFECTIVE: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, anger, grief, guilt, loneliness, lack of meaning
  • FUNCTIONAL: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatization
  • SOCIAL/CULTURAL: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction

I have plenty more to say on this topic, and will do so in posts to follow. For now, I’ll leave off with a few questions to ponder:

  • FEAR: How much of your faith practice is influenced by fear? Fear of God? Fear of hell? Fear of eternal loss? Fear of disapproval?
  • EXCLUSIVITY: Do you largely view others with a dualistic exclusivity? Insiders? Outsiders? Lost? Saved? Gay? Straight? Republican? Democrat? Do your faith-beliefs keep you from engaging others as simply human beings like yourself?
  • PARANOIA: Do you feel you’re always being watched, evaluated and graded? By God? By others in your faith community? If so, who do you go to, to be understood and listened to?
  • AVOIDANCE: Have you ever avoided relationships because you knew your “brothers & sisters” might disapprove? And/or, have you felt compelled to manipulate relationships with evangelistic maneuvers?
  • DISMISSAL: Do you tend to dismiss or ignore scriptural passages which offend basic, human sensibilities? Why?
  • EXCLUSION: Do you readily shun or passively exclude others who don’t share your faith or convictions? Friends? Co-workers? Family?

Answering the above questions with honesty, is the first step to addressing the lines between us, which traumatize many on both sides.
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The Damn Dark Room

Lately, I’ve been thinking about fear as it relates to belief systems and wrestling with some challenging questions. A few of them are as follows:

  • Where is the line drawn between healthy and unhealthy fear?
  • To what extent is fear-mongering practiced within belief systems. i.e. religion, politics, academia, etc.? FEAR-MONGERING: exaggerated habits and tactics which purposefully arouse fear.
  • How do fear-based ideologies evolve into accepted facts, truths and beliefs for individuals, groups and institutions?
  • At what point does critical mass occur, when fear-based ideologies become institutionalized by morphing into doctrines, policy, curriculum, methods and messaging?
  • What methods have proven the most effective in dealing with delusional, socially accepted fears? DELUSION: irrational ideas and thought patterns so fixed that nothing, including rational evidence, can persuade a person that what they feel or believe is not true.

For me, these questions are very personal, especially as they pertain to religion.

Love Wins?

I grew up in the “Bible Belt,” served as an evangelical minister for over two decades, and travelled the world with mission endeavors. My interactions with thousands of people, from various walks of life and numerous cultures, have produced a plethora of quandaries and observations.

Midway in my career as a full-time minister, I started to discern how largely fear factored into numerous doctrines and widely accepted practices. Years of experience had opened my eyes to the extent of damage caused, and how it tends to produce symptoms related to PTSD (RTS). Eventually, I began to speak out publicly. But, as you can imagine, my words weren’t always received with “open ears or hearts.”

In time, my clarity sharpened, and so did my message. I labored tirelessly to reverse the damage caused by religious fear-mongering, superstitions, biases and even paranoia. Weekly, as I spoke to small and large groups, I had a center-stage view as to how fear-based ideologies grip people of faith with an almost omnipotent hold. Seeing this motivated me all the more to understand: how fear takes hold, and when it achieves the upper-hand. Unsurprisingly, I traced it back to the initiating point of conversion.

Ask any convert, new or old, why they converted and you’re sure to hear a myriad of answers. Eventually though, it always comes down to one major catalyst—the fear of hell and eternal damnation. To question these sacred beliefs is to solicit strong reactions. Just ask Rob Bell, author of “Love Wins.”

For many laypersons, the chief rationalization for the doctrine of hell rests in the belief that God “loves sinners but HATES SIN!” This love/hate revelation quickly becomes a cherished mantra for converts. And over time, it produces fear-induced changes in their thought patterns, personalities and behaviors. Affectionally, this all-encompassing change is referred to as “sanctification.”

Here’s a look at how it generally works, when fear is the leading catalyst in a person’s religious experience.

The Splintering Effect

In the beginning, this love/hate conundrum indelibly produces hairline fractures within the new convert’s psyche. Though difficult to detect at the onset, eventually the splintered fractures multiply, grow and become obvious. Oftentimes, this happens at a rapid pace, prompting the new convert to exhibit early traits of a split personality–acting one way with some and another way with others. 

Insider peers are prepared for this early stage of conversion/sanctification, and eagerly offer advice focused on “dying to self” and “becoming fully possessed” by God’s will. This counsel initiates a test of loyalty for the convert. Please self? Others? God? The splintering effect increases and intensifies.

Wrestling with self-worth, purpose and identity issues, the convert begins to suffer with bouts of intense anxiety and mild forms of depression. Both are symptomatic of irrational, fear-induced trauma. But there’s a fix! It’s called confession. No one can argue that honesty and authenticity are worthy attributes. However, religious confession is often tethered to fear-ridden, limited viewpoints, which promote exaggerated negativity and criticalness. 

In short time, the convert becomes fully consumed by harsh, self-judgement. They are taught, their thoughts are untrustworthy, their hearts are wicked and their bodies are sinful. Everything about themselves needs to be taken captive, beaten, crucified and killed daily. Not doing so, could potentially result in eternal punishment or loss of reward! At this point, their vulnerability to fear-mongering, denial and delusion reaches an all-time high. I should know. Not only have I witnessed it repeatedly, I’ve experienced it myself.

By age four, I was a celebrated, newbie convert. By age nine, I had proven myself proficient with confession and laying “my all” upon the altar. What exactly was “my all?” Obviously, I was too young to comprehend or vocalize it, but this didn’t stop my religious peers from praising my achievement. By age seventeen, I was fully vested, vetted and recognized as an emerging spiritual authority.

Spiritual Authorities

Spiritual authorities are extremely important. They stand center stage in a throng of desperate converts, serving as valued connections to godly wisdom and revelation. Their dogma is rooted in an ancient Eastern honor/shame paradigm, and stained with centuries of blood atonement rituals.

They have little to no understanding of either, both being completely foreign to their cultural experience and modern framework. However, thanks to elaborate Western (Greco-Roman) systems of theology, massive gaps in understanding are inventively filled in. Personally, I feel if there’s anything the Church at large needs most today, it would be a good “de-Greecing!”

Nevertheless, spiritual authorities often manage to modernize the archaic for their contemporary audiences. Today, MEGA-efforts employ thick catalogs of trendy music, scads of diverse programs, groups, resources, and loads of cheap merchandise.  All this proves highly costly for the masses, but very profitable for a few at the top of the pyramid. Regardless, the impact of ancient, fear-based dogmas is profound, even for the casual participant. After all, history confirms, people of every generation, background and culture respond in-like to the fear of suffering.

Fear Normalized

Over time, the convert learns to accept their group’s normalization of irrational fears and biases. The motivation to do so is strongly anchored in their psyche by the dualistic paradigms of love/hate, honor/shame, punishment/reward and loss/gain. If, for one reason or another, they cannot conform to their group’s expectations, they often quietly adopt the necessary level of denial and secrecy to maintain status quo.  

Eventually, the convert’s mental landscape evolves and adapts to their social-religious conditioning, i.e. Fundamentalist, Conservative, Moderate, Progressive, Liberal, etc. Thought patterns, personality traits and behaviors shift accordingly, giving rise to cognitive dissonance. Predictably, members of their host group often applaud and encourage their “progress.”

Overtime, the convert’s worldview changes and they come to see themselves, others and the world with “new eyes”—a splintered, dualistic, “us versus them” narrow-minded viewpoint. It’s no surprise then, that many in faith circles believe themselves to be harshly judged, misunderstood, marginalized and persecuted by those outside of their group.

I cannot tell you how disheartening it is to speak clearly with those trapped in this fear-induced delusion, knowing full well they are both deaf and blind to what I’m saying and revealing. Unfortunately, the part of them which is inherently present at birth to receive rational instruction, has been religiously crucified over and over again.

The Damn Dark Room

Sadly, many faithful converts remain none the wiser that fear has become the basis of their religion, judgmentalism their addiction and fear-mongering their dogmatic message. From day one and thereafter, fear has reconfigured their thought patterns and splintered their identities. It has narrowed their viewpoints, stunted their maturity and enslaved them with a form of religious psychosis—an impairment of both thought and emotion so strong the host has lost contact with reality.

Unwittingly, they become entrapped in white washed sepulchers, where legions of fear-mongering influences lie in wait with intent to exploit. There, in the dimness of only “seeing in part,” converts learn to exercise blind faith. In time, they come to feel a great sense of belonging in this entrapment, claiming it as their refuge, fortress and strong tower.

My friends and I call this place “The Damn Dark Room.” The reason being, you’re damned in staying, and damned for leaving. I remember when I first cracked open the door and saw the light; I literally cried for four straight hours.

As I write this, I’m keenly aware of those who are still on the inside, contemplating leaving “The Damn Dark Room.” I’ve heard from many of you in the past few weeks, and I know full well what you’re going through. I sympathize with the anxiety you’re feeling right now as you wonder: Is it safe to open the door? Will it be worth it? Is there’s really freedom and clarity on the outside? Or, will there just be more fear and self-loathing awaiting me?

Friend, I want you to know, you’re not alone. There are many more just like you, longing for sanity. Please keep asking, seeking and knocking. And be fearless in doing so! I personally am a witness to the fact, there’s a wonderful life awaiting you just outside “The Damn Dark Room.”

For inspiration, check out Christina Cobb’s:

The Beauty of it All

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Click pic to view an interview with Christina Cobb.