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.

Veggie-ligion

I was talking with a friend last night about an upcoming interview I’ll be doing. I’m no stranger to interviews, but this one will be different from those I’ve done in the past. It will be on camera. I’ve always stuck with print and audio only, affording me time to decide which side is my good side—right or left? I guess I’ll soon find out.

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As far as the interview content is concerned, I’m not lacking in confidence. It will focus on something I know a lot about: former clergy who’ve transitioned out of professional ministry, and the adversities they’ve faced in doing so. For many of my peers, the transition has proven extremely demanding and destructive on numerous levels. 

Fortunately, for me, with the support of my spouse, kids and dear friends, I was able to avoid many pitfalls. With that said, I still encountered adversity, setbacks and discouragement, but with each new day I was able to put it all in my past.

Perspective

Last night, I reached out to my friend for some perspective. Although she’s aware of my past, she’s only known me in my current role as a project manager, never as a minister. As we talked, I asked her what she thought about former clergy wanting to leave the ministry? Her response was intriguing:

First, she referenced the few ministers she knew besides me (neighbors) and talked about how nice and capable they were in their roles. Although she herself does not attend their churches or any church, her general attitude was positive towards active clergy.

Secondly, the thought of active clergy desiring to leave the ministry for good had never crossed her mind. And honestly, why would it? But, as a business manager who hires qualified people for high level positions, she felt strongly that ministers offer a wealth of experience for the job market—management, sales & marketing. Her actual comment was, “Why wouldn’t I want to hire a former minister?”

Thirdly, when I asked how she felt about a minister who actually stopped believing in the supernatural, she wrestled with wrapping her head around that idea. Even though she has no desire to actively practice her former Catholic faith, she feels belief in some kind of a higher power helps cope with stress. Tongue in cheek, she suggested a “head of lettuce” might be a sufficient god of sorts.

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Ancient Egyptian ceremony depicting lettuces offerings to Min god in the temple of Kalabsha, aka the Temple of Mandulis.

We laughed and agreed that a vegetable would not be the best choice. In talking further, it became clear that religious faith and coping skills are two very different things. To contrast, I can think of a few examples:

The Babble Method

I once worked with someone who, every time she got stressed or mad, started babbling loudly in tongues. When she did so, it was always quite uncomfortable; especially, since we worked together in retail. I remember thinking at the time, this must be her religious form of cussing!?

The Retreat Method

Another friend of mine, when stressed, would retreat to his “secret place” with a jug of water to fast and pray for hours, sometimes for days. I never saw an improvement in his communication skills or marriage. However, upon his return he always had interesting “visions” to share, none of which pertained to his day-to-day life.

The Lecture Method

As a former minister, I often sat in services where peers delivered messages, which were not applicable for the majority of the listeners. Clearly, he/she had issues with one or two in attendance, and had chosen to vent from the platform. This approach is not all that surprising when you consider ministers are primarily trained to lecture.

The Avoidance Method

Other peers of mine often used their “busy schedule” to avoid dealing with challenges and conflict. For many, the avoidance lasted only until things either exploded or they “felt called” to a new position elsewhere. Others used their “busy schedule” to hide the pursuit of unhealthy habits—addictions, affairs, etc. In hindsight. I think their blind reliance on the supernatural and their lack of coping skills drove them to self-sabotage, i.e. implosion.

Think About It

Obviously, avoiding, retreating, lecturing and babbling solve absolutely nothing. Sadly though, religion often not only strengthens these methods, it encourages them. Think about it: 

  • If you’re a stressed out charismatic, you’re told to speak in tongues. 
  • If you’re a stressed out mystic, you’re told to retreat and pray. 
  • If you’re a stressed out leader, you’re told to call sinners to repentance. 
  • And if you’re one of the nameless faces who once attended church, you’re still inclined to seek divine help, maybe even from a… head of lettuce?

Hey, perhaps being a vegetarian is far more than just a lifestyle or diet choice?

#Veggie-ligion


If you’re interested in getting “down to earth” with acquiring legit coping skills, check out these links:

Centre for Studies on Human Stress
Psychology Today
VeryWellMind
Eliminate Stress at Work
Anxiety & Depression Association of America