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.
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 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.
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.”