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How our mental psyche is affected by religion

By Karen Garst ~

Anyone who has left religion, whether it was a fundamentalist religion or a more liberal variety, knows the role that religion plays on our mental psyche. We feel guilt that we are making mistakes and not being the person the holy book tells us to be. We feel shame when we engage in pre-marital sex if our church condemns it. And when we leave, some of those feelings are hard to let go of. We may be depressed because of a loss of community or we may feel anxiety that we haven’t yet encountered others like us.

Candace Gorham, a former Evangelical minister, became a mental health counselor after leaving religion ten years ago. She knows about these issues because she has experienced them herself and has helped clients overcome them. She writes about religion’s impact on our brains and well-being in a new book: Women v. Religion: The Case Against Faith – and for Freedom. Dr. Karen L. Garst, edited the book which consists of thirteen essays by women atheists who talk about different aspects of how religion has subjugated and damaged women. “Candace’s essay is the first in the book for a reason: it’s hard to leave your faith beyond. Candace helps us understand what we need to do to be whole again.”

In her first paragraph, Candace differentiates between shame and guilt.

Shame involves how one feels about oneself. It is painfully intense embarrassment and humiliation that arises from having done something wrong. People full of shame have done something wrong, and they feel bad about themselves for having done it. Guilt, on the other hand, is about feeling responsible for something wrong. Guilt involves feeling remorseful and deserving of blame. When observing the psychological impact of religion, we must start with guilt and shame, as many religious traditions thrive by playing upon them to manipulate the minds and prey upon the emotions of their followers.

She points out that hundreds of actions in the Bible are “deemed illegal, immoral, or detrimental to one’s relationship with god.” So we have a good range to pick from in order to harbor shame or guilt for our actions. She also discusses the impact of depression and anxiety that can cause triggers to a person many years after she leaves religion. It is good to know, however, that counselors like Candace can help people through these episodes, restoring a stronger sense of self. Many mental health issues go untreated while a person is involved with religion. They are told to “pray to God” for what they have done, which as we all know, just isn’t going to work. Thus, when a person does leave, these symptoms have often built up to something very significant. Some religions rely on an overemphasis on hell which can also inflict damage to one’s sense of well-being. It is hard to go forward with your personal goals if you are constantly worried that if you do something wrong in god’s eyes, you are going to burn forever in a very dark and hot place.

It is not unusual for people to experience the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after leaving religion. Symptoms include: nightmares related to specific events you experienced, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts that you cannot let go of, negative thoughts, etc. These symptoms rarely go away immediately upon getting out of the traumatic events that caused them.

Candace cites the Bible verses that condone corporal punishment. Four out of five Evangelical Christian families use spanking according to her research. I remember my mother giving me the choice of a spanking or not going to a friend’s overnight party as a punishment. I chose the spanking. She used a plastic hairbrush and it left my buttocks red. But I really wanted to go to my overnight!

Folly is bound up in the heart of a boy,
but the rod of discipline drives it far away. (Proverbs 22:15)

Do not withhold discipline from your children;
if you beat them with a rod, they will not die. (Proverbs 23:13)

The rod and reproof give wisdom,
but a mother is disgraced by a neglected child. (Proverbs 29:15)

Candace also emphasizes the need to be safe when you do leave. If you have been significantly affected by some of the mental issues outlined above, seek the help of a professional mental health counselor before you leave, even if you have to do it on the QT. Everyone who leaves religion faces a loss of community, whether family or friends. You don’t want to be unprepared for the impact that will have on you. It is also important to seek out people who have also left religion so that you know you are not alone. The Meet-up site lets you find groups locally who are humanist, secular, or atheist. You will be welcomed with open arms. Many national organizations, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry, Sunday Assembly, and others have local groups across the country.

Women v. Religion: The Case Against Faith – and for Freedom contains 12 other essays that deal with issues affecting African-Americans, Hispanics, Transgender, ex-Muslim, and ex-Jewish women, as well as others. It is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and will be available in bookstores sometime in late May.

Karen L. Garst, PhD