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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

How Do Fear-Based Teachings Cause Religious Trauma?

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

This is the second of the teachings in a series of three and only one aspect of Religious Trauma.

What do you fear? As a survivor of physical abuse, my fear that tied directly to the abuse made sense. As a survivor of Religious Trauma (RT), my fears were often connected to teachings and harder to recognize.

For those like me who were left with the physical and mental aftermath of physical abuse many religious teachings added a layer of unnecessary fear. My trauma-related symptoms—anxiety, hypervigilance, catastrophic thinking, and depression, to name a few—were misunderstood and viewed as of spiritual failure. Religion offered many answers to this. None of these provided a path to healing from the impact of trauma. What it did accomplish was to increase my fears about the eternal consequences of failure.

One form of RT in toxic religious settings is rooted in the fear that is embedded in many of the teachings. The following are a few examples from my story and those that have been shared with me concerning church teachings: (Note: This list may be dysregulating!)

  • The fear of not truly being saved.

  • The fear of losing salvation by sinning

  • The fear of not asking God to forgive some sin before dying.

  • The fear of being “left behind” when the rapture occurs.

  • The fear of not being forgiven unless you forgive.

  • The fear of financial ruin because you didn’t tithe.

  • The fear of someone going to Hell because you didn’t witness to them.

  • The fear of making the wrong choice in important decisions.

  • The fear of being out of God’s will.

In toxic settings, merely questioning teachings is a sure path to shaming, shunning, or loss of community. The expectation is to believe correctly, never doubt teachings, diligently follow the rules, obey leaders, and perform spiritual practices (prayer, bible reading, tithing, fasting, etc.).

Fear arrives in many forms. Some forms are subconscious and more difficult to connect to the source. This is especially true if you were raised in toxic church settings and the fear was reinforced at home through physical punishment, shaming, or isolation. When fear-based religion becomes embedded in children through various teachings, it slants everything—even when the teachings were well-intended.

An example of well-intended but potentially harmful teaching is a song that admonishes children to be careful of what they see, hear, say, do, where they go, whom they trust, and what they think. 

Oh be careful little eyes what you see Oh be careful little eyes what you see For the Father up above Is looking down in love So, be careful little eyes what you see

There isn’t much in this song that children shouldn't be careful of! Much of it was not in their control, developmentally or otherwise. This teaching also included telling children that God would be watching what they were doing during the week. When embedded in fear-based religious settings, most children experience God as a judge and this song as ominous (kind of like a Santa that might bring you coal—but with the fear of eternal damnation). What would be the result of the watching? For most, the answer likely involved fear about their eternal destiny. 

Toxic religious settings would collapse without the fear-inducing teachings that support them. One fear that I did not mention involves teachings that warn against seeking professional counseling or therapy. This warning is most often expressed as "They will

teach you things that are not God's truth!"

Creating fear around the very thing that could bring people freedom from fear is a double bind that is difficult to break. In this scenario the very thought of seeking “non-approved” help is fear-inducing.

Be gentle with yourself and know that you were born to thrive—not live bound by the fear created by those who also taught that it is "sinful" to live in fear. Our world is fear-based--politically, in advertising, and in the media. Those who desire spirituality should find peace in it, not fear. Again, my purpose in these blogs is not to suggest any particular spiritual path.

Next week's blog will discuss the ways that some of the teachings that increase a sense of powerlessness and impair your ability to make choices. There are spaces—religious and non-religious—where fear doesn't dominate the community, but often fear-based teachings leave you powerless to choose.

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