Christianity Keeps Hitting New Lows

Its capacity for “Crazy-Making”   

Is my title a dangerous generalization? How could there be new lows after the Crusades, the Inquisition, and televangelism? Of course we know that many of our Christian friends and neighbors do their very best to lead good lives and help others; aren’t there thousands of good deeds done every day? But it’s not hard to spot the new lows because some Christians manage to grab headlines in the worst possible ways.

This headline came up on Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog recently:           


Pastor Celebrates COVID Outbreak at Church: “The Favor of God Is on This House!”


“Pastor Greg Fairrington of Destiny Church in Rocklin, California — a guy who just last week blamed church closures on ‘liberal crazies and Satan’ instead of COVID — is now the apparent leader of a place where there’s been a COVID outbreak.”


Quoting Pastor Fairrington:


“Let me give you the good news… You think that’s bad? That’s good. That’s good. Jesus says, ‘Blessed are they who persecute you for they say all kinds of evil about you. I’M BLESSED! I’M BLESSED! THE FAVOR OF GOD IS ON THIS HOUSE! I DON’T CARE WHAT THE HATERS SAY! GOD HAS PUT A JACKET ON ME AND I! AM! BLESSED!”


To which Mehta replied:


“No one’s persecuting this guy. He’s just dumb enough to think denying the seriousness of COVID, and putting his congregation in harm’s way to the point where several members may have caught the disease, is worth it as long as he gets to stay open and make money. The people trying to protect those members, he implies, are anti-Christian. This is yet another Christian death cult. If only there wasn’t so much collateral damage associated with this disease.”

There are, of course, famous Christians with much higher profiles than Pastor Greg, e.g., Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Kenneth Copeland—who has an affinity for private jets—and Franklin Graham. The latter is representative of famous evangelicals who have latched on to Donald Trump; Graham has claimed that Trump’s egregious sins happened years ago.


“President Donald Trump is a ‘changed person’ amid recent reports of an alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, said the president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. ‘These alleged affairs, they're alleged with Trump, didn't happen while he was in office,’ Franklin Graham told CNN's Don Lemon…”

Someday the full history of this Christian debacle—the enthusiastic embrace of Trump—will be told, but it will surely be seen in the context of the faith’s susceptibility to crazy—as in clinically defined mental illness. 


I know that atheists occasionally take cheap shots, e.g., suggesting that faith itself is mental illness, but this diverts attention from forms of faith that actually are pathological, that do real damage. Marlene Winell and Valerie Tarico explore this reality in their essay, “The Crazy-Making in Christianity: A Look at Real Psychological Harm,” in John Loftus’ 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. There are 23 essays in this book that illustrate just how far Christianity falls short of being great. 


Early in the essay, Winell & Tarico make these points:


·      “…symptoms like depression or panic attack most often strike those of us who are vulnerable, perhaps because of genetics or perhaps because situational stressors have worn us down. But the reality is that Christian beliefs and Christian living can create those stressors, even setting up multigenerational patterns of abuse, trauma, and self-abuse. Also, over time some religious beliefs can create habitual thought patterns that actually alter brain function, making it difficult for people to heal or grow.” (pp. 376-377)


·      “…Christianity sometimes traps people in a cycle of self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-punishment that can drive vulnerable children and adults to mental illness or suicide. There are ‘crazy-making’ aspects of this thought system that are quite serious.” (p. 377)


Of course, “being Christian” is commonly assumed to be synonymous with being good.  One of my favorite quotes from The Wizard of Oz is Auntie Em’s lament: “Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us. For 23 years, I've been dying to tell you what I thought of you, and now... well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!” 


But as we know, many Christians say and do things they shouldn’t—and can be super manipulative. Christianity is the dominant religion, at least in the United States, and throws its weight around, often with unnoticed consequences, as Winell & Tarico point out:


·      “Christian assumptions based on symbols, laws, and nomenclature are so ubiquitous in our culture as to blind even many nonbelievers to the harm done in the name of God.” (p. 378) 


·      “…when it comes to psychological damage, certain religious beliefs and practices are reliably more toxic than others.” (p. 380)


They also cite the work of Janet Heimlich, who has researched religious maltreatment of children, summarized in her book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment (2011). Fundamentalist brands of Christianity are especially prone to:


·      Authoritarianism, creates a rigid power hierarchy, and demands unquestioning obedience. In major theistic religions, this hierarchy has a god or gods at the top, represented by powerful church leaders who have power over male believers, who in turn have power over females and Children.” (p. 380)


·      “Isolation or separation, is promoted as a means of maintaining spiritual purity…New converts often are encouraged to pull away from extended family members and old friends…” (pp. 380-381)


·      “Fear of sin, hell, a looming ‘end-times’ apocalypse, or amoral heathens binds people in the group, which then provides the only safe escape from the horrifying dangers on the outside.” (p. 381)


Winell & Tarico also reference a 1989 work by Robert Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in ChinaLifton “…identified eight psychological themes associated with destructive mind control” (p. 382); these include loaded language, demands for purity, confessional rituals, and doctrine over person. “Loaded language creates a form of ‘group-speak’ and constricts thinking.” (p. 382) This brings to mind the recitation of creeds during worship services, designed to assure uniformity of belief; the folks in the pews are told precisely what to believe.


Looking back on this practice—from my own days in the ministry—it is a favored maneuver of totalitarian monotheism and its bureaucrats. Preachers won’t say, “You’re free to believe whatever you want about God, and please get on your cell-phones during my sermon and fact-check everything I say.” That’s not the way religion works; Lifton’s list brings to mind Christopher Hitchens’ devastating critique of this kind of group-think:


“Religion is a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life, before you're born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you're dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true? Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate? I've been to North Korea. It has a dead man as its president. Kim Jong-Il is only head of the party and head of the army. He's not head of the state. That office belongs to his deceased father, Kim Il-Sung. It's a necrocracy, a thanatocracy. It's one short of a trinity I might add. The son is the reincarnation of the father. It is the most revolting and utter and absolute and heartless tyranny the human species has ever evolved. But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea!”


Note especially the words, an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep. Is there any part of this that Christians can reasonably deny describes their faith? How else to explain the constant need to be forgiven, with the help of God’s grace through Jesus Christ? The scheme is all worked out, and Jesus himself said why: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)


No pressure there, right? 


When people succumb to totalitarianism—years of indoctrination and the recital of creeds can do it—a lot of damage can be done. An especially helpful part of the Winell & Tarico essay is the discussion of Religion Trauma Syndrome. 


·      Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a new term, coined by Marlene Winell to name a recognizable set of symptoms experienced as a result of prolonged exposure to a toxic religious environment and/or the trauma of leaving the religion.” (p. 391)


·      “Though related to other kinds of chronic trauma, religious trauma is uniquely mind-twisting. The logic of the religion is circular and blames the victims for problems; the system demands deference to spiritual authorities no matter what they do; and the larger society may not identify a problem or intervene as in cases of physical or sexual abuse, even though the same symptoms of depression and anxiety and panic attacks can occur.” (p. 391)


Those who are accustomed to the recitation of creeds, especially during elaborate services of worship that drive home certainties about God, should take heed: “Breaking out of a restrictive, mind-controlling religion can be liberating: certain problems end, such as trying to twist one’s thinking to believe irrational doctrines, and conforming to repressive codes of behavior.” (p. 392)


Imagine growing up in a religion that caught on, say, during medieval times, and that worships divine beings who reside in vast underground cities on the far side of the moon, and who monitor human thoughts telepathically. But our exploration of the moon so far has failed to reveal any evidence whatever for such cities or divine beings. Hence such beliefs qualify as “irrational” doctrines. Does the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult offer anything better? It offers a deity that resides somewhere, somehow, in the sky (but also in human hearts—so say the preachers), and who set up a human sacrifice scheme to enable him/her/it to forgive humans for every careless word they utter. So far, no reliable, verifiable, objective evidence has been found for that deity either. And plenty of evidence, in fact, disconfirms it. A lot of folks who have their doubts—but who face extreme pressure to stick with it—end up as mental shipwrecks. They are victims of the “crazy-making” in Christianity.  


Why isn’t there an Association of Decent Christians Against Abusive Belief? And another… Devout Christians Against Televangelism? Come on folks, can’t you see the problem? Secularists and humanists have seen it—that’s why there’s a Debunking Christianity Blog, and literally hundreds of other blogs, websites, and podcasts trying to take down delusional religious beliefs. And that’s why the “nones” are on the increase. 


Winell & Tarico mention this major shift in human thinking, from The Supernatural Paradigm inherited from the past to The Natural Paradigm, based on “explanations sought within the natural order.” 


“This giant change has been going on for hundreds of years, creating enormous conflict. We might call the transition from supernaturalism to naturalism a ‘meta-paradigm’ shift because it is so comprehensive and encompasses many smaller shifts. It is no less than a transformation in the way humans understand the nature of reality.” (p. 398)


Bring it on.



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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