This was taken from my most recent post in my outside blog - The Atheist Goddess:

Friday, April 2, 2010

Chronic Guilt Disorder - A Religious Psychiatric Pathology

I remember many things of being a young theist child. Some of these things are nice memories, others are not nice, and some I thought were nice at the time.

One of the memories that falls into the latter is my Chronic Guilt as a young Christian. I am a psychology undergraduate major, and I made up the term "Chronic Guilt Disorder" [You will not find it in any medical or psychiatric dictionary] to define a phenomena quite common among religious people, but especially prevalent and severe among Christians. Although, among Christians, the length they will go to make up for their Chronic Guilt, which in turn will often lead to an inferiority complex, varies in extremity.

With Easter coming up in just 2 days, I thought the timing for writing this blog post was perfect. Easter is a "holiday" which symbolizes the PINNACLE of Christian Chronic Guilt Disorder. In fact, the whole holiday is based on the idea that God was killed by a sinful world to take away their sins. And that because of God's perfection, no one is worthy of this salvation.

As a christian child I believed that I was an unworthy human being, a guilty evil sinner who deserved to be punished. In fact, unbeknownst to my parents, I would practice a mild form of self-injury [A REAL DOCUMENTED PSYCHOLOGICAL DISORDER, more commonly known as "cutting yourself"] as a way to show my repentance to Jesus, and I always did it around Easter. The self-injury was light, I would merely scratch myself or pick at scabs, just to induce slight pain. Then I would feel "cleansed of sin." I look back now as an atheist and shake my head at the insanity of this. I was only a child, but I was already practicing self-destructive habits in the name of God!

However, my "scratching for Christ" is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to religious self-destructive behaviors due to Chronic Guilt Disorder.

In fact, it seems that not only does religion create self-destructive behaviors and attitudes, it PURPOSELY attempts to force them upon it's followers by using the weapon of SIN. In a VERY well done attack on the evils perpetuated by Christianity, George H. Smith hits this issue on the nail when he writes,

"The notion of the sin is perhaps the most effective sanction ever invented. For a Christian, to sin is the worst thing imaginable, and the thought of committing a sin can cause intense guilt. [...] Sin represents something metaphysically monstrous, something that directly undercuts a man's [or woman's] sense of self-esteem, and this adds to its effectiveness as a manipulative device." - p. 301 of "Atheism: The Case Agains God" - By George H. Smith.

I remember that as a Christian child I would feel horribly guilty for things that were completely out of porportion to the amount of guilt that should be displayed. When I would lie or backsass my parents one day, on Sunday in church, I would be silently crying and begging God for forgiveness, terrified of God's wrath.

You see... fear IS a powerful weapon of Christendom, but GUILT is MUCH MORE potent of a weapon!!
If you can make someone believe they are worthless, you can break them.

As I said, though, the examples of religious self-destruction go far beyond "scratching yourself." People harm their bodies and their psyches in the name of repentence to God. Sometimes they do very serious harm.

Although severe physical self-punishment was far more common in past centuries, it remains today!
The bible gives us GREAT role models as to how to act when God is "angry with you." Over and over it speaks of the people weeping and tearing their hair and putting on "sack cloth."

In the middle ages, a priest who wished to get on God's good side wore a "hair shirt" for a great portion of his life without ever taking it off. A hair shirt is a very uncomfortable and unsanitary garment made entirely of human hair.

When lice infested his hair shirt, you would have thought he would have taken it off, right? WRONG!! He took his suffering from the parasites to be an even greater way to show repentence to God. So he tortured himself for years wearing a dirty, uncomfortable, unsanitary, and infested garment to be "good for God." [What kind of insane god would sanction that?!]

Think extreme forms of self-punishment for God exist only in the past? You're wrong!

In some modern Christian sects it is common to go through the EXCRUCIATING practice of LITERALLY reinacting the crucifiction on a LIVING person!! The person who is the "crucified" is revered for his/ her "piousness."
This picture is from the Phillipines and is typical of such practices.

More common forms of Self-Punishment are, Fasting, Self-Mutilation or Self Beating, and the Self-Deprivation practices common during Lent among Catholics. ["What are you going to give up for Lent?"]

These may be seen on first glance as harmless, but they are not. The main problem with the self-deprivation practice of Lent, is that it causes emotional distress and temptation and possibly depression among those who fail to hold to their "vows." You may object that it is no worse than dieting. However, dieting is done out of medical NECESSITY!! Dieting has a progressive PURPOSE!! It is not simply about deprivation!! Dieting is about changing your lifestyle and becoming a healthy person! And, dieting should ALWAYS be done only under the supervision of a medical doctor!

Which brings us to the next "supposedly harmless" practice - Fasting. Fasting is the practice [for religious or other reasons] of depriving yourself of food for a certain amount of time [usually only a day]. In moderation, fasting CAN be harmless. However, if taken to an extreme, fasting is DANGEROUS!! Since a person is depriving themselves of all food, if fasting is done for more than a day, it becomes purposeful starvation. If you fast for more time than your doctor would recommend, you are risking PERMANENT damage to your body and your overall physical health!! Depriving yourself of food will wreck havoc with your electrolytes, essential chemicals in your blood that regulate hydration, and are critical for nerve and muscle function. You will set your blood sugar out of wack, causing weakness, nausea and fatigue. Prolonged deprivation [when your body goes into starvation mode] will cause your body to start [literally] EATING ITSELF!! Your body will attempt to keep you alive by first absorbing your muscles, and then absorbing your fats. Then your vital organs will start to shut down. [But if you get to that point, the point at which death can happen, you're a dumbass because you had more than enough time to save yourself from your PURPOSEFUL starvation]. You see, you may see it as a religious practice, but your body doesn't see that. It just sees you as starving and will act exactly as it does when you are starving of other causes.

Self- Beating - In the time of the Black Death, a group of zealot Christians [who were scorned by the organized church] would go from town to town in ragged clothing, beating themselves unmercifully with whips and sticks to try to get God to lift the plague from the "good Christian people." They were called, the Flagellants.
Even today some christians practice this archaic abuse on themselves!
An Image of Flagellant actors in a film about the Black Death:

Although all of this seems horrible... perhaps what is more horrible is the effect of EMOTIONAL self-punishment! What I mean by that is that Chronic Guilt [which is characterized by guilt that far exceeds the level of the crime or guilt without a crime] does emotional damage.

A person who believes that they constantly commit evil acts, will come to believe that they ARE evil, and [in the minds of any good person] thus they are worthless.

In this case the bully that lowers the victim's self-esteem, is not a person, but a poisonous ideology which is [in essense] a never-ending guilt trip.

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Didn't I read that Pope John Paul II used to flagellate himself?
Yup. It just came out recently that he did these things to himself.
I would like to mention one of my favorite quotes by an atheist... one that I think sums up this entire article: "When one person has a delusion, we call it mental illness. When many people have a delusion, we call it 'religion.'"
I never "had religion" and never had to deal with this level of pain/guilt. This gives me a new perspective of what one of the gifts of religion may be. Thanks for the post.
You know the most sick thing about it is that the people seem to think [unconsiously] that being unhappy is virtue. And thus they get satisfaction out of it.
It's not easy reading these posts. I remember, as a child, weeping and begging god for forgiveness. I went to great lengths to please him. But when you are attempting to suffocate your own natural inclinations or learning to navigate between your own selfish nature and societies rules; let alone religious rules. And you couple that with being told you will burn for eternity if you don't stop teasing your sister. The results are akin to a powder keg. So, I attempted to kill myself when I was in second grade because of that guilt. I wrote suicide notes, through out elementary school, then I burned them because that was a sin as well, of course. When I was a teenager I toyed with the idea of castrating myself because of the sexual thoughts I was having. These weren't even homosexual thoughts or any strange, fringe sexual fantasies. They were simply "digging the cute girl in class" stuff.

I am not posting this as a cry for help or anything lame like that. I am a well adjusted man who finally rid himself of the shackles of religion. I am posting this to show how deeply it can effect the young. The problem is not with a few people who took it too serious or who were "easily tempted by the devil" . You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the church who didn't have similar thoughts/feelings. Religion fights nature and truth on all sides. Evolutionarily speaking, religion is one of the most adaptable parasites on earth and the greatest source of depression. It's no mystery to me that America is not only one of the most religious countries in the world but the most medicated when it comes to depression.
Well said Caleb, and thanks for sharing a painful story. I'm glad that you finally broke free.
Wow... there's so much of your life I was totally clueless about. :(
I grew up Catholic as well, and spent numerous nights of my childhood crying myself to sleep because I knew I would go to hell. My parents (one catholic, one methodist) were never married, and I was a child of sin. It did not help that all my catechism teachers instantly knew that because the class lists would list two separate names, a last name and a family name, and only people like me were listed like that (everyone else just had a family name, even if their last name was different). Being stuck in catechism until I was 17 thanks to our diocese, make my awkward teenage years even more awkward. About 5th grade is when I came to the conclusion that "god loved everybody else, except me." I was determined at that point to become a nun so then he would have to love me too. Everyone else was having relatively happy (to my knowledge, of course, who knows what happens in any given living room) childhoods, I felt guilty about existing. I felt guilty about my mother spending any money on me, about my family members wasting gas money to come visit me, tax dollars were wasted on my reduced-priced lunches. I felt guilty bullies wasted their time of day ruining mine; so I must really, really, really be weird if they hated me so much they would talk to me. They must all know that I'm a demon in a human body.

Eventually I came to the conclusion, I'm going to hell anyways, fuck it! Might as well enjoy myself while I'm not burning for the rest of eternity. I turned out OK I guess. I realized what a load of horse shit it was that ruined my innocent childhood ignorance. Now just to get rid of the deep-seeded depression I have had since I was in 5th grade and all the issues that came with it...
I'm so sorry Caitlin.
Sorry Caitlin... but what's a "catechism?"
"A catechism (pronounced /ˈkætəkɪzəm/; Ancient Greek: κατηχισμός from kata = "down" + echein = "to sound", literally "to sound down" (into the ears), i.e. to indoctrinate) is a summary or exposition of doctrine, traditionally used in Christian religious teaching from New Testament times to the present.[1] Catechisms are doctrinal manuals often in the form of questions followed by answers to be memorized, a format that has been used in non-religious or secular contexts as well.

As defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 5:

Catechesis (pronounced /ˌkætəˈkiːsɪs/) is an education in the faith of children, young people and adults which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life."


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