Michael Moloney

Public Forum – Lead us not…

Healing Religious Trauma

Healing religious trauma - cairn stones
Heal guilt and shame – Image by courtesy of Bekir Dönmez

Although never seriously molested, and I sympathise with those who have been, I was sexually fondled by churchmen in my boyhood and I was once indecently ‘spanked’ by a Catholic priest—as described in my forthcoming book.  Such attention was disconcerting and confusing, also unwelcome, but as was said of a similar experience by someone else “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.” It was not life changing for me and no doubt it gave pleasure to the priest.  Comparing different kinds of abuse seems unwise as the impact will be different for every experience of abuse on each individual, but my religious instruction, inculcating guilt and shame, scarred my mind enduringly and pleased no one.

The majority of children indoctrinated at school go on to renounce religion in adulthood, as I did. Unfortunately, rejection does not promptly disengage the billions of neural connections made in the brain during a child’s formative years. I and countless other apostates, have experienced distress caused by the religious indoctrination (RI) we received in childhood. In extreme cases, RI gives rise to trauma, but the milder distress borne by others is unrecorded and quietly neglected. My book points out weaknesses in studies claiming benefits for religious belief. Good quality research in this field is lacking for an unexpected reason.

Having a sensitive nature is a positive attribute. It’s what makes us human.  But sensitive individuals are especially susceptible to corrosive feelings of guilt and shame, feelings that are sharpened by Christianity’s relentless imputation of culpability.  Here are some techniques that helped in healing religious guilt and shame and restoring my self-esteem.

Support for Religious Trauma

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights starts with: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”  There are no absolute universal standards against which certain actions can be judged right or wrong, instead individuals tend to adopt a moral code related to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances.  After all, in some cultures even cannibalism is not considered immoral.  In a civilised society, provided you do not disturb the peace and wellbeing of others, nothing you do is wrong or ‘sinful’ unless you choose to make it be so – you are the arbiter.

Restorative Writing

Writing can support one’s self-esteem. Listing our strengths and our feelings is exhilarating and restorative.  Many years ago I sat down quietly to recall and write a list of all the positive things that have happened in my life and all the wonderful people I have been fortunate to meet and be close to.  This helped to reduce the significance of early damaging experiences, and my writings remain available for me to review and recall.  As best-selling author Danielle Steel wrote: “When you can bring yourself to write about it one day, you will find it all less painful.”

The Tyranny of Inner Voices

At some point in my middle years it dawned on me that my inner voice was crushingly hostile, not friendly and supportive as it should be.  Management psychologist Max A. Eggert says: “Sometimes the way we talk to ourselves works against us. We all have voices in our heads that monitor what we do and how we behave. Sometimes the voices are our own; sometimes they are voices of people significant in our past: parents or teachers, in fact anyone in our childhood who was emotionally significant. Sometimes the voices are helpful, sometimes not.…  By all means listen to your inner voice, but do not allow yourself to be ruled by it at all times.”

Cognitive Distortion

Max continues: “Personalising is a self-defeating mind game. When you personalise, you take full personal responsibility for a mishap or difficulty. Events occur for a whole host of reasons, but you take full personal responsibility even if your part was minor.  You can always do more, try harder, be more persistent, but you can’t control or be the cause of everything. If you continually personalise the events in your life you will be condemned to a life of everlasting guilt, shame and self-denigration.”