Some of us who have left religion can rightly be considered abuse survivors. Sometimes the abuse is obvious and extreme. Sometimes it’s more subtle, but still leaves a lasting impact. The abuse largely consists of having been denied intellectual and emotional autonomy; denied the right to form our own opinions, to choose our own identities, to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. We were taught to be complicit in our own abuse, to agree and submit and accept that yes, denying ourselves was right and good. We were taught to thank the people who held the rod over our heads.
I don’t think all religion does this, or that all people who were religious in their formative years suffer the psychological damage I’m talking about. I think it’s more likely to occur for those who had a parent or spiritual leader with a personality disorder (narcissism is common, in my experience) and who had a compliant, anxious-to-please temperament.
Being one of these, let me tell you what it’s like in my head. I have no confidence in my own ability or freedom to decide what’s right or best, what “a good life” or being a good person means. From infancy, these things were handed to me, with unquestionable authority. Although I began the process of rejecting and questioning that years ago, there’s a part of my brain that is still waiting to accept beliefs and moral dictates from outside. We all have that vulnerability, I think, that sense that it would be such a relief to let someone else tell us what is good and bad, true and false. But mine was strengthened by having been allowed to dominate for the first two decades of my life. My brain was nearly fully formed by the time I shook it off, and it’s still there. Still a threat.
It’s the thing I fear most. I was thinking through my fears today, and when I voiced this one to myself — “I’m afraid of living the next two decades under someone’s thumb, the way I was for the first two” — I began shaking and crying. I’m really, really afraid of that. And I know how my brain works, so I know how real a danger it is.
One thing this means is that when someone expresses their opinion in a flat, factual way, I become hella defensive. Those who are close to me know this well. It’s true that a person can state their beliefs without implying that those beliefs are absolutely correct and you’d better believe them or else — but the part of my brain that’s looking to receive truth from outside is seduced by their confidence, their apparent certainty. I feel it leaning in, wanting to just let go, acquiesce, say “Ah yes, you’re right of course” without giving it further thought. And that feeling terrifies me, and I pull back as hard as I can, in a way that is not at all rational or measured.
We’re all threatened by having our beliefs challenged, but some of us are also threatened by the possibility that we’ll change our beliefs not because we thought them through, not because they fit with our experience of the world, but because it feels so good to surrender and let someone else do the deciding.
I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t know how to let my defenses down while the surrender-hungry part of my brain is still so strong. I’m not at all convinced that that would be a wise thing to do. So for me, right now, anyone who tries to convince me of something using emotional tactics, or blunt statements that don’t explicitly acknowledge their uncertainty or my right to think differently, is likely to trigger a shitstorm of defensiveness. If anyone who’s been through this has any advice, let me know.