It wasn’t until 2010 that I realized how dangerous one’s beliefs can be. I was part of a church that was everything that conservative and fundamentalist evangelicals say they want in a church; patriarchal; authoritative, with an emphasis on church discipline and courts; courtship instead of dating; creation not evolution; women and wives made the food and wore the dresses; men submitted to the elders and the women submitted to the men; staunchly libertarian, strong support for men like Ron Paul; dominionist, liturgical, conquest-oriented; homeschooling not public or private schooling. Our pastor was friends with many of the bigwigs in homeschooling and conservative theological circles – R. C. Sproul Jr, Doug Phillips, Geoff Bodkin, Doug Wilson, etc.
When my time at the church ended and the smoke and debris of my departure had settled, I had a serious case of PTSD and could not drive past a church building, or look at my Bible, or pray, without being overwhelmed by panic attacks, nausea, and terror. This intense level of reaction continued for a full year, and in each year following has only gradually diminished. Today I still have mild anxiety about attending worship, and at least once a month simply cannot face the prospect of going.
What I learned is that certain forms of the church, certain structures, have certain results. What I discovered is that the thirst for authority frequently translates into a thirst for authoritarianism in doctrine, worship, and practice. The thirst for strong leadership frequently translates into dictatorial power.
Conservatives insist these are bugs, not features, of their beliefs.
In his fascinating book, Cruel God, Kind God, retired Presbyterian minister and psychotherapist Zenon Lotufo explores just how wrong these conservatives are. He shows how psychological and spiritual abuse are, in fact, the staples of conservative theology. His sub-title says it all: How Images of God Shape Belief, Attitude, and Outlook.
The thesis of his book is startlingly simple – our view of God shapes our view of everything. If the God we worship is wrathful, cruel, vindictive, and merciful only after being appeased by blood, only conditionally, then this leads to certain kinds of theologies, and people are shaped in certain kinds of ways.
In the book, he pinpoints the origins of what he terms “Cruel God Theology” and “Cruel God Christianity” in a system that he terms the “Plan of Salvation,” a system rooted in the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, which then creates theological sub-constructs in the Latin (or Western, or Augustinian) doctrine of original inherited sin, the infallibility of Scripture, the predestination of the elect and damned (in some instances), and the doctrine of eternal torment in hell. All of these sub-doctrines are constructed to defend and conceal the vindictive core of Cruel God Christianity, a wrathful God that can only be appeased by death and blood.
Once exposed in this way, the consequences of such a view are easy to predict for anyone with knowledge of the psychology of abuse.
Anxiety, shame, and neurotic guilt are common consequences of such process. Less easy to detect but nevertheless perceptible in the attitudes and behavior of Christians who have been affected by conservative theology, is the inhibition of the full development of personality. In this case, intellectual and affective elements are sacrificed in order to achieve an inner appeasement that reconciles the contradictory attributes of God and calms down the feelings that stem from these attributes. (p. 5)
The suggestion that the anxiety, shame, and neurotic guilt which result from the abusive theology of Cruel God Christianity reduces intellectual and spiritual development is no partisan slight. It is well known from the investigation of other forms of psychological abuse that intellectual, emotional, and psychological maturity are hampered by such traumatic systems, and that the brains of those involved do not develop properly.
As Lotufo notes,
The doctrine of penal satisfaction is the dorsal spine of the plan of salvation and of conservative theology as a whole, so this book dedicates more attention to it than to other doctrines, but one must bear in mind that such conservative theology promotes a doctrinaire system and can be understood only in the context of this system. We shall see that there is evidence that shows that the beliefs that make up this plan of salvation are harmful to mental health and also to spiritual life. (p. 22).