|Christian views on Hell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Although I was raised in a Protestant denomination that was neither evangelical nor fundamentalist and was what I'd describe as liberal-to-moderate, this fear was instilled in me from an early age. The path to salvation - the only path to salvation - was found in belief and not in acts. To escape hell, one had to believe. Good acts were encouraged, but they would not be enough. Belief was the key. Without belief, hell was one's final destination.
It did not take me long to discover a couple of hard truths about the human mind. First, I sometimes had thoughts and images pop into my mind that did not seem voluntary. I might be daydreaming and have a scary or disturbing image pop into my head. I didn't want it there, but there it was. I know now that this is a common experience, and the point is simply that we are not 100% in control of our thoughts 100% of the time. Even today, I sometimes have thoughts I don't particularly like or wish I didn't have. I did not understand this at the time, and it used to terrify me that these thoughts or images might be "unholy." This fear was reinforced at church. As I neared adolescence, some of them involved the sorts of sexual content I was told was unacceptable for good Christians. Thoughts over which I had no control could send me to hell, and that was terrifying.
The second truth, and one that would take me even longer to discover, was that belief itself was not entirely voluntary. I used to be a believing Christian, but once the doubts entered my mind, there was no shutting them off. No matter how many times I was told I should believe and reminded of what would happen to me if I did not, I could not make myself believe. I desperately wanted to believe again, and I tried in every way I could imagine. Reading the Christian bible, prayer, and speaking with clergy only led to stronger doubt. There was a point in time after which I realized I could no longer believe. And this meant that I was doomed to an eternity in hell and quite a bit of mistreatment in this life by Christians who would now view me as evil.
The adults who indoctrinated me did not seem to be particularly bothered by the fear they instilled. In fact, it seemed quite deliberate. I needed to believe to save my soul. I needed to believe because hell awaited if I did not. It was for my own good that I should be made to fear the god they worshiped. Fear would keep me on the right path. But I was already an anxious child, and so it is very difficult for me to imagine that they did not see the damage this was doing to me. I tried to keep the internal terror to myself for fear that I'd disappoint those who were so determined to make sure I shared their beliefs, but it leaked out in so many ways.
When I say that imposing religion on our children is abusive, this is the sort of thing to which I am referring. I was not systematically beaten until I submitted to religious doctrine (although I was forcibly dragged to church on multiple occasions, threatened with physical punishment, and smacked around a few times). That was nothing compared to the nights I cried myself to sleep because of my growing doubts and what I had been told about where they would lead. I was deprived of the one place that was supposed to be safe: my own mind. I was taught that only belief could save me and that my own thoughts could doom me to hell. And yet, I realized that I had little control over my thoughts and less over my beliefs. This was psychological abuse.
Even after I no longer believed in hell, I knew that the disappointment my doubts produced in others was very real. I had let everybody down. The messages about nonbelievers I had internalized were very negative. I was flawed, defective, evil. I would bring shame to my family and would probably be cast out. I'd be all alone. My mind had betrayed me.
Christianity has caused and continues to cause a fair amount of harm. It is difficult to arrange all the forms of harm into a meaningful hierarchy, but I think a case can be made that depriving children of the safety of their own minds should be near the top. Christianity places far too much emphasis on achieving conformity through instilling fear of one's own mind. Breaking free from that, while frightening at the time, would prove to be the most liberating experience of my life.