The Faithless Feminist

Instilling Shame and Guilt is Child Abuse


Two of the many manipulative tools that religions use, particularly fundamentalist religions, are shame and guilt. Psychologists describe shame as an inward focus on what is wrong with ourselves and guilt as a more outward focus on what we did that was wrong.[1] While some posit that guilt can be constructive and allow us to change our behavior, most agree that shame has no redeeming qualities. Recent scientific research shows that these negative emotions may have lasting impacts not only on the person who experiences them but also on future generations as well. This essay will examine the experiences of Ann, one of the authors in my upcoming book Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion (Pitchstone Publishing, Fall 2016), in discussing the ways in which religion instills these emotions in its followers.

In many religions, people are taught that not only do they commit sin, but they are sin. This tenet is based on the transgressions of Adam, and particularly Eve, in the Garden of Eden. Because this first couple disobeyed God, they tainted human nature forever with sin. Sin can take the form of something you did that was wrong or something that you didn’t do that you should have. While Iraneus, Bishop of Lyons, was the first church leader to discuss the concept of original sin in the second century CE, St. Augustine expanded on the concept which was also a favorite of Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. This concept is unique to Christianity even though the story is contained in what Christians call the Old Testament. The letters of Paul in the New Testament first expose this concept as underlying the need for Jesus to come to earth to die and become resurrected. Ann describes the impact of this teaching on her childhood.

As a child, I felt guilty for small transgressions, even things that were normal childhood behavior, such as wishing I could stay home from church on Sunday night to watch Disney or snitching an extra cookie when mom wasn’t looking. I wanted to be pretty, but I worried that I might be committing the sin of vanity, and I felt conflicted about trying to look nice. As I grew older, I struggled to be good so I could stop feeling flawed and wrong, and I developed a debilitating perfectionism.

Even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t headed there, hell seared my imagination with its vivid imagery and kindled a subliminal fear that pervaded my young life. Sometimes I felt viscerally disturbed about some of my faith’s teachings, such as people being stoned to death for something minor or people going to hell when they had never even had a chance to be saved. But those doubts never surfaced into my conscious awareness; I was too afraid.

I doubt that anyone reading these words would conclude that this is a healthy way to raise a child. Yet children are subjected to this barrage of messages every day. How can any child develop a sense of self-worth when they are constantly bombarded with such negative messages from the very people they trust – their parents, their pastors, and their larger community? How can they have any peace of mind? How can they develop empathy for others when they feel so ashamed of themselves? Ann explains.

Trust and obey, we were told, over and over. We were also told that we must die to our sinful selves. It was a sin to trust my own heart, to trust my own mind, to follow my own will.

The problem is, my mind, my heart, and my will were the fundamental tools I needed for knowing myself, for connecting with other humans, for making wise choices, for having empathy and showing compassion, for setting clear boundaries, for living a whole and satisfying life.

But when my religion demanded that I believe things that were irrational, mythical, or contrary to human decency, it had to undermine or destroy these fundamental tools. What else would they have done? If they hadn’t bent my mind, I might have wondered why there are such an amazing number of things in the Bible that make no sense. If they hadn’t suppressed my feelings, I might have decided that human compassion is more important than obedience to dogma, and I might have rebelled at being commanded to love a Being who sends billions of people to hell.

Teaching children that they cannot trust their own ability to think, feel, and decide their own lives, and threatening them with something as fearful as hell if they do trust themselves, is an attempted murder of the essential self in an ever-so-quiet form, and Fundamentalist Christianity had unapologetically tried to kill that part of me.

Dr. Marlene Winell, author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Religion, describes not only her experience with fundamentalism but also those of many patients that she has seen in her career as a family counselor. She explains the impact of this religion on children. “Ultimately, a rigid religion erodes the natural contentment and confidence with which every child begins life and which every healthy being needs.”[2]

When Ann reached puberty, she had the further trauma of feeling betrayed by her body. Because she was a woman, she had internalized all the teachings that are associated with Christianity’s need to repress sexual feelings. The Greek and Roman world in which Christianity arose had what we would consider today a fairly healthy attitude toward sex albeit in a patriarchal society. The early church fathers, however, wrote volumes on how sex is only for procreation and that female bodies are unclean. Martin Luther emphasized the link between original sin and lust. Women, of course, were held responsible.

Darrel Ray, a psychologist who writes extensively about the damage religion does to a person’s attitude toward sex, states that “Religions of all kinds use our powerful sex drives to infect us with ideas that benefit the religion and hurt and inhibit our ability to be truly human.”[3] Thus Ann, raised in an extreme form of these teachings, was ill prepared to enter into marriage. Even though she married a man who didn’t want her to be submissive, she had never learned how to truly care for another person or how to solve problems when they arose.

As the years went by, Eric and I struggled more and more with the issues in our marriage, and the obedience-over-feelings doctrine that I had learned as a child began to tear my life apart. Without an awareness of most of my own thoughts and feelings, how could I love? I felt as though vital parts of me were lost, and I began to despair.

Unfortunately, the marriage did not survive. Since her divorce, Ann has been able to understand the damaging effects of the religion she was raised in and has left it behind. This was a long process involving reading many books by others who questioned their religion including the works of Marlene Winell and Valerie Tarico (Trusting Doubt). She also found solace in writing down her experiences and thoughts about religion.

Recently, research has been conducted that shows that trauma can not only influence an individual but may actually change a person’s brain chemistry such that successive generations can inherit a predisposition to exhibit the same signs of trauma. This research began with the study of children of parents who experienced the Holocaust. Studies conducted by neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York showed that “the descendants showed a greater sense of insecurity and instability, and focused on the potential for impending danger even when no danger was present.” The study of epigenetics, changes from environmental factors that switch genes on and off, shows that these changes may be passed on to the next generation. In addition, these changes affect each gender in different ways. As an example, one study showed that brains of teenage girls exposed to high levels of family stress when they were toddlers showed changes in their brain chemistry in areas responsible for emotional regulation.[4] Gender differences in certain types of diseases show that women are diagnosed twice as frequently with depression, anxiety, and panic disorders.[5]

In the past, child rearing techniques condoned physical punishment. Today, a state’s child protective services will intervene when children are severely mistreated by their parents. Yet there is no prohibition for the psychological damage done to children through the terror of indoctrination into extreme religions such as that experienced by Ann.

While I doubt whether any state will ever promulgate such a prohibition in my lifetime, I can still hope that this type of radical fundamentalism will die out as more and more people in the United States express themselves as “nones.”

Ann is one of 22 authors who describe their experiences in Women Beyond Belief. The book will be available in the fall. I hope that not only you will purchase the book but that you will encourage any woman who has been caught in the web of shame and guilt to read it as well. Ann’s journey has been long and hard. We should do everything we can to assure that children are not subjected to this practice, which I will gladly call child abuse.



[2] Marlene Winell, Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Religion (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2007), 253.

[3] Darrel Ray, Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality (Bonner Springs, KA: IPC Press, 2012), 23.

[4] Marsa, Linda (2016, March). Sex on the Brain. Discover, p. 56.

[5] Ibid.

About the Author Karen Garst