I grew up in a conservative Christian church-going family. During years of Sunday school, church services and various fellowship groups, I was fed a diet of deception which helped undermine my fragile self-esteem. My sensitivity and having emotionally disconnected parents who were in constant conflict didn't help, and it's difficult to judge exactly how much of the damage was due to religious indoctrination, and how much was simply due to the environment I grew up in. My parents could return from a church service where the minister preached on the theme of “Love”, and have a blazingly abusive argument. Throw in this level of hypocrisy, and you get a boy who grows up into one seriously confused adult.
Childhood religious teaching has a pervasive effect. For many years into adulthood I continued attending church before I wised up, and even became involved in the church leadership. At the time I believed I was doing the right thing; but looking back I can see how appallingly narrow-minded and naïve I was.
Realising that I had been misled was painful, and didn't suddenly undo overnight the damage that had been done to my psyche over many years. So here are some tips on what I learned in my attempts to recover from a Christian upbringing:
Learn to Forgive Yourself
At the core of Christianity is the doctrine of salvation: we need a saviour because we are all inherently sinful. This resonates with us because of course we all make mistakes which hurt other people and feel guilty from time to time. We're taught that we're sinful and need Jesus's death to atone for us, loading us up with a truckload of unnecessary guilt in the process. Little old me caused God's only son to die, when I wasn't even born. And if I don't get “saved”, most brands of Christianity teach that we will burn for all eternity in hell.
What a load of baloney.
You are not a bad person. You are capable of forgiving yourself, apologising and making amends when you hurt other people. Let go of perfectionist guilt that triggers whenever you get anything wrong. You do not need to be perfect. Start acknowledging your mistakes, especially with the people who have been effected. Tell them that you're sorry, and mean it. If you're not, do some emotional healing work to enable yourself to feel more empathy for other people. Make amends when you feel guilty, and recognise when your guilt is out-of-proportion with you have actually done; that's probably the old religious thing rearing its ugly head again. Deal with any remaining guilt and shame by telling a friend you trust.
Heal Your Shame
Shame is probably the most long-lasting after-effect of a religious upbringing. Taking on some level of shame while growing up is probably inevitable, but religious teaching broadens the scope and drives it much deeper. When you're taught that there's a God watching over your every move, you get to feel self-conscious even when you're by yourself. Here are some perfectly normal masculine traits that I learned to be ashamed of:
- Thinking for myself
- Sexuality and wanting to have sex
- Interest in Women
- Being interested in and attracted to attractive women, rather than just plain ones
- Masculine power
- A thirst for wisdom and knowledge
- Knowing the truth
The way to heal shame is by exposing the things you are ashamed of to other people who are willing to offer you love and acceptance in return. Start seeking out men and women in your life with whom you can be really honest about the things you have been shamed about that still control or restrict you from being your true self.
Shame is the biggest and most insidious insecurity we have, so this is the most powerful thing you can do to boost your self-confidence. For more on healing shame, see Step 13: Heal Your Shame in Confident Man.
You have every right to be angry with the people, possibly including your parents, who taught you to believe things that weren't true before you were old enough and wise enough to discern the difference for yourself. The people who taught you these things were old enough to know better, and the fact that they operated out of fear and ignorance is no excuse.
The God of the Bible is a personification of human qualities projected by primitive people desperate for someone to be in control of the often hostile universe they found themselves living in. But you weren't to know that when you were just a kid. You were probably taught that getting angry was bad and inappropriate, right about the same time that you were taught about this jealous, angry God of the Old Testament who got away with anything he liked.
You may still have trouble getting angry about this, and other things, because Christianity taught you to be subservient instead. If this is the case for you, see Step 16: Get In Touch With Your Anger in Confident Man.
Claim Your Power Back
The bible has popular appeal because it appeals to the weak and the dis-empowered masses. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. This is at odds with reality; the meek clearly aren't about to inherit the earth any time soon, and the notion of a new heaven, a new earth, and an afterlife are all made up to help appease our fear of destruction and death.
It's time to claim your power back. Few men will fully accomplish this: most men lead lives of quiet desperation. There can only be one truly alpha male in any group. But that doesn't mean you should give up and placate your restlessness with biblical platitudes. Most men are off cowering before their wives/girlfriends or sucking up to women in the vain hope of attracting one. The women in their lives get sick of this kind of behaviour pretty quickly because they're biologically wired to want a real man, not a feminised 21st century wuss. Some men are so out of touch with their masculinity that they date other men instead. But at least you are reading this and have a chance of claiming back the power that was taken from you.
Read the Skills section of Confident Man, and start developing the life skills you need to get your power back.
Learn to Trust Yourself
If you were anything like me, you probably noticed that the God that you were being taught about when you were a kid never actually showed up. But some adult you trusted told you he was real, so you went along with it anyway. At times perhaps you had some unexpected emotional reaction that people encouraged you to interpret in spiritual terms, because they were unaware of how human emotions work and keen to find any evidence to validate their flaky beliefs.
In doing all this, you learned to stop trusting your own intuition that told you that the God they spoke of was every bit as real as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. After years of this kind of self-delusion, you may find it difficult to trust your intuition now. The way to restore your intuition is to assess people and events based on gut instinct, and refine your opinion each time you get information that confirms or denies your original opinion. Stop being neutral about things to avoid conflict, and start having an opinion.
You're likely to be pretty bad at this to start with, but the more practise you get, the better your intuition will develop. It helps to have a supportive environment to do this, so that people don't just come down on you like a ton of bricks when you get it wrong, which inevitably you will at first.
Experience Love From Non-Christians
The Bible teaches that love comes from God, but that's just another example of Christian arrogance and self-righteousness. Love is a normal human emotion with an evolutionary basis just like our other emotions. Its purpose is to bond people together, which enhanced our ancestor's survival. In modern western society, physical survival is for the most part no longer at stake due to lack of love, but mental and emotional health sure are.
Seek out non-Christians who have the capacity to show love to you, and give them every reason to do so. In other words, show them some love first. This will help you to reprogram two flawed beliefs: firstly, that non-Christians are somehow bad people for not accepting Jesus as lord and saviour, and secondly that only Christians are capable of genuine love. Once I began to experience the inclusive love of open-minded non-Christians, I was able to see how shallow, restrictive, judgemental and controlling the love that many Christians offer is.
Christians are also capable of showing genuine love; it is, after all, a basic human trait not restricted to any particular ideology. But when it comes packaged with a flawed belief system that they want you to adopt, it gets messy to separate the two.
Find A New Community
One of the compelling things about religion is the sense of community that all religions offer. People need community and religious people tend to report higher levels of happiness than non-religious people as a result. The sense of community and the ability to discriminate “us” from “them” addresses a basic human need.
Find yourself a community of like-minded people to hang around in. Seek out other men who had a Christian upbringing and have managed to break away and recover from it. Commit yourself to living the most inspired, conscious, loving life possible and don't let baggage from your past get in your way of doing it. Learn from other men ahead of you on the road, and let them be your inspiration.
Choose any community which participates in regular activities that you can enjoy. Many people find community by joining a sporting team. That way you'll get your social and exercise needs met all in the one hit, keeping you fit psychologically and physically; both of which are great for your confidence.
Learn to Trust Other People
Having been misled by misguided people about something so fundamental as the meaning and purpose of life and where we all came from, it's natural that you might be a little hesitant to trust other people again. Learning to think for yourself and doing the other things recommended in this article should help give you a stable basis for discerning when people are telling you the truth, and when they're feeding you self-serving dogma.
Ultimately you need to be comfortable taking risks when it comes to trusting other people. Some will be trustworthy, some will not. Developing your intuition will help you in discerning between the two. You also need to drop your perfectionism that makes it hard for you to forgive yourself when you get it wrong. As you get better at discerning who's trustworthy, you'll be more comfortable putting increasing amounts of trust in them without fear that you'll just be fooled again.
Speak The Truth
Start speaking the truth at every opportunity. Don't hold back just because you're worried about what other people will think. There are other men out there waiting for your leadership to help free them from the tyranny of religious indoctrination. They need your inspiration but they won't even hear from you if you don't speak up.
Forget about converting the rest of your family though. They've got to learn to grow up in their own time. There's too much emotional baggage within a family for anyone to be objective about anything; much less such an all-consuming topic as religion. There's no point harping on at your mother/sister/brother/father that their belief system is made-up when they invite you to the Christmas Day church service. Just decline politely, move on, and prove the point that Christianity is an oppressive religion by taking your personal growth beyond what was possible within its narrow constraints. Commit to becoming a positive example by having the most powerfully loving life you possibly can now that you're liberated from it.
Find Your Mission In Life
If your mission in life up until now has been to “preach the gospel”, to “serve God” or anything else based on your old religious beliefs, you need to find a new mission in life, and possibly some new passions. Your mission should be something sufficiently engrossing for you that nothing would stand in your way of working towards it. This is important to keep you motivated when life throws obstacles in your way. Without a mission, you're likely to wander a little aimlessly, feel restless and think that life has no meaning.
Keep in mind that you're biologically wired to want to connect with other people, so this is likely to factor in your mission somewhere. It has taken me some time to determine my new mission in life, and to begin working towards it in a focused way. It's still a work in progress. Remember that life is all about the journey, not the destination. This may seem counter-intuitive if you grew up with the Christian notion that heaven and the after-life is when you reap the rewards of what you sow in this life. It's not: this life is where you both sow and reap, and having a mission to guide you in the journey helps you stay focused and avoid taking detours.
Work towards aligning your mission, the things you are passionate about, your relationships and your career, and you're headed for the good life.
Be Patient With Yourself
I was involved in Christianity for at least 32 years; about 20 of those professing it as my own. The damage this did was spread over many years. You don't just undo 30+ years of mental programming over night. It takes time. So be patient with yourself. On the days when the shame seems overwhelming or you just feel like you hate yourself, remember that you were taught to feel these things when you were very young. Don't beat yourself up for taking a long time to get over it. Stick at it, get support from other guys who have been there before, and you will get there.
For more tips on how to recover from your religious upbringing, see Step 10: Ditch Your Childhood Religion in The Confident Man Program Guide.