What are some examples of this kind of toxic religion and its sadistic/masochistic moralism? Within the wider scope of historical records, we know of the religious crusades in the Middle Ages. And even closer, we know of religion's missionary zeal to evangelize other cultures, to subject other people to a forced worship of a god-image foreign to them and their history. But, closer home and to our present time, we observe a moralistic rejection of people who differ from us in skin color, or ethnicity, or customs, as well as other countries described in tones of inferiority and disgust.
Those images we all know very well. They are common-place in our history books but also our print and other media coverage today. However, this theme of a toxic, punitive religion appears more subtly in our public conversations and in my consulting room.
I am referencing here examples such as the following:
- bullying tactics in the boardrooms, cubicles, and conference rooms of our corporations;
- substance abuse in families resulting in physical or emotional abuse hidden from public view;
- the break-up of marriages in which there is no moral center to guide the formations of erotic desire;
- bullying behaviors on the playgrounds of our children by aggressive kids who are themselves bullied;
- an enthrallment with sports in which competition trumps sportsmanship and winning overshadows the under-observed acts of courage and finesse;
- sermons of would-be prominent preachers who are (1) afraid to tell their congregations the truth about the way scientific investigation of religious traditions and sacred documents have brought new light to the origins of their religion's history, or (2) avoiding the dialogical exchange between secular culture and religious tradition, or (3) seduced by the power-obsessed right-wing's ideology and tactics, or (4) infatuated with the glamour of performing for TV, radio, and movies.
Except for this last example, you may wonder why I listed the previous examples as having anything to do with "psychological abuse in the name of religion." The reason is this. Our daily life is shaped directly or indirectly by our religious vision and experience, whatever that religion may be. And this brings me to the question of how I define religion.
Following the lead of Paul Tillich, one of the most insightful of Protestant theologians in the last 100 years, religion may be defined in two ways, what Tillich referred to as "a larger concept and a narrower one."
The larger concept of religion has appeared as the dimension of ultimate
reality in the different realms of man's encounter with reality. It is, to use
a metaphor, the dimension of depth itself. ... Religion is this basic and
universal sense I have called "being grasped by an ultimate concern"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This definition, however, is also valid for the narrower concept of religion.
... I have usually described it as the experience of the holy in a particular
presence, place, or time, in a particular ritual act, spoken word or
sacramental object. These direct experiences are found in unity with
a sacred community, in the Western world usually called a church, a
monastic group, or a religious movement. This is religion in the narrower,
the traditional sense. 1
Most of us probably think of religion in this narrower sense. But Tillich reminds us that all
manifestations of religion -- whether in an explicit religious sense, or a secular expression of religion -- arise from the archetypal depths of the human psyche. In these unfathomable depths, a sense of ultimacy rises up to grasp us and offer a glimpse into the Mystery of life itself, or at least, to call us away from the distractions that get in the way of what most deeply calls to us.
However, there is a third definition of religion not included in Tillich's "larger concept" and "narrower concept." This is religion as a state of mind possessed by a punitive god-image that demands unconditional obedience, worship, and tribute. The name for this psychological abuse is fundamentalism. And it is this fundamentalism that has largely captured the minds of our culture, either in positions of commitment or avoidance and, often, angry neglect of the depth dimensions of our souls.
How this occurred will be continued next month.
1 Paul Tillich (1967). My Search for Absolutes. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 130-131.