When I was in college I majored in writing and rhetoric and religion. What made double majoring in these subjects most interesting is the challenges I faced when ideas resonated but also conflicted with what I thought was my religious identification. Growing up in a conservative sect of Christianity was not always easy as I felt it amplifying my anxiety and deepening my depression. Confused at the contrast of religion doing the opposite of what I thought it would do allowed me the freedom (in college) to grapple with the reasons why religion was negatively effecting my mental health. While I had many victory moments where I connected and realized how some teachings negatively affected how I viewed myself, I ultimately realized that some “church rhetoric,” deep in my unconscious mind and negative self-talk, was the core reasons why my mental health was being beaten. First there are phrases like “I’m nothing, but God is everything,” or some other phrases such as “I am not worthy of this life that God has given me,” or “God keeps blessing me even when I don’t deserve it,” and such jargon as that that has flipped my self-image into chaos depicting me as someone who is not worthy or deserving of the things that I have or the life that I live. Other such talk of being a “sinner” and unable to escape the evil doings of myself, my “flesh,” and my mind also kept me in shame and misery as I always felt I was doing God an injustice by struggling with my mental health. Not only did I feel shame and guilt all the time, but I was always trying to be perfect in all I was doing. My perfectionism, a product of my anxiety now that I realize, made trying to become this “holy” perfect Christian girl all the more burdensome and tiring.
It only took but some readings in one of my psychology and religion courses to blow my mind and help me see the reality of such instances where religion can negatively effect ones self-perception in a way that back fires against their mental health. One reading was that of Fromm and his analysis of the humanistic religion vs. that of authoritarian religion.
**Side note: I include and validate women and women’s experiences in the statements below as the rhetoric is heavy on the masculine pronouns.**
Psychoanalysis and Religion By Erich Fromm
“The essential element in authoritarian religion and in the authoritarian religious experience is the surrender to a power transcending man. The main virtue of this type of religion is obedience, its cardinal sin is disobedience. Just as the deity is conceived as omnipotent or omniscient, man is conceived as being powerless and insignificant. Only as he can gain grace or help from the deity by complete surrender can he feel strength. Submission to a powerful authority is one of the avenues by which man escapes from his feeling of aloneness and limitation. In the act of surrender he loses his independence and integrity as an individual but he gains the feeling of being protected by an awe-inspiring power of which, as it were, he becomes a part. (35)”
“Humanistic religion, on the contrary, is centered around man and his strength. Man must develop his power of reason in order to understand himself, his relationship to his fellow men and his position in the universe. He must recognize the truth, both with regard to his limitations and his potentialities. He must develop his powers of love for others as well as for himself and experience the solidarity of all living beings. He must have principles and norms to guide him in this aim. Religious experience in this kind of religion is the experience of oneness with the All, based on one’s relatedness to the world as it is grasped with thought and with love. Man’s aim in humanistic religion is to achieve the greatest strength, not the greatest powerlessness; virtue is self-realization, not obedience. Faith is certainty of conviction based on one’s experience of thought and feeling, not assent to propositions on credit of the proposer. The prevailing mood is that of joy, while the prevailing mood in authoritarian religion is that of sorrow and of guilt. (37)”
What I understood of Fromm’s comparison of both perceptions is the separation between oneself with the world, themselves, and God in the authoritarian religion and the union in humanistic religion. I became alienated from an identity, from something that revealed in me that I was a life that was worth living and shouldn’t be ashamed of myself. Me, as a person, as a woman, as a body, should be proud of my life and all that I have accomplished. My powerlessness and my guilt soon faded with my once limited, skewed, perception of life.
As my understanding became clear, I became less ashamed of who I was, but I also wanted to create a more wholesome version of myself as well. I started to ask questions such as who am I? and why am I? I drifted from the jargon that made me feel distant and unappreciative of my identity and my accomplishments, and all that I’ve done to get my mind free, and I began to create for myself a more liberating spirituality. God is not separated from the world or from the liberation of my self-acceptance, God is not a man in the sky dictating and limiting access to my confidence or to my belief that I have power and I’m worthy and proud to embrace my humaneness. Instead, I began to believe that everything is intertwined into a cosmic masterpiece that allows us, as people, to self-realize and love and find strength in ourselves. God is something in us already that gets amplified and blossoms as we do. That we have to love ourselves in order to love God, that we have to think we are worthy and powerful in order to reveal God in ourselves otherwise we are limiting our abilities and potentialities.
And as I continue to self-realize and change everyday, I’m learning that my anxiety and my depression is something that motivates me to create and build ideas. That, although my tireless mind is always in a shamble, I always find that I am free and able. My mental state is something of purpose and I don’t have to be ashamed because I do feel better. Without the anxiety and depression, I wouldn’t know what it felt like to be a prisoner of my own mind. Now that I have control over myself, with my experience I can build on love, compassion, and empathy. It took some time to get to this place, but now that I’m refined I can work and I can build on what makes me who I am. As I grow I can be happy because I did it for myself, I became free for me.