How can a person be possessed by the will of another and convinced that will is her own? Possession is a state of consciousness where one’s agency is being used by another entity (person, group, ideology) against one’s own interest. It is a form of psychological and spiritual enslavement. Many fundamentalist religions terrify their adherents with teachings and tales about possession by demons and evil spirits resulting from disobedience to the faith. Ironically, the mythos of possession these religions cultivate is a lived-reality religious their adherents experience, though perhaps not by an evil spirit.
Fundamentalist religion, such as Evangelical, Charismatic, and Pentecostal Christianity, possesses its followers, spiritually and psychologically manipulating them to surrender their agency to religious institutions and texts. It terrorizes them with nightmarish fears about burning in hell, being tormented by demons, and crushes their self-esteem, engendering self-hatred by coercing them to believe they are evil and worthless apart from the control of the religious deity. Fundamentalism compels believers to accept moral atrocities from a deity such as human sacrifice and genocide as forms of justice. It cuts off their sense of power, breaks down self-reliance, and trains them to be subservient, submissive slaves through rituals and teachings like surrendering to God, waiting on God’s will, bowing, humbling oneself, submitting to authorities, worshipping, following the religious texts instead of one’s own moral judgment, and giving the deity credit for one’s own accomplishments. Fundamentalism weaponizes one’s own will and sense of purpose against others for the sake of world dominion, in a religious sense, through evangelism.
Religious possession is total. All one’s interests–career, time, finances, relationships, sense of meaning and purpose, identity, sexuality, and more–are taken over by the totalitarian fundamentalism deity and his earthly representatives. Fundamentalism spiritually possesses its followers, teaching them to suppress their natural spiritual connection and conform it entirely to the devotional practices and teachings of the cult. What fundamentalism ‘protects’ its adherents against is not demonic possession, but self-possession–that is, spiritual freedom and self-actualization.
To an extent, fundamentalist manipulations are inherent to religious dualism. The belief that God (divinity) is separate is the problem and basis of dualistic religion. For if the divine is outside of oneself, one’s relationship with spirituality and selfhood is one of disempowerment and submission, a fundamental reliance on the power and goodness of another through a merger. A healthy, differentiated ego cannot fully develop or flourish in such a framework. Recovery from fundamentalism, therefore, should also include recovery from dualism-bound ideology and experiential perspective as well as reconstruction of a more integral and holistic worldview. For duality-bound consciousness is the ultimate enslavement.
Manipulation in Religious Fundamentalism
Fundamentalist possession of the self operates on manipulation. Manipulation is defined as: “controlling someone or something to your own advantage, often unfairly or dishonestly” (Cambridge Dictionary, 1995). In the context of psychology, it refers to the shadow side of human capacities for power and influence. We come into this world preprogrammed with amoral evolutionary principles that may entice us to use situations and people to our advantage. As a function of survival, the ego is wired to prioritize its own survival and wellbeing. We are rewarded when we succeed in manipulating others without consequence by virtue of gaining whatever it was we sought, and society often moralizes and praises manipulative and narcissistic tendencies.
Manipulation in fundamentalism may serve to promote the financial and narcissistic power interests of the cult and its leadership. The fundamentalist perspective masks relationships of power and subordination that the worldview holds over the devotee, and that the establishment has over the devotee by means of the worldview. Most of the time, however, religious leaders are well-intentioned and unconscious of their manipulations. Manipulation is inherent to fundamentalist ideology, serving the ideology itself through virus-like propagation.
Religious fundamentalism is a widespread form of religiosity associated with a high level of psychological control that resists change of religious affiliation (Hodge, Hook, Davis & McMinn, 2019). Altemeyer & Hunsberger (1992) define religious fundamentalism as an attitude that “there is one set of religious teachings that clearly contains the fundamental, basic, intrinsic, essential, inerrant truth about humanity and deity” (p. 118). Fundamentalism is rigid and inflexible, portraying religious change and different worldviews as threatening and evil (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992; Barr, 1984).
Fundamentalism involves a high degree of manipulation, in part because it is based on the primary defensive mechanism of splitting. Splitting is a psychological mechanism employed by the psyche to aim to eliminate ambivalence, reducing anxiety and maintaining self-esteem by artificially dichotomizing experience into good or bad all-or-nothing categories (McWilliams, 2011, p. 116). Fundamentalists use literalistic interpretations of sacred writings or secular dogmas as their main instrument of splitting. They take refuge in an airtight, black and white perspective, believing their position to be final and beyond scrutiny. They portray outsiders and people with different ideologies as deceived, hostile, or enemies to be opposed, and the diversity and difference they embody to be destroyed through conversion.
Fundamentalism is based on a manipulation of the need for safety, as well as the need for belonging. It promises the elimination of existential anxiety: all that is required for security and belonging in life is to believe and obey. Although such a worldview provides the devotee a sense of safety and comfort, it can also make conflicting worldviews and life situations feel intolerably threatening. Anything that does not jive with the fundamentalist system must be split off or opposed as if it is life-threatening. Indeed, it is threatening to the adherent’s psychic integrity, as the personality has been constellated around a sense of safety and belonging attached to ideological certainty (See my article, Religious Fundamentalism Operates by Creating a Sense of Unsafety). However, incongruity, uncertainty, and ambiguity are fundamental to the human experience. Thus, the fundamentalist perspective is a fiction that creates and masks chaos in the client’s psychic world because it directs the religious devotee to repress and make unconscious her experiences of uncertainty and cognitive dissonance, which inevitably increases the dread made unconscious.
Because, in fundamentalism, the fundamental human needs for safety, belonging, and meaning are manipulated to construct a total identity system and sense of selfhood, the process of leaving fundamentalism can be isolating, prolonged, and fraught with psychological distress (Barr, 1984; Winell, 1993, p. 40). McAdams (2003) observed the process itself is often so challenging that it might even result in PTSD and other psychological disorders (pp. 303-305). Edbaugh’s (1988) study found that the religious person transitioning out of religion often experiences a prolonged, agonizing identity crisis, which includes the challenge of coping with pressure or rejection from the religious community (Edbaug, 1988; Fisher, 2017, p. 358). People often spend decades or most of their lives in fundamentalist religions and literally don’t know who they are after leaving, because their ego was formed around fundamentalism, or coopted by it, and never allowed to differentiate from a primitive state of a merger with the cult. Who am I? is a question transitioning clients often find themselves asking because their sense of “I” was never septate from their religion. In many aspects, it may need to develop and unfold for the very first time now that it is free. Moreover, fundamentalism targets and breaks down an individual’s sense of selfhood through teachings that cultivate a sense of weakness, worthlessness, badness, sexual depravity, reliance on authority instead of one’s own senses and facts, and through many other teachings and practices. Not only is selfhood underdeveloped, but it is also shamed and deemed untrustworthy.
Because it involves a loss of identity, community, meaning, belonging, and so much more, the crisis of leaving and recovering from religious fundamentalism is one of the more major life events a person can experience, something on the scale of the death of a partner or an unexpected major tragedy. Because the life transition of leaving fundamentalism and the fallout from fundamentalism’s abuses are unique, complex, and all-encompassing, therapists who work with clients experiencing significant religious trauma should seek training or consult with experts in the field.
Therapy for Religious Trauma
I work with clients recovering from religious trauma in my coaching practice, after having undergone my own recovery. The life changes required to break free from the extensive psychological entanglements of fundamentalism can be drastic and traumatic. Clients who present in therapy with religious trauma articulate feeling enslaved, psychologically raped, abused, and betrayed by the religion and loved ones associated with it. Because fundamentalist manipulation is so pervasive and mostly unconscious, manipulation is to be expected in the psychotherapy session and in the therapeutic relationship, both on the part of the client and the therapist. As such, the therapist must cultivate awareness of manipulation, how it can show up, how to work with it when it does, how to avoid falling into its traps, and how to mitigate its destructive potentialities.
The therapist can expect manipulative dynamics of the abusive religious framework to play out in the transference and countertransference. One of the more significant ways in which religious manipulation shows up in the transference is in the client’s feeling of helplessness or lack of personal power. Abusive religions teach their devotees to slavishly rely on the religious system for guidance in nearly every area of life and threaten them with divine judgment or hellfire torture if they fail to comply. In Evangelical and Conservative Christianity, the doctrine of original sin teaches that human nature is completely fallen, tainted, and inclined towards sin. Therefore, the individual cannot trust any aspect of her psyche (thinking, intuition, emotions, body); all must be assessed, cross-examined, and corrected by the divine knowledge meditated by the authoritarian religious institution and Holy Book (See my article, Mind Control and Religious Surveillance). The Scriptures, or mandates of the system (‘the voice of God’), are internalized in the psyche as the Holy Spirit (what is said to be the Holy Spirit), a God-sized maniacally self-critical superego (inner critic) who is said to possess and own the individual: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, NIV). The fundamentalist self is a possessed-self (See my article, My Exorcism of Jesus).
When religious control wanes, the process of self-repossession must begin. The client must exert a tremendous amount of effort to break free from the system and regain a sense of self and autonomy in the process and recovery (self-worth, self-love, self-differentiation, self-purpose, self-in-society). This autonomy is often met with great resistance and internal conflict. The client may unconsciously attempt to refashion the therapist in the image of Mother Church and Almighty Father God. Feelings of powerlessness in the client may evoke countertransferential feelings of righteous indignation, might, and a desire to be a messiah-like savior in the therapist. In this dynamic, the client is bent on having his anxiety repressed through re-establishing black-and-white, easy answers once again, and the therapist is compelled to comply to help the desperate, traumatized soul.
Countertransferential feelings can easily translate into manipulation on the part of the therapist. In the case of client powerlessness, or an underdeveloped sense of self, the therapist’s countertransferential reaction can manifest in the impulse to deliver results or demonstrate expertise at the cost of client autonomy. Expertise is useful (essential for complex religious trauma), but it can be misused. Brigitman (1983) articulates the function of expertise when it is abused:
[Expertise] bolsters the [therapist’s] sense of knowing and being able to create “results,” and gratify the patient’s wish for a powerful cure without effort… Gratifying as such methods may be to the wish for a speedy rescue, they are infantilizing, as they undermine the patient’s autonomy and capacity to cope with the absence of omnipotent parent figures in their lives. (p. 5)
Often presenting in a state of acute identity and emotional crisis, the client may be eager for results and answers, or to “move on already” without processing rather dramatic life changes. He may seduce the therapist to comply in his self-bypassing and recreation of the original problem scenario: psychological spirit possession. By psychological spirit possession, I mean the outsourcing of divinity, or personal power and selfhood, to an external person, object, or ideology. In object relations terms, it is an infantile dependency on an omnipotent parental figure who has not been internalized, who in this case was God. In a manner of speaking, the client must become the God she once looked to in order to obtain psychic salvation.
If, however, the therapist provides interventions that bypass the client’s process, she may succeed in temporarily alleviating the client’s anxiety–that is, until the next crisis comes along. The therapist should resist her anxiety- and narcissism- driven inclinations to establish her expertise to the client and instead lean into the agonizing process of not-knowing and curiosity.
One of the ways narcissism can come into play is through the client’s prodding excessively for the therapist to self-disclose and provide the client with easy, read-made answers. Clients will ask me many details about my personal life, history, and story; “What did you do in this situation?”, “How did you tell your parents?” In such instances, I have been tempted to share my personal triumphs and hard-earned knowledge. Cohen (2005) warns about the dangers of self-disclosure when it comes from a place of narcissism:
Being the therapist can be very gratifying. But when the focus of the therapy becomes the therapist and not the patient, the therapist’s narcissistic self-indulgence may dominate.This occurs when the therapist needs the patient in order to be idealized, validated or applauded. (p. 16)
I have certainly experienced my narcissistic desire to be validated by clients, especially in relation to doubts about my own capacity to serve them or satisfy their criteria for what makes a good therapist. Giving in to these urges could be a manipulation of the client’s needs to suit my personal needs and desires. The therapist’s narcissism might also hijack the therapy when the client idealizes, validates, and applauds the therapist, and the therapist unconsciously colludes. There could also be a case of mutual narcissism, as the client’s narcissism could result in idealization of the therapist, who might respond with her own narcissistic flattering and rewarding of her client-disciple. This dynamic may be inevitable to an extent and useful, as a narcissistic enactment that shows up in the therapeutic relationship that can be utilized for healing if the therapist becomes aware of it and works with it consciously.
Thus, in terms of disclosure and religious trauma, my inclination is to point information-hungry clients to resources (readings, lectures) and their own often newfound intellectual freedom. I do educate them about religious trauma and the process of healing and offer tips, tools, and solutions appropriately, and I do share examples from my own life history with religious trauma. However, I keep the focus on the client’s process, experience, and development of selfhood. The client may be vulnerable to manipulation by powerful and benevolent authority figures (not just the therapist), so it is important to keep pointing the client to her inner wisdom, intuition, thinking, and capacities that relate to healthy independence and experiences of accomplishment, with interventions and questions like, “What do you think,” “How does that land for you?,” “How does that feel in your heart?”, “What might you do differently to get x result?”
The therapist will likely experience narcissism and anxiety in the therapeutic relationship with clients who suffer from religious trauma in other ways. They may show up in the countertransference because they are fundamental coping strategies enlisted by the fragile sense of self of the recovering fundamentalist. (Moreover, the primary relationship of the client, “God the Father,” was authoritarian and narcissistic [See my article God Has a Narcissistic Personality Disorder], mixing anxiety and narcissism by egotistically demanding worship and cultivating a paranoid cult following through threats of annihilation, violence, and terror). The fragile self relies on paranoid levels of anxiety because it feels insufficient to take on the challenges of survival and life apart from another with whom it has been trained to merge to obtain safety. Thus, the therapist should resist the urge to be the client’s savior (which involves a kind of merger of autonomies), which is an urge to rescue both himself and the client from the sense of anxiety in the room. Some amount of anxiety should be tolerated, as it is a natural part of the process of ego differentiation and freedom from the enslaving control of needing to know.
When working with clients whose task is to realize their personhood and autonomy, it is particularly important for the therapist to be at home in her own skin. She should be self-aware and present as herself in and through the technique and theory. According to McConnaughy (1987), the technique should serve the personality and person of the therapist:
Therapists select techniques and theories because of who they are as persons; the therapy strategies are manifestations of the therapist’s personality… The more a therapist values himself or himself, the more effective he or she will be in helping clients come to know and appreciate themselves. (p. 303)
One of the best ways to help the personhood of the client to emerge is for the therapist to model selfhood and its expressions in her own being. Instead of needing to have the answers in a theory or technique, the therapist expresses self-confidence in her ability to adjust to the challenges and unknowns that arise in the therapeutic space, given her imperfect yet powerful personhood and knowledge.
The person of the therapist is the main instrument of healing, as also are the person of the client and the therapeutic alliance itself. In the messiness, imperfection, and uncertainty of the therapeutic alliance, held within a womb-space of nonjudgment, acceptance, and love, the client will learn to take risks, make mistakes, and tolerate inevitable frustrations (as she also observes the therapist doing). This process in and of itself may be as powerful in healing powerlessness as working through the actual content of therapy, for it is an exercise in finding and exercising realistic power and working through the resistance to having it.
Working with Religious Anxiety and Paranoia
The client’s resistance to personal power, and evacuation of it into the therapist may be related to a client’s sense of unsafety with his own mind or distrust of his reality testing. Within fundamentalism, the client’s reality testing was compromised, and his mind was often a scary place to live. He was taught that his own ability to perceive between science and fiction was tainted, and that divine revelation trumps intuition, sensory insight, and critical thinking. His mind was haunted by terrifying images of demons, hellfire, and apocalyptic destruction. As a result, paranoia and difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy are commonplace with religiously traumatized clients, and this can sometimes result in varying degrees or instances of psychotic-level anxiety and distress.
Religious paranoia may result from many factors. For instance, the client may have been tortured with psychological hellfire (See my article Healing Hell Trauma: Psychological Treatment for Religious Indoctrination in Fear of Hell) and taught that impending doom and disaster could result from divine judgment for disobedience. The believer’s mind and interactions with the secular world were characterized by paranoid-level fears about caving into temptation and judgment and being led astray by secular influences. Thought-stopping and obsessive-compulsive rituals like confession and praying The Sinner’s Prayer are common coping mechanisms taught by religions to keep paranoid religious anxiety at bay (see my article Crimes of Emotion: Emotional Repression and Toxicity in Christian Fundamentalism).
The fear of hell, systemic shaming for sin and sexuality, and an abusive oedipal relationship with the divine caregiver deity all could be experienced as what Winnicott (1974) terms primitive agony, related to a fear of breakdown:
The original experience of primitive agony cannot get into the past tense unless the ego can first gather it into its own present time experience and into omnipotent control now… the agony [must be] experienced in the transference, in reaction to the analyst’s failures and mistakes. (pp. 103-104)
Clients who suffer from religious trauma often have a sense of dread, impending doom, and fear of psychosis. However, the psychological breakdown they fear has already occurred, in one sense, in their experiences of religious trauma. The client was abused by a capricious deity and was out of control, paranoid, paralyzed with fear, psychologically sexually abused, and lived in a delusional world of terrifying phantasms. Now, through the failures and empathic ruptures experienced in the psychoanalytic relationship, the agony of the breakdown may resurface and be experienced in transference so healing can occur. The client may reclaim a sense of realistic control that was once reserved solely for the divine ruler.
Fundamentalist paranoia also has the function of keeping adherents entangled and reliant on the religious system. Believers are taught to fear knowledge and relationships outside of the closed-loop system as dangerous. This reinforces indoctrination and limits the qualities of openness and curiosity essential to therapeutic work:
Paranoia closes off exploration, narrows our vision, insists on its certainties, and limits pursuit of the paradoxical and the ambiguous. I think of paranoia as, at is essence, in opposition to curiosity’s’ tendency to venture into new territory. (Buechler, 2013, p. 22)
The client may attempt to shortcut or bypass the healing process by insisting on staying on the surface instead of delving into the uncharted territory of trauma. Or the client may shut down the conversation defensively, insisting she is already over the religious trauma and that her problems lie elsewhere. The therapist should encourage exploration, encourage toleration of paradox to soften splitting defenses, and help the client cultivate safety to make processing pain and unknowing possible.
The therapist may also come to encounter client defenses of extreme devaluation and idealization. McWilliams (2011) explains the logic of these defenses:
Their behavior shows evidence of the survival of archaic and rather desperate efforts to counteract international terror by the conviction that some attachment figure is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and that through psychological merger with this wonderful Other, they are safe… A by-product of idealization and the associated belief in perfection is that imperfections in the self are harder to bear; fusion with an idealized object is an attractive remedy… In general, the more dependent one is or feels, the greater the temptation to idealize. (p. 109)
The client was taught to achieve safety through a merger with and obeisance to the idealized object and attachment figure of God, who was presented as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. The therapist may be drawn into the client’s projection of these deity-associated qualities onto the therapist. The client may idealize the therapist as a god-like figure, then aggressively devalue her as incompetent and impotent if the therapy progresses slowly or the client experiences intolerable emotions. The therapist should be aware that these reactions may be defensive and, instead of giving into feelings of anxiety or narcissistic urges, view them (potentially) as natural and signs of progress. (On the other hand, the client may be justifiably frustrated by a lack of competence and effectiveness. The therapist should gauge her ability to work with certain clients and treatment progress realistically and consider getting training in religious trauma or referring the client out, if necessary.)
In addition to the issues already discussed, the therapist may experience sexualization, as sexuality is closely tied to one’s sense of power and autonomy. Religious fundamentalism stifles sexuality because sexual suppression makes for easy control, and sexual liberation makes people hard to control. When healing from powerlessness and spiritual oppression occurs, a client’s sexual urges and potency may naturally arise along with her power and creativity. Freud’s (1993) articulation of sexualization is highly relevant:
It is… just as disastrous for the analysis if the patients’ craving for love is gratified as if it is suppressed… The analysist [must fight] against the forces which seek to drag him down from the analytic level… and against [the forces of] his patients, who at first behave like opponents but later on reveal the overvaluation of sexual life which dominates them, and who try to make him captive to their socially untamed passion… [The patient] has to be led through the primal period of her mental development and on that path she has to acquire the extra piece of mental freedom which distinguishes conscious mental activity–in the systematic sense–from unconscious. (pp. 166, 170)
As the client’s religiously repressed sexuality emerges, the therapist must resist anxious urges to repress or subtly shame it; particularly through avoidance or minimization and moving on. The therapist should encourage the client’s expression of his sexual urges in a warm, non-shaming way, even if these include the therapist. However, the therapist must not give in to seductions by the client, even in subtle ways such as acting more alluringly with body language, dress, or vocal intonation, trying to impress the client, or connecting intimately on an erotically charged emotional level.
This process is likely to bring up the client’s infantile sexual patterns, as well as his religious sexual conditioning. This is an opportunity to work through them so sexual patterns move into the realm of consciousness, expanding his capacities for awareness and free choice. The client must be able to talk about his sexuality and learn to regulate it without resorting to repressive self-shaming and self-judgment. He might look to the therapist to control him or show her how to eliminate the urges (religious fear and rituals had once functioned in this manner) or give him an outlet (inappropriately) to finally explore his sexuality without shame in the space of the therapeutic container. The therapist should be aware of these potential pitfalls and use this knowledge to help the client emerge with a healthy sense of sexual power. This being said, the tendency of clients who suffer from religious trauma is usually towards shame and avoidance of talking about sexuality. The therapist should treat sexual content as if it is not a big deal (non-shamingly) and encourage the client to work through it, without pressuring her.
The issues discussed in this article cover just a few of the ways in which possession of the self and manipulation by religion can show up in therapy and be worked through. Through the therapeutic process, the client may learn to relate to herself and others in healthier ways that involve realistic power and a sense of self-worth independent of an external object. She is navigating a major life transition, pulled simultaneously in two directions: between retreat into perceived safety in the old, and exploration of freedom in the new and unknown. The client is in a state of emergent identity, perhaps gaining a sense of self for the first time in significant ways. The crisis of religious transition and healing from religious trauma, when resolved, can lead to profound psychological developments like self-discovery, newfound confidence, and feelings of freedom and liberation (Edbaug, 1988; Fisher, 2017, p. 358). It is a beautiful thing to behold the face of God in oneself for the first time.
Do you feel psychologically traumatized by religion, isolated and disempowered by trauma, emotional and spiritual distress in your life? If you would like to talk with me for coaching support, schedule a free Inner Freedom Breakthrough Session. In this session, my intention is to help you feel deeply heard and supported, gain clarity, learn a few expert tips, and if it seems like I can support you further, see whether one of my Coaching Programs is a good fit for you.
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I’m Andrew Jasko, Master of Divinity (M.Div.), Masters in Counseling in Progress, and I work to help you transform your trauma into the place of your power and connect to a healthy, authentic spirituality that works for you (whether that’s as a spiritual not religious, atheist, religious, transitioning, or agnostic identifying person). I was born into a minister’s family and became a preacher and missionary to India, after studying theology at Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary. As a Christian, my relationship with God was my passion, but unhealthy religious teachings caused me an anxiety disorder, sexual repression, and spiritual disillusionment. I felt alone, traumatized, and abandoned by the divine. After an agonizing crisis of faith, I rejected religion and spirituality. Then, I reintegrated a healthy spirituality through mystical, spiritual, and mindful practices. My passion is to help you to heal and connect with your authentic spiritual wholeness.
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