If gaslighting is “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity,” then religious fundamentalism (of several sorts, although my experience is specifically with Christian fundamentalism, and other forms may vary) is a particularly insidious form of mass gaslighting.
Although I no longer hold to any particular faith, I continue to believe that the problem is fundamentalism, rather than any particular flavour of religion in its moderate form. I do recognize that faith can have a positive effect in peoples’ lives, and has the potential to teach a certain amount of goodness and morality that people can otherwise be too self-absorbed or indifferent to learn of their own accord. But fundamentalism, often a hardline, literalist interpretation of scripture(s) in a way that is intended to override a person’s own thoughts, experiences and inner sense of reality, easily fits the bill of spiritual gaslighting. Fundamentalism, in its authoritarian insistence on flatly denying anything contrary to its specific interpretation of faith, its reliance on often contradictory (or at least vague and unclear) scripture, and in its refusal to adapt when quantifiably true information becomes known, can then only possibly destabilize a person’s sense of self and delegitimize their whole sense of what is true.
My own experience gave me endless examples of this, each of which had to be dismantled in a process that took years and left me bitter and angry when all was said and done. I had been raised Catholic at first, but then from the age of 7 until I was 17, I, my mother and sister began attending a Protestant church that was so radical it was kicked out of the Pentecostal Assembly. That church was seen as one of the more modern of its day, but that didn’t make it progressive as a result: the sell was loving, but there was no shortage of absolutes and militant edicts to be confronted with, requiring entire changes of life, and threats of rejection or divine consequences for failure.
The example that stands out most memorably stems from having been a child / teen who struggled (because that was what I was taught to do) with attraction to both sexes, and a gender identity that I was unable to articulate (because we didn’t have the language for it in the 1970s and 1980s) as being out of sync with my birth sex. All of these things were a part of my core person, things that I couldn’t switch off like a light, things that I prayed for years for Jesus to take away, things that I threw myself into 24/7 efforts like bible study and evangelism in hopes that they’d help me overcome. All of these things were in direct conflict with what my religion told me was true and morally acceptable. My faith told me that Christ could “heal” me if I just believed (I did, ardently; he didn’t). My faith told me that Christ could cast my demons out, which was a particularly horrible kind of mind game, suggesting that intrinsic parts of my being were actually manifestations of Satan incarnate.
But even underneath all of that, the heteronormative sexuality that the faith taught was messed up, toxic, and suffocating. Premarital and extramarital sex were proscribed, of course, but it was unclear quite how one was to cope until marriage. In a Catholic school, I learned that masturbation was an egregious sin. Here, I’ll give my mother credit for indicating to me otherwise — not verbally, but in the form of a book by James Dobson, which recognized that masturbation was a normal, healthy part of life, and therefore a deviation from the fundamentalist script… but just barely. It was a bit of a double-edged sword, though: Dobson’s book had a clear double-standard which said that masturbation was okay for boys, but a kind of purity of thought was still pushed for girls. And when you grow up with male secondary characteristics but a sense of being female, socialization is something you sort of absorb whole-hog, as a larger package — that is to say, I adopted a belief that if I were to accepted myself as female, then that would require accepting purity culture (and the rantings against “impure thoughts”) along with it.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for boys under Dobson’s ironically revolutionary affirmation, either. If masturbation was okay, most of the fantasies and inducements that accompanied it were still not. Pornography was proscribed. Attraction to someone of the same sex was proscribed. And it wasn’t really clear where the line was between attraction and lust:
“But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28
So any sort of sexual fantasy was out of the question, and even just getting turned on became seen as “temptation.” Unless masturbation just happened accidentally (“nocturnal emissions” was the term for the acceptable form), which wasn’t my experience, it was apparent that some form of it might be okay (maybe touch-only, with an emptied head)… just not any form I was aware of. But church doctrine’s conflict with sexuality went even deeper than that.
My church often taught the Pauline teaching in Romans 6-8, about dying to self in order to be resurrected in Christ — in fact, those chapters were the head pastor’s go-to resource, forming the foundation for most of his other sermons. My radical-beyond-Pentecostal holy roller church and the Catholic church and school I grew up in both had very Augustinian interpretations of this scripture: pleasure was evil, and sexual pleasure for its own sake (rather than strictly for procreation) was the epitome of vileness. Therefore, dying to self required forsaking all sexual pleasure in order to seek a purer life (while still recognizing that all have sinned and come short of the glory of god). So Dobson aside, purity culture was an every-gender sort of thing.
Each boner — and for a testosterone-fueled organism in puberty, there were a lot of them — required a repentance. And this, of course, made me evil, a failure, a hopeless sinner, unforgivable, wicked beyond any form of possible respectability. The end result is a constant battle between everyday human sexuality and self-chastisement, self-loathing and begging god for forgiveness… a sort of psychological shock therapy.
And that was just when I (who had been taught to believe that my sex organs were irrefutable proof that I was a boy) was attracted to girls. The other attractions and sense of self seemed like insurmountable impossibilities way beyond that. It was a total, paralyzing mindfuck which attempted to rewrite my whole reality.
(Crossposted to Medium. Photo from Adobe Stock; modified)