Lesson 1 of 7  - free your true Self to guide you

Are Your Spiritual and Religious
 Beliefs Toxic or Nurturing?

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this two-page article is http://sfhelp.org/gwc/religion.htm

  Updated  December 16, 2014

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 1 in this site - free your true Self to guide you in calm and conflictual times, and reduce significant psychological wounds. This article explores how spiritual and religious beliefs and church organizations can promote or reduce the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle and help or hinder your personal healing. This is written to people of any religious or spiritual faith, including atheists and agnostics.

      This article doesn't promote a particular spiritual belief or religion. It aims to raise your awareness of the impact of your religious and spiritual beliefs - specially if you're nurturing minor kids. The article offers...

  • Perspective on (a) spirituality and religion, and (b) attitudes, beliefs, and faith

  • Criteria for judging whether someone's beliefs are toxic or nourishing 

  • Options if you feel your and/or someone else's beliefs and worship are too toxic.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...


      Do you believe that spirituality (as you define it) is an essential ingredient in personal and family wholistic health? If not, this article will probably have little value for you.

      All kids and adults in every era and civilization have pondered primal unknowns:  the origin and nature of life, the Earth and the universe; mysterious ecological events; good and evil; "fate," Paradise, Hell, death, and a possible afterlife.

      Personal serenity, family health, and social order depend on finding viable answers to these questions. Lacking understandable scientific information, most (all?) people and societies have formed and taught spiritual and religious beliefs ("faith") to answer these primal questions well enough.

      Our perceptions of the world, our decisions, and our actions are influenced by our rich mix of beliefs - usually without conscious awareness. Some beliefs promote our wholistic health and growth, and social and ecological harmony and balance. Other beliefs hinder these things. Is that your experience?

      The beliefs about spirituality and religion that kids acquire can significantly affect their life-long wholistic health, relationships, and longevity. "Attitudes" range from...

  • atheism (there is no God, or angels, saints, heaven, Hell, Satan, demons, or afterlife"); to...

  • agnosticism (I don't know or care if these things exist or affect me); to...

  • religious and/or spiritual faith [I accept without question that (some form of) these exist and significantly affect me and other people]; to...

  • fanaticism (My spiritual/religious beliefs and my religion's scriptures are right (the absolute "truth"), and anyone who disagrees is wrong, bad, and potentially dangerous.

Premises - healthy spiritual and religious beliefs, practices, and church communities prevent and reduce psychological wounds. Toxic religious beliefs, practices, and communities unintentionally (a) promote the harmful ancestral [wounds + unawareness] cycle, low-nurturance families, and resultant ignorances, psychological wounds, and protective denials; and (b) inhibit true recovery from them.

      If you're skeptical about (or fearful of) normal personality subselves, or are in protective denial of significant psychological wounds and their effects, this article will probably be of little value. Option - read this letter to you, and try this safe, interesting exercise. Then return here.

About Attitudes, Beliefs, and Faith

      An attitude is a learned right-wrong judgment about someone or something ["Believers are better than (morally superior to) non-believers."]. A belief is an intellectual concept that a person (like you) accepts as usually or always true - perhaps depending on some situational factors ("I believe that ___ is true when ..."). For example, do you believe that the sun will rise tomorrow? That the Earth spins? That atoms exist? That you'll be alive tomorrow? That lights will come on if you flip the switch?

      Across our years we (you) automatically collect a stunningly complex array of attitudes and beliefs about life on Earth from...

  • sensory experiences and perceptions (water is always wet),

  • demonstrable natural events and processes (plants die without soil, water, and sunlight),

  • what trusted people tell us (eating some mushrooms will make you really sick), and...

  • what we compute from credible and sacred sources (e.g. "I believe the Bible is God's revealed word, and in Darwinian evolution").

      Most people (like you) also form some beliefs on faith - i.e. without direct experience or tangible "proof" - because we get some meaningful benefit. That is, believing (a) comforts us ("There is life after death!"), and/or (b) provides security and social acceptance by like-minded people.

      Many people report "spiritual" experiences ("God / Mary / my Invisible Guardian / an angel spoke to me!" / "It was a real miracle - she regained her full eyesight without medical treatment!") Others don't have such experiences, or discount them as unexplainable, "a fluke," or "my imagination." Either way, most of us have beliefs based on faith - do you agree?

      Whether based on experience, intuition, or faith, our beliefs can significantly affect our hormones, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Example: seeing a large spider crawling on your bare foot automatically causes a surge of adrenaline and fear, and probably a reflex to brush the spider off or kill it. This happens because we believe "large spiders bite and may cause me hideous agony and even death!" (yes?) 

       If you accept these premises and value your health and life-quality, then (a) identify your main spiritual and/or religious beliefs, and (b) assess how they're affecting your wholistic health. Have you ever thought about that? Do you know anyone who has?

       Let's say a spiritual belief is a personal conviction that there is some unseen Higher Power/s or Force/s in the universe that affects life on Earth, including you and other people. Spiritual beliefs span...

  • the origins, traits, intentions, and behaviors of spiritual beings (e.g. good or evil, knowable or not, demanding or accepting,...), and...

  • if and how spiritual beings may affect you and others.

      Some people include learned beliefs about reincarnations, sequential lives, and spiritual advancement or regression here. Pause and note what you believe - if anything - about each of these items. Which do you feel the strongest about? Do you agree that you have "spiritual beliefs"? Where did you get them?


      A religion is (a) a man-made system of ideas, rules, traditions, rituals, goals, organizational roles, sacred icons and artifacts, physical and financial assets, and (b) the people who accept and use this system to satisfy some important personal and social needs.

      A religious belief...

  • causes actions and rituals like genuflecting, making the cross, stroking prayer wheels, chanting, saying the rosary, praying to Mecca, baptisms, weddings, last rites, excommunication, crusades, inquisitions, singing hymns, witnessing, reciting credos, and saying confession; and...

  • religious beliefs usually span learned convictions about...

    • a Holy book or scripture,

    • one or more prophets or messiahs proclaiming God's commandments ("the Word") and perhaps doing "miracles;"

    • saints and martyrs;

    • worship-related groups and denominations,

    • preaching evangelizing ("spreading the Word"),

    • "spiritual warfare,"

    • dis/obeying God's commandments as defined in a scripture,

    • spiritual growth,

    • atonement for  sins, heresy and blasphemy, and perhaps

    • personal salvation ("I believe if I go to church and read the scriptures regularly, I'll be saved from doom and go to Heaven.")

      A religious credo is a set of beliefs promoted by original and modern church officials and programs.

      If you have beliefs about religious topics like these, where did you get them? 

      Differences between religious and spiritual beliefs are illustrated by the age-old conflict between ordained church officials and "Gnostics." Christian clergy have traditionally insisted that obeying the patriarchal, disciple-based hierarchy of ordained church officials is the only way lay people can know God's will and reach "salvation." Gnostic "heretics" insist that they learn God's will directly, and need no church dogma or clergy to guide and interpret for them. I suspect most organized religions have a version of this primal values conflict.

      Accepting that spiritual and religious beliefs can improve or diminish personal wholistic health and family nurturance-levels raises the question "How do I distinguish nourishing beliefs from toxic ones - what criteria do I use?" Do you have an answer for that?

      This YouTube clip provides perspective on what you're about to read:

Criteria: Toxic or Nourishing?

      See how you feel about this premise - beliefs that promote...

  • steady present-moment awareness (vs. numbing, reality distortion, or denial); and...

  • balanced self-respect, self-love, self-confidence, and self-nurturance; and...

  • harmony and cooperation among a person's dynamic personality subselves, and..

  • consistently effective thinking and communicating, and...

  • personal serenity, hope, and need-satisfactions, and...

  • bodily health and longevity, and...

  • genuine empathy, respect, and concern for others; and...

  • optimal physical and spiritual growth and self-actualization, and...

  • ecological awareness and responsibility...

...are healthy and "nourishing." Any beliefs that hinder one or more of these is "toxic."

      In short, beliefs that promote significant unawareness and personal or social distress are toxic. Any beliefs that foster awareness, unselfish love, serenity, social and ecological harmony, comfort, and healing are nourishing. Do you agree?

      A narrower criteria: spiritual and/or religious beliefs which raise or maintain a family's (or a society's) nurturance level can be judged as nourishing, and any that decrease the level are toxic.

      Option - use these opinions to form your own criteria, rather than accept them as absolutes. We each must form and act on our own criteria, or ignore weighing the impacts of spiritual and religious beliefs. The latter choice promotes the [wounds + unawareness] cycle that is crippling many families and our society.

Example of a Toxic Prayer

      Decide whether teaching young kids this this traditional Western bedtime prayer is healthy or toxic:

"Now I lay me down to sleep.
 I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
 If I should die before I wake,
 I pray the Lord my soul to take."

      Do you think an average young child (a) understands who or what "the Lord" or what "my soul" is, and (b) is psychologically affected by learning to say "If I should die before I wake"? Would an average child wonder "What if the Lord doesn't 'take' my soul, whatever that is?"

      Could a parent's endorsement of this prayer promote an unconscious belief and fear of bedtime and sleeping - specially if the child has some perception of death, heaven, and hell? If so, I propose that teaching a child to say prayers like this may make parents feel good, but may be psychologically harmful. What do you think?

      So far, we've focused on possible effects of personal and family spiritual and religious beliefs. A related focus is on...

Church and Denominational Impacts

      Were you raised in - and/or does your family now participate in - a religious community (church / temple / synagogue / mosque)? If so, would you say your church has a net nurturing or toxic effect on you and others? If the church belongs to a national or global organization (denomination, like Unitarian, Episcopalian, Shinto, Baptist, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha'i, Judaism, etc.), is the net social impact of that organization toxic or nurturing in your opinion?

      If your church and/or denomination is significantly toxic, then you're potentially reducing your and your family's - and your descendents' - wholistic health, serenity, and longevity.

      Not participating in a nurturing church community and denomination may also diminish your personal and family health. If you're ruling subselves and key supporters are agnostic or atheistic, you'll probably yawn or disagree.

      Premise - a church and/or religious denomination's nurturance-level can be assessed (low to high) by judging whether its faith + programs + rituals + values + clergy + missionary programs pro-mote or inhibit the silent [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

      My guess is that most busy, over-stimulated lay people (like you?) aren't vitally concerned with their denomination's potential social toxicity, unless there's a major scandal or public outcry. What may be more relevant to you is the potential toxicity of your church and religious community. If you and any dependent kids' other caregivers don't participate in either of these, skip to the basic question.

Is Your Religious Community (Church) Toxic?

      Let's apply the premises above about religious denominations to your church, mosque, temple, or coven. Here "church" means...

  • the professional clergy and volunteer staff that create and administer programs like worship; religious education; marriage preparation, sanctification, and enrichment; spiritual, personal, and family counseling and support; confessions; sacraments; missionary work; and community out-reach programs; and ...

  • the denominational goals, priorities, policies, and officials that shape the actions of these people; and...

  • the persons, families, and local non-members who have been significantly affected by these programs and people.

      "Religious community" means the like-minded group of people you socialize and/or worship with, whether you all attend a physical church, mosque, or temple or not.

Sample Criteria

      Choose an undistracted time and place, and thoughtfully rate each of these items with "I Agree, I Disagree, or ? (I'm not sure / It depends on _____, / I don't care)." Edit these items as needed, and hilight or star any that have special meaning.

  • My true Self is responding to these items now. (A  D  ?)

  • Overall, I feel my church and/or religious community enhances (vs. reduces) (a) my personal wholistic health and (b) my family's nurturance level.  (A  D  ?)

  • My church and/or religious community has - or is developing - an effective program to help educate and motivate...

adults to...

  • honestly assess, admit, and patiently reduce false-self wounds  (A  D  ?)

  • guard descendents and others' kids from inheriting them  (A  D  ?)

  • make thoughtful decisions about spiritual realities, beliefs, maturity, and growth, rather than rigidly following someone else's values and opinions out of duty, anxiety, guilt, and shame - including long-dead prophets, disciples, hero/ines, martyrs and saints, and traditional scriptural "truths."  (A  D  ?)

  • see people of other races, cultures, beliefs, and ethnicities as different and equally worthy, not good or bad or better or worse,   (A  D  ?)

  • promote universal respect and tolerance for healthy differences, vs. righteous bigotry and persecution.  (A  D  ?)

  • become aware of and reduce the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and its family and social effects;  (A  D  ?)

  • adopt healthy spiritual beliefs and practices in themselves and their families (A  D  ?)

couples to make informed, wise marital, divorce, and child-conception choices.  (A  D  ?)

      And my church and/or religious community has - or is developing - an effective program to help educate and motivate...

parents to...

  • nurture (vs. neglect) themselves, each other, and their kids effectively  (A  D  ?)

  • learn, practice, and model effective communication basics and skills (A  D  ?)

  • learn, practice, and model healthy-grieving basics (A  D  ?); and...

  • teach these basics to their descendents (i.e. form pro-grief families)  (A  D  ?).

      And my church and/or religious community has - or is developing - an effective pro-gram to help educate and motivate...

society to learn about each of these vital topics and why they're important personally, parentally, and socially  (A  D  ?). And educate and motivate ... 

our officials to upgrade our denomination's policies and programs to promote each of these priorities  (A  D  ?). And...

our clerical leader/s and governing board are...

  • clearly aware of each of these factors, and...

  • are unified in wanting to implement each of them in our church-community's work.

Premise: each factor above that you agree with is a nurturing influence of your church and/or religious community. Each factor you disagree with is socially toxic (harmful), like not educating and warning people about AIDS, hurricanes, Ebola, killer bees, Lyme's disease, or West Nile virus is.

      Pause and reflect - what are you aware of now? have you ever seen a list of religious nurturance factors like this before? Would you tailor it in some way? What would others in your religious community say about this list and what it means? What would your church's spiritual and religious leaders say?

Rate Your Church

      Combine your answers to these and your own factors to estimate the nurturance level (very low > low > average > high > very high) of your church or religious community. If you feel the level is high enough, show this article to the people who create and implement your church's policies and programs, and congratulate them! If you feel the level is too low now, consider these...

Implications and Options

      Participating in low-nurturance organizations usually suggests a person (like you?) is unaware of significant false-self wounds. This is because - against "common sense" - typical Grown Wounded Children's (GWC's) protective false selves tend to unconsciously choose environments and wounded leaders that replicate their low-nurturance childhoods. To see if that could apply to you, study Lesson 1 and its unique guidebook.

      The absence of nurturing factors like those above starts with wounds + unawareness + ignorance (lack of accurate knowledge) in church and religious-community leaders. For practical ways to reduce these, see this. How do your subselves feel about the proposal that "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."?

      Another symptom of a disabled true Self is simplistic black-white (bipolar) thinking: reducing complex issues to good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or toxic, and benign or evil. Religious organizations and communities have many traits and different social impacts ranging from nurturing to toxic. The practical question is one of degree: "Is my/our religious organization or community nurturing enough?"

  The Basic Question

      Whether you're a spiritual person or not, and/or participate in some religious group or movement or not, you probably have a set of semi-conscious (right / wrong, good / bad) attitudes and beliefs about spiritual and religious questions.

      These may enhance or degrade your wholistic health, and/or nourish or stress your family members and other living things. "Not caring" about this suggests you're probably ruled by a narrow-visioned, protective false self.

      If you're interested in identifying the impacts of your spiritual and religious values and beliefs on yourself and others, use criteria like those above to help you decide. Your overarching question is - "Do I have significant false-self wounds, and if so, how are they affecting my health, relationships, and how well I fill my primary needs?

Continue with options if someone's spiritual and religious beliefs are "too toxic."