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 article is http://sfhelp.org/gwc/religion.htm

  Updated  01-23-3015

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      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?

      This section proposes action options if you feel...

  • someone's spiritual beliefs are "too unhealthy," and/or that...

  • the nurturance-level of your church or religious community is "too low." 

If you don't feel either of these, skip to the recap.

Options if Your Beliefs are Toxic

      Every belief is held by one or more personality subselves, including your resident Self. Spiritual and other core beliefs are usually learned in early childhood, and probably have never been objectively validated.

      These primal convictions are often held by one or more inner children who may be living in the past. If so, part of permanently shifting their spiritual and/or religious beliefs requires inviting them to live safely in the present.

      Your subselves need to have an unshakable personal faith in a benign, responsive Higher Power before they will consider wanting to (vs. having to) change their core spiritual and religious beliefs. Such faith usually follows hitting some kind of true personal bottom, and can not be demanded, willed, required for social acceptance, or persuaded by "logic" or threats.

      You can patiently change your subselves' unhealthy or harmful beliefs, roles, and priorities over time by...

  • accepting the reality of your personality subselves,

  • identifying what belief you want to update from toxic to nourishing;

  • identifying the subself (or subselves) holding this belief,

  • respectfully building their trust in your true Self and other Manager subselves and in a benign (vs. "wrathful"), caring, responsive Higher Power,

  • identifying any Guardian subselves that will oppose healthy changes in that subself's beliefs, and...

  • patiently working to reduce their fears, and grow their trusts and sense of inner-family teamwork and cooperation for your long-term benefit.

      This may take months or years, and often depends on your age, history and childhood training, the nurturance-level of your current family, whether you've hit true (vs. pseudo) personal bottom yet, and who opposes your adopting new beliefs, if anyone - e.g. an atheistic or rigid (wounded, unaware) partner, parent, sibling, and/or grandparent.

      As you know, spiritual (vs. religious) faith is not responsive to "common sense," "reason," and/or "logical thinking." Global testimony from millions of successfully-recovering addicts consistently affirms that unshakable faith in a benign responsive, caring Higher Power is essential for lasting control (vs. cure) of toxic compulsions. So is living from the Serenity Prayer. This faith is also essential for true (vs. pseudo) recovery from psychological wounds.

      Permanently reducing or changing an unhealthy or harmful belief [including "My health isn't important," or "I can take it for granted" (self-neglect) usually requires working patiently with one or more inner children and each child's Guardians, one at a time. This is why mental resolutions like New Years' vows often don't produce lasting changes.

      Changing toxic beliefs is part of a higher-priority process: reducing false-self dominance and wounds, and empowering your true Self to lead your talented inner family of subselves.

      Relax, stretch, breathe, and reflect: do these wound-reducing and belief-changing steps make sense to you? Trying the steps should add experiential validity to them. If not, suspect that one or more frightened, distrustful subselves are blocking your wish to change. Self-improvement Lesson 1 illustrates how to do these steps.

      We just surveyed some practical options you can take if you feel some of your spiritual or religious beliefs are too unhealthy. Now let's shift our focus to another important possibility:

What if Another Person's Beliefs are "Too Toxic"?

      If someone acts on spiritual or religious beliefs that harm themselves and/or others - specially vulnerable minor kids - it probably means:

  • S/He is probably unaware of, or is denying, that s/he is ruled by a false-self to some extent.

  • You may be a  Grown Wounded Child (GWC) in denial also. This is specially likely if the other person is your parent, or grandparent, or current or former mate.

  • If the person with toxic beliefs is influencing one or more dependent kids, they're probably in a low-nurturance family and the children are unaware of growing their own psychological wounds.

      You may caringly confront this person about (a) their psychological wounds and/or their (b) toxic religious or spiritual beliefs and behaviors now, later, or never. If they're influencing minor kids now, or may in the future, I propose that you have a moral responsibility to yourself and to the kids and their descendents to confront their wounded caregiver/s.

      Confront means to inform them factually of psychological wounds and their impacts, not blame, scorn, lecture, threaten, or label them as bad, damaged, stupid, or inferior! It also means (a) keep your respective integrities, rights, and boundaries clear, and (b) use the Serenity Prayer to avoid taking responsibility for breaking their protective denials and healing their wounds (codependence).

      If the person is a lay church official or professional clergyperson, ask them to study this article on the wounds + unawareness] cycle. Then read and discuss this article, and these several pages on avoiding or reducing the toxic effects of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle in their family and community. Then ask their reactions without judgment.

      Again, avoid feeling you have to rescue or save this person or "show them the light." Put your integrity first, and make your best respectful effort to alert her or him to subselves, wounds, and toxic beliefs. Then turn the outcome over to your Higher Power and attend your own recovery and family. For more perspective, see this article on resolving significant family conflicts over "religion."

      Notice with interest what your subselves are "saying" now...

      Finally, let's look at...

Options if Your Church and/or Religious Community is "Too Toxic"

      Recall - a "toxic" church or group promotes beliefs and behaviors that are psychologically, spiritually, or physically dangerous or damaging to their members and/or society. "Dangerous or damaging" means "promoting excessive shame, guilts, anxieties, toxic beliefs, illness or injury, and over-dependence on others' judgments and beliefs - including scriptures and church rules - rather than healthy self-reliance. 

      First ask "Why am I participating in this community or church if I believe their policies and practices are too toxic? What would I lose - and gain - if I reduce or end my affiliation with this group?" Note that typical people recovering from psychological wounds eventually admit and choose to reduce or end toxic relationships. This is specially likely if minor kids are being harmed in/directly by the relationship.

       So if you're a person whose family attends a significantly-toxic community or church, the question becomes "What would each of us lose and gain - short and long term - by reducing or ending our affiliation with this group?"

      Another option is whether or not to confront key members of the church or community about what you're reading in this article and non-profit Web site. If some or many of the people in the organization are significantly wounded and seem to be ruled by a false self, what does your conscience suggest about your moral obligation to try to empathically and respectfully alert  them?

      Whatever you decide, note that typical wounded people will deny - often fiercely - that they're dominated by a false self. Premise - the core issue is preserving your integrity, not "saving" anyone from the toxic effects of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

      You have many options about how to inform some or all community members, and what to inform them of. For an overview of your options, read this The same options apply if you want to alert religious denomination officials to the ideas in this article and Web site.


      Premises - all people evolve conscious or unconscious spiritual beliefs. Your personal wholistic health and your family's nurturance level are significantly affected by the health or toxicity of your religious and/or spiritual beliefs and practices. This article opens with perspective on spirituality, religion, beliefs, and faith.

      It proposes that some religious and spiritual beliefs and organizations promote personal, family, and social health and harmony, and others diminish them. The article offers criteria with which to judge these, and invites you to evaluate your and your family's key beliefs, and those of your church or religious community and any related denomination.

      The article closes with suggestions if your beliefs or church seem "too toxic," and/or someone else's seem "too unhealthy."

+ + +

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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