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Domestic Violence

When Hate Becomes Religion

Some people pervert religion to justify abuse, bigotry, and hatred.

Key points

  • Abusers who use religion to justify abuse also may use it to justify bigotry and hate.
  • Religion can help people transcend the flaws in human nature.
  • The content of our hearts determines how we interpret religion. Poison is in our hearts, not our religion.

One of the worst things about my work with couples in pain is encountering people who use religion to justify their abuse of loved ones. This egregious misuse of religion is personally abhorrent to me because belief in a compassionate God helped me survive a violent childhood with alcoholic parents. My mother, a victim of severe domestic violence in her youth, stopped her raging outbursts, drinking, and smoking from the moment she became a born-again Christian. For the rest of her life, she was active in charitable work and, as far as I’m aware, never again expressed a malicious thought.

Religion can help people transcend the flaws in human nature. Using it to inflame our more dreadful instincts destroys its uniquely transcendent qualities.

I once interviewed 25 leaders of the major religions for a research project. None of them believed that their faith countenanced emotional or physical abuse of loved ones. All regarded abuse as sin. None construed the old testament quote, “Wives submit to your husbands” to mean they should suffer the sin of abuse. Unfortunately, most are reluctant to proclaim this crucial fact in their literature and sermons, for fear of losing followers. As one leader put it, “The grace of God won’t change them if we drive them away.”

In my clinical experience, abusers who use religion to justify abuse also use it to justify bigotry and hate. I heard one abuser, who characterized himself as “deeply religious,” describe the joy he will feel on “Judgment Day” when he witnesses all the people he hates condemned to eternal suffering.

The content of our hearts determines how we interpret religion. The poison is in our hearts, not our religion.

Dies Irae: Day of Wrath

The abuser who couldn’t wait for “Judgment Day” thought that he would get to enjoy watching his enemies be judged by the wrath of God, not that he would be judged for his hatred.

The Catholic Requiem Mass, said at funerals for hundreds of years before the reforms of 1962, has a dramatic section near the beginning that warns of the Day of Wrath, when all human beings, living and dead, must answer for their actions.

The first time I heard the Dies Irae as a young child, it was not recited at a funeral. It was sung in a concert hall, in Verdi’s Requiem, with its pounding bass drums, portentous trumpets, and screaming chorus. And I was afraid. I didn’t understand the Latin text, but the music forcefully conveyed the impression that there will be no place to hide and no one to blame.

My personal belief, supported by clinical experience and research on end-of-life regret, is that most of us who will die natural deaths will not completely escape a day of psychological reckoning. On that psychological day of wrath, the judge within will not ask what our spouses or bosses or coworkers or neighbors or governments did.

Is It Temporary?

At least we can hope that the current increase in religious rigidity is temporary. Rapid cultural, social, and technological changes predict temporary increases in rigidity as a coping mechanism, as I discussed in my post, The Rigidity-Entropy Complex. Psychological rigidity is resistance to change in habits, attitudes, concepts, and beliefs. To the rigid, change is stressful, unfair, or augers chaos. In advanced stages, rigidity blocks perceptions of other people’s emotional states, inhibits compassion, and makes disagreement seem hostile.

For the most part, people tend to adapt to changes over time and become more flexible, tolerant, and humane, all necessary ingredients of psychological well-being.

But there’s a wildcard in predicting the future of psychological well-being. Ours is the most drugged culture in the history of humanity. I worry that when religion is no longer the opium of the people, opium will become the religion of the people.

Of course, the worst offenders who pervert religion for despicable aims will not read these words; psychological rigidity by definition is dismissing and devaluing different views. In our polarized times, people risk falling prey to bigotry about religion. Bigotry is the wolf of human nature, whether it wears the clothing of religion or enlightenment.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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