From Nathaniel Branden's The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, pages 209-293.
The Religious Mentality
In California, when educators introduced self-esteem curricula into the schools, the most fervent opponents were Christian fundamentalists. They denounce such programs as "self-worship." They argue that self-esteem alienates children from G-d.
I recall, many years ago, a Carmelite nun speaking of her training. "We were taught that the enemy to be annihilated, the barrier between ourselves and Divinity, was the self. Eyes cast down-not to see too much. Emotions suppressed-not to feel too much. A life of prayers and service-not to think too much. Above all, obedience - not to question."
Throughout history, wherever religion has been state enforced, consciousness has been punished. For the sin of thinking, men and women have been tortured and executed. This is why the American idea of absolute separation of Church and State was of such historical significance: it forbade any religious group to use the machinery of government to persecute those who thought or believed differently.
Throughout history, wherever religion has been state enforced, consciousness has been punished
When beliefs are arrived at not by a process of reason but by faith and alleged revelation-when there are no objective criteria of knowledge to appeal to- those who think differently are often perceived by believers as a threat, a danger, capable of spreading the disease of nonbelief to others. For example, consider the typical religious response to atheism. If one has arrived at belief in G-d through some authentic personal experience, one would imagine that the appropriate response to those not similarly advantaged would be compassion. Instead, more often than not, the response is hatred. Why? The answer can only be that the atheist is experienced by the believer as a threat. Yet if the bleiver truly feels not only that G-d exists but that G-d is on his or her side, then it is the atheist, not the bleiever, who should receive kindness and sympathy, having lacked the good fortune to be touched by the experience of Divinity. (As it happens, the Bible sets the precedent for this lack of benevelonce; we are told Jesus threated those who did not believe he was the son of G-d with an eternity of torment. And in the Koran, Mohammed is no more merciful toward nonbelievers. Religious support for cruelty toward those who don't agree with one has a long history.)
Of course the issue is deeper than theism versus atheism. For thousands of years men have killed other men in the name of different notions of G-d. Terrible religious wars were between people all of whom called themselves Christians.
Historically, not only has traditional religion generally set itself in opposition to science, it has also condemned most personal mysticism-because the mystic claims direct, unmediated experience of G-d, unrouted through religious authority. FOr the traditional religionist, the mystic who operates outside the orbit of the church is too much of an "individualist."
My purpose here is not an examination of the impact of religious as such, but only religious authoritarianism as it manifests itself in a given culture. If there are religions or specific religious teachings that encourge the individual to value him- or herself and that support intellectual openness and independent thinking, then they are outside the scope of this discussion. My focus here is on the effects for self-esteem of cultures (or subcultures) in which religious authoritarianism dominates, in which belief is commanded and dissent is regarded as sin. In such situations, living consciously, self-responsibly, and self-assertively is proscribed.
It would be a mistake to let one's thinking on this point stop at Islam or Roman Catholicism. Luther and Calvin were no friendlier to the independent mind than was the pope.
If, in any culture, children are taught, "We are all equally unworthy in the sight of G-d"-
If, in any culture, children are taught, "You are born in sin and are sinful by nature"-
If children are given a message that amounts to "Don't think, don't question, believe"-
If children are given a message that amounts to, "Who are you to place your mind above that of the priest, the minister, the rabbi?"-
If children are told, "If you have value it is not bevause of anything you have done or could ever do, it is only because G-d loves you"-
If children are told, "Submission to what you cannot understand is the beginning of morality"-
If children are instructed, "Do not be 'willfull,' self-assertiveness is the sin of pride"-
If children are instructed, "Never think that you belong to yourself"-
If children are informed, "In any clash between your judgement and that of your religious authorities, it is your authorities you must believe"-
If children are informed, "Self-sacrifice is the foremost virtue and noblest duty"-
- then consider what will be the likely consequences for the practice of living consciously, or the practice of self-assertiveness, or any of the other pillars of healthy self-esteem.
In any culture, subculture, or family in which belief is valued above thought, and self-surrender is valued above self-expression, and conformity is valued above integrity, those who preserve their self-esteem are likely to be heroic exceptions.
In my experience, what makes discussions of the impact of religious teachings difficult is the high degree of individual interpreation of what they mean. I have been told on occasion that none of the teachings given above really mean what it sounds like it means. Many Christians I have talked to assure me that they personally know what Jesus Christ [sic.] really meant but that, alas, millions of other Christians don't.
What is inarguable, however, is that whnever and wherever religion of any kind (Christian or non-Christian) has been backed up by the power of the state, consciousness, independence, and self-assertiveness have been punished, appaling cruelty. This is the simple fact at which one must look in weighing the cultural/psychological impact on individuals of the religious authoritarian orientation. This does not mean that all religious ideas are necessarily mistaken. But it does mean that if one looks from a historical perspective at one culture after another, one cannot claim that the influence of religion in general has been salutary for self-esteem.
The subject of reliigion tends to provoke strong passions. To some readers, almost every sentence in this section may be invediary. My colleagues in the self-esteem movement are understandably eager to persuade people that htere are no conflicts between the self-esteem agenda and the precepts of conventional religion. In discussion with religious critics, I myself have sometimes asked, "If you believe that we are the children of G-d, isn't it blasphemy to suggest that we not love ourselves?" And yet, the question remains: If fundamentalists have gone on the warpath about the introduction of self-esteem programs in the schools because they believe such programs are incompatible with traditional religion, is it possible they are not mistaken? That is a question that must be faced.
If, as is my hope, the six pillars will one day be taught to school-children, well-has any religious orthodoxy ever wanted a people fully committed to the practice of living consciously? And will boys and girls (and men and women) of high self-esteem accept Protestant theologian Paul Tillich's assertion that everyone is equally unworthy in the sight of G-d?