The Skewers of Religion

By G

If you could take the skewers of religion, those that riddle your frame, make you aware every time you move- if you could withdraw the scimitars of religion from your mental and moral systems- could you even stand?”
-Elphaba, The Witch of the West
Wicked. pg 387

And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness,
preaching and prophesying of wars, and contentions, and destructions, and continually reminding them of death, and the duration of eternity, and the judgments and the power of God, and all these things—stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord. I say there was nothing short of these things, and exceedingly great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction.”
Enos 1:23

As I sit here writing this I am sipping a cup of green tea. Clear in my mind is the very first time I went to the store to buy a box of green tea. I was an adult; a wife and a mother. Standing in the grocery aisle, appraising the vast selection of teas, I literally was shaking in my boots. Every time someone walked by the aisle I jumped guiltily (caught in the act!!) As I put my box of tea on the belt at the check-out line I half way expected the cashier to card me (with a disapproving look upon her face no less) and when I finally got home and made that first cup of tea, fight or flight neurons where firing off in my brain. Big time.


Yes, I just revealed just how sheltered and naive (and goody goody?) I was. But that memory is a vivid one for me and it was simply one of many terrifying steps that was the process of asking questions I had never let myself ask before.

That terror is what I want to talk about. Doesn’t that seem just wrong to anyone else??

I just found out about these Hell Houses that certain fundamentalist christian church’s use to scare 12 yr olds into obeying God. Now, LDS versions are much more benign (and a lot less theatrical) but I do remember YM/YW activities where rooms in the church were set up to show the various Degrees of Glory and we were shown after-life scenarios based on hypothetical life-styles choices (“Here’s what the Telestial Kingdom looks and feels like… The Celestial… The Terrestial… Outer Darkness…” etc.)

On the one hand, there is the pull between denominations as to exactly WHAT will bring salvation/damnation: (ie; my cup of green tea keeps me out of LDS heaven and my temple endowments keep me out of fundy christian heaven) and fear is used by many faiths to both control and grow the membership (anyone else get sappy scare-stories about friends in the here-after who are angry/sad that the gospel was not shared with them?). On a more general scale, the idea is put forth (ad nauseum) that without religion (and it’s punishment/reward system) we’d all be running around killing each other (or some similar variant on that theme).

I’m fuzzy on the details, but I know there are belief systems that are NOT based on principles of divine reward and retribution with long lists of do-s and don’t-s. And their participants seem to be pretty peaceful fulfilled individuals in spite of the lack.

Hypothetically, what do you think The Church would lose if it lost it’s rhetoric of fear?  What would it gain?

(Also, because it’s sort of related and very funny: a Sugar Beet article about the Man Who Finished Repenting 13 months Ahead of Schedule. Awesome!)


  1. I think the church would lose one of the main way it retains members. Many people stay because of the fear of the outside world the church instils in its members. That fear, coupled with the fear of hell/non celestial glory (and all its supposed consequences) are, I think, two of the church’s most powerful weapons for control/keeping people active.

    But what the church would gain by doing away with the fear (and guilt) would be greater legitimacy as a real Christian religion, where the focus could actually be on acceptance and love rather than obedience and conformity (and of course the fear).

    Living out of fear or out of guilt is terribly unhealthy and just pointless. It is disappointing that the good potential of Mormonism/Christianity is mostly shoved aside and ignored in favour of expectations of blind obedience, emotional manipulations, judgementalism, bigotry, and discrimination.

    All religions pick and choose what to believe, decide what parts of its scriptures to follow and which to ignore/discount (though most pretend they don’t do this). It is sad that the church leadership has over the past years chosen to focus so much on stringent rules, the fear and guilt, and on discrimination, rather than on the more positive and less exclusionary ideas found in the religion.

  2. Let me just say unequivocally that yes, the kind of fear religion fosters is wrong. Most Western religions (with a few exceptions) lose sight of their main purpose, giving people meaning in their lives, and focus instead on controlling the lives of their adherents.

    Part of what I found so frustrating and spiritually damaging when I left Mormonism was that they had turned Christ’s teachings of kindness and love into a complex system of dos and don’ts that had no real bearing on whether one was a good person or not.

    Letting go of that complex system and focusing instead on fostering compassion for my fellow humans was a very freeing step. I still have a long way to go. I still have a judgmental streak in me, but now I can focus on eradicating that rather than what I’m eating or drinking or saying or thinking at every moment of every day.

  3. I am not sure what it would lose, but I know what it would gain — me. I want so much to embrace a lot of the basic doctrines that make sense to me, but I run and hide because I don’t ever want to go back to living my life in guilt and fear. I am not sure that eternal glory is worth that hell on earth.

  4. I don’t live in guilt and fear. I think when your understanding of the gospel matures there is no longer a list of dos and don’t. Perhaps it was Esther Rasband’s book that changed it for me, I can’t be sure.
    All I know is that it is not difficult to skip the tea. I don’t do it because I am scared to drink tea. The Lord asks many things of me and I do my best to do what I can. I do not feel guilt because I now ask the Lord to help me know what is best for me to accomplish each day (since there is no way to do it all at once).
    I do not think about the three kingdoms except to trust that everyone will end up where they will be most comfortable, including myself. I live the gospel and try to do what God would have me do because that is what brings me the most peace and happiness.
    I don’t see a problem with a God who asks us to obey commandments.

  5. I guess I’m not getting a visual of what our “hell” actually is. I mean, I know what it’s NOT: a burning lake of eternal fire.

    So…um…what’s so bad about the terrestrial and telestial kingdoms that people are AFRAID?

    People conflate the lack of exaltation to that of a figurative burning lake of fire and it makes me think they simply NEED a burning lake of fire in their belief system.

  6. Hi G. Nice post.

    A couple of distinctions come to mind when reading your post. First, the distinction between fear and guilt. Growing up I had plenty of the former, but not so much of the latter. And I think that had to do with my parents more than the church. Maybe it was in spite of the church, but my brothers and sisters and I — we just weren’t made to feel guilty about things.

    That being said, I remember the feelings of terror that you describe. Only for me, it wasn’t about some act, so much as it was about the progression of my belief. Questions I was asking, propositions I was entertaining. Damnable thoughts. And perhaps there is a sense in which the pursuit of those questions has damned me, so I don’t think the fear was unfounded.

    And that brings me to the second distinction I thought of when I read your post. I think there’s an important difference between providing a knowledge of consequences and instilling fear. The latter may or may not result from the former. If the consequences of transgressing some moral boundary (like, say, drinking tea) are undesirable, then the feelings that arise at the thought are not necessarily a bad thing — whether you call those feelings “fear” or not. I mean hell, almost everything my dad ever warned me about what happens to “intellectuals” has basically come true in my life. That doesn’t mean he was fear-mongering. Just laying it out there. He was basically like, look, if you go down this path, this is what you can expect to find. I went down the path anyway, and I’m glad I did. But he was right about almost everything he warned of.

    As for your hypothetical, I’m not quite sure what you mean by “rhetoric of fear”. But I do think that if the church stopped imposing clear moral boundaries upon the social reality of its members, it would fade into obscurity at a rate much faster than we are presently witnessing.

    Those are my thoughts. Thanks for the thought provoking post. We want to get together with you and A soon — maybe we can talk more about this then. 🙂

  7. thanks for the comments all. A few thoughts:

    Moriah Jovan~ yes, LSD are rather unique among traditional Christendom in that we don’t do fire and brimstone. The lowest that most of humanity will go is the Telestial Kingdom and didn’t JS say that we would commit suicide to go there because it’s so beautiful? And yet Mormon culture manages to do quite well endowing failure to reach Celestial Glory with a fair amount of horror. Did anyone else see that video in seminary, the one about the guy and the girl who decided to get married out side of the temple? They get in an accident on their honeymoon and we see the (dead) guy desperately calling to the (dead) girl as she walks away from him into a dark mist (not sealed in the tempe, ergo, lots of spooky dark mist). [Of course, the guy was actually dreaming, he woke up and realized they needed to be married in the temple. Happy Ending!)

    Joseph West~ Yes, absolutely about the damnable thoughts. Me buying a box of tea was the act that followed the damnable (and terrifying) thought: “what if the church is wrong?”

    which relates to your comment, jks; the fear I am addressing in this post is usually (I think) reserved for those members who find themselves in the situation of no longer believing “without a shadow of a doubt”. The LDS language surrounding a person questioning the church is chock full of peril.

  8. And yet Mormon culture manages to do quite well endowing failure to reach Celestial Glory with a fair amount of horror.

    Exactly my point. Our core doctrine is, at its core, proactive, meaning, if you do X, Y, and Z, you can become a god. If you don’t, gosh, you get to live in paradise for eternity and…maybe you’ll be bored. We don’t know for sure, but you’ll like it!

    It’s not reactive meaning, if you don’t accept Christ into your heart as your personal savior, you will, in fact, burn in a lake of fire for eternity. Oh what? Those poor people in Africa who never hear about Jesus and the Good News? Sucks to be them!

    Yet culturally we act as if we’re on the fast train to a burning lake of fire.

    Then we have the works v grace argument, which muddies the waters even further. After all, people who are saved by the blood of the Lamb don’t see works as at all important to your salvation, but as a manifestation of your changed heart. Plus, you know, if you do good works, you get more jewels in your crown and a bigger mansion on the streets of gold closer to God.

    We don’t much take grace into consideration at all, except the lip service of “We are saved by grace after all we can do.” Except “all we can do” pretty much equals perfection as defined by culture and tradition.

    Quite frankly, I’m not even sure what our doctrine even is anymore.

  9. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure what our doctrine even is anymore.

    That’s the problem with “core” doctrine vs. “folk” doctrine vs. current teachings vs. past teachings.

    Doctrine is whatever the individual or group believes it is. And it changes, all the time. Things that JS found doctrinal are different from what BY thought was doctrinal, Bruce McConkie, Spencer Kimball, Thomas Monson, etc. It’s fluid and malleable. Ideas and assumptions change.

    And they contradict. There is much within the current teachings/doctrines of the church that contradicts and creates a lot of dissonance. Is the most important commandment to love or is it to be obedient? Is actual tolerance and equal treatment of those who “sin” good or do you shun and judge? Is god’s love conditional or unconditional?

    It depends on whom you ask, where they grew up, who taught them, what GAs they listen to, etc.

    When the past and present church leaders can’t even decide on what the “real” doctrines are, it’s pretty impossible for the membership to adhere to one “true” doctrine for anything.

  10. VERY well said Moriah Jovan! (and craig too. currently, I think of “doctrine” as the living conglomerate of what is said/done/believed/bought by the lay members; folk doctrine, kitchy art, cultural meems being very important parts)

    oh, and I thought of a follow up question for you Joseph West: if you wouldn’t mind elaborating on your consequences vs fear comment.

    For example, regarding your father’s warning about intellectualism; was the warning a sort of “son, higher education will cause you to question a lot of things, it will change your. it’s not for the faint of heart” or was more along the lines of “son, higher education will cause you to lose your testimony and along with it, your eternal salvation”

    Yes, I totally put words in your father’s mouth, forgive me. What’s on my mind is teasing out the distinction between real life consequences vs not-of-this-world warnings (complete with fear and peril) of the here-after… does that make sense?

    (or another example: if you drink a lot of caffeine, you’ll become addicted and have headaches when you stop vs if you drink green tea you are no longer temple worthy and lose your chance at eternal salvation.)

  11. I agree with Craig–the Church would lose a huge chunk of its membership if it lost the fear rhetoric (though it would gain wonderful folks like jks). Such teachings are all part of a process of drawing clear lines that determine what is acceptable and what is not, and who is inside and who is out. Those mainline Protestant denominations that jettisoned the fearmongering are shedding membership like crazy.

    What I find of special concern in the Church and in the larger conservative Christian culture in which it is largely located is when these institutions replace fundamental understanding and and respect for individual intelligence/ability to learn with fear tactics. Take their approach to sexual morality and sex education of minors, or to areas of concern in Church history.

  12. 🙂 Those are good hard thoughts/questions. No easy answers.

    In my opinion, other-worldly promises are always a tell-tale, red-lights-flashing, blaring alarm, warning me that someone is trying to give me some opium — trying to use religion to control me. So what I’m saying is that yeah, you’re right in resisting the not-of-this-world scare tactics. And I’m not denying that this takes place in the church.


    Mormonism is not (or, at the very least, SHOULD NOT be) other-worldly religion. Mormonism teaches that the celestial kingdom will be built on this earth. Brigham Young taught that the degree of our salvation depends upon our faith, here and now — that we will only live in the kingdom of God if we build it ourselves! When we are authentic Mormons, we leave behind the metaphysical baggage of the other-worldly false traditions of Christianity — at least, that’s how I see it.

    Salvation is described in the D&C as the “fulness of joy” and I think what that means practically, given other authoritative statements from the mormon tradition, is coming to that state of being in which spirit, body, community, and environment are harmonized in the fulfillment of will, desire, spiritual law and physical law. Salvation is physical and spiritual, individual and communal.

    Now that’s a lot of jargony theological gobbly-gook and there’s a lot to unpack there. The point is that I think it can be legitimate and honest for a parent to teach a child that they risk losing their salvation if they choose to transgress the moral boundaries set by authorities of our faith community — if and only if “salvation” is understood in the authentically mormon, this-worldly sense that I describe above. When I transgress the word of wisdom (for example), I place myself outside a moral boundary and thus sever a connection to my orthodox mormon community, without which I cannot be saved. So there is a very real, very this-worldly sense in which I have lost my salvation. It is in this sense that I believe my parents *usually* taught their kids to be careful about. And it is in this sense that I do think I have lost some measure of my own salvation by taking the path I’m on.

    The problem, of course, is that staying within that moral boundary is often just as problematic because of its incongruence with personal desire. I’m damned if I stay and I’m damned if I leave. Aint that a bitch. Atonement (in the this-worldly, authentically mormon sense) is our only hope.

    Ok, enough rambling for now. I hope that makes some sense.

  13. Woops, I think the proper protocol would have been to put “@G” at the beginning of my last post. I was responding to her. 🙂

  14. Joseph West–Your mormon community is essential to your personal salvation???? Maybe you could put some more time into that thought.

    And about guilt and fear. Anyone who ever went to sacrament meeting and came home in the dumper with guilt that you hadn’t completed your visiting/home teaching? That you aren’t actually having FHE every Monday? That you don’t really fully fast on that first Sunday? These aren’t the BIG SINS and yet you were warned from the pulpit that HF would be withholding blessings because you were currently in failure to perform mode. It was all about obeying rules, with little mention of the love that might have once been behind it all, before they became official rules and commandments.

    I am so glad I don’t have a list of boxes to tick any more. It makes loving and serving my larger circle of neighbors genuine and joyful. And I am not expected to report my service or good deeds to anyone. Skipiddydudah!

  15. G– Great post!
    So far, no one has mentioned the basis for fear in both Christianity and Islam–the Satan myth.
    I prefer the Buddhist concept that negative emotions such as greed and anger are just part of our basic human nature. Wisdom is accepting these parts of our nature and learning to handle them skillfully. And at the same time, seeking to develop qualities such as compassion and nonattachment that help us live peacefully in the world.

  16. Actually, if we read d&c 19 carefully, God is declaring that talk about endless suffering etc is meant to strike fear into people’s hearts that will lead to repentance. People need to feel urgency so that they do not procrastinate their day of probation. LDS theology could easily lend itself to a lack of urgency due to the eternal nature of self-improvement and due to additional opportunities to find the truth after death. Thus, our tradition also needs a countervailing force to give an impetus to missionary work etc…

    7 Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.

  17. I have never felt fear from church, and the only guilt I have felt is for violating my own standard of behavior. For me, the standard is the temple recommend questions (faith, Word of Wisdom, chastity, etc.). And the guilt is not really excessive – more of an alert that my actions are not consistent with my beliefs and standards. A signal that I need to self-evaluate, pray, repent, and try again.

    G, what were you afraid of when you bought the green tea? What was your “worst case scenario” that caused you to feel so upset?

    I wish I has time to discuss more with all of you, but I have to get up early to go to work.

  18. ‘@Course Correction

    Great point. The fear generated by “Satan” can be very strong and very motivating – and not in a good way.

    My parents, and mother especially, view the entire world outside the church as being controlled and manipulated by Satan expressly for the purpose of destroying the church and the faithful members. Growing up I wasn’t allowed to watch TV or most movies or use the internet because Satan was everywhere, out to get us. My mum wanted to home-school my younger siblings because the local public school was too sinful and secular. Now that I’ve left the church, and don’t believe in it at all, she thinks that Satan has led me away to destruction and is probably the one who turned me gay as well.

    It’s really a terrible life to be living in that kind of fear constantly, where simply watching a movie can influence you to do evil. It really bothers me how the church has warped my parent’s view of reality and controls them and prohibits them from doing normal, basic things because they’re afraid of “Satan”. It’s really just plain creepy.

  19. Another point is that until I left the church, I didn’t realise how much fear and guilt I had been living with. Until I rejected Mormon doctrines and even more so, Mormon authority over me, and until I was living with NO fear or guilt, I had had no awareness of how much I had gotten used to living with those emotions, and how feeling constantly guilty and afraid had become normal for my life.

    Once I left, it really hit me how manipulative and wrong it is to use guilt and fear to motivate people to do anything, whether it’s the “right” thing to do or not. I think many Mormons don’t realise how fundamental that fear and guilt are in the religion, and how wrong that is.

  20. I read this yesterday and needed to contemplate before answering. This is the basic question of “why do you obey?” Kohlberg, in his moral stages, lists the first as pre-conventional. He suggests that those in this stage obey for self-interests or to avoid punishment.

    I think that the church tries to help teach us the “higher law.” One in which we are obeying purely because we want to show God how much we love him.

  21. Wonderful post G. I remember one Sunday in Relief Society where a teacher passed out a handout that read “Guilt as a Positive Motivator”. She taught how much our guilt is actually our conscience and how if we feel guilt, then we know we must be sinning and guilt is actually a good thing because it motivates us to be better. I carried that handout in my scriptures for years and fed off of it. As someone who tended to be a perfectionist personality, I feel like this was such a damaging part of my twenties. If I didn’t read my scriptures for the prescribed 30 minutes a day, the guilt I felt would be overwhelming.

    I know a lot of this comes from my own personality, but I think the lessons taught in Sunday school can be pretty damaging and tend to put us in competition with one another.

    It took me about a year an a half to really shovel through a lot of misconceptions of guilt/fear in relation to my beliefs about God. I’m still working them all out, but today, when I went shopping for tea, I didn’t worry at all about buying my Green tea, and that was a nice step forward.

  22. Hi, G – your post reminded me of this article about how the Muslim community must begin shaming its members who advocate and perpetuate violence in the name of their religion.

    Here’s what the article (Op-ed by Thomas Friedman) says about the utility of shame in policing social norms:

    “When you want to foster more responsible behavior in people, you can’t just legislate more rules and regulations,” said Dov Seidman, the C.E.O. of LRN, which helps companies build ethical cultures, and the author of the book “How.” “You have to enlist and inspire people in a set of values. People need to be governed both from the outside, through compliance with rules, and from the inside, inspired by shared values. That is why shame is so important. When we call a banker ‘a fat cat’ for taking too big a bonus, we’re actually being inspirational leaders because we are telling them, ‘You are behaving beneath how a responsible human being should behave.’ We need to inspire the village to shame those who betray our common values.”


    Guilt and shame can be useful in discouraging dangerous behavior, but using guilt and shame to police values of dubious meaning – like the prohibition on drinking green tea – is unnecessarily exploitative.

  23. I believe the guilt and fear factors actually inhibit the use of our ‘free’ agency. WHO is really allowing us to use our God-given rights to think for ourselves?

    I do believe in structure of our lives ‘within the bounds the Lord has set’ –The 10 commandments (Moses’ in Exodus Ch. 20 or Jacob’s in 2 Nephi 9 Ch. 9), the Golden Rule, Christ’s “New Commandments” in Mark 12:30-31 and Articles of Faith can be lived and achieved without guilt and fear as a means of control. When was the last time you heard the Golden Rule recited in Primary? Do our YW/YM even know it exists?

    With all of the guilt/fear, do’s and dont’s, myriad of reporting and ‘oversight’ mechanisms its no wonder folks feel stifled (if the chanced to actually admit it!).

    D’Arcy. I must have carried that same lesson around with me 20 years before you were even born! .

    As for the green tea. Is WOW really a group of commandments or guidelines in health and nutrition practices? Should ‘keeping the WOW’ be among the questions for a temple recommend?

    Just some food for thought…

    I happened upon this item when surfing around this a.m. and it kind of fits with G’s topic today.

    What if…
    February 21, 2009 by Douglas Molgaard
    Missio Dei

    What if Jesus was the center of everything we do? Not our history, not our doctrine, not our culture, not our church, not our denomination, just Jesus and His mission.

    What if we focused on His mission? Reaching out to and building relationships with the marginal, the outcast, the lonely, the sick. What if we would love God and Love people?

    What if our Sunday morning worship was a time to adore and stand at awe to our God and our weekdays was a time of loving, giving, forgiving, helping, healing, caring, sharing, building relationships with people?

    What if we would read his Word as a story we are a part of and not a doctrine or a creed? How would we live, how would we act?

    What would happen if we allowed Jesus to impact our lives so we could impact others?

    What if…

  24. For me it was never about the dos and donts of the religion. I’ve certainly had a seriously hard time stepping away from dos and donts and figuring out which ones I want to keep or discard. I think that will be a very long process. But, for me it was more about the ways that we treat each other and view other people.

    And, G, I saw a documentary on those Hell Houses. It was terrifying! Worse than “speaking in tongues.”

  25. Craig,
    Thanks for sharing the environment you grew up in. It helps me regard your opinions with a bit more understanding and charity.

    Thanks for the “What If”. It’s the way we should be.

  26. G, thank you for this discussion.

    In my experience, fear and guilt were balanced with belief and desire to serve. However, I now recognize how much I experienced in the church growing up (with similar experiences in YW and semininary) and as a young adult (where I would never voice any frustration for fear of being perceived apostate). But when I think of the majority of my experiences, I see my belief and desire to serve in a system that I knew. After I “cracked” after the election (realizing I didn’t believe everything, ripping my temple recommend in half, and taking off my garments), I was able to step away from some things without too much fear and trembling. However, your tea story reminds me of when I bought a bunch of tank tops to wear as undershirts. I experienced that feeling I’d be caught…. And quite frankly, while I thought a lot about trying alcohol (skipping the tea), I’ve remained a goody goody in terms of the WOW even if I don’t believe some core tenets of Mormonism.

    Over the past year, I have come to appreciate God in an entirely different way. I have realized that I do believe certain things and that I can disregard some of the fear and misconceptions that have been integral to my experience and just be me … God will love me even if I am not doing X, Y, or Z as long as I am being the best I can be. And with that attitude I find myself mettling back in to believe and to serve.

  27. Although I should add, that I will acknowledge, a certain element of fear keeps me around even if it is not the same as it was before.

  28. It’s funny–I had a “green tea moment” as well. A few years ago I served a mission to Africa, where I sat down to tea one day with a family. He was the Steak President at the time; and was served green tea. I was raised in the US, and told them I’d been taught green tea was “against the rules.” He looked at me and said, “that doesn’t make sense; green tea is the healthiest drink in the world.” end of story for him. That moment was big for me, although it took a little longer for me to get used to the taste of green tea… But it meant for me the beginning of choosing to follow when it made sense, and not ever to do so blindly. I suppose that was the beginning for me of leaving the fear behind. As a teenager it was the guilt and fear that kept me going to church and visiting the bishop. Once I let go of that it’s been a tricky thing finding how I want the church and the collection of “rules” to fit in my life.

    So the question, what would the church gain or lose? I don’t know, and frankly it probably only matters what we, the individuals could stand to gain, and I think it’s a lot.

  29. Wow the two most recent posts on this blog have made me a fan.

    The way you described your guilt about buying green tea made me laugh. To the outside world this is so weird. To members this is life.

    “if you could withdraw the scimitars of religion from your mental and moral systems- could you even stand?”

    YES. In fact, you can stand stronger and taller. When you remove fear your values become your own and you truly believe in them. You live them because you chose to, not because you’re afraid.

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