8 Signs Your Church Might Be Brainwashing You

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With the continuing rise of mega churches and preachers for profit, the likelihood of religious brainwashing will continue to be a concern.

Religion itself is based on faith. It requires you to believe in things that are unseen, taking those beliefs at face value and without question.

Of course, the inability to be skeptical about anything you’ve heard leaves the doors open for groupthink, and peer pressure not to go against the grain.

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There are many benefits to religion. Research in the field of neurotheology has shown that religious practices can increase life span and help people cope with disease.

Some of the science even suggests that the brain reacts the same way to religion as it does to drugs and sex, giving partakers a temporary high. The need to maintain this “high” can lead to brainwashing.

What is religious brainwashing?

Brainwashing itself is a sudden, forced change in attitude, beliefs or values. Religious brainwashing is when you put aside your personal belief system and accept alternative religious views wholeheartedly.

All religion is a form of “brainwashing.” You are learning a new system of beliefs and, in most cases, this new ideology supersedes your previous principles.

But in this article, we are discussing forced changes versus voluntary participation in religious activities. Simply being a part of the religious community or church member doesn’t equate to mind control.

Brainwashing, religious or otherwise, is associated with some form or abuse. In most examples, a false sense of trust is given to the victim before all aspects of their lives are taken over.

Religious brainwashing has been mostly attributed to cults. The difference between cults and religious brainwashing is the method used to indoctrinate people.

A cult leader relies on Stockholm Syndrome. Members identify with the cult leaders and begin to think they are nothing without him or her. This enables the tolerance of abuse when the cult’s ideas are met with any resistance.

Religious brainwashing is not so extreme. It’s based around the desire of the group members to reach things like Heaven or “eternal life” after they have died in real life.

Pastors and church leaders are seen as messengers from God whose motives and lessons must not be questioned if you want to reap eternal rewards.

In religion, fear is used to brainwash people into adhering to strict religious beliefs. The fear of rejection here on earth or in the afterlife are what keep over-the-top religious movements going.

Some cases of religious brainwashing can end in religious trauma syndrome (RTS). This happens when a person struggles to leave a religion or set of beliefs they have been programmed to follow.

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8 Signs of Religious Brainwashing

So, how do you know whether you are simply a faithful believer, or if your church is trying to brainwash you? Here are some of the warning signs of religious brainwashing.

1. You are isolated.

Most abuse or brainwashing starts with separating you from family members and friends. The isolation can be physical, mental, social or emotional.

The isolation is not overt. It’s creating a sense that the people you know don’t understand you. The idea is to remove you from people that might question what is going on and make you dependent on your religious "family" only.

2. Challenges and debate are not tolerated.

Most religions have principles and rules that must be followed without exception. But in healthy settings, parishioners can discuss their doubts and openly challenge things that give them pause.

In dysfunctional religious settings, debates and doubts are shut down. If you are not careful, your doubts can get you labeled a blaspheme accused of questioning God.

3. You must follow without question.

During religious brainwashing, followers are encouraged to follow what they are told. Just as challenges are unacceptable, lack of conformity is not tolerated.

Free thinking is frowned upon when brainwashing is in effect. If you are following guidelines and don’t understand why you do it, you may have been brainwashed.

4. The consequences of going against the status quo are harsh.

If there are big repercussions for going against your religion, you may be a victim of religious brainwashing. Life is full of consequences for your actions, so some should be expected.

But if deviation from the rules leads to exile from the community, termination of relationships, violence or death, you have been brainwashed and no longer have agency over your body or your life.

5. Non-believers are your sworn enemy.

No matter what your beliefs are, infringing on other people’s freedom of religion is a clue that you may be a victim of religious brainwashing

If you find yourself arguing with people about their own beliefs on social media, or keeping anyone who doesn’t share your ideas at bay, you have been given an "us against them" mindset.

Creating this division gives believers a sense of exclusivity and makes them feel special. The view that outsiders are the enemy puts members in a silo where only one school of thought is allowed.

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6. You become a minion.

Losing your sense of individuality and forgetting who you are as a person are other signs of religious brainwashing. If your personal decisions are no longer yours, you are in an unhealthy relationship with religion.

Rules that dictate your life choices — such as what clothing to wear, who you can be around, your hobbies and interests, and even what you say and how you say it — are not normal.

7. You put religion over everything.

Have you checked out from everything that is not connected to your religion? Are friends and family no longer a priority or concern in your life? You may be brainwashed.

Dysfunction and disagreement in families is normal. But if your lifestyle has changed and you are passing on family gatherings and check-ins in favor of your new religion, it’s time to re-analyze your life.

8. You only care about your religious goals.

For most religious people that are not brainwashed, it is perfectly normal to want to go to heaven. There is nothing wrong with following the values you believe will get you there.

However, if you have put everything else in your life on hold to only focus on your religious enlightenment, you may be brainwashed. Like everything else, religion should be balanced with all other areas of your life.

How to Reverse Religious Brainwashing

1. Get out.

The first step in reversing religious brainwashing is to get away from the institution you’ve been indoctrinated into. It is impossible to start to heal without creating distance.

2. Do your own studying.

Instead of listening to the teachings blindly, read the scriptures on your own. Interpret the words from your own perspective and decide on what speaks to you.

Knowledge is power and studying on your own is the ultimate empowerment.

3. Get reacquainted with your loved ones.

Due to the isolation, you may have been separated from the people you love. Get in touch with them and pick up where you left off. Be transparent about your experience so they can support you.

4. Be open and engaging.

Talk to people with other points of view without judgment. You may meet people who are going through the same thing and connect with them.

Be careful to avoid getting sucked into a new religion by people with bad intentions.

5. Rebuild your life.

Now that you are free from unhealthy influence, rediscover your likes and interests. Focus on doing things that make you happy and whole. Learn to set boundaries so you don’t fall into the same trap in the future.

6. Reach out for help.

Whether it's a professional specializing in deprogramming, or a therapist who focuses on trauma, don't be afraid to seek out help. You can also visit websites like Recovering From Religion for additional resources.

7. Give it time.

There is no set length of time it will take to begin to feel a sense of normalcy, but undoing the damage can be difficult. Your recovery will depend on how long you were subjected to religious brainwashing.

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NyRee Ausler is a writer from Seattle, Washington, and author of seven books. She covers lifestyle and entertainment and news, as well as navigating the workplace and social issues.