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5 - Co-Dependence and Religion

Religion Doesn’t Have A Prayer - 5

Co-Dependence and Religion

I suggested in Chapter 1 of this series on Religious Abuse that there would be blood on the floor as this dialogue progressed. I was speaking figuratively of course, but I was referring to some very likely opposition and perhaps outright attacks from within the organization of the Catholic Church. Last week it happened; a fight broke out in the parking lot; a full out brawl it wasn’t, but a punch-out worthy of mention, nevertheless.

The contents of that scrape are detailed in the following. A complainer (at agreed to have his letter published, having been advised that it would be responded to by me and T4M’s webmaster at the time. I’m not going to repeat here what was said, but I will refer to it, because at this point in our dialogue, it is eminently important to address these dissenting voices as they arise.

Our complainer lives inside the system of the Catholic Religion. He is content to be a compliant member and has no problems with any of its systemic delusions. He has wrapped himself inside Catholicism’s cloak and claims to enjoy the safety and promise of Heaven it provides. He took exception to a number of points I had made and titled his response “Religious Abuse – What Crap.” Right away I knew I was in for a street fight, which I welcomed. Guided by my ethereal “support group”, I proceeded to handle his complaints with aplomb and an appropriate level of dispatch. I know, I’m bragging. Let’s just say his letter gave me the opportunity to solidify my position and thinking.

Abuse Revisited

Recall that there are two responses to the experience of abuse, be it physical, sexual, emotional or religious. The abused individual identifies themselves as either, a victim who slips into self-loathing and despair or, they identify with their abusers to take on the position of strength by becoming a bully themselves. Our complainer belongs to the latter group even though he came to Catholicism as an adult and claims to have made a free choice. Good for him! When you read his letter to me you can see that he is okay with every aspect of this religion’s control over him and the power he feels he derives from being a member.

For example, he is content to be defined as a sinner because confession takes care of that. Physical punishment is also acceptable, especially when he deserves it. This has caused him no ill effects that he can detect. Guilt and shame do not exist in his life. “How unfortunate for the rest of us?” He experiences the loving presence of God through this church affiliation and by following the rules. And finally, the science of Psychology means nothing to him, despite the fact that his chosen religion relies on Psychology as a favored tool for controlling its members. He fell in love with the closed nature of the Catholic system because they take care of him. All he has to do is obey the rules, confess his sins and take a physical blow now and then to be guaranteed a place in their definition of Heaven.

So Why Attack Me?

Given this level of comfort and peace with his chosen religion why would he take issue with my writings on Religious Abuse? Claiming to be fully at ease with his adopted “Parent,” wouldn’t he just dismiss my words as so much meaningless rambling by a disenchanted former member? You would think so, but that isn’t the case at all.

There are flagrant cracks in this man’s belief system and that’s what he is upset about. He is mad at me because I dared point out the fallacies that support his adopted religion. He is mad at me because underneath, he is scared that his newly acquired woolly blanket called Catholicism may very well be replete with lies, misrepresentations of historical facts and crimes such as the physical and sexual abuse of children, and perhaps even murder. He is mad at me because I exposed the rot in the underbelly of his chosen religion’s pretense at piety and holiness, its fake claims to being God’s holy representative on this earth and its careful denunciation of other religious factions. In other words, he’s upset because I showed him the rot underneath the thin veneer that constitutes his understanding of the Roman Catholic Religion.

My best guess, based on 25 years experience working with individuals cut off from their feelings, and 10 years of University study culminating in a PhD degree in Psychology, what I said precipitated a Spiritual Crisis for him. After all his searching through a variety of religious systems, he came to Catholicism with his arms wide open and his mind emptied of critical thinking, to swallow their message whole. Catholicism provided the exact formula for the ignorant bliss he had been craving. He wouldn’t have to engage in any self-examination. He wouldn’t have to grow up and be responsible for his life. He wouldn’t have to think. Just follow the rules and everything will be fine. Until I came along to shake him out of woolly reverie with my deluge of “crap”.

When his letter to T4M arrived early last week, some here wrote him off as one of the occasional crazies that shows up periodically to take issue with T4M’s mission. In case you didn’t know it “we are all of the devil.” I took the same position as they, initially. But then I saw “the gift.” And the gift is this:

Whenever someone tries to bully you out of your position on any matter, realize that they are doing so out of fear, first and foremost.

You have struck a chord within them that they refuse to recognize as their own, since they are in the business of projecting all their uncomfortable feelings away from themselves. After which they get to hang them onto outside groups, individuals or systems of belief they have been conditioned to believe are foul and to be rejected. In complete conformance with his adopted religion he has designated me, as an obvious enemy of his ridiculous faith, to be crazy and misinformed. He has rejected everything I’ve said about his religion as would any child trying to protect the image of an all powerful parent who is under attack by some insidious outsider. This is called “Co-Dependent Behavior” and is the subject of this week’s chapter on Religious Abuse.


Co-dependence is a term that came into prominence in the early 80s and was used to describe the relationship between an alcoholic and their family members who were being terrorized by his or her erratic behavior. It described how the alcoholic so dominated the family system that the spouse and children lived in a state of constant stress not unlike that described in the Stockholm Syndrome. The alcoholic’s ranting and raving while intoxicated was always out of control, and everyone in the family lived in fear of the next outburst. Children hid in closets while the sober parent tried to act as buffer between them and the raging parent. Verbal and physical abuse of all family members was the norm. The day after an episode, everyone remained quiet and dared not speak about “what happened.” The family was in collusion with the alcoholic in this co-dependent relationship. No one could be their true self because they were always on guard for the next episode – ergo, co-dependence became their state of being.

From these beginnings came support groups for Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) along with descriptions of the syndrome and its major features. Other groups, offering support for children and spouses of alcoholics, also came into being through the auspices of Alcoholics Anonymous. As the ACOA syndrome gained a footing in the mainstream’s understanding of the phenomenon, its major spokespersons started showing up on Oprah Winfrey and other talk shows devoted to helping people manage such problems.

Melodie Beattie and John Bradshaw were two of the most prominent voices that exposed this caricature of the alcoholic family and invoked the term “co-dependence” to explain its dysfunctional relations. Who coined it originally did not matter as the term gained wide acceptance from those afflicted and from those who claimed to have answers that worked. Everything we know today about dysfunctional families came from this era when a lot of attention was being paid to the alcoholic home and how that one “crazed” individual so controlled the family dynamics that no one dared to speak out against them. When the non-alcoholic spouse tried to placate the alcoholic, they in fact modeled this co-dependent attitude and behavior for all to see.

Children in the alcoholic home followed suit. They tried to be extra good by remaining quiet and invisible if possible, in order to do their part to short circuit another abusive episode. They essentially learned to repress their own needs while trying to be perfect in their behavior. Under this state of constant stress, children tried to figure out how to control what the alcoholic parent was doing to them. None of these strategies worked of course, because the alcoholic’s behavior was not contingent on family dynamics.

In every case, the behavior was solely the province of a psychologically dysfunctional individual who used alcohol to dull his or her pain and then used this dependency to excuse their flagrantly abusive behavior. This family dynamic evolved into a closed system that no one would speak about, principally out of shame. The alcoholic, who was often described as “King or Queen Baby” had their way within the family system while everyone else tried various survival strategies that never worked.

When the term Co-dependence became a part of our everyday language, psychologists and members of the established helping professions quickly came on board. It helped all of us “helpers” give meaning and understanding to a dynamic that was so flagrantly obvious it screamed for recognition. Thanks to the many writers within the “Recovery Movement” we in psychology were given a whole new set of parameters in which to understand this issue and quickly applied our therapeutic strategies to meet the demand.

The writers in the Recovery Movement, who, early on, were not psychologists or psychiatrists, but simply astute observers of the human condition, opened the door for the rest of us to follow. They were likely “Adult Children of Alcoholics” or, “Recovering Alcoholics” themselves, who decided to clean up their act and bring much needed understanding to a systemic disorder that plagued millions of families worldwide. When these writers began to describe the family dynamics associated with creating the co-dependent condition, they opened a major door to our growing understanding of the dysfunctional family.

Their methods of investigation and ensuing results became the foundation upon which today’s understanding of dysfunctional families was built. They set the table. We, helpers and psychologists alike, came along and feasted on their insights. In my practice alone, a full one third of my clients were reeling from the effects of having grown up in a dysfunctional family. My most recommended reading at the time was John Bradshaw’s “Bradshaw: On the Family.”

From these early explorations came our understanding of dysfunctional family dynamics as a whole. We therapists immediately recognized that these pathological dynamics were not just the province of the alcoholic family. Any family who had a raging parent fit the bill. Families who were generally dysfunctional without the use of drugs or alcohol fit the bill. For a while it seemed most North American families fit the bill. The most important result came through the term “co-dependence” that clearly described the relationship between family victims and their abuser.

From the outside, it would seem obvious to anyone looking in, that the sober parent should take the children and leave. That never happened unless the sober parent sought treatment for themselves first. This was rare for the simple reason that they were not the obvious problem, their alcoholic spouse was. That’s when the term “enabler” also came into the jargon. If an alcoholic went into treatment, his or her spouse had to do so as well. This had to happen for one simple reason: the unconscious enabling behavior served up by the non-alcoholic spouse helped maintain the dysfunctional family dynamic. Sadly, many spouses of alcoholics enjoyed their role as “victim” for the attention it brought them. If their husband or wife got well, then what?

As for the children of alcoholic parents, they would vacate the home as soon as possible and go off and marry someone whose behavior very much resembled that of their alcoholic parent. Surprised? It is no surprise when you realize that we all seek to recreate circumstances that are familiar to us, even dysfunctional disabling circumstances. Their new partner may not be an alcoholic per se, but will likely reveal a good number of the psychodynamics they were already used to. Thus was born the need for an independent recovery program for those individuals identified as Adult Children of Alcoholics.

What does this have to do with Religious Abuse?” You might ask?

Restricting myself to what I know about the Catholic system, I will attempt to answer that question now. Children brought up in the Catholic system of religious indoctrination show many of the same symptoms that children brought up in alcoholic homes demonstrated. Catholic children learn to “survive” the system by acquiescing and growing silent. They do this to avoid conflict and to placate the adults who are instructing them. They employ the same methods of survival as our ACOA’s – perfectionism, good behavior, silence and abandonment of their needs for comfort and safety.

As a child, I just tolerated the whole process of indoctrination and gave in to what my religious abusers were imposing on me. The majority of Catholic school children I grew up with did the same. Very few, if any, were engaged in a process of learning as would be the case with an adult who has chosen to become a believer. My classmates and I just tolerated the indoctrination process as something we had to put up with. Our parents were under the same spell, so we had no objective references to draw upon, and no inspiration to challenge the status quo. We were told in no uncertain terms that we must “never doubt” the Catholic Religion’s message.

“So how was this Catholic message delivered?” You might ask. Through rote instructions and repetition just like our regular classes, applied with just the right amount of verbal abuse and shaming to make sure we “sinners” got the message. The more we could repeat in turn, the more accolades we received. Just like the children in alcoholic homes, we had to sit there and take it. When we repeated verbatim what they had taught us, we were showered with compliments and approval. What child does not want to gain approval from influential adults? Children want to please, and under stress, they will work doubly hard to do so.

Co-dependence was bred into us. We were not encouraged to evolve or grow. We were encouraged to learn Catechism by rote. In my father’s day, Catechism was all they got at school. No mathematics or sciences, or anything practical that could have served them in life. In my era we were taught all the basics that the educational system required, but only after having the Catechism shoved down our throats with the emphasis on “shoved.”

As Catholic children we were taught to avoid sin. We were not encouraged to think for ourselves. Instead, we were taught to adapt. We were never allowed to challenge any of what was presented to us. To do so would have been blasphemous. We were taught to be dependent (co-dependent) on the system and the system would take care of us in turn. Objecting was always met with guilt and shame. We had little to worry about as long as we accepted the party line.

To make sure we really got it, we were also taught to scrutinize our every behavior for signs of weakness and the influence of the devil. We were taught to loathe any behavior our nun teachers had deemed “bad.” We became self-monitoring self-abusers. We learned to distrust our feelings if they did not fall in line with the prescriptions we were being fed. Many of us became full fledged neurotics as a result.

My Catholic conditioning led to low self-esteem, self-abuse for any behavior deemed sinful and self-loathing that ensured I would fail at just about anything I tried. The worst result was that we were programmed to not trust ourselves and our inner nature. We were to rely only on the system for whatever we needed to know. Thanks to my opposition to their methods of indoctrination I became a successful psychologist and practicing therapist. I accomplished all this in spite of their programming to the contrary.

How do I know that their methods of indoctrination failed with my generation?

One simple fact! The parish that oversaw my education once boasted 2 priests and offered 3 Sunday masses along with a Saturday evening mass for those who worked on Sundays. There were also early morning masses from Monday to Friday. The local school was run by a contingent of nun teachers and a Mother Superior. Today, in that very same parish, there is 1 mass on Sunday offered by 1 priest who also provides services for 2 other parishes in neighboring towns. Whenever I have attended any event at that church over the past 40 years I have noticed a steadily shrinking population of members. All I see are the remnants of my parent’s generation with the occasional appearance by someone I grew up with.

My generation has abandoned the church altogether and the nuns are also gone. The local school continues to provide elementary education under the Catholic umbrella, but is staffed by regular accredited teachers. This is but one example of a growing worldwide phenomenon. Just Google “Religion in Decline” and see for yourself.

Religious co-dependence means you are reliant on someone else’s behavior and demands for your well-being. This would include the beliefs and practices of any religious system. Introductory psychology gives us a good illustration in the form of the following experiment. Two rats are placed in separate cages. Both cages have a lever the enclosed rat can press to either receive food, or stop an unpleasant experience such as mild electrical shock. In this particular experiment both rats were being exposed to electrical shock and they had to figure out how to stop it. Each cage had its own lever, but only one of these worked.

Only one of the rats had control over the incoming shock that was being delivered to both of them. The rat with the working lever quickly learned to shut off the electrical stimulus that affected both of them. Guess which rat demonstrated co-dependent behavior before giving up altogether?

Co-dependence means you believe you are powerless over your own circumstances and only some external authority can relieve you of pain and bring you peace, joy and comfort. You have no control over what comes at you, so you do everything you can to placate the person or system that does have control. That is co-dependence! There are many finer dimensions that also describe the phenomenon, but for the purposes of this discussion what I have offered above will suffice.

The Catholic Church trains its members to be co-dependent on their authority and their interpretation of what is right and wrong in life. Individual members are conditioned to be subservient. They are conditioned to submit. They are conditioned to place their fate in the hands of the religion. This speaks of every generation being indoctrinated into the Catholic system, including those individuals that go on to become priests and nuns in order to identify with the power side of the church while disavowing their own victim experience.

Being conditioned into co-dependence is the opposite of being guided to trust one’s self and inner guidance. Religious conditioning stands in full opposition to anything that remotely speaks of independent thinking and action. It is designed to enslave the mind and keep you permanently off balance, making you a compliant member of the system’s authority, and a promoter of their way of thinking. Your co-dependent thinking and resulting psychodynamics are a signal to them of a job well done. They now own you and you will pay tribute to them and the religious system they represent in any fashion they order.

Psychologically speaking, this is very effective and very powerful, as I and millions of others have seen with our own eyes. Most of us know someone who has come from an alcoholic family. We certainly know plenty of people who have come from dysfunctional family homes. More than likely, we are also a victim of some religious conspiracy to control the hearts and minds of the innocent. Those of us who were raised Catholic were programmed toward co-dependence as an attitude toward life, guaranteed to maintain our subjugated allegiance toward the religion of our birth and guaranteed to keep us enslaved to their entire system for some time to come.

The worse thing that can happen for any abusive religious system like Catholicism is education. That’s what happened in the 80’s as the information about the alcoholic family made its way into our mainstream thinking and understanding. “Co-dependent No More” by Melodie Beattie became a rallying cry for those wanting to break free of their enslavement to the alcoholic family system. It then became the rallying cry for anyone trying to break free of their dysfunctional family dynamics. Now we get to see this process in the forum of “Recovery from Religious Abuse.”

It is time to bring that form of perverse co-dependence to an end, wouldn’t you agree? I certainly think so, which is why I am engaged in this process of revealing to you the very nature of my early co-dependence upon the Catholic religion of my youth and my journey through psychology to find answers to a myriad of questions that I was not allowed to ask as a child. Through education alone I was able to pierce the veil in which I became engulfed in as a child. I was able to see the fabrications and the lies that underscored religious tenets used to indoctrinate, frighten and control myself and my generation of young minds.

Where was the Love that they claimed to represent?

As I proceed through this process of venting and unearthing the poison that was given to me in my youth, the sickness and perversion that underlies this religion becomes clearer and clearer every day. Every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence and every word I write, bring more of this poison to light. I share it with you for only one purpose, so you can ask the very same questions I have been asking all my life, and you can “deliver yourself from this evil” before it takes away any more of your life.

Ask yourself the following questions. Why am I bad? What’s wrong with me that I am not like the rest of my religious family? Why do I think so little of myself? Why don’t I have any self-esteem? Why do I always feel inferior to others? Why am I riddled with guilt and shame? Why am I a failure at all the things my religion wants me to do and believe in? Now, ask yourself, from a purely intellectual point of view: “Is it possible to have that much wrong with me, as my religion suggests?”

My stumbling through these questions began at age 18 when I was in the Navy after having completed high school and having no clue as to what to do next with my life. I went into the Navy because it had a familiar authoritarian feel to it. People would tell me what to do and I wouldn’t have to think for myself. Sound familiar? I could remain a co-dependent child for a little longer and work my way through the system as I had learned in surviving my years of religious education.

Yes, with the Navy, there was the promise of travel to exotic lands, and I took to that straight away. But the rest, the authoritarian nature of the military system, the saluting and bowing you had to do to for your superiors, the catch phrases and rules that kept the system going, they were part of a package I was already familiar with. All I had to do was placate the system and they would take care of me for as long as I chose to stay.

Somewhere near the end of my first year, while I was training to be a radio operator, I started avoiding religious services. On my base, there was a Catholic service offered every Sunday, along with services for most of the religious denominations represented by individuals coming from every part of Canada. The only thing that brought me to church in the first place was the guilt and shame I would experience if I did not attend. I hated going to church and then I hated myself for feeling that way. Brainwashing and co-dependence in action once again!

I didn’t see it at the time, but going to church was simply a matter of avoiding unpleasant feelings, as opposed to enjoying a pleasant experience that actually gave me something useful in return. I have no memory of the base priest so I can only assume he was okay and didn’t have a great effect on my life at that time. I noticed that an approximately equal number of my fellow recruits attended some kind of church service as there were who had nothing to do with any religion. I didn’t pay too much attention to this latter group. I was too busy wrestling with my guilt for not attending church on those occasions I chose stay away. The pangs of guilt and shame about having sinned once again kept me busy for most Sundays.

If the word “co-dependence” had been in our mainstream language at the time, I’m sure I wouldn’t have noticed it. I was in no position to challenge the authority of the church; I was simply looking for a way out of having to attend on a regular basis without having to feel guilty. It was like getting into a car in the 80’s after seat belts became mandatory. You heard a nagging buzzing sound until you strapped on the belt. It’s called negative reinforcement. Initially you do the action to avoid the annoying noise, not because it’s good to wear seat belts. You may consider that later, but not in the short run. I only went to church to stop the buzzing noise of guilt and shame that was sure to come on if I didn’t. I never got anything of value by being there. The only value I derived was shutting off that damn guilt buzzer for another week.

That in a nutshell explains my relationship to my religion as a young man and how its conditioning prompted me to take remedial action for my own well-being. I entered the profession of psychology to rid myself of their influence and to gain some control over my life which had been spinning out of control in so many ways. Early in my educational pursuits I was still a long way from being able to pursue my doubts about religion as a whole. Their conditioning not to question still held sway over me. What I settled for was a relationship of convenience with my native religion, one in which I could deliberately forget to attend church and say “oh well, missed that one” and that would reduce my guilt associations. It was a game I played with myself. The conditioning of the church was so strong in me I had to literally fool myself to get what I wanted. The fact that I was able to do so was simply the beginning of the end for the Catholic Religion in my life.

What did I want from the Church?

To be left alone primarily. I so despised their heavy handed guilt trips and shaming activities that I could only see one way out – I committed myself to just ignoring them. It was the best I could do at the time. I was never totally guilt free but I was no longer a full fledged slave either. I did what most Catholics of my generation did. I moved away from them, but I never left town completely.

That’s my exposure of co-dependence within the religious system I was raised in. Examine your own experience to see if any of this applies to you. My suspicion is there will be more commonality than not. As for those who would condemn us for blogging about religion’s insult to our intelligence, let them beware. Their time is at an end. The genie is out of the bottle. Most of the world can read and a large part of the world is Internet savvy.

How long do these promoters of falsified religious dogma think they have before their entire system runs off the cliff? Not much longer I’m happy to say.

No longer is education the privilege of the conspiratorial few. Their days of running things are fast disappearing. Pretty soon we will be visiting their Halls of Shame as Museums dedicated to the repression of man. We will look at their claims etched in some bronze plaque and scratch our heads. “How did people swallow this nonsense?”

We will ask all kinds of question exactly like these? More importantly, we will admire those who chose to leave and provided a way out for millions to follow. This is our destiny my fellow earthlings, to finally be free of religious tyranny once and for all. We are the generation who gets to witness and accelerate religion’s final gasps. Because we want our Freedom now . . .and . . . 
Now is the Time!

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