As someone who was formerly very religious (to the point where I followed the rules blindly and without question) I sadly know a thing or two about religious brainwashing.
If you’re worried that you’re a victim of it, or someone you know is being manipulated through religion, I’m here to tell you – it’s going to be okay.
Religious brainwashing is scary, but the most important thing you can do right now is know the warning signs, and act fast.
Let’s jump straight in:
Signs of religious brainwashing
1) You have become isolated
One of the first ways a religious institution will brainwash you is by isolating you from your friends and even your family.
In my case, it wasn’t so much physical isolation – I was “free” to interact with whoever I wanted. But the mental isolation, man, that really makes you question the people you love.
You start to feel like they just don’t get you. You may even start judging their religious practices (or lack of).
The truth is, those doing the brainwashing don’t want you to feel safe and secure with your loved ones.
They want you to be dependant on them! They can only control you and your mind if you’re isolated and reliant on them. They may even claim they’re your “new” family.
2) Challenging or debating scripture isn’t tolerated
Most religions have clear-cut rules that are to be adhered to, and other rules that can be left up to interpretation.
In a healthy religious setting, you should feel free to challenge or debate the scripture, without feeling looked down upon.
Take the religion I grew up in; Islam. Education, seeking knowledge, and debate are actually encouraged in the holy book, the Quran. But through religious brainwashing, you’ll be told that questioning the scripture is equivalent to questioning God.
In most cases, your questions or opinions will be instantly shut down, and in the worst case, if you’re not careful, you’ll be labeled a blaspheme.
I’ve been in this situation before, and I know that it’s much easier to sit down and shut up!
Religious brainwashers tend to take a hardline approach to holy commands – they don’t want liberal interpretations washing down what they preach. Put simply, they don’t want their interpretations to be questioned.
3) You’re encouraged to blindly follow what you’re told
Conformity is key.
There’s no room for free thinking when you’re being religiously brainwashed, nor for critical analysis of what you’re being told!
If you find yourself following certain rules without actually knowing why, there’s a good chance you’re under their control.
I know that’s not easy to hear…but it’s the truth. If I told you to jump off a cliff, you’d surely ask me why (and then proceed to think about the consequences and stupidity of jumping).
But if your church, mosque, or temple tells you to do something in the name of God and there’s no room to question it, it’s highly likely they’re brainwashing you.
4) There are harsh consequences if you go against the status quo
Maybe it’s never been directly spoken about, but if you get the feeling that breaking away from religion will cost you dearly, it’s not a good sign.
These harsh consequences may include:
- Being shunned from your religious community
- Being banned from your religious institution
- Being cut off from family/friends
- In some cases, violence or even death may be on the cards
So why are the consequences so extreme?
Well, one reason is that we’re social beings, we rely on having a family or community around us. When we’re shunned by those we have close relationships with, it can be highly damaging to our self-esteem and our need to be accepted by others.
Put shortly, we don’t want to lose the support, validation, and comfort of others.
Secondly, fear plays a big factor. Fear of repercussions, hurting those around you or tarnishing a family reputation.
Religious brainwashers (in fact, all manipulators) are aware of this vulnerability. So they use it to keep you under their control.
In my case, I wasn’t afraid that my family would disown me, but I knew they’d be heavily penalized by the mosque and community once word got out that I had become more liberal in my views.
Unfortunately, this played a significant role in keeping me under the religious thumb for so long.
If you want to read more about the consequences of leaving religion, this study highlights some interesting factors that come into play.
5) Non-believers or those outside the religion become the enemy
Where’s the love?
Most major world religions promote love and peace, but if you’ve found your take on the scriptures to become increasingly hostile to “outsiders”, it’s a sign you may be being brainwashed.
It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book:
Them against us.
Us vs them.
This extreme view makes those involved feel special somehow like they’re part of an exclusive group, reserved only for the chosen.
Everyone else is going to hell, apparently.
Again, this plays into isolating you from other viewpoints. If you live in an echo chamber, surrounding yourself only with those who think the same as you, you’ll never challenge or question your religion.
This article explains echo chambers in more depth.
In its worse form, this can be incredibly dangerous. In some extreme groups, such as the KKK in America or Al-Qaeda in the Middle East, religious scriptures are twisted and turned into justifications for killing those who are deemed “non-believers”.
Now, that’s not to say you’re going to go out and harm others, but please be aware of how damaging it is to demonize people just because they think differently from you.
I can guarantee that if you read your religious scriptures alone, you’ll find a lot more about loving your neighbor than hating them for following a different religion.
6) You start to lose your sense of individuality
Another sign of religious brainwashing is losing your sense of identity and individuality. This could be in the form of:
- What you are allowed to wear
- What you’re allowed to say (certain topics may be off-limits)
- Who you’re allowed to hang out with
- Some hobbies and interests may also conflict with religious beliefs
From my experience, those who are “healthily” religious manage to find a balance between faith and personal individuality.
Community still makes up an important aspect of their life, but their individual needs and wants are also factored in.
The same can’t be said when religious brainwashing takes place. Slowly but surely, you’ll find yourself giving up parts of your individuality in a bid to get closer to your faith.
Your religious institution or leader might put in place rules that you must abide by, even if they don’t make sense.
This is a clear sign of control – by taking away your individuality, they’re essentially stripping you of any self-esteem, self-respect, and importantly, self-worth.
And if that isn’t enough to make you think…consider that in prisons, as a form of punishment, criminals are stripped down to just a number. If you too feel like you’re nothing but a group member, you have to ask yourself:
Why is individuality not celebrated?
7) You’re willing to put religion over your loved ones
When your family and friends are no longer a priority in your life, and religion rules all, my friend, you’re being brainwashed.
It’s okay to disagree with your family and it’s okay to not like their lifestyle choices.
But the issue arises when you are more concerned about following the rules than your family’s well-being.
When I was growing up, it was normal to hear stories of parents disowning their children because they’d chosen a life that goes against the family’s religious values.
Now, this sounds crazy to me, but when you’re in the thick of it, giving up family members seems like a small sacrifice to make!
It’s a sad truth, but one you need to face if you’re serious about overcoming religious brainwashing.
These extreme instances might not be that common, but when even on a low level, if you’re willing to put religion before your family, it’s a dangerous sign that things have gone too far.
8) New ideas are met with resistance
Do you ever feel like new ideas are instantly dismissed or even mocked?
If your religious institution rejects ideas that don’t conform to their particular line of faith, it’s another sign they could be brainwashing you.
Here’s the thing…
Bringing new ideas to the table could threaten the very existence of what your brainwashers are trying to instill in you. They don’t want you to think outside the box.
They want you to subscribe to their beliefs and anything new is seen as a threat or a challenge to their “norm”.
9) You feel unable to express your opinion freely
Whichever religion you belong to, having an opinion on something shouldn’t be a sin. But when religious brainwashing takes place, it’s all too easy to start policing thoughts.
You might notice that when you voice something that your institution or bible group doesn’t like, you’re quickly shut down.
As time goes on, you start to share your opinions less and less.
So, why aren’t your opinions valued?
Well, the simple answer is that the less you think for yourself, the less chance you’ll go against whatever you’re being taught.
I remember once, as a child, commenting on how I thought gay and lesbian people should have equal rights, and boy, that didn’t go down well.
Being made to feel stupid or inferior for your opinions is a surefire way to make sure you stop having them!
Now multiply this by years, in the end, you’ll stop thinking for yourself altogether. That’s exactly what they want, and it’s exactly why you need to leave and start afresh.
Your opinion does matter!
10) Your sole focus in life is reaching religious enlightenment
Do you find that you’ve put “real life” on hold?
For most religious people (religious, not brainwashed) it’s normal to want to go to heaven. This is the goal.
But life goes on until then. You share experiences with other people and aim to live a fulfilling life.
When you’re religiously brainwashed, your love for life diminishes. You only focus on the end goal, forgetting all the great stuff that needs to happen in between.
Your brainwashers will tell you that this life is insignificant and unimportant. You should focus only on achieving your goal, whether that be divine enlightenment or reaching heaven.
But the truth is, this is just another tactic to detach you from reality.
In the end, you’ve been left:
- Lacking critical thinking skills
- With little to no confidence or self-esteem
- Wary of leaving the group because of potential consequences
- Cut off from other people and viewpoints
This is a lot to go through, and let me tell you, it doesn’t happen by accident. The people who brainwashed you did this consciously, and the hard truth?
It’s usually for their own gain.
Religion is just the excuse they’ve used to hook you in.
Now that we’ve covered the signs of religious brainwashing, let’s look into how you can combat it:
How to treat religious brainwashing
1) Get out of the institution ASAP
The very first thing you need to do is get out of whichever religious institution you’re part of. I know this won’t be easy, but if you want to get back into the real world, you’ll need complete separation.
It’s also super important to note:
You do not have to leave your religion.
Your religion isn’t what is brainwashing you, it’s the people around you.
So, if you’re afraid you’re going to lose your faith, don’t be. You simply need to reshape the way you see it, and achieve a balance between faith and life.
2) Read the scriptures for yourself
As we discussed before, scriptures tend to have “concrete” parts which leave little room for imagination and other verses that can be interpreted in different ways.
When you’re being brainwashed, you’re only seeing your scripture through one lens.
Now it’s time to read it for yourself. By yourself. Without the help of anyone.
Take this time to form your own opinions.
Maybe you’ll realize how certain parts will have been twisted just to suit your brainwashers’ needs.
3) Be open to learning about different viewpoints
Another important way to overcome religious brainwashing is to start considering views different from your own. Watch videos online. Read, read, and then read some more.
You need to unlearn everything you learned before, and then start to expand your horizons.
It might be difficult at first and you may feel resistant to new ideas and opposing viewpoints.
Try to just go with the flow, don’t subscribe to any particular way of thinking. Just allow yourself to see what alternatives are out there.
I remember feeling very uncomfortable hearing the views of ex-Muslims at first, but as time went on, I realized that they actually made some great observations about the religion.
Getting to that point then allowed me to engage with different people and share ideas, debate, and learn from each other.
4) Engage in healthy, non-judgemental conversation with others
It’s time to start talking to people outside of your religious institution.
I know this will be a challenge, especially if you’ve spent so long surrounded by the same people.
But put yourself out there.
Talk to people from your own faith and other faiths. Just be careful not to wind up in another place where you could get “sucked in”.
If you can, meet other like-minded people who are also trying to break free from their religious brainwashing.
This helped me a lot – I found a ton of information online about ex-Muslims and their gentle support has allowed me to work through a lot of what I was taught growing up.
Again, you don’t need to leave your religion if you don’t want to, but talking to the “opposition” as some would say, can actually open your eyes and even lead you closer to your faith but with a healthier relationship.
5) Surround yourself with loved ones
There’s no avoiding this one – you’re going to need love and support.
If you’ve been a victim of religious brainwashing, you’ve probably already been isolated from your family (unless they’re a part of it).
If they aren’t, I strongly suggest you get back in touch with them and ask for help. You’ll be surprised at how welcoming they’ll probably be, after all, they just want to see you happy and healthy!
The same goes for friends. If family isn’t an option, then turn to those who care about you unconditionally.
The truth is, you’re going to face many challenges in the coming weeks and months. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, you don’t need to go through this alone.
6) Start rediscovering yourself
This is probably the most important part of the unlearning process – learning about yourself!
For me, this looked like:
- Doing things I used to love pre-brainwashing (listening to music, enjoying nature, and traveling)
- Reading a lot of self-development books, as well as books by others who have escaped brainwashing through religion or cults
- Watching interviews of people who have overcome brainwashing to gain a deeper understanding of how it works
- Taking part in workshops to boost my inner relationship and start questioning the world around me
The workshop that helped me the most is called Out of the Box, and it was created by the shaman Rudá Iandé.
Although I came across it after already having left my religious institution, I found that it was incredibly healing for my soul. It also allowed me to forgive those around me, setting me free from my past.
Essentially, Rudá showed me a different perspective on life. And how did I know I wasn’t being brainwashed once again?
Well, everything he spoke about centered on me finding my own truths.
He didn’t plant ideas in my mind or tell me how to live my life. He just gave me the tools to explore myself and discover a whole new world through my own lens.
So, if you or someone you know is going through religious brainwashing and wants to get out, this is probably the best workshop you can take part in.
I’ll be honest, it’s not cheap, but it’s 100% worth it for a lifetime of inner peace and contentment!
A final note on religious brainwashing
If there’s one final thing I can say on such a complex topic, it’s to go easy on yourself. Don’t live in guilt or shame for what others have done to you.
Brainwashing someone through religion takes careful planning – no matter how strong you are, even the best of us can be manipulated without realizing it.
What is important now is to start rebuilding your life, focusing on YOU, and healing from what you went through as a consequence of religious brainwashing.
If I could get over it, you can too! Just take that first step and believe in yourself.