The Stockholm Syndrome and Religion

The Stockholm Syndrome is where love and threat are coming from the same source; it’s a form of hostage taking, and it’s what religions do emotionally with people when they make God the source of love and acceptance if you conform, and exclusion and eternal torture if you don’t (heaven or hell, turn or burn). It’s a source of extraordinary emotional pain in our culture, religious Stockholm Syndrome. It plagues the psyche, often for decades. And it’s everywhere, and almost never gets discussed. It’s near to taboo to discuss it. Discuss it.

Think of the victims. The walking wounded are everywhere. (Maybe this is part of our culture’s fascination with zombies; with being hijacked inwardly.) The religious zombie is someone abused by religion, frightened into conformity with the stick of hell and the carrot of love coming from the same group of friends and relatives, stunting the vulnerable person’s interaction with the world. Religious Stockholm Syndrome causes a person to be in the world, but not really. The world becomes spiritually dangerous. It’s there for you, but also not. And you’re there for the world, but also not. The zombies are in and out. “We are in the world, but not of it.” That’s the voice of a zombie.

And then you bite others, infecting them. You’ve been terrorized and tormented–and still are–but you’ve come to accept the abuse, internalizing the love-threat formula, and now you’re terrorizing and tormenting others with it. (“You’ll be part of a community that will love you forever and will do anything for you, and God will be your loving Father, if you believe, but if you don’t believe, well, I pity your fate, and I’ll be praying for you.”) That’s the bite.

The love-hell formula is abuse all around. It’s wrong, ugly, hateful. It’s a way of controlling people. It disrespects the dignity and autonomy of individuals. If God exists, God is not like that–and if God is like that, then God is wrong. You shouldn’t believe in God, in my view, if this is what it means; if you turn God into Hitler; a devil; if you let a religious community make of you a hostage.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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16 Responses to The Stockholm Syndrome and Religion

  1. Clever. Insightful. A very good point…

  2. Rose says:

    I would like to point out that the God of the Bible is not like that. It is not a matter of follow me or go to hell, but a matter of “Turn to me and I will forgive your sins” or “Turn away and you have condemned yourselves”. There is a consequence for every action we take. We steal, we go to court and pay a fine or go to prison. We murder, we go to court and either go to prison or get the death sentence. When we sin, we have to take account for our actions, we don’ get off scott free. To quote a movie, “Somebody’s gotta pay!” In the case of Christianity, God is the judge and says that someone must pay. Our sin in there, and no amount of good can cover it up. It won’t work in a court here, it won’t work with God. But then the wronged, Christ, goes to the Judge and says “Here, I will pay for them.” It is a free gift that we do not deserve. It is not a threat, nor cruel punishment. It is unusual, but loving and undeserved. Hell is a place of punishment just like prison and the death sentence. You do something wrong and you pay for it. But with the case of Christ, He payed for it instead of us. All we really can do is accept Him as our Saviour, turn from our sinful ways, and He will forgive and heal us. If not? We are willingly accepting our punishment. That is our own stubbornness, not God’s hatred. I have more on this in a post on my blog, but I figure this will suffice for now. Have a wonderful day 🙂

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      I didn’t make hell, you didn’t make hell. God made hell (if what you say is true).

      Hell is God’s fault. He didn’t have to make a crazy place like that. I’m not choosing to go there; God’s sending me there (if that is part of Her plan). If God doesn’t love me, fine. If God wants to love me, great. What can I do to change the attitude of a divine being toward me? I mean, seriously.

      But, fortunately, nothing you’re saying has any evidence of being true, so there’s no reason to believe a word of it. I see no evidence that God cares about me one way or the other. And the sacrifice theory you’ve come up with is hocus pocus. If God wants to forgive someone of something, (S)he doesn’t have to vent rage on Jesus or any other sacrificial animal or person to get past it. Does God have an anger management problem? Why is (S)he about to blow all the time?

      If God exists, I think (S)he’d say, “Keep critical thinking. It’s okay. I’ve put you in an existentially fucked situation. It’s understandable you’re confused. And don’t let those silly, frightened fundamentalists frighten you about hell. They’re just scared.”


  3. colinhutton says:

    A nice analogy. The more one thinks about it the better it holds up.

  4. It would be odd to give us a brain and then not want us to use it? Or to great some very very high stakes game (penalty! enternal damnation!) if we aren’t equipped to intellectually figure out the answer…logic is sacred…weird myths and paranoia, less so…

  5. Alan says:

    Santi, Santi, Santi
    Snarky and entertaining, as usual, but nonsense just the same.
    Effete and wallowing in your government stipend and with far too much free time.

    Far from simply frightened, those fundamentalists have a far firmer grasp of reality than displayed in your pontifications from privilege. Reality as exemplified in the human community. Profound truth, perhaps, rather than historical truth. A truth proven, however, by history and the Darwin process. It was not for God that religion developed, but man, and archeology has a record of man un-encumbered by, un-beholden to religion. We call them cave men and by my estimation, extinct for about thirty thousand years.
    Rather than the exaltations of Rose, it is your blathering on about zombies that is nonsensical. Absent religions’ control over man, society is not at all even possible.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Isn’t it just a teensy bit possible that the 21st century can get on with less religion, at least of the abusive and literal sort, than previous eras? Do people really have to be terrorized emotionally to be kept in line? Why are you apologizing for something that is so obviously a noxious practice (threatening people with hell for doubting ludicrous claims)?

      I hope that when I write such a post as above that some person will stumble on it who has been emotionally abused by hell threats and take a bit of courage for pushing back against them. Naming the abuse is good, and the Stockholm Syndrome really does seem to identify what’s going on with love bombing combined with hell (torture) threats.


      • Alan says:

        While I share your vision for the future, I suggest your approach is destructive, not constructive. A proposed cure worse than the disease (prematurely removing the social structures that have brought us this far). In the 70 thousand years since religion was first introduced and human societies began to form, our techniques for socializing our young have been developing and improving, such that we currently live in the most peaceful and prosperous time humanity has ever experienced. As noted by Pinker in his silly yarn: ‘The Better Angles . . .’, the most dramatic and rapid of this progress has been in these last couple centuries. As the more modern, nurturing approach to socialization spreads, the bullying approaches will disappear – as in their guts, parents and community leaders will accept that the bullying is unnecessary. Schools and institutions are in place and expanding around the world, teachers and parents are receiving better training and being provided improved tools and resources. The biggest challenges are failing economies and failing societies – desperation amplifies anti-social behavior (which encourages more fundamentalist religion – and more bullying – to keep it in check).

  6. Staffan says:

    This is perhaps not so much religion but an instance of more general social behavior. There was no religion invoked in McCarthyism. Nor in Communist regimes’ treatment of dissidents. And secular progressives do the same to those who fail to conform to their PC standards. Religion may exaggerate this behavior with the reward of heaven or punishment of hell, but it’s really just the tribal issue of whether you are with us or against us. And both religion and tribalism are human nature. Social reform will not get rid of them, only give them new names and forms.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      What’s your take on this (given your pessimism concerning human nature)?

      • Staffan says:

        That’s one of my favorites. There’s definitely something sexy about people with really high intelligence : ) I’m working on a comment that will perhaps double as a post on my blog, so I’ll get back to you in a while.

      • Alan says:

        This video: Entertaining but misguided – confusing correlation with causation – often in this argument: effect with cause. The underlying conclusion, however, that Reason, inclusion and rationally based social orders are more productive and ultimately more successful, I agree with.
        There are precedents, for example the very large, prosperous and inclusive Persian Empire of circa 400 BC, the early Roman Empire and the British Empire.
        The reasons were many and various, but the bottom line was the executive decision of the powerful leaders. These dominant states chose an inclusive and rational leadership plan, resulting in inclusive, rational citizenry. Reason triumphs when decreed by strong leadership with strong enforcement.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Cool. Hope to hear your thoughts on this.

  7. Staffan says:

    I don’t think I can squeeze it in here so I’ll just give you the link and you or anyone else can reply here or on my blog as you see fit. I think I might have made an interesting discovery about the English along the way,

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