Reading Time: 10 minutes

One of the worst problems in Christianity involves how its adherents–largely taught and modeled by their own teachers and authority figures–get this idea that they know best. This knowledge is sometimes couched in “a word from the Spirit,” like some supernatural birdie whispered in their ears some arcane bit of knowledge, but not necessarily; it may be presented as some nugget of wisdom imparted to some lesser mortal by someone who knows much better what ought to be done in any given situation.

When the target of this exalted wisdom doesn’t quite feel the same way, then gaslighting often comes into play.

Gaslighting is an abuse tactic whose name came from an old movie (Gaslight, 1944)in which a man sets out to deliberately drive his new bride insane so he can get her committed to a mental institution–which will give him control of her fortune. One of the ways he does this is to fool around with the house’s gas-powered lighting, telling his wife she’s imagining things when she sees them change brightness. When his wife tries to seek validation of what she’s perceiving, everybody tells her it’s in her head–nobody notices it but her, so she eventually succumbs to madness.


When someone is gaslighting you, they’re trying to convince you to use their version of reality instead of your own, to distrust your own opinions and perceptions, even to rewrite history in your own head. The result is that you’ll end up very dependent on the person doing it, because you will eventually start distrusting everything about your own mind. It’s a brilliantly effective way to abuse someone, partly because we–as human beings–rely in great part on others for feedback. We all need reliable feedback.

A gaslighter is someone who takes advantage of that very human need in order to manipulate a victim into dependence with false feedback. It’s a common enough form of religious abuse that I think that it belongs in our Handbook; I haven’t run into many ex-Christians who haven’t had this happen to them.

Women, especially, face this type of abuse from men in romantic contexts. We hear “you’re crazy” and a host of other demoralizing statements on a daily basis from the people around us. This site even mentions the prevalence of dating profiles that include phrases like “no crazy chicks” from assholes who don’t appear to realize they’re advertising that they are planning to gaslight the shit out of whoever gets involved with them. But I bet a lot of men can recognize these invalidating, negating, crazy-making statements as well:

* “Are you sure you’re remembering that correctly?”

* “That never happened.”

* “You’re totally blowing this out of proportion.”

* “You’re getting too emotional.”

* “Gyaaah, it was just a joke! Can’t you take a joke?”

* “Prove that happened.”

* “You just don’t understand what love is.”

* Pretending to be calm, rational, or affectionate when all signs point to the contrary.

This screenshot shows Ingrid Bergman being gas...
This screenshot shows Ingrid Bergman being gaslighted. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a steady diet of this shit, a victim of gaslighting loses all faith in his or her own ability to judge anything at all, and comes to rely on the abuser for all that stuff. Even the most objective evidence gets tossed out in favor of the revised reality presented by the gaslighter. I watched a reality show some years ago involving a young wife who’d been caught red-handed cheating on her husband. Even after being confronted with the evidence of her infidelity, she claimed up and down that the recordings were wrong and denied straying. It was just mind-blowing how she could insist on her innocence when the show’s staff had put together not just videos but a host of other signs that she’d gotten involved very thoroughly with another man–at one point catching her on film doing the deed with this other man in the couple’s living room. She insisted to her husband that her version of reality trumped all this other stuff, and that he should believe her over all that lying documentation. When someone’s been that thoroughly caught, about all they can do is go balls-out on the offensive and throw a Hail Mary pass. The worst part? Faced with the loss of his marriage, the guy actually seemed to be wavering about accepting her explanation.

The point is, don’t expect gaslighting to be happening solely in the context of a romantic relationship, or to be the sole province of one gender. It happens whenever someone wants to imprint their own version of reality over somebody else’s version of it.

Religious indoctrination often uses gaslighting to keep people docile and compliant. I’ve mentioned before that I think the entire field of apologetics arguments are meant to paper over reality with Christianity’s weird, Bizarro version of it.

One of the prime ways religious leaders use gaslighting is in how love is shown. I’ve written about this self-serving redefinition of the word that Christians typically use before, but to just sum up, many Christians have redefined the word “love” to completely allow–even require, in some cases–the hateful, controlling, aggressive, hostile, discriminatory, manipulative, and dishonest things they really want to do to others. When we protest to such Christians that their “love” is hurtful and doesn’t feel loving at all, generally we get back a host of gaslighting excuses about how our big problem is that we’re not using the same loopy definition of “love” that they’re using, and if we’d only get on board with their religious indoctrination, it’d look loving to us too at that point.

The awful part is, they’re kind of right. When I was locked into that mindset, I honestly thought that loving someone sometimes meant treating them that way.

It’s always the victim’s problem, not the abusers’. And I’m not kidding here–I’ve heard Christians say, more often than I could ever count, that non-Christians don’t have any capacity to truly love anybody, while Christians, obviously, have the monopoly on it since they’re supremely intelligent or lucky or discerning enough to follow what they imagine is a real live God of Love. (Apparently nobody before 1CE ever felt love for anybody.) Sometimes they’ll couch this type of love in terms like “tough love”, as this site does, insisting that outsiders should view Christians’ savage attempts to control us as loving.

When we protest that their definition of “tough love” is wrong, we get told that no no, we need to let them control our lives for our own good–especially our private relationships and bedroom antics. We’re too stupid or too immoral to know what is best for our own lives. Christians know, so they should get the right to keep us from doing stuff they’re just positive we’ll regret one day. Of course, “tough love” is actually a term from the drug-addiction world, and it usually means the process by which parents and loved ones withdraw resources from addicts in a very particular way so the addict will lose his or her safety net and fail hard enough to realize just how bad the addiction really is–and seek help as a result. It does not in any way mean to control the addict’s life. To the contrary, it’s forcing the addict to live like an adult and take responsibility for the problem, rather than enabling the addict’s behavior by bailing him or her out all the time like parents might a child, protecting the addict from all the fallout of addiction. That’s not what Christians are doing here at all, and it certainly doesn’t say much that’s good about how they view non-Christians if they’re comparing each and every one of us to drug addicts and themselves to our parents. But we are expected to take this behavior as loving even if it doesn’t feel loving. We are expected to thank them for caring enough about us to control our lives and make our decisions for us.

And this bullshit parade just goes on and on and on. The other day I had a comment-thread conversation with a Christian who is convinced that Christians are being hugely persecuted for their “sincerely held beliefs” (which is of course a euphemism they’re using lately for “desire to legally discriminate against ickie gay people and women who have unapproved sex”). Their version of reality–as filtered to them through Faux Noise and a variety of right-wing media outlets like talk radio–is painted in very stark terms, but bears no resemblance whatsoever to reality. Still, it’s terribly seductive. When non-Christians protest and offer up our own view of the matter, patiently explaining that no, actually, what we’re objecting to is not the Christians’ faith but their unwillingness to show basic civil courtesy to others and follow the same laws everybody else has to follow, it’s like we might as well be quacking at them like ducks. The solution to this Christian’s imaginary problem, of course, was for the rest of us to just let Christians discriminate against whoever they liked, deny entire groups civil rights and roll back the rights of other groups, and control the lives of total strangers so Christians could continue to feel dominant and comfortably supreme in America. Then it’d All Go Back The Way It Was, and this Christian would be totally happy again. And he probably thinks the rest of us would be too. Who knows? “Separate but Equal” worked so well all the other times we’ve tried it…. oh wait, actually, no, it never has.

Just as with “tough love,” any time we try to protest, we get told that our definition of reality and our perception of the situation are just wrong. We’re “lost,” we’re just unsaved scum, so we can’t be trusted in any way to reliably gauge the situation. Only Christians, who are (they say) filled with the spirit of a living god, can possibly accurately tell what is and isn’t reality, what is and isn’t love, and what is and isn’t controlling. If our perceptions vary with their own, then we are the ones who must adjust.

The endgame of a gaslighting campaign is to make you feel uncertain about everything. Indeed, by the time I was done with Christianity, I was a shell of the person I’d once been. Once I’d been happy, confident, forward-thinking, optimistic, bubbly, and strong-spirited. By the time I left, I had a raging case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, was filled with anger and bitterness, was jumpy and timid, experienced panic attacks, apologized constantly and walked on eggshells because I wasn’t sure when I’d mess up again, was unable to make any of my own personal decisions, felt guilty about gainsaying anybody I considered in authority over me, and tended toward being terribly judgmental and condemning toward those who disagreed with me. I didn’t recognize these changes for a while, but I pretty much hit all of the symptoms on that Hotline link.

Gaslighting can do a real number on somebody’s head. It took me a long time to re-learn how to judge situations accurately, to assess information, and to make decisions for myself again and trust my own perceptions and intuitions. You can imagine my surprise when I got into a much healthier relationship years later and at one point mentioned that I had a terrible memory and was sorry about that. “Bullshit,” my partner immediately said. “I’ve never seen anything wrong with your memory. You have a really good memory, one of the best I’ve ever seen.” That’s when things fell into place for me. It had not even occurred to me, even years out of that mindgame, that my gaslighters might have been totally wrong about my sanity and memory.

Recognizing Religious Gaslighting.

* Any attempt to get you to accept a definition of “love” that is not loving.

“We show love by not letting gay people get married.”

“How can it be loving for me to let you have an abortion?”

“A child doesn’t always understand what its parent is doing.”

This includes but is not limited to: LGBTQ harassment and demonization; justification for the genuinely evil atrocities that are outlined in the myths of the Bible; attempts to justify mistreatment of non-Christians, harm them, or strip their rights away “for their own good.”

* Attempts to rewrite and revise history and legal systems with an eye toward getting power over you.

“Slavery in the Bible was actually totally loving. So we should construct society in hierarchies today.”

“Feminism isn’t making women happy, so the loving thing to do is wash it away and go back to the old ways.”

“It’s total persecution for a baker to be forced to treat all customers equally!”

This can include any attempt to make slavery sound acceptable; attempts to strip women of their rights to get them back under control again; turning Christians’ own acts of civil and criminal disobedience into examples of persecution so they can get their way. The tactic will end somehow with the victim firmly ensconced in the control of the abuser.

* Trying to convince you that their constant threats of Hell are actually very loving.

“If I thought you were in danger, wouldn’t it be loving to try to rescue you?”

“It’s not a threat, it’s the Bible’s promise. God loves us so much he warned us.”

If “God is a gentleman,” as these Christians assert, then he wouldn’t tolerate the torture of a human being under any circumstances. Extortion is not love, and neither is threatening people.

* Considerable pressure to adopt the abuser’s version of reality or else face heavy censure.

“Our group is the only group that has it right. If you disagree, then you’re totally wrong.”

“It’s not loving to let you backslide this way. I’m/We’re just holding you accountable.”

If you step out of line at all, questioning the dogma pushed onto you or the definitions you don’t quite agree with, then you can expect grief. This one’s subtle, but basically what it amounts to is the withdrawal of approval whenever you refuse to accept the gaslighter’s version of reality, and showering you with approval and praise when you get with the program. (As you fall into line more, the approval and praise will dwindle considerably.)

* Invalidation of your feelings and perceptions.

“God’s ways are higher than our ways.”

“How can you judge God?”

“We can’t possibly hope to understand how God works, and in the same way you won’t ever understand why I’m doing this.”

The abuser must sever you from your own feelings and perceptions, making you distrust yourself–and trust the abuser’s opinions instead.

Short-Circuiting a Gaslighting Attempt.

It’s actually pretty simple. Refuse to play along. Call it out if you see it. Offer objective evidence if you have it, but don’t get drawn into debating whether the evidence you have is objective enough (because it won’t be!). Disengage; walk away.

The people who deploy gaslighting are controllers. They use gaslighting because it is insanely effective. They probably learned first-hand how effective it is when they were much younger; chances are it was done to them when they were young enough to internalize the ideas behind it. They gravitate toward victims who crave validation and affirmation.

Gaslighters are generally aware that what they are doing is damaging and painful to their victims. Often they really think they’re doing all of it for the victim’s own good. And sometimes, a gaslighter might be both the abuser in one relationship but the gaslighted victim in another relationship entirely.

This is probably not a battle you are going to win. The only way to play is to walk away and not engage. I’ve only rarely run into people who used gaslighting who realized how bad it was and stopped doing it; none of them were Christians, though many had been at one time. The idea of gaslighting is written so thoroughly into toxic Christianity that I don’t think someone can be awakened to how destructive it is while still a member of a toxic sect. Indeed, toxic Christians will defend this behavior to the skies.

Online, the abuse tactics involved in gaslighting are a lot easier to spot–sometimes glaringly, dramatically so! When you notice that your life is getting rewritten before your very eyes or you’re being asked to prove that you can feel basic emotions or possess basic human qualities to some Christian’s satisfaction, chances are you’re dealing with a gaslighting attempt. Thankfully, online it’s also much easier to deal with.

Trust Your Intuition, Perceptions, and the Objective Evidence Before You.

Know this, as well: it gets a lot easier over time to notice gaslighting–and to resist it. Once you find your voice the first time, you’ll find it easier to find the second time. It’s that first step that is the most difficult here.

Aren’t a lot of things like that?

We’re going to talk about Creationism on Saturday, and I’m planning to talk about some basic links I use to educate myself–and also some modern medical miracles that happened to me this week thanks to the scientific community’s overwhelming rejection of Creationism. Seriously, it’s some neat stuff. I hope you’ll join me–and bring your own links and book recommendations, if you want to share! See you then!

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...