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The first time I heard the term “bad theology” was in graduate school after a debate with a very conservative professor. It was at Fordham University in the Pastoral Care and Counseling program, and the professor was a Catholic priest, as were many faculty members in the Religious Studies department at Fordham. 

I had written an essay about the concept of “universalism,” which as I understand it means that the spiritual world (or the presence of God, or a relationship with the divine, or whatever you want to call it) is everywhere, and is part of everything. It is available to everybody, open to an infinite number of interpretations and forms, and is not defined by any particular doctrine, belief system or religious tradition. It is inclusive rather than exclusive. 

The professor did not like my perspective at all. He gave me a B- on the paper and a B in the class (laying waste to my 4.0 GPA). His only feedback on my essay was this stunningly absurd comment: “The problem with a universal idea of God is that it cannot be proven rationally, and it leaves adherents to rely on belief alone.” 

I read his words several times to make sure I was reading them correctly. Was he actually saying that the test of good theology is that it can be “proven rationally”? And that religious adherence shouldn’t rely on “belief alone”? It made no sense that a committed Catholic would say such a thing, since Catholicism is based almost entirely on stories that can’t be proven rationally and require adherents to rely on belief alone. How could he not see the glaring contradiction? 

I was so disturbed by the professor’s response that I called on several knowledgeable friends to help me make sense of his ridiculous argument. One such friend was an academic advisor of mine named Bill, who also happens to be a former Catholic priest (he left the priesthood so he could marry). 

“Your professor is practicing bad theology,” he said. 

After that, I began hearing the term bad theology wherever I went, and it wasn’t long before it morphed into toxic theology, catching the pop culture wave that labeled all kinds of negative experiences as toxic (toxic relationships, toxic parents, toxic culture, toxic people, toxic masculinity, etc.). The term “toxic theology” has now officially entered the cultural lexicon. And not a moment too soon. 

Schipani tells us that the process of inner (spiritual) healing should always produce a positive effect on mental and emotional health. He defines toxic theology as any system that 

undermines emotional/mental health and includes forms of emotional, mental or spiritual violence. He identifies these characteristics: 

  • Expresses itself in terms of beliefs, attitudes/relationships and practices with different degrees of toxicity. 
  • Includes a measure of violence (a form of power or abuse that harms or injures self and/others). Such violence is always emotional, spiritual/moral, and sometimes physical (including sexual violence). 
  • Uniquely compromises the whole self; spiritual, mental/emotional and physical dimensions. 
  • Undermines emotional/mental health (no exceptions!)
  • Directly connected with mental/emotional dysfunction. 
  • Mental/emotional dysfunction affects inner experience and outward manifestation of spirituality. 
  • “Hamster wheel syndrome” (running in circles). 
  • Abrahamic faith traditions appear to supply particular “content” to toxic spiritualities (interpretation of scripture, notions of the divine, etc.) 
  • Non-religious spiritualities can also be(come) toxic. 

Schipani says that although not all toxic spirituality is fundamentalist, all forms of fundamentalism sustain some form of toxic theology because they debilitate the human spirit. This is accomplished through policies that suppress critical thinking and forbid questioning, regard anyone outside the group with suspicion, and promote a vision of the future that requires the conversion of outsiders.

Psychologist David Benner, who studies religious psychodynamics, says that theology is toxic when it limits spiritual experience to merely accepting beliefs and doctrines. Similarly, researchers Tarico and Winell, in their paper on The Sad, Twisted Truth about Conservative Christianity’s Effect on the Mind, find that the key attributes of toxic theology include:

  • An authoritarian power hierarchy that demands obedience 
  • Policies of separatism 
  • Restricted access to outside sources of information 
  • A threat-based reality (hell, divine punishment, catastrophic end times). 
  • Psychological mind-control techniques that encourage isolation 

Here’s a further list of features I find in toxic theologies: 

  • Followers are held to a rigid, unyielding system of beliefs. 
  • Questioning and exploration is discouraged. 
  • Outsiders are viewed with suspicion or disdain. 
  • Religious pluralism is unacceptable. 
  • Biblical texts are interpreted literally. 
  • God is seen as an authoritarian parental figure. 
  • A belief that God rewards piety and faithfulness. 
  • Behaviors/ beliefs not in line with strict doctrines are punished by God. 
  • Natural disasters, epidemics and community tragedies are curses from God. 

While many of the above-mentioned definitions seem to point specifically to Judeo-Christian dogmas, even within conservative Christian circles there are discussions about toxic theology. A page on the website for the evangelical 700 Club lists “Signs of Toxic Religion” that echo some of the characteristics described above, attributing these qualities to the poisoning of the established church by an infusion of what they call “dangerous thinking.” Their list condemns those who hold self-righteous views and refuse to embrace change. But they are looking into a mirror, because their own form of toxic theology meets all the above criteria, and even disparages other Christians who don’t interpret Christianity the same way they do. 

As an amusing (but sad) example of this group’s aversion to religious pluralism, 700 Club founder Pat Robertson once publicly stated that practicing yoga is dangerous for Christians because it tricks people into “praying to a Hindu deity.” Robertson’s stance against yoga is supported by many Christian extremists, among them a woman named Laurette Willis who believes that the “New Age lifestyle” (and yoga in particular) is fraught with spiritual pitfalls. To address the growing popularity of these practices, Laurette created a program called Praise Moves as a Christian alternative to yoga. Even though she uses all the traditional yoga postures (but sanctifies them by re-naming them after scripture passages), she believes that yoga postures are offerings to Hindu gods, which are false idols. She explains that Christians don’t avoid yoga out of fear, but out of wisdom and out of love for those who are “not as spiritually mature as we are.” 

Her ideas qualify as an expression of toxic theology on multiple counts, including policies of separatism, restricted access to outside sources of information, and limiting spiritual experience to merely accepting beliefs and doctrines. For a Christian who finds yoga to be relaxing and beneficial to health, this presents a spiritual dilemma that can result in feelings of confusion and guilt. 

I spend a lot of time on road trips, driving to speaking engagements around the country. I often listen to Christian radio stations along the way, because they fascinate me, especially the ones that 

provide on-air counseling to callers. One call came from a man who said he’d been reading about near-death and out-of-body experiences and found the topic of great interest. He was calling to ask if it was OK for him to explore this. He literally asked the radio show host, “What should I believe?” The host answered, “If it’s not in scripture, then you should not pay any attention to it. It’s Satan trying to turn you away from Christ.” 

The fact is, these types of experiences are found throughout scripture, and were also an important element in the lives of the saints and early Christian mystics. 

But that’s another story. 

Excerpted from Grief and God: When Religion Does More Harm Than Healing by Dr. Terri Daniel 

Dr. Terri Daniel is an inter-spiritual hospice chaplain, end-of-life educator, and grief counselor certified in death, dying, and bereavement by the Association of Death Education and Counseling and in...

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