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Michael Moore Weak

We Are Too Weak to Walk Unaided

A Family Therapist View of the Pathogenic Aspects of Prayer (2000)

Michael Moore

Technion — Israel Institute

of Technology

Daniela Kramer

Oranim Teachers’ College


Author Note

Michael Moore, Department of Education in Science and Technology; Daniela Kramer, Division of Psychology. The quotation in the title comes from Service, 1967, p. 275. This article was written during the authors’ sabbatical leave at the Department of Psychology, University of Southampton. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to the first author at the Department of Education in Science and Technology, Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel 32000. Electronic mail may be sent to email removed.


Many aspects of psychology are at loggerheads with religion. In this paper excerpts from prayers, hymns and scriptures of the three monotheistic religions are used to illustrate major areas of conflict between these two institutions. Special attention is given to those aspects of prayers which contradict basic tenets of psychological well-being not only of individuals but also of families. The discussion is divided into four major fields: Feudalism vs. egalitarianism, developmental issues, defense mechanisms, and interpersonal control mechanisms. In each field, several examples, organized around subtopics, show how the manifest message of religious texts legitimizes and encourages practices considered pathogenic by the standards of various psychological approaches.

“We Are Too Weak to Walk Unaided”

A Family Therapist View of the Pathogenic Aspects of Prayer

Democracy and egalitarianism are relative newcomers to society. Compared to other forms of deeply rooted, long practiced social orders, such as feudalism, oligarchy and dictatorship, the principles underlying democracy are totally unaccepted in some parts of the globe, and have only recently been introduced to others: The Taliban regime in Afghanistan treats women as chattel; in some regions of India and China female infants are customarily murdered. Some parts of the United States practiced slavery in the previous century; the Nuremberg race laws of 1935 deprived German Jews of their rights of citizenship; South African apartheid ended in 1994; until its recent demise, the Soviet block trampled on its citizens’ freedom of speech, worship and even movement. In Switzerland, one of the progressive Western democracies, female citizens were not deemed worthy of voting until 1971.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Western family, while paying lip service to egalitarian and democratic principles, has only partially internalized them. These principles have confused the traditional roles, requiring some to relinquish power, others to receive it. Democracy has been forced upon many by outside sources, with no assurance that there was an inner maturity to accept it. Several forces may be acting against the internalization of democracy at the individual and the family levels. On the following pages we shall examine the role of a major candidate for the preservation of feudalism: It is our hypothesis that religion in general, and the contents of prayers in particular, contradict not only egalitarian principles, but also most of the basic tenets of salutogenic family processes.

Indeed, the fundamentally feudal character of many religions puts their practitioners at considerable psychological risk. The deeper one’s faith, the more difficult it must be to live in a non-stratified, egalitarian society, and to import society’s democratic norms into one’s family. The more democratic the society in which one lives, the more obvious it becomes that religion is out of tune with contemporary Western social mores. The connection between feudal social systems and religion is not coincidental: The non-egalitarian, feudal basis that is so necessary for religion could not have survived without the ideology supplied by the surrounding society. Contemporary societies, with their penchant for pluralism and change, are at loggerheads with messages of a single truth and constancy which may have once served their predecessors so well. In the following we will illustrate the glaring discrepancies between religious thought and salutogenic family practices through the perusal of some prayers and hymns found in the three monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Our claim regarding the dangers inherent in some religious ideation is based on the quite safe assumption that one cannot efficiently and permanently isolate different realms of one’s life, that these realms are in contact and interact with each other, at one depth or another. Gross, double-binding inconsistencies are supported by the psyche, but they exact a price: repression, isolation, denial; they all require an active investment of energies. In the inevitable clash between social and religious norms either one may gain the upper hand. If certain religious concepts are incorporated into one’s intimate intrafamilial relationships, they will cause them considerable damage. If, instead, these concepts are compartmentalized, they, rather than the norms of egalitarianism, will require continuous repression and result in guilt feelings. No less worrisome is the further possibility of religious norms being consciously and whole-heartedly accepted by one member of a family, with the rest being placed in direct and possibly violent conflict.

Before proceeding, let us clarify that the three religions whose prayers will be discussed greatly differ from each other not only on grave points of theology, but also with regard to such socially significant issues as marriage and warfare. The significance of prayer, its functions and forms, also widely (sometimes diametrically) differ both within and across religions. Thus Lilley (1925, pp. 127-128) quoted Bishop Gore, according to whom the spirit of effective prayer is “Intelligent correspondence with the purpose of God…. Prayer is not to be an attempt to persuade God to do what He had not intended to do .” In the Islam (where prayer is a pillar of religion; see Tames, 1982, p. 38, as well as Gibb, 1975, p. 45), a frequently quoted tradition says that “Petition is the most honourable part of worship, and he who asks not incurs God’s anger.” (From a prayer-manual, quoted in Padwick, 1961, p. 211). Nachman of Bratzlav (a Jewish mystic who was active cca. 1800) wrote that “Prayer is a brazen act… an assault upon, and the despoiling of, the heavenly order…. Man comes wishing to despoil the order and do marvels. Therefore man must be shameless in prayer.” (Quoted in Assembly, 1977, p. 3).

We suggest that, in spite of such differences, prayers of all denominations share a common ground: They often carry pathogenic messages. Whether pathogeny turns into pathology is a different matter. The evidence for a relationship between religiosity and mental health is contradictory. One of the reasons for this state of affairs is that both of these complex constructs are, perhaps by necessity, ill defined and ill measured (see Watson, Morris & Hood, 1987; Williams & Faulconer, 1994). Thus several sources positively connected religious attitudes and behavior with measures of psychopathology (e.g., Kaldestad, 1996; Lewis, 1998; Quiles & Bybee, 1997); others reported either a lack of relationship (e.g., Pfeifer & Waelty, 1995) or an association of higher religiosity with various desirable outcomes (e.g., Blaine & Crocker, 1995; Jensen, Jensen & Wiederhold, 1993).

A note should be made concerning the complex relationship between psychology and religion. We are aware of the attempts made by several theologians to view religion (more specifically, Christianity) as the exclusive cure for anxiety and alienation (e.g., Bultmann, 1960 and Tillich, 1953; see also Maitland, 1995, as well as Walrond-Skinner, 1998, p. 8). In the following it will become clear that we radically disagree with such an interpretation of religion, yet a basic discussion of this issue is not within the scope of the present work. Suffice it to say that in our view “the religiosity gap” (as in Lukoff, Lu & Turner, 1992) is not a temporary fluke that will disappear, once clinical psychologists’ attitude towards religion becomes more positive, but rather a reflection of the contradictory goals of many religions on the one hand, and many psychological approaches, on the other. (See, for instance, Albee, 1982; Ellis, 1980; Rogers, 1978, p. 257, about the opposing views of the church and a person-centered psychology, as well as Maslow, 1970, p. 169; contrast them with the pronounced anti-individualism and “self-forgetfulness” of a contemporary Roman Catholic theologian: Maitland, 1995, p. 179). Neither is it our purpose to enter into complex theological arguments about the proper interpretation of either prayer in general or of specific prayers. On the contrary: We are intentionally dealing with the direct, straightforward message contained in them, that is to say, with the message that reaches unsophisticated practitioners of a religion, who recite their prayers thousands of times. By opting for this approach we take exception with such philosophical investigations of prayer as are illustrated by Phillips (1965). The latter justified his position by limiting his analysis to genuine faith, while acknowledging the existence of many who err. In a similar vein, Harris (1973, p. 229) spoke with nostalgia about early Christians, while decrying “the ritualistic, nonexperiential activity so characteristic of churches today.” (Cf. Erikson 1971, p. 83, for his criticism of “organized religion”). The artificial distinction drawn between two levels of religion is a luxury we cannot afford: Believers are daily confronted by the mediators, rather than the abstract ideas that guided their distant predecessors. (For similar apologies with regard to Islam see Galwash, 1958, p. 130, as well as Padwick, 1961, p. 43). In our analysis we will take seriously the content of prayers, and will be lead by the maxim: “Say what you mean, and mean what you say!”

What are then the main issues that divide certain religious precepts from healthy patterns of social behavior? Each section of our discussion will start with a consideration of the individual, subsequently moving on to the family.

Feudalism vs. Egalitarianism

The religions we deal with are inherently non-egalitarian. Some denominations have a more blatantly stratified system of go-betweens than others, having established a complex hierarchy of clergy, but all share a common theme of lowly creatures awed by their ruler.

Stratification and servitude

Social stratification in general, and religious stratification in particular, clearly define individuals’ position in the system, and shape their lower or higher self-esteem. Religious hierarchy places a more or less personified deity at the top of the scale, followed by one or more ranks of mediators. Then come the believers, further stratified by gender and age. At the bottom of the pecking order are placed non-believers and followers of other faiths. Such a feudalistic structure provides its active participants both with a sense of inferiority, and with someone to tower over, and thus fundamentally negates the principle of equality. On reading the following, we cannot help but recall Erikson’s remark: “One method of avoiding offense to the gods is to humiliate oneself” (1965, p. 146).


Frail children of dust, / and feeble as frail… (BBC, 1997, #15).


I am weak, but thou art mighty… (BBC, 1997, # 141; also Mayhew, 1989, # 190).


All praise is for Allah almighty, before whose grandeur everything is helpless, … before whose honour everything is insignificant. (Azam, 1984a, # 4. All prayers quoted from this source originate either in the Koran or in one of the traditional hadith collections).


I come to Thee this evening, Thy humble bondservant unable to control myself for good or ill or to defend myself from evil. (Padwick, 1961, p. 4. All prayers quoted from this source originate in prayer-manuals, collected by its author).


Nor do I see a generous Lord who would be more patient with a wretched slave than Thou with me. (Padwick, 1961, p. 4).


Thy little slave is at Thy door, Thy poor one is in Thy courtyard. Thy beggar is in Thy courtyard. Thy destitute one is in Thy courtyard. (Padwick, 1961, p. 216).


Lord, pardon! Lord, listen and act! What are we? What is our life?… What is our success? What is our endurance? What is our power? (Assembly, 1977, p. 51; see also Service, 1967, p. 122).


We who are but dust and ashes, walk among things too wonderful to understand. (Service, 1967, p. 83).

Families are a micro-image of the larger social system in which they are embedded. Feudal societies gave rise to families in which the father and husband was undisputed lord, served by his wife and children. Contemporary social and political systems are becoming increasingly more democratic and egalitarian, with a style of mutual respect gradually replacing dominance. Practitioners of religion cannot unequivocally benefit from this progress, while daily repeating the blatantly feudalistic norms and attitudes portrayed in the prayer books. This clash between progress and stagnation inevitably causes conflict and tension within family structures.

The status of women

Women’s inferior position was not only taken for granted in feudal societies, but served as one of their cornerstones. In line with this deeply entrenched policy, each of the three religions under discussion fundamentally discriminated against women. “The Church”, wrote the feminist theologian Maitland, “has always justified discrimination on theological grounds” (1995, p. 92). We may compare her attitude with the views of a Christian psychotherapist vis a vis the concept of servanthood. Having acknowledged the frustration, guilt and depression experienced by women who find it impossible to combine Christian humility with a sense of self-efficacy, Propst (1982) suggested that they adopt the Christian role by choice: “The model is still one of servanthood, but servanthood resulting from a sense of personal vocation and not from intimidation by the social forces, servanthood from an internal locus of control not an external locus of control.” While rationalization seems to be the mechanism underlying this tour de force, by virtue of its being a conscious choice, it may be better described as deliberate self-deception.


The Book of Common Prayer in the service for the Solemnization of Matrimony refers to wives as “the weaker vessel”; then goes on to quote Ephesians 5: 22-23: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife…” (BCP, 1968, pp. 310-311). This attitude was loudly echoed in an amendment adopted by the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention to the effect that “A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” (See Time, 1998, 151, No. 25, p. 15).


Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other… (Koran 4: 37).


The Koran explicitly maintains the superior right both of the father and of the husband, legalizes polygamy and repudiation (Gibb, 1975, p. 22). In several places in the Koran (e.g., 37: 153; 43: 14; 52: 39), having daughters rather than sons is pejorative; antagonism to women is also present in the derision of female angels (37: 150; 39: 39; 43: 17).


The Prophet is reported to have said: ‘When one of you marries a bride or buys a slave, let him say, O God, I ask Thee for the good of her and the good of the disposition Thou hast given her, and I take refuge with Thee from the evil of her and the evil of the disposition Thou hast given her. And when he buys a camel, let him put his hand on the summit of its hump and say likewise. (Padwick, 1961, pp. 87-88; see also Azam, 1984a, # 47).


…and call to witness two witnesses of your people: but if there be not two men, let there be a man, and two women…: if the one of them should mistake, the other may cause her to recollect. (Koran 2: 282).


With regard to your children, God commandeth you to give the male the portion of two females… (Inheritance law in the Koran 4: 12; the same in 4: 175).


Your wives are your field: go in, therefore, to your field as ye will. (Koran 2: 223).


Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman. (From the Morning Service in Hertz, 1959, p. 21).

Spousal relationships are undergoing massive changes. In the feudalistic era a complementary relationship predominated, in which both spouses knew their place and tasks, and made sure not to trespass on the other’s territory. This gave a woman full responsibility for household chores and for bringing up small children, yet left her with no voice. She did not hold any power, she had no say and no choice, was ruled by her husband and depended on his money earning and defending skills. Today progress towards equality is turning women into independent agents. They share the task of bread winning, they can increasingly actualize their potentialities, and make their own choices. This symmetrical spousal structure serves as a strong basis for team work and for a spousal dyad that is based on mutual respect rather than control. There is no trace of this development in prayers, where men are encouraged daily to state their superiority over women.

Developmental issues

As suggested before, stratification in general and patriarchal dominance in particular constitute a threat to healthy psychological development. We shall use several Eriksonian stages of psycho-social development to illustrate the issues involved (see Erikson, 1965).

Trust vs. Mistrust

Erikson was among the first to point out the need for a healthy individual to develop trust in other human beings: “The firm establishment of enduring patterns for the solution of the nuclear conflict of basic trust versus basic mistrust in mere existence is the first task of the ego…” (1965, p. 241). On the one hand, this trust, developed in the first year and based on a stable and satisfying relationship with a mother figure, is the basis of all future interactions. The development of basic mistrust, on the other hand, is pathological, and leads to inability in later attachment. Only when one is trusted and trusting can one develop self trust, which is a necessary step towards achieving subsequent developmental stages.

In prayers there is a loud call for mistrust, aimed at all believers. This mistrust has two components. First, in order to elevate god, one is called to never trust anyone but god. This command serves to alienate individuals from their fellow human beings and adds to their sense of loneliness. Second, though one is expected to trust god unconditionally, god does not trust man. Untrustworthy humans should always remember that god’s distrustful eye is upon them, and behave accordingly in order not to be punished. (See Surveillance, below). Untrusted and untrusting individuals are therefore utterly at the mercy of their deity.


All my hope on God is founded. (Mayhew, 1989, # 25).


For God in his wisdom / will provide what is best… (Mayhew, 1989, # 95; see also “The Lord will provide” in Baptist, 1962, # 588).


O my lord, O apostle of God, O my support, my refuge, my apostle, thou sufficest me. (Padwick, 1961, p. 144).


…thy heart should be dependent on God, not on men. (Padwick, 1961, p. 176).


Blessed is the man who trusteth in the Lord, and whose trust the Lord is. (From the Grace after Meals, Herz, 1959, p. 979).


…For in You alone do we trust, O King, high and exalted God. (Service, 1967, p. 135).

Lack of trust undermines the family as a unit. It is through the parents that children’s sense of trust can develop and later be transferred to other relationships; it is through spousal trust that effective team-work of parenting can be established and serve as the nourishing basis for the next generation. The following examples illustrate the tendency of prayers to place god above family. They also constitute a double-bind by contradicting “Honour thy father”-type commandments.


He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10: 37; see also Mark 10: 29-30).


No earthly father loves like thee, no mother, e’er so mild… (Mayhew, 1989, # 357).


O Believers! make not friends of your fathers or your brethren if they love unbelief above faith. (Koran 9: 23; see also 9: 24).


Thou art to me as father, as mother, as self, as family, as property, as child. (Padwick, 1961, p. 137).


O God the love of Thee and the love of Thine Apostle are dearer to me than myself and my family… (Padwick, 1961, p. 148).

Autonomy vs. Doubt

Erikson’s second developmental stage is concerned with “the autonomy of free choice” (1965, p. 244). Lacking the gradual development of independence, of being able to stand on their own feet, children will be haunted by a sense of shame and doubt. Being controlled by external forces, they need to “repossess the environment and to gain power by stubborn and minute control”, thus establishing a future pattern of obsessiveness.


Let Thy clear light for ever shine, / To shame and guide this life of mine. (Baptist, 1962, # 465).

Autonomy is based on independence, for persons governed by doubt in themselves tend to be dependent on others. This stage is the continuation of the preceding one — trust vs. mistrust — for only individuals who trust themselves and look with optimism at their surroundings, can learn to let go of ties and walk by themselves. Independence is a necessary stage in growing up, a proof of healthy development. Without it individuals cannot mature, as anxieties dominate them and make any initiatives (Erikson’s third stage) and a well defined identity (Erikson’s fifth stage) seem dangerous and impossible. Thus, dependent individuals feel helpless, weak, worthless and needy. The nexus between believers and their lord is one of total dependency, analogous to feudal relationships between lords and vassals, and to ties between parents and very young children. In Erikson’s (1971) words “it is obvious that large-scale infantilization is not foreign to the practice and the intent of organized religion” (p. 106). (Cf. Lilley, 1925, pp. 117-118: “In prayer we are all, or ought all to be, children…”).


Hold Thou my hand! So weak I am, and helpless, / I dare not take one step without Thine aid… (Baptist, 1962, # 578).


Almighty God, you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Alternative, 1980, p. 678).


I have lost my purpose. I am stripped of will, lacking in strength and power… (Padwick, 1961, p. 181).


As a father hath mercy upon his children, so, O Lord, have mercy upon us, and save us for thy Name’s sake. (From the Morning Service, Hertz, 1959, p. 173).


We are too weak to walk unaided: hold us, we implore You, by the hand, as a father holds his child… (Service, 1967, p. 275).

In families, the constant curbing of independence is considered pathological. Enmeshing families’ need to be needed turns any attempt at independence into an act of betrayal (Minuchin, 1977, p. 113; see also Bowlby, 1998, pp. 305-311, on the pathogenic aspects of the inversion of roles between parents and children). On the surface, enmeshing parents act loving and appear to be involved, yet they inhibit their children’s need to reach out to the world, to grow and to create some distance between their parents and themselves. The threat of this distance is appalling, for it creates a feeling of redundancy and adds to the enmeshing parents’ sense of worthlessness. Their children grow up feeling guilty, fused with their family, with an undifferentiated ego (Bowen, 1976a; Kerr, 1981), lacking in self confidence and poorly functioning. The importance of differentiation was well described by Skynner (1981, p. 43): “The lower down the scale of differentiation one goes, the less value is placed on separateness, individuality, difference and growth, and the more is placed on sameness, conformity, and avoidance of change.” Minuchin (1977) shared this opinion: “In the pathological range… the sense of belonging dominates the experience of being, at the expense of a separate self”.

An additional danger inherent in being controlled by authority is the lack of means for developing an internal locus of control. An individual will always be controlled by whoever holds the most power, and prayers make certain that believers see god as the “Almighty”. Even the doubtful benefit of having an external locus of control, and thus avoiding responsibility, is taken from believers. The deity appearing in prayers, like every guilt-producing parent, takes credit for all success, and blames his children for each failure.


What he says we will do, / where he sends we will go — / never fear, only trust and obey. (BBC, 1997, # 319; see also # 281).


God never yet forsook at need / The soul that trusted Him indeed. (Baptist, 1962, # 580; see also # 577).


But for the offenders we have got ready the fire whose smoke shall enwrap them: and if they implore for help, helped shall they be with water like molten brass which shall scald their faces. (Koran 18: 28).

Relinquishing of responsibility takes an extreme form in the following texts: It is one’s will that is extinguished. The existential theologian Rudolf Bultmann clearly illustrates to what extent religion opposes the achievement of an internal locus of control as a precondition for mature development: “Thus modern man is in danger of forgetting two things: first, that his plans and undertakings should be guided not by his own desires for happiness and security, usefulness and profit, but rather by obedient response to the challenge of goodness, truth and love, by obedience to the commandment of God which man forgets in his selfishness and presumption; and secondly, that it is an illusion to suppose that real security can be gained by men organizing their own personal and community life.” (Bultmann, 1960, p. 39; see also Edith Stein’s succinct statement: “I take it as God wills it;” in Graef, 1958, p. 226). We suggest that this point of view be contrasted with the importance that personal responsibility was assigned by such writers as Frankl (1973) and Perls (1976).


Take my will, and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine. (Mayhew, 1989, # 510; cf. John 5: 30).


Come, Lord Jesus, come. Come, take my life, take it for your own. (Mayhew, 1989, # 104).


All that I have is now no longer mine, / And I am not my own; Lord, I am Thine. (Baptist, 1962, # 438).


Lord, it belongs not to my care / Whether I die or live… (Baptist, 1962, # 612).


And it is not for a believer, man or woman, to have any choice in their affairs, when God and His Apostle have decreed a matter… (Koran 33: 36).


I ask Thee everything O Lord, by Thy power over everything, till Thou dost not hold me responsible for anything. (Padwick, 1961, p. 202).


O train our spirits more and more into accord with Your pure will! (Service, 1967, p. 237).

In a severely authoritarian family children are inhibited from developing their full capacities. They are hindered by anxiety and guilt, they are trying to conform to their parents’ choices while giving up those of their own. Attempts at exercising their basic freedom are considered a sin, and must be extinguished. As freedom of choice and taking responsibility for one’s choices is too threatening to the enmeshing parents, it is important to take away from the child the credit for every possible success and to hand it over to the parent. The harm in prayers which leave praying persons responsible for their failures only, is that immature adults subscribing to this approach will not only suffer guilt and low self esteem, but will also adopt it towards their own children, as the only style of parenting they know. Transgenerational pathology is likely to ensue. (Cf. Erikson, 1965, p. 302).

Initiative and Guilt

Initiative and guilt are intimately connected: It is “a sense of guilt over the goals contemplated and the acts initiated” that stop one from further initiative (Erikson, 1965, p. 247). And in a genuinely epigenetic fashion, just as the achievement of purpose and direction at the conclusion of this third stage of socio-sexual development depends on having successfully resolved the two previous major conflicts, so does it pave the way for the subsequent stages, and for the achievement of competence, identity and intimacy, in their turn. It is clear, however, that the very nature and raison d’etre of a large part of liturgy is founded on guilt. Indeed, a vicious circle of sin, guilt, confession, asking for forgiveness, and further sin is a hallmark of monotheistic religions. The painful inevitability of this sequence is well illustrated by the following prayer:


Had you not sinned and asked forgiveness, God would have brought another people that sinned and asked forgiveness, so that He might forgive them. (Padwick, 1961, p. 205).

How can then healthy initiative and a sense of competence develop in an atmosphere saturated with an overwhelming sense of guilt and the accompanying need to beseech forgiveness? In the following example the deity itself reminds believers of their immeasurable debt:


I fought for you in battles, / I won you strength and victory, / gave you a royal crown and sceptre: / you have prepared a cross for me. (Smith, 1985, # 141).

The only way to try and reduce this debt is by constant engagement in asking forgiveness. Walrond-Skinner’s (1998) attempts at bringing forgiveness into family therapy notwithstanding, the concept remains not only an inherently religious one, but also one whose implications contradict practically everything contemporary family therapy stands for. These implications include the shifting of responsibility to the victim, the encouragement of the repression of anger, as well as the promotion of empty formulas of apologizing. (Cf. Perls & al., 1973, pp. 158-159). Rather than doing away with these issues, all antithetical to sanitogenic family dynamics, Walrond-Skinner’s use of the term “authentic forgiveness” (1998, p. 6) only serves to underline them. Forgiving, as opposed to holding a grudge, may well be the end result of a successfully handled interpersonal conflict; as such, it will be totally different from both “divine forgiveness” and the “forget and forgive” myth.

In your great tenderness, forgive my sin. / My guilt is known to you, my Lord. / My sin is constantly before my eyes, so wash me whiter than the snow. (Mayhew, 1989, # 56).


Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee? / Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee… (Baptist, 1962, # 137).


If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (In both the Morning Prayer, and the Evening Prayer, BCP, 1968, p. 2 and p. 17; also in Alternative, 1980, p. 48 and p. 61).


No doubt, this servant of yours is a sinner, and down-graded. But you, my lord, are the exalted and the beneficient. Please forgive me. Indeed, you are the forgiving, the beneficient, O’ great forgiver, O’ great helper! (Azam, 1984a, # 62; See also Padwick, 1961, pp. 173-208).


Thou art our guardian, therefore forgive us and have mercy on us, and thou art the best of forgivers. (Azam, 1984a, # 56)


Forgive us, our father, for we have sinned; pardon us our king, for we have disobeyed. (Daily prayer, Assembly, 1977, p. 235).


We have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed, we have spoken slander, we have committed iniquity, we have done wickedly, we have acted presumptuously… (From the Day of Atonement Service, Gaster, 1959, p. 39).

Guilt production is characteristic of both enmeshing and pseudo-mutual families. In their analysis of the joint operation of guilt and resentment, Perls, Hefferline & Goodman (1973, p. 159) found that these attitudes are homeostatic; while aimed at restoring an upset interpersonal balance, they result in avoiding “actual contact with the other person as a person.” In a guilt-laden family atmosphere independent opinions and appropriate emotions are squashed, autonomous behavior cannot be exercised, leading to arrested individual development and to pathogenic family processes.

Another undesirable corollary of forgiveness is the “turning over a new leaf” concept (underlying the practice of confession; see Harris, 1973, pp. 221-222). The implication is not only that with a single verbal act one can erase the past, but also that one’s social environment is expected to cooperate in this manipulative game.


I confess to you, Lord, all my sinning. But …with your help, I’ve a new life beginning. (Mayhew, 1989, # 344).


Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name. (BCP, 1968, p. 542).


The myth of “new beginnings” is damaging both to the individual and to the family. Not only does it implicitly release one from responsibility for any current behavior (as in the promises so common with abusive spouses and parents), but it also discourages insight and learning.

God as an authoritarian father

The relationship between god and believers is often portrayed as that of a father to his children. Prayers are made to a father in heaven, a father looking from above at the children’s activities. In this role the father holds all the power (lavishing small segments of it on a few favored and obedient children) to control his children and to keep them in a dependent, inferior position.

In such an authoritarian family a weak child, lacking self-acceptance, in contrast with an all knowing and powerful parent, is the tool for maintaining control and never releasing the reins. Children idealize their parents, but in order for them not to grow up and stop this idealization, parents must hold fast to their power and make sure that the children never become self-sufficient. Emotional abuse and the belittling of children keep them in their place, and legitimize their control over the next generation using the same means.


Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name… (From The Lord’s Prayer, Baptist, 1962, p. I).


Just as a father cares for his children grant us your peace, Lord, shield us with your love. (Mayhew, 1989, # 189).


Dear Lord and Father of mankind, / forgive our foolish ways! (Mayhew, 1989, # 116; also in Baptist, 1962, # 50).


Lord, be thou my great Father, and I thy true son. (BBC, 1997, # 287).


I have but Thee, my Father; let Thy Spirit / Be with me then to comfort and uphold. (Baptist, 1962, # 777).


…Forgive us, our father, for we have sinned. (Assembly, 1977, p. 251; also in Service, 1967, p. 48).


O our God, our Father, feed us, nourish us, sustain, support and relieve us… (From the Grace after Meals, Herz, 1959, p. 971).


Our Father, our King! We have sinned before thee!… Our Father, our King! Pardon and forgive us all our sins. (Klein, 1951, p. 521).

One of the criteria for family health is the ability to adopt to the family life cycle, to move from stage to stage flexibly, and so enable members to develop (as in Duval & Miller, 1985). At each stage healthy families perform various developmental tasks. Pathogeny is revealed when, because of homeostatic needs and rigidity, roles unsuitable by sex or age are imposed upon family members.

In families, parents who never let go, who cannot adjust to their children’s needs to grow up and become fully functioning adults, are regarded as pathogenic. Relating to grown up adults as to never-growing children, has grave implications for their psychological development (see the concept of binding in Simon, Stierlin and Wynne, 1985, as well as Harris, 1973, p. 220, about the “Parent-Child nature of most Western religions”). The legitimization for such a pathogenic relationship between father and children is likely to have implications for the praying family: Prayers portray a good, benevolent father as one who never lets go, who retains his powerful position at the expense of his children’s development and status. In addition to god’s being a rigid and stifling parent, his position undermines that of the biological parents. While in olden times the father was head of the household throughout his life time, today there is a growing need for nuclear families to separate from their families of origin.


Self-esteem, or “the capacity for self-acceptance is an important aspect of adjustment” (Suinn, 1970, p. 215). The lack of this highly desirable commodity has been linked to various types of maladjustment; those who have low levels of self-reliance, confidence, sense of competency or self-respect tend to exhibit symptoms of neurosis and be generally dissatisfied with their social interactions. Only those who believe in themselves can become self-actualizing individuals. Maslow (1970) saw esteem of self and of others as the stage preceding self actualization. Satir (1967, p. 94) considered it as closely linked to healthy interpersonal communication. Individuals need to feel good and worthy in order to open themselves to their own experiences and to other people (Rogers, 1961, p. 207; see also Rogers, 1978). Prayers, however, focus on a weak, sinful and unlovable individual. How much psychological strength is needed to overcome the destructive message of the following?


As bread my Lord comes to me, / though I am unworthy. (Mayhew, 1989, # 43).


Lord, accept our nothingness. (Mayhew, 1989, # 319).


I cannot tell how he could love / a child so weak and full of sin… (BBC, 1997, # 82).


My Saviour’s love to me, / love to the loveless shown… (BBC 1997, # 84).


The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psalm 51: 17, in the Morning Prayer, BCP, 1968, p. 1; also appears in the Evening Service in Hertz, 1959, pp. 331-332).


I beseech Thee with the beseeching of the abased sinner, the petition of one whose neck is bowed before Thee — whose face is in the dust before Thee. (Padwick, 1961, p. 10).


We, Thy destitute, weak and poor servants, are standing at the threshold of the courtyards of Thy Majesty. (Padwick, 1961, p. 216).


Thanks are due to “Muhammad who is the shelter of the worthless.” (Padwick, 1961, p. 84).


…and I am just a lump of earth, and a worm; dust from the ground, a cup full of shame, a fleeting shadow, a breeze that goes and does not return. (Said on the Days of Repentance, Assembly, 1977, p. 253).

In order to gain self-esteem, one needs to have unconditional positive regard. One might think that religion will provide exactly such an acceptance. Yet prayers do contain conditions, often exemplifying Harris’ “You can be OK, if” paradigm (1973, p. 221):


Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. (BCP, 1968, p. 242; from Matthew 7: 21).


You are my friends if you obey all I command that you should do. (Mayhew, 1989, # 557).


On those who believe and work deeds of righteousness will (God) most gracious bestow love. (Azam, 1984a, # 7).


…If ye shall hearken diligently unto my commandments… I will give the rain of your land in its season… (Hertz, 1959, p. 123).

Here, as in other contexts, the pathogenic aspects of prayers appear at two levels. First, individuals receive destructive message about themselves. Second, low self-esteem is depicted as a positive concept, something worth emulating, and even instilling in one’s children.

Homeostasis vs. Change

An important aspect of psychological development involves the dialectics of change, or what Clarkson & Mackewn (1993) called “the polarities of homeostasis and disturbance”. Together with an organismic urge to regain equilibrium, these Gestalt-oriented authors also posit an equally intrinsic urge to disturb balance, in an “impulse towards contact and growth and… self-actualization” (p. 52). The capacity for later change and development presupposes the solid fulfillment of the infantile need for constancy (“the sameness and continuity of the outer providers” in Erikson, 1965, p. 239; see also Maslow, 1970, p. 40). Prayers invert the process, decry the changing character of adult life and exalt the immutable (childish) nature of matters divine.



O thou who changest not, abide with me. (Mayhew, 1989, # 4).


Thou art God, / to endless years the same. (BBC, 1997, # 16)


But the Church of Jesus / constant will remain… (Mayhew, 1989, # 420. Also in BBC, 1997, # 341; see also BBC, 1997, # 15, 280, 286, 295 and 350).


Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not, / As Thou hast been Thou for ever wilt be. (Baptist, 1962, # 576; see also # 570, 581, 582 and 590).


Aye, but ye love the transitory, / And neglect ye the life to come. (Koran 75: 20).


Thou art the One, the Permanent, Transcendent of mate or offspring… (Padwick, 1961, p. 70).


Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; and thy dominion endures throughout all generations. (Klein, 1951, p. 245; also in Service, 1967, p. 135).


God does not change; his teaching will not be supplanted; he will always be the same. (Service, 1967, p. 375).

Both individuals and families are distressed by rigidity and by opposition to change. While prayers demand constancy, therapy, by its very nature, is change oriented: homeostatic tendencies (“considerations … given to slavish restoration of the status quo,” in Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1973, p. 159) constitute a major threat to the therapeutic process. “Defense is the behavioral response of the organism to threat, the goal of which is the maintenance of the current structure of the self,” wrote Meador and Rogers (1973). A rejection of change, occasionally serving transgenerational pathogeny, may well constitute the grounds for most pathological family processes.


Each of the three religions we are discussing disparages the here-and-now. Admittedly, there may well be an “innate compulsion of man to reflect on ‘last things'” (Steiner, 1975, p. 144), yet an absorption with after-life, at the expense of effectively engaging oneself in this one, contradicts the principles of healthy psychological functioning. (See Chapter 2 of Perls et al., 1973). Prayers instruct believers for exactly such a derision of this world and exaltation of the other; they often reflect a contempt for life itself.


This miserable and naughty world… (BCP, 1962, p. 322; Cf. I John 2: 15: “Love not the world…”).


Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on / when we shall be forever with the Lord, / when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone, / sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored. (BBC, 1997, # 286; also Mayhew, 1989, # 59).


The life in this world is but a play and pastime; and better surely for men of godly fear will be the future mansion! (Koran 6: 32). Azam (1984b, p. H) interpreted this verse: “This world is the fertiliser, and the next world is the crop”.


This world is like an ante-chamber to the world to come; prepare thyself in the ante-chamber, that thou mayest enter into the hall.” (Herz, 1959, p. 677).

While each of the three sources belittles the present, a depiction of after-life as the hedonistic fulfillment of (supposedly) every male’s wildest dream is a strictly Islamic feature. It is paradoxical that, as a reward for their faith, the Paradise of the faithful will be awash with worldly goods: exquisite food, excellent wine, an abundance of precious stones and metals, brocade lined couches, and an endless number of virgins, “whom nor man nor djinn hath touched before them” (Koran 55: 56). The message conveyed by the following extracts is that abstract, religious faith is but a means to a concrete, hedonistic end:


And theirs shall be the Houris, with large dark eyes…/ Of a rare creation have we created the Houris, /And we have made them ever virgins, / Dear to their spouses, of equal age with them… (Koran 56: 22 and 34-36).


But, for the God-fearing is a blissful abode, / Enclosed gardens and vineyards; /And damsels with swelling breasts, their peers in age… (Koran 78: 31-33; see also 4: 60; 37: 47; 44: 54; 52: 20; 55: 56 and 70-74, as well as Padwick, 1961, p. 285).


And in Paradise will be given to him forty domes of silver, in every dome a castle of gold, in every castle a hundred pavilions of light, in every pavilion a bed of silken brocade, on every bed a slave-girl of the hur… (Padwick, 1961, p. 285).

Total dependence on an intangible future results in a neglect of the present: One is not motivated to cope with current difficulties or to invest energies in ameliorating the quality of life. The tendency to deny the present and to console oneself with unrealistic dreams runs against the developing of adjustment skills; it entails, both for the individual and the family, an avoidance of reality and personal responsibility. When the sought for future is life after death, this process is not only crippling, but also portrays life as insignificant and trivial:


…this present life is but a passing good… (Koran 13: 26).

Defense mechanisms

Anxiety and fear must be constantly present in the mind of the believer. Conflicts between religious commandments and the wish to act upon both innate and acquired drives are likely to create anxiety. Fear cannot be far behind either, when one is ceaselessly reminded of the punishments awaiting sinners.


…everlasting death. (BCP, 1968, p. 294).


The wicked shall be turned into hell: and all the people that forget God. (BCP, 1968, p. 355, from Psalms 9: 17).


Those who disbelieve our signs we will in the end cast into the fire: so oft as their skins shall be well burnt, we will change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the torment. (Koran 4: 59).


…oh! how wretched shall be the people of the left hand! / Amid pestilential winds and in scalding water, / And in the shadow of a black smoke, / Not cool, and horrid to behold. /…And thereupon shall ye drink boiling water, / And ye shall drink as the thirsty camel drinketh. / This shall be their repast in the day of reckoning! (Koran 56: 40-56).


Lay ye hold on him and chain him, / Then at the Hell-fire burn him, / Then into a chain whose length is seventy cubits thrust him; / For he believed not in God, the Great… (Koran 69: 30-33).

But high levels of fear and anxiety cannot be tolerated; to permit day-to-day functioning, the same institution that has unleashed these debilitating forces, must also provide for their temporary reduction. (See, in this regard, Maslow’s attributing “the tendency to have some religion” to safety seeking; 1970, pp. 41-42). An inspection of our sources shows that they persistently teach and encourage the use of defense mechanisms (“unconscious arrangements which permit the individual to postpone satisfaction, to find substitutions, and otherwise to arrive at compromises between id impulses and super-ego compulsions;” Erikson, 1965, p. 187).


One type of praying formula asks for deliverance from “desires”, condemning sexual needs even before they are acted upon. This demand for the repression, or rather suppression of life instincts is simultaneously a psychological abomination and a sine qua non of the religions under consideration.


Dost thou renounce… the carnal desires of the flesh…? (BCP, 1968, p. 284).


Awake, and rise up from the dead, / and Christ his light on you will shed. / Its power will wrong desires destroy, / and your whole nature fill with joy. (Mayhew, 1989, # 52).


From earthborn passions set me free… (BBC, 1997, # 276; also Mayhew, 1989, # 327).


Make us those in whose hearts the door of selfish desire is locked. (Padwick, 1961, p. 181; based on Koran 79: 40-41).


He who is mastered by his lower self becomes a captive in the power of his selfish desires, confined in the prison of his own inclinations. (Padwick, 1961, pp. 181). Based on the Koran 79: 40-41: “But as to him who shall have feared the majesty of his Lord, and shall have refrained his soul from lust, / Verily, Paradise — that shall be his dwelling place.”


Protect us O God from the evils of our (lower) selves and the illusion of our works… (Padwick, 1961, p. 190).


Deliver me… from this self which urges me to evil / And from rebelliousness, to sin’s disaster calling. (Padwick, 1961, p. 190).


Make us those who preoccupy themselves against selfish appetites by the remembrance of Thee… and put out the fire of selfish desire… (Padwick, 1961, p. 181).


What then hinders us? The perversity in our nature. You know that we ourselves have not the strength to overcome it; therefore, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, help us to subdue it… (Service, 1967, pp. 275-276).

The above prayers clamor for the suppression of Eros. Other prayers go a step further by attacking Thanatos, as well: They demand an extinction of all “negative” emotions, and their replacement by a mask or facade. Such denial of unwanted emotions is characteristic of an undifferentiated pseudo self (see Bowen, 1966; Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1996, p. 171), whose task is to please others, at the expense of obliterating one’s individuality.


Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed / ‘gainst the dragons of anger… (BBC, 1997, # 354).


When troubles come and things go ill, / Teach us to seek from Thee the grace / That turns to heaven a trustful heart, / And to the world a smiling face. (Baptist, 1962, # 470).


Let me be silent if people curse me, my soul still humble and at peace with all. (Assembly, 1977, p. 41).


O Allah! Forgive me my sin and suppress anger from my heart. (Azam, 1984a, # 35).


Be not ready to quarrel; avoid oaths and passionate adjurations, excess of laughter and outbursts of wrath: they disturb and confound the reason of man. (The ethical will, by a 13th century Jewish sage, in Hertz, 1959, p. 261).

Both Bowen and Satir claimed that pathological communication is implicated in developing a pathogenic family. Bowen (1976b) wrote about closed systems which will not enable talk about any anxiety promoting topic. According to Satir (1972) dysfunctional family rules that establish taboos cause pain and establish pathogenic communication patterns. Repression of emotions, denial of painful topics and dynamics, and rejection of the proclaiming of needs help parents maintain control over their children, and not face any threat to their own homeostatic need. If emotions and desires are negative in the adult believer, they should be extinguished early on among the believer’s children.


Christian children, all must be / mild, obedient, good as he. (Mayhew, 1989, # 414).


Erikson (1965) recognized the dual nature of asceticism: It is both driven by guilt over vague deeds and transgressions, and constitutes an attempt to restore faith in the kindness of the powers of the universe. It is not only in primitive religions that one must “treat the Supernatural Providers of food and fortune as if they were angry and must be appeased by prayer and self-torture” (p. 242). Each of the three monotheistic faiths looks with special favor upon self-denying individuals, the ones who go beyond just serving their deity by actively depriving themselves of food, sleep, sex or physical comfort. This attitude toward life is a direct outgrowth of several themes encountered above: mistrust, doubt, guilt, rejection of the here-and-now, and a repression of emotions. The encouragement of self denial (the opposite of self-actualizing in Rogers, 1978, p. 276) is one of the clearest examples of the inevitable clash between psychology and religion. (For the correlation of eating disorders and religious beliefs see Banks, 1996, and Joughin & al., 1992).


Lord, accept our Lenten fast and forgive our sinful past… (Mayhew, 1989, # 156).


Gentle Jesus, meek and mild… / Fain I would be as Thou art… / Thou didst live to God alone, Thou didst never seek Thine own, / Thou Thyself didst never please, / God was all Thy happiness. (Baptist, 1962, # 583).


The month-long Fast of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. During this month the faithful abstain from food, drink and sexual relations between sunset and sundown. (See Koran 2: 179-183; for additional fasts in Islam see Wagtendonk, 1968).


…and ye shall afflict your souls. (Concerning the fast on the Day of Atonement; Hertz, 1959, p. 891; from Leviticus 16: 31).

An extreme form of self-denial is self-sacrifice, accompanied by patient suffering. The exaltation of such behavior is unique to Christian liturgy, with its glorification of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. No wonder that the modern Roman Catholic theologian Maitland (1995) wrote with such derision of “psychological egocentrism” (p. 79).


…the cross where my Saviour / For me was slain… (Baptist, 1962, # 130).


Hopes of joy that never dies / Hang on our Saviour’s sacrifice. (Baptist, 1962, # 136).


A life of self-renouncing love / Is one of liberty. (Baptist, 1962, # 468).


No greater love a man can have than that he die to save his friends. (Mayhew, 1989, # 557).


Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side; / bear patiently the cross of grief or pain. (Mayhew, 1989, # 59; also in BBC, 1997, # 286).


And there should be no greater comfort to Christian persons, than to be made like unto Christ, by suffering patiently adversities, troubles, and sicknesses. (From The Visitation of the sick, BCP, 1962, p. 315).


Lead us to repent according to his preaching and after his example constantly to speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake… (Alternative, 1980, p. 777).

Suffering and pain, often unavoidable, are among the major triggers of dysfunctionality and maladjustment, cruelty and violence. Both psychology and medicine are devoted to the alleviation of human suffering. The above religious excerpts’ aggrandizement of suffering legitimizes not only the pathological role of the victim, but also the act of victimization.


While compensation is the major defense mechanism (or problem solving device) in the Adlerian vocabulary (e.g., Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1958), Adler was not alone in assigning to it an important place among the defenses. Thus Erikson (1965, p. 187; see also p. 113) saw the related mechanism of substitution as one of the major components of many of the defenses, while Maslow (1970, p. 45) found that the thwarting of self-esteem needs may lead to “compensatory or neurotic trends”. Like other defense mechanisms, compensation and substitution distort reality, preventing the individual from “an openness to experience” (Rogers, 1961, p. 187).


…may we abide in union / With each other and the Lord; / And possess in sweet communion / Joys which earth cannot afford. (Baptist, 1962, # 763).


Not what I am, O Lord, but what Thou art, — / That, that alone can be my soul’s true rest. (Baptist, 1962, # 583).


Thou Who art compensation for all else, and for Whom nothing else is a compensation. (Padwick, 1961, p. 135).

The idea that the deity can serve as compensation for unsatisfied needs, has several undesirable consequences: It legitimizes the use of a defense mechanism instead of directly coping with the problem. As in all other neurotic behaviors it is self-perpetuating. It prevents the individual from seeking help among “lesser beings” such as parents, friends and professionals. It also frees one’s close social circle from the responsibility of offering meaningful support, as they can always send the needy to find compensation with their deity.

Interpersonal control mechanisms

Control is antithetical to autonomy. Control techniques (ranging from mild to severe; see Parke, 1990, pp. 170-173) coerce individuals to act according to the plan of another. Though controlling agents may think that all their efforts are for the controlled’s “own good” (cf. Alice Miller’s 1983 book in this regard), coercion is by definition detrimental to mental health. Several control mechanisms appearing in prayers will be identified below.


The main instrument of interpersonal control is pathogenic communication (Satir, Stachowiak & Taschman, 1975, pp. 41-49). While blamers exercise control through guilt-producing, placaters achieve their goals by being submissive. Belittling oneself, while inflating the other, may stop the other person’s anger and result in some brownie points. The super-rationals’ fear of being hurt makes them flee from emotions. They have a strong need for controlling both self and others. As emotions tend to overpower, they are viewed as a threat and are repressed. The super-rational receive power from pretending to know it all, thus making their audience feel ignorant and foolish. The irrelevant disbelieve the possibility of gaining self worth through being heard and evade any confrontation. They control through refusing to become engaged. In their self-belittling prayers, believers exhibit various types of such incongruent communication They constantly placate (Puglisi, 1929, p. 242 referred to prayer as “a verbal sacrifice”), attributing to their lord a pattern of blaming them. (Though there is also an incipient reciprocal blaming in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation…”, BCP, 1968, p. 4, as well as in this Koranic verse: “Portion out for us such fear of Thee as will keep us from disobeying Thee…, Azam, 1984a, # 54). There is more than a touch of super-rationality in the frequent admonition not to try and understand god’s ways (see below). In group confessions of unspecified sins, as well as in group absolutions of the same (see BCP, 1968, p. 18), there is an atmosphere of irrelevance or lack of connection between individual actions and their consequences. Ingratiating is ubiquitous, especially in petitionery prayers:


Although we for our iniquities have worthily deserved a plague of rain… BCP, 1968, p. 38)


…grant that the scarcity and dearth, which we do now most justly suffer for our iniquity… (BCP, 1968, p. 39).


Lo I Thy servant am at Thy door; Thine abject one at Thy door; Thy captive at Thy door; Thy destitute one at Thy door… (Padwick, 1961, p. 217).


Deal not with us according to the evil of our doings; remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindness; save us according to thine abundant goodness, and have pity upon us, we beseech thee. (From the Morning Service, Hertz, 1959, p. 175).

Another type of communication pathology lies behind prayers that discourage the individual from asking questions. In such declarations we witness a practical rejection of free and open communication, a renouncing of the will to understand, a condemnation of curiosity. As such, they have the potential to damage cognitive development.


The Lord knows all your needs before you ask. Only trust in him for he will do the task of bringing in your life whatever you must know. (Mayhew, 1989, # 123).


God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform. (Baptist, 1962, # 53).


Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, / But trust Him for His grace. (Baptist, 1962, # 53).


All laud to Him the depth of whose eternal greatness is unthinkable by the minds of men. (Padwick, 1961, p. 73).


I take refuge with Thee O God from unprofitable knowledge… (Padwick, 1961, p. 90).

The systematic reading of pathological communication patterns in a source which is considered as above all others, can only result in the praying population adopting these same patterns into their lives and their interactions with their families.


Bookkeeping is a basic aspect of worship. The above mentioned lack of unconditional acceptance (You’re OK, if…) is accompanied by an accounting system; all of the earthly creatures’ deeds are noted and classified, in order to be rewarded or punished at a later time. The invidious practice of bookkeeping, one of the most frequently encountered pathological processes in family structuring (cf. the concept of “bitter bank” in Guerin and Guerin, 1976, p. 98), well illustrates the anthropomorphic projection performed by humans toward the deity. Bookkeeping in prayers can be blatant or subtle, involving simple tit-for-tat, or the bringing up of mythical promises made to biblical forefathers.


Therefore, kind Jesu, since I cannot pay thee, / I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee… (BBC, 1997, # 77).


In blazing light your cross reveals / the truth we dimly knew, / what trivial debts are owed to us, / how great our debt to you! (BBC, 1997, # 272).


Charge them who are rich in this world, that they be ready to give… laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may attain eternal life. (BCP, 1968, p. 243; from 1 Timothy 6: 17-19 ).


He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord: and look, what he layeth out, it shall be paid him again. (BCP, 1968, p. 244; from Proverbs 19: 17).


We sent a stone-charged wind against them all, except the family of Lot, who at daybreak we delivered, / By our special grace — for thus we reward the thankful. (Koran 54: 34-35).


Ungrateful is man. (Koran 17: 69).


Reciting 80 times on Friday a short sentence results in Allah forgiving the reciter the sins of 80 years (Azam, 1984a, # 36). For reading prayer # 30, 2,000,000 good deeds will be recorded by the Recording Angels, but only 40,000 for # 40. Prayers # 13 and 37 permit one to enter paradise (if said right before one dies), prayers # 15 and 17 result in one’s sins being forgiven and prayer # 32 “gets his debts paid by Allah Almighty, even if it is as big as a mountain.” For him who says one of the previously quoted prayers “Allah Almighty writes down 1000 good deeds, raises his stage by 1000, and 70,000 angels are appointed to pray for his forgiveness.” (# 4).


Who is it that will lend to God a goodly loan? He will double it to him again and again. (Koran 2: 246; see also 64: 17 and elsewhere).


When a certain prayer is said “God Most High says, ‘Behold my servant to whom I gave an immeasurable gift has given me a priceless return for it.'” (Padwick, 1961, p. 76).


He remembers the good deeds of our fathers… (Assembly, 1977, p. 241).

As the intimate relationship between god and his believers appears to be based on a not too subtle accounting system which puts the believer in a never repayable debt, it can only teach spouses and siblings, parents and offspring to be similarly mercantile while interacting with each other. It can only lead to a low stage of moral development (see Kohlberg’s preconventional stages, 1986), as one gives of oneself only in order to gain debtors.


Kelman (1958) described three types of attitude change: internalization, identification and compliance, with the last being the most superficial process. When an individual has neither internalized a message, nor has sufficiently identified with its source, constant surveillance is needed for the assurance of continued compliance with the source’s demands. In such an atmosphere there is no privacy, one can never relax (“Man must live in constant fear and awe of Him, and always be on his guard against Him,” Gibb, 1975, p. 38; for other fear-related prayers, see above). This constitutes an attack on the separation (so important for psychological well-being) between internal and external worlds.


Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid… (BCP, 1968, p. 237).


Nothing was ever invisible nor will be invisible to Thee: from Thee no secret is hid. (Padwick, 1961, p. 178).


Oh my Lord, you look at me and know me ev’ry moment of each day. Whether I walk or stand or lie you read my secret thoughts from far away. (Mayhew, 1989, # 410).


Your Lord well knoweth what is in your souls; he knoweth whether ye be righteous. (Koran 17: 26).


…and God knoweth what ye do openly and what ye hide. (Koran 24: 29).


…verily, God knoweth the very secrets of the breast. (Koran 5:10).


…and God’s eye is on His servants. (Koran 3: 19).


For the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins. (Psalms 7: 9).

The respect of privacy is a difficult task to learn and to practice in families. If god as parent does not allow for any privacy, earthly parents may find it not only permissible but even admirable to emulate him. The idea that “big brother is watching” is always anxiety and guilt provoking. Telling someone that s/he will be constantly watched also shows how negative this person is expected to be, and how only fear can keep him/her in check. If those values are adopted into the family they destroy trust in self and others, and diminish the self into either a criminal who tries to hide, or into one whose “sainthood” is due to constant fear.


Another inherent feature of monotheistic religions is their total lack, and indeed doctrinal rejection of pluralism. While some denominations have proselytized and/or actively attacked non-believers more than others, all share an abhorrence of competing viewpoints. Steiner (1975, p. 220) attributed the insistence on one “Truth” to early Christianity, though the Jewish Bible is not devoid of protestations against falsehood, either (as in “lying lips are abomination to the Lord”; Proverbs 12: 22; see also 6: 17). The proclaimed existence of one truth creates for all dissenters a painful double-avoidance conflict: Erase yourself by conforming, or be erased by your social environment when voicing your deep-seated convictions.


This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved. (From the Morning Prayer, BCP, 1968, p. 30).


They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth… (Article of Religion #18, BCP, 1968, p. 619).


I am commanded to make war on mankind till they say La ilaha illa ‘llah. (I.e. “There is no god but Allah”; Padwick, 1961, p. 56).


The Koran is the perfect truth. (Gibb, 1975, p. 40).


I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses … was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both of those that preceded and of those that followed. (Principles of faith # 7, Hertz, 1959, p. 253).

The myth of there being only one truth and one way damages individuals’ ability for flexible, divergent thinking and justifies the persecution of dissenters in societies. Within enmeshed families the rejection of dissenting opinions constitutes the basis for practically every pathological process. The nonconforming member is regarded as a threat, with the family’s negative emotions channeled towards him/her. This member is rejected, blamed, often labeled sick (the “Identified Patient”).


In addition to encouraging competition rather than cooperation, the drawing of comparisons between individuals establishes pecking orders. While these may serve well in some social environments, neither competition, nor the existence of hierarchies is conducive to the well-being of primary groups. As the following examples show, the act of comparison may have many different targets (among them, somewhat surprisingly for monotheistic religions, other gods).


There is no god as great as you, O Lord, / there is none, there is none. / There is no god who does the mighty wonders / that the Lord our God has done. (Mayhew, 1989, # 6).


All praise be to Allah who saved me and prevented me from this trouble, which was inflicted by him, and who gave me preference and goodness compared with most of his creatures. (Azam, 1984a, # 6).


“Allahu akbar” (The Muslim call to prayer, as well as “one of the most terrible of the world’s battle-cries”) means “God is greater” (Padwick, 1961, pp. 29-30). It can be exchanged for “God is far greater,” or “God is greater than the greatest.” (Padwick, 1961, p. 35). In everyday usage the comparison is not only to other gods: “God is mightier than all His created beings. God is mightier than him whom I fear, than him I dread.” (Padwick, 1961, p. 36).


And true it is that even the sinners of this community are better than the Jews and the Christians and the Magians. (Padwick, 1961, p. 146).


The insidious practice of comparison extends to the hereafter, as well: “I ask Thee for one of the high places in paradise.” (Azam, 1984a, # 54).


Who is like You, Lord, among the gods men worship! / Who is like You. (Assembly, 1977, p. 35; see also Hertz, 1959, p. 371 and Service, 1967, p. 34; based on Exodus 15: 11).


There is none like thee, O Lord, among them acclaimed as divine; and there are no works like thine. (Klein, 1951, p. 245).

Each religion regards itself as better, by belittling others. In addition to legitimizing scorn towards others, this practice strengthens a group of myths of the “I’m holier than thou” type. In the family context, families often turn a blind eye to their pain by pronouncing themselves better than others. Such comparison also dominates several family subsystems, it promotes competition between spouses, siblings, gender groups, families of origin. The most pathogenic aspect of these dynamics is consistently forcing a family member (or subsystem) into the loser’s position.


“Interactions become plainly manipulative,” wrote Danziger (1976), “when one side seeks to impose a unilaterally defined outcome on the situation” (p. 22). Of the endless number of techniques a manipulator can use, we shall select one that often appears both in family interactions and in prayers: It is called “For your own good”. In all of the following, as in some analogous interpersonal exchanges, the sender of the message tries to overcome the target’s reluctance to act in a way that would benefit the sender. The sender achieves this by convincing the target that the one who would really benefit is the target itself.


O Lord of hosts, fight for us, that we may glorify thee. (From Special Prayers with respect to the Enemy, BCP, 1968, p. 541).


Though sinful, we implore thee to turn and make us live, that so we may adore thee, and our offering give. (Mayhew, 1989, # 393).


Do it for thy sake, if not for ours. (Hertz, 1959, p. 167).


Hear my prayer, prolong my life, let me complete my years in happiness, that I may be enabled to serve thee and keep thy statutes with a perfect heart. (From a Prayer in Sickness, Hertz, 1959, p. 1061).

Manipulation deprives one of freedom of choice, it is dishonest and opportunistic, belittling and contemptuous of the other’s intelligence (“I know what’s good for you better than you do”). It portrays the manipulator as good and considerate of the other (a misrepresentation) and the victim as stupid and helpless. In the family it undermines egalitarian relationships and congruent communication, rewarding craftiness, rather than authenticity. It also teaches children to employ the same arrogant tactics in their dealings with the world.


Unquestioning obedience to god and to parents is a basic tenet of all three religions. The very meaning of Islam is “submitting”, so that a Muslim literally means one who has surrendered, is resigned to another’s will (see Koran 46: 14 and elsewhere). Disobedience to parents is one of the most dreadful sins in Islam (e.g., Koran 17: 24-25; see also Padwick, 1961, p. 175). Obedience is also a cornerstone of Christianity (see, for example the theme of “perfect submission” in BBC, 1997, # 288 and the expression “Freedom in obedience” in Bultmann, 1960, p. 41).


Prayer that the full surrender/ Of self may perfect be… (About marriage; Baptist, 1962, # 625).


And who hath a better religion than he who resigneth himself to God…? (Koran 4: 124; see also 3: 18; 31: 21).


Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. (The 5th of The Ten Commandments, part of the Morning Service in Hertz, 1959, p. 245).

The demand for blind obedience towards heavenly or earthly fathers establishes a norm of enforced respect. In addition to all the ills associated with stratification and belittling, it also sanctions irrelevance: Does a healthy social system want children to obey and honor their parents, regardless of these parents’ behavior? And should children who have no reason to do so, lie and pretend? Why is the 5th commandment needed? Parents who deserve to be honored are certainly in no need of it, for their children are likely to grow up in a healthy atmosphere, and will honor them. The ones who need institutionalized honoring (in the family or in the larger social system) are those who fail in honoring themselves, their parental role, their children, and are in danger of being evaluated according to their true merits. A mistrust of family health and a fear of losing control, as portrayed in many prayers, may result in generation after generation being brought up according to a distortion.

Coercion is in itself anti-democratic, rigid, lacking in respect for the other person. Apart from the danger residing in the coercive nature of all the above mechanisms, they also specifically legitimize and promote the use of several pathogenic practices. It is easy to see how incongruent communication can both bring about and deepen interpersonal conflict, how the custom of bookkeeping vis a vis the deity is analogous to an accounting system between spouses or between children and parents within the family, how the idea of “my religion is the best” can be translated to “I and mine are the best”. Whether it is the idea of surveillance, intra-familial comparison, or manipulation that believers derive and adopt from their prayers, they are likely to act in a manner directly opposed to commonly accepted criteria of healthy family dynamics.


Even a brief perusal, let alone an in-depth examination of the prayers cited above is sufficient to justify Beit-Hallahmi’s (1991) statement: “All social sciences (indeed all human sciences) are a threat to religion…. Psychology as the discipline that deals directly with the nature of human beliefs presents a most direct threat” (p. 190). Indeed, psychology in general, and its various humanistically oriented approaches in particular, stand in direct opposition to the long list of messages inherent in these prayers: feudal hierarchy, rejection of autonomy and self-actualization, repression of emotions and needs, and the exercise of interpersonal control. In addition to highlighting this basic contradiction, we have also attempted to show how these messages may be used to legitimize and encourage pathogenic family processes.

We shall conclude this discussion by mentioning a further problem area, one that properly belongs to the communication pathologies, mentioned earlier. One could minimize the gravity of the contradictions we have found between psychology and religion by suggesting that we have taken prayers too literally and therefore too seriously. But such an approach would in itself reveal a rejection of a basic rule of healthy communication, one that we have promised to adhere to, namely “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” In this spirit, though reluctantly, owing to its frightening message, we offer this last quotation for our readers’ consideration:


If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14: 26).


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