I was not raised in a "fire and brimstone" home - there were never overt threats of Hell. Jesus and God loved me and just wanted me to spend eternity with my loved ones (with visitation rights to Dog Heaven). This is what most Christian kids in the U.S. are raised with, I estimate - the "rose-tinted" Christianity.
Beneath this seemingly-benign message, though, was the threat of Hell.
"What," my young self might ask, "do I need to do for Jesus and God to love me and let me into Heaven?" Just follow God's rules! "What rules do I need to follow?"
- Do not feel aroused by the sight of an attractive woman
- Do not view pornography
- Do not masturbate
- Do not have sex before marriage
- Do not swing
- Do not be polyamorous
- Do not love other men
- Do not have sex with other men
- ...and a litany of others
Thankfully, I wasn't raised Catholic, so I had no hang-ups about sex for pleasure (within a marriage, of course) and my mother was divorced, so any message shaming divorce would find no ground in my home. Not all of the above rules apply to me - I am neither gay nor polyamorous - but these are all examples of things I was taught were morally wrong. Notice again the lack of overt threats of Hell. The topic never arises until you ask the question:
"What does it mean if I don't follow these rules, and what happens if you don't?" Why, your loving god finds your shameful and sinful presence intolerable, and you'll go to Hell!
"What happens in Hell?" Eternity of torment - endless agony and indescribable horror.
This is the unspoken clause that reinforces adherence to the above restrictions. Let's revisit those restrictions, now fully illustrated with their reinforcement:
- Do not feel aroused by the sight of an attractive woman. If you do, you are bad and you risk eternal torment.
- Do not view pornography. If you do, you are perverse and risk burning in eternal flames.
- Do not masturbate. If you do, God may strike you dead as he did Onan. Additionally, you probably either viewed pornography with this or lusted after a woman when doing so. This makes you dirty and perverse and may deliver you into unending anguish.
- Do not have sex before marriage. If you do, you have sullied your actual marriage by giving away your virginity. As marriage is the most holy of unions, you have defiled something sacred and deserve eternal damnation for it.
- Do not swing. If you are a woman and have sex with other men, you are a slut and a whore. If you are a man, you are nothing but a slave to sexual urges. Either way, you have done something worthy of eternal torture.
- Do not be polyamorous. God made us to find the one true soul mate, and if you love more than one person, you are deviant and deserve unending horror.
- Do not love other men. Such love is shameful and unnatural, and, as long as you never act on these unnatural feelings, you won't be condemned to timeless suffering.
- Do not have sex with other men. Such an act is worthy of death in the eyes of your god, he has graciously downgraded this to just being an abominable act that will commit you to an afterlife of agony.
These "offenses" are all naturally-occurring - not necessarily all in me or you, but most people can truthfully claim at least one of them. Faced with even this comparatively less-severe version of Christian sexuality, it's no wonder that religion often leads to sexual dysfunction (Tim Haggard's gay prostitute, Larry Craig's solicitation of sex in bathrooms, and Catholic clergy raping and physically deforming children - for some easy examples). It's also no wonder that we're in need of therapeutic professionals and organizations like "Recovering from Religion". I know friends who have struggled with the guilt of having pre-marital sex, masturbation, and homosexual orientation; although I was deconverted to atheism when I first had sex, I struggled by myself before then with guilt stemming from my sexual habits and finding my sexual identity. Even those who have been an atheist for years may still be haunted by their religion.
Richard Dawkins has described raising a child with a fear of Hell as child abuse. Some have accused him of being over-dramatic and hyperbolic when doing so, but reflect upon what I wrote above and, if applicable, your own experiences. Can you honestly not see the mental abuse of telling a child they'll suffer for eternity for masturbating or loving someone of their own sex (ignoring the case unaddressed by religion of those born without a sex)?
So, yeah. That's how I was raised with a fear of Hell. My parents never explicitly said these things, but implicitly endorsed it by taking me to churches that espoused these views.
I don't write this to disparage on how I was raised - I've turned out fine, I think, and that's due in large part to my parents (both in genetic donations and the availability of learning resources in my home). Rather, I write this in the hopes of relieving at least one person of one of the worst parts of this religious guilt: the isolation - the feeling that you and you alone struggle with this same guilt and shame and that, worse, there's no hope in sight. I'm here to show and tell you that it is possible to recover from the guilt and that you don't have to do it alone. If you need help, start at recoveringfromreligion.org - it's a site and organization designed specifically for helping people get rid of their religious baggage.