From the first time primitive man watched the winter months slowly devour the daylight, we have lived with a certain inexplicable fear of the unknown in our everyday lives. From the depths of this fear and the shadows of our own misgivings sprang the solace of religion, a double-edged sword that simultaneously brings comfort and fear to our daily existence.
There are positive and negative influences in every religion, regardless of its basis and evolution, and these influences can have a similarly positive or negative effect on our psychological well-being.
In examination of every major religion, there is a sense of hamartiology, or sin (Gr., lit. "missing the mark") within the construct of its dogma, as well as the wherewithal to deal with these transgressions when a follower has made them. It is with the judicious and balanced usage of this sin and indulgence system that religions throughout the centuries have managed to maintain an acceptable level of moral rectitude from its acolytes.
It is with the lack of regulation of this established method of dealing with the sins of worshippers that a religious group will inadvertently (or perhaps, intentionally) alter the psychological state of its people's minds. While judicious dispensing of forgiveness for the errant ways of a follower can ease his or her troubled mind while maintaining a level of impulse control, the overindulgence of sin by a religious official would tend to lead to a decrease in the effectiveness of this method of conditioning. The same results could be observed in a laboratory experiment. Liken the dispersal of forgiveness to the provision of cheese to a laboratory rat. If the purpose of the experiment is to condition the rat to perform a certain series of tasks, and to subsequently reward the rat with cheese when it has completed these tasks, then the positive conditioning used in the experiment will be more effective if the cheese is given judiciously. Indiscriminate disbursement of forgiveness, like the cheese to the laboratory rat, lessens the impact of this positive conditioning tool and eventually renders it completely ineffective as a method of regulating the Id of a follower.
From the opposite side of the spectrum, too little indulgence of a worshipper's spiritual failure may lead to a sense of inadequacy. The importance of a follower's feeling of spiritual closeness to the deity who is the source of his worship must not be overlooked when considering the emotional and psychological health of the person. If indulgence is never given, for even the smallest of transgressions, a combination of feelings may grow to pervade the mind of the individual. He or she may feel a sense of anger toward their deity for his or her rigidity and unwillingness to forgive through his or her earthly emissaries. This feeling may be coupled with one of self-loathing. After all, if the deity that claims to love all people unconditionally cannot find it possible to forgive him or her, the logical presumption must be that the person is so twisted and depraved as to be beyond help or hope. This self-anger would likely lead the person to develop coping mechanisms to deal with his or her situation. If forgiveness cannot be found, perhaps, he or she reasons, the best method of living is to contemplate to the point of obsession every action or behavior to insure that it could not possibly offend.
In addition to a sense of self-loathing, this religious rigidity can spill over into the life of the follower's family. A parent who has grown up in a strict and inflexible religious environment will likely impose these same sanctions upon his or her children, thus perpetuating a cycle of resentment and depression that has now not only transcended the religion, but also frightened the offspring of such a zealous worshipper from ever experiencing the religion themselves, and discovering the beneficial aspects it may hold. Religion has always been useful in the explanation of the unexplainable in our lives, and has many beneficial uses in the development of a healthy culture. If it is to maintain its effectiveness as a tool for the correction of our errant steps from the path of moral and psychological well-being, however, its tools of behavioral conditioning must be judiciously applied.