Theophobia or Fear of Religion: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Most people don't have a problem with religion, whether or not they have faith themselves. However, there's a group of people who suffer due to the fear that religion produces in them
Theophobia or Fear of Religion: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Last update: 29 May, 2022

Some people are extremely afraid of God or religion. Consequently, they usually completely detach themselves from anything related to God and spirituality. This irrational fear is known as theophobia.

The term theophobia derives from the Greek Theo, which means ‘relating to God or deities’. This specific phobia manifests itself through an inexplicable, intense, and irrational fear of God or religion. Indeed, the sufferer radically avoids any type of contact with spiritual and religious activities. They may even avoid contact with others who fervently believe in God.

In religious life, much is said about the fear of God. However, how can this be differentiated from pathological fear?

Among the characteristics that differentiate phobias from normal fears are:

  • The fear is disproportionate. It doesn’t correspond to a really dangerous or threatening situation.
  • The sufferer can’t explain their fear.
  • Their fear is involuntary and can’t be controlled.
  • They avoid the feared situation or object.
  • The fear persists over time.
  • It’s maladaptive.
  • It isn’t specific to a certain phase or age.

The symptoms of theophobia

Like other specific phobias, theophobia presents with different symptoms. They can be grouped into three dimensions: physiological, cognitive, and behavioral.

Physiological symptoms

These are characterized by a set of physiological responses mediated by the activation of the autonomic nervous system :

  • Increase in cardiac frequency.
  • Increased respiratory rate.
  • Sweating.
  • Inhibition of salivation.
  • Stomach contractions.
  • Nausea.
  • Elevation of blood pressure.
Woman with anxiety due to mood swings
Theophobia can generate anxiety.

Cognitive symptoms

These symptoms are characterized by the presence of ideas, interpretations, beliefs, or narratives that the sufferer has about God or religion. They include:

  • Negative images.
  • Negative beliefs about God.
  • A belief in their inability to face a spiritual situation.
  • Negative interpretations about physiological reactions.
  • Intrusive thoughts.
  • Concerns.
  • State of alarm.

Behavioral symptoms

The motor symptoms are those behavioral responses that the sufferer displays to face their irrational fear of God. The most common of these responses is avoidance. For example, if the sufferer perceives that there’s a church or religious cult nearby, they immediately move away from the situation.

Causes

Next, we’ll review two perspectives that assist in understanding this phobia.

Cognitive-behavioral perspective

Theophobia may be a consequence of the association between God or religion with prior aversive, painful, or unpleasant stimuli. For example, punishments, traumatic events, etc. As a result, the sufferer learns to fear God, because they don’t want to relive those unpleasant experiences again.

However, these associations aren’t the only explanation for theophobia. In fact, it’s also been suggested that it may be the product of learning from experiences lived by other people (vicarious learning). For instance, the sufferer, as a child, may have lived with a relative who had an ingrained irrational fear of God. Hence, through observation, they learned the same fear.

Other explanations that have been formulated about the development and maintenance of specific phobias, such as theophobia, are based on the style of thought. In phobias, they become distorted as a result of a disturbed internal dialogue. In the case of theophobia, based on certain religious or divine experiences, the sufferer builds a story or dialogue that feeds an unfounded fear of God.

Biopsychosocial perspective

From this perspective, the cause of theophobia lies in a high vulnerability to situations of serious stress.  Consequently, sufferers respond with alarm reactions (fear or panic attacks) and with a characteristic attributional style of uncontrollable thoughts and unpredictability.

These responses depend on genetic vulnerability, availability of social support, and the presence of certain personality characteristics. For example, coping skills, sensitivity to anxiety and disgust, and negative attitudes. To a certain extent, they’re the product of the educational style of the sufferer’s attachment figures (Bados, 2017).

The phobic’s learning experiences force their biological and psychological vulnerability to focus on specific objects. In fact, fear is a product of the interaction between the biological, psychological, and social environment or upbringing. Therefore, a predisposition or biological reason alone isn’t a direct cause of fear. It requires contextual factors to activate it.

Intervention

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a good option to treat specific phobias, such as theophobia. Let’s take a look at some of its techniques that can be extremely useful in these cases.

Cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring focuses on decreasing false beliefs about God and religion. Those that cause behavioral disturbance and increase more functional beliefs. In the company of a therapist, the sufferer learns to identify and question their maladaptive thoughts. They then replace them with more appropriate ones.

Thoughts are considered to be mere hypotheses about reality. Hence, both the therapist and the sufferer work to collect data that determines the validity or falsity of said hypotheses. To do this, the therapist designs questions and behavioral experiments. They allow the sufferer to evaluate and test their dysfunctional thoughts.

Systematic desensitization

The standardized systematic desensitization procedure includes four fundamental steps (López et al., 2012). These are:

  • Jacobson’s progressive relaxation training.
  • Construction of the hierarchy of anxiety-generating stimuli.
  • Assessment and practice in imagination.
  • Desensitization process. Combined application of anxiety responses vs. relaxation.

The procedure consists of imagining the first stimulus on the list (the least anxiogenic) and performing the Jacobson relaxation technique with it. Then, the same is done with each stimulus until reaching the ones that provoke the most anxiety.

Worried girl in psychological therapy
Systematic desensitization makes the patient get used to the phobic stimulus and can reduce its physiological manifestation.

Exposure technique

This technique has been widely used and is recognized as more effective than desensitization. However, the latter may be a good option for the sufferer to begin to get used to the object of their anxiety before being exposed to it in a live situation.

Live exposure consists of making direct contact with the anxiogenic or unpleasant stimulus. For instance, in the case of theophobia, they’d be religious temples, God, spiritual cults, etc. The basic idea is that the sufferer stays in contact with the feared stimulus until their anxiety is reduced (Fernández, García, & Crespo, 2012).

Finally, theophobia is a rare specific phobia. Nevertheless, it can seriously affect the life of the sufferer since they’re constantly exposed to the omnipresence of God. For this reason, they should consult a health professional. Indeed, a therapist will be able to prevent the phobia from continuing to affect their quality of life and well-being.

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