The opening paragraph of my upcoming novel includes a sentence that fell from my fingers one firey afternoon. I’d been writing on a tear and words were pouring out of me uncensored. I wrote, “One doesn’t expect to meet their abuser at church. And if you’re wondering if I mean my ex-husband or God, I wasn’t sure which one I meant either.”
I stared at the words. In the seven years of work on my story as a memoir, I’d always danced around the core truth that I was angry at God. I wouldn’t even let myself think it. I was angry with pastors. I was angry at teachings and ideas. But using my story to inform a fictional character’s world unhinged the door I’d pressed closed my whole life and it blew open before me. I panted, my heart and mind ablaze.
After all, there is a reason why I chose a patriarchal abuser for a husband and stayed in a toxic relationship for fourteen years. It didn’t just happen out of nowhere. What if my idea of God was actually the root of the problems? The problem of my low self-worth. The problem of missing boundaries. The problem of believing love has to hurt in order to be real. The problem that if I don’t work hard to please the people I’m in relationships with, I’ll suffer and burn for all eternity?
I suddenly knew the question was more than the story of how I was excommunicated––and my panic attacks at church were about more than being an introvert standing in a crowd. There was a hell of a lot more going on inside of me.
What is Religious Trauma?
Religious trauma is deeply distressing damage caused by authoritarian and dogmatic indoctrination that results in terror, helplessness, or horror, and a distorted view of self, identity, and worth. These repressive religious environments are often coupled with emotional, mental, physical or sexual abuse. The traumatic impact is long-lasting and invasive, altering the trajectory of emotional development and the social functioning of an otherwise healthy person.
Leaving the flock adds enormous stress, as well as feelings of abandonment and alienation. The adjustment to a new life without their social system can be a shock. Sheltered people who’ve been taught to fear the secular world often struggle to find the independent thinking, confidence, and resilience needed to rebuild their lives.
Deconstruction is Ongoing and Multi-layered. So is Healing.
This happens all the time:
A friend at work casually mentions an Old Testament reference and we realize we have something in common: religious trauma. We’re exchanging stories of the nightmare-feeding stories we heard as young children:
- Vivid depictions of blood sacrifice
- Eternal damnation in hell, with lakes of fire illustrated in our Bibles for Children
- The screaming mothers of Isreal over the slaughter of the innocents (also illustrated. My bible had two paintings of infants being sliced by swords. King Solomon in the old testament and Roman soldiers in the New)
- Graphic abortion videos designed to scare us into chastity
- Constant fear our loved ones would be raptured but we’d be left behind
We trade stories of sweaty summer camp sessions. For him, its anxiety and pressure to fit in by speaking in tongues while people around him are slayed in the spirit. For me, it’s shrinking down in my chair as sweaty red-faced preachers scream at us to avoid sexual practices I’d still wouldn’t have heard of as a young kid, even now with porn online. I feel dirty, afraid, confused.
We were children. We weren’t allowed to watch R movies. But six days a week, we went to church.
Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is Religious Trauma at its Most Severe
The severity of RTS ranges and depends on a number of factors. Persons most at risk of RTS are those who were:
- raised in their religion,
- sheltered from the rest of the world,
- very sincerely and personally involved, and/or
- from a very controlling form of religion.
The sheltering. For kids raised in controlling forms of religion, the world is portrayed as a scary place. A threatening place. We have to watch where we look. What we hear. Who we talk to. Get in. Witness. Try to get them to pray the prayer. Then get out. Those people are not your friends unless they come to church with you and get saved.
And there was systematic paranoia when it came to influence. Our job was to stand out. Stand alone. Throughout highschool, I carried my bible on top of my books and avoided getting into conversations with “lost kids” unless it could be steered so that I could lead them to Christ. All of their ideas were dangerous.
Women with jobs outside of the home
Women who led men
Catholics (not really Christians)
Science (Leads to evolution)
This means I became a fully-grown adult before I knew how to analyze true danger. Ideas aren’t harmful, but people sure can be. The best place for a dangerous person to hide? Among the sheep. As long as said individual can walk like a duck and talk like a duck, he’s a duck. He’s safe.
Church trauma isn’t native to one religious group or denomination. But traumatizing environments do have some common core doctrines.
The first key doctrine is eternal damnation or annihilation for all unbelievers. This is the terrifying backdrop for the salvation message presented to all newcomers and all children born into the faith. Eternal torture. Lakes of fire. Outer darkness. Separation. Salvation is available, yes, but it’s not enough to ward off anxiety. What if it doesn’t take? What if the prayer wasn’t right? What if we’re not good enough? What if we don’t even claim grace hard enough?
Second to the doctrine of hell, the other most toxic teaching in fundamentalist churches is that of ‘original sin’. Human depravity is a constant theme of fundamentalist theology and no matter what is said about the saving grace of Jesus, children (and adults) internalize feelings of being evil and inadequate. We’re worms, worthless and filthy rags. But we need to be saved. But we’re so awful we’re barely worth saving.
A believer can never be good enough and goes through a cycle of sin, guilt, and salvation similar to the cycle of abuse in domestic violence. When they say they have a ‘personal relationship’ with God, they are referring to one of total dominance and submission, and they are convinced that they should be grateful for this kind of ‘love’. Like an authoritarian husband, this deity is an all-powerful, ruling male whose word is law. The sincere follower ‘repents’ and ‘rededicates’, which produces a temporary reprieve of anxiety and perhaps a period of positive affect. This intermittent reinforcement is enough to keep the cycle of abuse in place. Like a devoted wife, the most sincere believers get damaged the most. Compound this with an actual abusive spouse and actual domestic violence and what you have is the opening of my book. A woman who can’t tell if her abuser is her husband or God himself.
Fundamentalist theology is also damaging to intellectual development in that it explicitly warns against trusting one’s own mind while requiring belief in far-fetched claims. Believers are not allowed to question dogma without endangering themselves.
Critical thinking skills are under-valued. Emotions and intuitions are also considered suspect so children learn not to trust their own feelings. With external authority the only permissible guide, they grow up losing touch with inner instincts so necessary for decision making and moral development.Excerpts from ‘Religious Trauma Syndrome’ by Dr. Marlene Winell on BABcp.com
When do disturbing teachings in your childhood become traumatizing?
As I researched religious trauma, I came to understand a few defining aspects of it better. I began to recognize where I’d numbed myself against pain and thought. Where I’d disassociated from my feelings. What I saw explained the cumulative mindset that led me to co-dependancy, wishful thinking, willfully ignoring dangerous traits in others so that I could “save” or “fix” them, and accepting an abusive relationship as the love I felt I deserved.
The kind of religion that causes damage is that which requires rigid conformity in order to survive in the group or have hope for the afterlife. Such a fundamentalist religion has a closed system of logic and a strong social structure to support an authoritarian worldview. It can be a comfortable environment as long as a member does not question.
Children learn very early to repress independent thinking and not to trust their own feelings. For truth, believers rely on external authority – Scripture and religious leaders.EXCERPTS FROM ‘RELIGIOUS TRAUMA SYNDROME’ BY DR. MARLENE WINELL ON BABCP.COM
This was a continual rub for me as a child. Besides often being terrified by what I was learning, I also liked to turn ideas over in my mind. I’ve always written and daydreamed. I questioned, in my mind and out loud. Leadership often reprimanded me––both the principal who spanked me for tearing a corner out of a picture in my bible (you are defiling God’s word) and the pastor who excommunicated me and led the call to formally shun me, when I blogged (in my own name rather than my husband’s) about a book I’d read on Eastern Orthodoxy and Mary.
Church kids were my first friends. They were my youth group, the people I spent every school break with skiing, camping, singing, and touring. My entire world was church. “It can be a comfortable environment as long as a member does not question.”
Once I vocalized and wrote down my questions, everything upended. My eternity. My safety as a parent. My friend group. How I was perceived by people who’d known me my entire life. My children’s friends’ parents didn’t always like me or want me around their kids.
My religious group required rigid conformity and I was unable to keep it up. They prophesied my doom. I’d fallen away. Backslidden. As a result, it would cost me almost everything.
I went on living my life. I changed many outward behaviors, especially in my religious practices. That’s not how trauma works though. Unattended, the damage manifested in symptoms and interfered in my healing, progress, and new relationships.
Key dysfunctions in RTS are:
Cognitive: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociation, identity confusion
Affective: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, anger, grief, guilt, loneliness, lack of meaning
Functional: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatization
Social/cultural: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction
Leaving their religion means debilitating anxiety, depression, grief, and anger. Usually people begin with intellectually letting go of their religious beliefs and then struggle with the emotional aspects. The cognitive part is difficult enough and often requires a period of study and struggle before giving up one’s familiar and perhaps cherished worldview. But the emotional letting go is much more difficult since the beliefs are bound with deep-seated needs and fears, and usually inculcated at a young age.
EXCERPTS FROM ‘RELIGIOUS TRAUMA SYNDROME’ BY DR. MARLENE WINELL ON BABCP.COM
Problems with self-worth and fear of terrible punishment continue. Virtually all controlling religions teach fear about the evil in ‘the world’ and the danger of being alone without the group. Ordinary setbacks can cause panic attacks, especially when one feels like a small child in a very foreign world. Coming out of a sheltered, repressed environment can result in a lack of coping skills and personal maturity. The phobia indoctrination makes it difficult to avoid the stabbing thought, even many years after leaving, that one has made a terrible mistake, thinking ‘what if they’re right?’
My co-worker mentioned nostalgia. “I try to avoid reading too much on it, although I know it would be enlightening. More often than not, I go down nostalgia wormholes on youtube.”
I knew what he meant. The megachurch where I grew up is collapsing on itself. They are selling off eleven city blocks and there’s talk of buildings imploding. The feelings this news stirs in me is like watching an abusive parent go to jail. My thoughts are contrasts.
I love that church. I hate what it did to me. I love what did it for me. I understand why my parents brought me there. I understand why they stayed. I go down wormholes on youtube as well, sentimental about my years in the music ministry, sitting on stage in the orchestra, the friends I loved there. I know there were many, many people who serve that church from a place of love. But that church led to two others after it more extreme in their teachings and I have certainly been harmed. It’s difficult to extract oneself from fundamentalism and belief structures without unraveling personal relationships with people still inside.
Leaving has been an extended divorce. Sometimes, more like a death. Traumatic experiences shatter basic assumptions, beliefs, and feelings of safety. I am surrounded by triggers because I both go to a new church and have a family that attends the church where I grew up. I’ve raised children in the traditions. I’m expected to enjoy, facilitate, and celebrate the holidays the way we always have. A snip of a hymn can bring on a heaving panic attack. There are years lost from my list of friends, from when I was excommunicated and shunned. And when I listen to the stories of others, I realize how comparatively easy I have it. My employment is not affected. My family is responsive and kind. I have more honest and authentic relationships now than I’ve ever had before.
It’s been helpful for me to address religious trauma in my sessions with my therapist. For years, I resisted bringing it up, downplaying the importance of what climate led to the choices and consequences I was living with post-divorce. Once we started EMDR therapy for trauma related to Domestic Violence, it became impossible to ignore the religious roots. I’m thankful for the work we’ve done and that I can finally talk and write about it freely.
Religious Trauma is finally getting air time. There are hashtags and devoted accounts on Instagram, therapists, and survivors leading the charge. Stories are coming out and tribes are forming. Spiritual practices and footing are being found. I know in my own life, I’m carving out a spiritual practice that heals, comforts, and seeks wisdom. I pray and listen in gratitude. I’m able to look back now and see the beauty in parts of my experience without pain. It wasn’t all bad. And, it wasn’t all good. It seems Health is being able to look at it all and know the difference.