Religious Trauma

We all need connection with ourselves, others, and deeper meaning. Many religious traditions can facilitate meeting these needs. My clinical interest in religious trauma stems from growing up in a tradition that prescribed a rigid understanding of deeper meaning, and often required us to sacrifice connection to ourselves and others. The theologian Paul Tillich said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.” I first encountered this concept in Ann Lamott’s writing, which I read as an Evangelical teenager. It stopped me in my tracks. In the worldview of my childhood, faith and certainty were synonymous. There were right beliefs and wrong beliefs, and the more certain you could be of your right beliefs, the better.

As a child, I was taught to “trust in the Lord with all [my] heart, and lean not on [my] own understanding.” In practice, following this precept within my community meant trusting in the teachings (and teachers) of my church and disregarding my own intuition when they conflicted. I learned my physical body—my flesh, as opposed to my spirit—wanted to pull me away from God and into depravity. (The perfectly ordinary onset of sexual urges accompanying puberty felt like confirmation of my flesh’s deviance.) I was encouraged to avoid close friendships with nonbelievers, and to be skeptical of moral teaching by anyone without the correct Evangelical Protestant pedigree. The threat of eternal torture in hell scared me into compliance. I developed a habit of rejecting and suppressing the rich intuitions of my mind and body. I also categorized people within my religious tradition as trustworthy, and people outside of it as untrustworthy. I figured any member of my community would be familiar with Jesus’s admonition that it would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around your neck than to mislead children. 

I was convinced my church had a monopoly on spiritual truth and morality. The church was my moral compass, and I felt I would be completely lost without it, since without the right beliefs I would be just another depraved, evil, weak sinner. When cracks began to form in the foundation of my faith, I was terrified. I prayed and prayed I wouldn’t lose my faith, afraid I would become monstrous in this life and damned in the next. (I did not receive the answer I hoped for. It was painful at the time, but worked out eventually.)

In many ways, I was fortunate: my naïve trust of other Evangelicals never led to abuse or exploitation; my family did not reject me when I left the faith; and I had a community of friends outside of Evangelicalism (who, through their love for me, showed they were not the boogeymen my youth pastor had implied). But I was still harmed by the coercive, fear- and shame-based teachings I was immersed in at my Evangelical church, K-8 school, and summer camp; and leaving my religious community and belief system was still a complicated loss.

Marlene Winell, PhD, who coined the term, defines Religious Trauma Syndrome as, “a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community” (journeyfree.org). I believe it is easier for a clinician who has directly experienced a transition out of a harmful religious community to understand the myriad ways religious trauma can impact a person’s life and functioning. My own experiences have led me to be passionate about this topic. My reading and research into others’ experiences have shown me there is increasing awareness of religious trauma and harmful religious environments. That said, it remains easier to find a religious therapist (e.g., someone who offers Christian counseling) than to find a therapist who works with religious trauma. I hope to do my part to change this.

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