Prefer to watch? Below is the full interview with special guest Caitlin Harrison that served as the original inspiration for this article.
Religion has always played an important role in many communities. Some people find comfort and peace in religion, while others cling to the hope it provides when tragedy occurs. Religion was meant to bring people together, provide a safe space for like-minded individuals that have a shared belief system, and create rituals to encourage togetherness, the feeling of belonging, and unity.
However, things take a turn for the worse when religion becomes indoctrination. This is when religion forgoes its original purpose of providing love and hope and becomes a reason for psychological and physical abuse. When members of a congregation experience a loss of sense of autonomy, shame associated with their emotions, and a constant fear of punishment from a religious leader, parent, guardian, or even the divine itself, religion turns into a source of trauma and mental disorders.
What are the causes of religious trauma?
Religious trauma is the result of different experiences that occur in a religious community, within a church, or spiritual community that exposes the members to indoctrination messages, coercion, humiliation, embarrassment, and abuse. Here are some of the instances that may lead to religious trauma:
- Exposure to religious leaders who insist on being the only source of authority in the life of congregants and base their preaching on cultivating fear and shame
- A religious institution that requires financial participation or sacrifice for members to access blessings or eternal life from a god or deity
- Individuals in positions of power who force members to participate in religious ceremonies or use fear of hell or punishment to earn their abnegation
- Suppression of normal child development through limited access to information and the teaching of dysfunctional beliefs
- Stifling independent thinking and creating self-doubt, to diminish the agency of members
- Victimization through physical and/or sexual abuse, as well as constant exposure to unhealthy sexual views and applying punishment to achieve discipline, obedience, and purity of soul
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What are the symptoms of religious trauma?
Religious trauma manifests in different forms, and just like with any other type of trauma, it needs to be acknowledged before it can be treated. The support of therapists with knowledge in the field of trauma-informed care is essential for the well-being and health of religious trauma survivors who often find themselves experiencing symptoms like:
Cognitive deficiencies – confusion, perfectionism, lack of self-confidence and self-respect, and difficulty with decision-making skills.
Emotional challenges – anger, difficulty with pleasure, overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame, lethargy, anxiety disorders, and depression.
Social obstacles – difficulty forming healthy relationships, sexual difficulty, loss of social network, sense of isolation, and impeded social development.
PTSD symptoms – nightmares, panic attacks, fear, flashbacks, dissociation, etc.
What is religious trauma syndrome?
Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a consequence of religious trauma. While it is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it’s a term that has been gaining traction. RTS manifests in most people who have suffered religious abuse or have been exposed to dysfunctional beliefs due to their religious affiliation.
People struggling with RTS are usually individuals who have left a dogmatic religion or have abandoned a belief system that led to their indoctrination. This major step marks the beginning of their new life outside a controlling environment or religious figure and opens the door to freedom, but also to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Finding themselves in a world without an “official” leader and guidance, where they need to rely on their own independent thinking, people with RTS are often exposed to a roller-coaster of emotions where the beatitude and excitement of being free alternate with an overwhelming state of fear, grief, rage, panic attacks, and depression.
The effects of religious trauma
Religious trauma can emotionally paralyze an individual and significantly impact their mental health. Authoritarian religions equip individuals with a set of negative beliefs that have no practical use in the real world. Furthermore, religious beliefs founded on emotional and physical abuse may continue to impact lives for a long time after the individuals have found the strength to release themselves from the yoke of damaging spiritual beliefs and traumatic religious experiences.
The effects of religious trauma may make their presence felt in different aspects of life. From the feeling that they don’t belong in the real world and the belief they are detached from everything that happens culturally around them to the constant guilt, shame, and fear that rule supreme. People who have experienced religious trauma may face an avalanche of emotions.
While people suffering from RTS may feel relieved and hopeful to be free of the religious dogma, they may continue to feel ostracized by the community they left behind and experience a constant fear of being punished by the superior being they used to worship.
The impact of religious trauma on LGBTQ individuals
The contradictory emotions brought on by religious trauma are often experienced by members of the LGBTQ community. The members of this community who have been raised or exposed to toxic religious beliefs may find themselves stuck in shame, rejection, and fear of divine damnation. Some folks may even be forced into conversion therapy which can cause long damaging effects. It has been proven that this unethical treatment is ineffective and harmful. Toxic indoctrination can be overcome with the help of mental health professionals, but it requires work and the belief that while the road ahead is long, you have the tools you need to conquer all obstacles.
Some LGTBQ people find a way to overcome fear and shame by rejecting organized religion and learning to accept and love themselves exactly as they are. Others find different faith communities that cherish their individuality and refrain from judging or using fear and shame as weapons. Whether they choose to lose their faith or embrace healthy spiritual beliefs, the damage of religious trauma will continue to linger if they do not take the time to process it accordingly.
If you need help processing the nightmares, fear, and guilt associated with the negative conditioning left behind from religious trauma, working together with your therapist can be immensely helpful. It will give you access to the necessary tools to learn to internalize love, detach yourself from dogma, overcome mental illness, and find a new path towards emotional, mental, and spiritual balance.
Resources for Folx Wanting Support and Community
- Reclamation Collective is the Instagram I mentioned (@reclamationcollective) and their website is helpful too, with links for support groups and other resources. Reclamationcollective.com
- Secular Therapy: Online Directory of Therapists who utilized non-religious methods Seculartherapy.org
- Recovering from Religion has a peer support line: Recoveringfromreligion.org
- Post-Mormon Mental Health: Postmormoncoaching.com
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety: Sossobriety.org
- Black Nonbelievers: empowers and supports Blacks living free from faith. Blacknonbelievers.org
- Hispanic American Freethinkers is an informal social group in an effort to attract and educate Hispanic Americans about critical thinking skills, skepticism, and the questioning of supernatural claims.Hafree.org
- A conversation exploring the intersection of Religious Trauma, Race, and Politics with Suandria Hall, LPCC and Anthony Pinn, PhD: Religioustraumainstitute.com
Books on Religious Trauma written by White authors:
- Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein
- Taking Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich & Madeleine Tobias
Books on Religious Trauma written by BIPOC authors:
- Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
- Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma by Teresa B. Pasquale
- Religious Experience in Trauma: Koreans’ Collective Complex of Inferiority and the Korean Protestant Church by Kwangyu Lee
- What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey & Bruce D Perry
Books on Religious Trauma written by Queer authors:
- Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith by Mihee Kim-Kort
- Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage (fictional novel; TW: rape, violent sex)
Books on Religious Trauma outside of Christianity:
- Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deobrah Feldman
- When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life by Jon Ogden
- Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch
- Leaving Buddha: A Tibetan Monk’s Encounter with the Living God by by Tenzin Lahkpa & Eugene Bach
Books on Religious Trauma and Sexual Healing:
- Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms by Matthias Roberts
- Sex, God, and the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy by Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers
- Shameless: A Case for Not Feeling Bad about Feeling Good (about Sex) by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Books on Religious Trauma and pursuing non-religion afterwards:
- Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion by Phil Zuckerman
- Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism by Philip Kitcher
- Latter-Day Lesbian: an ex-Mormon gay woman who tackles religious trauma and later-in-life LGBTQ issues with her friend.
- This Little Light of Mine is an LGBTQ+ tale of terror (growing up as a closeted Gay Christian in the Evangelical church) that led to trauma (cPTSD, religious trauma, spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, addiction) to what I intend to become triumph.
- Marie, Myself, & I: Marie LePage D’Elephant talks about neurodivergence, ethical non-monogamy, sexuality, religious trauma, secular spirituality, and all things deconstructive.
- Heal Religious Trauma: Religious Trauma Syndrome is real! And with it comes symptoms of PTSD and CPTSD, ranging anywhere from mild to severe. Join Advanced Life Coach, NLP Practitioner and Hypnotherapist Stevie Noah (a religious trauma survivor) as she navigates the challenges and helps other survivors heal and reinvent their lives!
- Queer After Religion: The QAR Podcast seeks to celebrate the incredible stories of queer people who have left authoritarian religion and are finding a new way. Ex-religious and former fundamentalist host, Derek Matthew Miller, offers up intimate questions and topics for his guests as they discuss the intersection of religion and queerness, life lessons, and how to find peace, love, and progress through it all.
- Dirty Rotten Church Kids: Millennial dads figuring out life, art and culture on the other side of the evangelical bubble