One day a man knocked on our door and handed my mother a pamphlet explaining that she was going to burn for eternity in hell. The drawings were graphic and the wording disturbed her. As she explained it, she read it from cover to cover in the bathroom and recited a prayer provided on the last page and found God.
I have no doubt my mother had a profound experience from that pamphlet because she has dedicated her entire life to serving the God of her understanding, and has helped thousands of people with her efforts. Good definitely came from that small pamphlet. Unfortunately, a lot of bad followed the experience for the rest of the family. God certainly was not responsible for any of it. I think a lot of things are done in the name of God … that God has nothing to do with…. so sad and so damaging!
When religion works well it is a beautiful life affirming experience that benefits everyone. When religion doesn’t…. the results are life changing and often destructive. Remember the guys that flew the planes on 9/11? They were taught 72 virgins were waiting for them on the other side…
Many people are harmed by toxic religions that damage them so intensely that nothing in life is balanced. These people are suffering with Religious Trauma Syndrome…
Marline Winell is a counselor who has worked for over 20 years with clients suffering from the aftermath of toxic religious experiences. Her website provides a lot of information that is helping to so many of that felt God was out to get us.
What exactly is religious trauma syndrome?
Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. The RTS label provides a name and description that affected people often recognize immediately. Many other people are surprised by the idea of RTS, because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. Just like telling kids about Santa Claus and letting them work out their beliefs later, people see no harm in teaching religion to children.
Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin 2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.
RTS can include depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning. In fundamentalist Christianity, the individual is considered depraved and in need of salvation. A core message is “You are bad and wrong and deserve to die.” (The wages of sin is death.)
Authoritarian religious groups are subcultures where conformity is required in order to belong. Thus if you dare to leave the religion, you risk losing your entire support system as well. Leaving a religion, after total immersion, can cause a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, and the future. People unfamiliar with this situation, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create.
Religious groups that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave easily. The difficulty seems to be greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert. This is because they have no frame of reference – no other “self” or way of “being in the world.” A common personality type is a person who is deeply emotional and thoughtful and who tends to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their endeavors. “True believers” who then lose their faith feel more anger and depression and grief than those who simply went to church on Sunday.
Aren’t these just people who would be depressed, anxious, or obsessive anyways?
Not at all. If my observation is correct, these are people who are intense and involved and caring. They hang on to the religion longer than those who simply “walk away” because they try to make it work even when they have doubts. Sometime this is out of fear, but often it is out of devotion. These are people for whom ethics, integrity and compassion matter a great deal. I find that when they get better and rebuild their lives, they are wonderfully creative and energetic about new things.
RTS is a specific set of symptoms and characteristics that are connected with harmful religious experience, not just any trauma. This is crucial to understanding the condition and any kind of self-help or treatment.
Another difference is the social context, which is extremely different from other traumas or forms of abuse. When someone is recovering from domestic abuse, for example, other people understand and support the need to leave and recover. They don’t question it as a matter of interpretation, and they don’t send the person back for more. But this is exactly what happens to many former believers who seek counseling. If a provider doesn’t understand the source of the symptoms, he or she may send a client for pastoral counseling, or to AA, or even to another church.
What’s the difference between religion that causes trauma and religion that doesn’t?
Religion causes trauma when it is highly controlling and prevents people from thinking for themselves and trusting their own feelings. Groups that demand obedience and conformity produce fear, not love and growth. With constant judgment of self and others, people become alienated from themselves, each other, and the world. Religion in its worst forms causes separation.
Groups that connect people and promote self-knowledge and personal growth can be said to be healthy. Such groups put high value on respecting differences, and members feel empowered as individuals. They provide social support, a place for events and rites of passage, exchange of ideas, inspiration, and opportunities for service, and connection to social causes. They encourage spiritual practices that promote health like meditation or principles for living like the golden rule.
You can stop the cycle of abuse, but leaving the faith is a “mixed blessing.” Letting go of the need to conform is a huge relief. There is a sense of freedom, excitement about information and new experiences, new-found self-respect, integrity, and the sense of an emerging identity.
There are huge challenges. The psychological damage does not go away overnight. In fact, because the phobia indoctrination in young childhood is so powerful, the fear of hell can last a lifetime despite rational analysis. Likewise the damage to self-esteem and basic self-trust can be crippling. This is why there are so many thousands of walking wounded – people who have left fundamentalist religion and are living with Religious Trauma Syndrome.
There is hope for anyone living with Religious Trauma Syndrome through cognitive behavioral therapy. Finding a therapist trained to recognize and treat an individual suffering from RTS is difficult is not always easy. A tremendous amount of information is available online and is free… that seems like a great place to start for problem so severe. Recovery begins by recognizing there is a problem and seeking a solution.