When Religion Becomes Traumatic
Religion is largely recognized as being beneficial to the lives of humans. It can help us make sense of the world by answering the big questions of life. Religion can also bring comfort, healing and a sense of safety from a traumatic world.
So…what happens when it’s religion itself that is the source of distress and trauma?
Researchers have studied harm and abuse inside cults for years, but these environments were usually differentiated from mainline religious groups. With new reports of abuse and trauma coming out of Christian churches in recent years, people are looking deeper at the similarity between high-control Christian groups and cults, and when affinity to doctrine crosses a line and becomes dangerous.
Increasingly, researchers, clinicians and survivors are calling this religious trauma.
When I first began researching this topic I felt uneasy about using such a strong term. After all, not all religion inflicts trauma. Even within the same denominations or churches, people experience religion differently, similar to when two people go off to war and only one develops PTSD.
But, after learning about complex trauma and listening to dozens of stories through research interviews, I have come to believe that religious trauma is definitely something that is bringing harm to a great deal of people.
Dr. Marlene Winell was the first person to use the term Religious Trauma Syndrome to describe the wide array of emotional issues people face as they leave authoritarian religions; psychological harm including fear, anger, depression, loss of self, agency and decision-making.
After her own experience coming out of fundamentalism, Winell began to notice similar issues with her therapy patients and has focused her entire practice on helping victims and training other professionals in how to work with religious trauma ever since..
Religious trauma is different from spiritual abuse, though it can include abuse. Instead of a specific acts of abuse, it refers to the overlying religious system that is characterized by captivity, psychological domination and results in an erosion of the personality, characteristics of Complex PTSD outlined by Judith Herman in her groundbreaking work, Trauma and Recovery.
Herman introduces the concept of complex trauma that goes beyond single event-driven experiences to include prolonged and repeated events that create a psychological impact of subordination inside institutional, political and domestic systems.
When looking through Herman’s prism of captivity, domination and personality erosion, there is a clear connection between the symptoms of religious trauma and complex PTSD.
For Herman, complex trauma takes place in captivity where individuals are in a prison of sorts and under the control of a perpetrator. Perpetrators might be a parent, partner, leader, organization, government, or even God who becomes the dominant force in the life of the victim and shapes her world and her identity.
People can be held captive without bars, windows, or guns through psychological tactics or economic forces. This type of coercion can show up in obvious ways such as in governmental or police states, but also in more subtle ways inside families and religious institutions.
Inside a system of captivity, perpetrators exert domination through techniques designed to disempower and disconnect individuals from themselves and others. Often in religion, the tactics include Biblical literalism, fear, and shame. The subtle nature of this domination is what makes it so pervasive and dangerous because it allows people who wouldn’t otherwise condone violence or abuse to dismiss it or turn a blind eye
Erosion of Personality
The result of captivity and psychological domination is a perversion of identity where there is a loss of self and helplessness, passivity, entrapment to the past, intractable depression, somatic complaints and smoldering anger.
“People subjected to prolonged, repeated trauma develop an insidious, progressive form of post-traumatic stress disorder that invades and erodes the personality. While a victim of chronic trauma may feel after the event that he is ‘not herself’, the victim of chronic trauma may feel herself be changed irrevocably, or she may lose the sense that she has any self at all.”
In my research, I heard story after story from people who felt this profound identity loss or distortion coming out of Christian fundamentalism.
Connecting the Dots
Herman’s categories of captivity, psychological domination, and the erosion of personality are evident in Marlene Winell’s descriptions of religious trauma indicated in the chart below
Religious Trauma Resources
The field of religious trauma is exploding and new resources are constantly being created. For more information or to connect with a professional, you can access these religious trauma resources.
Almendros, Carmen, Manuel Gámez-Guadix, Álvaro Rodríguez-Carballeira, and José Antonio Carrobles. “Assessment of psychological abuse in manipulative groups.” International Journal of Cultic Studies 2 (2011).
Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
Winell, Marlene. Leaving the Fold. Apocryphile Press, 2001.