Religious belief provides meaning, joy and peace to many people. But others find religion oppressive and feel the need to escape. This can leave them traumatised.
Psychologists and therapists have studied religious trauma and assist “victims” to escape and be at peace. There is much we christians can learn from this.
Religious trauma has led many to give up their faith, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to retain what is good and true in faith and leave behind that is harmful.
If you are suffering from religious trauma, I pray you are finding peace. I have listed some sources of support here.
Fear, mental health and panic attacks
Religion was everything in Ana’s childhood. Her family attended a conservative evangelical church, and she was home-schooled using a conservative christian curriculum that taught young earth creationism. Her social life was church and youth group.
For a while she was in a relationship with a man who pressed her into various sexual activities that avoided actual intercourse. She felt guilty, but he insisted it wasn’t condemned in the Bible. She became traumatised by this abusive relationship, and was confused about her identity.
While she was attending a christian college, Ana went through a process of questioning her christian beliefs. By the time she graduated, she no longer believed a lot of what she had been taught.
After Ana was married, she started to attend her husband’s church. But she found herself experiencing a panic attack as she approached the church, and at other times, including when the pastor made a joke about the role of women in church. Her body was reacting to being in “evangelical spaces”. And she found she had problems relating to her husband sexually, because of her upbringing within “purity culture”.
Finally Ana found a therapist who had experience in addressing religious trauma. She is now much more at peace, but isn’t sure any more about her belief in God.
Ana’s story highlights several aspects of religious trauma.
What is religious trauma?
“Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” (American Psychological Association)
“Religious Trauma Syndrome is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination.” (Marlene Winell) Their experience of religion has been extremely negative, and it leaves them hurt or emotionally scarred.
I discuss here trauma perpetrated in christian churches. Other religious groups, even yoga classes, can be the place of similar problems. Cults can be even worse.
Causes of religious trauma
There are many different causes of religious trauma, some of them originating in childhood. Some trauma is caused by leaving a faith community and losing the support that it provided, while other trauma is caused by having to stay. Most damaging are churches with a strongly taught and enforced dogmatic approach which doesn’t encourage people to think for themselves.
Hell and judgment
Speaking about suffering and judgment, especially everlasting torment, can be very traumatic, especially for children.
- Nick said on Twitter: “Yeah my fear of hell and the devil directly influenced a lot of the mental health problems I battle today. It might not be the same for everyone, but I truly would have rather grown up in an atheist family.”
- The urgency to evangelise to prevent people going to hell is also traumatic for many.
- Keith Mascord and others have reported that thinking about so many people drowning in Noah’s flood was traumatic to them as children.
- Fear of an imminent return of Jesus, together with the Rapture and apocalypse, is scary for some. If their parents are away, some children fear Jesus may have returned and they missed out.
Sex and gender
Sexual and gender issues are among the most common causes of religious trauma.
- Sexual abuse in some parts of the christian church has been well documented, and has been immensely traumatic for some, even leading to suicide. If the abuser is a church leader, the victim may speak up but not be believed.
- An Australian woman married an Anglican priest and experienced controlling behaviour, lack of respect and sexual abuse from her husband before she finally left him. Destitute and homeless with a young child, she received no help from the church, while he was supported. Unfortunately this isn’t an isolated case.
- One woman said: “I was in a hotel with my babies fleeing a violent outburst from my husband ; my pastor told me to go home and submit.”
- Some churches have very strict attitudes to sexual expression – not just advocating celibacy before marriage, but enforcing this ethic in ways that are hurtful. Many people who feel traumatised by religion point the finger at “purity culture“.
- This report says: “Some churches weaponize scripture and religion to do very deep damage on the psyche. Gay, lesbian and trans people are told that God condemns them, unwed mothers that they are living in sin, and many natural human desires are deemed evil.”
Sexual abuse by a church leader can often have worse impacts on the victim than other forms of sexual abuse, because of the sense of betrayal by a trusted religious figure.
Patriarchy, excessive discipline and controlling behaviour
In the past few years there have been several high profile examples of authoritarian church leaders causing havoc in their churches for lengths of time before finally being removed from leadership for this type of abuse.
But even when violent or sexual abuse doesn’t occur, patriarchal and controlling attitudes can lead to emotional and spiritual abuse. Husbands can be insensitive in demanding sex from wives. Ministers and husbands can exercise power over women in ways that can be psychologically damaging. Women can feel stifled or demeaned, and lose confidence.
Marcus McNeely ended up leaving a church that prohibited watching TV, going to the movies and wearing jewelry. The leader demanded absolute obedience and bullied Mr. McNeely from the pulpit. “I became sick because of stress, depressed and paranoid,” Mr. McNeely said.
Some children have experienced trauma after being beaten or humiliated because they failed to learn Bible verses or misbehaved.
Far right politics
Far right politics, white supremacy and christian nationalism can lead to religious trauma in two ways.
- Patriarchal and sexist attitudes and domestic abuse are more likely in men with far right political beliefs.
- Many women (and men too!) cannot believe in a form of christianity that seems to encourage violence, racism, sexism and misogyny. The rise of far right politics in America during the presidency of Donald Trump alienated many women, causing them to want to leave their conservative churches. Many left (it is estimated that 20% of US evangelicals left the church during the Trump presidency), while others who stayed felt betrayed.
A growing number of christians are finding it impossible to keep on believing what they have been taught. Many “deconstruct” their faith – review their entire belief system to determine what is still believable. Some quit identifying as a christian, others take on much more progressive or liberal beliefs.
Either way, the process can be traumatic, especially if it requires leaving a church that had been “home”, and even more so if the members of church or family are not sympathetic. Worst of all can be when a church actively discriminates against the person who leaves, perhaps employing a process such as “shunning” or “withdrawal”, when members of the church, even close family, are told to avoid contact with the one departing.
The effects of religious trauma
It is distressing to know that religious abuse is experienced frequently enough to have been given its own name. Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is group of symptoms that arise in response to traumatic or stressful religious experiences.
These symptoms, which can be as severe as the post traumatic stress disorder suffered by combat soldiers, can last for years:
- self doubt, low self esteem and a feeling of not being good enough
- feelings of social inadequacy
- sense of condemnation and shame
- panic attacks and nightmares
- many reject their previous belief – some are further traumatised by this but others find it a relief
- those who wanted to leave but stayed in their church tend to be more traumatised than those who leave.
The trauma can lead to many different outcomes:
- Women who have been traumatised by excessive and legalistic emphasis on sexual purity can find it difficult to enjoy sex when married because they have difficulty escaping the guilty thought that it is sinful.
- Churches provide important social relationships, and the loss of these can make life very difficult and lonely for some.
- Some christians are tempted to stay in an unhealthy situation because they don’t want to “go against God”.
- Many christians have been taught to be suspicious of therapy, so many are unwilling to seek help when their trauma results in stress and anxiety.
- Many people have to re-think their values, their life purpose and their priorities.
- Many victims feel betrayed, shamed or helpless.
How some churches deal with abuse
It is galling to report that many churches in the past have dealt with examples or claims of spiritual abuse in appalling ways. Churches naturally want to protect their good name, and so too often the victim is pressured to withdraw a complaint, the perpetrator (often a senior church official) is protected and the victim blamed and perhaps accused of tempting the male perpetrator. The victim may even be accused of having false memories.
These tactics apparently have a name, DARVO – Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. Abuse survivors say this response can sometimes be even more hurtful than the initial abuse.
If you experience religious trauma or abuse
It surely goes without saying that abuse of any sort, whether sexual, power, doctrinal, or whatever, shouldn’t be endured, and victims should seek support and help. One survivor of sexual abuse offered these guidelines:
- Trust yourself and your feelings. If the authorities try to undermine you, describe your experiences with a friend not in the situation. That will be a good guide.
- Get out and away asap. Make a clean break and cut off all contact with the abuser.
- Document evidence. This can be hard to do in the situation, but may be very helpful later.
- Build a support team. Find a small group of confidants, a doctor and a therapist.
- It is OK to take a break from church. Keep some christian contact, expect to have some doubts and don’t allow them to disturb you too much. And be wary of advice about forgiveness and returning to the church.
- Invest in private health insurance. Abuse symptoms can surface years later, and you may need psychiatric or other help.
- Consider reporting to police or denominational officials. Before making this decision, seek legal and counselling advice. Check out victims support services. If you were employed, workers’ compenation may be available.
Those who want to continue attending a church could consider the type of organisation that may better suit them. This website offers these suggestion to find a good church:
- Look for organisations with leadership that is horizontal, not vertical.
- Find a community that celebrates differences.
- Surround yourself with people who encourage you to form and process your own opinions about spirituality and your beliefs.
- Find safe people (counsellor/therapist, friend, family member, or a support group) to talk to and process.
Treatment for religious trauma
Trauma is the body’s and mind’s responses to hurtful experiences. Therefore victims can be assisted to respond differently and ameliorate the symptoms.
Many organisations and individuals offer psychotherapy and counselling for religious trauma victims. Some are explictly christian, some are anti-christian. Most would be non-judgmental about victims’ choices about continuing in christian faith, or not. Most would be sensitive and gentle in their approach. The best services would offer both medical and psychiatric evaluations.
- cognitive behavioural therapy to help with mental health, control negative thoughts and develop personal coping strategies;
- dialectical behavioral therapy focuses on validating one’s experience, stabilising emotions, and teaching how to cope with stress;
- interpersonal therapy (IPT) to help re-establish normal social relationships and roles in life;
- other therapies such as psychodynamic therapy, life skills, meditation;
- experiencing love and acceptance;
- discovering false beliefs and exploring new truths.
I have listed a number of services below, without in any way presuming to offer a recommendation. These links are offered simply to demonstrate the sorts of counselling available.
Lessons for churches
Churches and their members both need to be aware of, and address, the problem of religious trauma. This counselling service and this website offer these questions as a guide to determining if a church has abusive dynamics:
- Do the leaders hold all the authority? Do they avoid distributing power to other members of the congregation?
- Does your religious community discourage free thinking, critical thinking, or opinions about their messages?
- Does your community imply that you are less valuable or worthy of love because of things you cannot change? (i.e. gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, age, etc.)
- Do they put down other religions and belief systems in order to uphold their own?
- Do you find yourself feeling more guilt and shame instead of love and belonging?
- Do you find that doubts or disagreements are routinely named as “sin”?
One “yes” answer may not indicate a problem, but several may.
Churches need to develop protocols to reduce the occurrence of religious trauma and facilitate recognition of and dealing with problems, just as there are now procedures for children’s safety. Staff and members will need training, and churches should offer assistance for victims to receive counselling.
Churches will need consider some tricky issues:
- Encouraging strong commitment without abuse of authority.
- Enthusiasm without manipulation.
- Maintaining high standards but not unrealistic standards.
- Not confusing trauma and conviction of sin.
- Making Jesus’ good name and following him more important than the good name of the church and the pastor.
Places to get help and encouragement
I list these websites as examples of what help is available. These are not recommendations, as I cannot possibly make that judgment.
- Mind and Soul Foundation. UK-based christian organisation that offers urgent mental health support including for religious trauma.
- Diane Langberg. Christian psychologist located in Pennsylvania.
- Faithful Counselling. Professional online mental health therapy from a Biblical perspective.
- Dare to Doubt. Secular site that provides links to religious and atheist sites and organisations in both UK and US.
- Christian Counsellor Association of Australia.
- Lorraine Hilton, Trauma Therapist (Australia).
- The Refuge religious trauma treatment centre (Florida USA).
- Restoration Counselling (Seattle, USA).
- Apricity. Online Counselling to anywhere in the world.
- Journey Free: Recovery from Harmful Religion Secular/anti-religion.
- Recovering From Religion. Secular/anti-religion organisation.
- Australia: Life Line: 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467; 1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732.
- USA: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255; Samaritans 24 hour hotline: 212-673-3000.
- UK: Samaritans 24 hour hotline: 116 123;
- Emergency help numbers from countries around the world.
- Videos and other resources recommend by Diane Langberg.
- Surviving religious abuse: A review of the literature. Nicola Stevens. Counselling Australia, Autumn 2019, p10.
- Can Religion Give You PTSD? Stephanie Russell-Kraft, The New Republic, March 2021.
- When Religion Leads to Trauma. Richard Schiffman, The New York Times, February 2019.
- Former fundamentalists describe the trauma of leaving their faith. Anne Bokma, Broadview, January 2019.
- The Invisible Demographic. Pesach Eisen, Psychology Today, June 2020.
- Church abuse can cause the worst PTSD. 7 things to do when escaping church abuse. Mike Frost, 2021.
- Giving victims of religious trauma a voice. Chrissy Stroop, Religion News Service, January 2020.
- How Can We Help Victims of Clergy Abuse? Romeo Vitelli, Psychology Today, 2019.
- #ChurchToo: Christian victims of abuse join social media outpouring. Hayley Gleeson, ABC News, November 2017.
- I was raped and controlled by my husband for decades. He was a priest. Anonymous, ABC News, July 2017.
Photo: Kamuelaboy and Morguefile.