Religious Trauma Syndrome

by Marlene Winell

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. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle.  RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith.  It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). This is a summary followed by a series of three articles which were published in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Today.

Religious Trauma Syndrome has a very recognizable set of symptoms, a definitive set of causes, and a debilitating cycle of abuse. There are ways to stop the abuse and recover.

Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome:

Cognitive: Confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability & self-worth, black & white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making

• Emotional: Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning

• Social: Loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks

• Cultural: Unfamiliarity with secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g. evolution, modern art, music)

Causes of Religious Trauma Syndrome:

Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology which is received and reinforced at church, school, and home results in:

Suppression of normal child development – cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested

Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities -information is limited and controlled; dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned

External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source

Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used as for discipline

Cycle of Abuse

The doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it.  (These are teachings of fundamentalist Christianity; however other authoritarian religions have equally toxic doctrines.)

You must conform to a mental test of “believing” in an external, unseen source for salvation, and maintain this state of belief until death. You cannot ever stop sinning altogether, so you must continue to confess and be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite complete lack of feedback about whether you will actually make it to heaven.

Salvation is not a free gift after all.

For the sincere believer, this results in an unending cycle of shame and relief.

Stopping the Cycle

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 as well. 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.

Mistaken Identity

Religious Trauma Syndrome mimics the symptoms of many other disorders –

  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • clinical depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • bipolar disorder
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • borderline personality disorder
  • eating disorders
  • social disorders
  • marital and sexual dysfunctions
  • suicide
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • extreme antisocial behavior, including homicide

There are many extreme cases, including child abuse of all kinds, suicide, rape, and murder. Not as extreme but also tragic are all the people who are struggling to make sense of life after losing their whole basis of reality. None of the previously named diagnoses quite tells the story, and many who try to get help from the mental health profession cannot find a therapist who understands.

What’s the problem?

We have in our society an assumption that religion is for the most part benign or good for you. Therapists, like others, expect that if you stop believing, you just quit going to church, putting it in the same category as not believing in Santa Claus. Some people also consider religious beliefs childish, so you just grow out of them, simple as that. Therapists often don’t understand fundamentalism, and they even recommend spiritual practices as part of therapy. In general, people who have not survived an authoritarian fundamentalist indoctrination do not realize what a complete mind-rape it really is.

In the United States, we also treasure our bill of rights, our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. This makes it extremely difficult to address a debilitating disorder like RTS without threatening the majority of Americans. Raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion seems to be violating a taboo. No one wants to be pointing fingers for fear of tampering with our precious freedoms.

But this is the problem. Sanitizing religion makes it all the more insidious when it is toxic. For example, small children are biologically dependent on their adult caretakers; built into their survival mechanisms is a need to trust authority just to stay alive. Religious teachings take hold easily in their underdeveloped brains while the adults conveniently keep control. This continues generation after generation, as the religious meme complex reproduces itself, and masses of believers learn to value self-loathing and fear apocalypse.

There is hope

Awareness is growing about the dangers of religious indoctrination.  There are more and more websites to support the growing number of people leaving harmful religion.  Slowly, services are growing to help people with RTS heal and grow, including Journey Free.  We are discovering the means by which people can understand what they have been through and take steps to become healthy, happy human beings.