Part 3: The Trauma of Leaving Religion
by Marlene Winell, Ph.D.
Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). In the last article of this series, I explained some of the toxic aspects of authoritarian religions that cause long-term psychological damage (Bible-based religions in particular). In this writing, I will address the trauma of breaking away from this kind of religion.
With PTSD, a traumatic event is one in which a person experiences or witnesses actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others. Losing one’s faith, or leaving one’s religion, is an analogous event because it essentially means the death of one’s previous life – the end of reality as it was understood. It is a huge shock to the system, and one that needs to be recognized as trauma.
What it means to leave
Breaking out of a restrictive, mind-controlling religion is understandably a liberating experience. People report huge relief and some excitement about their new possibilities. Certain problems are over, such as trying to twist one’s thinking to believe irrational religious doctrines, handling enormous cognitive dissonance in order to get by in the “real world,” and conforming to repressive codes of behavior. Finally leaving a restrictive religion can be a major personal accomplishment after trying to make it work and going through many cycles of guilt and confusion.
However, the challenges of leaving are daunting. For most people, the religious environment was a one-stop-shop for meeting all their major needs – social support, a coherent worldview, meaning and direction in life, structured activities, and emotional/spiritual satisfaction. Leaving the fold means multiple losses, including the loss of friends and family support at a crucial time of personal transition. Consequently, it is a very lonely “stressful life event” – more so than others described on Axis IV in the DSM. For some people, depending on their personality and the details of their religious past, it may be possible to simply stop participating in religious services and activities and move on with life. But for many, leaving their religion means debilitating anxiety, depression, grief, and anger.
Usually people begin with intellectually letting go of their religious beliefs and then struggle with the emotional aspects. The cognitive part is difficult enough, and often requires a period of study and struggle before giving up one’s familiar and perhaps cherished worldview. But the emotional letting go is much more difficult since the beliefs are bound with deep-seated needs and fears, and usually inculcated at a young age.
Problems with self-worth and fear of terrible punishment continue. Virtually all controlling religions teach fear about the evil in “The World,” and the danger of being alone without the group. Ordinary setbacks can cause panic attacks, especially when one feels like a small child in a very foreign world. Coming out of a sheltered, repressed environment can result in a lack of coping skills and personal maturity. The phobia indoctrination makes it difficult to avoid the stabbing thought, even many years after leaving, that one has made a terrible mistake, thinking, “What if they’re right?”
It is truly amazing the pain I went through due to what was inputted into my mind… All I know is it took such a toll on me that I did not care if I died and went to hell to escape the hell I was in and the immense fear it put into my life.
Depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, etc. … you name it. It sucks. Probably from years of guilt being a Christian and a sinner, and thinking people I love are in hell.
Making the break is for many the most disruptive, difficult upheaval they have ever gone through in life. To understand this fully, one must appreciate the totality of a religious worldview that defines and controls reality in the way that fundamentalist groups do. Everything about the world – past, present, and future – is explained, the meaning of life is laid out, morality is already decided, and individuals must find their place in the cosmic scheme in order to be worthwhile. The promises for conformity and obedience are great and the threats for disobedience are dire, both for the present life and the hereafter. Controlling religions tend to limit information about the world and alternative views so members easily conclude that their religious worldview is the only one possible. Anything outside of their world is considered dangerous and evil at worst, and terribly misguided at best. So leaving this sheltered environment is bursting a bubble. Everything a person has believed to be true is shattered.
My foundation has truly dropped out from under me. Despite being told I am courageous, tenacious, and this is rugged work, I consistently find wave after wave of grief that overwhelms me. I can hardly believe how upended it has made my life.
My whole sense of purpose, value, and meaning was wrapped tightly around my Christian faith… I kept my doubts buried and crucified, and I tried hard not to think about the troubling things of faith… A year ago, I abandoned evangelicalism… the pain I feel is deep and raw.
The impact can create problems with day-to-day functioning.
The amount of inner turmoil during this time was overwhelming. It affected my daily life and many days I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was depressed and anxious at the same time. Being in college was difficult. I could hardly focus on class.
I am utterly confused and at the moment my whole life is ruined as I don’t know what to think. I’ve been off work a month with anxiety.
I have – for about three years – been dependent on drinking alcohol every night for a very long time.
Shattered assumption framework
In the study of trauma, certain developments are highly relevant to understanding RTS. One is the shattered assumption framework, or “loss of the assumptive world”(Kauffman, 2002). It has been used to understand traumatic loss such as death of a loved one, but can easily be applied to loss of faith. According to Beder (2004), “The assumptive world concept refers to the assumptions or beliefs that ground, secure, stabilize, and orient people. They are our core beliefs. In the face of death and trauma, these beliefs are shattered and disorientation and even panic can enter the lives of those affected.”
The most damaging traumas are those that are human-caused and involve interpersonal violence and violation (DePrince and Freyd, 2002). (In my opinion, this would describe indoctrinating children in fear-based religion.) This approach names three basic assumptions held about the world that are shattered with these traumas: the world is benevolent, the world is meaningful, and the self is worthy (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). A fourth is sometimes included, which says that others are trustworthy (Roth and Newman, 1991). This model applies well to religion: if one thinks of the “world” as that created and maintained by the religious group. The religious version of “self is worthy” is usually a paradoxical view of the self which is both sinful and special. That is, an individual has nothing intrinsic to be proud of but can have great purpose, and can play a role in a cosmic, spiritual drama.
These researchers explored the way schema and other cognitive factors lead to humans’ cognitive conservatism and resistance to changing basic assumptions. Another line of research indicates negative responses in the brain when a person is confronted with information that conflicts with strongly-held beliefs (Shermer, 2011). Traumatic experiences shatter basic assumptions and beliefs. Conversely, a shattering of beliefs is traumatic. Coping and healing from trauma requires an individual to reconcile their old set of assumptions with new, modified assumptions (DePrince & Freyd, 2002). The trauma is understood to have both affective and cognitive components.
Loss of faith, or leaving one’s religion viewed through this lens, helps to explain the intensity of the trauma. A religion contains a large and complex set of assumptions held to be true by the group. Rejecting the “meme complex” that has been passed on through generations is a major cognitive disruption as well as a risk of social rejection. Panic about being helpless in a meaningless world can result.
Never have I experienced such confusion, pain, grief, loss fear, anxiety, depression, paralysis. All because of religion, faith, God.
It is noteworthy that all of the most controlling, authoritarian religions make sweeping, ultimate promises along with demands for devotion. Individuals who were most sincere, devout, and dedicated seem to be the ones most traumatized when their religious assumptive world crumbles. This would make sense from Kauffman’s (2002) perspective that shattered assumptions cause the self to fragment into pieces. As he puts it, “The assumptive world order is the set of illusions that shelter the human soul.”
Some days are better than others of course but most days are blighted by some form of dark cloud. The real tragedy for me is that I love life – in all of its hues, shades, problems and challenges – I just can’t see life through a prescribed formula any more.
I feel in total crisis, panicked, and terrified of facing a future alone. No confidence in my own decision making if it isn’t in line with Christianity, and inability to find fulfillment from within.
For many people who leave their faith, it is like a death or divorce. Their “relationship with God” was a central assumption, such that giving it up feels like a genuine loss to be grieved. It can be like losing a lover, a parent, or best friend who has always been there.
It is like a death in the family as my god Jesus finally died and no amount of belief could resurrect him. It is an absolutely dreadful and frightening experience and dark night of the soul.
When I left, it felt like I was losing a friend or even a spouse – it was definitely “traumatic.” Now, as an outsider, I see how crazy-making and damaging it was to me.
Betrayal trauma theory
This approach has challenged the traditional focus on fear as the primary response to trauma. PTSD has been assumed to be an anxiety disorder, requiring the individual to experience intense fear, helplessness, or horror in response to a traumatic event. Treatment has emphasized corrective emotional processing.
Understanding post traumatic distress in terms of shattered assumptions and betrayal can shed light on effects not related to fear or terror. Freyd (1996) studied the impact of childhood abuse, or the betrayal of a trusted caregiver, on memory, and concluded that a low awareness of violation appears to have survival value. These theories indicate that a cognitive appraisal which raises awareness of violated assumptions can be traumatic.
The concept of betrayal is important in that it changes the whole context of understanding trauma that is human caused. First of all, society is resentful of the ways in which victims of trauma shatter our illusions of safety and often engages in victim blaming in order to order to maintain basic assumptions (Van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Van der Hart, 1996). The letter to the editor printed in the previous issue shows the way society resists recognizing that religion can do any harm.
Secondly, and especially in the case of Complex PTSD, which refers to ongoing, repeated abuse, it makes a huge difference to shift the focus to relational issues. As explained by DePrince and Freyd (2002), mainstream psychology has focused on fear and tended to pathologize trauma survivors’ reactions. In this approach, responsibility for the experience of fear is placed on the individual survivor; implicitly or explicitly. Cognitive-behavioral therapies are focused on treating the individual’s anxiety symptoms.
When betrayal is included as an important reaction to trauma, research and treatment questions are placed in a relational and social context. The pathology is not just in the mind of the survivor. Relevant questions include who did the betraying, what the betrayal was about, the relationship to the perpetrator, and the societal response to the events. With a betrayal framework, these authors say that closer attention is paid to the relationship between the perpetrator and victim in interpersonal violence. (Regarding religious indoctrination, a case can be made for emotional and mental abuse, which is also violent with long-term effects). This framework allows for a historical context in which there may be inter-generational transmission of trauma.
Betrayal may also come in the form of response the survivor receives from others following the event, such as disbelief, minimizing, or otherwise devaluing the individual’s experience. A view of trauma that recognizes the sociocultural forces at play helps us go beyond individual emotions and consider the community’s role in addressing the transgression. Recognizing interpersonal betrayal in trauma requires that we confront the reality of the harm humans can cause one another (DePrince and Freyd, 2002).
As an example of “loss of the assumptive world,” losing one’s religion is a special and potentially extreme case. A shattered belief system can be devastating and cause cognitive and affective problems, including an acute sense of betrayal. Many ex-believers have anger about the abuse of growing up in a world of lies. They feel robbed of a normal childhood, honest information, and opportunity to develop and thrive. They have bitterness for being taught they were worthless and in need of salvation, yet never able to be sure they were good enough to make it. They have anger about terrors of hell, the Rapture, demons, apostasy, unforgivable sins, and the evil world. They resent not being able to ever feel good or safe. Many are angry that the same teachings are inflicted on more children continuously. They have rage because they dedicated their lives and gave up everything to serve God. They are angry about losing their families and their friends. They feel enormously betrayed.
The following comments support the theories of trauma involving shattered assumptions and betrayal.
As a child I had an awful fear of hell, and I used to fall asleep crying cause I thought I wasn’t saved. Irrational fear leads to irrational decisions. Now with my career in the tank, having lost contact with friends and family over my leaving the church, I am trying to put my life back together.
So now at the age of 43, I feel that my youth was wasted. I think about all the fun I lost out on, all the women I rejected, and the education I could have had. I think about all the worry, guilt and fear I’ve had to endure for 31 years.
I’ve been feeling a mixture of anger, sadness, and desperation regarding my former ‘life of faith’… I spent about 20 adult years as a “serious Christian”… trying to live out “radical Biblical obedience to God”… The fact is I could NEVER totally please God. “He” made impossible demands of me and it was a fantasy to think that he provided the actual resources necessary to fulfill them.
RTS as Complex PTSD
The definition of Complex PTSD is interesting in light of religious indoctrination: “A psychological injury that results from protracted exposure to prolonged social and/or interpersonal trauma with lack or loss of control, disempowerment, and in the context of either captivity or entrapment, i.e. the lack of a viable escape route for the victim” (Wikipedia). Small children who are subjected to toxic religious teachings and practices are trapped and dependent on their dysfunctional families. Pete Walker (2009) has developed an approach in psychotherapy that considers emotional flashbacks to be the key symptom of Complex PTSD. Because of the prolonged nature of the trauma, he says Complex PTSD can be even more virulent and pervasively damaging in its effects. (Complex PTSD has not yet been included in the DSM; nor has RTS). This seems to be true for many who have left religion.
When asked to describe my past, overwhelming emotions sap my body of positive energy… Flashbacks assault my subconscious in vicious nightmares after dredging up this damage.
I remember many dark nights trying to sleep being fearful of many things in life, lying there in bed worrying while trying to sleep while considering all the nasty things that might happen to me as a sentence from god for my suggested bad/evil choice of leaving. The worry and lack of sleep made life and work that much harder to handle. I even got headaches from thinking and worrying so endlessly.
A lonely trip into the unknown battling that what you have been taught, questioning over and over again that what might be true or untrue. Feelings of guilt and fear of daring to trust your own natural human instincts or reasoning. A pathway of uncharted waters, supposedly booby trapped by devils and monsters.
I had a nervous breakdown as the beliefs that I was being taught were not really helping me develop as an individual. I have spent the last 5 years in and out of hospital for suicide attempts and things were gradually getting worse… Every day became a nightmare, I became immersed in a depression that had only one way out… suicide. I didn’t want to kill myself, however life was so miserable that suicide seemed like a reasonable option.
I have just woken up from another nightmare. My husband says I cry out in the night and cry in my sleep. I was in an empty room with no escape. Totally alone and so so scared.
Why RTS is so invisible
With RTS, the social context is completely different from other trauma recovery situations. Natural disaster experiences, childhood sexual abuse, or family violence are all understandable to friends and professionals who are likely to be sympathetic and supportive. In the case of religious abuse, a person is often hounded by family and church members to return, and reminded in many ways that they are condemned otherwise. In essence, they are pressured to return to the perpetrator of their abuse. Their suffering is not seen. In fact, they are made pariahs when they do not return and this social rejection is an added layer of serious injury absent from other varieties of trauma.
A survivor of religious trauma is also surrounded by potential triggers, especially in more religious communities. Symbols of sexual abuse are not celebrated, but someone with RTS is expected to enjoy Christmas and Easter, or at least be quiet. Religion holds a place of privilege in society. Churches are everywhere and prayers and hymns are ubiquitous. In many communities, to not believe the prevailing religion makes one a deviant, putting one at risk of social rejection, employment problems, and more.
Anger for other kinds of abuse is considered normal and acceptable, whereas ex-believers are supposed to forgive and “not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” They are called too sensitive or accused of taking religion the wrong way. People understand nightmares about wartime combat but not about Armageddon. Expressing feelings is usually dangerous. Too often, the result is a shaming attack rather than support, i.e., “blaming the victim.”
From an orthodox, conservative point of view, people who have left their religion and are suffering are seen as failures – they simply haven’t done it right. A fundamentalist Christian view is that they have been “rebellious” and brought about their own problems. Depression and anxiety are often considered sins or even demonic attacks. Personal misery is seen as a natural result of rejecting God; being apostate brings God’s punishment.
A religious counselor will redirect a client back to the religion, typically with biblical guidelines to repent and become more devout. The client suffering with RTS is then likely to try harder to meet the impossible demands of the religion, much like returning to a situation of domestic violence. They will do this because of the authoritarian nature of such counseling, but fail again and feel hopeless or evil or crazy. No one concludes that it is the religion itself which is at fault. (And religious counselors often have very little training in psychology while getting exempted from standard licensing requirements).
In many seemingly secular settings, religious views are still considered “normal” and even advocated in aggressive ways. In medicine and in treatment for drugs and alcohol, professionals assume that pushing religion is acceptable. Yet people struggling with RTS-related substance abuse simply cannot stomach the religious tone of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, and get very little sympathy.
In one case, a client of mine who was in a psychiatric ward because of panic attacks due to RTS told me that a doctor told her she needed to get right with God. Imagine giving parallel advice with some other kind of abuse. I also had a call from a veteran who was searching for an alternative because his counselor at the VA said he preferred working with people who believed in hell because he could get them to behave.
In many ways, a person with RTS can be retraumatized again and again through minimizing and denial. This can cause regression to an earlier state of fear by triggering the phobia indoctrination. One person wrote about the unequal social status of religious abuse:
If I were to say that Christianity took my childhood, filled me with fear, paralyzed me with anxiety, annihilated my Self, robbed my body of feeling, stole my future, gave me an unequal marriage role, and cost me thousands of dollars, Christians would dismiss it with “You were in the wrong church, you take things too seriously, or you made your choices based on your own free will.”
It is no better when I talk to those raised outside of Christianity. They gently suggest that I’m over sensitive or making a big deal out of nothing or that I don’t understand who Jesus really was or that it couldn’t have been all that bad since I turned out to be such a nice person.
Why is it so hard for people to understand that Christianity completely messed up my life?!?!?!
If I had been discriminated against, beaten, sexually abused, traumatized by an act of violence, or raped, I would be heard. I would receive sympathy. I would be given psychological care. I would have legal recourse and protection. However, I am a trauma victim that society does not hear.
RTS victims feel very alone because, except on certain online forums, there is virtually no public discourse in our society about trauma or emotional abuse due to religion. This gap was noticed by a young man who wrote to me about his YouTube deconversion series:
I’ve been working on the 4th part, focused on trauma, for better than a month now and having a hard time with it. I’ve been reading a lot about trauma and finding myself amazed by how closely what we attribute to trauma and PTSD align with my experience of deconversion. No one talks about religion and trauma. Not in the scientific journals, not on trauma resources… I thought maybe I would be the only one to address it.
Child Protective Services will aggressively rescue children who are physically or sexually abused, but the deep wounding and mental damage caused by religion, which can last a lifetime, does not get attention. The institutions of religion in our culture are still given a privileged place in many ways. Criticism is very difficult. Parents are given undue authority to treat their children as they wish, even though the authoritarian and patriarchal attitudes of religion, along with too much respect for the Fourth Commandment to obey parents, has resulted in harsh and violent parenting methods. Even the sexual misdeeds of the Catholic clergy have been amazingly difficult to confront. Children are treated like the property of parents or parish, and too much goes on behind closed doors.
Space considerations prevent a full description of all the challenges a person faces over a lifetime of recovering from religious indoctrination and living in a religious environment. Cognitive problems can be serious because decision-making for oneself is difficult and critical thinking skills are undeveloped. A person healing and recovering needs to unlearn many dysfunctional ways of thinking and behaving and then rebuild. They are faced with reconstructing reality, in essence. The old assumptive world is gone and a new one must be built. A new sense of self has to be developed, and personal responsibility for life has to be accepted. The existential crisis can be enormous when one feels entirely groundless and must start over.
One of my biggest problems has been the inability to trust my own intellect.
I strained everyday to get rid of the old beliefs, but they never seemed to go away.
I guess ultimately I’ve made my peace intellectually. I’ve been reading and learning religious history, philosophy, etc. for almost a decade. But I wonder… emotionally I can’t convince myself I’m not going to hell for every little thing. Does it ever get easier? Does 20 years of intimidation, coercion, fear mongering, and bigotry take just as long to disappear?
Adding to the challenge is the all-too-common rejection from family and friends. For most people from a religious family, they must also reconstruct an entire social structure, while learning to view other people and the world in completely new terms. This can even require new employment. Marriages suffer when only one partner leaves the faith, and divorce is not uncommon.
I left the church and told my family almost two years ago; they are sure I am going to hell and taking my 3 small children with me. All friends were Christians and are no longer around. My community is deeply religious, and I feel isolated and afraid. I think I need counselling, but don’t know where to turn.
I have been associated with the religion of my parents since birth. I am now in my fifties. If I leave openly I will be disfellowshipped and WILL lose all my family and friends. I suffer from OCD and severe depression. What should I do?… if I go, my wife will stay – I foresee nothing but grief ahead for me.
In conclusion, I believe it cannot be overstated that mental health professionals need to recognize the seriousness of Religious Trauma Syndrome. Religion can and does cause great personal suffering, fractured families, and social breakdown. There are many individuals needing and deserving recognition and treatment from informed professionals. We need to let go of making religion a special case in which criticism is taboo. It is our ethical responsibility to be aware and our human obligation to be compassionate.
Beder, J (2004-2005) ‘Loss of the assumptive world – How we deal with death and loss’, Omega, 50(4), 255-265
DePrince, A.P. & Freyd, J.J. (2002) ‘The harm of trauma: Pathological fear, shattered assumptions, or betrayal?’ in J. Kauffman (Ed.) Loss of the Assumptive World (pp. 71-82), New York: Brunner-Routledge
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992) Shattered Assumptions: Towards a new psychology of trauma, New York: Free Press
Kauffman, J. (2002) ‘Safety and the assumptive world’ in J. Kauffman (Ed.), Loss of the Assumptive World (pp. 205-211), New York: Brunner-Routledge
Shermer, M. (2011) The Believing Brain, New York: Times Books
Van der Kolk, B. A., McFarlane, A. C., and Van der Hart, O. (1996) ‘A general approach to treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder’ in B. Van der Kolk, A. C. McFarlane, & L. Weisaeth (Eds.), Traumatic stress: The effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society (pp. 417-440), New York: Guilford
Walker, Pete. (2009) ‘Emotional flashback management in the treatment of Complex PTSD’, Psychotherapy.net
This article was published in the British journal, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Today, Nov. 2011: RTS in CBT Today, Part 3