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Understanding Religious Trauma Syndrome: Trauma From Religion

This is Part 2 of 3 in a series of articles on RTS by Marlene Winell, Ph.D.

The kind of religion that causes damage is that which requires rigid conformity in order to survive in the group or have hope for the afterlife. Such a fundamentalist religion has a closed system of logic and a strong social structure to support an authoritarian worldview. It can be a comfortable environment as long as a member does not question. Children learn very early to repress independent thinking and not to trust their own feelings. For truth, believers rely on external authority – Scripture and religious leaders. With the consequences of disbelief so severe, leaders are able to demand acceptance of farfetched claims at the expense of personal observation or scientific evidence. The culture rewards individuals who contribute in religious ways. Proselytizing is generally expected, even for children. Obedience is the highest value and personal development truncated.

Clearly, psychological problems can develop long before the additional trauma of leaving the fold. I’ll use the example of Bible-based fundamentalisms. True to the definition of trauma, survivors of these report feelings of terror, helplessness, and horror in facing death and injury – the horror of Jesus’ death (along with other atrocities in the Bible), the terror of hell for oneself and everyone else, and the helplessness of being a frail human in a wicked world, a tiny player in an overwhelming cosmic drama.
 
Toxic Teachings

There are different churches in this category with beliefs and practices that vary but core doctrines are consistent. All of the major authoritarian religions have enormous psychological control because they are based on fear, which is the most primitive and powerful human emotion. Secondly, they emphasize shame; humans are bad and need redemption. So the basic meme complex passed on to each generation of children is that you need religion in order to survive and in order to be acceptable.
 
Eternal punishment. The first key doctrine is eternal damnation (or annihilation) for all unbelievers. This is the terrifying backdrop for the salvation message presented to all newcomers and all children born into the faith. The Bible is quoted, including the words of Jesus, to paint a horrifying picture of hell as a lake of fire, a fire of eternal torture impossible to quench despite any pleading. Mormons describe a hell of “outer darkness” that is cold and just as terrifying. Jehovah’s Witnesses threaten the horror of dying forever at Armageddon and missing out on Paradise.
 
Small children can obviously visualize these things while not having the brain capacity to evaluate the message. Moreover, the powerful social context makes rejecting these teachings impossible. Children are completely at the mercy of religious adults.

The salvation formula is offered as a solution of course, but for many, it is not enough to ward off anxiety. How does one really know? And what about losing one’s salvation? Many adults remember trying to get “saved” multiple times, even hundreds of times, because of unrelenting fear. 

I feel like much of my life was lived in fear. I am reading all I can to continue to find peace from what I’ve been taught. I still fear and I am 65.
I feel little hope, because I don't know how it is remotely possible for me to ever let go of my fear of hell. If I give up my belief system, I'll go to hell. Even though my whole life has been so unhappy in the church--it has brought me nothing but turmoil and heartbreak and disappointment and unanswered questions and dissatisfaction.
“Left behind” terror. Another horrible fear is about missing the “rapture” when Jesus returns. I have heard many people recount memories of searching for parents and going into sheer panic about being left alone in an evil world. Given that abandonment is a primary human fear, this experience can be unforgettably terrifying. Some report this as a recurring trauma every time they couldn’t find a parent right away.
 
During my freshman year in college, I started having nightmares. In my dreams, the rapture would happen and I would be left behind, or worse, sent to hell. Several times I woke up just before I was tossed into the flames, my mouth open, ready to scream. My mind was crying out, “Please, Jesus! Forgive me! I’m sorry I wasn’t good enough! I’m sorry!
After twenty-seven years of trying to live a perfect life, I failed. . . I was ashamed of myself all day long. My mind battling with itself with no relief. . . I always believed everything that I was taught but I thought that I was not approved by God. I thought that basically I, too, would die at Armageddon.


Surrounded by threat. Believers simply cannot feel safe in the world if they take to heart the teaching about evil everywhere. In the fundamentalist worldview, “the World” is a fallen place, dangerously ruled by Satan and his minions until Jesus comes back and God puts everything right. Meanwhile it’s a battleground for spiritual warfare and children are taught to be very afraid of anything that is not Christian. Much of “the World” is condemned at church, and parents try to control secular influences through private and home schooling. Children grow up terrified of everything outside the religious subculture, most of which is simply unfamiliar.

I was raised on fire and brimstone, speaking in tongues, believing the world was a dangerous and evil place, full of temptation and sinners seeking to destroy me/drag me down.
Some groups place more emphasis on literal teachings about demons, and believers learn to be afraid of evil spirits lurking everywhere. Being saved is a “covering” and one must put on the “whole armor of God” to go about ordinary life. A frequently quoted verse with a terrifying image is I Peter 5:8, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”


Self as bad. Second to the doctrine of hell, the other most toxic teaching in fundamentalist churches is that of “original sin.” Human depravity is a constant theme of fundamentalist theology and no matter what is said about the saving grace of Jesus, children (and adults) internalize feelings of being evil and inadequate. Most of these churches also believe in demons quite literally, some to the point of using exorcism on children who misbehave. One former believer called it “bait-and-switch theology -- telling me I was saved only to insist that I was barely worth saving." 


I've spent literally years injuring myself, cutting and burning my arms, taking overdoses and starving myself, to punish myself so that God doesn't have to punish me. It's taken me years to feel deserving of anything good.
Believers can be understood to be in the crazy-making situation of a double bind -- having heavy personal responsibility to adhere to religious rules but not having the ability to do so. Never is God blamed for not answering prayer or empowering the faithful as promised.
 
I spent most of my life trying to please an angry God and feeling like a complete failure. I didn't pray enough, read enough, love enough, etc.
To think you are good or wise or strong or loving or capable on your own is considered pride and the worst sin of all in this religious worldview. You are expected to derive those qualities from God, who is perfect. Anything good you do is credited to God and anything bad is your fault. You are expected to be like Him and follow His perfect will. But what if it doesn’t work? Fundamentalist Christianity promises to solve all kinds of personal problems and when it does not, it is the individual that bears the paralyzing guilt of not measuring up.
 
I have tried to use this brand of Christianity to free myself from the depression and addictions that I have struggled with from childhood, and have done all the things that "Christianity" demanded I do. I have fasted, prayed, abstained from secular things, tithed, received the spirit, baptized in the spirit, read the Bible, memorized Scripture, etc. etc. None of it has worked or given me any lasting solution. . . I have become so desperate at times, that I have wanted to take my own life.
Demon possession. A special form of abuse occurs when children are actually accused of being demon possessed. This can happen when children misbehave, parents are incompetent, or children’s behavior is misinterpreted in spiritual ways, often with the help of clergy. I have heard many stories of this kind of labeling, which is of course the ultimate in both shame and fear. Forced exorcisms are also all too common, even in this modern day, and certainly qualify as trauma, lasting into adulthood.
 
When your parents exorcised you and said you had "unclean" spirits that was very very wrong. To believe a child can have demons just shows how seriously deluded your parents really were. You have spent your whole life being scared...being scared of your dad, of God, of hell, the rapture, the end of the world, and death as well as the dark.


Cycle of abuse. A believer can never be good enough and goes through a cycle of sin, guilt, and salvation similar to the cycle of abuse in domestic violence. When they say they have a “personal relationship” with God, they are referring to one of total dominance and submission, and they are convinced that they should be grateful for this kind of “love.” Like an authoritarian husband, this deity is an all-powerful, ruling male whose word is law. The sincere follower “repents” and “rededicates,” which produces a temporary reprieve of anxiety and perhaps a period of positive affect. This intermittent reinforcement is enough to keep the cycle of abuse in place. Like a devoted wife, the most sincere believers get damaged the most.



I prayed endlessly to be delivered from those temptations. I beat my fists into my pillow in agony. I used every ounce of faith I could muster to overcome this problem. "Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil" just didn't seem to be working with me. Of course, I blamed it on myself and thought there was something wrong with me. I thought I was perverted. I felt evil inside. I hated myself.
I do not want to give up my faith in Christ or God but I have NEVER been able to hold onto my own decisions or to make them on my benefit without IMMENSE PAIN re: God’s will which I was supposed to seek out but could not find.
Don’t think, don’t feel. Fundamentalist theology is also damaging to intellectual development in that it explicitly warns against trusting one’s own mind while requiring belief in far-fetched claims. Believers are not allowed to question dogma without endangering themselves. Critical thinking skills are under-valued. Emotions and intuitions are also considered suspect so children learn not to trust their own feelings. With external authority the only permissible guide, they grow up losing touch with inner instincts so necessary for decision making and moral development.

Fundamentalism makes people crazy. It is a mixture of beliefs that do not make sense, causing the brain to keep trying to understand what cannot be logical.
I really don’t have much experience of decision making at all. I never made any plans for my adult life since I was brought up to believe that the end of the world would come.
I suppressed a lot of my emotions, I developed cognitive difficulties and my thinking became increasingly unclear. My whole being turned from a rather vibrant, positive person to one that’s passive and dull.
Abuses of Power

Added to these toxic aspects of theology are practices in the church and religious families that are damaging. Physical, sexual, and emotional harm is inflicted in families and churches because authoritarianism goes unchecked. Too many secrets are kept. Sexual repression in the religion also contributes to child abuse. The sanctioned patriarchal power structure allows abusive practices towards women and children. Severe condemnation of homosexuality takes an enormous toll as well, including suicide.

I had so many pent up emotions and thoughts that were never acknowledged. . . Instead of protecting me from a horrible man, they forced me to deny my feelings and obey him, no matter what. It’s no wonder I developed an eating disorder.


So while the religious community can appear to offer a safe environment, the pressures to conform, adhere to impossible requirements, and submit to abuses of power can cause great suffering, which is often hidden and thus more miserable. More sensitive personalities are more vulnerable as well as those who sincerely believe the dogma. Individual churches, pastors, and parents make a big difference too, in the way they mediate the messages of the religion.

Note: There is much more to be said about the practices of religious child-rearing and I recommend Janet Heimlich’s book, Breaking Their Will. There is also more information about physical and sexual abuse, illness rates, and results of sexism, among other things, largely hidden by the network of Christian professionals comprising an alternative economy, e.g. doctors who do not report bruises or rehab centers with drug use we never hear about.

Coming up: Part 3. Understanding Religious Trauma Syndrome: Trauma from Leaving Religion.

For more information about recovering from RTS, please go to journeyfree.com. We have an ongoing support group, counseling, and a weekend retreat coming up very soon: July 29-Aug. 1

Or read Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion, by Marlene Winell, Ph.D.


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