Beginning Recovery From Religious Trauma and Spiritual Harm
Many experience religion and spirituality as a help to their mental health, but for others, religion is a source of psychological stress, painful memories and trauma. What is the path forward for those who have been harmed, rather than healed, by religion? Understanding religious trauma is a start.
Research has focused on the importance of religion in the lives of a majority of Americans and the positive correlation of spirituality and religious involvement with improved mental health. However, personal and professional experience as well as shared stories of diverse individuals reveal there is not always a positive association between mental health and religion.
Examining the impact of religious trauma does not mean rejecting or opposing all religion or spirituality. Instead, it opens a path towards healing for those who have been harmed by their experiences. These individuals are diverse in their past experiences and current feelings about religion and spirituality. Some have walked away from religion altogether, while others have a deep desire for spiritual connection, but are wary of traditional approaches.
What is Religious Trauma?
The terms religious trauma and religious abuse have been used to describe the harmful impact on mental health that can occur as part of an individual’s church or religious experience. Religious Trauma Syndrome, or RTS, refers to psychological damage that is the result of religious experiences, messages, doctrines and teachings.
Dr. Marlene Winell, a leading researcher on RTS and counseling interventions for healing and growth define religious trauma syndrome as “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.”
Religion and spirituality are terms often used interchangeably, but it is useful in this context to highlight the difference. Religion is a term used to indicate a specific set of doctrines, traditions, and beliefs. In contrast, spirituality refers to a broader understanding of life and the force behind and beyond it; viewing life as greater than the visible and tangible, to include religion as well as transcendence of the physical realm. Spirituality may be part of a person’s religious journey or be experienced outside of a specific religion.
The Obstacle of Spiritual Bypassing
Raising questions about religion or discussing negative experiences within a church can be taboo in parts of society or in families due to cultural ideals and traditions. For individuals who have been harmed in their religious community, finding a safe space to process their experience can be a challenge. Individuals may have limited opportunity or ability to seek support from a mental health professional outside the community.
Spiritual bypassing may also prevent meaningful exploration or growth from questions or doubts that may naturally arise regarding religion and spirituality. The term spiritual bypassing refers to the use of spiritual beliefs or practices to avoid dealing with painful or uncomfortable issues. If one has been taught, for example, that anger is inherently wrong or a sinful emotion, emotional detachment and mistrust of one’s own emotions may arise as negative coping mechanisms. Other side effects may include repression of emotions, lack of boundaries, codependency, spiritual obsession, low self-esteem, a sense of powerlessness and social isolation.
Types of Spiritual Abuse
Researchers have examined religion’s sometimes negative impact on mental health and refer to the negative experiences of ex-members of religious groups as spiritual abuse. The types of spiritual abuse are broken down into six basic themes (Ward, 2011):
- Leadership representing God (powerful symbolic authority)
- Spiritual bullying (manipulative behavior)
- Acceptance via performance (obedience emphasized)
- Spiritual neglect (acts of omission by leadership)
- A manifestation of internal states (dissonance between one’s inner and outer worlds)
- Expanding external/internal tension (bio/psycho/spiritual impact)
The sexual purity movement of conservative Christian churches in the United States has also been examined for the way its messages led to psychological damage in young people. Purity promises, denial of human sexuality, rigid gender role expectations and heterocentrism were (and in many cases still are) familiar territory within the evangelical church in the South.
Religious trauma is considered a type of betrayal trauma, where a trusted person or entity is the source of the harm. For example, a man rejected by his church after coming out as gay. Or a victim of domestic abuse being counseled by clergy to return to their abusive partner. As noted by Cashwell & Swindle (2018), “trauma may be amplified as the victims were betrayed by the sacred system they thought would comfort them, and where they likely expected protection, acceptance, and positive experiences.”
Struggle, Loss and Grief in Leaving
The mental health impact of leaving a set of beliefs or religious community can mimic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex trauma symptomatology due to a sudden loss of world view and intimate social support. Like other complex trauma, the impact of religious trauma is gradual and occurs over a long period of time. The trauma is two-sided. First, the individual may have suffered in a limiting, controlling, fear-based, patriarchal, abusive system within the religion. Second, the individual struggles to remove themselves from a system that served to answer and/or shelter the individual from a majority of life’s difficult questions within a like-minded community.
Leaving a fundamentalist faith orientation may mean leaving the safety of long-held “answers” to basic human questions around death, responsibility, meaning and isolation. The individual must find a way to cope outside of the religious structure, sometimes for the first time. Dogmatic religions can espouse a simplified, but damaging, dichotomous view of the world, where labels of good and evil are applied to behaviors, emotions, thoughts and people. The struggle to walk away from religious beliefs ingrained from childhood can lead to an identity crisis, existential questions, doubts, loss of self-esteem and confusion.
The Path to Healing
Time and distance may be needed before the trauma can fully be acknowledged, understood and processed. A trauma-informed psychotherapist can provide a safe space that allows an individual to heal at a comfortable and non-threatening pace.
Therapy may include discovering false beliefs and exploring inner truths. The lies that originated from religious experience may be neutralized by peeling them away, examining them, considering their origin, and coming up with an alternative, empowering narrative. It is possible to reframe and reclaim spirituality as a positive, empowering and fulfilling part of life, if so desired. It may also be an equally fitting path for a person to walk away from spirituality and religion. Creation of new narratives can help victims of religious trauma establish a new sense of identity, connection to self and reintegration of the body, behaviors, emotions and thoughts.
- Cashwell, C. S., & Swindle, P. J. (2018). When religion hurts: Supervising cases of religious abuse. Clinical Supervisor, 37(1), 182–203.
- Cornah, D. (2006). The impact of spirituality on mental health: A review of the literature. London: Mental Health Foundation.
- Gish, E. (2018). ‘Are you a trashable styrofoam cup?’: Harm and Damage Rhetoric in the Contemporary American Sexual Purity Movement. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 34(2), 5–22.
- Hoffman, F. M. (2012). Spiritual bypassing: When spirituality disconnects us from what really matters. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 44(1), 103–105
- Klein, L. K. (2018). Pure: Inside the Religious Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How We Broke Free. Touchstone.
- Sellers, T. S. (2017). Sex, God, and the conservative church: erasing shame from sexual intimacy. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
- Stone, A. M. (2013). Thou Shalt Not: Treating Religious Trauma and Spiritual Harm With Combined Therapy. Group, 37(4), 323.
- Ward, D. J. (2011). The lived experience of spiritual abuse. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(9), 899–915.
- Winnel, M. (n.d.). Religious Trauma Syndrome. Retrieved from https://journeyfree.org/rts/
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