What is religious trauma?
Trauma refers to the biological, psychic and spiritual aftereffects of experiences that caused extreme suffering. Judith Herman, a well-known trauma therapist, summarized it this way: “The common denominator of psychological trauma is a feeling of intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.”
Religious trauma is trauma that occurs in a religious context. In other words, it’s the result of abuse of power by authority figures in religious groups, or even the damage that’s done by harmful doctrine or dogmas. Being raised as a young evangelical with the idea that you are a terrible sinner who deserves hell could cause lifelong anxiety and shame (religious trauma). Or, being abused or harmed by an authority figure you trusted in your church could also cause religious trauma.
Religious trauma is a broad umbrella which covers everything from the experiences of survivors of religious cults, to the damaged sexual functioning of millennials who grew up in purity culture, to the pain and suffering of adult victims of pedophile priests.
Individuals and couples who have experienced religious trauma sometimes have trouble trusting other people, struggle with emotion regulation or conflict management skills, and/or deal with anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, panic attacks, black and white thinking, codependency, and intense guilt and shame, among other symptoms.
What does religious trauma sound like?
To get an idea, check out this clip of Pastor Al Martin of the Reformed Baptist church preaching. Trigger warning: this clip is scary. However, if you’re curious, it will give you a good idea of the kind of abusive preaching that can cause religious trauma in conservative Christian groups. Martin shames his audience, thundering, “You are a vile, filthy, wretched son or daughter of Adam!” and he invokes terror with his imagery of hell and eternal punishment. Listening to this kind of sermon multiple times a week could – and did – traumatize members of his congregation.
Examples of high-control leaders and groups in religious context who harmed their members abound in the popular media right now, too. I recommend checking out The Way Down on HBO, about Gwen Shamblin’s cult of Christianity and weight-loss. Again, please take care of yourself and keep in mind that watching either of these recommendations might be triggering.
How can you heal?
I’m a big fan of therapy – both couples therapy and individual therapy – for people who grew up in damaging religious contexts or who joined as adults. Individual therapy can help you peel back the layers of the onion and figure out who you are now that you have left behind a damaging group or belief system. Couples therapy can help you unpack why conflict feels so difficult and learn to relate in healthier ways to each other.
There are many other things you can do to help yourself as well. Reading books and listening to podcasts about healing from religious trauma is a great start. I often recommend Marlene Winell’s Leaving the Fold for those who grew up in conservative, evangelical or authoritarian churches. I also recommend Steve Hassan’s book Combatting Cult Mind Control to better understand the dynamics of high-control groups and how to heal.
In terms of helpful podcasts, Rachel Bernstein offers Indoctrination, which covers everything from information about specific cults (Children of God, 12 Tribes, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) to interviews with former members of more mainstream but still culty groups in the evangelical sphere. I enjoy listening to this one and get a lot from Rachel’s expertise; she’s been specializing in this topic for her entire career.
Feel free to reach out
My goal is to start a podcast about healing from religious trauma as well, so that I can provide information and raise awareness about the issue. If you have feedback or ideas for what you want to see in a podcast about this topic, please feel free to reach out and let me know! I would love to hear from you.
And, I have openings in my private practice, so if you would like to work together, please reach out on the contact page. I look forward to hearing from you.