Religion is a sensitive topic for most people. And if you think about it, it’s quite understandable. There are a few things in life that are deeply personal to us. And our faith is certainly one. It provides us with hope, makes us more resilient, gives us a feeling of community, and provides a sense of structure. In fact, for a lot of people, religion is a huge part of their identity and purpose. Unfortunately, religion can also be a huge source of trauma.
Religion is often misused, whether intentionally or not. Religious groups, communities, and authoritarian institutions often interpret religious teachings to serve their agenda and expand their control over people’s lives. Families exert pressure on children to adhere to strict rules of behavior, teaching them black and white “truths” about right and wrong. Some religious leaders take their beliefs to dogmatic extremes, discouraging free thought or different points of view. This is so prevalent that there is a word for it: religious trauma. Millions of people have experienced religious trauma throughout history, from the witches who were burned, to those raped and murdered during religious wars or forbidden to drive or attend school.
Those are more extreme examples, but the average person growing up under the influence of dogmatic values may experiences subtle but pervasive symptoms which impact their daily lives.
What is Religious Trauma?
Religious trauma is a type of psychological trauma that is experienced by people who have either left behind or are struggling to leave behind authoritarian religion, dogmatic groups, or a set of beliefs that have led to their indoctrination. This trauma is caused by abusive experiences within a religion or belief system and can occur in any religion and affect individuals of any age, gender, or cultural background.
Religious trauma can develop in a person while they belong to a toxic religious environment or after they have left.
In the former, trauma begins when narratives and beliefs like original sin, unredeemable life, hell, purity culture, and eternal death are shoved down the throats of unwitting people. This can lead to people believing that they and their thoughts are inherently bad or that they are condemned for life.
In the latter (when a person leaves the toxic religious environment), trauma develops as a result of breaking away from one’s established worldview, a sense of meaning and purpose, social support, connection to faith, and so on. The sudden change in lifestyle and the need to completely reconstruct their reality causes people to experience stress and anxiety.
This is probably why religious trauma has a lot in common with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in terms of symptoms.
Examples of Religious Trauma
Religious trauma can look slightly different from one person to another depending on their religion, beliefs, or practices. However, most of the time, there are elements of fear and emotional manipulation. To understand this better, let’s look at some examples of religious trauma.
Historically, religious trauma has occurred on a mass scale through witch burnings, excommunication, crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, forced sterilization, the trail of Galileo, and countless other events.
General examples include:
- Religious leaders and institutions emphasizing a patriarchal family structure and emphasizing diety as exclusively male. And blaming sin and temptation on women while demonizing sexuality through purity culture.
- Interpreting religious texts to serve one’s own agenda – controlling other people’s lives or exerting power. There are countless examples of religious leaders using religion as a way to sexually abuse or control people in the community.
- Dogmatic religious institutions condemning independent thought and shaming or gaslighting people who disagree with them. Many scientific leaders have been sentenced to death for contradicting the church.
- Feeling coerced to do things that you don’t want to do. This can include things like “donating” money, taking part in rituals, believing something that is against your values. More specific examples include staying in an abusive marriage, being forced to give birth or forced to marry someone against your will.
- Ridiculing people’s mental or physical health symptoms as being sinful or having weak faith. Saying that natural disasters and diseases are punishment for sin. Categorizing thoughts as good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. Expressing that humans are inherently evil, sinful, and corrupt and teaching them to be ashamed of normal thoughts and feelings.
- Telling people that their attraction toward the same sex is sinful and that they need to repent.
- Using religious texts or the “word of god” to create conflict or spread violence in society and also forcing people to convert to one’s religion.
Symptoms of Religious Trauma
1) Emotional Symptoms
One of the most prevalent symptoms is chronic shame learned during childhood – changing the brain’s chemistry to create persistent PTSD symptoms (Downie, 2022). These can include experiencing grief, anxiety, stress, anger, frustration, depression, loneliness, and a sense of hopelessness. When your entire world view is turned upside-down, it’s hard to know what your purpose in life is and what to believe.
These can include reduced self-esteem, difficulty in decision-making, poor critical thinking skills, struggling with fitting in and belonging, sleep disorders, nightmares, eating issues, difficulty in understanding or communicating one’s values or beliefs, etc.
These can include an inability to trust other people, difficulty in forming meaningful relationships, social anxiety, isolation, not being able to say no to others, and so on. Many who were indoctrinated into traditional religious social roles find it hard to redefine what makes them a woman or mother or wife outside the restrictive definitions provided by the church.
These can include feeling disconnected from one’s culture (especially around religious holidays), lacking a sense of belonging and community, not wanting to stay up to date with trends or current affairs, becoming critical of the external world, and so on.
Ways to Heal from Religious Trauma
If you’re suffering from religious trauma, the first thing you need to know is that it’s possible to heal and start a fresh chapter in your life. Millions of people have done it and so can you. In the aftermath of religious disaffiliation, there are so many things you can do to start your healing process. Let’s take a look at some of the most effective ones:
If you’re struggling to deal with the effects of religious trauma and you need something concrete, you could turn to therapy and seek the guidance of a mental health professional. A therapist can help you find healthy coping mechanisms to overcome your overwhelming emotions and feelings. You can search for a therapist who specializes in religious trauma and also interview therapists to determine their approach is not religion-based.
Talking to someone about your experiences can be really helpful. So, talk to a trusted friend, or a family member, or find a live on online support group to pour your heart out. Finding someone who will listen to you and validate your experiences can be an important part of the healing process. There are communities that identify as ex-Christian or #exvangelical as well as others who come together to process and heal. Women’s circles and moon circles are a wonderful way to explore the divine feminine with other women and discover spiritually healing practices that you can assemble in a way that works for you.
To undo the damage of religious indoctrination, it is helpful to explore other sources of meaning and purpose in life. You can re-embrace spirituality in your own way and find an actual sense of connection with anything you deem larger than yourself. One way to explore is to read metaphysical and spiritual books online for free. It’s also ok not to define your religious beliefs or reject them altogether while you explore, and to choose how and when to come out to family and friends about the change. Recovering from Religion is one source for resources for those impacted by religious trauma.
Mindfulness is the practice of staying in the present moment. This involves focusing on the activity you are doing in the present and being completely engrossed in it. This keeps you away from the thoughts of the past or the future.
You become more peaceful and at ease, connected with the present moment – which is the only one that is guaranteed. I enjoy using the free app Insight Timer, and the app Waking Up is also good for more advanced meditators. Meditation can be a completely non-spiritual activity or can be done in conjunction with various religious practices.
Taking care of your physical and emotional well-being can help you feel more grounded and in control. This might include activities like exercising, getting enough sleep, meeting friends, taking care of your skin, listening to music, engaging in hobbies, and eating a healthy diet.
As Stutz says in the new Jonah Hill documentary about his therapist, taking care of your physical and lifestyle factors account for 85% of your recovery. He describes it as nurturing your life force. (Note: I don’t believe lifestyle changes can take the place of medically-supervised treatment including medications.)
Connect with Women to Heal
As a women’s coach, I coordinate women’s circles and offer coaching sessions to help women take control of their lives and regain a sense of purpose. I believe that through introspection, focusing on creating meaning, and arranging our lives to build up mental health and community, we can heal from religious trauma, whether it is overt or subtle. Processing together the impacts of religion on our lives helps us be seen and encourage each other to heal these wounds. Learning about the divine feminine helps women rediscover the divinity within themselves and tap into their intuition.