Religious Trauma Syndrome and the (Negative) Effects of Religion on Mental Health
Several years ago, atheist Richard Dawkins made some kind of comment about any and all religion being taught to a child by his or her parents as being a form of “child abuse.” That Dawkins did not offer any caveats or qualifiers to that comment made it seem very obnoxious to me.
I personally do not think that all religion, or belief in a deity is always, or necessarily, or by default, detrimental. It would depend on the particulars involved.
There are many conservative (and possibly some progressive) Christians who would have an automatic negative response to a post such as this one, if they believe it includes Christianity.
Yet, these same Christians (the conservatives especially) would not hesitate to recognize and acknowledge the negative, harmful ramifications of Satanism, militant Islam, or some types of atheist worldviews. They seem hesitant to admit that those who wear the same label as themselves – “Christian” – also at times express repulsive views or practice abuse.
RTS – Religious Trauma Syndrome
I believe this is Winell’s site – or Dr. Darrel Ray’s:
Podcast: Living After Faith
Dr. Marlene Winell joins us for a discussion of Religious Trauma Syndrome and PTSD. Valerie Tarico’s interview with Dr. Winnell. Journey Free Dr. Marlene Winnell’s
…Not every recent deconvert necessarily needs these resources, though. Some who leave religion become healthier than they were before. This was the case for Annie Erlandson.
…Other negative health behaviors sometimes associated with being religious, according to social psychologist Dr. Clay Routledge in Psychology Today, are cognitive dissonance (consistent religious doubts can harm your health) and avoidant coping.
An example of the latter is the attitude that things are “all in God’s hands,” which could potentially keep people from taking action on behalf of their own health.
Unlike those who become isolated from community after losing their faith, Erlandson’s social life improved drastically after her deconversion. She began hanging out with theatre kids and people in the local punk rock scene.
“I never really had a social group when I was a Christian,” Erlandson said. “I tried joining a youth group and just never felt like I connected with them. I remember one time, when I was nine, being in church during a hymn and everyone was singing and raising their hands and closing their eyes. I didn’t feel it. This wave of isolation and trepidation came over me. Everyone seemed engaged except for me. I knew I was not like everyone else.”
According to American psychologist, educator and writer Marlene Winell, millions of people around the world suffer from a condition called Religious Trauma Syndrome. It’s a set of simultaneous symptoms and characteristics that are related to harmful experiences with religion, and are the result of immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group.
… Those most at risk to developing Religious Trauma Syndrome include people who are raised in their religion, sheltered from the rest of the world, very sincerely and personally involved with their religion, and/or from a very controlling form of religion.
The symptoms include cognitive, affective, functional, and social or cultural “dysfunctions:” everything from confusion, anxiety, panic attacks, sleep and eating disorders, and substance abuse to difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, lack of meaning, suicidal ideation and rupture of family and social network.
… She [Winell] has also outlined steps in recovering from harmful religion. These include being honest with oneself about whether a religion is working, dealing with the fear that comes as a part of the indoctrination, getting educated, getting professional help, rebuilding one’s life around new values, getting involved with one’s community and reclaiming one’s creativity and independent self-expression.
The church protected abusers.
This is the one that really broke me. I was flooded with stories of child sexual abusers being given leadership positions and subsequently using their power to attack more children.
There were hair-raising instances of church leadership point-blank lying to members asking about the safety of a convicted sex offender who went on to rape multiple women in the church.
I heard about pastors being shuttled around denominations where they would continue to assault new victims.
One person recounted a story of how a child was sexually assaulted by one of the Sunday school teachers, and while the child was denounced from the pulpit, the teacher escaped any consequences. This should never happen, but it does, on a level that feels almost routine.
Women are treated as less than men.
This was the biggest reason why we left our last church. They wanted to have their cake and eat it, too, and refused to even consider the idea that silence in the face of oppression is wrong.
Many people talked about abusive relationship dynamics being endorsed from the pulpit or in private counseling sessions, of blatant misogyny in the sermons every Sunday, of being refused to use their talents and gifts to serve because of their gender.
At age sixteen I began what would be a four year struggle with bulimia.
When the symptoms started, I turned in desperation to adults who knew more than I did about how to stop shameful behavior—my Bible study leader and a visiting youth minister. “If you ask anything in faith, believing,” they said. “It will be done.”
I knew they were quoting the Word of God. We prayed together, and I went home confident that God had heard my prayers.
But my horrible compulsions didn’t go away.
By the fall of my sophomore year in college, I was desperate and depressed enough that I made a suicide attempt. The problem wasn’t just the bulimia. I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure.
My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn’t fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God.
It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.
Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. She is also the daughter of Pentecostal missionaries. This combination has given her work an unusual focus.
For the past twenty years she has counseled men and women in recovery from various forms of fundamentalist religion including the Assemblies of God denomination in which she was raised. Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, written during her years of private practice in psychology.
Over the years, Winell has provided assistance to clients whose religious experiences were even more damaging than mine. Some of them are people whose psychological symptoms weren’t just exacerbated by their religion, but actually caused by it.
A few years ago, Winell made waves by formally labeling what she calls “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) and beginning to write and speak on the subject for professional audiences.
When the British Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychologists published a series of articles on the topic, members of a Christian counseling association protested what they called excessive attention to a “relatively niche topic.”
One commenter said, “A religion, faith or book cannot be abuse but the people interpreting can make anything abusive.”
Is toxic religion simply misinterpretation? What is religious trauma? Why does Winell believe religious trauma merits its own diagnostic label? I asked her.
Let’s start this interview with the basics. What exactly is religious trauma syndrome?
Winell: Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion.
They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group.
The RTS label provides a name and description that affected people often recognize immediately.
Many other people are surprised by the idea of RTS, because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. Just like telling kids about Santa Claus and letting them work out their beliefs later, people see no harm in teaching religion to children.
But in reality, religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. The public is somewhat familiar with sexual and physical abuse in a religious context.
As Journalist Janet Heimlich has documented in, Breaking Their Will, Bible-based religious groups that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure and use harsh parenting methods can be destructive.
But the problem isn’t just physical and sexual abuse.
Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of
1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin
2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and
3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.
…[The interviewer asks for a few examples of RTS]
In addition to anxiety, RTS can include depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning.
In fundamentalist Christianity, the individual is considered depraved and in need of salvation. A core message is “You are bad and wrong and deserve to die.” (The wages of sin is death.)
This gets taught to millions of children through organizations like Child Evangelism Fellowship, and there is a group organized to oppose their incursion into public schools.
I’ve had clients who remember being distraught when given a vivid bloody image of Jesus paying the ultimate price for their sins. Decades later they sit telling me that they can’t manage to find any self-worth.
…. Born-again Christianity and devout Catholicism tell people they are weak and dependent, calling on phrases like “lean not unto your own understanding” or “trust and obey.” People who internalize these messages can suffer from learned helplessness.
I’ll give you an example from a client who had little decision-making ability after living his entire life devoted to following the “will of God.” The words here don’t convey the depth of his despair.
I have an awful time making decisions in general. Like I can’t, you know, wake up in the morning, “What am I going to do today? Like I don’t even know where to start. You know all the things I thought I might be doing are gone and I’m not sure I should even try to have a career; essentially I babysit my four-year-old all day.
… Winell: Religious groups that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave easily.
The difficulty seems to be greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert.
This is because they have no frame of reference – no other “self” or way of “being in the world.”
A common personality type is a person who is deeply emotional and thoughtful and who tends to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their endeavors. “True believers” who then lose their faith feel more anger and depression and grief than those who simply went to church on Sunday.
Aren’t these just people who would be depressed, anxious, or obsessive anyways?
Winell: Not at all. If my observation is correct, these are people who are intense and involved and caring.
They hang on to the religion longer than those who simply “walk away” because they try to make it work even when they have doubts.
Sometime this is out of fear, but often it is out of devotion. These are people for whom ethics, integrity and compassion matter a great deal. I find that when they get better and rebuild their lives, they are wonderfully creative and energetic about new things.
… Winell: Religion causes trauma when it is highly controlling and prevents people from thinking for themselves and trusting their own feelings. Groups that demand obedience and conformity produce fear, not love and growth.
With constant judgment of self and others, people become alienated from themselves, each other, and the world. Religion in its worst forms causes separation.
Conversely, groups that connect people and promote self-knowledge and personal growth can be said to be healthy. The book, Healthy Religion, describes these traits. Such groups put high value on respecting differences, and members feel empowered as individuals.
…In my opinion, we are simply, as a culture, becoming aware of religious trauma.
More and more people are leaving religion, as seen by polls showing that the “religiously unaffiliated” have increased in the last five years from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults.
It’s no wonder the internet is exploding with websites for former believers from all religions, providing forums for people to support each other. The huge population of people “leaving the fold” includes a subset at risk for RTS, and more people are talking about it and seeking help.
… Saying that someone is trying to pathologize authoritarian religion is like saying someone pathologized eating disorders by naming them. Before that, they were healthy? No, before that we weren’t noticing.
Read the rest of that interview here.
Some religious beliefs may alter brain function, making us more prone to anxiety and depression
by Marlene Winell
….If a former believer says that Christianity made her depressed, obsessive, or post-traumatic, she is likely to be dismissed as an exaggerator. She might describe panic attacks about the rapture; moods that swung from ecstasy about God’s overwhelming love to suicidal self-loathing about repeated sins; or an obsession with sexual purity.
A symptom like one of these clearly has a religious component, yet many people instinctively blame the victim. They will say that the wounded former believer was prone to anxiety or depression or obsession in the first place—that his Christianity somehow got corrupted by his predisposition to psychological problems. Or they will say that he wasn’t a real Christian. If only he had prayed in faith believing or loved God with all his heart, soul and mind, if only he had really been saved—then he would have experienced the peace that passes all understanding.
But the reality is far more complex. It is true that symptoms like depression or panic attacks most often strike those of us who are vulnerable, perhaps because of genetics or perhaps because situational stressors have worn us down.
But certain aspects of Christian beliefs and Christian living also can create those stressors, even setting up multigenerational patterns of abuse, trauma, and self-abuse. Also, over time some religious beliefs can create habitual thought patterns that actually alter brain function, making it difficult for people to heal or grow.
The purveyors of religion insist that their product is so powerful it can transform a life, but somehow, magically, it has no risks. In reality, when a medicine is powerful, it usually has the potential to be toxic, especially in the wrong combination or at the wrong dose. And religion is powerful medicine!
In this discussion, we focus on the variants of Christianity that are based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
These include Evangelical and fundamentalist churches, the Church of Latter Day Saints, and other conservative sects.
These groups share the characteristics of requiring conformity for membership, a view that humans need salvation, and a focus on the spiritual world as superior to the natural world. These views are in contrast to liberal, progressive Christian churches with a humanistic viewpoint, a focus on the present, and social justice.
… Some Religious Beliefs and Practices are More Harmful Than Others.
When it comes to psychological damage, certain religious beliefs and practices are reliably more toxic than others.
…in her book, Breaking their Will,Heimlich identifies three characteristics of religious groups that are particularly prone to harming children.
Clinical work with reclaimers, that is, people who are reclaiming their lives and in recovery from toxic religion, suggests that these same qualities put adults at risk, along with a particular set of manipulations found in fundamentalist Christian churches and biblical literalism.
1) Authoritarianism,creates a rigid power hierarchy and demands unquestioning obedience.
In major theistic religions, this hierarchy has a god or gods at the top, represented by powerful church leaders who have power over male believers, who in turn have power over females and children.
Authoritarian Christian sects often teach that “male headship” is God’s will.
Parents may go so far as beating or starving their children on the authority of godly leaders.
A book titled, To Train Up a Child, by minister Michael Pearl and his wife Debi, has been found in the homes of three Christian adoptive families who have punished their children to death.
…3) Fear of sin, hell, a looming “end-times” apocalypse, or amoral heathens binds people to the group, which then provides the only safe escape from the horrifying dangers on the outside.
In Evangelical Hell Houses, Halloween is used as an occasion to terrify children and teens about the tortures that await the damned.
In the Left Behind book series and movie, the world degenerates into a bloodbath without the stabilizing presence of believers.
Since the religious group is the only alternative to these horrors, anything that threatens the group itself— like criticism, taxation, scientific findings, or civil rights regulations— also becomes a target of fear.
Bible Belief Creates an Authoritarian, Isolative, Threat-based Model of Reality
In Bible-believing Christianity, psychological mind-control mechanisms are coupled with beliefs from the Iron Age, including the belief that women and children are possessions of men, that children who are not hit become spoiled, that each of us is born “utterly depraved”, and that a supernatural being demands unquestioning obedience.
In this view, the salvation and righteousness of believers is constantly under threat from outsiders and dark spiritual forces.
Consequently, Christians need to separate themselves emotionally, spiritually, and socially from the world.
These beliefs are fundamental to their overarching mental framework or “deep frame” as linguist George Lakoff would call it. Small wonder then, that many Christians emerge wounded.
Delayed Development and Life Skills.
Many Christian parents seek to insulate their children from “worldly” influences. In the extreme, this can mean not only home schooling, but cutting off media, not allowing non-Christian friends, avoiding secular activities like plays or clubs, and spending time at church instead.
Children miss out on crucial information– science, culture, history, reproductive health and more. When they grow older and leave such a sheltered environment, adjusting to the secular world can be like immigrating to a new culture. One of the biggest areas of challenge is delayed social development.
Religious Trauma Syndrome.
Today, in the field of mental health, the only religious diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is “Religious or Spiritual Problem.” This is merely a supplemental code (V Code) to assist in describing an underlying pathology.
Unofficially, “scrupulosity,” is the term for obsessive-compulsive symptoms centered around religious themes such as blasphemy, unforgivable sin, and damnation. While each of these diagnoses has a place, neither covers the wide range of harms induced by religion.
Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a new term, coined by Marlene Winell to name a recognizable set of symptoms experienced as a result of prolonged exposure to a toxic religious environment and/or the trauma of leaving the religion.
It is akin to Complex PTSD, which is defined as ‘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’.
Though related to other kinds of chronic trauma, religious trauma is uniquely mind-twisting. The logic of the religion is circular and blames the victim for problems; the system demands deference to spiritual authorities no matter what they do; and the larger society may not identify a problem or intervene as in cases of physical or sexual abuse, even though the same symptoms of depression and anxiety and panic attacks can occur.
RTS, as a diagnosis, is in early stages of investigation, but appears to be a useful descriptor beyond the labels used for various symptoms – depression, anxiety, grief, anger, relationship issues, and others. It is our hope that it will lead to more knowledge, training, and treatment. Like the naming of other disorders such as anorexia or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the RTS label can help sufferers feel less alone, confused, and self-blaming.
Leaving the Fold.
Breaking out of a restrictive, mind-controlling religion can be liberating: Certain problems end(!), such as trying to twist one’s thinking to believe irrational doctrines, and conforming to repressive codes of behavior.
However, for many reclaimers making the break is the most disruptive, difficult upheaval they have ever experienced. Individuals who were most sincere, devout, and dedicated often are the ones most traumatized when their religious world crumbles.
Rejecting a religious model of reality that has been passed on through generations is a major cognitive and emotional disruption. For many reclaimers, it is like a death or divorce. Their ‘relationship’ with God was a central assumption of their lives, and giving it up feels like an enormous loss to be grieved. It can be like losing a lover, a parent, or best friend.
On top of shattered assumptions comes the loss of family and friends.
Churches vary with official doctrine about rejection. The Mormon Church, for all the intense focus on “family forever,” is devastating to leave, and the Jehovah Witnesses require families to shun members who are “disfellowshiped.”
The rupture can destroy homes, splitting spouses and alienating parents from children.
For Women, Psychological Costs of Belief Include Subjugation and Self-loathing.
Christianity poses a special set of psychological risks for people who, according to the Iron Age hierarchy found in the Bible are unclean or property, including women.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the combination of denigration and subservience takes a psychological toll on women in Christianity as it does in Islam.
Not only do women submit to marital abuse and undesired sexual contact, some tolerate the same toward their children, and men of God sometimes exploit this vulnerability, as in the case of Catholic and Protestant child sexual abuse.
But most of the damage is far more subtle: lower self-esteem, less independence and confidence; abandoned dreams and goals.
Why Harm Goes Unrecognized.
What is the sum cost of having millions of people holding to a misogynist, authoritarian, fear-based supernatural view of the universe? The consequences far-reaching, even global, but many are hidden, for two reasons.
One is the nature of the trauma itself. Unlike other harm, such as physical beating or sexual abuse, the injury is far from obvious to the victim, who has been taught to self-blame. It’s as if a person black and blue from a caning were to think it was self-inflicted.
The second reason that religious harm goes unrecognized is that Christianity is still the cultural backdrop for the indoctrination.
While the larger society may not be fundamentalist, references to God and faith abound.
The Bible gets used to swear in witnesses and even the U.S. president. Common phrases are “God willing,” “God bless,” “God helps those that help themselves,” “In God we trust,” and so forth. These lend credence to theistic authority.
Religious trauma is difficult to see because it is camouflaged by the respectability of religion in culture.
To date, parents are afforded the right to teach their own children whatever doctrines they like, no matter how heinous, degrading, or mentally unhealthy.
Even helping professionals largely perceive Christianity as benign. This will need to change for treatment methods to be developed and people to get help that allows them to truly reclaim their lives.
This article was adapted from “The Crazy Making in Christianity” Chapter 19 in Christianity is Not Great: How Faith Fails, edited by John Loftus, Prometheus Books, October 2014.