As a therapist who specializes in religious trauma, I'm passionate about helping others recognize the signs and symptoms of religious trauma to provide them with the ability to navigate their own journey towards healing. But sometimes, spirituality gets lumped in with religion, and it's important that we distinguish the differences between religious trauma and healthy spirituality.
Let's take a look at some key differences between the two:
Negative Impact: When we talk about religious trauma, we're talking about the psychological, emotional, or even physical harm that people might experience as a result of their involvement with a religious or spiritual group. The religious or spiritual group might hold certain beliefs and values that threaten a person's autonomy.
Authoritarianism: Religious trauma often involves exposure to authoritarian and controlling religious environments where there is little room for doubt, questioning, or personal autonomy. Any deviation from the established church doctrine is typically discouraged or even punished. There's also a reluctance to adapt to changing cultural, social, or scientific perspectives, maintaining a static and unchanging worldview. Control mechanisms are often a part of religious trauma, where authoritarian groups tightly control access to information, restricting members' exposure to alternative perspectives or critical views. This can cause isolation from the outside world, including hearing different perspectives and opinions. Authoritarianism in religious settings can cause people to feel trapped, oppressed, and unable to express their authentic selves or pursue alternative beliefs. This can lead to long-lasting psychological and emotional consequences for those who experience it.
Guilt & Shame: Religious trauma is typically associated with feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and anxiety, often stemming from the fear of divine punishment and strict religious doctrine. Examples of this are the belief in hell, purity culture, and the belief that humans are inherently sinful.
Abuse: Religious trauma can be linked to various forms of abuse, such as emotional, psychological, physical, or even sexual, often justified by religious beliefs. Love and acceptance may be conditional, dependent upon strict allegiance to religious rules, creating an environment where people fear rejection if they don't conform. Domestic violence is a massive problem in religion and is typically justified by adherence to strict gender roles and Biblical interpretation. And we can't talk about abuse within religion without mentioning the horrific amount of sexual abuse and grooming of children in churches. Because of the inherent power dynamics that leaders within the church hold and the lack of accountability within Christian institutions, churches have been a breeding ground for sexual abuse, exploitation, and grooming. Often times, these perpetrators in the church are never brought to justice and are typically protected by elders. Thankfully, we're starting to see more documentaries and reading more news articles from journalists exposing perpetrators and pedophiles within the church system, but we have a long way to go until church becomes a safe place for ALL, including children.
Positive Growth: Healthy spirituality, on the other hand, is characterized by a positive and nourishing connection with one's spiritual beliefs or practices, contributing to personal growth and well-being. There's a major emphasis on compassion, empathy, and kindness towards oneself and others, which can create a sense of interconnectedness and a commitment to fostering positive relationships with the broader community.
Openness & Inclusivity: Healthy spirituality allows for an open and inclusive approach to spirituality, where people feel free to explore, question, and adapt their beliefs without fear of judgment. There's a respect for diversity of religious beliefs, spiritual practices, and individual experiences, understanding that people may have different paths to spiritual fulfillment. An atmosphere free from judgment where people can express their thoughts and beliefs without fear of condemnation is a huge part of health spirituality. All people of various backgrounds, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities are welcome. Openness and inclusivity in healthy spirituality create a space where people can experience personal growth, find support, and connect with a community that embraces diversity. Different perspectives are appreciated as bringing a richness to the spiritual journey and promotes a space of mutual respect and understanding.
Personal Empowerment: Healthy spirituality promotes personal empowerment, self-discovery, and a sense of purpose, fostering a positive impact on mental and emotional well-being. A positive spiritual experience is often accompanied by feelings of joy, gratitude, and appreciate for life. Practicing gratitude and acknowledging the positive aspects of life is an important component to healthy spirituality.
Community Support: Healthy spirituality often involves a supportive and compassionate community that encourages mutual respect, inclusivity, and understanding rather than promoting divisive or harmful ideologies. People are encouraged to share their experiences, learn from each other, and collectively grow in their own spiritual journeys.
Sense of Purpose: People in religion are often taught that there is no purpose outside of the God they believe in, but in healthy spirituality, individuals are often provided with a sense of purpose and meaning in life. This can be derived from a connection to something greater than oneself, a commitment to contributing positively to the world, or fulfilling a higher calling.
A person's experience with religion and spirituality can vary widely among individuals, and what might be a positive and fulfilling spiritual journey for one person could be traumatic for another. Additionally, the same religious or spiritual tradition may have both positive and negative aspects, depending on how it is practiced and/or experienced by the person.
Healthy spirituality is a subjective experience, and this journey is often a personal and evolving one.
At Root Counseling, we welcome and hold space for people wherever they are in their religious or spiritual journey. We support and encourage healthy spiritual practices that might look different for each person. If schedule an appointment with one of our therapists, you can find us here.