Religious trauma can be difficult to define because what makes something traumatic isn't the event, but how an individual experiences the event. To sum it up, religious trauma is when people have religious experiences that harm their mental, physical, emotional, spiritual or sexual health and safety. That's it. If you've had religious experiences that have harmed you in those ways and you've started to notice how it's been effecting you, there's a chance you could be experiencing religious trauma.
Since I grew up in the Christian evangelical church and have been deconstructing many of my beliefs, I'll be writing from that perspective. However, much of what I write could apply to your own religious beliefs, regardless of the religion.
How Does Religious Trauma Happen?
Usually, religious trauma isn't something that people want to inflict on others. It's not necessarily intentional, thought out, or planned. But it follows a common path: to get people to believe the same thing. In the majority of churches, there's little room for believing anything or disagreeing with anything outside the box of that specific church. Pastors/Priests are revered, and whatever they say is trusted without question. This leads to groupthink, which is a way of making decisions or thinking about things without critical reasoning or considering alternatives. In group think, the main desire is to not upset the balance of the group of people.
While group think on a smaller scale can be a positive thing, like volunteers enacting positive social change for something particular, on a large scale, it can be devastating, as proven in our history. The Salem Witch Trials, Jonestown, religious extremists, and doctors recommending smoking are a few examples of how groupthink impacts people.
There are a few common denominators for groupthink. Do you/did you see any of these in your religious institutions?
pressure to conform
isolation of the group
pressure to self-censor
an illusion of unanimity
an illusion of being unable to be harmed (ex: "God is on our side")
An in-depth example of a belief that can cause religious trauma is hell. In the Christian faith, the belief is that salvation can be found through Christ and Christ alone, and whoever does not believe in Jesus will be damned to hell for eternity. The belief of hell is that it's ruled by Satan and his demons and it exists to physically and mentally torture those who do not believe in Jesus forever and ever.
Hearing this as a child is very traumatic. It makes children constantly question their salvation in Jesus, and as they grow up and maybe start to have questions or doubts about their faith, their salvation is always hanging on the line. Not to mention, as Christians become friends with those outside their faith, their friendship can serve as a way to "win souls for Christ" and proselytize to them, or if their friend isn't receptive to receiving the Gospel, they might feel deep sadness in knowing that even though their friend is a kind and loving person, when they die, they'll be in hell. This can cause immense anxiety and depression in the person that holds these beliefs, as well as the inability to form genuine friendships with others who believe differently from them.
Here are a few other examples of beliefs within Christian religious institutions that are connected to religious trauma:
- religious perfectionism
- us vs them mentality
- belief that this is the only "right" way
- purity culture
- suffering is proof of being worthy of God's love
- spiritual bypassing
- believing that mental health issues could be healed by praying to Jesus
- in some churches/Christian denominations, women are not allowed to take leadership roles within the church
- Christian nationalism
- staying married, no matter the abusive cost
When people first discover that they don't believe what they used to, or when they start questioning what they've been taught from their religion, it can bring a dark type of the soul type of feeling. "How could I have believed this for so long but now I'm questioning it?" "What does it mean for me if I don't believe in God any more?" "What if I'm wrong and I go to hell?" Due to church circles struggling to be inclusive for people who doubt or question, they either choose to leave their church or are forced to leave, and friendships that seemed like they would last forever end up dying. During this time, it can be very isolating to navigate. And because healthy relationships help us heal, it can be challenging to heal without the community we've been so used to right by our side.
Acknowledging that the road ahead will be bumpy, painful, and lonely is a good first step. Finding a therapist who specializes in religious trauma can be a great way to help you unpack the load you've been carrying for so long while also learning what it looks like to have a safe, unbiased relationship while you talk about your religious experiences, lifelong held beliefs, and work through your trauma.
If therapy isn't something you're able to do right now, there are a ton of online resources committed to helping people walk through religious trauma. For more information and access to these resources, you can check out the post I wrote on deconstructing by clicking here.
Your faith and spirituality aren't anyone else's. They're yours. Your experiences are valid and true. You can still hold beautiful memories of your faith/church experience while also recognizing the trauma and manipulation. Rarely are things ever black and white in life, including religious trauma and religious experiences. You have the freedom to choose which beliefs you want to carry with you, and which ones you'd like to leave behind.
Have compassion on yourself as you sit with these life-long beliefs and slowly untangle them, like a ball of yarn. Find safe people who can sit with you and maybe help you untangle some of those knots.
If you're just starting this journey, I know things don't feel okay right now, but you're going to be okay one day. The sun will shine again. You're going to find a beautiful community of people who love you exactly how you are. The chaos in your mind of trying to figure out what's true and what isn't so that your salvation isn't at stake will eventually quiet down, and soon you'll find yourself in a place of deep peace, free from the anxiety that you were told Christianity could free you from.
You're safe, and you're going to be okay.
At Root Counseling, we value the individual experiences that comes with religion and spirituality. We strive to create safe spaces where clients can process these individual experiences, free of judgement and full of validation. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.