Recovering from Religious Harm
Do you ever wonder about whether religion has had a harmful effect on your life? If you have experience with controlling, authoritarian religious indoctrination, it may very well be true.
I’ve been working with people recovering from religion for over 20 years, and a few years ago, I noticed that some symptoms actually looked a lot like PTSD. I coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome, or RTS. It refers to the damage done by religion as well as the trauma of leaving religion. Here are some examples:
“I feel angry, powerless, hopeless, and hurt – scars from the madness Christianity once had me suffering in.”
“It took years of overcoming terrific fear as well as self-loathing to emancipate myself from my cult-like upbringing years ago.”
“There is a lot of guilt and I react to most religion with panic attacks and distress, even photos, statues, or TV…. I guess although I was willing it was like brainwashing. It’s very hard to shake… It’s been a nightmare.”
So why is this problem not recognized and discussed? At present, religion is still seen in our society as either helpful or benign. There is no training in psychology programs for treating religious trauma and most therapists do not understand. In fact, therapists sometimes suggest religion to treat psychological problems.
Yet there are serious issues in religious dogma and practice that affect mental health. Fundamentalist Christianity is a good example. I call the two biggest problems “the horror” and “the terror.”
“The horror” refers to the way believers are taught to despise themselves. You are taught to think you are born bad and need of saving – there is no good in you at all and that is why Jesus had to die. Even after you are “saved” you always have to work to be good enough. This is devastating to a healthy sense of self, which is necessary for personal identity and mental health.
“The terror” refers to the overarching fear that is taught – fear about the world, other people, the future, and most of all, eternal damnation in hell. This is the terrifying backdrop of the entire religion, no matter what is said about love. You may hope to escape punishment but you never know for sure and so you always have anxiety. After you leave the religion, this terror can haunt you for years and be debilitating.
Christianity can also cause an existential crisis by creating a false reality and making wild promises. You get told you will have a perfect relationship with God, you will become perfect, God has a perfect plan for your life, you can spend all your time working for a huge cosmic purpose, and eventually, you will live for eternity in a perfect place. Alternatively, you are told there is no other coherent way to think about life; there is no meaning in life outside this framework. Thus when a person leaves the faith, they feel lost and scared. The challenges of ordinary life are exaggerated, and finding new meaning in life seems impossible.
As one person said, “I get depressed and upset. Jesus no longer saves me. God no longer created me. What purpose is there? What am I left with? What do ex-Christians fill the hole with? So we are here for no reason, no divine plan. Reality is harsh. . .it’s like having your entire world turned upside down, no, destroyed.”
Added to this is the problem of losing a support system. Church is often a person’s social life and families are often still in the faith. Finding new connections in “the world” can be daunting.
So what is to be done?
- The first thing is to understand what you are going through. In addition to the above, you can read about RTS at my website.
- Realize that you are not alone. Many people are leaving religion and going through these issues.
- Understand on a deep level that what you are going through is NOT YOUR FAULT.
- Take time to get informed. Read about the issues and also stories of others who have left the faith. Ex.christian.net is one place.
- Realize there is hope. On my website there are “messages of hope” and video testimonials.
- Find ways of getting support. This could be individual counseling from someone who understands, a support group, or a retreat. Check online or in your community.
- Know that people do get better and it does not have to take a lifetime.
Marlene Winell, Ph.D. is a psychologist, retreat leader and author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalist and Others Leaving Their Religion.