What is religious trauma?
Religious trauma can occur when a religion, or a religious community, exerts overwhelming power and control over individual members. It is important to understand that religious trauma is not exclusive to any particular faith tradition. Any religion can cause harm, and harm is more likely when religious doctrine is prioritized over personal safety or psychological autonomy.
Religious belief and spirituality can be a meaningful part of life. There are many religious communities that offer healthy spaces for people to connect with each other and to engage with life's greatest questions. Religion can help us celebrate, mark milestones, explore, and grieve. The development of an authentic personal spirituality, regardless of the particular belief system, is an important part of the human experience.
And, there are religious communities that enforce beliefs and behaviors that can be highly damaging to members.
The information above may seem like it only applies to the most extreme "cult" groups. However, religious trauma can occur even in mainstream religious groups and within loving families. Religious trauma might be a subtle, pervasive experience of internalizing harmful beliefs about self, others, and the world.
Members of high-demand religious groups are typically sincere in their faith and have a genuine desire to live a moral life. High-demand religions often enforce rigid expectations regarding behavior, intensive requirements for how members spend their personal time and money, significant controls on the information that members can access, and distrust of the "outside" world. High-demand religious groups often make overt efforts to limit members from thinking or feeling in ways that contradict religious doctrine, such as identifying doubtful thoughts as from the devil or sadness as a sign of spiritual weakness. When members express personal or psychological difficulties, they are often encouraged to engage even more fervently in faith and are often discouraged from seeking help from secular professionals.
Harmful religious groups maintain control by threatening eternal consequences (e.g., hell) or facilitating present-day consequences (e.g., shaming, shunning) for those that do not comply with doctrine or those who attempt to leave the faith. Members of high-demand religions may be discouraged from accessing education or healthcare, coerced into various financial arrangements, subjected to public ridicule, or at times exposed to abuse.
High-demand religions can erode the personal meaning & hope that is essential to human consciousness.
Healthy religious beliefs are chosen freely, consensually, authentically, and without coercion.
How can therapy help?
Therapy can help those seeking to recover from religious trauma. Addressing religious trauma in therapy can help with:
- navigating a faith crisis
- processing the traumatic impact of harmful religion or involvement with a high-demand group
- developing an authentic sense of self and a personal understanding of spirituality
What are signs
of religious trauma?
Signs of religious trauma may include:
- overwhelming shame or guilt
- depression, anxiety, panic attacks, crying spells, obsessive-compulsive concerns
- discomfort with painful emotions: sadness, anger, fear, guilt, shame
- discomfort with pleasurable emotions: joy, pride, contentment
- difficulty regulating emotions
- issues with sexual functioning, experiencing pleasure, exploring sexuality
- sense of alienation, emptiness, meaninglessness, loneliness, worthlessness
- problems with critical thinking or decision making
- difficulty managing interpersonal boundaries
- self-loathing, sense of deserving punishment, feeling like a "bad person"
- distress related to aspects of identity, such as queer identity
- problems with sleeping, recurrent nightmares
- substance use, self-harm, suicidal thoughts
- sense of grief about time spent in the faith, efforts to recruit others, missed life opportunities
- sense of grief about loss of faith, identity, community, worldview, relationship with God, etc.
- disruption of family relationships, career, finances as a result of beliefs
Finding a therapist
Secular Therapy Project - database of therapists who offer non-religious therapy approaches
Reclamation Collective - database of therapists who specialize in religious trauma & related issues
Religious Trauma Resources
Journey Free - provides various supports for people recovering from religious trauma
Dare to Doubt - online resource hub for people leaving harmful belief systems
Recovering from Religion - offers peer supports, community, and various resources
Footsteps - supports people leaving ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities
Holding Out HELP - supports people leaving polygamist communities
The Aftermath Foundation - supports people leaving Scientology
What are some examples
of religious trauma?
Religious trauma is often overlooked or misunderstood. Examples can help illustrate the diversity & complexity of religious trauma. All of these examples are fictional - though informed by real situations, these examples are NOT representations of any specific real person.
“Will” is trying to deconstruct from his faith while also maintaining relationships with his believing family and friends. He isn't sure what he believes and hasn't told anyone about his loss of faith.
“Cora” was a raised in a religious home and was devout follower. She was shunned after leaving the faith and has re-built her life. Cora recognizes patterns in her current life that are remnants of her background, such as feeling uncomfortable with sex or ashamed about strong emotions.
“Simone” left her faith after years of painful questioning and trying to reaffirm her devotion to God. She is overwhelmed with guilt about raising her children in the faith and regret about the time she devoted to the group.
“Hakeem” respects the faith of his family, but considers himself an atheist. Hakeem grieves the close relationship he had with his parents and siblings, as they don't call as much and they try to get him to come back to the fold. He is searching for ways to feel meaning, purpose, and connection.
"Adina" left her community recently. She has no friends or family outside the group, has no work experience, and has limited resources of her own. Adina feels hopeless and is questioning her choice to leave, as she was brought up with the belief that people on the outside would never support her.
“Jordy” deconstructed after a lifetime of strong religiosity. Despite intellectually being comfortable with their changed religious beliefs, they continue to worry about going to hell. They also recognize a tendency to defer to authority and to minimize their own needs.
“David” started questioning after one of his siblings was shunned for being queer. David is terrified of his doubts, but also is overwhelmed with distress when he tries to attend religious gatherings. He feels like a traitor to his sibling and to God.
"Gloria" told a clergy person that she had been abused. Gloria was told to forgive the abuser and was discouraged from reporting to the police as it would reflect poorly on the community. She is ashamed that she still feels angry about what happened.