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 and/or pleasurable emotions, 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
- disruption of family relationships, career, finances as a result of beliefs
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" was raised in a religious home. Though he was sincere in his faith throughout growing up, he recently started having doubts after reading an article online during college. He is terrified to look into other critiques of his religion and is scared to talk to people from his community. Will is not sure what to believe.
"Naya" is a woman who has deep faith in God. Naya recognizes that messages about sexual purity have contributed to shame about sex and have interrupted her ability to enjoy sex, as she was taught to believe that God would punish her for any sexual feelings. Naya wants to understand how to have a healthy sex life that incorporates her faith.
"Taylor" is an atheist who was raised in an evangelical church. Taylor left the church many years ago, and their family has been generally understanding as long as they don't talk about religion. Taylor recognizes the impact of being taught that God knows and judges innermost thoughts. Taylor reports anxiety, intrusive thoughts, perfectionism.
"Carlos" comes from a Catholic home. He is not sure what he believes, but he feels strongly connected to aspects of his upbringing. Carlos is gay and his parents have been highly distressed since he came out to them. Carlos feels that he is disappointing his parents and worried that he is not fulfilling the commandment to honor them.
"David" is a young adult raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish home. David has started to question his beliefs and no longer engages in religious observances. He notices sense of guilt about not following the rules, despite clarity about his choice to not observe. David wonders if he is abandoning his community and does not want to reinforce anti-Semitism by sharing his story.
"Stephanie" grew up in a strongly religious LDS home and enjoyed her community growing up. She always felt embarrassed about lacking a personal relationship with God. Stephanie feels alienated by her lack of faith and frustrated that she can't seem to pray the "right" way despite her ongoing efforts.
"Hakeem" considers himself a non-practicing Muslim. He enjoys prayer, holidays, and his family's traditions. Hakeem feels as if he is living a "double life," as his devout family does not know that he drinks alcohol and dates non-religious women. He feels like a liar when he talks to his family, but also feels that his dating partners never truly understand his situation.
"Frank" is attempting to leave the Jehovah's Witness religion. Once a heartfelt believer in the faith, he recently decided that he no longer believes. Frank feels increasingly upset about attending the meetings and increasingly anxious about how he will leave on his own terms.
"Gloria" told a clergy person that she had been abused by a family member. Gloria was told to forgive the abuser and was discouraged from reporting to the police as it would reflect poorly on the community. Gloria still believes in God, but she feels distrustful of the leaders and sometimes has panic attacks when she goes to worship. She is ashamed that she still feels angry about what happened.
more to come...
Footsteps - supports those leaving ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities
Journey Free - provides various supports for people recovering from religious trauma
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 and related issues
Dare to Doubt - online resource hub for people leaving harmful belief systems
Recovering from Religion - offers peer supports, community, and various resources