"...Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. She is also the daughter of Pentecostal missionaries. This combination has given her work an unusual focus. For the past twenty years she has counseled men and women in recovery from various forms of fundamentalist religion including the Assemblies of God denomination in which she was raised. Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold - A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, written during her years of private practice in psychology. Over the years, Winell has provided assistance to clients whose religious experiences were even more damaging than mine. Some of them are people whose psychological symptoms weren’t just exacerbated by their religion, but actually caused by it.
Two years ago, Winell made waves by formally labeling what she calls “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) and beginning to write and speak on the subject for professional audiences. When the British Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychologists published a series of articles on the topic, members of a Christian counseling association protested what they called excessive attention to a “relatively niche topic.” One commenter said, “A religion, faith or book cannot be abuse but the people interpreting can make anything abusive...”
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RTS – It’s Time To Recognize It
by Marlene Winell, Ph.D.
I’m really struggling and am desperate never to go back to the religion I was raised in, but I no longer want to live in fear or depression. It seems that I am walking through the jungle alone with my machete; no one to share my crazy and sometimes scary thoughts with.
After years of depression, anxiety, anger, and finally a week in a psychiatric hospital a year ago, I am now trying to pick up the pieces and put them together into something that makes sense. I’m confused. My whole identity is a shredded, tangled mess. I am in utter turmoil.
These comments are not unusual for people suffering with Religious Trauma Syndrome, or RTS. Religious trauma? Isn’t religion supposed to be helpful, or at least benign? In the case of fundamentalist beliefs, people expect that choosing to leave a childhood faith is like giving up Santa Claus – a little sad but basically a matter of growing up.
But religious indoctrination can be hugely damaging, and making the break from an authoritarian kind of religion can definitely be traumatic. It involves a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, the future, everything. People unfamiliar with it, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create and the recovery needed.
My own awareness of this problem took some time. It began with writing about my own recovery from a fundamentalist Christian background, and very quickly, I found out I was not alone. Many other people were eager to discuss this hidden suffering. Since then, I have worked with clients in the area of “recovery from religion” for about twenty years and wrote a self-help book called Leaving the Fold on the subject.
In my view, it is time for society to recognize the real trauma that religion can cause. Just like clearly naming problems like anorexia, PTSD, or bipolar disorder made it possible to stop self-blame and move ahead with learning methods of recovery, we need to address Religious Trauma Syndrome. The internet is starting to overflow with stories of RTS and cries for help. On forums for former believers (such as exchristian.net), one can see the widespread pain and desperation. In response to my presentation about RTS on YouTube, a viewer commented:
Thank you so much. This is exciting because millions of people suffer from this. I have never heard of Dr. Marlene but more people are coming out to talk about this issue – millions–who are quietly suffering and being treated for other issues when the fundamental issue is religious abuse.
Barriers to Getting Help for RTS
At present, raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion seems to be violating a taboo, even with helping professionals. In society, we treasure our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Our laws and mores reflect the general principle that if we are not harming others, we can do as we like. Forcing children to go to church hardly seems like a crime. Real damage is assumed to be done by extreme fringe groups we call “cults” and people have heard of ritual abuse. Moreover, religious institutions have a vested interest in promoting an uncritical view.
But mind-control and emotional abuse is actually the norm for many large, authoritarian, mainline religious groups. The sanitization of religion makes it all the more insidious. When the communities are so large and the practices normalized, victims are silenced.
Therapists have no real appropriate diagnosis in their manual. Even in the commonly used list of psychological stresses, amidst all the change and loss and disruption, there is no mention of losing one’s religion. Yet it can be the biggest crisis ever faced. This is important for therapists to be aware of because people are leaving the ranks of traditional religious groups in record numbers1 and they are reporting real suffering.
Another obstacle in getting help is that most people with RTS have been taught to fear psychology as something worldly and therefore evil. It is very likely that only a fraction of people with RTS are even seeking help. Within many dogmatic, self-contained religions, mental health problems such as depression or anxiety are considered sins. They are seen as evidence of not being right with God. A religious counselor or pastor advises more confession and greater obedience as the cure, and warns that secular help from a mental health professional would be dangerous.
God is called the “great physician” and a person should not need any help from anyone else. Doubt is considered wrong, not honest inquiry. Moreover, therapy is a selfish indulgence. Focusing on one’s own needs is always sinful in this religious view, so RTS victims are often not even clear how to get help. The clients I have worked with have had to overcome ignorance, guilt, and fear to make initial contact.
What is RTS?
I suffer with guilt and depression and struggle to let go of religion. I am also battling with an existential crisis of epic proportions and intense heartache. . . I feel like I am the only person in the world that this has happened to. Some days are okay, but others are terrible. I do not know if I will make it through this.
Religious Trauma Syndrome is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle. The symptoms compare most easily with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which results from experiencing or being confronted with death or serious injury which causes feelings of terror, helplessness, or horror. This can be a single event or chronic abuse of some kind. With RTS, there is chronic abuse, especially of children, plus the major trauma of leaving the fold. Like PTSD, the impact of RTS is long-lasting, with intrusive thoughts, negative emotional states, impaired social functioning, and other problems.
With RTS, the trauma is two-fold. First, the actual teachings and practices of a restrictive religion can be toxic and create life-long mental damage. In many cases, the emotional and mental abuse is compounded by physical and sexual abuse due to the patriarchal, repressive nature of the environment.
Second, departing a religious fold adds enormous stress as an individual struggles with leaving what amounts to one world for another. This usually involves significant and sudden loss of social support while facing the task of reconstructing one’s life. People leaving are often ill-prepared to deal with this, both because they have been sheltered and taught to fear the secular world and because their personal skills for self-reliance and independent thinking are underdeveloped.
Individuals can experience RTS in different ways depending on a variety of factors. Some key symptoms of RTS are:
• Confusion, difficulty making decisions, trouble thinking for self, lack of meaning or direction, undeveloped sense of self
• Anxiety being in “the world,” panic attacks, fear of damnation, depression, thoughts of suicide, anger, bitterness, betrayal, guilt, grief and loss, difficulty with expressing emotion
• Sleep and eating disorders, substance abuse, nightmares, perfectionism, discomfort with sexuality, negative body image, impulse control problems, difficulty enjoying pleasure or being present here and now
• Rupture of family and social network, loneliness, problems relating to society, personal relationship issues
These comments from people going through it may be the best way to convey the intensity of RTS:
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. From nothing—into nothing; reality is harsh. Plus I’m pissed that I was so brainwashed for so long – smashing CDs, burning books, rebuking Satan. . . it’s like having your entire world turned upside down, no, destroyed.
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.
I felt despair and hopelessness that I would ever be normal, that I would ever be able to undo the forty years of brainwashing.
My form of religion was very strongly entrenched and anchored deeply in my heart. It is hard to describe how fully my religion informed, infused, and influenced my entire worldview. My first steps out of fundamentalism were profoundly frightening and I had frequent thoughts of suicide. Now I’m way past that but I still haven’t quite found “my place in the universe.”
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. Still, the aftermath of growing up like that has continued to affect me negatively as a professional (nightmares, paranoia, etc.).
The world was a strange and frightening place to me. I feared that all the bad, nasty things that I had been brought up to believe would happen to anyone who left the cult would in fact happen to me!
Even now I still lack the ability to trust very easily and becoming very close to people is something I still find very alien and hard to achieve.
After 21 years of marriage my husband feels he cannot accept me since I have left the “church” and is divorcing me.
My parents have stopped calling me. My dad told me I’m going to hell (he’s done this my whole life!).
I had to move away from my home because I just could not be in the environment any more. My entire family is Christian and I struggle to explain to them what I am going through. I feel extremely isolated and sometimes I wonder if I am going insane. I am extremely lonely and I suffer from intense depression at times.
I lost all my friends. I lost my close ties to family. Now I’m losing my country. I’ve lost so much because of this malignant religion and I am angry and sad to my very core. . . I have tried hard to make new friends, but I have failed miserably. . . I am very lonely.
Many of us feel that we cannot relate to the ‘outside’ world as the teachings we were brought up on are all we know and our only frame of reference.
My new secular friends wouldn’t understand. My Christian friends either have abandoned me or keep praying for me.
My attempts to think outside the Christian box are like the attempts of a convict to escape Alcatraz prison– tunnel through hundreds of feet of stone and concrete, outsmart gun-carrying guards, only to maybe make it to the choppy freezing cold water and a deadly swim to safety. This may be a little dramatic, but true to my heart. I now continue to try to rebuild my soul from the abuse it’s endured.
RTS can range in severity, depending on specific teachings and practices of particular churches, pastors, or parents. Persons most at risk of RTS are those who were:
• raised in their religion,
• sheltered from the rest of the world,
• very sincerely and personally involved, and/or
• from a very controlling form of religion.
The important thing to realize is that Religious Trauma Syndrome is real. While it may be easier to understand the damage done by sexual abuse or a natural disaster, religious practices can be just as harmful. More and more people need help and the taboos about criticizing religion need to be questioned.
Understanding RTS: Trauma From Religion
by Marlene Winell, Ph.D.
The kind of religion that causes damage is that which requires rigid conformity in order to survive in the group or have hope for the afterlife. Such a fundamentalist religion has a closed system of logic and a strong social structure to support an authoritarian worldview. It can be a comfortable environment as long as a member does not question. Children learn very early to repress independent thinking and not to trust their own feelings. For truth, believers rely on external authority – Scripture and religious leaders. With the consequences of disbelief so severe, leaders are able to demand acceptance of farfetched claims at the expense of personal observation or scientific evidence. The culture rewards individuals who contribute in religious ways. Proselytizing is generally expected, even for children. Obedience is the highest value and personal development truncated.
Clearly, psychological problems can develop long before the additional trauma of leaving the fold. I’ll use the example of Bible-based fundamentalisms. True to the definition of trauma, survivors of these report feelings of terror, helplessness, and horror in facing death and injury – the horror of Jesus’ death (along with other atrocities in the Bible), the terror of hell for oneself and everyone else, and the helplessness of being a frail human in a wicked world, a tiny player in an overwhelming cosmic drama.
There are different churches in this category with beliefs and practices that vary but core doctrines are consistent. All of the major authoritarian religions have enormous psychological control because they are based on fear, which is the most primitive and powerful human emotion. Secondly, they emphasize shame; humans are bad and need redemption. So the basic meme complex passed on to each generation of children is that you need religion in order to survive and in order to be acceptable.
Eternal punishment. The first key doctrine is eternal damnation (or annihilation) for all unbelievers. This is the terrifying backdrop for the salvation message presented to all newcomers and all children born into the faith. The Bible is quoted, including the words of Jesus, to paint a horrifying picture of hell as a lake of fire, a fire of eternal torture impossible to quench despite any pleading. Mormons describe a hell of “outer darkness” that is cold and just as terrifying. Jehovah’s Witnesses threaten the horror of dying forever at Armageddon and missing out on Paradise.
Small children can obviously visualize these things while not having the brain capacity to evaluate the message. Moreover, the powerful social context makes rejecting these teachings impossible. Children are completely at the mercy of religious adults.
The salvation formula is offered as a solution of course, but for many, it is not enough to ward off anxiety. How does one really know? And what about losing one’s salvation? Many adults remember trying to get “saved” multiple times, even hundreds of times, because of unrelenting fear.
I feel little hope, because I don’t know how it is remotely possible for me to ever let go of my fear of hell. If I give up my belief system, I’ll go to hell. Even though my whole life has been so unhappy in the church–it has brought me nothing but turmoil and heartbreak and disappointment and unanswered questions and dissatisfaction.
“Left behind” terror. Another horrible fear is about missing the “rapture” when Jesus returns. I have heard many people recount memories of searching for parents and going into sheer panic about being left alone in an evil world. Given that abandonment is a primary human fear, this experience can be unforgettably terrifying. Some report this as a recurring trauma every time they couldn’t find a parent right away.
During my freshman year in college, I started having nightmares. In my dreams, the rapture would happen and I would be left behind, or worse, sent to hell. Several times I woke up just before I was tossed into the flames, my mouth open, ready to scream. My mind was crying out, “Please, Jesus! Forgive me! I’m sorry I wasn’t good enough! I’m sorry!
After twenty-seven years of trying to live a perfect life, I failed. . . I was ashamed of myself all day long. My mind battling with itself with no relief. . . I always believed everything that I was taught but I thought that I was not approved by God. I thought that basically I, too, would die at Armageddon.
Surrounded by threat. Believers simply cannot feel safe in the world if they take to heart the teaching about evil everywhere. In the fundamentalist worldview, “the World” is a fallen place, dangerously ruled by Satan and his minions until Jesus comes back and God puts everything right. Meanwhile it’s a battleground for spiritual warfare and children are taught to be very afraid of anything that is not Christian. Much of “the World” is condemned at church, and parents try to control secular influences through private and home schooling. Children grow up terrified of everything outside the religious subculture, most of which is simply unfamiliar.
I was raised on fire and brimstone, speaking in tongues, believing the world was a dangerous and evil place, full of temptation and sinners seeking to destroy me/drag me down.
Some groups place more emphasis on literal teachings about demons, and believers learn to be afraid of evil spirits lurking everywhere. Being saved is a “covering” and one must put on the “whole armor of God” to go about ordinary life. A frequently quoted verse with a terrifying image is I Peter 5:8, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”
Self as bad. Second to the doctrine of hell, the other most toxic teaching in fundamentalist churches is that of “original sin.” Human depravity is a constant theme of fundamentalist theology and no matter what is said about the saving grace of Jesus, children (and adults) internalize feelings of being evil and inadequate. Most of these churches also believe in demons quite literally, some to the point of using exorcism on children who misbehave. One former believer called it “bait-and-switch theology — telling me I was saved only to insist that I was barely worth saving.”
I’ve spent literally years injuring myself, cutting and burning my arms, taking overdoses and starving myself, to punish myself so that God doesn’t have to punish me. It’s taken me years to feel deserving of anything good.
Believers can be understood to be in the crazy-making situation of a double bind — having heavy personal responsibility to adhere to religious rules but not having the ability to do so. Never is God blamed for not answering prayer or empowering the faithful as promised.
I spent most of my life trying to please an angry God and feeling like a complete failure. I didn’t pray enough, read enough, love enough, etc.
To think you are good or wise or strong or loving or capable on your own is considered pride and the worst sin of all in this religious worldview. You are expected to derive those qualities from God, who is perfect. Anything good you do is credited to God and anything bad is your fault. You are expected to be like Him and follow His perfect will. But what if it doesn’t work? Fundamentalist Christianity promises to solve all kinds of personal problems and when it does not, it is the individual that bears the paralyzing guilt of not measuring up.
I have tried to use this brand of Christianity to free myself from the depression and addictions that I have struggled with from childhood, and have done all the things that “Christianity” demanded I do. I have fasted, prayed, abstained from secular things, tithed, received the spirit, baptized in the spirit, read the Bible, memorized Scripture, etc. etc. None of it has worked or given me any lasting solution. . . I have become so desperate at times, that I have wanted to take my own life.
Demon possession. A special form of abuse occurs when children are actually accused of being demon possessed. This can happen when children misbehave, parents are incompetent, or children’s behavior is misinterpreted in spiritual ways, often with the help of clergy. I have heard many stories of this kind of labeling, which is of course the ultimate in both shame and fear. Forced exorcisms are also all too common, even in this modern day, and certainly qualify as trauma, lasting into adulthood.
When your parents exorcised you and said you had “unclean” spirits that was very very wrong. To believe a child can have demons just shows how seriously deluded your parents really were. You have spent your whole life being scared…being scared of your dad, of God, of hell, the rapture, the end of the world, and death as well as the dark.
Cycle of abuse. A believer can never be good enough and goes through a cycle of sin, guilt, and salvation similar to the cycle of abuse in domestic violence. When they say they have a “personal relationship” with God, they are referring to one of total dominance and submission, and they are convinced that they should be grateful for this kind of “love.” Like an authoritarian husband, this deity is an all-powerful, ruling male whose word is law. The sincere follower “repents” and “rededicates,” which produces a temporary reprieve of anxiety and perhaps a period of positive affect. This intermittent reinforcement is enough to keep the cycle of abuse in place. Like a devoted wife, the most sincere believers get damaged the most.
I prayed endlessly to be delivered from those temptations. I beat my fists into my pillow in agony. I used every ounce of faith I could muster to overcome this problem. “Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil” just didn’t seem to be working with me. Of course, I blamed it on myself and thought there was something wrong with me. I thought I was perverted. I felt evil inside. I hated myself.
I do not want to give up my faith in Christ or God but I have NEVER been able to hold onto my own decisions or to make them on my benefit without IMMENSE PAIN re: God’s will which I was supposed to seek out but could not find.
Don’t think, don’t feel. Fundamentalist theology is also damaging to intellectual development in that it explicitly warns against trusting one’s own mind while requiring belief in far-fetched claims. Believers are not allowed to question dogma without endangering themselves. Critical thinking skills are under-valued. Emotions and intuitions are also considered suspect so children learn not to trust their own feelings. With external authority the only permissible guide, they grow up losing touch with inner instincts so necessary for decision making and moral development.
Fundamentalism makes people crazy. It is a mixture of beliefs that do not make sense, causing the brain to keep trying to understand what cannot be logical.
I really don’t have much experience of decision making at all. I never made any plans for my adult life since I was brought up to believe that the end of the world would come.
I suppressed a lot of my emotions, I developed cognitive difficulties and my thinking became increasingly unclear. My whole being turned from a rather vibrant, positive person to one that’s passive and dull.
Abuses of Power
Added to these toxic aspects of theology are practices in the church and religious families that are damaging. Physical, sexual, and emotional harm is inflicted in families and churches because authoritarianism goes unchecked. Too many secrets are kept. Sexual repression in the religion also contributes to child abuse. The sanctioned patriarchal power structure allows abusive practices towards women and children. Severe condemnation of homosexuality takes an enormous toll as well, including suicide.
I had so many pent up emotions and thoughts that were never acknowledged. . . Instead of protecting me from a horrible man, they forced me to deny my feelings and obey him, no matter what. It’s no wonder I developed an eating disorder.
So while the religious community can appear to offer a safe environment, the pressures to conform, adhere to impossible requirements, and submit to abuses of power can cause great suffering, which is often hidden and thus more miserable. More sensitive personalities are more vulnerable as well as those who sincerely believe the dogma. Individual churches, pastors, and parents make a big difference too, in the way they mediate the messages of the religion.
My grandmother was a member of this church. It'll scare the hell out of a kid. Wonder what she'd junk about my Pagan path. :-) I loved her dearly but I'm glad (now) that I didn't live with her full time.
I grew up in a group associated with the "Children of God," trust me, this is real. I was involved with this cult during my whole childhood.
This was during their heyday in the '70s and early '80s.
So yes, it's real.
Oh brother. Some people need to get a life.
And some people need to be more understanding.
There are MANY religious groups and areas that are extremely cult like and abusive for children raised among them. Nobody is saying that ALL Christian groups are this way or that it's even ONLY Christian groups that are this way, it happens in sects of all religions not just Christianity.
I spent my early teen years in a very abusive branch of the Mormon church, one of my best friends was raised in and ran away from Nation Of Islam and has spent years recovering from what she went through with them.
People raised in or who spent years in these abusive religious groups/churches/cults ARE suffering from a form of religious PTSD and it can take years to get past the things they've been put through.
As an example, the young woman who was beaten by her husband in my church was told by the church leaders that she had to stay with him, the whole church knew what was going on and nobody did a thing to stop it. The men of the church treated her husband like he was doing nothing wrong and the women pretty much shunned her like SHE was the one in the wrong. When he beat their 2yr old and put him in the hospital is when she finally ran, took their son and vanished. The church there still to this day condemns her for going against God by leaving her husband.
Not all religion is bad but it's not all good either.
by Blue_SpiralMarch 28, 2013 at 5:50 AM
I don't know exactly, but I suffered serious mental problems and hallucinations because of my fear of hell and Satan.
I was a very unsettled, confused, lonely, messed up kid because I just wasn't the kind of person who could handle such severe threats, etc. I was extremely sensitive. I believed demons were visiting me, I was terrified to go to school dances because I thought the evil music and sensual dancing would cause me to deny the holy ghost, etc. and I was just Mormon. I wasn't even pentecostal or anything REALLY crazy.
My mother on the other hand was raised very similarly and never suffered any stress over it. She just didn't take it that seriously.
I think used on the wrong kinds of people religion can be disastrous.