According to Dr. Marlene Winell, religious indoctrination can be very damaging, leaving religion can be traumatic, and can take a long time to recover from it. The indoctrination can haunt people for years after they left religion. She calls this Religious Trauma Syndrome or RTS.
Her awareness of this started when she wrote her book, Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists, which is not just for Fundamentalists, but for anyone struggling with leaving religion. Dr. Winell has also spent twenty years counseling people who left religion and struggled with various issues concerning indoctrination.
However, there are barriers to treating RTS. Some of these issues are:
- At present, raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion seems to be violating a taboo.
- 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.
- [R]eligious institutions have a vested interest in promoting an uncritical view.
- [M]ind-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.
- [M]ost people with RTS have been taught to fear psychology as something worldly and therefore evil. The religious view depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses as sins and seen as not being right with God.
At this time, there is no appropriate diagnosis, but Dr. Winell is working hard to get RTS recognized so that more therapists can help those struggling with leaving religion, which can be one of the biggest crises one can face during their lifetime. She says this is important because more people are leaving traditional religion and they suffer greatly while adjusting to the world outside of church.
So what is RTS?
RTS 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 PTSD, which results from experiencing or being confronted with death or serious injury and causing 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 is long-lasting, with intrusive thoughts, negative emotional states, impaired social functioning, and other problems.
According to Dr Winell, the trauma is two-fold. The teachings and practices can be toxic emotionally and mentally, causing lifelong problems for individuals and sometimes compounded by sexual abuse, due to the patriarchal environment.
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.
Leaving is stressful because one trades one world for another, losing the social system and support religion provided.
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.
According to Dr. Winell, RTS has four key dysfunctions.
Key dysfunctions in RTS are:
- Cognitive: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociation, identity confusion
- Affective: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, anger, grief, guilt, loneliness, lack of meaning
- Functional: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatisation
- Social/cultural: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction
The severity depends on many factors, but those most at risk are those raised in religion, shelter from the world, had a sincere emotional involvement in the religion, and from a very controlling religious sect.
Understanding the trauma one suffers after they leave religion is another issue caused by rigid conformity to a controlling patriarch. Due to authoritarian nature of some religious sects, psychological problems can develop long before a person experiences the trauma of leaving the abusive system.
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.
Religion lays a foundation of fear, generally at a very early age, especially if one is born into religion, generally with the use of damnation and condemnation to hell for anyone who does not believe. According to Dr. Andy Thompson, this is one way that religion hijacks development stages, such as healthy attachment, which leads us to what Dr. Winell is saying about RTS and according to her, a variation of this fear concerns Rapture theology.
This stunts part of early attachment to others, especially those who raise and supposedly protect a child. It is can cause, from my understanding, a form of an attachment disorder, in which one fears getting “left behind” or even going to hell and not living in heaven with the rest of their family. Individuals are taught from a very early age that they must believe or burn for eternity in hell, never seeing their family again. This is essentially a hijacking of an early developmental stage, which people struggle with after they leave their religion, sometimes for many years afterwards.
Religious parents and other elders also teach children that the real world is a bad place, “ruled by Satan and his minions”.
Finally, believers simply cannot feel safe in the world. 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.
Original sin or the teaching that the self is bad is another doctrine that can cause serious trauma after leaving religion.
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.
To think of oneself as good a good person, worthy of love, and intelligent is considered as pride, one of the worst sins in the religious worldview and the Bible even states that pride and boastfulness is a sin. Everything that one does that is good, while in religion, they credit to God and anything one does that is bad is sin. Just as the moon must decrease after the Winter Solstice, giving way for the Sun to increase and bring about new life in the spring, so must the person decrease to give way to some fictitious person, called a deity (John 3:30). The problem is various religious groups literalize the passage so much, that the symbolism for the sun is lost in the literature.
All of this leads us to a cycle of abuse, according to Dr. Winell, with devastating effects after one leaves religion.
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.
Religious teachings also lead to a stunting of intellectual development, because reason is the enemy of faith. Not only did Martin Luther teach this idea and even it called it a whore, but also one can find grounds for this in the Bible (Proverbs 3:5-6 and Isaiah 55:9-11). Those who believe cannot question religious dogma and the church considers critical thinking skills, as well as emotions, sins, which one must suppress.
All of this is a terrible misuse and abuse of power and control, as well as an attempt to bury the mythology in the Bible, which leads to the last part of part two of Dr. Winell’s series of articles.
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.
Dr. Winell quotes one her clients suffering from RTS concerning the abuse suffered as a child at the hands of the religious:
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.
Winell continues and closes the second part stating that while religious communities appear to offer a safe environment, pressures to conform, adhere to impossible requirements, and submit to abuses of power can cause great suffering, which I believe can start long before a person leaves religion. She adds that those with personalities that are more sensitive and those who sincerely believe the dogma are more vulnerable.
Dr. Winell starts part three by stating:
Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD).
This last section gets deep with psychological based terminology, but she starts by saying that leaving religion is a death of one’s previous life. Thus, one goes through a period of mourning, whether they suffer with RTS or not and while leaving is liberating for some, it devastates others because of the religious indoctrination they experienced.
It is a huge shock to the system, and one that needs to be recognized as trauma.
So what does it mean to leave religion? According to Dr. Winell, leaving religion means leaving one’s social support, friends, structure, meaning and direction in life, and emotional or spiritual satisfaction, which psychologist generally place on Axis IV of the DSM classifications, which is psychosocial and environmental problems. This can also lead to a low score on the Axis V, which is the global assessment of functioning scale (GAF scale). In order to raise the Axis V score, one needs to rebuild and restructure the Axis IV. However, this is why some people are sometimes suicidal after leaving religion.
For some people, depending on their personality and the details of their religious past, it may be possible to simply stop participating in religious services and activities and move on with life. But for many, leaving their religion means debilitating anxiety, depression, grief, and anger.
According to Dr. Winell, people usually let go intellectually before letting go emotionally, but the last is more difficult than the first, probably due to the hijacking of various developmental stages that Dr. Andy Thompson referred to in his talk.
The list of problems Dr. Winell talks about are self-worth and fear of terrible punishment due to the fear most religions instil into people, especially for those who were indoctrinated at a very early age. People can suffer with panic attacks and phobias after leaving religion, due to “phobia” indoctrination, as well as their life laid out and controlled for them in a religious setting.
The promises for conformity and obedience are great and the threats for disobedience are dire, both for the present life and the hereafter. Controlling religions tend to limit information about the world and alternative views so members easily conclude that their religious worldview is the only one possible. Anything outside of their world is considered dangerous and evil at worst and terribly misguided at best. So leaving this sheltered environment is bursting a bubble. Everything a person has believed to be true is shattered.
In this part, Dr. Winell discusses the “Shattered Assumption Framework” by Kauffman, which is used to understand traumatic loss, such as a love one, but she states that this can explain a loss of faith too.
According to Beder (2004), ‘The assumptive world concept refers to the assumptions or beliefs that ground, secure, stabilize, and orient people. They are our core beliefs. In the face of death and trauma, these beliefs are shattered and disorientation and even panic can enter the lives of those affected.’
The most damaging traumas are those that are human-caused and involve interpersonal violence and violation (DePrince and Freyd, 2002). (In my opinion, this would describe indoctrinating children in fear-based religion.) This approach names three basic assumptions held about the world that are shattered with these traumas: the world is benevolent, the world is meaningful, and the self is worthy (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). A fourth is sometimes included which says that others are trustworthy (Roth and Newman, 1991). This model applies well to religion if one thinks of the ‘world’ as that created and maintained by the religious group. The religious version of ‘self is worthy’ is usually a paradoxical view of the self which is both sinful and special. That is, an individual has nothing intrinsic to be proud of but can have great purpose, and can play a role in a cosmic, spiritual drama.
When one acquires and learns new information, such as the mythology-based origins of religion, this can cause an extreme mentally shattering event. Add to that, getting out into the real world after living in what I call “Wonderland”, can also cause a traumatic effect for some individuals. It is as though your old world went nova and your suffering from a quantum influx of disequilibrium.
Traumatic experiences shatter basic assumptions and beliefs. Conversely, a shattering of beliefs is traumatic. Coping and healing from trauma requires an individual to reconcile their old set of assumptions with new, modified assumptions (DePrince & Freyd, 2002). The trauma is understood to have both affective and cognitive components.
Loss of faith or leaving one’s religion viewed through this lens helps to explain the intensity of the trauma. A religion contains a large and complex set of assumptions held to be true by the group. Rejecting the ‘meme complex’ that has been passed on through generations is a major cognitive disruption as well as a risk of social rejection. Panic about being helpless in a meaningless world can result.
As I said, one suffers from what I call a quantum influx of disequilibrium, which is sometimes quite disturbing.
According to Dr. Winell, those who were most devote, sincere, and dedicated suffer the most trauma after leaving religion, because their whole worldview blew up in a cosmic sense or more mildly speaking and as Winell states it, like a divorce or death.
This of course can lead to a sense of betrayal and anger due the abuse one suffered within religion. This abuse could come in the form of sexual abuse, which means the individual may feel betrayed by those who used religion to enable the abuse, instead of keeping the individual safe from harm as a child. The feeling of betrayal and anger could be due the mental abuse the individual endured as a child from their elders or even mental, physical, and sexual abuse endured because of religious dogma, as well as robbed of a normal childhood.
She compares RTS with Complex PTSD, which is a psychological injury due to prolonged trauma with a lack of control. This fits very well with individual indoctrinated since childhood. As children, they cannot escape what terrorizes them and therefore must endure the psychological trauma and sometimes other abuses, until after they leave religion and then the trauma endured for a lifetime hits them all at once.
However, RTS is invisible because the perpetrators of the abuse often push the individual who left into returning, so their suffering goes unnoticed.
In the case of religious abuse, a person is often hounded by family and church members to return, and reminded in many ways that they are condemned otherwise. In essence, they are pressured to return to the perpetrator of their abuse. Their suffering is not seen. In fact, they are made pariahs when they do not return and this social rejection is an added layer of serious injury absent from other varieties of trauma.
A survivor of religious trauma is also surrounded by potential triggers, especially in more religious communities. Symbols of sexual abuse are not celebrated, but someone with RTS is expected to enjoy Christmas and Easter, or at least be quiet. Religion holds a place of privilege in society. Churches are everywhere and prayers and hymns are ubiquitous. In many communities, to not believe the prevailing religion makes one a deviant, putting one at risk of social rejection, employment problems, and more.
People often consider anger with the religious as abnormal, but anger with other abusers is normal. This is not only confusing, but can lead to more anger and those who do not understand, blaming the victim of religious abuse. This becomes a vicious cycle of being re-traumatized repeatedly. Religion gets a free ticket, even by Children’s Servicesm to abuse people.
From an orthodox, conservative point of view, people who have left their religion and are suffering are seen as failures – they simply haven’t done it right. A fundamentalist Christian view is that they have been ‘rebellious’ and brought about their own problems. Depression and anxiety are often considered sins or even demonic attacks. Personal misery is seen as a natural result of rejecting God; being apostate brings God’s punishment.
Child Protective Services will aggressively rescue children who are physically or sexually abused, but the deep wounding and mental damage cause by religion, which can last a lifetime, does not get attention. The institutions of religion in our culture are still given a privileged place in many ways. Criticism is very difficult. Parents are given undue authority to treat their children as they wish, even though the authoritarian and patriarchal attitudes of religion, along with too much respect for the Fourth Commandment to obey parents, has resulted in harsh and violent parenting methods. Even the sexual misdeeds of the Catholic clergy have been amazingly difficult to confront. Children are treated like the property of parents or parish, and too much goes on behind closed doors.
When it comes to treatment, many who suffer with RTS cannot stomach the religious tones of such things as “12 Step Programs” and alike.
After one leaves religion, Winell states that cognitive issues are sometimes serious, because one must make decisions for themselves with under-developed critical thinking skills. One must develop a new sense of self, as well as responsibility for their life.
The existential crisis can be enormous when one feels entirely groundless and must start over.
Dr. Winell believes that there is a great need for mental health professional to recognized Religious Trauma Syndrome and the seriousness of it.
Religion can and does cause great personal suffering, fractured families, and social breakdown. There are many individuals needing and deserving recognition and treatment from informed professionals. We need to let go of making religion a special case in which criticism is taboo. It is our ethical responsibility to be aware and our human obligation to be compassionate.