From Marlene Winell and Valerie Tarico
“I am 30 years old and I am struggling to find sanity. Between the Christian schools, homeschooling, the Christian group home (indoctrinating work camp) and different churches in different cities, I am a psychological, emotional and spiritual mess.” –A former Evangelical
If a former believer says that Christianity made her depressed, obsessive, or post-traumatic, she is likely to be dismissed as an exaggerator. She might describe panic attacks about the rapture; moods that swung from ecstasy about God’s overwhelming love to suicidal self-loathing about repeated sins; or an obsession with sexual purity.
A symptom like one of these clearly has a religious component, yet many people instinctively blame the victim. They will say that the wounded former believer was prone to anxiety or depression or obsession in the first place—that his Christianity somehow got corrupted by his predisposition to psychological problems. Or they will say that he wasn’t a real Christian. If only he had prayed in faith believing or loved God with all his heart, soul and mind, if only he had really been saved—then he would have experienced the peace that passes all understanding.
But the reality is far more complex. It is true that symptoms like depression or panic attacks most often strike those of us who are vulnerable, perhaps because of genetics or perhaps because situational stressors have worn us down. But certain aspects of Christian beliefs and Christian living also can create those stressors, even setting up multigenerational patterns of abuse, trauma, and self-abuse. Also, over time some religious beliefs can create habitual thought patterns that actually alter brain function, making it difficult for people to heal or grow.
The purveyors of religion insist that their product is so powerful it can transform a life, but somehow, magically, it has no risks. In reality, when a medicine is powerful, it usually has the potential to be toxic, especially in the wrong combination or at the wrong dose. And religion is powerful medicine!
In this discussion, we focus on the variants of Christianity that are based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. These include Evangelical and fundamentalist churches, the Church of Latter Day Saints, and other conservative sects. These groups share the characteristics of requiring conformity for membership, a view that humans need salvation, and a focus on the spiritual world as superior to the natural world. These views are in contrast to liberal, progressive Christian churches with a humanistic viewpoint, a focus on the present, and social justice.
Religion Exploits Normal Human Mental Processes.
To understand the power of religion, it is helpful to understand a bit about the structure of the human mind. Much of our mental activity has little to do with rationality and is utterly inaccessible to the conscious mind. The preferences, intentions and decisions that shape our lives are in turn shaped by memories and associations that can get laid down before we even develop the capacity for rational analysis.
Aspects of cognition like these determine how we go through life, what causes us distress, which goals we pursue and which we abandon, how we respond to failure, how we respond when other people hurt us—and how we respond when we hurt them. Religion derives its power in large part because it shapes these unconscious processes: the frames, metaphors, intuitions and emotions that operate before we even have a chance at conscious thought.
Some Religious Beliefs and Practices are More Harmful Than Others.
When it comes to psychological damage, certain religious beliefs and practices are reliably more toxic than others.
Janet Heimlich is an investigative journalist who has explored religious child maltreatment, which describes abuse and neglect in the service of religious belief. In her book, Breaking their Will, Heimlich identifies three characteristics of religious groups that are particularly prone to harming children. Clinical work with reclaimers, that is, people who are reclaiming their lives and in recovery from toxic religion, suggests that these same qualities put adults at risk, along with a particular set of manipulations found in fundamentalist Christian churches and biblical literalism.
1) Authoritarianism, creates a rigid power hierarchy and demands unquestioning obedience. In major theistic religions, this hierarchy has a god or gods at the top, represented by powerful church leaders who have power over male believers, who in turn have power over females and children. Authoritarian Christian sects often teach that “male headship” is God’s will. Parents may go so far as beating or starving their children on the authority of godly leaders. A book titled, To Train Up a Child, by minister Michael Pearl and his wife Debi, has been found in the homes of three Christian adoptive families who have punished their children to death.
2) Isolation or separatism, is promoted as a means of maintaining spiritual purity. Evangelical Christians warn against being “unequally yoked” with nonbelievers in marriages and even friendships. New converts often are encouraged to pull away from extended family members and old friends, except when there may be opportunities to convert them. Some churches encourage older members to take in young single adults and house them within a godly context until they find spiritually compatible partners, a process known by cult analysts as “shepherding.” Home schoolers and the Christian equivalent of madrassas cut off children from outside sources of information, often teaching rote learning and unquestioning obedience rather than broad curiosity.
3) Fear of sin, hell, a looming “end-times” apocalypse, or amoral heathens binds people to the group, which then provides the only safe escape from the horrifying dangers on the outside. In Evangelical Hell Houses, Halloween is used as an occasion to terrify children and teens about the tortures that await the damned. In the Left Behind book series and movie, the world degenerates into a bloodbath without the stabilizing presence of believers. Since the religious group is the only alternative to these horrors, anything that threatens the group itself—like criticism, taxation, scientific findings, or civil rights regulations—also becomes a target of fear.
Bible Belief Creates an Authoritarian, Isolative, Threat-based Model of Reality
In Bible-believing Christianity, psychological mind-control mechanisms are coupled with beliefs from the Iron Age, including the belief that women and children are possessions of men, that children who are not hit become spoiled, that each of us is born “utterly depraved”, and that a supernatural being demands unquestioning obedience. In this view, the salvation and righteousness of believers is constantly under threat from outsiders and dark spiritual forces. Consequently, Christians need to separate themselves emotionally, spiritually, and socially from the world.These beliefs are fundamental to their overarching mental framework or “deep frame” as linguist George Lakoff would call it. Small wonder then, that many Christians emerge wounded.
It is important to remember that this mindset permeates to a deep subconscious level. This is a realm of imagery, symbols, metaphor, emotion, instinct, and primary needs. Nature and nurture merge into a template for viewing the world which then filters every experience. The template selectively allows only the information that confirms their model of reality, creating a subjective sense of its veracity.
On the societal scale, humanity has been going through a massive shift for centuries, transitioning from a supernatural view of a world dominated by forces of good and evil to a natural understanding of the universe. The Bible-based Christian population however, might be considered a subset of the general population that is still within the old framework, that is, supernaturalism.
Children are Targeted for Indoctrination Because the Child Mind is Uniquely Vulnerable.
“Here I am, a fifty-one year old college professor, still smarting from the wounds inflicted by the righteous when I was a child. It is a slow, festering wound, one that smarts every day—in some way or another…. I thought I would leave all of that “God loves… God hates…” stuff behind, but not so. Such deep and confusing fear is not easily forgotten. It pops up in my perfectionism, my melancholy mood, the years of being obsessed with finding the assurance of personal salvation.”
Nowhere is the contrast of viewpoints more stark than in the secular and religious understandings of childhood. In the biblical view, a child is not a being that is born with amazing capabilities that will emerge with the right conditions like a beautiful flower in a well-attended garden. Rather, a child is born in sin, weak, ignorant, and rebellious, needing discipline to learn obedience. Independent thinking is dangerous pride.
Because the child’s mind is uniquely susceptible to religious ideas, religious indoctrination particularly targets vulnerable young children. Cognitive development before age seven lacks abstract reasoning. Thinking is magical and primitive, black and white. Also, young humans are wired to obey authority because they are dependent on their caregivers just for survival. Much of their brain growth and development has to happen after birth, which means that children are extremely vulnerable to environmental influences in the first few years when neuronal pathways are formed.
By age five a child’s brain can understand primitive cause-and-effect logic and picture situations that are not present. Children at this have a tenuous grip on reality. They often have imaginary friends; dreams are quite real; and fantasy blurs with the mundane. To a child this age, it is eminently possible that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and delivers presents if you are good and that 2000 years ago a man died a horrible death because you are naughty. Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, the Rapture, and hell, all can be quite real. The problem is that many of these teachings are terrifying.
For many years, one conversion technique targeting children and adolescents has been the use of movies about the “End Times.” This means a “Rapture” event, when real Christians are taken up to heaven leaving the earth to “Tribulation,” a terrifying time when an evil Antichrist will reign and the world will descend into anarchy.
When assaulted with such images and ideas at a young age, a child has no chance of emotional self-defense. Christian teachings that sound true when they are embedded in the child’s mind at this tender age can feel true for a lifetime. Even decades later former believers who intellectually reject these ideas can feel intense fear or shame when their unconscious mind is triggered.
Harms Range From Mild to Catastrophic.
One requirement for success as a sincere Christian is to find a way to believe that which would be unbelievable under normal rules of evidence and inquiry. Christianity contains concepts that help to safeguard belief, such as limiting outside information, practicing thought control, and self-denigration; but for some people the emotional numbing and intellectual suicide just isn’t enough. In other words, for a significant number of children in Christian families, the religion just doesn’t “take.” This can trigger guilt, conflict, and ultimately rejection or abandonment.
Others experience the threats and fear too keenly. For them, childhood can be torturous, and they may carry injuries into adulthood.
Still others are able to sincerely devote themselves to the faith as children but confront problems when they mature. They wrestle with factual and moral contradictions in the Bible and the church, or discover surprising alternatives. This can feel confusing and terrifying – like the whole world is falling apart.
Delayed Development and Life Skills. Many Christian parents seek to insulate their children from “worldly” influences. In the extreme, this can mean not only home schooling, but cutting off media, not allowing non-Christian friends, avoiding secular activities like plays or clubs, and spending time at church instead. Children miss out on crucial information– science, culture, history, reproductive health and more. When they grow older and leave such a sheltered environment, adjusting to the secular world can be like immigrating to a new culture. One of the biggest areas of challenge is delayed social development.
Religious Trauma Syndrome. Today, in the field of mental health, the only religious diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is “Religious or Spiritual Problem.” This is merely a supplemental code (V Code) to assist in describing an underlying pathology. Unofficially, “scrupulosity,” is the term for obsessive-compulsive symptoms centered around religious themes such as blasphemy, unforgivable sin, and damnation. While each of these diagnoses has a place, neither covers the wide range of harms induced by religion.
Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a new term, coined by Marlene Winell to name a recognizable set of symptoms experienced as a result of prolonged exposure to a toxic religious environment and/or the trauma of leaving the religion. It is akin to Complex PTSD, which is defined as ‘a psychological injury that results from protracted exposure to prolonged social and/or interpersonal trauma with lack or loss of control, disempowerment, and in the context of either captivity or entrapment, i.e. the lack of a viable escape route for the victim’.
Though related to other kinds of chronic trauma, religious trauma is uniquely mind-twisting. The logic of the religion is circular and blames the victim for problems; the system demands deference to spiritual authorities no matter what they do; and the larger society may not identify a problem or intervene as in cases of physical or sexual abuse, even though the same symptoms of depression and anxiety and panic attacks can occur.
RTS, as a diagnosis, is in early stages of investigation, but appears to be a useful descriptor beyond the labels used for various symptoms – depression, anxiety, grief, anger, relationship issues, and others. It is our hope that it will lead to more knowledge, training, and treatment. Like the naming of other disorders such as anorexia or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the RTS label can help sufferers feel less alone, confused, and self-blaming.
Leaving the Fold. Breaking out of a restrictive, mind-controlling religion can be liberating: Certain problems end(!), such as trying to twist one’s thinking to believe irrational doctrines, and conforming to repressive codes of behavior. However, for many reclaimers making the break is the most disruptive, difficult upheaval they have ever experienced. Individuals who were most sincere, devout, and dedicated often are the ones most traumatized when their religious world crumbles.
Rejecting a religious model of reality that has been passed on through generations is a major cognitive and emotional disruption. For many reclaimers, it is like a death or divorce. Their ‘relationship’ with God was a central assumption of their lives, and giving it up feels like an enormous loss to be grieved. It can be like losing a lover, a parent, or best friend.
On top of shattered assumptions comes the loss of family and friends. Churches vary with official doctrine about rejection. The Mormon Church, for all the intense focus on “family forever,” is devastating to leave, and the Jehovah Witnesses require families to shun members who are “disfellowshiped.”
The rupture can destroy homes, splitting spouses and alienating parents from children.
For Women, Psychological Costs of Belief Include Subjugation and Self-loathing.
Christianity poses a special set of psychological risks for people who, according to the Iron Age hierarchy found in the Bible are unclean or property, including women. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the combination of denigration and subservience takes a psychological toll on women in Christianity as it does in Islam. Not only do women submit to marital abuse and undesired sexual contact, some tolerate the same toward their children, and men of God sometimes exploit this vulnerability, as in the case of Catholic and Protestant child sexual abuse. But most of the damage is far more subtle: lower self-esteem, less independence and confidence; abandoned dreams and goals.
Why Harm Goes Unrecognized. What is the sum cost of having millions of people holding to a misogynist, authoritarian, fear-based supernatural view of the universe? The consequences far-reaching, even global, but many are hidden, for two reasons.
One is the nature of the trauma itself. Unlike other harm, such as physical beating or sexual abuse, the injury is far from obvious to the victim, who has been taught to self-blame. It’s as if a person black and blue from a caning were to think it was self-inflicted.
The second reason that religious harm goes unrecognized is that Christianity is still the cultural backdrop for the indoctrination. While the larger society may not be fundamentalist, references to God and faith abound. The Bible gets used to swear in witnesses and even the U.S. president. Common phrases are “God willing,” “God bless,” “God helps those that help themselves,” “In God we trust,” and so forth. These lend credence to theistic authority.
Religious trauma is difficult to see because it is camouflaged by the respectability of religion in culture. To date, parents are afforded the right to teach their own children whatever doctrines they like, no matter how heinous, degrading, or mentally unhealthy. Even helping professionals largely perceive Christianity as benign. This will need to change for treatment methods to be developed and people to get help that allows them to truly reclaim their lives.
This article was adapted from “The Crazy Making in Christianity” Chapter 19 in Christianity is Not Great: How Faith Fails, edited by John Loftus, Prometheus Books, October 2014.
Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.