NOTE: Though this article deals primarily with those who have been involved with Fundamentalist sects, there are co-relations with non-Fundamentalist Christian sects as well.
At age sixteen I began what would be a four year struggle with bulimia. When the symptoms started, I turned in desperation to adults who knew more than I did about how to stop shameful behavior—my Bible study leader and a visiting youth minister. “If you ask anything in faith, believing,” they said. “It will be done.” I knew they were quoting the Word of God. We prayed together, and I went home confident that God had heard my prayers.
But my horrible compulsions didn’t go away. By the fall of my sophomore year in college, I was desperate and depressed enough that I made a suicide attempt. The problem wasn’t just the bulimia. I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn’t fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God. It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.
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.”
Is toxic religion simply misinterpretation? What is religious trauma? Why does Winell believe religious trauma merits its own diagnostic label? I asked her.
Let’s start this interview with the basics. What exactly is religious trauma syndrome?
Winell: Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. The RTS label provides a name and description that affected people often recognize immediately. Many other people are surprised by the idea of RTS, because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. Just like telling kids about Santa Claus and letting them work out their beliefs later, people see no harm in teaching religion to children.
But in reality, religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. The public is somewhat familiar with sexual and physical abuse in a religious context. As Journalist Janet Heimlich has documented in, Breaking Their Will, Bible-based religious groups that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure and use harsh parenting methods can be destructive.
But the problem isn’t just physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin 2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.
Can you give me an example of RTS from your consulting practice?
Winell: I can give you many. One of the symptom clusters is around fear and anxiety. People indoctrinated into fundamentalist Christianity as small children sometimes have memories of being terrified by images of hell and apocalypse before their brains could begin to make sense of such ideas. Some survivors, who I prefer to call “reclaimers,” have flashbacks, panic attacks, or nightmares in adulthood even when they intellectually no longer believe the theology. One client of mine, who during the day functioned well as a professional, struggled with intense fear many nights. She said,
I was afraid I was going to hell. I was afraid I was doing something really wrong. I was completely out of control. I sometimes would wake up in the night and start screaming, thrashing my arms, trying to rid myself of what I was feeling. I’d walk around the house trying to think and calm myself down, in the middle of the night, trying to do some self-talk, but I felt like it was just something that – the fear and anxiety was taking over my life.
Or consider this comment, which refers to a film used by Evangelicals to warn about the horrors of the “end times” for nonbelievers.
I was taken to see the film “A Thief In The Night”. WOW. I am in shock to learn that many other people suffered the same traumas I lived with because of this film. A few days or weeks after the film viewing, I came into the house and mom wasn’t there. I stood there screaming in terror. When I stopped screaming, I began making my plan: Who my Christian neighbors were, who’s house to break into to get money and food. I was 12 yrs old and was preparing for Armageddon alone.
In addition to anxiety, RTS can include depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning. In fundamentalist Christianity, the individual is considered depraved and in need of salvation. A core message is “You are bad and wrong and deserve to die.” (The wages of sin is death.) This gets taught to millions of children through organizations like Child Evangelism Fellowship, and there is a group organized to oppose their incursion into public schools. I’ve had clients who remember being distraught when given a vivid bloody image of Jesus paying the ultimate price for their sins. Decades later they sit telling me that they can’t manage to find any self-worth.
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.
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.
Born-again Christianity and devout Catholicism tell people they are weak and dependent, calling on phrases like “lean not unto your own understanding” or “trust and obey.” People who internalize these messages can suffer from learned helplessness. I’ll give you an example from a client who had little decision-making ability after living his entire life devoted to following the “will of God.” The words here don’t convey the depth of his despair.
I have an awful time making decisions in general. Like I can’t, you know, wake up in the morning, “What am I going to do today? Like I don’t even know where to start. You know all the things I thought I might be doing are gone and I’m not sure I should even try to have a career; essentially I babysit my four-year-old all day.
Authoritarian religious groups are subcultures where conformity is required in order to belong. Thus if you dare to leave the religion, you risk losing your entire support system as well.
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.
Leaving a religion, after total immersion, can cause a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, and the future. People unfamiliar with this situation, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create.
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.
Even for a person who was not so entrenched, leaving one’s religion can be a stressful and significant transition.
NOTE: the remainder of the interview can be read here: