January 18th, 2023

An Intro to Religious Trauma

So, I gave a tiny sneak peak of this a few weeks ago when I wrote about trauma, but a little professional update: I got certified to treat religious trauma! It’s pretty exciting. There is a small (but growing!) number of professionals who are getting trained to work with trauma specific to religion. It’s a field of study that is getting more attention both academically and in the real world, especially on social media (being generous including that in the real world). As with most fields that are new and don’t have much scientific research yet, there’s a ton of exciting growth and also a lack of verifiable information that is then filled with pseudo-science and just outright falsehoods. So, for now, let’s talk about religious trauma broadly, and I assume I will return to this topic with more specificity and depth in the future. 

We should start with a definition of religious trauma, but nothing is ever easy when it comes to semantics, is it? Trauma, in general, is the brain’s ongoing reaction to an unsafe event. Therefore, religious trauma is the response to unsafe interactions within a religious framework, which are collectively known as adverse religious experiences (AREs). An adverse religious experience can be defined as an event, series of events, relationships, or circumstances within or connected to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that are experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive. It is then the brain’s response to these events that can lead to trauma. Trauma, for those who didn’t read/remember my old post, is not the “traumatic” event, but rather the brain’s ongoing response to that event. So in the case of religious trauma, AREs can potentially lead to trauma, because trauma is about the brain’s response to an event. That’s why not all soldiers who go to war come back with PTSD, because not every brain responds to negative events the same way. Same with religious trauma. Not everyone who experiences harmful/unsafe events within a religious context will develop religious trauma. 

Much like other forms of trauma, I like to talk about “big T” traumas and “little t” traumas. Adverse religious experiences everyone knows about and is familiar with as being a bad thing include being abused by a religious leader. Most people would think about the many (many, seriously way too many) sexual abuse scandals of various church bodies such as the Catholic, Southern Baptist, Islamic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Jehovah’s Witness, Methodist, Mennonite/Anabaptist, Church of Latter-day Saints, Orthodox Judaism, other branches of Judaism, and all the little cults that grew out of these larger recognized bodies. I’m not sure what other word to use other than horrific, but that’s like all the big ones right there, and those are just confirmed cases I could cite from one, singular Google search. So yeah, sexual abuse is widespread and has plagued all organized religions, but my point was that while this is a well-known big T trauma, abuse can also be physical (like generations that were raised with corporal punishment at religious schools), mental (like conversion therapy), or even spiritual (like teaching a toddler about eternal torture, not only as a concept, but as their future destination). Neglect can also lead to trauma, again in physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual capacities. Additionally, many organized religions have communal practices that would be considered AREs, and can include bullying, intimidation, financial manipulation, forced marriage, isolation/shunning, coerced confession, breach of confidential information, stigmatizing of marginalized identities, identity erasure, and gas-lighting. Organized religions will also have various degrees of behavioral control, information control, thought control, and emotion control, which are the four components of Steven Hassan’s BITE model of authoritarian control, commonly used in assessing cult practices. 

I guess I thought I would cover more, but listing all the major churches that have recent, citable sexual abuse scandals took up more space than I expected. I did say I would have much more to say on the topic, so stay tuned! But seriously, there are not a ton of providers who do this work, I could find 3 others in the state who have any mention at all of religious trauma, without checking their specific credentials to see if it was an actual area of expertise. There are states with no specialists in this field, and yet there is about 1 church for every 800 people here in America, so if you are struggling, reach out! If you know someone who may be struggling, send them this blog, or let them know there are a lot of great resources at Recovering From Religion, Dare to Doubt, and Journey Free.