My grandfather was a Bishop, and my Dad a Pastor. Needless to say, I grew up in an above-the-average religious home. Standards and expectations were high. My parents made sure the habits of lying, stealing, dishonesty, and so on were expunged from us. They also instilled good habits such as focus, hard work, and patience to name a few.
There is a lot of good that comes with religion – from the laid down beliefs and morals which give us a sense of purpose and direction in life, down to the community and systems in place that provide support religion can serve critical roles in our lives. However, religion is prone to becoming harmful – to the point of traumatising its members.
And, in this article, we will be looking at religious traumas, what it looks like, and how you can overcome them to live a happier and more meaningful life (within or outside a religion).
What Is Religious Trauma, and Is It a Real Thing?
Religious trauma refers to unpleasant psycho-physical responses triggered by adverse religious experiences – brought about by unhealthy, authoritative, and overwhelming religious beliefs, practices, and communities. It is mostly noticed when the individual lets go of the religious beliefs, practices, or community. However, this does not mean the trauma doesn’t exist or affects those within the religion.
Religious traumas can be so widespread within a religious community that it becomes the norm – hence unrecognised, accepted, or even celebrated. To elaborate, let’s juxtapose an obvious traumatic event with an elusive religious traumatic event: A lady who was raped may get triggered – feel shame or anger, or get anxious or sweaty – whenever she hears the song that was playing during the event. Similarly, someone who was raised in a religion that forbids wearing jewellery may experience similar unpleasant psycho-physical responses whenever they attempt to wear jewellery (even after leaving the religion).
Personally, for a while, after I stopped taking religion seriously, I still experienced guilt, fear, physical tremor and heart palpitations whenever I saw a naked lady (particularly if it was intentional – like when seeing a movie with a sex scene or pornographic content). But, my experience is not unique. Many people with religious trauma even report experiencing anxiety, freezing, and panic attacks when trying to engage in sexual activities.
Even though Religious Trauma is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is still a real thing with symptoms similar to Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). There are even a number of organizations – like the Religious Trauma Institute – set up to combat it.
What Are The Symptoms of Religious Trauma?
Religious Trauma syndrome (RTS) has been popularly used to describe the signs and symptoms associated with religious trauma. However, religious trauma is a complex and multifaceted experience – which means different people experience it in different ways.
Hence, it might be impossible to accurately state what constitutes or qualifies for religious trauma without neglecting the experiences of some people (since “syndromes” are a group of symptoms that consistently occur with something). Hence, the phrase, “Adverse Religious Experiences” is often preferably used in place of Religious Trauma Syndrome by Religious Trauma experts.
Nevertheless, some of the most common symptoms of religious trauma – or adverse religious experiences – include:
Poor critical thinking skills:
Because most religions do not require scientific evidence or logic to flourish, they do not particularly train their members to be critical thinkers. In reality, toxic religious communities actively shun critical thinking. The result is that the members become prone to logical fallacies and often get triggered – usually angry or weary – when someone tries to point out this issue to them.
A classic example is when you explain to religious folks that believing what a religious book or leader says simply because it came from them is similar to believing you are the cutest kid in the world simply because your mom says so. Yes, both the books/leader and your mum deserve respect, but perhaps you need to verify the information if it stands up to reality.
If for some reason you think this does not apply to your religion – because the leader or book you believe is true even without evidence – well, that’s the issue. That line of thinking is not critical at all.
Difficulty making decisions:
Many religions groom their members to be subservient and to seek the opinion of the leader or God before doing anything. The result is that rather than finding ways to resolve their challenges, worries, or confusions they would rather sit and wait for instructions from their leader or God. Other times, they may be totally paralyzed in the face of ethical dilemmas.
One sensitive example is the decision of whether or not to have an abortion. Women who have been raised in religious communities that teach that abortion is a sin may find themselves struggling with this decision, especially if the pregnancy is putting their life at risk (and there are no other options available). This can be a very difficult dilemma, especially for religious women as they may have to choose to live a life of guilt, isolation, and fear of eternal damnation (which, by the way, are all symptoms of religious trauma), or just die with the baby.
Keep in mind that without the religious background, the decision remains difficult, but the impact in the long term will be significantly different. In fact, the other (non-religious) may even feel relief after such a difficult decision.
Decreased sense of self-worth:
Religions often groom members to place God (and their leaders) above themselves. When taken to the extreme, members can begin to feel unworthy, guilty, and worthless in the face of what/who they consider God or their leaders.
Someone who considers themselves a sinner/filthy may struggle with self-esteem and self-love. In the real world, this could translate to not being able to speak up for themselves, demand what they deserve, or oppose bad leaders.
Difficulty building strong relationships:
When a person’s sense of self-worth is diminished, it can be difficult to build healthy social connections with others. This is because they may not feel worthy of being loved or accepted.
On the other hand, they may find it difficult to interact and connect with people outside their religion as they may have been taught that the world is a dangerous place and that they can only rely on God and other “godly people”.
Shame and Embarrassment
Some persons may feel ashamed of their religion for a variety of reasons, including incompatibility with their values, discrimination, lack of popularity, and embarrassment of religious practices.
For example, some persons can experience shame and embarrassment about wearing a hijab/”white garment”/vest/etc., kneeling and hitting their forehead on the floor (or wall) multiple times, or walking barefoot in public.
Being unfamiliar with mainstream culture/isolation:
Similar to a child who is deprived of playing with other kids, religion can sometimes cut off its members from what is happening around them. This usually happens when these external cultures are labelled unholy or sinful, hence should be abhorred. The result is that members of the religion become ill-informed, miss out on opportunities, and do not develop as much and as quickly as other members of the world.
I know I had this issue where I felt like mainstream dance moves, hairstyles, drinking, or anything worldly (think clubbing or parties) was inherently immoral and sinful. As a result, I was cut off from most of that and didn’t build any social connections as a teen (outside religious settings).
To date, many religious leaders tell their members that non-christian books – like the 48 Laws of Power are demonic. While others actively advise their members against being doctors, lawyers, or politicians.
Struggling with fitting in and belonging.
Some members of a religious group may struggle to fit in with their religious communities (as they may consider themselves sinful) and the world (as they may not want to be associated with them because doing so would mean eternal damnation).
The result is a twisted catch-22 situation where you feel trapped by your conscience and in a constant state of angst, spite, and self-loathing.
High Tolerance For Abuse:
In the Church where I was raised, there was often gossip about the wrongdoings of some religious leaders. Nevertheless, seldom did anyone challenge them outright. Rather, they would start reflecting back on their own shortcomings, justify the offender, and still endure the continuous abuse. And, I could understand their fear – the clergymen were anointed, and you do not want to piss off the anointed of God, lest you get cursed and punished by God himself.
But, it even gets worse. People with religious trauma often find themselves unable to justify leaving a toxic or abusive person (especially if they happen to be married to the abuser). Many women would endure being beaten and cheated on, or lacking any form of joy or satisfaction in a marriage for the simple fear of what God or their religious community might do to them if they went against their religious vows (to remain in the marriage till death).
Religions that promote sexual purity may make their members believe that sex is dirty or sinful (especially when had outside marriage or in certain ways). This can lead to sexual dysfunction, such as low libido, difficulty with arousal, or difficulty reaching orgasm (or immense shame and disgust after climaxing).
There are several instances of young ladies breaking down in tears after sex, simply because they felt they have sinned. And, it is important to keep in mind that this occurs even if they were sober, consented, and enjoyed the sex. Sometimes this feeling of regret lingers for months, with the lady becoming even more religious as a form of penance or as a means of seeking the ablution of sin.
Nightmares and Sleeping issues:
A person who was raised in a religion that taught that they would go to hell if they did not follow ALL of the laws, commandments, and rules of their religion may have nightmares about being damned. These nightmares could be about being punished by God or being denied entrance into paradise (after death or during rapture).
Besides, religious stories on their own are often graphic, gory, and traumatic, and sufficient to torment members in dreams. Back then, I can’t recall how many times I dreamt of the rapture. It seldom ended on a good note, and I would wake up deeply troubled.
A person who was taught that certain foods were sinful may struggle to eat certain foods or avoid them entirely, even if they are healthy. In other instances, the person may overeat or undereat as a way of coping with their emotions.
For instance, there are a lot of religious groups that forbid the eating of creatures without (red) blood. The result is that members avoid eating foods like snails, and crayfish. There are also some religions that explicitly label some animals as unclean (such animals may include pigs, snakes, bats, and so on).
Some religious communities warn their members that the world is a dangerous place filled with evil people and wicked demons with Satan championing them – all looking for whom to torment and destroy.
Some may predict the end, or give vague reasons that they KNOW FOR A FACT the world is at the brink of coming to a catastrophic end. And, since we live in a world where it is not hard to find exactly whatever you’re looking for, these signs are seen everywhere and every day further CONFIRMING the warnings. *Shudders*.
In order cases, if a person was “spiritually abused” – sexually harassed, cheated, threatened, betrayed, etc – by a religious leader, they may develop anxiety about being around other people, especially people in positions of authority.
In fact, the mere thought of leaving a religious group can be anxiety-inducing as the person may worry about being judged or rejected by the community.
Grief and Depression:
Grief is a natural response to the loss of something important, such as that sense of community, belief system, or identity. And, with this comes sadness, anger, regret, and guilt. The experience may also have physical symptoms, such as fatigue, changes in appetite, and difficulty sleeping.
Religions are often built on the “we against them” mentality. The result is that most religious people do not really form strong bonds with people outside of their religion, or at least they do not invest much into relationships outside of it.
Hence, when they leave their religion (or are ostracised) they may feel lonely and isolated. They may also avoid social situations, withdraw from friends and family who are still committed to the faith, and feel like they cannot talk to anyone about their experiences.
I’ve heard of instances where people were unjustly humiliated in a religious gathering, and sometimes suspended from the gatherings altogether, yet they insist on coming (for more embarrassment?). Just like in toxic relationships, they simply do not want to experience loneliness.
There are just so many ways toxic religious communities affect members.
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How do you know your religious community is toxic?
In the Song, Aunties Diaries, Kendrick Lamar explained how the preacher at his church would often single out his transgender cousin, Mary-Ann, and make derogatory remarks about her. This continued for years till one day, Kendrick decided to stand up to the preacher in defence of Mary-Ann because he realised that her gender identity did not change her worth as a person. Perhaps they weren’t welcomed in the community anymore (which is understandable), but there was no need to keep abusing her with words.
A study of 1,581 adults in the United States found that an estimated 27-33% of them had experienced religious trauma at some point in their lives. But, keep in mind that the U.S. is not a particularly religious country, so the stats are expected to be way higher for more religious countries like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, or Israel.
There are a few signs that your religious community may be toxic and putting you at risk of religious trauma. These include:
You feel like you can’t be yourself:
If you feel like you have to hide your true self in order to be accepted by your religious community, this is a sign that something is seriously wrong.
This can manifest in a number of ways, such as feeling like you have to hide your sexual orientation, political view, or other personal beliefs. You may also feel like you have to censor your thoughts and feelings in order to avoid being judged or criticized.
You’re afraid to speak up or ask questions:
If you’re afraid to speak up or ask questions in your religious community, this is a sign that you are not being allowed to think for yourself or to question the authority of your religious leaders.
You may also fear you will be punished or ostracised if you do not conform to groupthink. In fact, some religious communities can label such questions “blasphemy” and make them punishable by death.
You’re feeling isolated or alone:
This can be a sign that you are not being supported by your religious community. You may feel like you don’t have anyone to talk to about your problems, doubts, or concerns.
You’re feeling guilty or ashamed:
If you’re feeling guilty or ashamed about your natural thoughts and feelings, or actions that are permitted by the law of your country, this is a sign that you’re being taught limiting beliefs.
And, it is up to you to decide if you wish to abide by the rules of your religion or not. Though, I understand that the decision is not always that obvious or easy.
How To Protect Yourself From Religious Trauma Within Your Religious Community:
The truth is that unless you’ve gotten some exposure to what it feels like to be in a healthy/supportive community, you may not be able to know that you are in a toxic religious community. However, thanks to the internet and books, it is increasingly easy for people to identify and sometimes break free from such toxic communities.
Below are ways you can protect yourself from religious trauma even when you remain in your religious community:
- Identify your true self: What are your values, beliefs, and interests? Why do you hold those values, beliefs, and interests? Once you have a better understanding of who you are and why you think and act the way you do, you will be in a better position to protect your authentic self.
- Challenge your beliefs: Ask yourself if these beliefs are really true and helpful. Are they based on love and evidence or on fear and superstitions? If the beliefs are not true or good, you can start to let them go. For example, it’s good to meditate or give some percentage of your earnings to the poor, but it is bad to mutilate yourself or kill non-believers.
- Be assertive: Don’t be afraid to say no to things that you don’t want to do or that make you uncomfortable. And if you feel like you’re being judged or criticised for expressing yourself then so be it. Trying to please everyone is a sure way to be miserable.
- Challenge the criticism: If you are being criticized, ask yourself if the criticism is fair. Is it objectively bad or just the other person’s own biases? If the criticism is not fair, you can challenge or ignore it.
- Set boundaries: You don’t have to put up with people who are constantly judging or criticizing you. You can set boundaries with these people and let them know that their behaviour is not acceptable.
- Reach out to others: Reach out to others who you feel comfortable talking to even if they are outside your religious community. This could be friends, family members, or people in online forums or support groups.
- Get involved in activities outside of your religious community: This can help you to meet new people, make friends, and to build relationships outside of your religious community.
- Find a supportive community: If you find that everyone around you is against your way of thinking, perhaps it is time to find a new community. Keep in mind that there are other communities that are accepting of diversity of thought and opinion. It is best to find a community where you feel safe and supported to be yourself.
- Seek professional help: If you are struggling to cope with feeling guilty or ashamed, you may want to seek professional help. A therapist can help you to understand your feelings and to develop healthy coping mechanisms.
It is also important to keep in mind that extremist religious groups can literally come for your life if they notice you are breaking away. In such cases, it is wise to keep your ideas to yourself until you are able to leave them.
For example, many LGBTQ+ people in countries like Nigeria often keep their sexual orientation secrete until they make it out of the country. This is because not only do most religious groups in the country frown at it, it is illegal to set up a community that supports it.
Sometimes, the best way to defend yourself is to not even be in a place where you’ll need to defend yourself.
How do you overcome religious trauma?
In the popular video game God of War, we witness the story of Kratos (a Spartan soldier) who dedicated his life to the service of the gods, only to be betrayed by them. And, following the betrayal, we basically play as the vengeful Ghost of Sparta who takes delight in annihilating all the gods of Olympus.
I’ve always found the story of Kratos interesting: What will you do if you realize the gods who you have believed, worshipped, and served your whole life are actually the cause of your miseries – to realize that the gods are in fact, bad?
You may not be able to kill the gods like Kratos, but you can revert the damages of religious trauma. Below are the steps:
Acknowledge your trauma.
The first step to recovery is to acknowledge that you have been traumatized. This may be difficult, but it is important to accept that you have been hurt.
Let go of unhealthy beliefs.
If your religious trauma is based on harmful beliefs, you may need to challenge and let go of those beliefs. This can be a difficult process, but it is important to start to think for yourself and to develop your own (reality-based) beliefs.
Find a new community.
Being around people who have gone through what you experienced, or who encourage you to heal is invaluable. This could even be another religious community that is more accepting of diversity, or it could be a secular community.
Develop healthy coping mechanisms.
There are many healthy ways to cope with religious trauma. You could start by talking with people in your new community about your experiences, reading books that expand your mind, writing down your thoughts and feelings, or spending time in nature.
Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself for any mistakes you have made in the past. Perhaps you have actually done things that you now understand are toxic and traumatic to others. You may not be able to apologize, but you must learn to forgive yourself. Keep in mind that you didn’t know better.
A healthy body is a healthy mind. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and exercising regularly. Taking care of your body will help you to feel better and stronger physically, emotionally, and mentally.
If you are still in contact with people who are part of your religious community, it is important to set strong boundaries with them. This could mean letting them know what you are comfortable with and what you are not comfortable with. It could also mean setting physical boundaries with them – letting them know you may not be able to go to certain places, and would not permit certain behaviours/practices within your place.
Find new ways to connect with your spirituality.
If you are interested in spirituality, but you no longer believe in the religion you were raised in, there are many other ways to connect with your spirituality. You could try meditation, yoga, or spending time in nature. There is nothing stopping you from still holding on to the healthy religious beliefs and practices of your former community (if you feel they will help you connect with your higher self or God).
Seek professional help.
If you are struggling to cope with religious trauma on your own, you may want to seek professional help from a therapist who specializes in religious trauma. A therapist can help you to understand your experiences and to develop healthy coping mechanisms.
It’s important to keep in mind that religious trauma, just like other traumas, takes time to heal. Sometimes, you have to cope with it for the rest of your life. So, remember to be patient with yourself, and appreciate every healing and growth you experience.
Conclusion: Religion is meant for you, not the other way around.
Often I get the question, “Why don’t you go to church?”. And, I often reply, “What will I be doing there?”. The response takes most people aback as they struggle to figure out the reasons they go to church. Most mumble something about worshipping God, but we all know God – as described in the Bible – is not limited to the four walls of a church. So, it hardly justifies. The only true justification is the benefit derived from the gathering itself. But, if the gathering is not good, why should I waste my time there?
I sometimes visit churches when invited – doesn’t matter the denomination, as long as they won’t ask or try to compel me to do anything weird. I think it’s nice to listen to an intelligent person teach you certain timeless truths about life. But, I also find it a bit uncomfortable that they muddy the waters – i.e. try to make everything seem like a mystery from heaven/God/spirits.
No matter where you are in your life, I hope you are not giving up your power to think for yourself and make your own decisions. I also hope you are choosing to hold onto beliefs that bring you happiness and meaning, both for yourself and for those around you.
In the end, religion is meant for you, not the other way around.
Below are other resources you might find useful:
- Is God Angry With You? (How To Resolve Your Religious Dilemma Through Self-Discovery)
- You’re a Product of Your Beliefs [This Is How To Ensure Your Beliefs Are True And Helpful].
- The Value of Personal Faith (And How To Develop It):
- Why I Don’t Believe In Prayer Anymore:
- How To Be A Good Person According To Jesus Christ:
- Trauma: How It Kills You [And How To Heal]
A Self-Help Writer And Editor Who Keeps It Simple (Yet Elegant)