Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS)

Disability and Religion

Ian C. Langtree - Content Writer/Editor for Disabled World
Published: 2022/09/30 - Updated: 2023/09/21
Publication Type: Informative
Contents: Summary - Definition - Introduction - Main - Related

Synopsis: Information regarding Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS), pervasive psychological damage resulting from religious messages, beliefs, and experiences. Religious Trauma Syndrome is the clinical term Dr. Marlene Winell gave for the condition experienced by many who leave an authoritarian indoctrination. RTS is recognized in psychology and psychotherapy as a set of symptoms, ranging in severity, experienced by those who have participated in or left behind authoritarian, dogmatic, and controlling religious groups and belief systems.

Introduction

Religion presents itself as the way to contentment, spiritual health, and salvation. But is this really true?

Religious trauma has been defined as "pervasive psychological damage resulting from religious messages, beliefs, and experiences." Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is the clinical term Dr. Marlene Winell gave for the condition experienced by many who leave an authoritarian indoctrination. Religious trauma syndrome is recognized in psychology and psychotherapy as a set of symptoms, ranging in severity, experienced by those who have participated in or left behind authoritarian, dogmatic, and controlling religious groups and belief systems. Symptoms include cognitive, affective, functional, and social/cultural issues and developmental delays. In some cases, the signs of religious trauma can be similar to that of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).

Main Digest

Religious Trauma Syndrome is currently not an actual diagnosis and is not included in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). However, this does not mean that it is non-existent or doesn't impact millions of individuals every year.

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, and that each of us is born "utterly depraved," and that a supernatural being demands unquestioning obedience.

The problem with Christian groups, religions, or sects is they believe they have the truth. Belief is not fact. Faith is not evidence. To them, facts only muddy the waters; if you bring in those facts or that confusion, what they stand on would be washed away. These groups cannot effectively mount an argument with any true logic, but it doesn't matter. All they need is their faith. It conquers all. Talk about mind control! Religious trauma can lead to individuals believing that they are inherently bad or condemned - especially if they have experienced a purity culture - even after they have left the religion and their previously held beliefs.

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Standing man stares into a depiction of an abyss.
Standing man stares into a depiction of an abyss.
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Toxic Religious Environments

We assume that religion is, for the most part, benign or good for you. However, RTS begins in toxic religious environments centered around two basic narratives: "You are not okay" and "You are not safe." These ideas are often enforced with theology, such as the Christian doctrines of original sin and hell. Religion is a human-manufactured institution that has always been constructed by those who intend to control others by controlling their beliefs, including their worldview. In her research on child maltreatment in religious communities, journalist Janet Heimlich identified the most damaging groups as having a Bible belief system that creates an authoritarian, isolative, threat-based model of reality.

In this book, Winell officially coined the term "Religious Trauma Syndrome." Winell explains that often, RTS goes unnoticed because many people overlook the fact that turning away from one's religion can be, in reality, a very traumatic experience. Winell states:

"The development of RTS as a diagnosable and treatable set of symptoms relies on several psychological theories that provide an academic framework to understand it. Therapists, like others, expect that if you stop believing, you just quit attending church, putting it in the same category as not believing in Santa Claus. Some people consider religious beliefs childish, so you grow out of them. Therapists often don't understand fundamentalism and even recommend spiritual practices as part of therapy. In general, people who have not survived an authoritarian fundamentalist indoctrination do not realize what a complete mind-rape it is."

LGBTQ+ : Religion and Conversion

Disagreements on where church doctrine stands on specific issues remain a struggle for many younger generations. Religion-based LGBTQ+ conversion practices frame all people as potential heterosexuals whose gender aligns with their birth sex (in a cisgender binary model of male and female sexes). Deviation from this heterosexual, cisgender social identity model is cast as curable "sexual brokenness". However, research shows conversion practices are harmful and particularly associated with increased experiences of abuse, mental health diagnoses, and suicidality.

Christian communities are teaching traditional theology and ethics, which treat diverse sexualities and gender expansive identities as sinful can be places where faithful LGBTQ + people are subject to spiritual abuse. Christian communities teaching traditional theology and ethics, which treat diverse sexualities and gender expansive identities as sinful, can be places where faithful LGBTQ+ people are subject to spiritual abuse. Gay, lesbian, and trans people are often told that God condemns them, unwed mothers are told that they live in sin, and many natural human desires are deemed evil.

Experiences LGBT+ people may have experienced:

Psychological Harm

Religious Trauma Syndrome is in the early stages of research and is gaining traction as a legitimate diagnosis. Religious trauma is difficult to see because the respectability of religion camouflages it in culture. To date, parents are afforded the right to teach their children whatever doctrines they like, no matter how heinous, degrading, or mentally unhealthy.

The psychological harm caused by authoritarian religion has been addressed by authors before the naming of religious trauma syndrome. These writings have included work by psychologists and therapists (Tarico, Ray, Winell, Kramer & Alstad, Hassan, Cohen, Watters, Greven, Moyers) and many memoirs from former believers, including former pastors (Babinski, Loftus, Barker, DeWitt).

RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one's connection with one's faith. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD).

There is a common misconception that members of organized religion or fundamentalism always have a choice of leaving  -  they often cannot do so without paying the price. Not only are many traumatized by this existence, those leaving, or even just contemplating leaving, for whatever reason, more often than not experience tremendous psychological, emotional, financial, logistical, educational, legal, familial, social, and sometimes life-threatening challenges.

Those leaving, or attempting to leave, organized religion or fundamentalism are often mocked, misunderstood, ostracized, gaslit, belittled, pathologized, shunned, fired, alienated from their children, and, in the most extreme cases, even killed or driven to suicide  - often at the hands of their flesh and blood. Even after people leave religions where they have suffered abuse, they can still harbor the emotional conviction that they are "basically sinful and wrong," says Marlene Winell, a human development expert who coined the term "religious trauma syndrome" in a series of articles in 2011.

Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome Include:

While these signs and symptoms are typical in those who have experienced religious trauma, it is important to note that religious trauma can manifest in many ways. No two people will have the same experience.

Causes of Religious Trauma Syndrome

Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology, which is received and reinforced at church, school, and home, can result in

Examples of Religious Trauma Syndrome Include:

The Steady Decline of Religion in America

Americans are less religious than ever. A third of American adults under 30 and a fifth of all Americans don't identify with any religion, according to a 2012 study by Pew Research (an increase from 15 percent in 2007).

Which religion is declining the most? People who identified as Catholic declined from 81% in 1986 to 47% in 2020, while the number of people who identified as not religious rose from 16% to 40%.

A Pew Research Center survey, released in December 2021, found that 29% of U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2016. A growing number of Americans said they are also praying less often. About 32% of those polled by Pew Research from May 29 to Aug. 25 said they seldom or never pray. That's up from 18% of those polled by the group in 2007. According to the survey, millennials are leading the shift away from organized religion.

"The secularizing shifts evident in American society so far in the 21st century shows no signs of slowing," said Gregory Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center.

Regarding identity, Generation Z is the least religious generation yet. More than one-third (34 percent) of Generation Z are religiously unaffiliated, a significantly larger proportion than among millennials (29 percent) and Generation X (25 percent).

Leaving Religion

Deciding to leave your faith is a complicated process. While it can feel freeing, it can leave you confused, depressed, guilty, angry... the list goes on. When you've been a part of a religious group (i.e., a church, a gathering, a community) for most of your life, leaving is not just a life transition - it is a decision that shakes the foundation of who you are and who you've always believed you were supposed to be. You may lose friends, family, and others in your community. In many ways, it can feel like starting over. People transitioning out of faith usually feel overwhelmed and unsure of what is next. Therapy can help untangle some of these confusing feelings.

"People who leave or are left by their faith lose a lot more than a place to go on Sunday morning. They lose relationships with family and friends, social status, tribal approval, and self-esteem. They lose their God, their identity, their certainty, their gravity." - Reba Riley, author of the forthcoming Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing.

RTS remains largely invisible because there are pressures from friends or family to return to the repressive system that victims attempt to escape. Instead of being seen as something that does not leave a feeling of trauma in individuals who have gone through such a life change, religious trauma needs to be taken as seriously as PTSD.

It's tough when people come out of an authoritarian church or cult or another religious group, and are completely on their own with it, don't even realize what they were in, or try to get help from people who don't know this kind of trauma. The more knowledgeable support that is out there, the better!

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Cite This Page (APA): Langtree, I. C. (2022, September 30 - Last revised: 2023, September 21). Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS). Disabled World. Retrieved July 21, 2024 from www.disabled-world.com/communication/religion/rts.php

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