For people who have been indoctrinated into fundamentalist faiths from an early age, losing their religion can feel a lot like losing their minds. The experience brings grief, anger, depression, social rupture, alienation and a loss of meaning for many. Despite this, society for the most part refuses to acknowledge that religions can be harmful, and the medical fraternity is unlikely to recognise Religious Trauma Syndrome as a legitimate diagnosis. By MANDY DE WAAL.
“Though the loss of my Christian faith was psychologically and emotionally and I’d say spiritually devastating… I think one of the most devastating things really for me, or anybody, when you no longer consider yourself a Christian, and you know you’ve have backslidden and become that apostate, and that unbeliever, is the loss of community. That’s a huge benefit to being involved within the Christian system, is the support. Human contact by people who are doing everything that they can to care about you. Outside of Christendom, outside of your church you don’t feel safe anywhere.”
This is the story of Zeno Rossetti who in the days when he loved Jesus was a gospel songwriter and a Christian fundamentalist. This was way before Rossetti, the founder of Obscenitease Apparel, became a lover of reason. For Rossetti, a man who says he knows the Bible better than any other Christian, the turning point came when logic smashed headlong into belief.
Watch: Recovering from Religion (My Journey out of Christianity)
“The walls eventually came crashing down in my attempt to reconcile the four gospel accounts of the Resurrection Story,” he writes describing how he went from being a straight-laced lay preacher to starting up what he calls the most blasphemous company on earth. “All of the four accounts must harmonise, though they are from differing perspectives. My horrid and devastating (but honest) conclusion was that they can’t logically commingle. It’s impossible. These days were the most psychologically devastating days in all my adult journey. Everything I believed in, worked towards, and invested thousands and thousands of dollars and hours in… was a Pile of Shit!”
The anger, devastation and disillusionment that Rossetti expresses are commonplace for people leaving a fundamentalist type religion. US based psychologist Marlene Winell, who has recently gave birth to the diagnosis “Religious Trauma Syndrome” as a kind of Post Traumatic Syndrome, says that fundamentalist religions set people up for debilitating cycles of abuse.
“The doctrine of ‘Original Sin’ and ‘Eternal Damnation’ cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it,” writes Winell on Journey Free, a resource guide for people recovering from harmful religion. “You must conform to a mental test of ‘believing’ in an external, unseen source for salvation, and maintain this state of belief until death. You cannot ever stop sinning altogether, so you must continue to confess and be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite complete lack of feedback about whether you will actually make it to heaven. Salvation is not a free gift after all. For the sincere believer, this results in an unending cycle of shame and relief. It is a cycle of abuse.”
Born to Christian missionaries in Hong Kong, Winell became immersed in her faith as a teen, but suffered when she decided to separate from religion in college. The author of Leaving the Fold: a Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, Winell counsels people exiting fundamentalist religions like evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity as well as Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Scientology and other cult-like systems.
“Human babies are born long before their brains are fully developed and (religious) indoctrination starts at such an early age,” says Winell, who adds that the theist imagery of hell, the devil and Jesus bloodied on the cross, is extremely powerful and is often stored in the amygdala (along with emotions) as a pre-verbal language. “This basically constitutes a kind of child abuse and trauma that is very difficult to undo. That’s why when people want to undo this emotional damage, they often don’t understand the disconnect they experience between their intellect and emotions.”
Religions like Christianity are “coded” for early indoctrination. If you are good, responsible parents you baptise your offspring and from inception teach them to accept faith as a way of avoiding eternal hellfire and damnation. “Religion has often been compared to a virus and this is because religions stay alive by being passed on. They stay alive from generation to generation, and so if you’re born into it and you don’t know anything else you aren’t told what your options are. You think it is normal, you think it is reality. You are able to believe things that are quite fantastical. Things, which if you were told them as an adult, would sound absurd.”
For many parents there is no choice when it comes to passing down a religion. In real, practical terms any “choice” is between proselytising your child into a faith which ensures family cohesion and social integration together with religious salvation; or, it means condemning your child to hell and embracing the stigmatisation of abandoning your kid by enabling them to make their own choices later on. Obviously any concept of choice operates well without the frameworks of fundamental religions and cults, because the consequences of not perpetuating the faith are so severe, for most they cannot be tolerated psychologically.
Despite this many faiths present the illusion of free choice. For example Christianity presents itself as a religion based on free will. The Christian doctrine is of course complex and nuanced for each sub-grouping, but for the sake of simplicity the basic doctrine is that God created people (along with everything else on earth), and commanded obedience. Obviously someone as “wise” as a deity couldn’t punish humanity for slavish acquiescence, and so the concept of moral liberty became important to Christianity’s message of salvation. In terms of Christian logic humans are born of sin (or fallen), and free to love God or not.
However rejecting Christian dogma doesn’t exactly come with a free trip to Disneyland, and if the rejection is outright the sanction is severe, or should I say “hell”. What is hell? Well those fabulous folk from the Evangelic Alliance are fairly literal and their interpretation is: “As well as separation from God, hell involves severe punishment. Scripture depicts this punishment in various ways, using both psychological and physical terminology. Although this terminology is often metaphorical and although we should be wary of inferring more detail about hell than Scripture itself affords, hell is a conscious experience of rejection and torment (Matt. 8:12, 13:42, 24:51; Luke. 13:28, 16:23).”
Photo: Marlene Winell
Dante Alighieri put a bit more thought into his thesis on purgatory which is contained in the 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy, which explores a Catholic-inspired, medieval worldview of hell, purgatory and paradise. In this vision Dante and his companion, Virgil pass through gates inscribed with the words: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”, but before entering hell see ambivalent souls being attacked by wasps and hornets while maggots and other insects suck their blood and drink of their tears. Dante would have us believe that there are nine circles of hell, each worse than the next. The most despairing is the ninth, which is reserved for traitors. At the centre of this icy hell Satan chews Judas Iscariot’s head and forever skins the traitor’s back with his claws.
Just as Dante’s hell operates on a savage sliding scale, religions have their own interpretations and severities of hell. But inevitably a special kind of inferno is set aside for those who denounce their faith. The rule of thumb is that the more extreme the religious dogma, the more barbarous the consequences of non-compliance to the system.
“The Mormon Church is very difficult. I was at an ex-Mormon convention in Salt Lake City and there I saw that people go through a huge amount of fear in leaving. I didn’t realise it was that bad or that intense. I ended up calling Mormonism the mafia of religion,” says Winell, speaking to iMaverick from Berkley in the US. “Leaving that church altogether after being sealed in the temple confines you to the worst level of hell. If you have been a Mormon and you leave, you are called a son of perdition. It is the worst thing that can happen to you.”
Mormon exit sites like I Am An Ex Mormon and PostMormon.Org carry their own painful accounts. “I view the years I spent as a Mormon as a kind of mind rape. Mormonism gave me a terrible self-image (I could not live up to the impossible, ‘perfect’ expectations) that I am only recently recovering from. The farther I get away from that church, the better,” writes one person. “Until a person leaves Mormonism, they have no idea how painful it can be. When I left Mormonism (the last and final time) I was filled with fear and guilt. I was angry at a huge religion that had taken so much of my time, energy and money for so many years,” writes another.
Despite the trauma of exiting religions, people are leaving religions in record numbers. Recent Pew research on religion in the US showed that big shifts were happening in the American religious landscape. Close on a third of US adults surveyed (28%) indicated they had left the faith they were born into in favour of no religion at all, or another system of worship. Younger people hold even more bad news for Christianity. Pew’s research on among Millennials indicated that one in four Americans under 30 is atheist, agnostic or believe in “nothing in particular”. Religion is increasingly becoming less important to younger generations, and young adults in the US are less convinced about the existence of a God.
Watch Marlene Winell talk about Religious Trauma Syndrome:
The research doesn’t detail why younger folk are less religious, but perhaps it has something to do with critical thinking, the rise of the information and the challenge that presents in terms of accepting what are essentially primitive beliefs. As one former theist wrote on a Christian exit forum: “I had started becoming repulsed by the Fundamentalist view of people being burned into fires forever, just because they were in the wrong religion, or people burning forever, just because they looked at a playboy magazine, ate a grape without paying, spoke back to their parents, etc. as deserving of eternal and unbearable punishment forever and ever.”
But because religion and identity are so intertwined, and because indoctrination almost always takes place at a young age, leaving religions remains a complex and traumatic affair. “You feel like you have lost all your moorings, all your ties,” says Winell. “Depending on the particular religion, family or community you are from, it can be more or less painful or negative. But some religious groups are horrible in their response. For instance the Jehovah’s witnesses have a policy, and it is part of their doctrine, to shun anyone that leaves, because the community thinks it is following orders from Jehovah. In a lot of cases it just forces someone to come back because they just can’t stand it. They want to be with their families, you know.”
Winell talks about a former Jehovah’s Witness in one of her support groups who was cut off from her family. “Last night this woman was talking about her parents who completely shunned her and told her that she couldn’t come to see them anymore. She’s 40 years old and she has got a child, a son. She’s no longer allowed to come and visit or to bring him there, and she just cried and cried and cried. To think that a religion could dictate something like that and create that kind of destruction to a family, is unbelievable,” says Winell, who offers a list of symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome:
Winell says causes of RTS are religious authoritarianism, toxic theology, suppression of normal childhood development, the teaching of dysfunctional beliefs and other practices that damage normal thinking. Fundamental religion also demands an external locus of control which promotes dependencies, and she says that patriarchal power, unhealthy sexual views and abuse often dominate in cultish religions.
“Usually people go through a very agonising time because they don’t know what they are experiencing,” says Winell of people who start to wake up to the understanding that the religion they’re in is not for them. “There is usually a cycle of abuse, because the religion teaches that if there is a problem, it is your problem. If you go and see the pastor at church, you will be told that you are not praying enough, you are not reading the Bible enough. So people will go through cycles similar to domestic abuse cycles.”
In Winell’s experience, the world of medicine offers little if any relief. “RTS is not widely recognised at all, it is not in the diagnostic manual. The mental health community still doesn’t recognise that religion causes problems,” she says, adding: “Often when people go to therapy, and tell their therapist that they are having a problem with their religion, the psychologist can’t even hear this issue. No one wants to say that it is the religion itself that is the problem and it is way overdue. We need to put the blame where it belongs.
“A lot of people who suffer from RTS have a terrible sense of failure and they blame themselves, they think that something terrible is wrong with them. They also don’t understand because no one has labelled it properly, no one has said: ‘It is the religion, it is not you.’ The point is to help recognise what is happening and why, so you can understand and know what to do about it,” she says.
In a world where the dominant belief is that religion is benign or beneficial for people, Winell is working to demand that the practice of psychology recognises RTS as a legitimate diagnosis. It’s likely to be a long, hard haul particularly as fundamentalist churches face a decline in the numbers of people who can drop funds into collection plates.
As Bertrand Russell once said, the Church is notable for its willingness to counter greater good: “You find as you look around the world that every single bit of human progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised churches of the world. I say deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in its churches, has been and still is, the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.”
Perhaps then those who suffer the alienation and torment of leaving that which hurts them can find succour in Russell’s wisdom and look within for salvation: “I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.” DM
This story first appeared in iMaverick on 21st February 2012.
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