Comfort, guidance, support, solace and inspiration—religion offers all of these things in the best and worst of times. Yet religion also has a brutal and abusive face. I’m not just talking about the rampant sexual abuse that has taken place within the Catholic Church, but about all the other traumatic experiences that occur every day in religious communities. As a psychotherapist who specializes in religious and sexual traumas, I’ve worked with people who’ve suffered this kind of abuse for the past eight years, so what is it that turns religion from ‘beauty into beast?’
Although the doctrines that underlie toxic belief systems, abusive practices, and brainwashing or mind-control techniques vary across religions, the core issues are usually the same. First, in many faiths obedience is valued above all else. Religious authorities can ensure obedience by tapping into people’s primal fears of abandonment. Followers are taught that if they disobey or show dissent, not only will they lose their faith community but also the love of God or another higher power.
Relationships with these higher powers and the hierarchies of religious authority are based on dominance and submission, a dynamic that often paves the way for abuses of power and position. The pervasiveness of harmful practices such as sexual abuse or expulsion from the faith helps to normalize these practices, which in turn inhibits the urge to show dissent or speak out when they occur. ‘Don’t think, don’t feel’ is a common mantra when followers are taught to surrender free-thinking to religious leaders. Critical thinking and emotional intelligence are frowned on.
This presents major difficulties when a person chooses to leave the religious fold, because independent living in the secular world requires more of these qualities not less, including trust in oneself to make the right decisions for one’s life. That’s why many individuals report feeling indecisive and frightened after leaving their faith, which often leads to isolation and an increasing sense that they don’t belong in this new, secular world.
Secondly, these same authoritarian tendencies can reinforce negative and harmful messages about the Self and the secular world. The core teaching that the ‘Self is bad’ is common to many religious beliefs. In Christian teachings, followers are taught that God created human beings in his perfect image, an image which is polluted or destroyed by human sin—like same-sex marriage. The constant reiteration of the message that ‘we are bad’ establishes negative conditioning, and if internalized this can lead to depression and self-hatred, and on to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Individuals that have been abused in relationships are often asked why they didn’t leave their partner, a question that’s also asked of ex-cult members. In both cases the answer is the same—the dominant or abusive party will capitalize on the following kinds of behavior to ensure that the submissive party remains devoted to them: coercion and threats, economic abuse, intimidation, emotional abuse, male privilege, the use of children as leverage, and the act of minimizing or denying abusive practices—or blaming them on the victim.
Thirdly, leaving one’s faith involves a lot more than a shift in thinking and beliefs. It might also mean losing your interpersonal support system, namely your friends and family members. This is most commonly seen among the ex-Jehovah Witness community, whose members may be expelled for ‘unrepentant sin.’ Once someone has been expelled, members of the church are forbidden from keeping their company, and it is not uncommon for a mother to cut all ties with her ‘disfellowshipped’ child, a traumatic interpersonal loss that can lead to feelings of abandonment, grief and depression.
Intrapersonal losses are also common, because many aspects of faith can offer adaptive coping mechanisms during times of stress. When someone feels lost or discouraged, prayer or religious attendance can offer valuable support and guidance, so the loss of these coping strategies can result in the use of practices which are even more harmful.
A common theme I’ve come across in my clinical work is that individuals who have left their faith experience a sense of desperation that comes from the loss of belief in a pre-determined destiny, or the sense that ‘everything is in God’s hands.’ The realization that one’s life is no longer following a pre-determined path can contribute to feelings of insignificance, and a crisis of identity. In an attempt to take control of their own destinies, people report seeking gratification and a sense of purpose from high-risk behaviors such as anonymous sex and substance abuse.
If the choice to leave is voluntary, individuals generally experience acute relief followed by multiple triggers that can induce psychological distress. But even if it isn’t voluntary, the shift to the secular world can lead to difficulties in many areas of functioning such as work and school. Social and cultural losses such as the rupture of families and social networks, employment issues, and/or financial stress can all contribute to problems of acculturation into a new, secular life. Individuals may experience difficulty with decision making and critical thinking, as well as identity confusion. Also common are anxiety, depression and grief; concerns about death and the afterlife; a sense of shame; changes in sleep patterns and nightmares; substance abuse, and/or sexual dysfunction.
Many of these problems are common to non-religious situations too, but there are some aspects of stress that make faith-based trauma unique, particularly the pressure that exists to return to the perpetrators. When someone suffers abuse at the hands of a religious elder, they are sometimes told to return to their church and ‘pray on it.’ This happened to a former client of mine whose husband sexually abused members of their congregation. When she sought support for her considerable psychological distress, she was met instead with the following message: “Strengthen your relationship with God, and all will be well.”
Her primary method of coping was recognized, but her pain was ignored. In cases like these, people are told that everything will be ok if they simply increase their faith, pray harder, or seek religious guidance, when in actuality what they need is non-secular support to address the realities of their psychological suffering. Consider how the same family members would react in the wake of a sexual assault outside the church. No parent would ever tell their child to seek out the perpetrator and ask forgiveness for their sin. A unique aspect of religious trauma is that it is often not recognized as a traumatic event, and this is what makes such events so dangerous.
Of course, religion can offer positive and helpful support in certain situations too—as in the case of another client who experienced one of the worst traumatic events I’ve ever encountered at the hands of his previous religious community after showing open support for his transgender son. After fleeing this community he only found solace when he discovered another church that openly accepted his and his family as their authentic and genuine selves. But in general, secular, evidence-based, psychological sciences such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic theory and emotion-focused therapies show that effective support can be offered to those suffering from traumatic stress in ways that faith-based treatments cannot.
Religion and faith can be beautiful things, and they can be brutal. Religious freedom is rightly valued in democratic societies, but the ways in which religious culture can foster the abuse and exploitation of individuals are real. At their core, the mainstream religions share the same beliefs: be kind, be good, and love your neighbor. But these beliefs must be practiced in community, and in communities power is often appropriated and misused by leaders.
If psychology has taught us anything, it is that influential people can shape how people view and think of themselves, of others, and of the wider world in which they live. Religious leaders have the choice of imparting values and behaviors that are true to their teachings, or translating those messages in ways that heighten their own sense of power and importance and provide a cover for abuse.
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