Religious Trauma Syndrome:  a Summary of a talk given May 11, 2021, at the Conference on Religious Trauma

By Marlene Winell

If you want to respond to this article, you can email me at

To begin, let me give you a brief definition of Religious Trauma Syndrome. RTS is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle.  RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith.  I’ll share with you the words of one survivor:

“If I had been beaten, sexually abused, traumatized by an act of violence, or raped, I would be heard.  However, I am a trauma victim that society does not hear. .. Christianity took my childhood, filled me with fear, paralyzed me with anxiety, annihilated my Self, robbed my body of feeling, and stole my future.  They suggest that I’m over sensitive or making a big deal out of nothing or that I don’t understand who Jesus really was or that it couldn’t have been all that bad since I turned out to be such a nice person.”

Religious Trauma as a New and Necessary Field of Study

The study of religious trauma is still very young.  I have been doing this work for many years now but the professional and academic world of psychology has not gotten very far with it.  I presented at an international conference on psychology and religion in Italy and I was the only one that mentioned harm from religion.  In psychology programs, religion is relegated to the domain of cultural diversity with the idea that ethical therapists respect clients’ religion and don’t impose their own.  While I basically agree with that, I think this leaves a big blind spot when it comes to addressing religious harm.

While professional psychology is warming up to the topic of religious trauma, there has been a large growing interest in the general population.  According to a national poll, in March, 2021, less than half of adults in the U.S. belonged to a religious congregation.  It appears that many people are needing help with recovering from toxic religion.  This is evidenced by the countless Reddit threads and Facebook pages dedicated to stories of survivors and discussions of recovery. The facebook group “Mental Health for Exvangelicals” has over 2000 members and has closed the group for more members because it has gotten too full. There are over 100 podcasts, and speakers from this conference have been frequent guests.

Before we go any farther, I’d like to be clear about what I mean when I talk about religion that is harmful.  I’m not referring to all of religion because I recognize that there are groups such as liberal Christian churches that have, themselves, been discussing religious harm and are attempting to create better religious environments that are inclusive and respect the intrinsic dignity of individuals.  There are groups that use religion to promote healthy values, contribute to social causes, and provide needed community.

The religious organizations that are more likely to cause harm engage in dogmatic, controlling and authoritarian behavior; they are rigid in their mindset and intolerant of diversity.  They expect Individuals to conform and not think for themselves.  For the major religions of the world, these groups are usually called fundamentalist or orthodox.  The one that I am most familiar with is fundamentalist Christianity.

I hear the complaint that those of us who treat religious trauma don’t give religion due respect for good things it does for people. My answer is 1)  We already know that.  Religion can give people community and moral guidance.  and 2) saying this is like responding to “Black Lives Matter” by saying “All Lives Matter.”   It’s not the point and it’s insulting and diminishing to those who are harmed.  The point is getting attention to a neglected population, not reaffirming the status quo assumptions in society.  Religion is assumed to be benign, but we know from working with the walking wounded that it is far from harmless to thousands of people.  So while acknowledging that there is such a thing as healthy religion, we are more concerned with learning about the dangerous underbelly of certain kinds of religion.  We are concerned about those who get to the point of needing to leave the fold in order to have any sort of personal integrity.  This is the journey of the reclaimer – the brave person who is reclaiming their life.

Defining what we know so far

I’ve chosen this word, reclaimer, as my preferred term instead of survivor.  This is because I believe that people recovering from religion are more than what they have survived.  They have intrinsic worth and strengths that come with them out of the religion and they get to reclaim that.  They are usually not mentally ill, but rather they are adapting to a monumental transition in their lives which is causing tremendous stress.  The support group I have at Journey Free is called Release and Reclaim, which refers to releasing old toxic beliefs and reclaiming one’s life.

The religion we are talking about is a subset of all religion.  I refer to it as toxic religion.  It is caused by toxic religious experiences, or TRE’s, usually in childhood, but also in adulthood for those that join a religion later on.  The damage is done in two ways: Toxic teachings and toxic practices.  Toxic teachings include many beliefs that are harmful but the most toxic are inherent depravity and violent punishment.  In fundamentalist Christianity, these would be doctrines of original sin and hellfire.  I call these the horror and the terror.  Basically, toxic religions and toxic Christianity in particular teach people two core messages:  “You are not okay” and “You are not safe.”  These are the core assumptions that former believers can potentially carry for decades beyond giving up their religion.  They are ideas that are deep and unconscious out of sheer repetition and childhood indoctrination.

Toxic practices are the ways that religious organizations, schools, and families enforce religious tenets with harmful methods such as isolating children from the larger world and limiting their information, or disciplining them with corporal punishment.  These methods can amount to abuse.

At present, there is very little empirical work on religious harm or religious trauma.  The research we have is mainly of a qualitative, experiential, case-study nature.  These writings have included work by psychologists and therapists like Valerie Tarico and Darrel Ray and many memoirs from former believers, including former pastors like Dan Barker and Jerry deWitt.  The work of cult specialist, Stephen Hassan, applies to any authoritarian group that uses “undue influence.”  Journalist Janet Heimlich, in her research on child maltreatment in religion, identified the most damaging groups as having a Bible belief system that creates an authoritarian, isolative, threat-based model of reality.

In general, it appears that religious harm covers a broad range.  There are differences in the severity of “toxic religious experiences” or TRE’s, and there are individual differences of temperament and personality.  All of these differences produce outcomes that range from walking away from a religious environment relatively unscathed to being deeply traumatized and exhibiting multiple symptoms.  In my work I have noticed that sensitive personalities and people who were deeply devoted to their religion are the most damaged.  Also, churches and pastors with the same basic theology can be quite different by emphasizing punishing aspects of the religion or God’s love.

So is there any empirical evidence?  While long-term studies of religious trauma do not yet exist, there are other, very relevant areas of study.  Related empirical work coming out of the study of stress and traumatic events reveals evidence of resulting disease and mental illness.  The work on “stressful life events,” while neglecting to specifically list religious harm or leaving one’s faith as stressful events, shows very clearly how stress can activate the nervous system and cause disease.

Very significant work has come out of the study of trauma and related neuroscience in the last 20 years.  The questions addressed have to do with identifying the nature of childhood trauma and the long-term effects in adulthood.

The experiences of infancy and early childhood provide the organizing framework for the expression of a child’s intelligence, emotions, and personality.  Consequently, children who suffer early abuse or deprivation endure repercussions into adolescence and adulthood.  When children are exposed to chronic, traumatic stress, their brains overdevelop the fear response and automatically trigger that response later on.  This has been called hyperarousal.  Maltreatment may also permanently alter the brain’s ability to use serotonin, which helps produce feelings of well-being and emotional stability.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study is a large-scale long-term study done by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control that has documented the link between childhood abuse and neglect and later adverse experiences such as physical and mental illness and high risk behaviors.  Among the listed types of adverse experiences were physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as physical and emotional neglect.  A case could be made that these are also frequent elements of religious harm.

According to cognitive and neuroscience researchers, adverse childhood experiences can alter the structural development of neural networks and the biochemistry of neuroendocrine systems and may have long-term effects on the body, including speeding up the processes of disease and aging and compromising immune systems.

In a review of numerous empirical studies, it was found that child abuse is associated with markedly elevated rates of major depression and other psychiatric disorders in adulthood.

When we think of trauma in childhood, we usually think of physical or sexual abuse or severe neglect.  But it can also be mental and emotional.  I remember years ago seeing a newspaper story about a little boy found sitting alone in his front yard with a sign around his neck that said, “I am a pig.” People were outraged.   Someone reported it to the authorities and the parents were investigated for child abuse. But it made me think about all the horrible messages that religious children are taught.  Aren’t fundamentalist children told all the time that they are sinners?  Inherently bad and condemned unless they confess and get saved?  The popular hymn, “Amazing Grace” refers to the self as “a wretch like me.” The shame is just as intense as “I am a pig,” and doesn’t go away because it is pretty impossible to live up to the demands of the religion. It is not surprising, then, that people who leave religion because they admit it’s abusive are struggling at first compared to those who have stayed.

My book, Leaving the Fold, was in 1993 a response to these observations and the stories of my clients and other interviewees.  It took me four years to write, during which time I also had a baby and moved to Australia.  But it was a challenging task which required me to examine everything I knew about fundamentalist Christianity and go through significant personal growth in the process.  At the time I had not named Religious Trauma Syndrome.  I was simply writing about the symptoms that reclaimers seemed to share and articulating some self-help tasks that might help.  It wasn’t until 2012 that I coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome because the condition needed a name.

Theories contributing to RTS

The development of RTS as a diagnosable and treatable set of symptoms builds on several psychological theories that provide an academic framework with which to understand it. I’ll mention four theories today.

The first is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is defined in DSM V as a mental disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event, such as sexual assault, warfare, traffic collisions, child abuse, or other threats on a person’s life.  These events can be personally experienced, observed, or imagined. The important element is the perception of life threatening danger.  In the case of RTS, a person can be traumatized by images of burning hell-fire.  In fact, fundamentalist groups are known for using terrifying stories to indoctrinate children.

In addition to the terrifying stories, the experience of leaving one’s faith can be traumatic in and of itself.  Leaving can be an event that takes place quickly or over a period of time.  Because of the overall intensity and major impact of the event, it can be compared with other events that cause PTSD.  Key symptoms of PTSD are re-experiencing (flash-backs, nightmares), avoidance (staying away from places, things, and thoughts that are reminders), arousal and reactivity, and cognition and mood disturbances. These symptoms are also true for many experiencing religious trauma.

Second is Complex PTSD, a closely related disorder that refers to repeated trauma over months or years, rather than a one-time event.  Any type of long-term trauma, can lead to C-PTSD. However, it seems to appear frequently in people who’ve been abused by someone who was supposed to be their caregiver or protector; think indoctrinated parents or church communities.

The definition of Complex PTSD is interesting in light of religious indoctrination: “A psychological injury that results from protracted exposure to prolonged social and/or interpersonal trauma with lack or loss of control, disempowerment, and in the context of either captivity or entrapment, i.e. the lack of a viable escape route for the victim”.  Small children who are subjected to toxic religious teachings and practices are trapped and dependent on their dysfunctional families. Pete Walker has developed an approach in psychotherapy that considers emotional flashbacks to be the key symptom of Complex PTSD. He explains that recurring abuse and neglect habituates children to living in fear and sympathetic nervous system arousal.

The third, Shattered Assumptions Theory, also called “loss of the assumptive world” by Joan Beder, contributes to my understanding of RTS through acknowledging that trauma can arise not just from overwhelming horror and terror, but the destruction of a human’s core assumptions about the world. According to Beder, “The assumptive world concept refers to the assumptions or beliefs that ground, secure, stabilize, and orient people. They are our core beliefs. In the face of death and trauma, these beliefs are shattered and disorientation and even panic can enter the lives of those affected.”

With RTS, basic ideas that were once taken for granted are now up for debate alongside whatever other crises may have emerged through the trauma of leaving. Rejecting a religious model of reality that has been passed on through generations is a major cognitive and emotional disruption. For many reclaimers, it is like a death or divorce. Their ‘relationship’ with God was a central assumption of their lives, and giving it up feels like an enormous loss to be grieved. It can be like losing a lover, a parent, or best friend. As one person put it, “It is like a death in the family as my god Jesus finally died and no amount of belief could resurrect him. It is an absolutely dreadful and frightening experience and dark night of the soul.”

The last theory, Betrayal trauma theory, advocates for recognizing sociocultural forces at play, not just the pathology of individual trauma survivors. According to researchers, DePrince and Freyd, the most damaging traumas are those that are human-caused and involve interpersonal violence and violation. They suggest asking questions about who did the betraying, the nature of the betrayal, and the societal response.

Many reclaimers feel anger about growing up in a world of lies. They feel robbed of a normal childhood and opportunity to develop and thrive. They have bitterness for being taught they were worthless and in need of salvation. They have anger about terrors of hell, the ‘rapture’, demons, apostasy, unforgivable sins, and an evil world. They resent not being able to ever feel good or safe. Many are angry that the same teachings are still being inflicted on more children. They have rage because they dedicated their lives and gave up everything to serve God. They are angry about losing their families and their friends. They feel enormously betrayed.

Many reclaimers struggle with the emotional aspects of letting go long after they stop believing intellectually. Coming out of a sheltered, repressed environment, the former believer may lack coping skills for dealing with the wider world. Ordinary setbacks can cause paralysis or panic. Phobia indoctrination makes it difficult to avoid the stabbing thought, even years after leaving, that one has made a terrible mistake. Problems with self-worth and fear of punishment can linger.

Naming Religious Trauma Syndrome

By 2011, I had been working with religious harm and trauma for enough years to realize there was a distinct pattern of symptoms exhibited by people recovering from toxic religions, thus qualifying the pattern as a syndrome.  I also realized that many cases of trauma were more serious than I imagined when I first wrote my book.  I did a bit of a survey among colleagues to consider what to call this condition, and the result was Religious Trauma Syndrome, or RTS.  Thanks to the British Association for Behaviour and Cognitive Psychotherapies, I was able to publish a series of three articles in their journal, CBT Today.  It was called, “Religious Trauma Syndrome:  It’s time to recognize it.”  I explained that we needed a name for the same reasons other disorders have benefited from having names.  For example, the name “anorexia” helped to bring attention and understanding to the condition, inspire research, and spur the development of treatments and training.  For individual sufferers, it normalized the condition and helped them overcome feelings of being alone and at fault.  Naming RTS, according to the large amount of feedback received, has had a similar effect.

Though related to other kinds of chronic trauma, religious trauma is uniquely mind-twistingWithin toxic religion, one can often see a cycle of abuse.. A believer can never be good enough and goes through a cycle of sin, guilt, and salvation similar to the cycle of abuse in domestic violence. When they say they have a “personal relationship” with God, they are referring to one of total dominance and submission, and they are convinced that they should be grateful for this kind of “love.” Like an authoritarian husband, this deity is an all-powerful, ruling male whose word is law. The sincere follower “repents” and “rededicates,” which produces a temporary reprieve of anxiety and perhaps a period of positive affect. This intermittent reinforcement is enough to keep the cycle of abuse in place. Like a devoted wife, the most sincere believers get damaged the most.


So what about treating RTS?  A significant influence has been the huge amount of research in traumatology in the last 20 years.  I have personally studied with two leaders – Bessel van der Kolk and Eric Gentry.  They stress the big lesson in being trauma-informed, which is realizing that trauma is located in the nervous system of the individual, not the traumatic event.  That is, people react differently, and store memories in their body.  Some people, depending on personal factors like temperament and social support, respond to a traumatic event with intense anxiety and other emotions.  Others have much less of a reaction.  So years later, some people remember the event, or in the case of C-PTSD multiple events, as intensely traumatic, and react with intense emotion to triggers in the environment.  Their nervous systems can be aroused and the event re-experienced in the present.  Their brains can be essentially confused about what is past and what is present.  The term “amygdala hijack” was coined by Daniel Goleman to refer to the way the emotional system can bypass processing by the neocortex, where rational thinking occurs.

Part of the treatment for this is to learn how to access the parasympathetic nervous system and relax the body.  Rational thinking can then occur as well as self-care strategies.   In my work I use psychoeducation to help people learn about their nervous system and employ elements of a “Trigger Management Strategy.”

From my observations there are stages of RTS which include:

  1. Predeconversion trauma – the harm done by religious beliefs and practices during the time a person is religious or in a religious family
  2. Deconversion – the acute period of leaving a religion
  3. Postdeconversion adaptation – a) the long-term mental health issues, b) delayed development, and c) cultural adjustment in the “World”

Forward-facing Post-Traumatic Growth

Treating RTS requires a holistic approach, treating all aspects of the person – intellectual, emotional, physical, and relational.  It is “forward-facing” as Gentry would say, meaning that individuals are empowered to clarify their values and focus on being the people they want to be.  This has also been called “Post-traumatic growth.”

With my clients I encourage them to write a personal manifesto.   On behalf of all reclaimers, I have written the following:

  • We reclaim our intrinsic dignity and reject the notion of a fallen nature.
  • We reclaim our right to think for ourselves and reject authoritarianism.
  • We reclaim ownership of our feelings and our intuition.
  • We reclaim our respect for our bodies and our sexuality.
  • We reclaim our compassion for other beings and reject judgment of the Other.
  • We reclaim our love for the Earth and the desire to care for her.
  • We reclaim our right to live free from fear of punishment in the afterlife.
  • We reclaim the right to trust our own senses and our own experience.
  • We reclaim our freedom and responsibility for our own lives.
  • We reclaim our right to live free and naturally along with other animals.

I’ll finish with something I wrote for Easter because I think we should reclaim holidays like Christmas and Easter and celebrate whatever we want, since the origins of these holidays is largely pagan anyway.

“On Easter, they say Jesus rose from the dead. Yet, coming out of this religion, many of us feel like we are the ones who are coming to life. Despite all the difficulties – the fear and anger, the grief and pain, we also have the exhilaration of waking up. We emerge from the coma of conformity and stand blinking as we get our bearings. And then we realize “We’re alive!” Here and now, in this world. We pat our own bodies and notice they are real. We pinch ourselves. We look around and see the natural world and we allow ourselves to be moved, perhaps weeping with amazement. With trembling hands we touch the softness of leaves, the liquid of water, the grit of sand, the smooth skin of a child’s face. We see into a friend’s eyes, finding there another being who is also alive and waking up. Together we hear the ocean, we smell jasmine, we see falling stars, we taste sweet ripe mango. We all stand with our feet planted on Earth, our home, and we realize that we have only begun an amazing journey.”




Categories: Uncategorized