by Marlene Winell

Presented at the Conference on Religious Trauma, May 13, 2021

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Hello everyone. Good to see you again. I hope you are enjoying this great conference.

Today I’d like us to look again at Religious Trauma Syndrome and focus on recovery issues. We will review what RTS is, examine the reasons why it is a challenging syndrome to recover from or treat, look at aspects of recovery, and finish with understanding why it is a revolution. I will try to direct this address at both helping professionals and reclaimers directly. Reclaimers are people who are recovering from the effects of toxic religion and reclaiming their lives. They are more than survivors.

As I explained on Tuesday, Religious Trauma Syndrome is the name I’ve given to the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination.

That is, the trauma is two-fold. First, the actual teachings and practices of a restrictive religion can be toxic and create life-long mental damage. In many cases, the emotional and mental abuse is compounded by physical and sexual abuse due to the patriarchal, repressive nature of the environment.

Second, departing a religious fold adds enormous stress as an individual struggles with leaving what amounts to one world for another. This usually involves significant and sudden loss of social support while facing the task of reconstructing one’s life. People leaving are often ill-prepared to deal with this, both because they have been sheltered and taught to fear the secular world and because their personal skills for self-reliance and independent thinking are underdeveloped.

With RTS, individuals can experience dysfunctions that vary in number and severity from person to person:

  • Cognitive: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociation, identity confusion
  • Affective: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, anger, grief, guilt, loneliness, lack of meaning
  • Functional: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatization
  • Social/cultural: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction
  • Developmental delay:  emotional, intellectual, social, and sexual immaturity resulting from controlled information and discouragement of critical thinking outside of the religious environment.

For members of the LGBTQI+ community, RTS is even more likely as individuals attempt, over an extended period of time, to alter their sexual orientation to fit authoritarian religious communities’ expectations.

There are a number of dimensions to the recovery process. I will talk about these in the context of assuming the client is voluntarily leaving a toxic religion and the helping professional is not a believer in a dogmatic, authoritarian religion, i.e. toxic religion. It helps a great deal if the helping professional, whether therapist, coach, recovery consultant, doctor, or teacher, has some personal experience with recovery, but this is not absolutely necessary.

A beginning point is to establish trust and safety in the therapeutic relationship. Having a good therapeutic alliance is a topic covered elsewhere but it is especially important with reclaimers. First of all, reclaimers from a variety of religions have been taught to distrust or o reject psychology. In Christianity, they have been told that Jesus is the “great physician” so there is no need for human expertise, especially in any area of mental health. In fact, going outside the faith for help is often seen as a sin because it means not trusting God. Issues like depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, sexual problems, or even relationship issues are all supposed to be turned over to God for healing. Looking to human sources of help is often considered arrogant hubris, and even dangerous as it might lead away from reliance on God. Remember that in religious circles, the answer to any problem is to humbly turn it over to God, not to attempt personal empowerment, learning about it, or individual mastery. So this means that initial meetings with a reclaimer need to be about providing safety and professionalism. You can recognize this issue of trust by addressing it directly and ask the client if they are having doubts about getting help from an ordinary human who is not a believer. They might be looking to see if you have horns.

This is all part of making sure you are fully aware of the trauma your client has likely been through. The usual skills of a helping professional all come into play, plus you will need to do some psychoeducation. These include understanding the nature of indoctrination, how trauma works in the body, methods for mastering an inner critic (which I call the Idea Monster), and learning compassion for the inner child. Beyond healing the damage, reclaimers also need support to address developmental delays.

Treatment and recovery from RTS is not just educational or intellectual, however. I have found that treatment is most effective when holistic and multimodal. Modalities can include talk-therapy, group sessions, guided visualization, art therapy, writing, drama, and movement. People learn and grow in many ways. The retreats done by Journey Free try to include all these modalities. Because of the pandemic, we are not currently doing retreats but instead we have been running a course online called Religious Recovery Bootcamp, which includes many of the modalities mentioned.

Treatment of RTS has been influenced by modern thinking about treating trauma of all kinds, and I have learned a lot from Eric Gentry, Pete Walker, and Bessel Van der Kolk. From this trauma-informed perspective, it is important to recognize individual differences and locate the actual trauma in the nervous system of the individual. According to Walker, important elements of trauma recovery involve shrinking the inner critic, the role of grieving and the need to be able to stay self-compassionately present to dysphoric affect. Group support appears to be an effective treatment for recovery from religious trauma and numerous services have developed to offer this, including peer support groups from Recovery from Religion, professional recovery groups from Journey Free, and online forums like and the exvangelicals facebook page. These may be effective because 1) those in recovery have lost primary support systems of family and church, 2) social support is a primary human need and relevant in understanding the physiology of trauma, and 3) the social context of treatment helps people feel less alone or at fault.

In my approach, and in our professional discussions at Journey Free, we have agreed that treatment of RTS must be holistic in treating the cognitive, affective, physiological, and relational dimensions of the person, all in a societal context. We can also include a spiritual dimension if we distinguish it from religion and consider it the process of finding new meaning and joy in life.

Let’s talk about some areas of psychoeducation. I usually tell reclaimers about my conclusion that toxic religions teach two main messages that can last for the reclaimer: You are not okay, and You are not safe. This means a reclaimer often has a very negative view of self and is afraid of a number of things – the afterlife, the world, other people, the future, life itself. They are accustomed to blaming themselves for any and every problem because in the religion, good things always came from God and bad things from the self. So I find it useful early on in the process to talk about the nature of indoctrination, and child indoctrination in particular because most reclaimers acquired their religion in early childhood. Let me play a song for you. . .

Video: “O be careful little eyes what you see . . .”

Did you notice who was being held responsible?

Let’s turn now to understanding childhood indoctrination.

Understanding indoctrination can help a reclaimer realize that RTS is not their fault. This is very important for healing from the trauma. When we go over a person’s history, I find it important to say, in Gentry’s words, “We are on a fact-finding mission, not a fault-finding mission.” Even with processing anger with parents, reclaimers can be helped to understand that the real culprit is toxic religion and not any people who were also indoctrinated themselves. When I ask reclaimers to write their religious story, akin to narrative therapy, I suggest they use a third person voice. This helps them gain some emotional distance and creates self-compassion. For those who joined a religion as an adult, we have a conversation about the reasons they got involved, which is to meet very human needs, usually at a time of vulnerability. In any case, it’s important for reclaimers to heal from self-blame.

Another area of cognitive healing and growth is to look at the “Idea Monster” lurking in the minds of reclaimers. This is the term I have coined for the negative, punishing voice in people’s heads that can feel like a haunting, badgering entity. Other theorists have called this an inner critic, automatic thoughts, or irrational ideas. The methods of cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful here, and I have adapted some for treating RTS. I call it taming the idea monster, and I call it a monster because it can be quite dangerous. On the other hand, the monster can be tamed because they are only ideas, not true statements. Reclaimers learn to identify and question the toxic ideas from religion, develop rational rebuttals for self-defense, and learn new, functional ideas and statements. A side note here: I’ve always wondered why developers of CBT never thoroughly address the origins of the destructive ideas people have. Doesn’t it make sense that toxic religion is often to blame?

Regarding the affective area of healing and treatment, a large part is the therapeutic relationship between helping professional and reclaimer. In the words of Carl Rogers, it is critical to have “unconditional positive regard” for the client and empower the client with support for their thoughts and feelings. Expressing these may take some practice since toxic religion does not encourage respect for feelings or independent thought.

I have also found it very useful to use metaphor and symbolism since the more primitive parts of the brain respond easily and powerfully to imagery. For example, the fundamentalist Christian metaphor for life on earth is a battle of spiritual warfare. I ask reclaimers “How do you think that image affects your approach to daily life?” What would be other metaphors? How about life as a school, or a journey, or an adventure, a playground, or even a circus? We sometimes used a guided imagery session to explore this idea.

The most powerful metaphor I use is the inner child. This essentially represents the part of self that is like an innocent child with basic needs and feelings. The other part of self is the adult, or wise person, who can take care of the child while navigating the world. The adult self can have a healthy relationship with the child, listening to needs, nurturing, and providing some rational thinking in solving problems. This is a powerful dynamic for reclaimers to develop because it creates self-compassion, a critical ingredient for healing.

Of course, a big area of psychoeducation has to do with understanding trauma in the body.   For reclaimers who are having anxiety that includes emotional flashbacks as Walker would say, or phsysiological responses to triggers, this is important information. I explain that trauma reactions happen when the person is no longer in the present. They are unconsciously reliving something in the past because something is reminding them of it. The original trauma reaction has been stored in the body, and this makes sense because when a person faces what appears to be a dangerous situation, even perceiving it as life and death, the body is wired to store that information for future protection. As homo sapiens, we are wired to be alert for danger and we have implicit memories, which are out of awareness, that serve as self-protection. When those memories are activated, even without consciousness, we react with the threat response of the sympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that gears up for action. This is the “fight or flight” response and it happens without awareness. If this happens to you, it’s not your fault. It’s as if the brain gets confused about what’s really happening, about what’s past and what’s present. What’s needed for healing is to learn how to intervene when such anxiety comes up. Essentially, what we can learn is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, employing the relaxation response. This helps because when the body is relaxed, it lets go of responding like it’s an emergency. You are basically doing a self-rescue. Now there is more detail to this physiological explanation and a variety of relaxation techniques that can be learned. But again, an important message is “It’s not your fault” and you can do something about it. I have developed something I call a Trigger Management Strategy and clients can form their own personal version of it.

Another part of the process in managing triggers and in healing from RTS, involves values clarification and goal-setting. Gentry calls this “forward-facing trauma therapy” and for me it goes back to my original research in graduate school on personal goal hierarchies. The idea is that clarifying the values, goals and desirable behaviors in your life helps you to go in the direction you desire. So, in the case of trigger management, once you have calmed down, you can more easily engage in behavior that aligns with who you want to be. It helps to write a personal pact with yourself ahead of time that clarifies the way you want to be living. Spelling it out is empowering, and self-direction is more possible when under pressure.

At this point, I’d like to do an exercise with you to show you one relaxation technique.

“Sensory grounding”

In this last part of my address I want to talk about recovery as revolution. This is because of the massive change people go through as they reclaim their lives.

In some important ways, leaving religion is not like other life transitions. An example of an ordinary transition is leaving home – a challenging but normal developmental task. Individuals pack their belongings and make arrangements for a move. Counselors understand and can be supportive. Individuals have a context of many peers. In a normal developmental transition of this sort, you don’t have to reconstruct your own identity, other people, the world, the future, life, death, the afterlife, meaning, values, and life plans. You can continue to trust your feelings and intuitions, and exercise critical thinking. You don’t have reality ripped out from under you. By contrast, a former minister and the author of Godless, Dan Barker, has said that losing faith “was like tearing my whole frame of reality to pieces, ripping to shreds the fabric of meaning and hope, betraying the values of existence. It hurt. It hurt badly… It was sacrilege. All of my bases for thinking and values had to be restructured” (2008, 39).

Religion provides a framework for meeting deep and important human needs. It provides a place to belong – a tribe. To echo Eric Hoffer in The True Believer (1951), religion provides cosmic meaning for those who need a cause. Disillusionment is a massive loss. Leaving religion is less like moving houses and more like deconstructing an entire house and then building a new one from the foundation up.

To borrow the language of philosopher and historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, an individual goes through a personal paradigm shift in order to become a secular person. The concept of “paradigm shift” or “scientific revolution” was famously developed by Kuhn as a way of understanding scientific progress. According to Kuhn, a paradigm is a “constellation of beliefs shared by a group”, or “a constellation of findings, concepts, values, techniques etc. shared by a scientific community to define legitimate problems and solutions.” A paradigm shift happens when “anomalies “ appear, leading to questioning of the paradigm, then a stage of crisis, and then the development of a broader science with a new paradigm. Periods like this have happened many times in the history of science, such as Copernican revolution, the Darwinian revolution, or the Theory of Relativity by Einstein.

This model can be applied to leaving religion and becoming secular. A person who has been indoctrinated in a rigid, toxic form of Christianity acquires and lives with unconscious, all-encompassing assumptions on the daily, cellular, experiential level that touch on every aspect of reality. Here are some of the assumptions, held personally and by the surrounding social environment:

  1. Humans live in a world of sin and danger, dominated by Satan.
  2. Earthly life is taking part in a battle between real spiritual entities of good and evil.
  3. There is a timeline for all existence set by God, starting with Creation and ending with the earth’s destruction and Final Judgment.
  4. Values, morals, and all things important are eternal and unchanging, authored by God who answers to no one.
  5. Humans are sinful by nature, guilty and needing salvation.
  6. Human life on earth is unimportant in the cosmic scheme. 7. Pleasure is for the afterlife, and the “flesh” is sinful. Life’s purpose is to serve God.
  7. Ultimately God is in control and will have justice. Humans do not need to understand His mysterious ways, only have faith and not question.

These assumptions crumble when leaving religion, and replacements are not immediately apparent. This can touch off an emotional breakdown or a complete existential crisis. Because social supports often fall away and professionals don’t understand, it can be a lonely time as well – a dark night of the soul requiring courage and stamina.

At its most fundamental, a “religious” stance in life involves a supernatural worldview concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe. “Secular” involves a worldview that is completely natural in its explanations. Consider these two different paradigms for looking at the world:

  1.  The supernatural paradigm from antiquity posits the existence of an unseen spiritual world with supernatural laws and forces to explain the material world. The unseen is beyond human understanding but has ultimate power over human destiny. Human response to this condition is generally passive, while seeking guidance and mercy from an external deity and waiting for a better existence.
  2.   The natural paradigm views the universe as unitary and natural, vast but available for human investigation. Explanations are sought within the natural order, since natural laws are the rules that govern the structure and behavior of the natural universe, and the changing universe at every stage is a product of these laws. Human agency is generally considered the preferred method of improving the world.

These paradigms are radically different, and any person who moves in their personal orientation from one towards the other goes through a seismic shift.

In this context, embracing a secular worldview or paradigm is not only possible for the reclaimer; a new framework for living is a necessity to proceed with life. Contrast the following secular (humanist) viewpoints with that toxic religious worldview described above.

  1. Meaning is created.
  2. Nothing is certain except change.
  3. Each person is responsible for their own life.
  4. Everyone is equal and innocent.
  5. Death is final.
  6. Reality is a matter of perspective and probability.
  7. Complexity and ambiguity are normal and everywhere.
  8. Humans have a moral compass without god.
  9. Earth is our only home.
  10. Pleasure is a good thing.

From my clinical observations, finding a new philosophy of life is a primary task in recovery from religion. However, for a person undergoing that transition, views such as these are far from obvious.

New images and metaphors are needed.  For example, instead of standing on a “rock of ages,” imagine a bird perched on a branch, not concerned about it breaking because the bird trusts in its own wings.   Over time, the recovering person develops a new worldview from new information, and acquiring new skills.  Areas of human knowledge can be freely used instead of feared.  One of the most useful concepts in the new natural paradigm is to comprehend humans as animals.  To be part of the animal kingdom, belonging to the earth, enjoying nature, and living fully in the present, is a new approach to life.

In closing I’d like to read a tribute I wrote to all reclaimers, recognizing that instead of having faith, what we need to do is have courage.

“Reclaimers, you are the pioneers. Reclaimers discard their confining religions and free their minds from the cages made in churches. I support you, I help you, but most of all, I salute you. Because it is clear to me after many years of bearing witness to the soul-wrenching work that you do, when I have seen and heard tears and sobs and anger and fear, that you are the ones among us in our world that are birthing yourselves. Most of it is quietly achieved, because you are so ahead of the times that there are not enough words to describe what you are accomplishing. You yourself do not really know.

“To understand what you are achieving, let’s try to grasp the context. We live in a world that is only partially scientific, only partially rational. Zealous believers are still performing exorcisms. Faith healing is commonplace, along with other “signs and wonders.” A shocking number of people are comfortable with ignoring the findings of science and willing to risk the future of the species because they trust in a supernatural solution for the earth.

“That is, our culture still has one foot firmly planted in the Dark Ages. Most of the unchurched are also unquestioning. It may be true that they have escaped the nightmare indoctrinations of hellfire and basic depravity, and they may have “self-esteem” and sleep well. But they have also not been forced awake. They have not been like reclaimers, jolted rudely and painfully awake and torn away from everything safe and familiar. No, people do not do the hard work that you are doing if it is not required. It is too taxing, too terrifying, too all-encompassing. No one would willingly enter this wind tunnel that seems to have no end.

“Reclaimers, you who devoted yourselves or were children in the folds of a religion that owned your soul and governed your very breath, will know about this transformation. It is no gentle thing to have the ground give way until there is no where to stand. You have lost yourself, lost the others you thought you knew, and lost your way. It is not exactly the same for everyone. But this much is true: each of you must create your life. You have had much taken from you and it must all be reclaimed: your identity, your will, your thinking ability, your feelings, your trust, your intuition, your sexuality, your creativity, and much more.

“The creation of your new life is large, and more than you expected. You are giving birth and you are the parent. There is overwhelming joy along with the responsibility. There is no more outsourcing to “god” and no more talk of being dependent or helpless or bad. There is struggle and there is wonderful discovery. There are questions that are basic and big and tough: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? What is life all about? All of the questions humans have ever asked.

“I respect you because I see you rethinking everything and rebuilding everything. You used to have all the answers because they were handed to you and then enforced until you could recite them in your sleep. Now you are working on getting them out of your head. You are stripping away everything familiar even though it hurts because it’s worth it. You have opted for integrity over false safety. There is so much stripped away you are not only naked, your skin is raw.

“What a grand endeavor! What heroes! How great it would be if everyone did this complete questioning of everything they ever knew and started over. Perhaps our culture would make more progress inching out of the Dark Ages. And you, reclaimers, are doing this radical transformation with little help and sometimes with real opposition from the surrounding culture. It would be nice, but you are not escaping from a harmful religion into a healthy, evolved, nurturing society. The personal revolution and evolution that you are accomplishing will put you ahead of many who have never needed to question.

“And that means that you will have wisdom to share. It will take some time, but you will find your place, and others will benefit from your hard-won life experience. You will be an “elder” in the best sense of the word. You live here now, on Planet Earth, and we need you.”