Religious Trauma

A childhood marked by religious indoctrination – suppression of normal development; ‘knowledge’ revealed rather than discovered; emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; an authoritarianism which dictates rather than protects; the ugly side of patriarchal power – means that an adult decision to leave ‘fundamentalism’ behind can have damaging, even traumatic, consequences: among them, unfamiliarity with the secular world, difficulty experiencing pleasure, lack of self-worth and sense of belonging, sexual problems, and social awkwardness.

All this alongside the predictable feelings of anger, grief, and loneliness…

It’s not one way, either. Family structures and social networks may fracture and fall apart, and gone forever are the ‘comforts’ of certainty and infallibility.

Dr Marlene Winell is a psychologist working in the San Francisco area of the United States. The daughter of missionary parents, she knew what it was to experience – then try to escape – a religiously rigid childhood. She wrote the book ‘Leaving the Fold’ on what she saw as the dangers of religious indoctrination, was inundated with correspondence from damaged ex-fundamentalists, and coined the phrase Religious Trauma Syndrome.

Dr Winell relates her personal journey to Catholic journalist and broadcaster, Mark Dowd. As does Samantha Field, who knows all about ‘the horrors’ of indoctrination and authoritarianism, but who now calls herself ‘a progressive, liberal Christian working for women’s rights in the Church’.

Once, she says, she was a Christian because of the threat of hell-fire; today she is a Christian because of her desire to make the world a better place …


Image courtesy le temple du chemisier of via ©©

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  • I appreciate so much the support and understanding through such articles.

    I was brought up in a Pentecostal Church in the UK and Church activities and adherence to doctrines. My parents were loving and believed all this was for my wellbeing. I don’t criticise them as they were doing their best for me genuinely believing it to be part and parcel of life’s journey.

    I remember feeling alone and teased by others at school. Thought I needed to witness to all. As I grew older it was imperative that I talk to people about Salvation wherever I went; after all I was purely passing through this life on earth to eternal life. Being separated from the world was vital.

    I didn’t feel confident at school. Nervous and anxious. Going into my first job was stressful. I developed a stammer which was embarrassing when using the phone. At lunch times in the Office I felt compelled to bow my head and say grace before eating, anxious that I would not be seen. On holiday in 1967 I remember walking along a road by myself repeatedly saying the sinners prayer as I was afraid I would be left behind if Jesus’s returned. I was 14 then.

    Religiosity took hold. I recall fighting against swear words entering my head believing that my thoughts would harm others For years I was convinced that my thoughts had contributed to my Grans death when she suffered a stroke. She was 85. I was about 12 then.

    I honestly could write a book. These are only a few examples of my mental sufferings. Although I received support for general depression and anxiety when about 18, it wasn’t until about 4 years ago that I shared mental health issues with my doctor specifically relating to church life. He suggested I should think about taking a break from church. I did thankfully. Thatwas 20 years ago and although difficult, I gradually adjusted to this huge change.

    I could say so much about the last 20 years but suffice to say that the freedom I have found meant that I could live normally and allow my children to grow up in a loving home with no religious expectations on them. They are lovely children and I adore my grandchildren.

    My wife to whom I’ve been married for 40 years was a tremendous support. She is rational and has over the years spent countless hours looking logically at issues.

    The final anxiety up until just a few years ago was the fear of hell which had been with me since childhood – recalling hard hitting preaching about heaven and he’ll and had some talking therapy which helped enormously.

    Sitting here now (31.10.16) I feel happy and at peace with so much to feel thankful for. Being semi retired is wonderful with the opportunity to enjoy hobbies.

    I’m glad I made the break. I had to for survival mentally. I don’t tend to read about the church denomination I was attached to, as any flashbacks would not be helpful. Rather sites like this. Marlene Winell’s book ” leaving the fold” has been tremendously helpful. I recommend.

  • in my opinion, Dr Marlene winnell has defined one of the most important diagnostic terminologies in the history of religjous pathology, and psychology. The unsettling nature of Religious trauma,( looking for god, and the burden of not being enough or not meetng the mark), can verifiably end up in what she terms ‘religious trauma syndrome’. as i see it:
    This has literally driven susceptible and entrapped people ‘insane’. Therefore, the examination of this massivley under reported condition, is urgently in need of official classification and investigation.. The condition is life threatening and ruinous for those who cannot get a healthy grasp on the fact that self acceptance, and not self loathing, in other words,, to be ‘human’, is enough.
    To be mortal, real, whole, honest and human , indeed, are first steps to being
    spiritual. RTS takes the whole debate on the worth of religion to new ground. Lower ground.
    It also takes the latest word of secular and religious persuasions to a new pulpit and platform. As Indeed, God is on trial. A

  • Hi My name is Susan from Glasgow in Scotland UK.
    Thank you so much… I enjoyed listening to your show. I like listening to Marlene and she has helped me identify, what I was going through by me reading her book “Leaving The Fold”, and a name at last for the illness that Religious Abused caused in me… ‘RTS’…
    I lived for over 30 years, being under conviction from “God”… which really traumatised me in my life, but I didn’t know it at the time… I thought, “this is life”. I was living a ‘Ground-Hog’ day of fear everyday of my life, for over 30 years. And even after I had a breakdown 16 years ago, and was in a Mental hospital for a long time with depression.
    I came out and I have been having help ever since. I walked away from my belief, but It was hard as I thought I was damned and going to hell… which I found hard to live with.
    But reading Marlene’s book, kick-started my recovery… Which is ongoing…
    My story is on my web page which was my only way of communicating with like-minded people, as here in the UK there is no such support for people suffering with Religious Mental Abuse to go to…
    Thanks again ‘Marlene and I will look up Samantha’s page and have a read… :)

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