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What makes Religious Trauma unique?

On a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, journalist Robert Downen of the Houston Chronicle spoke with Terry Gross about his experience reporting on rampant sexual abuse and institutional coverups in the Southern Baptist Convention. In discussing the lasting effects of trauma on the victims of this abuse, Downen said the following:

But more than often, what we found is that the people who were the most traumatized, the people who had the most profoundly devastating effects on their lives, were not the ones who were just physically abused; it was the ones who, like I said, came forward and were blamed for their abuse, were questioned, were disbelieved. And, you know, we have decades of research that shows the ways in which childhood sexual trauma can absolutely just rewire and remap someone's brain. I mean, it is a neurological physical injury.

And when you couple that with these ideas of divinity, this existential idea, when you're 7 years old and still trying to come to terms with being abused by the man who told you he was a representative of God, I mean, the trauma from that alone is just hard to fathom, unless you have not actually, you know, walked with someone going through it or experienced it yourself. And then to come forward to others that you thought would be, you know, your shepherd and find out that they don't believe you or that they just don't care … the devastation of that is just - it's hard to overstate.

This statement summarized the unique aspects of religious trauma more clearly and tangibly than anything I’ve read in my research on the subject. Religious trauma involves elements of both acute and chronic trauma, and is social in nature and far-reaching in its effects.

A range of human experiences can be described as traumatic, from outlier events like a terrorist attack or natural disaster, to exposure to horrific or violent events, to trauma resulting from child abuse or neglect, domestic violence, or other adverse life experiences. No one of these focuses fully encapsulates the concept of trauma. I want to present religious trauma as another, currently underappreciated, form of trauma that overlaps with other forms of trauma and retains many unique qualities at the same time.

Trauma can be acute or chronic. Acute trauma refers to the experience of singular overwhelming or catastrophic events that provoke intense feelings of horror, danger, terror, anxiety, and/or helplessness, while chronic trauma refers to repeated, possibly less intense, experiences that nonetheless instill a sense that the world is a dangerous or unpredictable place and that people are unreliable and threatening. Religious trauma almost always includes both acute and chronic trauma. For example, a child may be taught from an early age that “breaking the rules” will lead to a frightening form of eternal punishment and damnation, and also experience sexual or physical abuse by an authority figure in their religion. In many cases, the chronic and acute traumas are deeply connected by beliefs that are instilled over long periods of time and reinforced by daily or weekly rituals. Someone may be taught consistently that they are a sinner in need of salvation, a belief reinforced in the ritual of confession and communion, and then interpret early childhood abuse as proof that they are bad. In a case like this, the person may be unable to recover from the acute trauma of abuse without unraveling a lifetime of dogmatic teaching reinforced by communal practice.

Religious trauma is also almost always loaded with connotations that extend beyond the temporal and material world. While a child who experiences physical or sexual abuse may experience people as dangerous and manipulative, someone who experiences abuse at the hands of a religious authority figure may interpret these experiences in ways that invoke eternity or the supernatural. Such interpretations not only lead a person to experience other humans as unsafe, but may also lead to a sense that there is a divine being who acts in inscrutable and unpredictable ways, extending the sense of danger, or leading to a sense of paranoia, where even mundane actions may have eternal significance.

Lastly, religious trauma is an inherently social phenomenon. Like most traumatic experiences, religious trauma is not experienced in isolation but is affected by the responses and interpretations by a person’s social circles. If a person experiences sexual abuse and is told that this experience was actually a product of their own “sinful desires,” they will be unable to process and heal from this abuse. It is not unusual for members of closed or high-control religious groups to rely on their religious community as their primary social group, which leads to profound experiences of isolation and disconnection if they reject their beliefs and leave the group. They may be labeled an outcast, put on a blacklist, or “excommunicated” and find themselves left to navigate a previously unknown outside world in total isolation and without the moral guidance their previous religious beliefs provided. People in this vulnerable position are subject to re-traumatization at the hands of other closed, high-control groups, which may appear different in terms of explicitly stated beliefs and values, but which function similarly to their previous community. Such groups may initially feel comfortable to a traumatized person, but are ultimately harmful.

My hope in my practice is not only to provide therapeutic services to those who have personally experienced religious trauma or whose loved ones are in settings where they experience religious abuse, but also to educate and inform other practitioners about the ways that religious trauma leaves a unique impression on those who experience it. Without an understanding of the unique effects of religious trauma, a practitioner may find themselves wondering “So what? You went to church and took communion every Sunday - what’s the big deal?” without recognizing the way that repeated practices and messages like this can affect self-worth and self-efficacy. Understanding religious trauma will help providers have more sensitivity to experiences that may otherwise be normalized or avoided out of a hesitation to judge cultural norms and traditions.

Understanding religious trauma takes time and awareness, but many contemporary trauma-informed treatments can be used to help us heal from its effects, which will be the subject of a future post. In the meantime, I encourage you to seek help if you are struggling with the effects of religious or other trauma. Reach out today for a free consultation to see if Bodhi Counseling can help!

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