Religious Trauma is a real thing. I know it. I feel it. I see it in others. And there is official recognition these days! A few years ago, I interviewed Teresa Mateus. Our Skype connection did not work so I had my computer record the squeaky voice that came through the speaker of my iPhone 4s. It worked. As I spoke to her, Teresa seemed to discuss people who have undergone serious abuse in the church. I did realize that such abuse happens in many different forms and intensities. I suppose in the back of my mind I even realized that I was affected too but I was mainly thinking about people other than myself.
But I began to notice something over the past few years, before and after the interview—something that other people noticed as well and did not appreciate much—is that I have been very angry at the evangelical movement. I’ve been outright unfriendly at times, if not rude. Yes, rude! Instead of this anger getting less over time, it has intensified over time. Initially, I contributed this anger, in a typical move of a glorious mechanism called self-justification, to a source outside myself. “My” evangelicals had elected en masse an obviously dangerous man to become the president of the United States, thereby endangering the world and making themselves odious in the eyes of every living non-evangelical. As they persisted in their support for Trump over time in spite of mounting evidence that this presidency is a disastrous one, their folly and hypocrisy were exposed. And there you have the reason for my anger, I thought.
To be sure, I think the 2016 presidential election is certainly, at least in part, an explanation of why I’m angry. But something else happened. My return to the Netherlands is what happened. After 8 years in the USA, returning to Europe was not a piece of cake. Joblessness, a sense of irrelevance, and the struggle to re-enter were compounded by the news that my sister has breast cancer. Dealing with both the void between the current and the former version of me as well as dealing with the general absence of the slightest hint of divine providence got me very angry. Very angry, to be honest. I was openly angry at God. A first.
In a way, this is odd. My theology has since long departed from evangelical and Calvinistic conceptions of God and I was fine with a kind of agnostic position as to God’s providence (heck, even with regard to God’s existence). So why the rage? Why become so angry at a discarded construct of a divine being whose existence is a mute subject for a theologian of the cross with radical theological leanings (i.e. me)? I remember getting enraged about this issue in front of my daughter. But she laughed when I did as she has no problem with God receiving some hostile push-back. After all, she has already discovered that prayers actually do not get answered. I remember shouting at my sister (the one with the breast cancer) trying to explain why I’m done with the hypocrisy of the faithful and the fake theology with which we soothe ourselves. And I got surprised looks. I was even surprised. Why so much rage?
And We Have a Name
Then a friend sent me a link to an interview with Marlene Winell, a psychologist who has done research on the topic of what she labels Religious Trauma Syndrome. According to Winell, who is herself a victim of mental abuse in a Pentecostal denomination, RTS is a genuine disorder that can occur when people undergo total immersion in an emotionally controlling environment from an early age as they are told that they are bad through and through.
Says Winell, “In addition to anxiety, RTS can include depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning. In fundamentalist Christianity, the individual is considered depraved and in need of salvation. A core message is “You are bad and wrong and deserve to die.” (The wages of sin is death.)”
What makes RTS different from PTSD, according to Winell, is that people with RTS have been told that they are the problem when the symptoms show. Instead of recognition of their issues, they are told off or told they need to behave. Or they encounter rejection. Plenty of rejection in fact. A bit like the rejection I get from some of my friends who do not like my angry posts on Facebook. “Don’t you have anything positive to contribute?” they say, “What’s the point of pissing on a group of Christians?” Well, maybe because they are causing incredible harm to people and train people to harm others. Maybe because their apocalyptic outlook is steering the most powerful country in the world toward an abyss dragging the whole world with it. Maybe because I have RTS? AND IT NEEDS TO COME OUT!
RTS finally has a name because more and more people, esp. in North America, are moving out of the evangelical churches often marked by a faith that requires total immersion in the world of their subculture. Such faith demands spiritual “success.” It tells people about their sinfulness while requiring them to exhibit the sign of sanctification. Where fundamentalist social ethics roughly corresponded to its surrounding culture in the USA before 1870 the world has rapidly changed since then. The tension between biblicist ethics and the world has become more unbearable as time went by. We now live in an age in which absolutist paradigms with their alleged infallible claim to truth are suspect and considered insincere. So people are coming out of such toxic environments in ever greater numbers. Often they find themselves vulnerable in a world for which they did not really develop coping mechanisms. They suffer from anxiety, anger, and a general sense of being betrayed by church and God. And there is often nobody waiting for them on the other end.
So, how does one overcome RTS? Based on my own experience, which is personal and limited in scope, I advise the following things. And be adviced, I do so as a theologian. Whereas most advice comes from psychologists and rightly so, I believe theologians can be of great help in the process of deconstruction, leaving, and starting anew. After all, the decision to leave is based in part on theological decisions. So, here we go.
1. Overcome by not going back
It is heroic—perhaps with a lower case “h” but nonetheless heroic—to say No to a faith community that you belonged to for all of your life. Perhaps this church community was even all the social life you had. Being part of it is how you made sense of the world. Yet, going back now would be tantamount to succumbing to everything that was wrong to it. It would amount to self-destruction. It would mean to fall prey to the same total immersion and its attendant abuse that harmed you up till now. You overcome RTS by resolving not to go back. Making the resolve alone can already provide a boost to your morale. It does to mine. For me, it’s like taking a double shot of Jameson that makes me feel like I’m on top of the world.
2. Overcome by finding partners in crime
It is essential that you find people who like you departed from the faith. Whether “faith” stands for Christianity, religion, or merely that particular fundamentalist community that did you harm. Precisely because leaving the fold often means severing important social ties and breaking community with those who provided a social network, you need other people. Big time. Personally, I’ve not had many friends who deconstructed like me, but I had one or two and that was what I needed. Now that I’m back in the Netherlands I’m no longer part of the academic communities that nurtured my liberal, radical soul, but there’s internet. I’m a member of various Facebook groups like Exvangelicals, Post-evangelical Writers Group, Faith Shift, Liberal Christians, and Progressive Christians, What is Pyro Theology?, and Radical Theology. These are all very helpful places to interact with people who are, like me, traumatized by the falling away of faith. Some of these places are good for exploring alternative approaches to doing theology. Check them out if you so desire or go visit a pub.
3. Overcome by letting the anger come out
I feel bad about the times that I have offended former professors, evangelical friends and acquaintances, and others who take offense at my deconstructive utterances. To be sure, I don’t want to make people angry. It feels awful to know that I may have hurt people; almost as bad as realizing there’s gossip going around about me, the backslider degenerate despiser of Christianity. But it is what it is. I am a public theologian; at least, I really want to try to be one. And so I open my mouth through the public avenues that social media afford me. The anger needs to come out; the trauma needs to be expressed. No healing or moving on without it. Besides, someone needs to create a little prophetic noise against not just the emotional abuse but also the way a lot of religion (including a lot of Christianity) hampers the cause of justice through wrong ideas about God and world. So, go for it. Shout what you have to say from the rooftops. There’s healing in rage.
4. Overcome by going to a therapist
You may have to go to a therapist. Make sure to go to a licensed psychologist and bring the Winell interview, linked above, with you. RTS is not a new phenomenon but is only recently being recognized as an official diagnose. It may be necessary to seek help from a professional to untangle all the layers of misogyny, self-deprecation, subculture myopia, legalism, enforced spiritual euphoria, self-congratulatory religious hypocrisy, frustrated sexuality, justification of injustice and maintenance of the status quo by theological means. It is not a weakness to see a psychologist. People suffering from anxiety are often brave and courageous in their weakness because they don’t give up trying to make life work. A psychologist may help you in becoming an overcomer.
5. Overcome by learning to embrace the world in its givenness
Because people coming out of fundamentalist faith communities have always learned to reject the world by equating it with sin, Satan’s empire, or the gateway to hell, it may take some time to learn to do this well. To use a theological argument (I’m still a theologian!) based on the incarnation: If the world was so much the object of God’s love that God sent the only begotten Son to partake in its flesh, its embodied reality, its pain, its sin, its sickness, its suffering, and its death, to be sure, there’s something innately good and transcendently beautiful about the world. Enjoy the good and beautiful things the world offers because you only live once. If you’re still a Christian, ponder God’s love for the world and follow Jesus in wholeheartedly embracing this world in all its beauty and brokenness, giving from yourself toward its healing.
6. Overcome by doing better theology
The fact that fundamentalist faith traditions use the Bible and have built entire systems of theological knowledge, doesn’t mean that theological thinking per se is bad or that the Bible is a rotten book that only brings corruption. If you’re done with Christianity, please, go and don’t worry about my advise here. However, if you’re still committed to some form of Christian thinking, please realize that there are many Christians out there who abhor the fundamentalist approach and create theology that brings healing in order to reconcile God and world, in order to live out the love of God in this world, in order to be true to the world in its givenness. And if you feel like it, do your part in creating new theology or living it differently. Many of us still think that Jesus Christ was the real deal. Rediscovering that for today is an exciting thing.
7. Overcome by being true to yourself and pursue your own path
Lastly, be true to yourself. Don’t ever allow people to tell you what you should believe or what you should do unless you have a solid reason to commit to a new way of living or a new community. I’m not advocating hyper-individualism here but rather would like to emphasize that inauthentic constructs of God and humanity should always be rejected. You can tell a tree by its fruit. Look for genuine love, world-affirming theologies and philosophies, Be true to yourself. It’s your path. It’s your story. Be proud of it.
I’m sure there are more ways to overcome. These are mine. If I can help with this process speaking from a theologian’s perspective, great! Feel free to add your own advice in the comments, whether on this blog or on social media. Feel free to disagree with me. I can handle it. A lot of people disagree with me these days. Most simply ghost me. Guess who they are!
Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma by Teresa Mateus
Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart by Kathy Escobar