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What is Religious Trauma?

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

Palwasha A.

The topic of religious trauma is newly being explored, and there is not yet a lot of research on it’s effects, besides in extreme cases of victims of cults or sexual abuse within religious institutions. While we can get an idea of what extreme religious trauma looks like, it’s much harder to find discussion surrounding it’s quieter consequences. What we haven’t seen spoken about as much is trauma experienced by young people trying to find themselves in their religion with faulty teachers, who can go on to experience ostracism, anxiety and disillusionment with their faith.

For context, I am a young Muslim woman who loves her faith but had many factors drive me away from it growing up, that negatively impacted my perception of my own religion. My experience is similar to so many young Muslim girls raised in environments where their individuality is constantly compromised for the sake of conforming, in the name of religion.

The effects of religious trauma have been compared to Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ( C-PTSD), a kind of trauma characterised by long-term exposure to a traumatic circumstance such as prolonged abuse. This is not how I would characterise my experience, and it’s very worth noting that in many of the cases I’ll be discussing, the trauma doesn’t necessarily stem from religion so much as religion used as a front to promote personal agenda, a distinction that is difficult for a young person to recognise and navigate in their religious upbringing.

What is Religious Trauma?

Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) was coined by psychologist Dr Marlene Winell and is categorised as a “...condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination.” Dr Winell’s idea of RTS is predominantly built from the context of Evangelical Christian backgrounds and seeks to help those who have left those communities come to terms with their experiences of spiritual & emotional abuse. This definition does not encompass all experiences with religious trauma and we want to explore this from a more intersectional lens.

The argument we put forth here is not necessarily that a person’s religion is always the cause of their religious trauma, but that figures in authority positions teaching the faith can do so in harmful and inaccurate, often repressive ways. Over time this can have the impact of alienating, ostracising and traumatising a person, causing them to distance themselves from their faith or in extreme cases, to leave it completely, if they find no other recourse. It is also not reasonable to compare a Muslim’s experience with religious trauma with an Evangelical Christian’s, for example, because the core beliefs, values, and institutions of the religions are so different.

Yet one commonality between them is the impact and influence of a religious community itself. In that within religious communities there is the power to validate an individual’s sense of spirituality as well as dismiss and weaken it, should they prove to be below the expectations of the community or authority figures within it.

What Can Religious Trauma Look Like?

For myself, and many of the young Muslims that I grew up with, our biggest struggle was with the way that we were taught about punishment, death and consequence. Despite having an incredibly educated and well-informed mother, I was still exposed to religious figures that oftentimes relied on fear-mongering and unquestioned rigidity to keep us in line. They constantly reinforced the level at which Hell should be feared, while neglecting the all-important teachings of God’s mercy, kindness, compassion and encouraged repentance. The emphasis on Hell and ultimate and eternal punishment led to my believing, as a child, that I was a bad person because I couldn’t be a good Muslim in the way that I was taught that it mattered. Because I had too many questions, and couldn’t accept things as easily.

Because we couldn’t measure up to the one-size-fits-all standard that was set, we believed that we were failures and feared eternal punishment. So much of our ensuing doubts as young people could have been avoided if we had been taught how messy the journey to one’s faith actually often is. Especially because for us as young Muslim women, the margin for error was much smaller, as it is in non-Muslim society, than it was for our male counterparts. The experience of Muslim women who wear hijab is also incredibly noteworthy in speaking about this kind of trauma because the policing of hijab is often so intense that it’s a constant battle for a Muslimah to maintain her own identity as her individuality is constantly attacked and critiqued.

With hindsight, and greater understanding of my religion now as an adult, it’s incredibly clear that these teachings were less to do with religion (often outright contradicting it) and more so deeply misogynistic cultural traditions and personal agendas. These were fulfilled by men, women and institutions who sought to justify their bigotry with a smokescreen of adherence to religious teachings, giving verses without context and cherry-picking stories to suit their intentions. This kind of trauma often looks like a demand for a person to be just one way, with the threat of God’s punishment over their heads if they do not meet the ideal.

Why Do We Need To Talk About This?

Sometimes, when you can't meet the ideal, it's easier to distance yourself from it. Minority groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, experience far greater and more consistent religious trauma than their cisgendered, heterosexual counterparts, not in the least due to the blinders of bigotry that are an ongoing issue when teaching religion.

The potential for religious trauma to drive people from their faith is significant. It can lead to associating negativity and often backwardness with faith, which is an incredibly damaging outcome for all. Ex- Muslims tend to become some of the most outspoken opponents to the religion, so understanding religious trauma can promote empathy and constructive pathways to discussion. Struggling with your religion and the act of leaving a religion can in itself be a significant trauma. Such experiences come with life-altering consequences that affect the emotional, psychological and social stability of one's own self.

It’s important for us to talk about this also because there is so little out there addressing religious trauma within the context of young people, especially young women, being misguided on their faith, at an impressionable age. My experience was in constantly being made small, told my limits and forced into a role that I knew I couldn’t fit. The negative associations with religion take years to unlearn and work through, which is in itself rewarding, but difficult and lonely.

The driving factor in my battle with religion in my early years was what I saw promoted as the ideal one-size-fits-all mold that was presented to us as what women needed to be, and grow into, that always seemed to put us beneath men and always was just out of our reach. Education on this topic would have helped me and people like me when I was younger, to see God’s mercy and kindness and endless love, to avoid distancing themselves from their faith, or ongoing mental self-flagellation. Encouraging discussion about religious trauma and how it can occur separate from religion itself would have endless capacity to heal.


Edited by: Jessica L.

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