Exploring Religious Trauma Syndrome: An Interview with Dr Marlene Winell

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In this article, I’ll be previewing an upcoming episode of MindShift Podcast, where I discuss religious trauma syndrome (RTS) with Dr Marlene Winell, author of the extremely helpful 1993 book Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and others Leaving Their Religion. The full episode will air on the 27th of March, and is available on iTunes, PodBean, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart Radio, etc. I have also provided a link to the show on iTunes at the end of this article, should you wish to subscribe.

According to Dr Winell, not only is the book still in print, it is actually selling better today than it did when it first came out. Although statistics are very hard to track when it comes to things like this, perhaps this is indicative that there are a great many people today leaving cults and religions that are making use of this resource in greater numbers today. It is certainly the case that the #ExVangelical community is an ever-growing one, and many within that tribe report dealing with a great number of issues — and RTS is one of the biggest ones most of us who leave the fold have to deal with. But simply identifying it is the first step.

What exactly IS RTS? Perhaps the following definition will assist you in finding out whether or not you may be suffering from elements of this potentially debilitating syndrome. According to Dr Winell, there are two aspects to RTS:

  1. The actual theological teachings and practices of the religion one is a part of can be toxic, spiritually abusive, etc., and bring about lifelong mental, relational, sexual or psychological damage.

As we’ll discuss in further detail below, religion is all-pervasive. It affects virtually every area and aspect of our lives, and this is especially more acute when it comes to 2nd-generation people who were raised in it from birth. Children, raised in a cult or a religion like evangelical Christianity, first of all have no choice as to what they’re taught, and will accept it all as true from respected authority figures like parents and pastors. Secondly, they do not have the developmental capacity to deal with the trauma of threats like an eternity of conscious torment in Hell, being left behind in the Rapture, or being told that they are a sinner in need of salvation.

2. Departing that religion adds a lot of stress and trauma — one is leaving one known world for another, which is very much unknown.

In this second aspect to RTS, those who walk away from their former faith report the painful loss of their social support network, their church community and quite possibly family who are still involved in the religion. Most people leaving their religion or cult behind are completely ill-prepared to deal with this, and therefore struggle to find a new community on the outside. One also may have to work through feelings of anger, betrayal, and grief at these distressing and traumatic losses. Oftentimes leavers experience difficulty finding gainful employment, if they were denied education within the religion, were developmentally delayed in terms of knowledge and life skills, or made their living in ministry. For example, a skill set (and ministry qualifications) that served a pastor or church leader well in a church leadership role may not translate to secular employment in the outside world.

In our podcast episode, I posed the following questions to Dr Winell.

CH: Why is it so difficult to recognize RTS? Isn’t religion supposed to be a benign, helpful thing? Can’t we just leave our faith behind (like giving up the childish belief in Santa Claus) and simply move on with our lives?

MW: “The big deal is that your whole sense of reality is overturned. That kind of faith — and I’m talking about a fundamentalist faith — that involves everything in your life, it defines everything. It defines who you are; people consider themselves Christians more than they are individuals. And, it defines what you do with your life. You’re looking for God’s will instead of learning to think for yourself and make decisions and take responsibility. It defines how you see other people, which is mostly as objects: they’re either objects of conversion, or objects of fellowship. Or objects of temptation. But, you don’t really relate to people as normal human beings. It affects your relationship to the world, which is seen as a dangerous place, a domain of Satan; you just want to survive it and save other people, but then your next life is going to be in the afterlife. This life is just going to be a blink in time, so you don’t know how to enjoy this life. It changes your view of death and the afterlife, too; basically, everything is different in unloading a religious belief system like this.”

That is why taking apart, deconstructing, and then reconstructing, all of those aspects of our former religion and belief system, is such a massive undertaking. Simply embarking on that journey is in and of itself traumatic, which brings about the first aspect of religious trauma syndrome as mentioned earlier.

Other factors to be aware of are as follows: the damage religion can do to one’s sexual identity and relational development; dealing with a sense of delayed development intellectually, because oftentimes people are trapped within a “religious cocoon” or bubble that isolates them from the evils of the outside world — and of course, denying or restricting access to learning, knowledge and information too.

Reconstruction of one’s identity post-religion, therefore, will potentially involve a lot of different aspects, such as learning how to relate to other people in healthy and more normal relational ways; grieving the loss of one’s community and support network, and possibly family too, if they are still within the religion. Dr Winell states that leaving religion feels much like going through a painful divorce, which can be extremely debilitating. It can lead to severe depression and relational problems with others moving forward. For very sensitive people, who were truly committed to their religion and worked hard to “get it right,” oftentimes they tend to struggle the most with the recovery aspect of the journey.

Beliefs that many of us learned as children, growing up in our religious context, are extremely difficult to shake: for example, as mentioned above, fear of the rapture, and that if we miss it we’ll be left behind to face the terrors of the tribulation; or the idea that the world is a dangerous place, inhabited with demons doing the bidding of Satan, who are out to get us. “The devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” is a verse from the NT. Add to both of the above examples that the fear of hell — of eternal, conscious torment in the flames of hell — is a very real image, and not just an idea or abstraction. Finally, the teaching that tells children “You are bad, and sinful, evil and wicked, incapable and empty, rightly destined for hell as a sinner and enemy of God” is potentially very psychologically damaging. These examples, and many others surely that could be added, are the toxic teachings many of us encountered in religion.

CH: What takes place psychologically in adults who were raised with such a belief system? Are we describing worldview-level core beliefs?

MW: “…those are very deep assumptions. Those are core assumptions that you’re living by. You were taught these things as a small child before you really had any defense. Your brain is not developed at age 4,5,6, when a lot of people talk about converting. You know, that’s kind of crazy, to think that a child that age can embrace a religion like this. But kids do, because they can get the basic ideas, and in their little minds, you know, they’ll conform, because kids are, kids need to be dependent on their parents and authorities, so they do conform. So you grow up with all these ideas, and deep assumptions that affect you, a lot of them subconsciously. So even when you’ve intellectually rejected a lot of the religion, you’re still stuck emotionally.”

Others who walk away from it may not be nearly as affected in terms of RTS. Why is this the case? Those who weren’t as “into it” growing up, for example, or who weren’t as deeply invested as others were, can more easily leave religion and not be nearly as damaged or emotionally scarred. She says to think of it as a “scale of religious harm” — how badly were you damaged by your time in religion? Surely the answer to that question will affect your recovery and reconstruction efforts.

CH: Why is it important to have an actual name for this syndrome that you’ve described in your writings — religious trauma syndrome?

MW: “Having a name makes people feel like they’re not alone; they’re not making it up; they’re not crazy; and it also encourages the development of treatment and education, you know, training for professionals.”

In other words, it is extremely gratifying to be able to put a name to the symptoms we are experiencing. This step is incredibly empowering because it adds us into an ever-growing community of those seeking to recover and rebuild post-religion, or post-cult experiences.

Recognizing that RTS is actually a form of PTSD, complex-PTSD to be exact, is also critical point to make. She states that “It’s not so much about diagnosis as it is the recognition of the reality of it so that you can go about it in working through the treatment and the personal growth that’s necessary.”

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I’m an ex-evangelical speaking out about the dangers posed by the Christian Right, dominion theology, and Christian nationalism. Host of the MindShift podcast.

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