What are the Different Types of Religious Trauma?
Updated: Oct 26
Why is trauma that occurs in religious contexts so difficult to heal? One explanation was offered by a woman who emailed me after listening to a guest podcast. She said, "I had a difficult childhood. Lots of bad things happened to me. I have a lot to heal, but when I sought spiritual help and received more pain and shame, it just made everything so much worse."
Yes, it makes it so much worse. Granted, this isn't always what happens but when it does, it certainly makes it worse. As I listened to the stories shared with me, I began to see themes or categories in the ways people were harmed. In every type of religious trauma, there is a loss of power or agency (the ability to make our own choices). There is also a layer of shame for not being spiritual enough, forgiving enough, or strong enough to "just move on." I was beginning to recognize this seven years ago when I wrote this blog.
Sometimes it is helpful to see what happened to you as part of a bigger picture. In the following list, I exclusively use the term Religious Trauma, though others distinguish between abuse, trauma, and adverse religious experiences (see one example of definitions here). This is a field of study that is still emerging. One reason I use the term RT is to emphasize the physical impact as consistent with other traumas.
Abuse indicates something done to me and it is a valid word in that context. Trauma on the other hand is more than the event, it is the physical and emotional impact that I carry in my body as a result. I can’t erase the abuse (though my mind tried). As Bessel van der Kolk said, “The body keeps the score.” Understanding the trauma as physical gives us increased hope for healing (more on this in a later blog).
I appreciate and respect my friends and colleagues who have helped me to better understand RT. There are so many who have done the work to heal from RT. Like me, they feel compassion for the pain you may have suffered—most have come to this work through their own stories. In upcoming blogs, I will highlight their work as it pertains to one of the following categories. This list is a work in progress, both in what is included and how it is defined. I do believe it will give you a sense of what types of experiences can cause RT.
Developmental Religious Trauma:* Religion-sanctioned early childhood punitive and/or isolating behavior control methods that remove agency and impact attachment relationships.
Complex Developmental Religious Trauma: Childhood abuse that is ongoing and sanctioned or hidden by religious teachings and systems—specifically in oppressive cults or cult-like churches (this category includes ritual abuse).
Religious Identity-Formation Trauma: All forms of religious teaching (purity culture, patriarchy, complementarianism) that negatively impact identity formation in teens, young adults, and adults.**
Theological Religious Trauma: Fear-based theological teachings that promote an image of a vengeful God, the worthlessness of created beings, or God as the cause or controller of everything, including trauma.
Religious Leadership Trauma: Unethical, immoral, oppressive, or abusive treatment by ministry leaders—either personally or vicariously.
Religious Systems Trauma: All forms of trauma related to how the church business is administered. This includes power relationships that involve controlling church members, and the decisions to terminate membership or employment (Wrongful termination, NDAs, requirements that infringe on lifestyle choices, etc.)
Religious Retraumatization: Teachings or practices that negatively impact those already suffering from all forms of trauma, especially unresolved childhood trauma. (For an in-depth understanding of this aspect of Religious Trauma, read Trauma in the Pews.)
If more than one or two of these types of religious trauma were part of your life experience, it is likely you were/are significantly impacted. Even one of these can create lifelong impact. I refer to having multiple types of trauma within the context of religion as a religious trauma tsunami. At that point, it was a pervasive part of your life.
This week's blog has been more information-laden and technical than I would prefer, but it felt important to give language to the experiences in a way that also defines and shows the RT big picture. During the next few weeks, we will look more closely at several types of RT on this list and begin to discuss paths to healing.
As always, be gentle with yourself as you come to terms with the impact of your traumatic religious experiences. The pain was real and there is hope for healing.
*Credit to my friend, Dr. Gillian Harvey, for her work on this topic which she termed Developmental Religious Trauma. (Harvey, G. (2022). Both sides of the coin: Counsellors’ stories of the influence of a fundamentalist religious upbringing on mental health and wellbeing in adulthood [Doctoral thesis, Middlesex University]. Middlesex University Repository.
**See Rebekah Drumsta's blog on Spiritual Identity Disruption for further information.