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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

What is Religious Trauma?

Recognizing, naming, and healing religious trauma can be a long arduous journey. Five years ago, I would not have acknowledged religious trauma as part of my story. Accepting the impact of childhood trauma was a slow awakening—acknowledging religious trauma took even longer. Even when I knew trauma was connected to my church experience, I still didn't call it religious trauma. Why is this?

Aside from the fact that we are usually taught not to criticize anything connected to our faith, the physical symptoms of religious trauma can look exactly like the physical impact of all other kinds of trauma--and in religious settings often get identified as a spiritual problem. Thus we might be trying to heal childhood trauma without recognizing that there are religious elements that need attention. If you or your therapist don't recognize that religious trauma has occurred, healing can often feel inaccessible or less effective. Often therapists who have not specifically studied religious trauma cannot understand all the ways you may be impacted.

Religion often becomes our identity, purpose, culture, and community--especially if it was part of our childhood. When religious trauma occurs, it impacts all of who we are. It usually involves relational betrayal and/or abandonment and results in a loss of identity, purpose, and community. In addition, it can destroy the ways we may have previously found hope and connected to God or the sacred as a source of strength.

Diane Langberg, a leading authority on religious trauma, stated, “Spiritual abuse involves using the sacred to harm or deceive the soul of another.”[1] I appreciate this explanation because every aspect of faith and religious life is sacred by definition—every conversation, interaction, teaching, program, or space.

When any part of an all-encompassing religious experience is used to harm or deceive it is spiritual abuse or to use the broader term—religious trauma. We enter the doors of the church—or any other religious house of worship—to receive help not harm. When we are harmed, it is betrayal trauma. The result is unimaginable grief. Anytime trauma occurs within relationships, the long-term effects involve damage—or further damage—to our ability to trust. It also creates negative internalized messages such as feelings of being unlovable or unworthy.

While we may understand all of the above, we may not consider how our basic survival instincts are impacted by religious trauma. One of the most important survival needs is the need to belong. This is wired into us at a neurobiological level. Toxic religious communities use this basic human need in controlling ways that keep people attending, supporting, working, and agreeing with everything--often causing us to ignore red flags to do so. To disagree or behave in ways that are against the norms usually results in shaming or shunning. This will impacts us in debilitating physical/neurobiological ways.

To be rejected or abandoned (and be told God also rejects us) can impact us at a deep emotional and physical level that is difficult to explain. If your family of origin also rejects you, the harm is compounded. This harm is far greater than just being “hurt,” as some would like to describe it—it is being traumatized at the deepest level possible. Sadly, you may be led to believe that you are the problem. Left without identity, community, support, or purpose it is easy to begin to believe this about yourself. It is not true! If you have experienced religious trauma, recognizing this is the first step to healing.

Next week, we will talk about the various forms of religious trauma. In the meantime, be gentle with yourself as you consider how religious trauma may be impacting you.

[1] Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2020), 127. As cited in Ramsey, K.J.. The Lord Is My Courage (p. 178). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

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