Religion and adverse religious experiences are one of many possible sources of complex trauma. Religious Trauma itself is identified by physical, emotional and psychological responses to religion that are overwhelming, destructive or negatively affecting well-being. Several groups and podcasts have tackled the topic over the last few years, particularly those rooted in white Evangelical Christianity.
My own story contains pieces of this trauma. In a many years long attempt to avoid being gay I cannonballed into Evangelical Christian culture, finding temporary relief in the promise that I couldn’t be both “good” and gay. I see in my own story the impact of purity culture, rapture-phobia and significant scrupulosity.
Purity Culture: The 1990 and 2000s were a time of purity rings, virginity pledges and the Defense of Marriage Act. Homophobia and sexism were widespread. Folks who came of age swimming in this culture frequently find themselves struggling with sexual intimacy today. When high control religion tells you your desires are evil or reduces you to a sexual object, barriers to intimacy linger.
Rapture-phobia: The 1990s also saw an increase in religious fiction about the rapture, the supposed period when “true believers” ascend to heaven and the rest of us are “left behind” to deal with God’s wrath. The 6th film adaptation of these books was released in 2023! While hardly “Biblical” the rubber stamp by Christian parents applied to Christian pop culture led these books and movies to run rampant and terrify young people into believing they’re surely wicked enough to deserve to remain alone on earth while their family enjoys the reward of heaven.
Scrupulosity: Associated with OCD, scrupulosity is the experience of overwhelming fear that one has acted immorally or sinfully. One can see how the fear and shame associated with purity culture and rapture-phobia can lead to immobilizing indecision and complete distrust of self. This can show up in a deeply critical inner critic or behaviors one must do to be “good” or “OK.”
There is hope. Treatment for religious trauma meets you where you are as a therapist works with you to establish safety and autonomy, making room for all feelings and finding empowerment to make decisions and set boundaries. Treatment involves remembering and naming the impact of the trauma through calling it what it is: abuse, manipulation, or something else. Connecting with self and others, and finding new ways to do both is essential. The ultimate goal is to heal from shame and find empowerment in being who you are.
Help is available at Head/Heart as well as through an online resource. Reclamation Collective maintains a directory of religious trauma-informed therapists organized by state: https://www.reclamationcollective.com/find-a-therapist-1