how religious trauma affects mental health

Religious Trauma: The Lasting Effects Of Growing Up Fundamentalist


This writing is to not attack religious institutions but to highlight practices and beliefs that are detrimental to human development and well-being. This will specifically focus on Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism in America.

what are hell houses?

Religious trauma that occurs even still today: hell houses

Halloween is celebrated a little differently in some evangelical churches. Instead of haunted houses, ghosts, and goblins, alternatives referred to as “hell houses” are meant to scare attendees into salvation. These churches section their spaces into different scenes featuring actors engaged in sins meant to disturb and shock viewers.

Attendees walk through the acts with a guide until they reach the final judgment, but not before passing through various gruesome scenes, such as a teen having a late-term abortion procedure, bleeding out and dying, or another act depicting a teen overdosing as his parents cry next to his body.

Scenes differ from church to church, but the price of admission is usually free as this is a chance for churches to proselytize and lure non-members in the hopes that the fear will save their souls from eternal damnation.

There is typically an actor depicting an angel, or God himself, with an opened “Book of Life”, that reads the actors’ and attendees’ judgments at the conclusion of the walk-through. After the groups are ushered through, a member of the church typically sets aside a space to ask attendees if they would like to be saved following their experience. Age limits vary between hell houses, but children can attend with adult supervision in some of the houses.

For some insight onto the reality of these hell houses, watch this short YouTube video:

Why are these fear-based practices done and what are the costs?

Shared spirituality and belief systems can create strong social bonds and build a sense of security and meaning-making that are all helpful to societies’ functioning and expression. The same concept of a shared belief system can also be exclusionary and stigmatizing for those who are viewed as “others”. Churches can sometimes counsel, disfellowship, discipline, and excommunicate members who violate the groups’ norms. (2)

Religious beliefs and scripture can be weaponized instead of used as a tool for healing and self-transformation, resulting in PTSD-like symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fear.

The inability to cope with treatment received by an individual’s religion/religious community is sometimes referred to as “religious trauma syndrome”, a term coined by Dr. Marlene Winell in 2011. This term will not be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM); there is no official diagnosis as religion and spirituality are grouped under “problems related to other psychosocial, personal, and environmental circumstances”(3).

Religious trauma also can fall under the umbrella of complex trauma, also proposed as complex PTSD, in childhood and is defined as a child’s exposure to multiple traumatic events that are often invasive, interpersonal, and have long-term effects following exposure. These events usually occur early in life and can be disruptive to the child’s development and the formation of a sense of self. (5)

religious trauma

Some religious traumas include: sexual abuse within the church, sexual abuse being downplayed by church members and leaders, physical punishment attributed to biblical instruction (the “spare the rod, spoil the child” axiom), victims of domestic violence being inappropriately counseled to remain in dangerous situations, marginalization due to gender or sexuality, girls being taught that they are responsible not to tempt men from a young age, the use of faith to justify abuse and manipulation (“you have broken God’s heart”), and not being able to leave your faith without fear of ostracization.

Dr. Winell noted that RTS can be both the effect of chronic abuses and practices from a harmful religion as well as the impact of leaving one’s religion or faith. Dr. Winell proposed four key dysfunctions that are associated with RTS from documenting unique symptoms in counseling clients:

Cognitive: dissociation, identity confusion, difficulty with decision-making, and critical thinking.

-Research findings suggest that religious fundamentalism correlates to changes in the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for cognitive flexibility, impulse inhibition, and openness (6).

Affective: depression, suicidal ideations, guilt, loneliness, shame, lack of meaning, anger, grief, panic attacks, and anxiety.

-There is research that shows an association between religiosity and obsessive-compulsive symptoms as well as higher levels of negative affect, anxiety, distress, and negative affect.

Functional: Sleep and eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, substance abuse, and somatization (when psychological concerns are converted into physical symptoms such as developing a headache from stress).

-Abstinence-focused sex education and purity culture can cause feelings of shame for people exploring normal sexual behaviors. Purity culture emphasizes that both boys and girls wait until marriage, but while boys internalize that their minds are sinful, teenage girls internalize that their bodies are sinful and that they can control others’ lustful thoughts by hiding parts of themselves.

depression quotes

In the early 2000s, Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers noticed that therapy offices throughout the United States saw a huge influx of young adults seeking treatment for sexual shame. Dr. Tina noted that the symptoms she was seeing in these clients were the same as those in other clients who had been sexually abused and that these clients frequently had medical conditions such as vaginismus and pelvic pain.

Social/cultural: interpersonal dysfunction, problems re-integrating into society outside of the religious groups, and disruption of family and social groups.

When individuals leave or depart from the religion or religious community, they can also lose what they view as their support system. Departing from this can create feelings of isolation and anxiety as they work to create meaning and establish other social supports. There can also be retraumatization from friends and family members who dismiss an individual’s leaving as “anger at God” which invalidates the traumas and places the responsibility of the trauma back on the individual.

religious trauma and its effects on mental health

Despite there being well-documented symptoms of trauma after growing up within evangelical and fundamentalist churches, the research on religious trauma remains scarce.

Religious trauma can also be confusing for individuals to navigate once they leave these communities and find different rules of values, conduct, and norms. Our children are vulnerable and impressionable and the fundamentalist and evangelical authoritarian approach to parenting that emphasizes a rigid power structure and unquestioning obedience is shown to be a risk factor for children’s executive control.(8)

According to Dr. Dan Siegel, renowned neuropsychiatrist, relationships are essential in optimal brain development, specifically, relationships that foster warm, rich, and safe environments for children to thrive. Fear-based control and punishment are not conducive to creating healthy relationships and feelings of safety and belonging in a society.

Whether you seek healing through religion or spirituality on your own terms, or you’ve abandoned it altogether, I hope you find the healing and peace that is your birthright.

Sources: [1],[2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8]
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