A while ago on Twitter, I asked people what the worst part of leaving religion was for them. While many were happy to reply that they’d not experienced much hardship, far too many replied with harrowing stories that have sat with me ever since.
One person told me, for instance, that their atheism was used against them during divorce proceedings. Others said they lost friends over it. Some people explained that they were fired from their jobs for it.
The stories that hit me hardest, though, were stories of lost family and community. One reply went on for several tweets about how they had lost their entire family when they left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and due to this experience, this person now struggles with PTSD.
Since asking this question and hearing all of your responses, I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with Dr Marlene Winell, who specializes in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of religion. In fact, she coined the term “Religious Trauma Syndrome”.
According to Dr Winell,
RTS is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle. The symptoms compare most easily with PTSD, which results from experiencing or being confronted with death or serious injury and causing feelings of terror, helplessness, or horror. This can be a single event or chronic abuse of some kind. With RTS, there is chronic abuse, especially of children, plus the major trauma of leaving the fold. Like PTSD, the impact is long-lasting, with intrusive thoughts, negative emotional states, impaired social functioning, and other problems.
Symptoms of RTS include:
- Difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking
- Identity confusion
- Panic attacks
- Suicidal ideation
- Lack of meaning
- Sleep disorders
- Eating disorders
- Sexual dysfunction
- Substance abuse
- Rupture of family and social network
- Employment issues
- Financial stress
- Problems acculturating into society
- Interpersonal dysfunction
As someone entering this conversation five years ago having never belonged to religion or had religious beliefs, I wanted more than anything to be able to understand the experiences of my fellow atheists who had lost their faith. As time moved forward and I got to know more and more of you, there were so many shocking things I learned about you. I couldn’t believe that some of you, out and open and proud atheists, still struggled with an irrational fear of eternal damnation. I was surprised to learn just how many of you have gone on, well past leaving your religion, feeling intense shame and guilt for your sexuality and for who you are. I can’t tell you how many of you have disclosed to me the severe pain and grief you feel over the family that shunned you simply because you no longer share their faith.
These things are bonafide trauma. They’re not easy to overcome. I have never lived this, but I have heard from so countless many of you that I know, this is so hard to overcome.
The absolute worst part, too, is how taboo it is to suggest that Religious Trauma Syndrome is even a thing. You’re struggling with your own mind, and now you have to fight to have the people around you even recognize it as a real struggle. From Dr Marlene Winell, again:
What you are suffering is real, and Dr Winell has been fighting for decades to have RTS recognized and brought into the mental health discourse. In that time, she’s also offered her professional services to sufferers of RTS and most recently, that has taken the form of a 3-day retreat in California.
At present, raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion seems to be violating a taboo. In society, we treasure our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Our laws and mores reflect the general principle that if we are not harming others, we can do as we like. Forcing children to go to church hardly seems like a crime. Real damage is assumed to be done by extreme fringe groups we call “cults”, and people have heard of ritual abuse. Moreover, religious institutions have a vested interest in promoting an uncritical view.
But mind-control and emotional abuse is actually the norm for many large, authoritarian, mainline religious groups. The sanitization of religion makes it all the more insidious. When the communities are so large and the practices normalized, victims are silenced.
The retreat is described as “3 days of activities for healing from harmful religion”. It’s affordable, but for those who are a little bit more budget-conscious, there are financial aid options available. In fact, if you’d like to pitch in a buck or two to help pay for someone who may not otherwise be able to afford it, you can click here.
Testimonials from the last retreat included:
“This was such a fun, safe, and constructive weekend. I got so much out of this in terms of community and understanding myself.”
“It felt amazing to deeply connect with other people who get it.”
“One of, if not the greatest, experiences of my life. I’m so glad I could come. It exceeded my expectations.”
“I appreciated how safe the environment felt, no pressure to share or feeling of judgment. Good balance between activities, teaching, conversation, etc.”
“It’s been a very powerful experience. Exceeded my expectations. Being with others with similar experiences was very healing.”
“I cannot make a statement that would adequately capture the level to which attending a Journey Free retreat with Dr Marlene Winell helped me. I would highly recommend that anyone who is struggling with issues related to leaving their faith or the damage caused by religion consider attending one of these retreats. For me, it was an insightful, therapeutic and challenging yet relaxing and much-needed experience. There is great safety in exploring issues related to religious trauma with others who have shared similar experiences with the moderation and direction of an experienced professional. It was a weekend I will never forget and will always have fond memories of.”
If you struggle with trauma as a result of your previous religion, this could be a life-changing experience for you. Just finding out it existed filled me with hope. I have known for a long time that many of you suffer as a result of losing your faith. For just as long, I have felt absolutely helpless. Now, I finally feel like I have an answer for you. Now, I can send you to Dr Marlene Winell.
Check out the retreat: RTS Retreat
Follow Dr Winell on Facebook: Journey Free
Have you or anyone you know suffered from RTS or something similar? Let me know about your experiences in the comments!
Book of the day:
I’m writing a book addressing the many reasons believers distrust atheists. I’m around 40,000 words in! If you want to help me get it done, you can support me by donating here or becoming a patron here.
Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay