Have You Suffered From Religious Trauma?

Have You Suffered From Religious Trauma? January 17, 2020

Last night, I got to sit down and talk with Ali Rizvi on the Secular Jihadists podcast. One of the topics we discussed was the fact that I was raised in a secular household. I explained to him that I grew up ignorant of the fact that people suffered for leaving their religion. I didn’t grasp to what degree that was true until I’d been writing the Godless Mom blog for some time.

It honestly came as a shock to me: people are treated poorly, sometimes violently, for choosing to live the way I grew up.

Over the years, I’ve heard from so many of you for whom this is true, and I have never really been able to compartmentalize it. It’s always there, sitting right in the forefront of my mind. It weighs on me, and that’s one of the reasons why I have gone beyond just writing and am now into the activist side of things.

The more active I become though, the more people I meet who have had horrific experiences due to their loss of faith. These people have been disowned, humiliated, beaten, kicked out, jailed, medicated and more. The scariest thing is that the vast majority of people who tell me these stories about themselves are American.

The people I work with, the people who are most dedicated to the cause, have all had some horrible, dehumanizing experience after letting their family or friends know that they no longer believe in God. At this point, I know more people who have experienced something like this than I do people who have not.

These are the reasons why I feel the Conference on Religious Trauma (CORT2020) is not just important; it’s a game-changer.

Janice Selbie founded the Conference after her deconversion. She describes the process as “intensely painful and lonely.” She wanted to do something to make the process easier for others. One way she’s accomplishing this is through her Divorcing Religion workshops. As a licensed therapist, she offers this online, interactive 6-week workshop “comprised of group and individual work designed to help you transition out of religion and into secular life.”

Through her work with the Divorcing Religion workshops, it became apparent that there are very few mental health professionals in the world skilled in treating Religious Trauma Syndrome.

According to Dr. Marlene Winell, who coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS),

“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.”

Religious Trauma Syndrome is genuine and very debilitating. People who suffer from it deserve to have access to skilled professionals who can treat them and guide them through recovery. The problem is, there aren’t that many.

The main goal of the Conference, therefore, is to introduce more mental health professionals to RTS and its treatments. CORT2020 wants to bring RTS into the light and out of the darkness. It also aims to help connect RTS survivors with qualified secular therapists and encourage them that recovery is possible.

Janice Selbie was raised evangelical charismatic from birth. She was convinced that the “Bible was literal and infallible – every story, character, miracle, and word.” After her daughters were born, she became more and more conservative and fundamentalist. Janice elaborates on the rules she set in her household, “No television or radio, no secular books, magazines, music, or influence. Long skirts & dresses only. No makeup or jewelry – not even a wedding ring. Long hair kept under a covering. My daughters were not permitted to wear pants or cut their hair. Of course, I homeschooled them.”

Looking back, Janice says the worst part of it all was, “Being discouraged from thinking critically & seeing myself as less than men. I believed I was depraved simply because I was human. I taught my daughters they had to serve men because that is what the bible teaches.”

This was precisely what led to her doubt, though. Over time, she began to question the religious hierarchy that puts men above women. She also struggled to understand how a loving God could send people to Hell, who had never heard of Jesus.

Finally, she says, “We had a barrage of horrible, catastrophic events in about a 2-year time frame, culminating in our young daughter receiving a life-threatening diagnosis, part of which resulted in our bankruptcy. At that point, I knew I was done. What kind of god inflicts disease on a child or fails to heal them?”

It was at that point she knew she no longer believed. She felt alone in this, not knowing anyone else who had been as committed to their faith and then lost it. She reached out to a non-religious co-worker who was supportive and that helped her to eventually come out to family. Her father cried but, to her surprise, her children quickly expressed the fact that they had doubts as well.

The aftermath wasn’t easy. She explains that she suffered from insomnia, depression and anxiety in the early days of her deconversion.

“I had suicidal thoughts in my darkest times as I came to terms with the loss of my entire identity and the dissolution of comforting afterlife fantasies. My relationships with religious friends are null and void at this point. With religious relatives, my relationship has become extremely shallow as they remain entrenched in their religious mindset. Deconversion also played a part in the loss of my marriage.”

Janice did not fully come out as a nonbeliever until she began the Divorcing Religion workshops and started planning CORT2020. She wanted to help people who were in the process of deconversion feel less alone.

The Conference is set to take place in Vancouver, BC, Canada from April 24th to April 26th, 2020. Speakers include Dr. Marlene Winell, Dr. Darrel Ray, Nathan Phelps, Yasmine Mohammad and David Smalley. Students are encouraged to attend and apply for subsidy if they need help to attend financially. If you would like to help fund these subsidies, you can donate here.

Read more about the conference at www.cort2020.com

I’m pleased to be able to offer my readers a $60 discount on tickets to this event. Just use code gm036 at checkout and register here.

I hope to see some of you at this event! Let me know what you think of it in the comments.

Image: Creative Commons/CORT2020

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jim Jones

    People form groups for various reasons. Religious groups and criminal groups have the worst reasons, and are the most reactive if you try to leave.

  • anxionnat

    I did suffer from what I now recognize as religious trauma–as well as PTSD from a different cause. (Getting therapy for that last now.) The interesting thing about the trauma wrought by my RCC background is that *I didn’t realize I had allies all along!* I’m the eldest of six kids, and when I was 19, while sitting in Christmas Mass, I asked my next sister if she believed. I was shocked when she said “no.” Turns out none of the rest of us did either–except my youngest brother, age 9 then, who said he “wasn’t sure.” That day, my younger siblings who didn’t believe ranged from 11 to 17, to me at 19. None of them ever asked either–leaving each of us to suffer alone, though we lived in the same household. Turns out all of us began questioning at about age 9 or 10 and were confirmed in the church at 12 or so–all the while, not believing. I was the only one who raised a ruckus in the church at confirmation. We are a lot closer now than we ever have been, as all of us suffered for not believing.

  • guerillasurgeon

    Sometimes I answer questions on Quora. How to inform your parents that you no longer believe in their religion is a reasonably common question. And not just from Christians. I always tell them to keep quiet or outright lie about it until they have financial independence. I don’t like telling people to lie, but there are far too many examples of kids being thrown out on the streets for me not to.
    Incidentally, I always thought that people who’d never heard of Jesus wouldn’t be sent to hell? Is it not a general belief amongst Christians, because I’ve always liked this meme. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ff360edf2bab4ea26dedd987a2929af5cf73193f4d06e0df481de231ccc9198f.jpg
    Goodness me, what on earth is the net Nanny picking on here?

  • Jim Jones

    Mark 13:10 Have you heard the gospels? If you answer no, you can’t be blamed so far.

    Romans 1:20 Do you recognize Jesus as Lord? If you answer yes then you’re safe. You go to heaven.

    So telling the Inuit the gospels condemns them. (BTW, ‘Eskimo’ is a word to avoid).

  • Jennny

    I was doing a shift at a community cafe yesterday in the UK, and a heavy storm meant no diners. My fellow-volunteer opened up to me. She’s a x-tian and had just resigned from her beloved church because they’d sent a letter to a same sex couple saying they could attend, but not be in the worship group, though one has musical talents, they couldn’t even go on the coffee-making rota. Then the church unceremoniously booted out the pastor and his pregnant wife as she read a poem at a women’s group that was apparently written by a lesbian, so she shouldn’t have done that. The couple are US-ians so will now have to leave the UK very shortly. Anyway, my friend said she couldn’t stomach this and has left. She was sad, but her conscience made her do it and she feels less worried about losing friends, the principle is too important to her. She’s spoken to two other cafe-volunteers who say they secretly agree homophobia is not how jesus would do things….but they need the support of that church so will stay. One has a husband with early-onset dementia and life is very tough for her, as it is with the other one who is a widow with a very disabled 16yo son….Like my friend I felt no trauma at leaving my church- which I did when I deconverted, but the conversation threw into focus for me that the trauma would be too much for some to contemplate, so they stay on.

  • Jim Jones

    > She’s spoken to two other cafe-volunteers who say they secretly agree homophobia is not how jesus would do things.

    Google (centurion pais) — You are correct.

  • Jim Jones

    Religious Trauma Syndrome Recovery
    (A few links)

    Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion

    Leaving the Fold Workbook (Free Download)

    Journey Free YouTube Channel

    Recovery from Religious Trauma

  • OneMoreQuestion

    I just want to post maybe a little hope. You have seen the worst of the worst and that obviously affects your outlook. Mine too. But, and I say this with several caveats, some there are a lot of people who didn’t have the horrific experiences you describe when losing their faith. Because there are Christians who are basically good, if misled, people. My family questioned, yes, but because of their love for me they didn’t belittle, disown, or discourage me. They asked questions. My sister pleaded with me, “why?” But not once did I feel outcast or shunned by my family. When I really sat down and talked with my sister, I asked her point blank, “Do you trust me with your boys? Would you leave them to me if it was necessary?” And her answer, more rapid and emphatic than I expected, was, “Absolutely.” When I asked her to explain, she said she knows me as a a good, compassionate, loving, and moral person (“if misled” said with a grin). To me this is how we build bridges. She can’t understand why I left the church, but she supports me. And maybe, just maybe, those of us with these relatives and these experiences, can help to change the church from the inside. My sister will defend me against the more radical set. She has set more than one person straight about “those damnable atheists.” She’ll never lose her faith, nor will my mom. I wouldn’t take it from them because it was painful for me. But if they question I’ll be there to make it easier for them. I’m mainly just posting this to offer a small counterpoint to your overwhelming experience of ostracism for those who leave the religion of their youth. I love your articles; have learned a lot and feel connected to many of your readers.