Here is something depressing to mull over for the week. A psychologist of one kind or another has coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome. In an interview, she explains:
Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. The RTS label provides a name and description that affected people often recognize immediately. Many other people are surprised by the idea of RTS, because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. Just like telling kids about Santa Claus and letting them work out their beliefs later, people see no harm in teaching religion to children.
More and more, it seems that people leaving all kinds of churches labeled “evangelical” are unable to deal with the various experiences they endured and beliefs of which they even now carry the scars.
What is interesting about the piece, to me, is the jumbling together of a lot of different phenomena and catching it all under the label “trauma.” Some of it is genuinely distressing, some of it probably does arise to the level of abuse, some of it is very wrong-headed. In all cases, when one person is caught in a religious system the tenants of which they discover they do not believe, but everyone around them does believe, and they thought they believed, many do not just walk cheerfully away, but circle back through despair.
The author and interviewer begins with her own story:
At age sixteen I began what would be a four year struggle with bulimia. When the symptoms started, I turned in desperation to adults who knew more than I did about how to stop shameful behavior—my Bible study leader and a visiting youth minister. “If you ask anything in faith, believing,” they said. “It will be done.” I knew they were quoting the Word of God. We prayed together, and I went home confident that God had heard my prayers. But my horrible compulsions didn’t go away. By the fall of my sophomore year in college, I was desperate and depressed enough that I made a suicide attempt. The problem wasn’t just the bulimia. I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn’t fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God. It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.
This, of course, is appalling. Was this the total substance of her Christian formation? That she was told that God would heal her and that, when he didn’t, she was a spiritual failure? Was the narrative underpinning of the gospel never preached? Did she learn about sin and redemption? Did she learn about grace and mercy? Apparently not. The other great tragedy, beyond that this young person never got the help she needed, is her understanding of “biblical Christianity.” Without the mercy and grace of the cross for sinful and broken people, you don’t have “biblical Christianity.” Either she was told what it was and did not have the eyes and ears of faith to perceive it, or she endured terrible spiritual malpractice.
Here is another example taken from the interview:
Well, I didn’t have to see the movie but I did read the book and sing the song. And when I went to boarding school at the tender age of eleven or twelve (I’m too old to remember) the dorm devotions were on the book of Revelation. And it did freak me out a little. But not so much that I was prevented from plotting to leave my clothes all folded up neatly, and my shoes set just so, as if I had been taken up and the poor sod across the hall been “left behind.” I mean, we didn’t actually do it, but we wanted to. Of course, anything can be taken too far. When young children find themselves screaming on returning to an empty house, maybe the film wasn’t such a good idea. But lots of things about childhood are scary.
I was taken to see the film “A Thief In The Night”. WOW. I am in shock to learn that many other people suffered the same traumas I lived with because of this film. A few days or weeks after the film viewing, I came into the house and mom wasn’t there. I stood there screaming in terror. When I stopped screaming, I began making my plan: Who my Christian neighbors were, who’s house to break into to get money and food. I was 12 yrs old and was preparing for Armageddon alone.
The psychologist, however, just to drive the point home, continues:
The core message is “You are bad and wrong and deserve to die.” (The wages of sin is death.) This gets taught to millions of children through organizations like Child Evangelism Fellowship, and there is a group organized to oppose their incursion into public schools. I’ve had clients who remember being distraught when given a vivid bloody image of Jesus paying the ultimate price for their sins. Decades later they sit telling me that they can’t manage to find any self-worth.
Again, this is a tragic muddle. I mean, yes, at the heart of the good news is the bad news that as a sinner who chooses to sin, death is the end result. There are a lot of ways to say this. One of them is to notice, along with young children, that people die. Children are as upset by this as we all should be—though some of us are better at shielding ourselves from this reality than others. What is the remedy for death? Wasn’t it Jesus paying the price for sin and overturning it? What a great merciful love that he did this! This is an immense comfort to children and all of us. Child Evangelism Fellowship does a pretty good job of articulating the gospel, though I prefer Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for what it knows about the child.
Another person testifies:
After twenty-seven years of trying to live a perfect life, I failed. . . I was ashamed of myself all day long. My mind battling with itself with no relief. . . I always believed everything that I was taught but I thought that I was not approved by God. I thought that basically I, too, would die at Armageddon.
Oh good heavens! Of course you failed to live a perfect life! Who told you that you had to? Let that person show himself and explain. Of course you couldn’t. My goodness. And that in order to be approved by God you had to be perfect? That is the wrong half of the message. When Jesus says, “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” you are meant to despair just like this, but then turn towards him, not away, so that he can cover and heal you with his own perfection. This also sounds like spiritual mal-practice.
The Psychologist continues:
Born-again Christianity and devout Catholicism tell people they are weak and dependent, calling on phrases like “lean not unto your own understanding” or “trust and obey.” People who internalize these messages can suffer from learned helplessness.
So we see that everything is jumbled together—bad teaching with good, well-meaning misguidedness sprinkled in with the occasional truth.
But the problem isn’t just physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin 2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.
So, you see, if you believe in heaven and hell, if you think that some things are wrong, if you trust the scriptures as an objective measure against your own self, if you think that Jesus is the only way, or that children should be disciplined with kindness and love but also truth…well, you are preventing others from having the “information or opportunities to develop normally.” You are just as bad as any malign cult that catches people and brainwashes them. There is no shadow or possibility of one thing not being quite like another.