Beliefs creating religious trauma

Today we are going to jump into some of the specific beliefs that may cause or contribute to religious trauma. The context I am most familiar with is American Christianity, in particular, the very wide net of evangelicalism. Thus, all of my examples are compatible with common beliefs of that system. Some evangelicals (cultural / political evangelicals) take these beliefs less seriously, and some (fundamentalists, neo-fundamentalists, like I grew up in) take them more seriously. You may find a lot of overlap with other high-control religious groups.

We should also note that these beliefs don’t necessarily cause religious trauma, but many people find they do. Consider yourself #blessed if they don’t, I suppose.

To review from last time, religious trauma as we are talking about here is a type of complex trauma. This means there’s not necessarily one event that occurred creating trauma. Rather, there was an ongoing process that negatively impacted a person’s well-being through mechanisms of shame, guilt, loss of autonomy, lack of connection, lack of unconditional love. It’s important we bear that in mind as we discuss these varying beliefs.


Oh, the doozy. Hell is a staple of many Christians’ beliefs: after all, why bother being a Christian without threat of hell? Why bother being a good person at all? The established institution fears a real loss of membership (and let’s face it.. $$$) without such extrinsic motivation for people to show up.

So all that aside, let’s think about the idea of hell. According to the doctrine I and many of you learned: An all-powerful God created everything, including humans, and granted them free will (which varies theologically, but let’s start there). God decided that people needed to be perfectly pure and righteous to be in His holy presence in the afterlife (apparently this God is a bit squeamish about sin and unclean things). But God still wanted people to be with him, in order to praise and worship Him forever in the afterlife. To me, that makes God sound a bit narcissistic and egotistical, but whatever. So he sent Jesus as a sacrifice to clean the people from their sin, but only if they believe in Jesus. If they don’t believe in Jesus, or don’t believe in Jesus the right way, or even never got the chance to hear about Jesus… then too bad, eternal torment for them.

But this was a loving God, we were told.

Cool. If you can accept the logic of this theology, you may well be left with some recipes for trauma.

God, my divine Parent, who supposedly loves me – “unconditionally,” they said! – is okay with me being separated from Him for eternity if I don’t believe the right way or say the right prayer or consider myself to “have Jesus in my heart”? God is okay with me being tortured forever (even “eternal conscious torment,” as my former evangelical church still specifies on its website) because I didn’t follow His rules right?

If this were real life and a parent were behaving that way, we mandated reporters would be needing to call Child Protective Services stat.

But many Christians ignore this conundrum as long as they can remain on the “good side” of going to heaven. Meanwhile, their behavior is motivated by fear. They try so hard to love this supposedly all-loving, all-powerful God. But when you pull back the curtain, this God actually looks like kind of a monster. But just as we talked about traumatized children: believers cannot blame the Parent, so they instead blame themselves for all the rifts in the relationship. “It’s my fault I don’t feel close to God.” “I behaved in a way that made God angry at me.” “God is punishing me for something I did.”

Original Sin

Closely related to ideas about hell, Original Sin (a staple of my Christian upbringing) ensures that fear, shame, and guilt motivate people’s behavior. Original sin means that we are sinful from the very moment we are born and thus each one of us deserves hell – and it’s only due to God’s love and grace that we escape the punishment we deserve and might possibly go to heaven.

As above: if a parent expressed these beliefs about their kids, we’d be concerned for that child’s well-being.

OH WAIT. Tons of parents DO express these beliefs about their kids, and it shows. And not in a good way. If your kid is innately bad, you are going to 1) not trust them, 2) see punishment as an essential part of rearing children (since they can’t make good choices on their own anyway), and 3) usually hypocritically not see that you, too, are just as sinful as you think your kid is. But hey, just my two cents.

Original sin plants a sense of shame in a person’s psyche that they are bad and unworthy, BECAUSE THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT ORIGINAL SIN SAYS. We know that psychologically, that’s a really unhealthy state to be in. Yet somehow it’s okay when it comes through a religious system?

Religious trauma, all around.

Purity culture / Sexual morality standards

First we need to address the trauma that countless non-straight people incur when they are in a system that insists heterosexuality is the only allowable path that God approves of. Responses might range from “you’re going to hell for homosexuality” to “we’re all sinners: love the sinner, hate the sin,” but it’s abundantly clear regardless that it is Bad to not be straight. Conversion therapy, prayers to “pray the gay away,” shame and hatred for one’s sexuality, marriages with mismatched sexual orientations… all of these easily cause trauma.

Then there’s purity culture on top of all this. Purity culture was having its heyday in the 90s and 00s when I was growing up, but it’s still a prominent part of conservative Christian culture. When I refer to purity culture, I mean not only the specific purity pledges / “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” / “abstinence only until marriage” stuff, but the general fixation about sexual morality* (*as conceived of by evangelicals).

I would say the obsession with other people’s sexuality and trying to interfere in their personal matters, while titillating, really boils more down to power and control than about actual sex. But that’s a topic for another day.

The effect that purity culture has on people is it often paradoxically reduces them to primarily sexual beings. Women are to be modest at all times, sexually docile and disinterested in sex until they get married, after which time they are sex queens, always happy to satisfy their husbands’ sexual needs. And men cannot help but be sexually hungry, on the prowl and in need of women to cover up so they don’t act on their urges, and once married, entitled to their wives satisfying their needs however they want. But before marriage, all sexual inclinations are bad, forbidden, sinful.

Psychologically, some serious splitting has to occur in regard to sexuality: my sexual self is over here, only allowed in certain contexts, and it is Bad in all the other contexts. I am not supposed to think certain thoughts or have certain feelings or behave in different ways unless I’m doing it within these exact rules. It is so bad I need to pretend it doesn’t exist (which we call REPRESSION!).

Then the more obvious traumatic effects occur with people who struggle to accept their sexuality, who feel crushing guilt and shame about sexual activity even after it is “sanctioned” because it’s hard to turn those feelings on and off. Or who feel crushing guilt and shame about things they do or think that aren’t sanctioned but that they’re doing anyway because… they’re human.

Religious trauma.

High Control Systems

Many systems, especially toward the fundamentalist side of the religious spectrum, tend to be high control. The above example about purity culture is high control for sure: there is only one right way to express sexuality, and if you go outside these bounds, it is Bad and you are Bad. But the system can be high control in a variety of other ways as well. Many evangelical / fundamentalist families tend to be authoritarian, which is a parenting style where children are given little autonomy, there is a clear hierarchy (and in these Christian homes, it is Jesus -> Father -> Mother -> children), and children are expected to listen, obey, and not question the parent. This lends itself to developmental trauma as children grow up with little trust in themselves, having a high need to “perform” correctly to receive love, and having not experienced genuine trust and acceptance from their parent(s).

The evangelical / fundamentalist church structure often looks like this, too. Pastors are expected to be speaking for God as they preach from [*cough* their personal interpretation of] what the Bible says. Members do not question doctrine and there is little room for genuine dialogue that might lead to answers outside of what the church finds acceptable.

Many of us have been listening to the recent podcast from Christianity Today about Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll. He’s an extreme example of narcissistic pastor who was abusive, but he is far from alone in those traits. Too many churches coalesce around powerful, charismatic, persuasive leaders who are often more invested in their own egos than humble servant leadership. Abuse of power happens doubly because these pastors are presumed to be spokesmen (because it’s pretty much only men) for the Almighty God, and not to be questioned.

I could go on all day about the ways religious trauma shows up but that’s enough for this post. What else would you add as beliefs that are primary contributors to religious trauma? What would it be like to be raised in a way free of some of these beliefs?

In the next two posts, we’ll turn a more hopeful eye towards how to help yourself heal from religious trauma and then how to create communities – churches or otherwise – that don’t cause religious trauma. Understanding these dynamics is where the real healing work begins. Can’t wait for you to join me next time!


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