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What is Religious Trauma?

Updated: Apr 10

Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that are often centered around devotion to a God or Higher Power. Religion often provides an individual with a community, support, a structured way of life, and faith in something greater than themselves. In fact, having a religious or spiritual practice can often boost mental health and reduce suicidality, alcoholism and drug use.

However, sometimes religion can cause trauma. How does this happen? A religion typically outlines rules for how an individual should live their life in order to be a good person, to achieve a place in a Heaven or an eternal afterlife. If someone falls short of these rules they might feel shame (if they do something “wrong”); fear (that they will go to hell if they have doubts or consider other points of view); separation (from others outside the religious community, and the idea of being set apart and “different” that can make the individual feel ostracized from the rest of the world).

Within religious communities with rigid rules for how to conform and live a good life, trauma can occur when individuals undergo spiritual abuse by their religious leaders, families, other members of the religious community. This is when one individual uses religious or faith beliefs to manipulate, exhort or control another person. Examples of spiritual abuse are: using guilt or shame to control or manipulate, justifying abusive behaviour with Biblical or scriptural “support”, claiming to speak on behalf of God or a Higher Power, condemning or judging others with different beliefs or viewpoints, isolating individuals who question their religion or decide to leave, and not allowing room for doubt, or declaring doubt to be a sin.

Finally, the experience of deconstruction: questioning, analyzing, perhaps rejecting one’s religious beliefs can be a traumatic experience in and of itself. There is an element of comfort and safety within the parameters of a religion that a person may miss deeply and grieve over when going through deconstruction, as it is a loss of the world as they once knew it. There can also be a sense of losing one’s identity – who am I outside of this belief system? This can be particularly relevant for individuals who have grown up within faith communities, and whose families are deeply religious.

Like any other kind of trauma, religious trauma is something that a person can work through and heal from. Finding supportive people who will embrace you for who you are and allow you the space to think, doubt, dream and explore is key. If you or someone you know has experienced religious trauma, spiritual abuse, or is questioning your faith and needs someone to talk to, contact us or a therapist who will provide a safe space for you to find healing.

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