God Will Judge Them: What Is Religious Trauma Syndrome

A life 2023

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God Will Judge Them: What Is Religious Trauma Syndrome
God Will Judge Them: What Is Religious Trauma Syndrome
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There are many destructive religious organizations in the worldthat can cause serious harm to various aspects of a person's life. Problems arise when a strict hierarchy is built within the community, the spiritual leader suppresses the will of the parishioners, and concepts like heaven, hell and sin are used for manipulation and intimidation. It happens that physical and psychological violence is used against the participants under the guise of "God's will." Similar cases are found in forbidden religious cults, in young religious movements, and simply in closed communities belonging to the oldest religious denominations.

If, in adulthood, a person decides to leave such an organization or reconsider his attitude towards it, he may face depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. For such cases in the United States, psychologists propose to introduce a new concept - "religious trauma syndrome." Support groups and hotlines are created for people who have suffered from harsh practices in religious organizations and cults. We will tell you what the “religious trauma syndrome” is and how people learn to live anew outside the church.


Julia Dudkina



Michael was born in the States, but as a child he lived in Mexico for two years - his family went there on behalf of the community. He had seven brothers and sisters, all of whom were street missionaries. Michael did the best: he knocked on strangers or just stopped them on the street. In broken Spanish, he asked, "Do you want to go to heaven?" To those who said yes, he promised that he would pray for them. For those who answered “no,” Michael urged them to make at least a small donation to the church.

In 2000, when Michael was eight years old, his family moved to Texas, now he walked to shopping malls and parking lots. With him he had a stack of brochures about the approaching Apocalypse. He handed these brochures to everyone who wished to, and told that the “last days” had already come and the battle between Jesus and the Antichrist was approaching. Michael believed that he was fulfilling the "Great Commission" and there is no task in the world more important than carrying the message to others.

The community where he grew up had almost no private property. It was not customary there to think about the future, make savings, open bank accounts. All the people around Michael believed that they had very little time left to spend on earth: the Rapture of the Church would soon take place and conscientious Christians would go to heaven. The community did not strive to get an education or master a profession - all this was useless on the eve of the Second Coming.

Michael's parents belonged to the Family, or Children of God, a religious cult that emerged in California in the 1960s and sparked a lot of controversy. “Children of God” called the world around them “system” and looked down on those who get permanent jobs, pay taxes and acquire housing. In the 70s, it became clear that within the cult, sexual relations with relatives and children are encouraged, and members of a religious organization attract new people by having sex with them. It also turned out that the Children of God communities subsist in part on sex work.

The FBI and Interpol became interested in the cult. In the early 90s, charges of sexual harassment were brought against the spiritual leader of the movement, David Berg. He fled to Portugal from persecution and died there in 1994. Now "Children of God" was ruled by the widow of the former leader - Karen Zerby. The orders began to change. Zerby announced that the Second Coming will come later than expected, which means "Children of God" should go to work and start caring for the future. She allowed children to attend public schools, go to college, and adults to marry non-cult people.


By abandoning the old views, a person loses friends, family, and sometimes livelihood. All this can affect

and on the physical, and on the psychological state

After that, the outflow of participants began. Communes disbanded one after another - people who had previously devoted their lives to missionary work and community life were forced to adapt to the outside world. Previously, their world was subject to strict rules, now you had to decide everything yourself. Michael Young, like many of his fellow members of the community, left the organization. At the same time, he felt terrible: he constantly doubted his decision, was afraid that he was committing a grave sin. He began to have panic attacks, it seemed to him that he was about to find himself right in hell. Everything was complicated by the fact that he could not find a job: before, he was only engaged in missionary activities and he did not have a single skill that he could apply in secular life.

He ended up selling balloons at children's parties. Once he met an employee of the restaurant, where the next celebration was taking place, and she invited him to take a walk. On the same evening, he was visiting the girl and met her friends. They discussed TV shows and video games. Michael could not squeeze a word out of himself and felt lost - he did not understand at all what the people around him were talking about. The girl he walked with that evening never called him back, and he fell into even greater despair.

It took Michael over a year and a half to recover, go to college, and make his first non-Children of God friends. For some people who have experienced similar experiences, recovery may take even longer. Similar problems often arise for those who have spent a long time in a religious organization with a rigid hierarchy. By abandoning the old views, a person loses friends, family, and sometimes livelihood. All this can affect both the physical and psychological state.

The question of how abandonment of the church affects health is still poorly understood. One of the most famous studies on this topic was conducted in 2010 at the Pennsylvania State University. Among the respondents were churchgoers and those who used to belong to religious organizations, but later left them. Among church-going volunteers, 40% had no health problems. Among those who refused the church - only 20%. Later, in 2016, other scientists decided to expand the study. About 34 thousand people took part in their experiment. Those who gave up the church life generally complained more about their condition, and compared with those who continued to be members of religious organizations, their health risks increased by 21%.

"Mommy speaks to God"

Psychologist and Ph.D. Marlene Winell is convinced that a person leaving the church is experiencing something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. He may have obsessive thoughts, difficulties with socialization, anxiety. In 2011, Winell proposed a new term, "religious trauma syndrome." In her article for the British Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy, she defined the term as "a condition that affects people who were formerly in an authoritarian religious organization and were subjected to indoctrination."

Winell explains that she often had to work with clients who had the same symptoms. They complained of a sense of terror, depression and intense guilt. Many have experienced dissociation, learned helplessness, sleep and eating disorders. She later noticed that in addition to the symptoms, these clients also have something in common - they all recently left religious communities or left the church. In each of these communities, intimidation and suppression of the will of the parishioners was practiced, and communication with the outside world was discouraged.

As Winell explains, "Religious Trauma Syndrome" is most common in people leaving organizations that are inclined towards fundamentalism - those in which the ideas of hell, heaven and sin are strong. Among them are Christian, Islamic and Jewish movements. Winell's clients include many followers of the Pentecostal Church and other evangelical Protestant churches - they are very diverse in the United States, and evangelicals are more likely to have stricter views than other Protestants.

“When a person abandons the authoritarian religious organization in which he became established, it can be seriously traumatic for him,” Winell writes in his work. “He has to completely reconsider his understanding of reality, his views on himself, other people, and the future.” She adds that although "religious trauma syndrome" has not yet become an official diagnosis, it requires attention from psychiatrists and psychotherapists. There are hundreds of forums and support groups on the Internet for those who have left the religion, and these people need help. According to the psychologist, in order to work with the “syndrome of religious trauma”, specialists need special training: they must understand exactly how the worldview of a person who finds himself in a religious organization changes. Winell herself has been dealing with this issue for twenty-eight years.


Most people

with "religious trauma syndrome" is required

at least two to three years to recover. Most often they are afraid of death and hell.

Winell grew up in a family of Pentecostal missionaries. She spent her childhood in Taiwan, where her family preached and helped build churches. “As a child, we were sung a lullaby: 'Mommy talks to God, Daddy talks to God, and so do I,” Winell recalls. "My sister and I were having fun by substituting different names for 'mommy' and 'daddy' in this song." Later, during her school years, she wrote essays on why dancing is immoral and sinful. Throughout her childhood, she was a "good Christian", but after returning from Taiwan to the United States and enrolling in a university, she became interested in psychology. “I learned about behaviorism and gradually began to realize that a person commits certain actions not because he is sinful, but because these are the mechanisms of the psyche,” Winell recalls. At that time, she became interested in philosophy, read Dostoevsky and switched to another, more liberal Christian organization.

For a long time, she still considered herself a religious person and even tried to create a psychological support service for Christians. She applied for a blessing at Calvary Chapel, the Christian organization to which her church belonged. But there she was told: "The Chapel" is ready to support the undertaking only if it is led by a man. For Winell, this was a serious blow - she realized that even in her liberal Christian organization, patriarchal orders reign.

So her break with the church began. Winell delved deeper into the study of behavior therapy, opened her own practice and gradually specialized in problem cases related to religious education. She now runs her own Journey Free Center. It has an online support group for those suffering from "religious trauma syndrome". Winell conducts individual consultations for clients and travels with them to retreats. Recently retired people from faith-based organizations get to know each other, share stories, and do therapy exercises together. The simplest thing is when one of the participants is wrapped in a blanket, rocked and repeated: "Welcome to the world", "We love you." According to Winell, this should create a sense of rebirth in a person and restore trust in the world outside the church.


The devil behind the bush

Another project that helps people affected by religious organizations is a center called Recovering from Religion.It is a non-profit organization that employs psychologists and volunteers. The center has a psychological hotline, an online community and a face-to-face support group. Post Religion Recovery is a project by Darrell Ray, a psychologist and activist who has written several books on the impact of religion on consciousness and sexuality.

Ray believes that most people with "religious trauma syndrome" take at least two to three years to recover. Most often, he is faced with the fact that his clients are afraid of death and hell. Even recovered patients take about five more years to overcome this fear. “When you learn your native language as a child, you don’t ask questions or doubt the existence of that language,” explains Ray. - There are people who, at the age of four, began to learn the concepts of hell, heaven and sinfulness. Even after leaving the church and completely abandoning religion, these people often cannot forget how to be afraid."

Like many psychologists who have dedicated their careers to "Religious Trauma Syndrome," Ray grew up in a religious family. All his relatives were involved in parish life, his parents were engaged in missionary work. As an adult, he himself sang in the church choir and taught at Sunday school. While studying psychology and sociology, Ray learned a lot about how religion affects consciousness and how people fall into destructive cults. After thirty years, he ceased to consider himself a religious person, but continued to study religion from the point of view of psychology, sociology and science.

“People didn't live long ago in a primitive society, hunters and gatherers,” says Ray. - At that time, we developed a mechanism: to unconditionally listen to the elders. The child knew: if mom said that a predator was sitting behind a bush, you shouldn't go there. You can die. The devil is the same predator. You can control the child as you like, if you say that the devil can overtake him."


In the organizations to which they belonged, people considered themselves sinners because of their sexuality.

or gender identity

It is not only secular organizations that work with "religious trauma syndrome." In recent years, churches have sprung up in the United States claiming to be liberal and promising parishioners to preserve their mental health. The pastors of these churches argue: the problem is not in religion itself, but in rigid religious organizations that inspire a person with the idea of ​​his sinfulness. “We expect healing and rebirth from the church,” says Pastor Michael Warlond. - And many churches really help in this. But in some cases, on the contrary, they do harm."

Michael works in one of the Baptist churches in Harlem. He conducts services in the cinema hall and emphasizes their absolute inclusiveness. Among the parishioners there are transgender people and gay couples. Mobile phones can be used during sermons. Warlond's colleague, Kindra Fraser, is a queer woman. In many other churches she might be called a “sinner,” but in the First Corinthian Baptist Church she preaches and helps the parishioners. The church has a free mental hospital, and Fraser also works there.

One of the patients of the clinic - Markus McNealy - says: he used to belong to a church where parishioners were forbidden to watch TV, go to the movies and wear jewelry. The spiritual leader of the organization ridiculed his followers for the slightest offense. McNealy became depressed and paranoid and decided to seek help. “A lot of people come to us because they suffer from religious perfectionism,” says Fraser. “Here we tell them that it's okay not to be perfect. We teach you to enjoy life, to listen to your desires. They often do not know how to do this."

Pastors Fraser and Warlond, as well as Marlene Winell, use the term "religious trauma syndrome." They say that they are often approached by people suffering from exactly the symptoms that the psychologist included in her definition.In the organizations to which they belonged before, people saw themselves as sinners because of their sexuality or gender identity. “Often in religious communities, gays, lesbians, queer people, single mothers are told that God condemns them,” explains Varlond. “They can't help themselves, but they are told that their natural desires and way of life are a great evil. It causes great harm to the psyche."

Anonymous priests

One day in 2011, a phone call rang at Pastor Jerry DeWitt's home. His longtime girlfriend was on the line. She said that her brother had a serious accident and asked the pastor to pray for him. De Witt tried to calm the girl down, but he refused to pray. As he hung up the phone, he realized that he was crying. Jerry was forty-one years old and spent his entire life in De Ridder, Louisiana, deep in the Bible Belt. This is the name of the American states, where the influence of Evangelical Protestantism is especially strong. It is believed that this is the most conservative region of the country, where declaring yourself an atheist is like coming out.

Jerry's parents led a church life, his father and grandfather were priests. He himself grew up in one of the evangelical churches, and at the age of seventeen the pastor first commissioned him to preach a sermon. Jerry knew immediately: this is his calling. He liked to perform in front of the audience, to give people hope. After that, he traveled to different cities and spoke to parishioners. But, although he liked to communicate with people and help them, gradually he began to doubt the very essence of the doctrine that he preached. He remembers an elderly parishioner who was seriously ill. She grieved: "How can I believe and be saved if my faith is not even enough to be healed?"

He asked himself more and more questions. If once he was close to the doctrine of Pentecostals, now it seemed to him that the God in whom he always believed was not very fair to people. De Witt did not understand how a person can be born sinful from the beginning without having done anything bad. Over time, he moved from the Pentecostal church to a more liberal organization, but even now he did not calm down. Jerry began to read scientific literature and gradually realized that religion simply did not suit him. He doesn't want to be a Christian anymore. But he was afraid to admit it to anyone: he knew that his wife and family would not understand him.

That night, when a friend asked Jerry to pray for his brother, he became desperate. It seemed to him that no one in the world faced the same problem. To find at least some solution, he began to read the forums of atheists and suddenly came across a project for priests who have lost their faith - The Clergy Project. On the site one could get acquainted with colleagues who found themselves in the same situation. He made dozens of friends. He later joined another support group, Ray's Religion Recovery. He learned that former priests and parishioners gather in groups, communicate, and if before they did it mainly in the west of the country, now small communities of deviated from religion have appeared in the Bible belt. Jerry stopped feeling like his life was over. He realized that he could continue to help with people, talk with them, and speak in public. Only now they will not be parishioners, but atheists and doubters.


Former priests discuss how to raise children without resorting to

to the concept of sin, and how to tell your family

about your atheism

He began to travel to cities again. Now he talked about how he went through all the stages of self-acceptance, abandoning religion. He communicated with desperate people who were disillusioned with the church and did not know how to live on. Throughout the Bible Belt, Meetings of Free Thinkers began to take place - a bit like meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. The participants supported each other and tried to adapt together in a new world for themselves.

The Clergy Project still exists today.Anyone can register on the forum and count on complete anonymity. Former priests discuss how to raise children without resorting to the concept of sin, and how to tell family about their atheism. In addition to moral support, community members can also receive financial support - the project issues grants to former priests who want to change jobs, but do not dare to do so due to lack of education or material difficulties.

Jerry DeWitt has become a real celebrity over the past nine years - now he is one of the most visible members of the American atheist movement. In 2013, he published Hope After Faith: A Pastor's Journey to Atheism. He could not hide his new status from his family for a long time. As he expected, his wife could not accept his new views, and the marriage broke up.

Recently on his Facebook, DeWitt talked about what is happening in his life now: he proposed to a girl named Christie. She shares his views, and soon they should have twins. But like Jerry himself, Christie grew up in a religious family. Her family, having learned what the groom was doing, began to threaten him, attacked Christie's older children several times and sent letters stating that "children of atheists should not be born."

Illustrations: Anya Oreshina


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