Understanding Christian Religious Trauma

by | Jan 5, 2024 | Intersectionality, Faith, Religion, Spirituality, Trauma, Mental Health

Understanding Christian religious trauma

When I was in my early twenties, I started seeing a therapist to get help with my constantly spiking anxiety and poor self-esteem. I was having trouble making friends in New York City, in part because I was very slow to trust people enough to open up to them, and then often allowed people to walk all over me once they did. I also struggled with a lot of discomfort when I had even a minor difference of opinion with other people – coworkers, my brothers, even my girlfriend – I could not shake the sense that one of us was “right” and the other was “wrong”.

In one session, I finally shared something with my therapist that I realize in retrospect should have pointed to the heart of the matter of what was going on with me. I explained that despite being in a happy, fulfilling gay relationship for several years and having acted as a role model for my peers when I held leadership roles in my college’s LGBTQ student society throughout my undergraduate career, I still had a lot of shame about having sex and my sexuality. Moreover, I strongly suspected that most people were secretly disgusted by me too.

To make a long story short, my therapist’s dismissal of my fears (“but this is New York City, nobody here cares if you’re gay, straight, whatever!”) and attempt to treat me with CBT for generalized anxiety went nowhere. I was going through something more complicated than typical anxiety and different from the internalization of mainstream society’s inherent homophobia.

I had been raised in a conservative Catholic religious context for the first seventeen years of my life – and now six years later, despite not identifying as religious or even spiritual at that time, I was suffering from Christian religious trauma.

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What is Christian religious trauma?

Briefly stated, Christian religious trauma is an umbrella term for physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuses and/or harmful treatment that occurs in Christian religious contexts – such as churches, schools, religious organizations, or familial or peer settings where Christianity is a core organizing component. Any person impacted by harmful treatment carried out in the name of Christian ideas or teachings can experience Christian religious trauma, regardless of age, demographics, or identification with or belief in Christianity.

Often, Christian religious trauma carries an internal framework of polarized thinking about people and the world – people and actions are divided into “good” and “bad”, with no in between. In order to be “good”, one must adhere to actions considered “good” by an authority figure who acts as a stand-in for God, such as the head of the family (typically the father), the pastor, or other religious authorities such as nuns or Sunday school teachers. Obedience is highly prized, and questioning or challenging normalized dichotomies is frowned upon or even punished as an affront to Christian religious beliefs.

This framework sets the stage for abusive actions or ideas to be disseminated in the name of God. Corporal punishment might be administered under the claim that God told the perpetrator to teach the victim a lesson, or a victim might acquiesce to a spiritual leader’s inappropriate or unwanted sexual advances because they have been taught that the leader can do no wrong.

Emotional abuse is a very common form of religious trauma, for example through instilling outsized senses of guilt and shame for actions beyond one’s control. Community members may imply that your loved one must have died because you didn’t pray hard enough, or shun you for not conforming to the same outward displays of religiosity as the rest of the group.

Another form of emotional abuse in this context is spiritual bypassing, which is the use of spiritual or religious ideas or practices to circumvent dealing with difficult emotions or complex issues. Phrases such as “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” might be used to avoid engaging when someone opens up about their mental health issues, while others like “only God can judge” might be deployed instead of grappling with the painful reality that someone in the community has seriously harmed someone else.

Emotional abuse becomes spiritual abuse when harmful messaging begins to threaten a person’s relationship with their spirituality. After being told that God rejects them for being such a “bad” person or having frightening experiences in religious spaces, some people begin to find it painful to connect with spirituality at all.

Much of the mainstream attention given to Christian religious trauma, for understandable reasons, is around issues of sexuality and the denigration of the body. The theoretical and theological roots of harmful messages about sex and the body found in areas of modern Christianity go back to the Age of Enlightenment when Western European thought began to increasingly conceptualize the human being as consisting of three separate parts – the mind, the body, and the spirit (ie: the Cartesian split). Spirit was felt to have primacy among the three, and the body was considered the most base and least important.

It is no coincidence that this shift happened at the dawn of settler colonialism, which was soon followed by the transatlantic slave trade. The bodies of non-Christians could now be exploited or disposed of – and perhaps along the way Europeans could save their souls. Bodies were thought to be at least partially redeemable through hard work – this became increasingly true during and post the Industrial Revolution. As a result, it came to be that the only good bodies were healthy bodies, setting the stage for distorted understandings of illness and disability to be part of Christian religious trauma in the modern day.

With the Cartesian split, it became easy to demonize qualities natural to the human body, such as sexuality. People who have experienced Christian religious trauma often express that they were taught that internal experiences of sexuality were sharply divided into “good” and “bad”, and that there was a high emphasis on the morality of how to share your sexuality with another. This shaming and policing is rarely distributed evenly – women disproportionately report being admonished for dressing in a way that “tempts” men, while LGBTQ people report being made to feel that their sexualities should not exist or be expressed at all.

Christianity remains the dominant religious paradigm in the Western world today, from its embedment in our political systems to its presence in our gender and racial hierarchies. In this way, Christian supremacy has led to mass religious trauma, compelling people to adhere to certain aspects of Christianity’s tenets without their consent. Too often Christian frameworks are assumed to be universal, rather than specific – this blog post aims to resist that in some small way by naming the topic of discussion as Christian religious trauma, as opposed to the variety of nuanced forms religious trauma can take in other belief systems.

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How do the effects or aftermath of Christian religious trauma present clinically?

Because of its chronic and relational nature, Christian religious trauma often impacts survivors in similar ways to other forms of complex trauma. Survivors often struggle with low self-esteem after internalizing messages of shame and disempowerment and have difficulty forming trusting relationships in the wake of having been betrayed by the people they were the most open and vulnerable with. These factors can push them to either physically isolate themselves from others, or emotionally isolate by avoiding connecting with other people more deeply.

Survivors may show rigid, controlling behaviors in their intimate relationships – subconsciously identifying with the aggressor, they inflict a version of a trauma they themselves experienced. Alternately, they may not know how to set healthy limits and boundaries when connecting with others due to their experiences with the expectation of “obedience” in relationships.

Some survivors have ongoing experiences with disorganized attachment, both in close relationships and with authority figures. This re-enacts both the acceptance, comfort, and safety they may have felt at times in the religious environment and the urge to distance themselves from a potential source of harm.

Many survivors of Christian religious trauma experienced high-control communities where critical thinking was discouraged and appropriate roles or paths to take in life were prescribed by spiritual authority figures. As a result, they may have difficulty thinking or making decisions for themselves, identifying authentic values and goals, and grappling with making meaning of life.

Survivors can also struggle with polarized thinking, moralizing their actions and the actions of those around them as “good” or “bad” even absent of the religious context. They may have a tendency toward magical thinking – believing an unexpected solution to a dilemma will suddenly show up, or overestimating their agency in affairs where in reality they have little impact or control.

Because of the negative attitudes toward the human body that are frequently found in Christian religious trauma, many survivors have a profound sense of disconnection to their bodies. This can present as sexual dysfunction, difficulty experiencing sexual pleasure or orgasm, or having posttraumatic stress responses to sexual interactions – even in the absence of having been physically sexually abused.

For queer and trans individuals, Christian religious trauma adds an insidious layer to internalized homophobia or transphobia that is separate from generalized minority stress. Body disconnect or loathing can also present through disordered eating, where the body also becomes a site to re-enact the punishing environment of the traumatic Christian space.

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Christian religious trauma and implications for clinical treatment

Understanding Christian religious trauma and its clinical presentations has several implications for treatment. First and foremost, providers should not assume clients will arrive at treatment naming that their experience includes Christian religious trauma – they may not recognize the harm for what it is, or if they believe you to be a non-religious person they may assume you don’t “get it”.

Providers should utilize general best practices for working with trauma survivors, in particular offering choices and avoiding prescriptive guidance. They must be aware of the risk of re-enacting the role of an abusive spiritual leader or an authoritarian idea of God in the therapeutic relationship, and carefully support the client in strengthening their skills in independent and complex thinking. This will be key for clients as they continue to find and make meaning in their lives, outside of a context where how to live and what to aspire to were predetermined by others.

Clients may need additional or more nuanced psychoeducation around certain emotional and relational concepts. Many may struggle to understand the distinction between guilt and shame and default to feelings of shame in situations where a feeling of guilt would be more appropriate.

This has profound implications for clients’ self-esteem and their belief in their efficacy in creating change. Clients may react negatively to the colloquial framing of boundaries as an essential part of self-care – since religious environments often prioritize the collective, this understanding of boundaries may come off as overly individualistic. Conversations around boundaries as a tool to better engage in relationships more healthily may be more fruitful.

Providers should be ready to treat clients’ sexual trauma, even absent of the context of abusive physical contact. This might include addressing ideas of sexuality as fundamentally bad or dangerous, treating shame-based compulsive sexual behavior, and/or supporting clients in developing their own personal sexual ethics. Beyond sexuality specifically, clients may also benefit from creating a different relationship with their bodies through somatic or other experiential work.

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Healing from Christian religious trauma is not only possible, it is immensely rewarding. Today, the aftereffects of my experience no longer control me. I have a greater understanding of my inner world and a loving relationship with myself and my identity, I am capable of holding multiple perspectives and truths at once, and my connection to spirituality is not defined by my past.

With the appropriate knowledge, skill, and humility, providers can play a critical role for clients on similar journeys – I hope learning more about Christian religious trauma today was your first step.

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