Religious Trauma Syndrome: How Some Organized Religion Leads to Mental Health Problems

Religious Trauma Syndrome- AnguishAt 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.

Marlene Winell portraitDr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. She is also the daughter of Pentecostal missionaries. This combination has given her work an unusual focus. For the past twenty years she has counseled men and women in recovery from various forms of fundamentalist religion including the Assemblies of God denomination in which she was raised. Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, written during her years of private practice in psychology. Over the years, Winell has provided assistance to clients whose religious experiences were even more damaging than mine. Some of them are people whose psychological symptoms weren’t just exacerbated by their religion, but actually caused by it.

Two years ago, Winell made waves by formally labeling what she calls “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) and beginning to write and speak on the subject for professional audiences. When the British Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychologists published a series of articles on the topic, members of a Christian counseling association protested what they called excessive attention to a “relatively niche topic.” One commenter said, “A religion, faith or book cannot be abuse but the people interpreting can make anything abusive.”

Is toxic religion simply misinterpretation? What is religious trauma? Why does Winell believe religious trauma merits its own diagnostic label?  I asked her.

Let’s start this interview with the basics. What exactly is religious trauma syndrome?

Winell: 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.

But in reality, religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. The public is somewhat familiar with sexual and physical abuse in a religious context. As Journalist Janet Heimlich has documented in, Breaking Their Will, Bible-based religious groups that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure and use harsh parenting methods can be destructive.

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.

Can you give me an example of RTS from your consulting practice?

Winell: I can give you many. One of the symptom clusters is around fear and anxiety. People indoctrinated into fundamentalist Christianity as small children sometimes have memories of being terrified by images of hell and apocalypse before their brains could begin to make sense of such ideas. Some survivors, who I prefer to call “reclaimers,” have flashbacks, panic attacks, or nightmares in adulthood even when they intellectually no longer believe the theology. One client of mine, who during the day functioned well as a professional, struggled with intense fear many nights. She said,

I was afraid I was going to hell. I was afraid I was doing something really wrong. I was completely out of control. I sometimes would wake up in the night and start screaming, thrashing my arms, trying to rid myself of what I was feeling. I’d walk around the house trying to think and calm myself down, in the middle of the night, trying to do some self-talk, but I felt like it was just something that – the fear and anxiety was taking over my life.

Or consider this comment, which refers to a film used by Evangelicals to warn about the horrors of the “end times” for nonbelievers.

 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.

In addition to anxiety, RTS can include depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning. In fundamentalist Christianity, the individual is considered depraved and in need of salvation. A 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.

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.

I’ve spent literally years injuring myself, cutting and burning my arms, taking overdoses and starving myself, to punish myself so that God doesn’t have to punish me. It’s taken me years to feel deserving of anything good.

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. I’ll give you an example from a client who had little decision-making ability after living his entire life devoted to following the “will of God.” The words here don’t convey the depth of his despair.

I have an awful time making decisions in general. Like I can’t, you know, wake up in the morning, “What am I going to do today? Like I don’t even know where to start. You know all the things I thought I might be doing are gone and I’m not sure I should even try to have a career; essentially I babysit my four-year-old all day.

Authoritarian religious groups are subcultures where conformity is required in order to belong. Thus if you dare to leave the religion, you risk losing your entire support system as well.

I lost all my friends. I lost my close ties to family. Now I’m losing my country. I’ve lost so much because of this malignant religion and I am angry and sad to my very core. . . I have tried hard to make new friends, but I have failed miserably. . . I am very lonely.

Leaving a religion, after total immersion, can cause a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, and the future. People unfamiliar with this situation, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create.

My form of religion was very strongly entrenched and anchored deeply in my heart. It is hard to describe how fully my religion informed, infused, and influenced my entire worldview. My first steps out of fundamentalism were profoundly frightening and I had frequent thoughts of suicide. Now I’m way past that but I still haven’t quite found “my place in the universe.

Even for a person who was not so entrenched, leaving one’s religion can be a stressful and significant transition.

Many people seem to walk away from their religion easily, without really looking back. What is different about the clientele you work with?

Winell: Religious groups that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave easily. The difficulty seems to be greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert. This is because they have no frame of reference – no other “self” or way of “being in the world.” A common personality type is a person who is deeply emotional and thoughtful and who tends to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their endeavors. “True believers” who then lose their faith feel more anger and depression and grief than those who simply went to church on Sunday.

Aren’t these just people who would be depressed, anxious, or obsessive anyways?

Winell: Not at all. If my observation is correct, these are people who are intense and involved and caring. They hang on to the religion longer than those who simply “walk away” because they try to make it work even when they have doubts. Sometime this is out of fear, but often it is out of devotion. These are people for whom ethics, integrity and compassion matter a great deal. I find that when they get better and rebuild their lives, they are wonderfully creative and energetic about new things.

In your mind, how is RTS different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Winell: RTS is a specific set of symptoms and characteristics that are connected with harmful religious experience, not just any trauma. This is crucial to understanding the condition and any kind of self-help or treatment. (More details about this can be found on my Journey Free website and discussed in my talk at the Texas Freethought Convention.)

Another difference is the social context, which is extremely different from other traumas or forms of abuse. When someone is recovering from domestic abuse, for example, other people understand and support the need to leave and recover. They don’t question it as a matter of interpretation, and they don’t send the person back for more. But this is exactly what happens to many former believers who seek counseling. If a provider doesn’t understand the source of the symptoms, he or she may send a client for pastoral counseling, or to AA, or even to another church. One reclaimer expressed her frustration this way:

Include physically-abusive parents who quote “Spare the rod and spoil the child” as literally as you can imagine and you have one fucked-up soul: an unloved, rejected, traumatized toddler in the body of an adult. I’m simply a broken spirit in an empty shell. But wait…That’s not enough!? There’s also the expectation by everyone in society that we victims should celebrate this with our perpetrators every Christmas and Easter!!

Just like disorders such as autism or bulimia, giving RTS a real name has important advantages. People who are suffering find that having a label for their experience helps them feel less alone and guilty. Some have written to me to express their relief:

There’s actually a name for it! I was brainwashed from birth and wasted 25 years of my life serving Him! I’ve since been out of my religion for several years now, but i cannot shake the haunting fear of hell and feel absolutely doomed. I’m now socially inept, unemployable, and the only way i can have sex is to pay for it.

Labeling RTS encourages professionals to study it more carefully, develop treatments, and offer training. Hopefully, we can even work on prevention.

What do you see as the difference between religion that causes trauma and religion that doesn’t?

Winell: Religion causes trauma when it is highly controlling and prevents people from thinking for themselves and trusting their own feelings. Groups that demand obedience and conformity produce fear, not love and growth. With constant judgment of self and others, people become alienated from themselves, each other, and the world. Religion in its worst forms causes separation.

Conversely, groups that connect people and promote self-knowledge and personal growth can be said to be healthy. The book, Healthy Religion, describes these traits. Such groups put high value on respecting differences, and members feel empowered as individuals.  They provide social support, a place for events and rites of passage, exchange of ideas, inspiration, opportunities for service, and connection to social causes. They encourage spiritual practices that promote health like meditation or principles for living like the golden rule. More and more, nontheists are asking how they can create similar spiritual communities without the supernaturalism. An atheist congregation in London launched this year and has received over 200 inquiries from people wanting to replicate their model.

Some people say that terms like “recovery from religion” and “religious trauma syndrome” are just atheist attempts to pathologize religious belief.

Winell: Mental health professionals have enough to do without going out looking for new pathology. I never set out looking for a “niche topic,” and certainly not religious trauma syndrome. I originally wrote a paper for a conference of the American Psychological Association and thought that would be the end of it. Since then, I have tried to move on to other things several times, but this work has simply grown.

In my opinion, we are simply, as a culture, becoming aware of religious trauma.  More and more people are leaving religion, as seen by polls showing that the “religiously unaffiliated” have increased in the last five years from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. It’s no wonder the internet is exploding with websites for former believers from all religions, providing forums for people to support each other. The huge population of people “leaving the fold” includes a subset at risk for RTS, and more people are talking about it and seeking help.  For example, there are thousands of former Mormons, and I was asked to speak about RTS at an Exmormon Foundation conference.  I facilitate an international support group online called Release and Reclaim  which has monthly conference calls. An organization called Recovery from Religion, helps people start self-help meet-up groups

Saying that someone is trying to pathologize authoritarian religion is like saying someone pathologized eating disorders by naming them. Before that, they were healthy? No, before that we weren’t noticing. People were suffering, thought they were alone, and blamed themselves.  Professionals had no awareness or training. This is the situation of RTS today. Authoritarian religion is already pathological, and leaving a high-control group can be traumatic. People are already suffering. They need to be recognized and helped.

—-  Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their ReligionMore information about Marlene Winell and resources for getting help with RTS may be found at Journey Free.  Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles can be found at

Recovering from Religion? Give Yourself Time
From AwayPoint on Youtube: How Beliefs Change
The Fragile Boundary Between Religion and Child Abuse
Don’t Want Pro-Genocide Bible Lessons in Your Public School? Fight Back! Here’s How.
The Protestant Clergy Sex Abuse Pattern

Humor: Ten Proofs That There is No God.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder -
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69 Responses to Religious Trauma Syndrome: How Some Organized Religion Leads to Mental Health Problems

  1. dckanz says:

    Not only is it real…it really never goes away….

  2. syrbal says:

    Trust me, it can be SENT away. The process of deconstruction simply isn’t as easy to find as the build up our society smilingly allows!

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  4. aprilrayne says:

    Reblogged this on An Open-Minded Journey and commented:

  5. glandix says:

    Thank you. You gave a name to how I feel.

  6. Recent Recanter says:

    Very eye-opening, and the first I’ve heard of this mental illness. I don’t believe I suffer (much) from it, but I very definitely understand! Tiny cracks in the theology of my growing-up years caused me a lot of consternation, but the close-knit denomination is like family. Even now–toward the end of middle-age, I remain a member and go through the motions because 1) this particular Christian denomination has grown much more liberal in general, and 2) I can basically ditch all of the beliefs, and yet go on having after-church lunch out with friends.

    • Glad you (and your denomination) have grown so much! I LOVE this: “… I can basically ditch all of the beliefs” and [enjoy friends]. If many pastors knew how many of their congregation this applies to THEY would probably have RTS!

      Personally, I “recanted”, stayed away a few years while re-working worldview and theology, and now am enjoying a very progressive church (oh… and I WAS a part-time minister, teacher and “defender of the faith”).

  7. Perry Bulwer says:

    I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD as a direct result of fundamentalist Christianity. Forced Catholicism started the process, but my life was basically ruined by the Children of God, now known as The Family International, that I ‘joined’ when I was 16. Some object that the group is not a legitimate Christian group. Religion reporter, Don Lattin, anticipated that objection in the introduction of his book on that group “Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge” Here’s what he wrote in the introduction:

    “SOME CHRISTIANS MAY take issue with the title of this book, Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge. They may argue that the crazy cult chronicled in these pages has noth­ing to do with Jesus or the evangelical movement. They may say its founder was not a Christian–that he was a spiritualist or controlled by demonic forces. His sexual immorality, they may argue, is the very antithesis of moral values in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
    That’s an understandable reaction, but the odyssey of David Brandt Berg is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. Berg, the founder of The Family, came straight out of American evangelicalism. His grand­father was a famous minister with the Methodist Church, and his father was ordained into another mainline Protestant church. His training as an itinerant evangelist was at his mother’s side in the Christianity and Missionary Alliance. And it was in the Alliance that Berg began his own late-blooming ministry. During the spiritual counterculture of the late sixties, this previ­ously unremarkable evangelist embraced a strange brew of Christian witness, radical politics, apocalyptic doom, and free love. His follow­ers–known over the years as Teens for Christ, the Children of God, The Family of Love, and The Family International–survived Berg’s 1994 death and continued to operate in 2007 as an international Chris­tian ministry with thousands of devoted members living in cells and missionary communes around the world.”

    I understand the distinction being made here between RTS and PTSD, but Complex PTSD is different and more closer to RTS, if not the same thing.

    Complex PTSD “A psychological injury that results from protracted exposure to prolonged social and/or interpersonal trauma in the context of either captivity or entrapment (i.e. the lack of a viable escape route for the victim) that results in the lack or loss of control, helplessness, and deformations of identity and sense of self.”

    Trauma and Recovery, Judith Lewis Herman, M.D. – Complex PTSD “A history of subjection to totalitarian control over a prolonged period (months to years). Examples include hostages, prisoners of war, concentration-camp survivors, and survivors of some religious cults. Examples also include those subjected to totalitarian systems in sexual and domestic life, including those subjected to domestic battering, childhood physical or sexual abuse, and organized sexual exploitation.

    A very good book on this issue of the direct harms associated with religious belief is, “Deadly Doctrine: Health, Wellness and Christian God-Talk” by Dr. Wendell Watters

    Prometheus Books, Publishers, 1992 – Religion – 198 pages
    The Christian religion presents itself as the way to contentment, spiritual health, and salvation. But is this really true? Dr. Wendell Watters offers a powerful argument, based on his many years of clinical experience with individuals, couples, and families, that Christianity’s influence actually militates against human development in such vital areas as self-esteem, sexuality, and social interactions. The tragic end result of Christian conditioning is too often antisocial behavior, sexual dysfunction, poor psychological development, anxiety, and even major psychiatric illness.Christian indoctrination is not simply a problem affecting individuals or single families; the noxious effects of its teachings over nearly two millennia pervade society at large, even those who are not Christians, and in ways that seriously undermine human welfare and the quality of life. Christianity’s aggressive pronatalist policies have encouraged large families, despite parents’ inability to cope either emotionally or financially. With this the Christian church has formulated rigid sexual roles, forbidding all practices not leading directly to conception. By actually promoting sexual ignorance and irresponsibility, Christianity has allowed the proliferation of such social ills as rape, child molestation, and pornography.In the face of so much human suffering resulting from Christian doctrine, it is imperative that health care professionals, recognizing the Christian belief system as an addictive disease, develop a religious status examination to help evaluate how notions about life derived from Christian god-talk compromise individuals’ healthy functioning. In failing to determine the role of oppressive religious beliefs in mental illness, physicians and other health care workers actually promote Christianity’s continued stranglehold on human happiness and self-fulfillment.Dr. Watters covers ground many Christians will find uncomfortable. For that he is to be thanked.

    • Thanks for sharing your own story and this resource, which sounds like an important one, Perry.

      • Perry Bulwer says:

        My story is more common than most think. In the U.S. at least, more religion related abuse occurs in Protestant churches than in Catholic ones.

        One recent case was the First Baptist Church of Hammond, where the pastor was jailed for sex with a minor member of his congregation. The daughter of the founder of that church has now issued a public apology, not for what she did, but what her father and other church leaders did. That is similar to my situation.

        My traumas and subsequent psychological problems were a result of not only what was to done to me spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, socially, but because I was unable to stop or report the abuses of others I witnessed. My only choice was to find a way to escape, which I finally did. But getting out of the cult turned out to be easier than getting the cult out of me. Through education I finally did, which is why I am now an atheist, but that was not the end of my troubles. As the bible says about Jesus, “so there was a division among the people because of him”, and that still plays out in my recovered life, because although I no longer believe, important people in my life do, and so communication between us if very strained. That’s one of the reasons I said above that my life was basically ruined by the Christian indoctrination I was subjected to. Although I have overcome that indoctrination, others in my life have not and so it is next to impossible to have an honest conversation about so many things. Yet I understand why they cling desperately to the myths and lies they’ve been taught, because the universe is an uncertain, scary place so religion comforts them. I was exactly like them, they just don’t realize it because they think the ‘cult’ I was in was somehow different from their mainstream church. But other than some extreme doctrines on certain topics, at the core there is not much difference between fringe fundamentalist Christian groups and mainstream evangelical churches.

        You can read about the First Baptist abuse at:

  8. I blog a lot but have seldom “reblogged”. Valerie, are there any “rules” for it, or preferences you have?… This one SHOULD be on my blog also, I feel. Thanks for it.

  9. There is soooo much to discuss about this topic. There is just way too little education and awareness in our culture of many issues to do with religion and with psychological/social well-being, and then how the two intertwine (or clash) at key points. Good things have been written at least since the famous William James’ work at turn of the 19th to 20th century! But they are not known to most people; and youth are especially unlikely to seek out or encounter and want to read (or even listen to, watch) good material that could prepare them to either not be as vulnerable or be able to spot quicker and leave unhealthy religion while it’s easier, or know how/where to get support if it’s tougher.

    I follow trends pretty closely and do see hopeful, helpful things in place or developing, certainly including your work, Valerie, and that of Dr. Winell. But large cultural trends as well. And actually some of them come from “within” religion (or its institutions). I wasn’t sure about this for quite a while after realizing my Evangelical belief system was fatally flawed and contained much that WAS indeed, toxic (and leaving it… in my case relatively untraumatically, largely because by then I was very psychologically and theologically savvy…. something not encouraged generally within conservative religion).

    Included in such healthy trends is the development, within “Progressive Christianity,” of more clear and consistent principles, values and “theology” (but without so much of the theo–God/supernatural–aspect). Running roughly parallel and intertwining with this has been the development of Process philosophy and theology. Much of the reason why religion has become culturally reactive and particularly toxic in the last century has to do with the polarities set up between it and science (for which not “true” science, but “scientism” and pure materialism has to bear responsibility as well). A great (but little known) mathematician/scientist/philosopher noted this clearly in the early 1900s… left formal mathematics to work on it, philosophically. That was Alfred N. Whitehead. His very insightful (“healthy” and balanced) system for understanding reality for modern humanity was subsequently honed into a thorough “theology” that is Christian in the sense of using Christian texts, stories and traditions but re-works the dogma and encourages things like independent thinking and care for the earth, human rights (especially feminism come the 70s and 80s), etc.

    I don’t know if I should give links or more specifics here, but if this sounds appealing and potentially helpful to anyone, a quick internet search will lead to some solid resources. Some of my blog posts deal specifically with it, and most are framed by it in one way or another, even though I haven’t studied the approach in great depth myself. One reason I mention this relatively hidden “secret” is that some of our deepest thinkers and most careful observers on issues of psychological health and personal development believe that, ironically, with all their drawbacks and flaws, religious institutions and people are NEEDED to help society move beyond the very problems of toxic religion — religion that suppresses rather than encourages personal growth.

  10. It pains me to see such things. Unfortunately the loving saviour has been turned a Monster in the name of Religion. What is religion? It is man made. Jesus never asked us to make religion –
    Note: The law was given to Moses / but to live in grace from Christ, the son of God.
    Following Christ and being a Christian are distinctly 2 things.
    In the garb of WANTING TO control God- Humans have made LAW the WAY OF LIFE.

    Let me plead here- Its NOT TRUE.. God never preached law… he only scattered Grace and Love. Why is this so tough to understand

    I am not born a christian, but yes- have followed Christ and the his love for long now. Its the law and the preachers of this LAW – that we have to get against.. not the LORD who ONLY and ONLY showed Love and Grace.

    I may sound a little emphatic but- Following Christ is Just a WAY OF LIFE and not the LAW. There is a lot to discuss in this. Having read the truth of the vedas/ the upanishads/ the love in Islam and the Grace of Christ- today i am on the ground that I can speak of all this.. My research and study is still on, and i do agree that in the name of religion, MAN is wanting to control god, but on the flip side, if we can take a step ahead to understand his grace, you will feel peace


    • quattrone says:

      Your book begs to differ:

      Matthew 5:17-20
      English Standard Version (ESV)
      Christ Came to Fulfill the Law

      17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

    • hologram says:

      what a bunch of nonsense, Priya talks LMAO

    • Sofia Stella says:

      The LOve in Islam, seriously? LOL!

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  12. Reblogged this on Natural Spirituality – Loving Forum for Spiritual Harmony & Growth and commented:
    This article is very important for the mental, emotional and spiritual health of many sincere people. It is also important for everyone, leaders and lay people, religious and non-religious. The discussion here is one that impacts us all, directly or indirectly… one we need to pay much more attention to and participate in. Note my own response following my re-posting of the original article from Valerie Tarico’s blog. I know her and can vouch for her deep knowledge and professionalism.

  13. jcbolow says:

    A very good remedy for this and many other (or what may be considered Mental Health issues)
    “The Power of Myth” with Joesph Campbell and interview by Bill Moyers

    • Yes, “The Power of Myth” by Campbell is great… available in book or CD format as well as the classic interviews (10? I think) with Moyers. Highly recommended!

      • jcbolow says:

        Oh i have all 6 six interviews the only acceptable literature, in my opinion on this subject!

        Thanks For your reply Thank You very Much!!

        Jeff Boehlow

  14. Pingback: “Should agonizing be your religion?” – God | power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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  16. Ferdi Businger says:

    Great article Valerie. Doesn’t brainwashing already have it’s own mental health category?

    With regard to children I would call religious indoctrination child abuse plain and simple. And that’s where most of it begins. As with other forms of abuse, when these kids grow up they tend to abuse their own kids in the same way, thereby perpetuating the suffering.

    I wasn’t even brought up in a religious household, but still consider myself to have suffered religious trauma. That just shows how insidious it is.

    • Unfortunately, “brainwashing” and “indoctrination” are imprecise categories with widely varying techniques and levels of application. But there ARE identifiable techniques. Religions often employ them unwittingly, without knowing or respecting their power. There was a British psychiatrist, William Sargent, who was one of the first to study and “label” brainwashing. Started with WW II and Korean War veterans. He wrote a classic book based on that, back in the ’50s, which included religious groups like snake handlers in the US. He gets fairly specific on the way neurological and psychological functioning work as a person first resists mightily and often eventually (and usually suddenly) “flips” and joins what he or she was resisting (or cooperates with the “enemy”, as in the case of soldiers who end up giving info, though not physically tortured in many cases).

      Unfortunately this book, “Battle for the Mind”, never had really broad influence and didn’t much penetrate religious circles, perhaps partly because Sargent was a controversial as well as brilliant psychiatrist, and some of his practices, which were well-known in England, were in fact questionable in themselves. But I highly recommend the book! (I think still in circulation, probably via Amazon, some libraries, etc.)

      • Perry Bulwer says:

        Howard, and anyone else interested, one of the best books on this subject is (from wikipedia):

        “Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field” was edited by Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins. The book was published by University of Toronto Press, on December 1, 2001 and includes contributions from ten religious, sociological and psychological scholars. The book is unique in that it includes contributions from scholars who have been labeled as “anti-cult”, as well as those who have been labeled as “cult apologists.” The book features a section which discusses the need for scholarly objectivity when researching cults, as well as emphasizing the danger of partisanship while researching these controversial groups. Other topics discussed include brainwashing, cult violence, the conflict that exists between new religious movements and their critics, as well as the ramifications of raising children in controversial religious movements.”

        The essays on ‘brainwashing’ or indoctrination are fascinating, as they reveal a very strong rift in the academic community on that subject, with those who say ‘brainwashing’ doesn’t exist relying on the concept of automatons with no will of their own, as in The Manchurian Candidate, whereas the concept of indoctrination is much closer to what the general public usually understands as ‘brainwashing’. That book helped me tremendously with my own cult recovery, although it is still incomplete 20 years after I escaped. Stephen Kent, a cult expert at the University of Alberta, is one of the contributors, and his work on ‘brainwashing’ describes exactly my experiences. See his website at: You can read some of his articles there, including one that is in that book Misunderstanding Cults.

        He has done important work on Scientology and other cults such as the one I was in, the Children of God. His specific insights on that group helped me understand certain things that I would not have had known otherwise. He knew things about the cult, based on extensive interviews with former members, that I had no idea about while I was a member,
        things like the psycho-sexual history of the Children of God’s founder, David Berg, which you can read on Kent’s site in an article title “Lustful Prophet” at:

        The best thing about him, from my perspective as a survivor of religous abuse in that group, is that he does not simply reject outright the claims made by ex-cult members about their experiences, as many academic cult apologists do because they assume that they have axes to grind so embellish their abuse stories. You can often find such apologists behind the term, new religious movement, which they prefer to ‘cult’. Instead, Kent starts from the premise that cult survivor stories are true and not embellished. That makes him a hero to me and people like me who are generally not believed.

  17. jcbolow says:

    The truth contained in religious doctrines are after all so systematically distorted and disguised that the mass of humanity can not recognize them as truth

  18. Thank you so much Marlene and Valerie for your work. I have seen RTS many times and experienced it myself and it’s nice to have a clinical name and description. For those interested in a coming-of-age story on the subject, my novel “Stick Man” is thematically about RTS as a young man makes a journey from fundamentalism to freedom. Amicably, Richard Rossi

  19. Catherine Walters says:

    Well said! I’d like to train in this as I am a former member of the cult of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  20. Karen Costantini says:

    I am so not surprised at these articles, but surprised that I, too, suffered from RTS. The most damaging was Jehovah’s Witnesses – who got my Mom, hook, line and sinker. As a young girl (grade school) I was expected to “study” with my Mom and a witness, then go out and tell other the people the “good news”. THAT’s an oxymoron! I was so petrified that the “end of days” was truly upon us. Would I live long enough to graduate from HIgh School? Get Married? Have kids? I married right out of high school and had kids right away, always fearing that it will all come to a horrible end any time – and was I going to be a survivor??? I went to different churches in my life – Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalan (sp?) – read about Budda, Wiccan, etc. My inner peace finally came when I made a conscious decision that Religion is not what I need. I am just fine believing that there is something bigger than us that maybe someday we will understand. But, I prefer to live my life being a good neighbor, friend and human being, mindful of the strife of others and trying not to be too judgmental (hard to do these days!). I feel sad for people I know who do not see the destructiveness of a lot of religions. They all say they are right and true, then act in such a way that I am absolutely sure that Jesus would never stop throwing up at the things done in his name. So much for teaching love, compassion and love of truth. Don’t see it today.

  21. gregw says:

    As a minister, I have witnessed first-hand the trauma and dysfunction caused by toxic religion. I spent years cleaning up the psychological and spiritual fallout from one of my predecessors who not only was a holier-than-thou, super-spiritual, control freak, he was also a serial sexual predator of men, women and children (including his own children and his sister). How people let leaders like this control them is beyond me . . . but every once in a while, somebody takes something I say the wrong way . . . and I live in fear that my words might be twisted into similarly damaging thoughts . . .
    But you know what really bugs me? It absolutely frosts my cookies when my leadership and I attempt to genuinely follow Jesus Christ in offering mercy, grace, love and understanding . . . and we’re told we’re not as “spiritual” as the abusers . . . Yeah . . . go figure.

    • jcbolow says:

      The Term “Jesus Christ” needs to be understood as a Metaphor! “All Religions” Refer to you!
      Have you “died to your animal nature and been reborn! This is the meaning of that, There is no
      Third Party vendor

  22. Donna Faulkner says:

    It goes to show you that the people of the world are growing further away from God, do not want to know God, do not care About God or His Word and will do anything to slap His face. This is why they do not understand Him and His Love. They concentrate on consequences of what their sins and then blame that on God and completely ignore what God has promised is for and Eterniy of bliss. What a shameful human race and what stupidity from His creatures that He loves so much. The miracles he and healing she has for us and we need only ask and He gives. Where are His children? He has saved my life from drunkeness, cancer, smoking, myself and you people, gave me back my family, and you condemn His works? Shame, you blame religion (organized) but do not attack Christianity it’s true form as it is not religion…the difference is wide and vast and if you do not know what it is then you do not know what you are talking about. Religion you DO…Christianity you LIVE now you do know what you are talking about!

    • Donna, I appreciate you sharing here. I celebrate with you the return of your family and what I imagine you’d say is your “life” (quality of life). I’ve read Valerie’s and Marlene’s writings for a long time, and do not see them as an attack on “Christianity” itself… only the all-too-common forms in which people express or teach about it that confuse and misguide many. You may note I’ve commented in this post thread as well, and consider myself a “progressive” or “Integral” Christian. “True religion”, as the author of James (New Test. book) speaks it, of reminds me of what you are saying… compassionate things we DO, especially for the less fortunate, struggling people; how we live! I think I can speak for the authors that they are in full agreement with that and seeking to point others there, rescuing them from manipulation when necessary.

    • A concerned citizen says:

      You are exactly what is wrong with religion.

  23. Pingback: Do We Need Religion?: Part II | The Big Slice

  24. Pingback: Religious Trauma Syndrome | Living in a World Without God

  25. I’m sorry to hear that others go through this, but it feels nice not to be alone. I didn’t have to go through what the poster went through, but I certainly have my problems. I have anxiety and OCD, which I think was caused by religion. I was raised Catholic and got a pretty good dose of it growing up. My parents don’t know yet, but I’m becoming atheist. People say that religion relives us from anxiety, but what if it’s the cause of it? Religion reminds me of the Matrix. Religion tells us that the world is the problem and that religion (the matrix) is the only we it can fix it. I truly think the only way we can be free is if we leave religion for good.

    While it hasn’t been proven, I think there is a strong link between most of everyone’s anxiety and religion. Most people have had some sort of religious upbringing and a lot of people seem to have some anxiety. Religion teaches us to fear the end of days; definitely a great thing to teach a child growing up. Humans have a natural tendency to fear death, and religion plays upon that fear. We are taught to fear Hell and that we have to be perfect to enter Heaven. Humans can never be perfect and I think this creates a vicious cycle of anxiety.

    I think that original sin screwed me up the most. We are taught that we are never good enough for God. Most people look at the Jesus story and think of it as a wonderful tale of redemption. I see it as a way for religions to control us. Not only do they teach us that we are horrible people, but we need someone to suffer the most violent death to save us. This can’t be healthy for our us.

    They do the same thing for sexuality. Most religions look down upon masturbating when it’s completely natural. The cycle of shame and guilt is endless in religion. In the Catholic Church masturbating is seen as a mortal sin which can send you straight to Hell. Even lusting after a women is seen as adultery.

    Sorry for the long post. I’m just trying to get to the root of the problem and thought I would put my back story here.

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  28. Rowlena says:

    I think Gandih got it right ‘I like your Jesus, I dont like his followers’. I’m studying to be a chaplain in mental health and want to help encourage others towards growth and healing in personal relationships with GOD not the church or religion

    • ludwig44 says:

      Doesn’t have to be an “Evangelical,” “cult-like,” or even organized faith to cause great harm. I was raised Lutheran, but just really believed it all for half my life, and my departure from believing it almost killed me. It is wrong no matter which way it is taught, because it simply is not true and following a myth cannot help but lead those who eventually see the truth to great suffering.

      • Julio says:

        Religious victims need only to understand a VITAL point about fanaticism, and that will resolve the conflict once and for all.
        Religion is all of it based on the FALSE premise that there is an almighty that “told some agents to tell you”!
        Religion is a dishonest, fanatical LIAR telling you “God told us to tell you!”
        It is FALSE: no Almighty God with enough self-esteem would need AGENTS or COURIERS or evangelists or popes or priests or any other professional AGENTS to deliver a message he wanted you to receive!
        The same ALMIGHTY would not need to write any “holy book” saturated with codes & mysteries to be interpreted since we are intelligent enough to understand a straightforward message.
        The other offensive evil Religion plays is to quote MEN from some holy book and call them God!
        It is the number one evil of Religion, without a doubt: Quoting MEN that wrote some story in a labelled “holy book” and call those MEN the God the VICTIM needs to FEAR.
        The third EVIL Religion portrays is to deliver some almighty’s message with THREATS & CURSES and still charge a cash fee for the service to support the parasitical elite that tell us God told them to tell us!
        Therefore: when you understand these points well, you have reached a stage in your intelligence and IQ level where you are no longer a possible VICTIM of Religion and its charlatans!

  29. speeddemon2 says:

    I have also come to view Evangelical Christianity as mental illness. Those who seem the deepest in it’s throes have histories of unbelievable childhood trauma, alcoholic, psychotic, sociopathic parents and grandparents. I’ve lost my son and my grandchildren to a cult of “christianity” because my daughter-in-law comes from one of those extremely dysfunctional families. She has indoctrinated her children, isolated them from the larger society through home schooling and prevented any contact with anyone who doesn’t share her belief in her cult.

  30. Amy Howard says:

    I was brainwashed from an early age in Southern Baptistry, but fortunately had good pastors. Unfortunately, I still find myself angsty on leaving religion totally because of the early ‘hell’ training. I have a huge amount of anxiety related to even possible agnosticism even though I understand that Jesus is another incarnation of the dead god mythos, and that not everything in the bible is true, or even partially true. I came out to my mother about a year and a half ago as not believing in Biblical Creation, her reaction was semi-predictable. I am really conflicted. Intellectually I don’t need religion, but emotionally I do, and I’m not sure how to deal with that.

  31. Rebecca W says:

    New to this site. Thank you.

  32. Head Of Shiz says:

    I’m a recovering mormon and this article has so many “ah-hah!” moments in it for me. Thanks for your research and thoughtful interview. I think it would be a good read for many people leaving mormonism that still question their place in the world and their own sanity as they exit a potentially very controlling religion.

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  35. julio says:

    Low-IQ fanatics seem to believe that yes there is a nice almighty god out there that can hear prayers.
    Fine, any junior/immature almighty can hear prayers, what the hell!
    The problem is that none of the almighties in the Pantheon answers real prayers, the bastards!!
    Yes, you can have prayers answered, like the small change ones – pray for rain in Cape Town from April to September!
    But go pray for REAL problems, like find MISSING CHILDREN quickly to their anguished parents and you will notice the almighties left to play cards with their friends, the creeps!

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  38. Reblogged this on kindism and commented:
    Christian Science isn’t really into the hellfire, brimstone and apocalypse, but it does manage to instill a deep distrust of doctors/medicine, and some dangerously unrealistic ideas that you can heal yourself through prayer alone — and when that fails, it means you’ve failed, so you have to pray harder… Not a healthy cycle to fall into.

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  43. sorayajan says:

    Reblogged this on Among the Whispers and commented:
    I don’t agree with everything here, and I don’t think I’m leaving my religion (really), but…this is so me.

  44. Kaitlin says:

    This is wonderful. Thanks so much for publishing this. As someone who spent a good chunk of my adolescence surrounded by evangelicals, I can relate to a lot of what is described here. It’s great to be shedding light on this issue.

  45. This confirms so many things I’ve been saying and feeling about my own experience, which I go into here (particularly in the section titled “In religion, but not of religion”:

    Thanks for sharing!

  46. Deb Thornley says:

    THank you, thank you, thank you!Great article as always Valerie. RTS is real and there are a lot of us who can attest to that from first hand experience.

  47. Kristi Draper says:

    “Conversely, groups that connect people and promote self-knowledge and personal growth can be said to be healthy. The book, Healthy Religion, describes these traits. Such groups put high value on respecting differences, and members feel empowered as individuals. They provide social support, a place for events and rites of passage, exchange of ideas, inspiration, opportunities for service, and connection to social causes. They encourage spiritual practices that promote health like meditation or principles for living like the golden rule.”

    This paragraph from the article has been my experience in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has also been my experience that people — teachers AND followers — can twist, misinterpret, and completely misunderstand Christ’s teachings and thus create or suffer from RTS. My heart goes out to them and I sincerely hope they find their faith again through service, love, compassion, and forgiveness.

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