This story is part of The Establishment’s series on PTSD Awareness.
A record number of people are leaving the Christian church, according to Pew Research Center’s report on America’s current religious landscape. The majority of adults who leave their religion do not experience pronounced negative health or psychological repercussions, and in fact, recent focus has been on the apparent benefits of maintaining one’s faith.
Those who were particularly devout and raised in Fundamentalist denominations, however, are more inclined to suffer from what Dr. Marlene Winell, author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion, has labeled Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS). Dr. Winell coined the term in 2011 after noticing a unique pattern of symptoms in many of her counseling clients. These individuals had one thing in common: They had recently left their dogmatic and highly-controlling religions.
Fundamentalist Christian denominations, as they will be discussed here, include those within several Pentecostal, Charismatic, Evangelical, and conservative non-denominational movements. Though certain beliefs vary from group to group, Fundamentalist denominations tend to have these attributes in common: They believe in the literal truth and inerrancy of the Bible, along with the literal virgin birth of Christ; they emphasize original sin and human depravity, and the need to accept Christ as one’s Savior in order to avoid eternal damnation; they believe in a literal Heaven and Hell, along with actual angels, demons, and Satan; and they seek to filter out diverse beliefs and worldviews that conflict with their own.
Those who leave such denominations may experience symptoms of RTS, which include, but are not limited to, learned helplessness, identity confusion, dissociation, sleep and eating disorders, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and interpersonal dysfunction. Critical thinking and independent thought are often underdeveloped. Since the term is still so new, and quantitative research is needed, there are no clear estimates as to how many people who leave their faith end up developing RTS. Also, Dr. Winell notes that aspects of RTS can develop in those who have not yet left their faith, especially those symptoms related to helplessness, problems regarding authority, and many others, making RTS estimates even more difficult to calculate. Interestingly, Dr. Winell has anecdotally noticed that certain personality traits seem related to the development of RTS, including high levels of devotion and commitment and an analytical nature.
In her article for the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies, Dr. Winell acknowledges that RTS is very similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When I speak with her via video call, however, she outlines the differences, telling me that RTS is more comprehensive and “really destroys your whole approach to life. It’s like the rug gets pulled out from under you in every way, because religion defines everything — it defines who you are, your relationships, your purpose in life, your view of the world, your view of the future, your view of the afterlife. The whole house comes down.”
After so many years of church and church authorities providing the answers to all of life’s questions, within an environment that condemns voicing doubts regarding matters of faith, the person who leaves often feels psychologically and mentally stunted, and incapable of making life decisions. In a very real way, they must re-create their identities from scratch. This core uncertainty and brokenness forms the basis of RTS.
Out of the three former Fundamentalist Christians I interviewed, Dimsdale is arguably feeling the effects of religious trauma the most. He explains that though he physically left the church in his early thirties, he didn’t psychologically leave it until more than a decade later.
“It took me years after I left the church before I actually settled on the fact that God didn’t exist,” Dimsdale says from his home in British Columbia. Initially after leaving the church, he says, “I was thrilled that I could do whatever the hell I wanted to do on a Saturday night, and I didn’t have to worry about being hungover on a Sunday morning. And there was so much more freedom, and I wasn’t guilty about going out with a bunch of girls and having sex. And this world opened up to me. I just started being a normal guy. It wasn’t until I was in my forties when everything just kind of crumbled.”
That’s when Dimsdale began contemplating suicide. Even now, at the age of 44, he struggles with debilitating depression and identity issues, and has not had a job in over a year.
Kurt Conner, who left his non-denominational Christian church in Massachusetts almost five years ago, struggles most with the social fallout. “I never really learned how to make friends as a grown-up,” he tells me. “I have a hard time figuring out how people connect when they don’t have God in common. I liken it to my friends who have gotten divorced. When they were married for a long time, they had a sense of who they were, but it was always in connection with someone else. And then when they’re not in that relationship anymore, it’s hard to remember which part was you and which part was shared. It’s been a lot of identity-shredding, and the putting-it-back-together part has been difficult.”
According to 35-year-old Conner, the way he was treated by his Christian friends when he left the church also had a negative impact on his social life. “The shunning was so total when I ‘quit Jesus.’ That is always in the back of my head.” The trust that was destroyed from being rejected by those he cared about the most has not been easy to rebuild.
For Sarah Brennan of Scottsdale, Arizona, religious trauma may be something she has been able to avoid due to a surprising factor: her lesbian identity. According to Brennan, she always felt like she was fighting the church to be able to be herself, so the incredible sense of relief and liberation that she felt when she left clearly beat out the negative repercussions.
“I feel like I was suppressing one identity and trying to be this other, Christian version of myself, and so when I left it was like I became myself, and let go of this other thing I was trying to be,” she says during our video call. “It felt like I was missing part of myself the whole time I was there. I was trying so hard to fit somewhere I didn’t.”
However, toward the end of our video call, Brennan admits the effects may just take time to catch up to her. Three years ago, at the age of 33, she left her husband and the Sovereign Grace Church of Gilbert, Arizona, around the same time, then quickly began her new life as an “out” lesbian and married the woman of her dreams. “I feel like it’s probably going to hit me at some point, because I don’t think I’ve really dealt with it yet,” she says.
The current support system for those who have discarded their all-encompassing religious worldviews is lacking, as former believers suffering from RTS are frequently misdiagnosed and their problems not adequately addressed by even the most well-intentioned therapists. In fact, some are re-traumatized when therapists or counselors — especially those who have never experienced or studied religious trauma — suggest going back to church or seeking guidance from their former pastors, friends, and estranged family members. Getting others to understand is one of the toughest challenges of all.
“The key thing with RTS is understanding the history of what a person’s been through,” Dr. Winell tells me. “That often gets neglected when people are in therapy, because religion is traditionally not approached in psychology programs.”
Additionally, since religion holds a privileged position in North American society, individuals who complain about the repercussions of leaving their faith are normally not taken seriously, or their concerns might be completely dismissed. Most Americans can understand how leaving a cult is a painful and trying experience, but they do not typically extend the same understanding to those who leave “mainstream” religions.
Appropriately identifying and labeling RTS requires more research, development of new approaches to treatment, and improved training for therapists and health-care providers.
In the meantime, many former Fundamentalist Christians (along with former members of other rigid and controlling religions) have found help online, through confidential support groups such as Dr. Winell’s Release and Reclaim, and sites like Dr. Darrel Ray’s Recovering from Religion.
As the number of ex-Christians continues to grow each year, it’s important that we recognize the struggles many of them will encounter as they endeavor to build their new lives, free from an all-encompassing belief system. The effects of leaving a controlling religion do not have to be so crippling or longstanding, as long as we push for increased knowledge and awareness. Chances are, we all know someone who could benefit from an understanding of religious trauma.
* Bryce Dimsdale is his pen name.