by Bobby Azarian
January 06, 2019
This explains a
A study (Biological
and Cognitive Underpinnings of Religious Fundamentalism) published in the
Journal Neuropsychologia has shown that
religious fundamentalism is, in part, the result of a functional
impairment in a brain region known as the prefrontal cortex.
The findings suggest that
damage to particular areas of the prefrontal cortex indirectly
promotes religious fundamentalism by diminishing cognitive
flexibility and openness - a psychology term that describes a
personality trait which involves dimensions like,
Religious beliefs can be thought of as socially transmitted mental
representations that consist of supernatural events and entities
assumed to be real.
Religious beliefs differ
from empirical beliefs, which are based on how the world appears to
be and are updated as new evidence accumulates or when new theories
with better predictive power emerge.
On the other hand,
religious beliefs are not usually updated in response to new
evidence or scientific explanations, and are therefore strongly
associated with conservatism.
They are fixed and
which helps promote predictability and coherence to the rules of
society among individuals within the group.
Religious fundamentalism refers to an ideology that emphasizes
traditional religious texts and rituals and discourages progressive
thinking about religion and social issues.
generally oppose anything that questions or challenges their beliefs
or way of life.
For this reason, they are
often aggressive towards anyone who does not share their specific
set of supernatural beliefs, and towards science, as these things
are seen as existential threats to their entire worldview.
Since religious beliefs play a massive role in driving and
influencing human behavior throughout the world, it is important to
understand the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism from a
psychological and neurological perspective.
To investigate the cognitive and neural systems involved in
religious fundamentalism, a team of researchers - led by Jordan
Grafman of Northwestern University - conducted a study that
utilized data from Vietnam War veterans that had been gathered
The vets were
specifically chosen because a large number of them had damage to
brain areas suspected of playing a critical role in functions
related to religious fundamentalism.
CT scans were analyzed
comparing 119 vets with brain trauma to 30 healthy vets with no
damage, and a survey that assessed religious fundamentalism was
While the majority of
Christians of some kind, 32.5% did not specify a
Based on previous research, the experimenters predicted that the
prefrontal cortex would play a role in religious fundamentalism,
since this region is known to be associated with something called
This term refers to the
brain's ability to easily switch from thinking about one concept to
another, and to think about multiple things simultaneously.
allows organisms to update beliefs in light of new evidence, and
this trait likely emerged because of the obvious survival advantage
such a skill provides. It is a crucial mental characteristic for
adapting to new environments because it allows individuals to make
more accurate predictions about the world under new and changing
Brain imaging research has shown that a major neural region
associated with cognitive flexibility is the prefrontal cortex -
specifically two areas known as,
Additionally, the vmPFC
was of interest to the researchers because past studies have
revealed its connection to fundamentalist-type beliefs.
For example, one study
showed individuals with vmPFC lesions rated radical political
statements as more moderate than people with normal brains, while
another showed a direct connection between vmPFC damage and
For these reasons, in the
present study, researchers looked at patients with lesions in both
the vmPFC and the dlPFC, and searched for correlations between
damage in these areas and responses to religious fundamentalism
According to Dr. Grafman and his team, since religious
fundamentalism involves a strict adherence to a rigid set of
beliefs, cognitive flexibility and open-mindedness present a
challenge for fundamentalists.
As such, they predicted
that participants with lesions to either the vmPFC or the dlPFC
would score low on measures of cognitive flexibility and trait
openness and high on measures of religious fundamentalism.
The results showed that, as expected, damage to the vmPFC and dlPFC
was associated with religious fundamentalism. Further tests revealed
that this increase in religious fundamentalism was caused by a
reduction in cognitive flexibility and openness resulting from the
prefrontal cortex impairment.
Cognitive flexibility was
assessed using a standard psychological card sorting test that
involved categorizing cards with words and images according to
rules. Openness was measured using a widely-used personality survey
known as the NEO Personality Inventory.
The data suggests that
damage to the vmPFC indirectly promotes
religious fundamentalism by
suppressing both cognitive flexibility and openness.
These findings are important because they suggest that impaired
functioning in the prefrontal cortex - whether from
brain trauma, a
psychological disorder, a drug or alcohol addiction, or simply a
particular genetic profile - can make an individual susceptible to
And perhaps in other
cases, extreme religious indoctrination harms the development or
proper functioning of the prefrontal regions in a way that hinders
cognitive flexibility and openness.
The authors emphasize that cognitive flexibility and openness aren't
the only things that make brains vulnerable to religious
In fact, their analyses
showed that these factors only accounted for a fifth of the
variation in fundamentalism scores.
additional causes, which could be anything from genetic
predispositions to social influences, is a future research project
that the researchers believe will occupy investigators for many
decades to come, given how complex and widespread religious
fundamentalism is and will likely continue to be for some time.
By investigating the cognitive and neural underpinnings of religious
fundamentalism, we can better understand how the phenomenon is
represented in the connectivity of the brain, which could allow us
to someday inoculate against rigid or radical belief systems through
various kinds of mental and cognitive exercises.
Religious Trauma Syndrome
How some Organized Religions leads to
Mental Health Problems -
by Valerie Tarico
not love and
At age sixteen I began what would be a four year struggle with
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.
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.
Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San
Francisco Area. She is also the daughter of Pentecostal
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.
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."
"A religion, faith or
book cannot be abuse but the people interpreting can make anything
Is toxic religion simply misinterpretation?
What is religious
Why does Winell believe religious trauma merits its own
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
The RTS label provides a name and
description that affected people often recognize immediately.
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
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,
toxic teachings like eternal damnation or
religious practices or mindset, such as punishment,
black and white thinking, or sexual guilt
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
One client of mine, who during the day functioned well as
a professional, struggled with intense fear many nights.
I was afraid I was going to hell. I was afraid I was doing something
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
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
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
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
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.
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?"
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
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
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
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
RTS is a specific set of symptoms and characteristics that
are connected with harmful religious experience, not just any
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
an unloved, rejected, traumatized toddler in the
body of an adult.
I'm simply a broken spirit in an empty shell.
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
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
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,
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, non-theists are asking how they can
create similar spiritual communities without the supernaturalism.
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
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
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
Mormons, and I was asked to speak about RTS at an Ex-mormon
I facilitate an international support group
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.