May 06, 2023
If there's any topic that has impacted my life so deeply - and yet
I've been putting off writing for over ten years - it's
The topic of religious trauma is such an inflammatory topic, and one
that has harmed so many people, that I'm going to try and approach
it as delicately as I can.
Religious trauma is pervasive and more widespread than I believe
most people are aware of.
After all, the foundation
of most modern societies are based on religious ideals,
whether you live in the east or west.
Do I think all
religion is evil? Am I an anti-theist? No. Religion serves a
valuable function in society by emphasizing social
connectedness, support, values, and higher ideals. For many
people, religion is what makes life worth living, and it has
helped them in their darkest times.
Do I believe all religious people are horrible? No. In fact,
many religious people are some of the kindest and most generous
souls you'll ever meet.
Do I "hate"
Christianity? (The religion I was brought up in.)
No, I don't hate Christianity. I can see the value in this
belief system, and I respect and admire figures such as Jesus,
Mary Magdalene, and the Virgin Mary (who I still
feel an affinity with).
But here's the thing:
Religion, with all of
its underlying value, can easily become something destructive,
abusive, perverted, and traumatizing...
In this article, I'm
going to explore the dark side of religion as a
religious trauma survivor, and also how to heal these wounds from a
Also, this article is written from an ex-Christian perspective, but
it applies to anyone from any religion.
If your unique
experiences of religious trauma aren't mentioned here, I apologize -
they are just as valid. I can only write from what I have personally
This article contains
mention of sexual abuse, murder-suicide, self-harm, suicidal
ideation, physical abuse, and other triggering topics. Proceed
In the interests of being
trauma-sensitive, if at any point you feel overwhelmed by reading
this article, please stop, take a break, and return to this page
Religious trauma refers to the
deeply felt ongoing mental and emotional suffering one experiences
at the hands of a religious belief system.
trauma can happen to anyone of any faith at any point in their lives
- and it can be cumulative or sudden.
In other words, religious
trauma can slowly build through a person's faith journey or it can
occur as a sudden shock such as,
With Religious Trauma
Religious trauma for me was a cumulative experience that reached its
peak at the age of 19 when I decided to finally cut ties with the
fundamentalist religion of my childhood (and unfortunately my blood
family alongside it).
Since birth, I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church known
Church of Christ who prided
themselves on a strict adherence to biblical tenets.
I was taught that the CoC
was the "one true church," that those who belonged to it were
"special and chosen," and that all other beliefs (including other
Christian denominations) and belief systems were false - and that
those believing in them would end up burning in hell for all
I was indoctrinated with purity culture ideals of staying a virgin
until marriage - that a woman wasn't allowed to speak in church,
couldn't be a leader or "elder," or do anything other than be a good
homemaker and "submit" to her husband.
I wasn't permitted to cut
my hair, celebrate Christmas or Easter (or any other "non-biblical"
holidays), or be overly "worldly" because I was taught to believe
that "Satan prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone
Imagine being taught,
as a tiny little girl, that not only is the Devil always out to
try and get you, but that if you're "bad" in any way, you'll
suffer for all eternity in hellfire in the worst possible agony
you could ever imagine...?
That's a pretty f*ed up
thing to teach a young child.
Being indoctrinated at a very young age, for almost two decades with
paranoid, bigoted, and fear-based beliefs about the world, it was no
wonder that my mental health took a nosedive in my later
When I began to question
why an "all-loving God" would send people to burn in hell forever if
they didn't "follow what He wanted," my world began to crack apart.
Just like in The
Truman Show, my whole understanding of reality began to collapse
and crumble beneath me. Reading the Bible three times over didn't
solve any of my problems either - it made the situation worse.
I remember sitting in church during a sermon one Sunday, feeling the
deeply disturbing sensation that my soul was slowly dying.
Sudden thoughts of
murder-suicide would flash through my fragmented mind as disturbing
bloody images of stabbing the preacher over and over again - and
then killing myself - would burst into my awareness.
(I later learned that
these thoughts signaled the emergence of my heavily repressed and
rejected Shadow Self.)
This drive toward self-harm and suicidal-ideation began as a
teenager and continued until a little after I left the religion, but
thankfully it never resulted in anything serious.
There's a lot more that I could share about enduring physical abuse
(aka., "biblical" punishment) with a horse whip, spiritual
gaslighting, emotional manipulation, social isolation, learning that
my favorite Christian friend was a child molester, and the other
nuances of an immature and destructive belief system - but I'll try
to keep this simple.
I don't blame my parents because I know that they were trying to do
the best they could with the level of awareness they had.
They're good people deep
down with admirable qualities. I'm sure religion felt like a
soothing balm for them and they wanted to instil some kind of values
into their children.
My childhood wasn't all
bad and there were certainly good parts, and wonderful qualities my
parents instilled into me (like creativity and a good work ethic).
But religion for me was a
horror show that I'm still overcoming to this very day.
Unfortunately, the result of freeing myself from this religious
trauma, also meant that I had to become a black sheep and cut ties
with my blood family, who were conditioned by their beliefs to see
me as a,
to the faith," "sinner," and so on...
I didn't leave in a
I wish I had said goodbye
to my siblings early on that morning I grabbed my bags and left. I
wish I could have been there to support my little sister and meet my
third sister who was born a few years after I left.
But returning to that
environment would mean deep self-betrayal, threatening my mental,
emotional, and spiritual sanity. Exposing myself to the very
situation that caused such deep trauma in me to begin with is not
something I'm willing to do again.
My story is certainly not the worst out there - there are so many
others who have experienced far worse than I have. And while I am a
victim, I refuse to stay as one.
I'm a survivor and now a
And this deep pain is
perhaps the main reason why I'm drawn to the symbol of the wolf,
writing for and running this website, and exploring the shadows that
obscure our Inner Light.
I just want to quickly clarify that this article is focused on
religious trauma, not spiritual trauma. Religion and spirituality
are two different paths.
Here's the difference
connecting to the Divine through your own personal experience.
It is primarily concerned with finding, experiencing, and
embodying one's true spiritual nature.
Religion is connecting to the Divine through someone else's
experience. It is primarily concerned with believing in,
following, and obeying the rules created by a certain Deity or
You're Experiencing Religious Trauma
How do you know whether you're experiencing religious trauma?
Most likely, you'll need
to self-diagnose as this term isn't listed in the DSM-5 (which is
not saying that listing it as a mental disorder is actually always
Trust in your own experience. These signs aren't meant to "diagnose"
you in any way (as I'm not a psychologist or mental health
But if you can relate to
some of them, chances are that you do indeed suffer from religious
of unworthiness and inadequacy
anxiety or panic
depression or melancholy
Weak sense of
connections and loss of community
maintaining friendships, relationships, etc.
dysfunction (excessive or under active sex drive)
loneliness and feelings of abandonment
experiencing joy or pleasure
self-expression and speaking up
black-or-white thinking and troubles accepting alternative
and feeling like one is being constantly watched and judged
trust oneself and one's gut instincts
trusting in other people and the Divine
being self-autonomous and making decisions
feelings of shame and guilt about normal thoughts, feelings,
This isn't an exhaustive
list of religious trauma signs, and if any others come up for you
that aren't listed, trust that they're just as relevant as what I've
What about specific examples of religious abuse?
As I said at the start of this article, religious abuse can be both
cumulative (aka., happen over a long period of time and in
subtle/overt ways) or be sudden (due to a specific incident).
The examples of religious abuse below don't cover all of the nuances
of this complex beast, but I hope they give you a clearer idea of
how religious abuse can appear:
A woman is shamed
for dressing a certain way and told that she's sinning
against God for displaying her body.
A man is judged
and ostracized by his religious community for his attraction
toward other men.
A family cuts off
their child when the child leaves the religion.
A person seeks
help from their religious elders about marital abuse, only
to be told that it's their lack of faith that is the
problem, not the other party's sexual/physical/emotional
A child is
physically, mentally, or emotionally punished for doing or
saying something that is perceived to be against the
community pressures and coerces an older person to donate
more money than they can afford to give to their evangelical
religious leader uses his/her position of power to gain
sexual favors in the name of "God."
A person is
publicly humiliated for a perceived "sin."
A child is raped
and the parents and religious authorities don't believe his
or her word, pretending it didn't happen.
A person is
emotionally blackmailed and gaslighted into questioning
their sanity when bringing up reasonable questions about
certain religious beliefs.
experiences control and intimidation tactics when she stops
exposing her children to a belief system.
A father's mental
health problems are minimized or ridiculed by religious
leaders, and he undergoes inadequate treatment from an
incompetent "religious counselor."
leader uses scripture to justify sexist, homophobic,
transphobic, racist, ableist, or otherwise violent and
Trauma and Spiritual Awakening
Going through religious trauma is what led to my own
Dark Night of the Soul and
subsequent spiritual awakening - and if you're going through this
experience, you might be called to the same path as well.
Spiritual awakening is what happens when we begin questioning our
beliefs, habits, social conditioning, and everything that feels fake
or false in our lives.
A deep hunger and longing
begins to burn within us to find truth, freedom, relief from
suffering, and inner peace. We may crave to find what the meaning of
life is, what our purpose is, and ultimately, who we truly are on a
primordial level (our True Nature).
In other words,
emerges as a deep inner call from the Soul, demanding that we "wake
up," walk our own paths, and listen to our Soul's
calling to find Home...
Not everyone is ready for
or interested in spirituality after going through the horrible
roller coaster of religious trauma. In fact, many people feel drawn
to atheism, and that's fine. Sometimes atheism is the most healing
and empowering path for a person.
But if you're like me and you feel a calling from the Soul to find
truth, freedom, and love, pay attention.
Listen to and trust that
How to Heal
From Religious Trauma
Healing from religious trauma is a process. I'm not going to give
you some kind of gimmicky "7-steps-to-healing" shit because that's
not how it works.
Healing takes time,
experimentation, vulnerability... and again, time...
What I offer below isn't
meant to be a map, just some helpful practices that have supported
me in my own journey of healing religious trauma.
Am I completely healed?
No. I'm still healing to this very day. But I've learned a hell of a
lot across the past decade.
And I want to share that
with you now:
Journaling - simple but powerful
Undergoing religious trauma can be a lonely and isolating
Most people can't
understand or appreciate the intensity and complexity of how
deeply harmful and disturbing to the psyche toxic religious
conditioning can be.
One practice that helped me to keep some semblance of sanity
during the darker parts of my religious journey was journaling.
When I journaled, it felt like I was having a conversation with
someone who actually understood what I was feeling - me.
There is a healthy and unhealthy way of journaling (aka.,
constructive vs. destructive), so be sure to read my article on
How to Journal to learn how to journal in a beneficial way.
You can also check out this guided Self-Love Journal that I
co-created a little while back, if you want some structured
Mindfulness and self-compassion
Mindfulness helps you to learn how to live in the present moment
(instead of getting lost in thoughts about the past or future).
And self-compassion helps you to learn how to be gentle, kind,
and forgiving with yourself.
Self-compassion eventually leads into compassion for others,
which is why it's such a beautiful and healing practice.
The Self-Love Journal I mentioned above can help you develop
more self-compassion. Otherwise, you can also check out the
Practice Mindful Self-Compassion
Ways to Become a Doctor of the Soul
Self-Compassion Printable Oracle
lots of time in nature
Being in and amongst nature was the second practice that helped
me tremendously when I was in the thick of religion and feeling
Nature has helped me
The power of nature lies in how free, flowing, spontaneous, and
open it is - qualities that, incidentally, mirror our Higher
Self or True Nature (because in reality, we are nature).
Nature also teaches us in innumerable ways about the cycles of
birth and death, light and darkness, and the essential non-dual
nature of reality.
Researches on the benefits of time spent in nature have called
this practice ecotherapy. So be sure to spend time watching,
walking in, climbing, or engaging in nature in whatever way
feels most enjoyable to you.
friends with your inner child
Before making friends with your inner child, I always recommend
gaining some level of healthy self-worth because inner child
work is an extremely tender and vulnerable practice.
If you go into this
practice hating yourself, your inner child will never feel safe
enough to come out and be embraced.
self-love precedes inner child work.
With that said, working with my inner child was (and is still)
one of the most nourishing ways of reclaiming a sense of
creativity, joy, adventure, and even long lost wisdom.
Your inner child carries so much love and potential, and s/he is
a crucial part of you.
But at the same time,
your inner child also carries so much unprocessed pain. And when
it comes to religious trauma, chances are that your inner child
was the one that copped the most suffering.
I recommend working with a trained trauma-informed therapist
when learning how to heal your inner child - that helped me
greatly. Journaling and mirror work also supported my journey of
working with and reclaiming my inner child.
You can see the Inner Child Journal that I've co-authored if
you'd like some support with this deep work (feel free to use it
alongside therapy as well).
There are three main forms of inner work that I write about on
this website, and they are:
first, then inner child work, and finally shadow work.
So the same warning
applies to shadow work as with inner child work: pleasure ensure
that you have a stable sense of self-esteem before you embark on
Loathing yourself and
then deciding to explore your shadows (or dark side) is a recipe
for disaster and retraumatization. So take heed and proceed
slowly and mindfully.
Shadow work is the practice of exploring anything that obscures
your inner Light - that could be false beliefs, core wounds, old
programs, lost inner parts, or any part of you that feels
contracted or blocked.
What is so vital and powerful about shadow work is that it can
help us at any point of our life journeys.
No matter what degree
of awakening we've experienced, we always need to be mindful of
our shadows because the reality is that we are both human (aka.,
imperfect) and divine.
If you'd like to explore shadow work, I recommend checking out
our highly rated Shadow Work Journal.
(vi) Internal family systems - or working with your inner parts
Internal family systems (IFS) is a form of
psychotherapy which I love and highly recommend to those
experiencing religious trauma.
IFS works on the premise that we are all composed of many
different parts - happy, sad, angry, joyful, creative, sad,
childlike, wise, and silly parts (and so on).
At the center of our
being is a wise and compassionate inner force known as the Self
(capital ‘s'), which I love because it's a form of therapy that
welcomes the spiritual into the picture alongside psychological
You can read more about IFS in my Internal Family Systems
I also recommend
looking into getting an IFS therapist if you'd like to go deeper
into this work.
Non-duality - or seeing through the separate self
Non-duality is an eastern philosophical and spiritual teaching
that suggests that everything is ultimately One, and that
dualities such as "self/other," "light/dark," "subject/object,"
are ultimately constructs of the mind.
Furthermore, the self that we take ourselves to be - the "I" -
is actually an illusion based on a misunderstanding of who we
truly are at a fundamental level.
I'm not saying that non-duality as a philosophy and path will be
beneficial to you - but for me personally, it has helped me to
see that the separate self, the ego, is at the root of
And unlike religious
teachings that divide the world into "us/them" "good/evil" and
so on, non-duality encourages a non-judgmental approach to life
in which we see the underlying unity and Oneness beneath all
Non-duality is also a path that is said to open a doorway to
freedom from suffering via Self-Realization or spiritual
If you'd like to explore this topic more, you can see my article
Other Practices That Have Helped:
root and sacral chakra
Working with a
Learning how to
set personal boundaries
doesn't have to be religious!)
There are many other
practices (this whole website is a resource open for your benefit),
but these are some that come to mind. And I hope they are of help to
Religious trauma is underrepresented and isn't as explored or
covered as I'd hope it to be - hence the need for this article.
I hope you know now that,
experiencing is normal and you're not alone
there is a way
through this pain
can actually be a doorway to a deep inner path of spiritual