Spiritual Abuse & Religious Trauma Syndrome



You know those weird things in life that you never would guess? Otters sleep holding hands. Octopi can open lids from inside a jar. And people often experience something like PTSD from common things that happen inside churches.


Of course, there are the many who have been sexually abused that church leaders chose to hide from the public until they couldn’t anymore, and those stories get on the news. But there are countless other stories that involve sexual violence or not. Power structures found inside many religious communities create a current that victims have to swim against.


Where It Goes Wrong

Listen to our episode on gay conversion therapy HERE.

Pastors often take on a counseling role in their communities. This creates what is called “dual relationships”, an action that could cost a licensed therapist their job and license because of its ethical implications. Church members try to cast out demons instead of believing mental health professionals. Parents indoctrinate their child to think members of the LGBT+ community are perverted and to be distrusted. Family members show conditional love based on religious performance or the ability to obey. People turn to self-harm when they feel they don’t measure up to others in their church. Maybe you’re like one of those examples. You may even have a story we haven’t heard yet.


Listen to our episode on sexuality and intuition HERE.

But perhaps you can’t point at one thing and proclaim, “That’s it!” Maybe you’ve lived through a general sense of dread because you were fearful of things like “eternity,” going to hell, being bored in Heaven forever, scared that a demon is in your room. It’s possible you’ve lived with feelings of shame for wanting sex, guilt for not feeling bad enough about your misdeeds, anxious that you’d commit the notoriously-vague “Unforgivable Sin” (what sort of shithead wouldn’t be damn careful with words so we knew exactly what he was talking about?). Perhaps you have spent years being disassociated from your body and/or sexuality. Maybe you realized you were taught to believe, accept, and obey something without appropriate criticism (indoctrination) at a young age or when you were in a time of need. Do you consider the time you spent or are currently practicing religion limiting and regretful?


You’re Not Alone

People are leaving toxic religion in masses. Maybe you’re one of them. Whether you stopped believing after listening to your doubts, were cast aside because you’re LGBT+, experienced trauma perpetuated or covered-up by a church, or whatever your unique experience is, you aren’t alone. We are committed to create and provide free resources for those who have left or are leaving toxic religion.



Spiritual abuse is when someone uses spiritual authority or religiously-based manipulations to gain inappropriate power over someone.

Religious Trauma Syndrome is “the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination” (Dr. Marlene Winell, LINK). It is compared to PTSD and Complex PTSD.



Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology which is received and reinforced at church, school, and home results in:

• Suppression of normal child development – cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested

• Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities -information is limited and controlled; dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned

• External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source

• Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used as for discipline




• Cognitive: Confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability & self-worth, black & white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making

• Emotional: Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning

• Social: Loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks

• Cultural: Unfamiliarity with secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g. evolution, modern art, music)





Listen to our special episode on indoctrination HERE.

Do any of these ring true for you? On the podcast, we constantly recommend professional therapy for treatment of Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS). Both myself (Brady) and my co-host, Chuck, have greatly benefited from the therapy during various times in the deconstruction of our faiths. We firmly believe that stigma against receiving professional therapy, which is magnified dogmatically by some spiritual environments, keeps many from living a fuller life. You can be free.



And remember, if you don’t go to church, Sunday is just a second Saturday. 


[Learn more about RTS HERE or on THIS PODCAST EPISODE on Spiritual Trauma from the Liturgists Podcast]


Listen to our episode on professional therapy.

Find a Therapistwww.psychologytoday.com. Search by insurance, sliding scale, clinical issues, gender, location, etc.

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness): 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). They recommend free or low-cost treatment options.

The Secular Therapy Project: Seculartherapy.org. Want to make sure you’re getting a therapist who isn’t going to push a religious worldview even unconsciously? Check them out here.

211: www.211.org. They provide more mental health resources.

Suicide hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You are never alone.

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