Spiritual Experiences

When I discuss religion and faith with other people, I find myself most interested in why they chose their particular path. For some their decision was greatly impacted by their family and heritage. For others, it was a spiritual experience that led them to choose a particular religion and/or deity. Spiritual experiences fascinate me.

While I was a Christian I had very few spiritual experiences, perhaps because the IFB world I was raised in downplayed personal experiences and the Holy Spirit. I suppose that’s why we were fundamentalists, though, because we stuck to what we perceived to be the fundamental teachings of the Bible – people of the Book and all that jazz. I had a friend in school who was a member of a Pentecostal church, where the Holy Spirit and personal experience was emphasized more heavily. I never attended any of their services, but the stories I heard were certainly interesting! I imagine the ecstatic fervor that is a hallmark of Pentecostal services would have been scary because it was so far from what I thought was normal. I’ve been to several church services (of varying denominations) over the years that made me very uncomfortable because the church members felt comfortable enough to show honest emotions while worshiping. I’m secretly jealous of how genuine they allow themselves to be while in public.

After I left Christianity I began to study other religions more in-depth than I had previously.
I began to recognize that spirituality and spiritual experiences were universal things… and that the non-Christian forms were not evil and Satanic. Fundamentalist Christianity tends to make the horrible claim that all forms of spirituality that aren’t Christian stem from Satan and his demons. Even as a Christian, I was puzzled by such claims, because plenty of people in other religions had lovely experiences and did wonderful things. They weren’t evil and certainly didn’t act like they were being mislead by a demon! It’s very liberating to no longer feel obligated to label people’s faiths in such judgmental ways. Instead, I am coming to respect the variety that exists in the world – different doesn’t mean wrong or right, just different.

I’ve had several spiritual experiences since I left Christianity, and each has nourished my soul and made me a better person. When other people tell me of their spiritual experiences, I feel no need to discount them if they don’t line up with my brand of faith. I feel that the Divine works through all religions. My mother, who had a spiritual experience when she chose Christ and Christianity, is confident and happy in her faith. I have no desire to pull her out of her faith. I do desire that she is as accepting of my spirituality as I am of hers, though. Fundamental Christians are often quite loud about salvation experiences, because they feel that these experiences prove they have found THE path to the Divine. I take issue with that mentality, and think it’s a bit ridiculous given the fact that people all over the world have had spiritual experiences for thousands of years, regardless of their chosen faith.

So… what are my beliefs these days? I rather like Unitarian Universalism, because it embraces respectful recognition of all beliefs (including atheism and agnosticism). I believe there is a Divine presence in the universe, and that this presence manifests itself in many forms – male, female, both, genderless, etc. The Divine exists in all of us. I also believe the Divine can be reached through many paths – there is no right or wrong way. As many others before me, I too hope that interfaith love and peace will be achieved one day.

Article: Unity of Religions? "God is not One!"

This article makes some good points. I am totally for all religions learning to peacefully coexist rather than all religions losing their individual identities and being merged into a single blob. It is the beautiful diversity that exists amongst the religions of the world that prevented me from hating religion altogether after I left the IFB. It’s true that I currently attend a Unitarian-Universalist church, but it seems that the UU’s version of universalism and the universalism described in this article are not the same thing at all.

Some Quotes & Some More Thoughts on Sex (4-30-2012)

‘‘The whole problem with this idea of obscenity and indecency, and all of these things—bad language and whatever—it’s all caused by one basic thing, and that is: religious superstition,’’ George Carlin in a 2004 interview. 

‘‘There’s an idea that the human body is somehow evil and bad and there are parts of it that are especially evil and bad, and we should be ashamed. Fear, guilt and shame are built into the attitude toward sex and the body…. It’s reflected in these prohibitions and these taboos that we have.’’ ~ George Carlin


The first statement is very interesting to me – I’ve never heard anyone draw that conclusion before. The second statement is what initially caught my attention. I couldn’t agree more with him, as you will know from reading my previous post. The first time I took Biology class, it was embarrassing, seeing those body parts for the first time and reading about the functions for which they are used. The principal of the Christian school I was attending taught that chapter to us, because of the silliness that teachers knew would ensue from discussing the topic of sex. I imagine silliness and embarrassment are part of any classroom discussion about sex, be it Christian or non. I think that shows that our society has made the wrong choice in how it approaches the topic of sex. 


If you are reading this, then you had a mother and a father who joined themselves together and created you. Many of you had parents who were married, some were not married, some may not even know both of their parents… but you have sex to thank for your existence. Sex is a regular bodily function, and the parts of the body that are involved are just that – parts of the body. True, it is those body parts that allow humanity to continue its existence through the creation of babies – a power not to be taken lightly. The making of babies has been going on for a very, very long time (obviously), but the ways in which the act of lovemaking have been viewed during that time frame are quite varied. I recently was reading some on the culture of the Celts, including their views on sexuality, and found the openness of it all to be rather refreshing. It was assumed that young people would be sexually active long before they were hand-fasted (Celtic equivalent of marriage). Even their view of marriage was strikingly different. A couple could be fasted for a year, in which they would live together as husband and wife, and then after that year they could choose to part ways or make the relationship permanent. The Celts also allowed sexual freedoms to the married people, if they chose not to remain monogamous. I wouldn’t choose to embrace that idea myself, but I do think people should be allowed to live that way if they choose to, so long as their partner is in agreement with it. Basically, the Celtic approach to sex can be summed up in the word “freedom.” The Christian view of lovemaking is quite different. Sex is to occur only between one man and woman, and only after they have been married – any other occurrences are immorality/adultery and therefore sin. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul addresses marriage and the sexual desires of Christians. He says several times that single people are better off, and that a man is much better off if he never has sex with a woman. Paul seems to be telling people that, if you are strong enough to repress your need for sex, you are making the best decision, but if you can’t, it’s okay, go ahead and get married and have sex… but you’ll really be better off if you don’t. After so many years of religiously-driven celibacy, it should be apparent why humans need to find outlets for their sexuality instead of repressing it. I wonder what happened in Paul’s life that left him thinking this way. He had to have been married at one time, since he was a high-up in the Jewish system… I wonder if he had a bad wife or something that left him blessing singleness. 
Anyway. 

Repressing anything results in problems surfacing later. If you hold in emotions, they will explode out later in chaotic and even harmful ways. If you hold in fears, guilt, and painful past events, you can greatly effect your mental health and consequently effect your physical health. If you don’t have a bowel movement, and instead hold it all in, you will back up your system and cause your body to poison itself. If you habitually force yourself to hold your bladder instead of relieving it, you will cause problems there. Why, then, is it somehow better for you to suppress the sexual appetite that you are born with? I get that the usual problem associated with pre-marital sex is a lot of kids that often lack things like a dedicated father, financial support, a mature mother, etc. Of course, marriage does not ensure those things exist… but it does increase the likelihood. People should be allowed to choose when they make love, and they should be in charge of deciding when they bring little dependent babies into the world. Teaching people that sex is normal and good – instead of something to pretend/wish away or not speak of – and teaching them how, why, and when to partake in it, seems to be the logical way to go. The same applies to the usage of alcohol, etc. Vagina and penis shouldn’t be dirty words that kids aren’t allowed to hear – they’re the names of body parts that are very important (for many reasons in addition to sexual function). Women’s menstrual cycles, private body parts, etc. should be normal things by now, not embarrassing, gross things.  Education and freedom has helped a lot of other problems (racism, bigotry, sexism, etc), so why not apply it to sex? Their is great power in knowledge, great power for good. If everyone was properly acclimated to sex, accepting its natural place in our lives and knowing when it is appropriate, rape and molestation would decrease, and unwanted pregnancies would probably decrease as well. Victorian prudishness creates ignorance, and that ignorance is certainly not bliss when some girl starts to experiment, maybe out of curiosity about this feeling she suddenly has, and ends up pregnant and scared and shamed by people around her. Fear, guilt, and shame should not be linked to such a beautiful act as making love.  

It’s late, so I will wrap this post up now, but I will probably touch on it again in the future. 

Article: What Non-Christians Want Christians to Hear

What Non-Christians Want Christians to Hear

After reading the comments the author chose to highlight, I came to the conclusion that these people were mostly referencing fundamentalist Christians. Many fundamentalists find great joy in the notion that their lives and tactics are odious to unbelievers. How do you (the non-fundamentalist) have a discussion with someone who feels that way? – You don’t.
I found this comment to be incredibly insightful:

“The main thing that baffles and angers me about Christians is how they can understand so little about human nature that when, in their fervor to convert another person, they tell that person (as they inevitably do, in one way or another), ‘You’re bad, and wrong, and evil,’ they actually expect that person to agree with them. It pretty much guarantees that virtually the only people Christians can ever realistically hope to convert are those with tragically low self-esteem.”– E.S., Denver

A Realization About Spirituality

A thought struck me earlier today and I haven’t been able to shake it, so I will write about it. 
My spirituality has never been allowed to be about me.
The strict Baptist upbringing of my first two decades did not allow for anything that even hinted at selfishness. We weren’t Puritans by any stretch of the imagination, but we were taught that our lives weren’t about us because they belonged to God. We were born because God had a purpose for us. This purpose might include many things (pain, ridicule, sacrifices as huge as dying), but it ultimately culminated in bringing glory to himself. All that we said or did was supposed to please him and bring glory to his name and cause. How we worshipped, what we wore, and even the secret things we pondered late at night belonged to him. To do things because you wanted to was selfish and sinful. Rebellion was “as the sin of witchcraft,” (1 Samuel 15:23) after all. Most of the Christians I have known toss around the phrase, “it’s God’s will” or “the Holy Spirit is leading me to do this” or something similar to that to justify the decisions they make. I’ve seen those phrases used to justify some pretty terrible things, but that’s a topic for another time. 
Fundamentalism removes the individual’s self. An individual (in the sense I’m speaking about) is comfortable in their own skin and is quite happy to find his/her own way in life. An individual is empowered and free. Individuals don’t last in fundamentalism (unless they become cult leaders or the like). Fundamentalism must break down people’s sense of self, tell them it’s evil (play on past guilt, etc.), and then insert a controlling measure (strict adherence to particular teachings, lifestyle, dress, etc.). The Bible often uses the imagery of sheep needing a shepherd to illustrate humanities’ need for the Christian God. Sheep are very stupid animals, or so I’ve been told, and will get themselves into all kinds of trouble without the guidance of a shepherd. People often act like sheep; sometimes we like being told what to do rather than having to make our own decisions and then being responsible for them (and sometimes it’s necessary, to a degree). Individuals don’t fit well in flocks of sheep, though.
I’m an individual. I’ve always struggled with fitting in with the flock or going off on my own. I have many vivid memories associated with this struggle. In childhood I tried to blindly implement the rules I was taught, but kept finding them to be silly and impractical. I fought violently against the herd as I grew older, but kept being pulled back and shepherded into conformity. I earnestly believed but struggled with who I was as an individual. I worked at packing away my individuality, thinking it to be sinful, and tried to be a good little sheep. Keeping one’s self under control was prized, so I worked and worked at that. All this packing away and control did great damage to me on so many levels, though. 
  •  My ability to love and accept my body was trashed. Fleshly bodies are evil, after all, and only of this sinful world. To this day I still have a hard time separating what I look like (my weight, what I’m wearing, how sexy or frumpy I am) from who I actually am and what my worth as a human being is. I should be confident enough about my worth to not care how I appear in other people’s eyes, but I’m not. What other people think about me (must constantly worry about my testimony!) still runs me ragged at times.
  • My growth into a mature, emotionally-healthy human being was stunted. Keeping control of yourself, never letting loose was supposed to be a good thing. Instead, emotions and experiences I should have worked through as a young person (when the repercussions would have been smaller) have caused extreme pain and heartbreak now. I didn’t allow myself to be “crazy” as a young person. I thought I was really “out there” the first time I wore my Converse high tops in public, when I started listening to Josh Groban, and if I wore anything that was sleeveless. I didn’t allow myself to go through any of the phases most Americans deem normal because I wanted to be mature and Christ-like. I didn’t allow myself to process emotional pain or trauma correctly, because to do so would have involved expressing pain and needs to others, which was selfish and showed my relationship with God wasn’t strong enough.
  •  My understanding of what spirituality meant was monopolized, causing my spirituality to be shallow.    
    • My former spirituality was starving me. It was about making an invisible being happy by doing and saying the right thing. Everything was about him. I didn’t matter, and I told myself that was good and should make me happy. That sort of relationship between humans isn’t healthy and doesn’t work in the long run (I know from personal experience), but it’s exactly what many Christians teach and promote. Complete denial of self is a form of starvation, like anorexia. A strong, healthy personality doesn’t stem from an anorexic sense of self. I starved my self for many years and my personality and life suffered the side effects. Now, I’m trying to feed it and make it healthy, but it’s insanely hard. It’s easier to nibble on guilt and feelings of worthlessness than to stomach empowerment and self-worth.
    • My understanding of spirituality was so deeply tied to exclusively Christian things that I couldn’t separate spirituality from my religious beliefs. The spirituality of others was confusing to me, because they too claimed happiness and satisfaction, even if they didn’t associate with a particular religion. I was taught to discount the happiness of others and to call it blind ignorance instead. Because of that, I learned to judge others and discount the truth of what they said about themselves if it didn’t line up with what was “right.” I’ve come a long way here, but I still struggle with being judgmental and dismissive about other people’s thoughts and lives.
    • My spirituality was so bound up in Christianity, with its rules and scrutiny, that I wouldn’t let myself seriously consider other belief systems until very recently. Having the belief that everything outside of the KJV Bible is evil and a lie pounded into your head 6 days a week is incredibly effective. My Baptist upbringing also taught me that religions and spirituality were an all-or-nothing deal – everything was to be taken seriously and literally. Now, my spirituality allows me to explore, question, and piece together my own set of beliefs from whatever sources I chose. I don’t need rules or parameters.
Now that I’m free to be me, the possibilities are endless! My body is mine. My sexuality is mine. My intelligence is mine. My thoughts are mine. My life is mine. My spirituality is mine. My own! Where should I go with myself? The realization that I am my own person is deliciously freeing.

Ex-Fundies, Identity, & Finding Balance

I keep up with several ex-fundie blogs, many of which can be found on my blogroll. Most of these blogs are written by women who have left their backgrounds in Christian fundamentalism and embraced new ways of living. Many have left religion altogether; others have moved to more mainstream realms of Christianity where they focus on love instead of rules. I enjoy reading each person’s story and seeing how their lives have changed (for the better) since making the fateful decision to leave fundamentalism. Some of them have moved on more easily than others, and it shows in their writing.

It isn’t hard to spot who is still flaming mad. Vendettas and bitterness show through as they address their past (this isn’t surprising, since many of their pasts are quite horrible). The term ex-fundie is an integral part of their identity. Their writing is predominantly angry and/or negative, and they tend to lump the people who disagree with them into one bad lump. Sadly, I think their anger blinds them to many things and leads them to say and do things that are more harmful than helpful. If you’ve kept up with my blog in the past, you may feel I just described myself. It’s a fair point to make, and I won’t deny that I went through the flaming-mad phase for quite awhile (as addressed here).

In contrast, some of the authors make it clear that they have cooled off.
They still get mad and still have negative things to say, but they’ve found balance in their writing. Well, more accurately, they’ve found balance in their lives and it shines out in what they write. They address the past without dwelling on it.  The term ex-fundie helps them show where they’ve been on the map of life but their identity as a person is not built around it. They offer hope in addition to the horror their stories may contain. They don’t go about slinging mud and tearing down the people who have hurt them. They are thoughtful, kind, and wise. I sincerely hope to become more like these writers. It is their writing that is truly inspiring to me.

The first time I realized that there were more ex-fundies out in the blogosphere, I began reading as many of their blogs as I could. I devoured their stories, their thoughts, their new world views, and was relieved to know that I wasn’t alone. My personal story with fundamentalism was not horrific like many of their’s were (with many forms of abuse and sub-human living), but knowing other people had also been burned and also saw the problems with fundamentalism helped me move forward in my own life. I enjoy seeing others address things that once were a big part of my life – things that I was concerned about as a fundie. But, over time I have tired of the profuse amounts of spouting common to the more flaming-mad blogs. I grew tired of it when I was writing it on my own blog, haha! Perpetually dwelling in the negative is unhealthy and unhelpful in the long run. It also shows a lack of maturity and wisdom, in my opinion.

I’ve tried to keep this blog from being a predominantly negative place, starting with Rachel Held Evans “Ask A” series. Wow! She’s posted a lot of new material since the last time I shared it on the blog! I will do my best to post more positive things in the future, if for no other reason than to present a more balanced approach to viewing fundamentalism and religion. I have big plans for conducting some interviews of my own in the near future. Looking forward to that experience and being able to share it with you.

Looking Back & Moving Forward

If you read the earliest posts on this blog, you’ll quickly realize there was a time when I practically hated all things religious and many things spiritual. I was angry and bitter after spending the first 20 or so years of my life in fundamental Christianity. The day the blindfold came off, I began realizing the many things I had learned, seen, been part of, and had done to me that were wrong. The lies, the imposed guilt, the many options I should have had but didn’t because of my upbringing. The many evils done in the name of my former religion that had been swept under the rug by fellow Christians. So very many things crossed my mind and fueled my anger.

As I look back, I realize my anger was one of the five steps of loss and grief. The five stages are denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (I pulled my list and quote from this site). They don’t necessarily occur in a specific order and you can move through them several times. I’m going to list the stages in the order that I experienced them.

Before I officially renounced my faith, I went through the first stage of denial and isolation.
”Block out the words and hide from the facts” is used to describe this stage. I think I was going through that first step long before I realized I was coming to the end of the road with fundamental Christianity. I was in a state of denial for a large portion of my thinking years, it just took me awhile to realize it and then figure out what to do with it. Indoctrination does that, though.

The fourth stage is depression. I experienced this stage as I questioned my beliefs, as I experienced the confusion of denial, as I worked through the anger, and later as I worried about what I could have done differently. In short, I experienced it simultaneously or directly after all but one stage of loss and grief.

Once I left, anger hit and burnt passionately for several months. Anger is the second stage and is the stage that took me the longest to work through. I still get riled up from time to time, but seem to have moved away from it as a stage.

I experienced the third stage (bargaining) several times, but usually went through it quickly. I can recall many horrible, stupid things I did because I thought I was supposed to… all because the Bible or a spiritual leader said so. Had I not had the fundamentalist indoctrination, I believe I would have acted differently, because I’m really not a bad person. I hesitate to make that statement (knowing how many will react to it), but it is the truth. My mind has obsessed over what I did wrong and what I should have done instead. I should have seen through the lies long before I did. I should have been braver in my questioning and thinking. And on and on the list in my head goes.

The fifth stage is acceptance. I thought I had reached this stage a few months ago, but have recently realized that it is now that I am truly experiencing it. I am accepting of my upbringing. I am accepting of what my past was. Perhaps most importantly, I am accepting of religion. Rather than having a blanket disregard or hate of religion, I hate how it can be used to abuse people; that will never change. I’m very happy to have moved past the anger.

I have moved past a lot of things but I will never forget them. There will always be a certain level of anger when I think back or hear new stories about the crazy things that come with fundamentalism. I will still write about these things, but I will also write about other things. I now see positive aspects of religion and can accept its presence in the world. Religion and mythology are often tied together quite strongly. Mythology has always fascinated me; now I see how important it is to the human experience. We learn from stories. We find ourselves amongst the characters and learn from their triumphs and failures. Learning from a story and taking it too seriously are quite different approaches, though. Fundamentalism comes into play when people take their mythology too seriously. Fundamentalism is something I will never accept.

I Used to Believe This Stuff… Ugh

These are things I was raised to believe as an Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB). My parents may or may not have taught me these things, but they were most certainly taught or inferred by church, school, college, and fellow IFB.
  • Better use the right version of the Bible, KJV to be specific. Avoid all music that makes you want to move, so just go for old hymns and you’ll be safe.
  • Spank your children, don’t trust them, because they are born with a horrible sin nature and are really little monsters bound for Hell.
  • Send them to a strict Christian school or home school them yourself, because it wouldn’t do for them to pick up worldly notions or learn from a curriculum that wasn’t Christ-centered. Once they’re college age, be sure they attend a college that is KJV only, against contemporary music, and has all it’s p’s and q’s straight, biblically speaking. Ideally this college will implement strict curfews, dating rules, and remain in support of parental authority despite the age and status of the student.
  • Disregard science, history, and much else in favor of a collection of over-a-thousand-years-old writing from the Middle East. These writings are full of slavery (commanded by God), murder, rape, gender inequality, etc.
  • Global warming is a lie. The government is out to get you. Anything that promotes world-wide unity and peace must be the work of the devil (see Revelations). The end of the world is coming, probably soon, so things like environmentalism are a waste of time.
  • Question whether dating is biblical, probably decide to implement courting. Dad has lots of say-so, and it will be ensured that the two young sinners are never left alone together. God forbid they start kissing, touching each other, or engage in sex before getting married! Speaking of sex, it’s not to be spoken of – it’s somewhat of a shameful, dirty topic only to be discussed by married people.
  • Men are sexual beings who are hard-wired for lust. They can’t control themselves, so women must keep as much skin covered as possible. Women must also wear very loose clothing for the same reason. Women aren’t really sexual beings. Sex is really for the man’s pleasure, but women must put up with it as their wifely duty. If the wife doesn’t put out like the husband wants, it’s her fault if he has an affair.
  • Women should really stay and home and clean the house and take care of the kids. Men should be out bringing home the bacon. Men lead the home while women must submit to them, because the church submits to Christ and a husband and wife are to be an example of it.
  • It’s okay to tell people they are awful sinners, guilty of the murder of Christ, and on their way to Hell where they will burn forever and ever. Amen. It’s okay to impose IFB standards and beliefs on everyone else, and if they don’t like it and try to do something about it then they are persecuting the IFB. Separation of church and state can apply to everyone else except Christians, then, if it does, it’s persecution and discrimination against them.
This all sounds so ridiculous and horrible now. When you’re stuck in it though, having heard it all of your life, it seems right. IFB can be very cult-like: lots of brain-washing, guilt-tripping, implementation of bizarre rules, judgement of outsiders and any who don’t conform, and the declaration that they “have it right” while others “have it wrong.”

Article: Religious Trauma Syndrome

Religious Trauma Syndrome: How Some Organized Religion Leads to Mental Health Problems
Posted on March 26, 2013 by Valerie Tarico

At 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.

Dr. 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?

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 sin2) 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 Religion. 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 http://www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

Equality Doesn’t Play Favorites

Whether any faction, religious or not, should be allowed access to America’s public schools is an issue of great debate. Bringing religion into play usually turns said debate into a very ugly creature, particularly if that debate involves the religious right. I recall once hearing the “horrible” news from my IFB pastor that a school somewhere was going to teach the children about Islamic practices – the whole church was mortified that such terrible things could be happening in America. Funny thing, though, that those same people were also offended when people wanted to limit Christian influences in school. Christian conservatives who push for prayer in public schools seem to forget that there are other forms of prayer that don’t involve Jesus or the Christian God – it’s not an “attack” on Christianity. 

Found this to be hilarious.

Anyway. The whole point of the government not getting involved in religion is for no one religion to be the pet, get special privileges, etc. (that’s putting it simply) – which is what was happening in England and most of Europe. The founders knew that government and church needed to be separate in a free society. Period. For that to work, what is allowed or disallowed for one religious group is applied to all others (or should be), in the name of equality. This applies to prayer/learning about religions in school. Most Christians want America to be a Christian nation, and actively seek to have Christian morality legislated and upheld all over the land, regardless of the non-Christians’ wishes. I’m afraid many conservative Christians feel they are somehow exempt from the concept of church and state being separate, and that they have a divine right to enforce their beliefs/rules on the rest of society.

Despite what the Bible may or may not have to say about the pursuit of new converts and imposing morality on infidels, the religious right better cool its jets before it receives real persecution as retaliation. America is the land of the free; that includes being free to believe as you wish, Christian or no. America is not and never will be some kind of religious state in which Christianity reigns and the Bible is law (not that we’re too far from that in many ways right now…). To the religious right I have this to say:  Instead of seeking special privileges, imposing personal beliefs on others, and whining about perceived persecution, please accept that the concepts of equality and tolerance apply to you just as much as they do everyone else.