The Invisible Demographic

A brief overview of religious trauma syndrome and why it needs more recognition.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Mantas Hesthaven/Unsplash
Source: Mantas Hesthaven/Unsplash

For as long as organized religion has existed, there has always been a percentage of people who were born into it — or joined at some point — and later left. In recent times, particularly in the age of the internet, social media, and relative normalization of secularism and humanism, the frequency with which folks leave religion altogether has been, and continues to be, steadily on the rise. The U.S. is a good case study.

While it’s undeniable that billions of people have found, and continue to find, comfort, joy, meaning, and a sense of belonging within religion, it’s equally true that organized religion, especially fundamentalism, is experienced as traumatic by many others — in it and/or in the process of leaving.

Research and dialogue on the latter are still sorely lacking. As a result, the mental health field as a whole currently has a poor understanding of this niche demographic, leaving many professionals culturally incompetent when it comes to helping those leaving organized religion. Thus, it’s vital that we increase awareness and gain a better understanding of this lived experience.

In the context of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Berger describes a fundamentalist community as: 

"...an insulated, totalistic, highly structured and tightly bound religious environment where all aspects of life are prescribed, strictly enforced, and monitored…a life governed by rules regarding food, education, clothes, interpersonal and especially inter-gender relationships, rituals, sexual orientation and behaviors, and opportunities for personal choice are extremely limited. Access to media, non-religious books, general education, TV, movies, music, technology, and the non-Orthodox Jewish and gentile community is discouraged and the learning of sciences, languages, and general literature extremely prohibited. Gender separation and gender-roles are rigid, birth control is prohibited, marriages occur early and are arranged, the dominant language is Yiddish, and social control is non-compromising.”

While this description of fundamentalism is valid (and is also how I spent the first two decades of my life), this portrayal refers to the relatively far end of the religiosity spectrum of a particular religion, and this conversation could apply broadly to all religious disaffiliates along the entire spectrum of any organized religion.

We know for certain that there are plenty who are dissatisfied with or even traumatized by this way of life. It seemingly works for many, but definitely not for all, and certainly not in the process of transitioning away from it.

There’s a common misconception that members of organized religion or fundamentalism always have a choice of leaving — the reality is, they often cannot do so without paying a price. Not only are many traumatized by this existence, those leaving, or even just contemplating leaving, for whatever reason, more often than not experience tremendous psychological, emotional, financial, logistical, educational, legal, familial, social, and sometimes life-threatening challenges. They’re frequently mocked, misunderstood, ostracized, gaslit, belittled, pathologized, shunned, fired, alienated from their children, and in the most extreme cases even killed or driven to suicide — oftentimes at the hands of their own flesh and blood.

This transition is often very gradual, with many phases and with various, daunting tribulations and losses along the way — like an impossible obstacle course. Despite the commonly seen assortment of symptoms and challenges, there’s neither an official recognition of this clinical issue nor is this topic adequately covered in mental health training programs. This unique population is neither getting the full attention it deserves nor the help it needs by both academia in general and by the mental health field in particular.

As of today, most of the increased awareness witnessed in recent years, and the majority of advances made in understanding and helping this population, has — and continues to — come from academics and mental health professionals who personally went through this lived experience.

In 2011, Dr. Marlene Winell coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) to describe the collection of symptoms and challenges often faced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religious community.

This syndrome is characterized by any or all of the following: general confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociationidentity confusion, anxietypanic attacksdepressionsuicidal ideation, angergriefguiltloneliness, lack of meaning, sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatization, rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, and interpersonal dysfunction.

This new classification has fostered conversation and research that will hopefully lead to better and more accessible mental health care for religious disaffiliates.

I would like to end with some essential lessons I’ve learned from my personal journey out of an insular religious community, from my ongoing research on the topic of Jewish Orthodox religious disaffiliation, and from my experience as a psychotherapist working with this population.

Mental Health Professionals:

It’s imperative that, to some degree and regardless of the therapeutic orientation, the person-centered and complex trauma lenses be the underlying, guiding light throughout therapy. If nothing else, religious disaffiliates are likely to have been burned in the past by unethical and even unlicensed therapists and psychiatrists within their communities of origin. Thus, the helper should employ radical empathy, validation, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness.

If it hasn’t happened yet, at some point in your career, someone with this lived experience will walk through your door. Listen. Validate. Ask questions. Research. Read. Learn. Be patient. Please refer out if you feel ill-equipped. Most importantly, don’t shame, judge, or proselytize.  

Religious Disaffiliates:

Seek out a licensed and ethical mental health professional. You deserve adequate, ethical, culturally-competent therapeutic help.

Join a helping organization that caters specifically to those with your lived experience.

Finally, connect with others who have gone through or are currently going through what you’re experiencing. Meeting and exchanging support with like-minded folks are game-changers, and will hopefully make you feel less alone and more optimistic for the bright future that you choose.

Know that there are many who share your lived experience and want to see you thrive, myself included. You’re definitely not alone.

Leaving Organized Religion?

General Resources: Dare to DoubtRecovering from Religion, Journey Free, Secular Therapy Project

Orthodox Judaism: Footsteps, Freidom, KindEarHillel, Out for Change, Pathways Melbourne, Mavar, GesherEU, Forward; LGBTQ+: JQY, Eshel

Islam: Ex-Muslims of North America, Free Hearts Free Minds, Muslimish

Mormonism/LDS: QuitMormon, r/exmormon

Amish: Amish Heritage Foundation

Leaving an arranged/forced/childhood marriage in the U.S.? Unchained At Last

References

The Changing Global Religious Landscape. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing-global-religious-landscape/

America's Changing Religious Landscape. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

Berger, R. (2015). Challenges and Coping Strategies in Leavening an Ultra-Orthodox Community. Qualitative Social Work, (14)5, 670-686.

Winell, M. (2011). Understanding Religious Trauma Syndrome: It’s Time to Recognize It. British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies. Retrieved from https://www.babcp.com/review/RTS-Its-Time-to-Recognize-it.aspx