Trigger warning: This article discusses the effects of religious indoctrination on identity and sexuality and subsequent psychological trauma experienced by those who have been conditioned by a cult or religious community.
Religious trauma is a description of the psychological distress caused by abusive religious practices, teachings and institutions. It can take many forms, including spiritual abuse, indoctrination, or a traumatic event associated with faith. Religious trauma can have a profound impact and long-lasting effects on your mental health, relationships and ability to trust yourself and others. It may have damaged your emotional well-being, leaving you struggling to navigate your beliefs, values, and sense of self. The word ‘trauma’ is used because it is not simply an issue of adjustment. For many people, even those who left a religious community years ago, the effects of indoctrination, coercive control and abuse can be long-lasting.
The Dangers of Religious Conditioning.
Religious conditioning is a process of convincing you to conform to religious or ‘spiritual’ ideas and practices. It is rarely explicit or obvious and often occurs over time. Another word for religious conditioning is ‘indoctrination’ or even ‘brain-washing’. Because indoctrination doesn’t always involve overt procedures, it is not usually noticed by those experiencing it. But it is dangerous. When religious institutions use fear, guilt, or shame to control individuals, it often leads to serious mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
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Signs of Indoctrination by a Cult, Church or Religious Organisation.
Religious indoctrination can be difficult to identify, as it often begins at a young age and is reinforced incrementally over time. However, there are common indicators that a person has been indoctrinated including all-or-nothing thinking, reluctance to question authority, an intense fear of punishment, and a lack of empathy for those who do not share the same beliefs. Cults and churches use a range of techniques to manipulate you including, but not limited to,
- Stifling or discouraging your critical thinking and demanding rigid adherence to doctrine with an emphasis on obedience;
- Monitoring your activity or regulating aspects of your health or body including, for example, what you wear or what you eat;
- A position on sexuality that is repressive and shaming, usually forbidding certain activities and restricting others or describing them in pathological terms like addiction. Often the organisation is opposed to LGBTQ culture and certainly non-affirming of queer sexuality;
- Discouraging or limiting access to healthy relationships outside the religious community;
- Pressure or even a requirement to sever ties with family, friends or give up possessions;
- Isolation from the outside world or ‘worldly’ things;
- The removal of a sense of free will and autonomy, often slowly, breaking down your sense of self through a process of attrition;
- Exploiting you for financial or other purposes through, for example, the idea that ‘God’ will reward your donations (i.e. Prosperity Theology);
- Other forms of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse including sleep deprivation and covert child abuse.
These characteristics actually mirror those of coercive control, a pattern of controlling and manipulative behaviour that occurs in interpersonal relationships which are abusive. Indoctrination is a form of institutionalised coercive control.
Keep in mind that this is a list of the common tactics of indoctrination into a cult or religion. Not all of these need to be occurring for abuse to exist. If even one or two are present it can be an indication that abuse is taking place. It is abusive because the expression of power by the stronger institution creates a vulnerability of self-doubt that reduces your capacity to consent. This is akin to gaslighting in interpersonal relationships.
Symptoms of Psychological Distress that Cause Religious Trauma.
Abusive religious bodies prioritise the institution over the individual. The harmful psychological effects of this manipulation on you can include:
- The loss of sense of personal identity, self-worth, and autonomy;
- Self discipline and sacrifice to the detriment of positive sense of self and identity (you might be neglecting yourself because you are trying to avoid ‘being selfish’);
- Difficulty making decisions due to conflicts with values or beliefs;
- Difficulty forming relationships with those outside the religious community or cult;
- Feelings of unworthiness or the fear of eternal punishment and thoughts of being constantly being watched or judged;
- Feeling overwhelmed by guilt or shame or a sense of worthlessness;
- Anxiety or panic attacks when confronted by religious language, symbols or when thinking about religion or in activities and situations proscribed by the institution;
- A sense of being paralysed by self-doubt;
- Toxic and dysfunctional views of sexuality and sexual expression which damages your sexual identity and relationship to self.
Religious conditioning can have a significant adverse impact on your sexuality. Most religious teachings support abstinence before marriage, disapproval of certain sexual pleasures, as well as promoting a strict binary view of gender and sexuality with no acceptance of polyamory or bisexuality, for example. These requirements stunt the development of healthy and fulfilling sexual relationships, leading to a sense of disconnection from your body and desire.
At its most dangerous, religious conditioning leads to severe mental illness, drug and alcohol dependence, OCD, PTSD and even self harm and suicidal thoughts. Those who try to leave cults and religious communities face harrassment, intimidation or being shunned, often resulting in their isolation and loneliness.
The trauma itself can be challenging to identify as symptoms may overlap with those of other mental health concerns. However, some red flags that point to religious trauma include:
- Experiencing intrusive thoughts or flashbacks related to your religious experiences;
- Feeling like you have lost your sense of self or identity and are disconnected from yourself and the world;
- Ongoing thoughts of worthlessness and a poor relationship with yourself;
- Struggling with relationships, especially with family members who are still involved in the same religion or cult;
- A sense that you are not able to make decisions or live your life on your own terms;
- A cycle of guilt and shame from which it can seem hard to break free;
- Difficulties tolerating or accepting other beliefs;
- Difficulties trusting others and subsequent experience of isolation or disconnection from others;
- Struggles with sexual expression including guilt associated with masturbation, problems forming intimate relationships such as retroactive sexual jealousy and various forms of sexual dysfunction.
Secular Therapy to Heal and Recover from Religious Trauma.
Secular therapy can be an effective treatment if you are experiencing religious trauma. Unlike Christian counsellors and faith-based services who advocate prayer, adherence to rules and even ‘conversion therapy’, secular therapists use evidence-based techniques to assist you to work through trauma. Spiritual abuse can leave you feeling trapped, confused, and damaged in your relationship to your self and others as well as in your worldview. Prayer is not a scientific approach to overcoming trauma and so-called ‘conversion therapy’ is just an extension of indoctrination and abuse. Secular therapists can use focussed psychological strategies based on scientific evidence in combination with an approach that is customised to your emotions and needs to assist you to regain trust in yourself and your own experiences.
Secular Psychotherapy is a proven treatment for religious trauma, and the therapeutic association between the therapist and the client is important to recovery. One of the goals of psychotherapy for religious conditioning is to help you to believe in yourself again, and this usually involves trusting your therapist. However, trusting someone can be challenging, especially if you’ve experienced religious trauma and those you trusted have betrayed you through abusive practices. It is essential to find a secular psychotherapist who has worked with similar experiences.
Treatment means being able to share your experiences and emotions without fear of judgment or criticism. Trust is built on a foundation of safety and a confidence that you can disclose what happened without being invalidated or dismissed. A secular therapist can provide a non-judgmental space for you to explore your beliefs and experiences, and identify the impact of the church or cult on your mental health. A therapist can also provide support and guidance in developing healthy coping strategies and self care.
Healing and recovering from religious trauma is a process that can take time and practice. The role of a therapist is not only to encourage but to assist you to develop strategies you might need to build resilience and regain confidence. Therapy is a collaborative process, and you have an active role to play in your recovery. You might not get it right the first time. A compassionate response to yourself could be to see the healing journey as a learning experience, and allow yourself to grow and discover at the pace that feels comfortable for you.
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Evidence-Based Scientific Treatment for Religious Trauma.
Cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) is a common treatment for trauma. It focuses on the way you think about and interpret your experiences, and helps you develop new ways of thinking. It can expose dysfunctional beliefs and feelings about religion. CBT is based on the principle that your thoughts, emotions, sensations and actions are inter-connected. It is an evidence-based treatment, which means it has been scientifically proven to work. If you have had Cognitive Behaviour Therapy before keep in mind that the approach can vary and what you experienced from one practitioner may not reflect the way another works. For example, not all CBT practitioners give ‘homework’. CBT can help you to identify and challenge the negative beliefs and thought patterns that develop as a result of the abusive practices of the religion or cult. If you have been taught that behaving a certain way is ‘sinful’, CBT can help you recognise that these teachings are indoctrination. It can assist you to develop more functional and compassionate ways of thinking and to create new attitudes that are less harmful and less restrictive.
Mindfulness-based interventions, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), have also been shown to be effective in treating trauma. These approaches focus on increasing awareness of the present moment, accepting emotions without judgment, and cultivating a sense of compassion for oneself. Mindfulness practices can help you to become more aware of negative thought patterns you were taught in your church or cult and to develop a better relationship with yourself. Mindfulness techniques can also be effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. They involve paying attention with openness, curiosity, and acceptance and without self-criticism. Grounding and breathing techniques can also assist you to be in the moment to avoid being overwhelmed by particular emotions, thoughts or sensations.
Self-compassion is an important aspect of self-care. Practicing self-compassion involves treating yourself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance while remembering that you are not alone and many others have experienced what you are going through. Self-compassion can mean talking to yourself in a kind and supportive way, acknowledging your feelings, and taking steps to meet your own needs.
Medication is sometimes used by people recovering from trauma. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help to reduce symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Medication should always be used in conjunction with talk therapy and needs to be monitored by your prescribing doctor.
There are also some practical steps you can take yourself to begin your journey to recovery.
Steps to Recovering from Religious Conditioning.
- The first step to change is always awareness. Feelings of guilt, shame, anger or critical thoughts of yourself are usually a symptom that something is not right. Don’t ignore them, get help from a secular therapist.
- Tell yourself your experiences are valid and you have the right to seek help.
- Educate yourself about the adverse impacts of religion on mental health. In health related therapy this is called psycho-education. Learning about religious trauma, the impact of cults and abusive churches, and the psychology of belief, can help you to understand your experiences and begin to heal.
- Identify and challenge harmful beliefs instilled by the religious community or cult. Deconstructing this dogma, and understanding how it was used to manipulate you, can be part of the journey of therapy.
- Develop healing strategies that are based on evidence-based research. These might include, for example, healthy coping strategies such as exercise, dancing, mindfulness practices like meditation, journalling or creative expression like artwork or music so you rebuild your sense of self-worth and autonomy and process your experiences in different ways.
- Build a new support network. People who have left churches or cults often find themselves alone and feeling unsupported. Surround yourself with people who accept you for who you are and support your healing journey instead of those who gaslight you or lead you to doubt yourself. Online support groups or local meetups can be a good place to start. Your therapist can make suggestions and provide a sounding board for your exploration.
- Practice self-compassion through self-soothing, doing activities that bring you joy and setting boundaries with those who undermine your healing. It is time to make self-care and your own well-being the priority.
Encouragement is a significant aspect of the therapeutic relationship when recovering from religious trauma. If you have have lost belief in your own capacity, and are suffering from a poor relationship with yourself, encouragement to take new steps and experiment with new ways of relating to yourself can assist to rebuild your self-confidence.
When it comes to ‘Spiritual Abuse’, is there a difference between Cults and Churches?
Some practitioners might argue there is a difference between churches and cults. But if the outcome is the same – religious trauma – then the name or type of institution is not particularly relevant. Cults use psychological manipulation, isolation, fear and coercion to indoctrinate their members into a rigid belief system. Churches do this as well, although if the church is considered mainstream, the conditioning is less often called out and may go unnoticed. In any case, the abuse and trauma outcomes are similar regardless of what the organisation is called.
A Final Comment about Sexual Abuse under Religious Indoctrination.
Religious institutions and leaders have been known to perpetrate sexual abuse and violence, particularly towards vulnerable members of their communities. This abuse can have long-lasting effects on individuals’ sexual identities and can lead to significant trauma. Common institutional responses to sexual abuse include:
- The denial that it occurred;
- The claim that it happened long ago but is not happening now;
- The argument by those in leadership that they did not know it was occurring.
These defences take attention away from the conditioning, indoctrination and manipulation that enabled the abuse to occur in the first place. Even if an organisation has policies and procedures in place to prevent sexual abuse, the prioritisation of the institution over the individual remains problematic and is the source of disempowerment for those who come under its influence.
If you would like to discuss recovering from religion or need help with religious trauma or the mental health effects of religious conditioning, you can book an appointment now with a secular therapist.