When Religion Leads to Trauma

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By Richard Schiffman Feb. 5, 2019

Reposted from the NY Times.

“We think of church as a place of healing and transformation, and it is,” says Michael Walrond Jr., pastor of the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. But for some, he says, “religion has been more bruising and damaging than healing and transformative.”

Pastor Mike, as he is called, leads services in a renovated art deco movie palace on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. Under his direction, the church has taken a lead in confronting an issue that few other religious institutions have tackled: what some call religious trauma syndrome.

You won’t find this condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which clinicians use to make their diagnoses. But the term has been gaining currency with psychotherapists, counselors and others who work with people who are recovering from the harmful effects of religious indoctrination.

Some churches “weaponize scripture and religion to do very deep damage on the psyche,” he said. Gay, lesbian and trans people are told that God condemns them, unwed mothers that they are living in sin, and many natural human desires are deemed evil.

Scientific research into the consequences of such religious condemnation remains at an early stage. But the potential for harm is clear. Many suffer for decades from post-traumatic stress disorder-type symptoms, including anxiety, self doubt and feelings of social inadequacy

Marcus Jerry Kaz McNeely, 33, who works in an after school program, came to the Hope Center, a free psychiatric clinic run by the First Corinthian Baptist Church, after leaving a church in the Bronx that prohibited watching TV, going to the movies and wearing jewelry. The leader, who demanded absolute obedience, bullied Mr. McNeely from the pulpit for the slightest infractions.

“I became sick because of stress, depressed and paranoid,” Mr. McNeely said.

Get the best of Well, with the latest on health, fitness and nutrition, delivered to your inbox every week.SIGN UPKyndra Frazier, center, directs the Hope Center, a free psychiatric clinic run by First Corinthian Baptist Church where she is a co-pastor.CreditFirst Corinthian Baptist Church

Kyndra Frazier, a co-pastor of the church who directs the Hope Center, helped Mr. McNeely shed his “religious perfectionism” and “be O.K. with not being O.K.,” as he put it. She also taught him how to meditate and to “spend more quality time with myself,” a luxury that the fundamentalist church he attended had not allowed him.

Pastor Frazier, who struggled with religious condemnation of her sexual orientation as a child growing up in rural North Carolina, tells those who come to her not to blindly believe everything that’s taught from the pulpit or that’s written in the Bible, but to develop their own capacity to discern God’s will for them.

Another congregation that is working with those grappling with religious trauma is the Holy Trinity Community Church in Nashville, with a membership that is over 80 percent L.G.B.T.

Brice Thomas, the lead pastor, says he first grasped religion’s capacity for harm when his father, a Pentecostal faith healer, died of a treatable skin cancer because the church did not believe in going to doctors. After a stint in the military, Mr. Thomas, who is gay, became ordained in the United Church of Christ, the first denomination to affirm marriage equality over two decades ago, and took up his duties in Nashville last year. Together with Jennifer Strickland, a licensed therapist, he is setting up a “Recovering from Religious Trauma Syndrome” group at the church.

Pastor Thomas says that releasing feelings of shame and unworthiness takes time and the support of a loving community. He adds, however, that being ostracized by religion can be a blessing in disguise if it pushes one to develop a more authentic personal faith.

“I’m grateful to the religious community that I grew up in because the challenges that they presented have brought me to the place I am today,” he said. “I’m also thankful for my sexual orientation because it has opened me to deeper ways of being in relationship to God.”

Even after people leave religions where they have suffered abuse, they can still harbor the emotional conviction that they are “basically sinful and wrong,” says Marlene Winell, a human development expert who coined the term “religious trauma syndrome” in a series of articles in 2011.

Dr. Winell was raised by missionary parents in Taiwan whose religion, she says, taught her that she was never good enough as a child. She struggled for years “to figure out how to enjoy life,” whose pleasures she had been made to feel guilty about.

Dr. Winell’s group, Journey Free, runs retreats where people suffering from religious trauma share personal stories and engage in nurturing exercises like “the baby wrap,” in which participants are swaddled in a blanket and rocked by the others who read statements like “I love you” and “you are welcome to the world.”

“I call it reparenting,” Dr. Winell says.

Another group that works with victims is the Child-Friendly Faith Project, founded by Janet Heimlich, a journalist who has written about religious child maltreatment. The project has worked with those who say they were traumatized by religious groups, including former attendees of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch, a Christian boarding school for at-risk children located outside Amarillo, Tex.

Brett Higbee, a retired land surveyor who attended the ranch during the late 1970s, said that he was routinely beaten for religious infractions like failing to memorize Bible verses. These experiences made him religion-phobic for years, he said, his pain triggered by entering a church or even hearing Christmas music on the radio.

The gap between religious teachings on compassion and the ways that faith sometimes gets misused inspired Dr. Harold G. Koenig, a psychiatrist, and his colleagues at Duke University to develop “religious cognitive therapy” in 2014. The therapy uses “positive scriptures that focus on forgiveness, God’s love and divine mercy to challenge the dysfunctional thoughts that maintain trauma,” says Dr. Koenig.

The Duke team has developed workbooks that accentuate this positive content for each of the world’s major religions. Clinical trials, published in 2015, showed that religious people who received the therapy had lower rates of depression and reported more positive emotions like gratitude and optimism than those who did not receive it.

The best cure for religious trauma may be a deeper dive into the spiritual core of religious teachings, Dr. Koenig says.

“Jesus just gave two commandments to the faithful,” he observed, “to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. If people remembered this and allowed it to guide their attitudes and actions, they might stop harming people in the name of religion.”

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