Understanding Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS)

Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a concept that is gaining traction among mental health professionals, despite not yet being recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used in the United States. RTS describes the profound psychological effects on individuals who have been part of, or have dissociated from, authoritarian, dogmatic, and controlling religious groups. According to a segment by WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio station, approximately one in three Americans report experiencing some form of trauma related to religion, with the impact being notably pronounced in the queer community.

Coined in 2011 by psychologist Marlene Winell, the term RTS categorizes symptoms akin to those seen in Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). These include cognitive impairments such as confusion and identity crises, emotional disturbances like anxiety and depression, and social challenges such as isolation and difficulties integrating into non-religious communities. Additionally, RTS encompasses functional disruptions like sleep disorders and substance abuse issues. The origins of these symptoms are twofold: the oppressive indoctrination experienced within these religious environments and the significant trauma associated with exiting such communities. Recognizing RTS as a distinct syndrome helps mitigate the stigma and isolation experienced by its sufferers, providing them with a structured understanding of their experiences and a clear pathway towards recovery.

Dimply lit interior of a cathedral.

 “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. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle.” ~Marlene Winell

Causes of Religious Trauma

Multiple aspects within religious practices and beliefs can contribute to religious trauma; here are some common experiences associated with it:

  • Fear of Hell: Constant teachings about eternal damnation and hellfire can instill deep-seated fear and anxiety, especially when presented to children or in a highly graphic manner.
  • End Times Prophecy: Apocalyptic teachings that focus on the end of the world, judgment day, and catastrophic events can create a chronic sense of dread and hopelessness.
  • Judgmental and Vengeful God: Portrayals of a punitive and harsh deity who is quick to anger and metes out severe punishments for sins can lead to feelings of unworthiness and perpetual guilt.
  • Strict Moral Codes: Rigid doctrines that dictate personal behavior, often with severe penalties for transgressions, can cause internal conflict and emotional distress.
  • Shunning and Excommunication: Practices that involve cutting off individuals from their community for violating religious norms can lead to profound isolation and identity crises.
  • Spiritual Warfare: Beliefs in constant battles between good and evil forces, where evil is always lurking and individuals must remain vigilant, can result in paranoia and anxiety.
  • Sin and Redemption: The emphasis on inherent sinfulness and the need for redemption can undermine self-esteem and promote a negative self-image.
  • Supernatural Evil: The fear of demons, possession, and other malevolent spiritual entities.
  • Loss of Autonomy: Authoritarian religious cultures that demand conformity and discourage personal freedom and questioning can stifle personal growth and lead to dependency and diminished self-agency.
  • Infallibility of Religious Leaders: Placing unwavering trust in leaders who are seen as direct messengers of God can lead to exploitation and abuse.

The Queer Experience of Religious Trauma

For many queer individuals, religious environments are fraught with profound conflict. The doctrines of many major religions, which often categorize queer identities as ‘sinful,’ can inflict deep and lasting psychological harm. This trauma is multifaceted, arising from persistent messages of condemnation, social ostracization by religious communities, and the internalization of negative beliefs, which is often referred to as internalized homophobia. Together, these factors contribute significantly to Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS), resulting in a continuous state of fear, shame, and confusion about one’s self-worth and identity.

Queer individuals may encounter religious trauma through additional channels:

  • Non-inclusive Doctrines: Religious teachings often explicitly condemn LGBTQ+ identities, labeling them as immoral or sinful. This explicit condemnation not only fosters an environment of rejection but also legitimizes discrimination and exclusion within religious communities.
  • Family and Community Pressure: Many queer individuals face immense pressure to conform to heteronormative and cisnormative values deeply ingrained in their religious communities. This pressure can manifest as direct coercion to change their identities, or subtler expectations to “hide” their true selves to fit in, both of which are profoundly isolating.
  • Internal Conflict: The cognitive dissonance created by conflicting religious beliefs and queer identity can lead to significant psychological distress. This struggle often involves the difficulty in reconciling one’s faith with their identity, which can result in guilt, shame, and a diminished sense of self-worth.
  • Exclusionary Practices: Many religious institutions enact policies that exclude queer people from participation in rituals, leadership roles, or community activities. This exclusion deprives individuals of spiritual engagement and community support. It can also reinforce feelings of unworthiness and alienation.
  • Conversion Therapy and “Cure” Narratives: Some religious groups advocate for conversion therapy or other harmful practices intended to “cure” queer identities. These practices are scientifically debunked and can cause long-lasting psychological damage, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
  • Social Stigmatization and Bullying: Within religious communities, queer individuals may be targets of verbal abuse, social shunning, and even physical violence, which are justified by religious beliefs. This bullying contributes to the trauma, heightening the risk of mental health crises.
  • Ritualized Shame: Certain religious ceremonies or confessions may be used to shame queer individuals, reinforcing negative self-perceptions and internalized homophobia. These experiences can undermine mental health and exacerbate feelings of isolation and despair.

Managing and Navigating Recovery from RTS

Addressing and navigating the journey through Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) involves acknowledging the trauma’s existence and understanding its profound impact on one’s life. Recovery and management are ongoing processes that involve tailored strategies to cope with the unique interplay of religious and identity-based trauma.

Therapy as a Tool for Managing and Recovering from RTS

Therapeutic interventions can be highly beneficial in managing the complexities of RTS. Engaging with mental health professionals who are skilled in evidence-based practices such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can significantly alleviate the symptoms associated with RTS. It is essential to work with therapists who have a deep understanding of both queer issues and religious trauma, as this knowledge enables them to provide empathetic and targeted support. These professionals can help individuals navigate the path towards recovery by offering strategies that address the specific challenges faced by queer people experiencing RTS.

A therapist talking to a client.

The Role of Safe Spaces in Managing and Recovering from RTS

Safe spaces can also play a crucial role in both managing and recovering from RTS. These environments provide sanctuaries where queer individuals can express themselves authentically and explore their identities without fear of judgment or harm. Creating and participating in such spaces can be transformative, offering the support and affirmation needed to foster resilience against the ongoing challenges posed by RTS.

Folx with Faith and similar organizations are dedicated to creating safe spaces that are inclusive and affirming for queer individuals. Their focus areas include:

  • Inclusive Practices: These organizations work to implement inclusive policies that affirm and support queer identities within spiritual communities. This involves offering training sessions for religious leaders and congregants on LGBTQ+ issues, ensuring that queer individuals feel welcomed and valued within their spiritual homes.
  • Community Engagement: By organizing events and gatherings that promote understanding and acceptance, these organizations build a supportive network that values each member’s spiritual journey. These events may include workshops, affinity groups, discussion groups, and communal worship services designed with the needs of queer congregants in mind. They aim to foster a sense of belonging and community among members, allowing them to share their experiences and support one another in their spiritual and personal growth.
  • Advocacy and Awareness: Raising awareness about the importance of safe spaces for queer individuals is another critical focus. Efforts include campaigning for the recognition of queer rites and rituals, participating in interfaith dialogues to promote inclusivity across different belief systems, and engaging with media to spread messages of acceptance and equality. These activities help improve conditions within specific religious settings but also aim to influence broader societal attitudes towards queer spirituality.
  • Educational Outreach: Providing education on queer identities and experiences to the wider religious community is essential. This can involve developing curricula that include queer theological perspectives, hosting speakers who can share personal stories and theological insights, and creating resources that help deconstruct harmful myths and misconceptions about queer people.
  • Support Systems: Establishing support systems such as counseling services, spiritual guidance, and peer support groups specifically for queer members of the faith community. These resources are crucial for individuals who may be navigating the challenges of reconciling their queer identity with their religious beliefs, or who are experiencing isolation or rejection from their faith communities.

These efforts are vital for providing the necessary conditions under which individuals can explore and reconcile their spiritual beliefs with their queer identities, significantly aiding in the management and recovery process. By fostering environments that are openly inclusive and actively supportive, Folx with Faith and similar organizations can play a crucial role in healing and empowering queer individuals within religious contexts.

People supportively holding hands on a wooden table.

Creating Safe Spaces

The creation of safe spaces for queer individuals is a thoughtful and deliberate process that involves several key components. These spaces are designed to provide a supportive and nurturing environment where queer people can express themselves without fear of judgment or harm. Here’s how to create such spaces:

Elements of a Safe Space

  • Inclusivity in Policy and Practice: This involves developing policies that explicitly protect and affirm queer individuals. Policies should address nondiscrimination, equal opportunity, and active measures to include queer voices in decision-making processes.
  • Regular Use of Pronouns: Encouraging the use of pronouns through visible means such as nametag stickers, which can be sourced from platforms like Amazon, can help affirm each person’s gender identity. Regularly using and asking for pronouns in introductions sets a standard of respect and awareness, particularly benefiting those who have experienced gender-related religious trauma.
  • Programs and Activities: Designing programs that focus on education about queer identities and experiences, as well as promoting healing from religious trauma. These programs should aim to foster a sense of community and shared understanding, creating a supportive network that facilitates both personal growth and collective healing.

Steps to Create Safe Spaces:

  • Community Initiatives: Develop and support initiatives that offer resources tailored to the needs of queer individuals, especially those recovering from RTS. This might include support groups, mental health resources, and social gatherings that emphasize safety and inclusiveness.
  • Training and Workshops: Conducting educational sessions for community leaders and members to enhance their understanding of queer issues and the complexities of religious trauma. This education should focus on empathy, understanding, and practical measures to support queer community members.
  • Partnerships: Collaborating with queer-affirming religious organizations and other faith-based allies can help bridge the gap between spirituality and queer identities, fostering a holistic approach to healing and acceptance.
  • Advocacy and Policy Change: Pushing for legislative and societal changes that promote the rights and well-being of queer individuals. Advocacy should focus on ensuring that all religious and communal spaces adopt inclusive practices that truly welcome and support everyone.

Mindful Communication:

  • Sensitivity in Interactions: Being mindful when engaging with queer individuals involves recognizing that not everyone has experienced religious trauma. Safe spaces are about respecting each person’s unique background and experiences without making assumptions about their past.
  • Avoiding Retraumatization: Care should be taken not to inadvertently retraumatize individuals by avoiding triggering language or making assumptions about their religious experiences or identity journeys.

Reaffirming Our Spiritual Journeys

 “It is a lie – any talk of God that does not comfort you.” This profound statement reminds us of the importance of constructing a spiritual narrative that heals and supports us. For queer individuals, navigating the complexities of Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is about reclaiming and reaffirming a spiritual identity that has been suppressed or distorted by religion.

As we unravel the layers of religious, social, and personal narratives that have for too long dictated our worth and shaped our identities, we find the strength to rewrite our stories. We can draw inspiration from each step taken towards healing, recognizing that each act of understanding and inclusion reinforces our collective resilience. In affirming spaces, we can explore and express our truest selves without fear. Here, we are reminded that our identities are valid, our feelings are acknowledged, and our spiritual paths are as diverse as we are—each journey uniquely sacred. Expressions of divine love.

Together, we can build a world where conversations about faith and spirituality are sources of comfort and empowerment. Let this be our aspiration: that our spiritual communities reflect the kind of divine love that embraces all identities and experiences—a sanctuary for everyone to find peace and purpose.

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Religious Trauma Resources & Blog References


Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS)


Reports on Conversion Therapy and Harmful Practices


Surveys and Public Media Analysis


Resources for Creating Inclusive Environments

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