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Religion and childhood trauma 08: Conclusion

Religion and childhood trauma: questions and answers


In the “Religion and Childhood Trauma” series, we have previously investigated how deeply religious beliefs and practices affect children’s early development and psychological well-being. It was about:

  1. Faith and fear
  2. Guilt and atonement
  3. Shame and the sacred
  4. Authority and autonomy
  5. Inclusion and exclusion
  6. Doubt and faith
  7. Healing and growth

Religious childhood trauma arises from faith teachings, practices and communities themselves or from the abuse of religious teachings and structures by authority figures seeking to exert power and control. We have seen that traumatic experiences come from a variety of sources, all of which result in strict, dogmatic parenting that instils fear, guilt or shame to enforce good behaviour in children. Individual freedom is sacrificed to the demand for submission. However, children always turn the experience of parental authority into a belief in a divine being. And in toxic faith communities, parents and authorities exploit this transformation to exert control.

Questions & Answers

Definition and effects of religious trauma syndrome (RTS)

  • Question: Who coined the term “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS)?
    • Answer: Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) was coined by Marlene Winell and describes the psychological effects experienced by those affected when they leave authoritarian, isolationist and fear-based religious communities. Symptoms include anxiety, depression, feelings of guilt and difficulties in finding a new identity.
  • Question: How does Religious Trauma Syndrome affect people who have left religious communities?
    • Answer: RTS can lead to severe mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, depression and identity crises. Those affected often feel lost and have difficulty navigating the world without their former religious structure.
  • Question: How is RTS created?
    • Answer: RTS develops through two primary traumas: prolonged indoctrination by a controlling religious community and leaving that community. Both processes can cause intense psychological and emotional distress.
  • Question: What are the symptoms of religious trauma syndrome (RTS)?
    • Answer: Symptoms of RTS include cognitive problems such as confusion and decision-making difficulties, affective disorders such as anxiety and depression, functional problems such as sleep disturbances, and social issues such as loss of networks and interpersonal relationships. Developmental delays can also occur.
  • Question: Which psychological theories explain RTS?
    • Answer: RTS is explained by theories of PTSD, complex PTSD (cPTBS) and attachment theory. These theories look at the effects of prolonged abuse and the destruction of basic assumptions about the world and the self.
  • Question: How does Religious Trauma Syndrome affect the personal development of people who have left a fundamentalist religious community?
    • Answer: People who leave fundamentalist religious communities experience identity crises, feelings of guilt and anxiety. Leaving the religion requires a reassessment of one’s own beliefs and values, which can lead to considerable emotional and psychological challenges.
  • Question: What are the long-term effects of religious trauma on mental health?
    • Answer: Religious trauma leads to long-lasting psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, identity crises and relationship problems. Those affected often need intensive therapeutic support to overcome these challenges and leave the trauma behind.

 Influence of religious beliefs and practices

  • Question: What impact has religion had in history?
    • Answer: Religion has had both positive and negative effects on humanity. It has contributed to outstanding cultural, social and scientific achievements, promoted dogmatism and marginalisation, and caused endless physical, psychological and social suffering.
  • Question: Why are the effects of fundamentalist indoctrination often misunderstood or underestimated by therapists?
    • Answer: Therapists often underestimate the impact because they don’t fully understand the deep-rooted fear and shame that comes from religious indoctrination. These deep emotional scars can lead to significant psychological issues that are more complex than traditional trauma.
  • Question: How is intelligence related to religious fundamentalism?
    • Answer: A meta-analysis by Zuckerman et al. (2013) shows that a higher level of intelligence is often associated with a lower susceptibility to religious fundamentalism. Intelligence promotes critical thinking and scepticism and challenges fundamentalist beliefs.
  • Question: How does cognitive closure relate to fundamentalism and prejudice against those thinking differently?
    • Answer: The need for cognitive closure correlates strongly with fundamentalism and prejudice. People who are looking for definitive answers tend to be intolerant of dissenting opinions and those who question their worldview.
  • Question: Why does the belief in a punishing God contribute to the emergence of RTS?
    • Answer: Belief in a punitive and omnipotent God, who sees sufferers as inherently bad, triggers intense anxiety and guilt. Such beliefs exacerbate the symptoms of RTS, worsening and affecting mental health.

Neuroscientific and psychological findings

  • Question: What role does the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) play in representing and maintaining social beliefs?
    • Answer: The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is crucial for processing and maintaining social norms. It integrates emotions and values and stabilises the coherence of beliefs.
  • Question: What role does the amygdala play in anxiety reactions and mood?
    • Answer: The amygdala is crucial for processing fear and regulating emotions. Early traumatic experiences change their function and cause constant alertness, increased anxiety reactions and mood swings.
  • Question: How do changes in neurotransmitter systems contribute to deficits in social bonding and mood regulation following early stress?
    • Answer: Changes in the neurotransmitter systems due to early stress have a negative impact on the ability to socialise and regulate mood. That causes difficulties in interpersonal relationships and an increased risk of mental disorders.
  • Question: What is the relationship between early stress, the hippocampus and learning and memory?
    • Answer: Early stress also impairs the development of the hippocampus, which plays a central role in learning and memory. That can lead to cognitive deficits and difficulties in learning new information.
  • Question: How does early stress affect the development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis?
    • Answer: Early stress disrupts the development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, leading to increased susceptibility to stress and associated mental and physical health problems.

Influence of authoritarian religious communities

  • Question: What is the standard view of evangelicalism about the responsibility of children for their sins and salvation?
    • Answer: Evangelicalism claims that children are responsible for their sins and must be saved from an early age. This belief emphasises the importance of early conversion and protection from eternal damnation.
  • Question: Why do evangelical churches and parents emphasise the importance of their children being saved at a young age?
    • Answer: Evangelicalism emphasises early salvation to ensure that children lead virtuous lives and are saved from hell. That is intended to force them to develop a strong religious identity and become morally stable.
  • Question: How does evangelicalism cause damage and destruction?
    • Answer: Evangelical Christianity promotes authoritarian and dogmatic practices that suppress individual freedom and critical thinking. These practices cause psychological damage and social isolation.
  • Question: What is the definition of fundamentalist religion, and what are the characteristics of closed belief systems?
    • Answer: A fundamentalist religion emphasises strict, literal interpretations of sacred scriptures and is intolerant of dissenting opinions. Closed belief systems do not allow criticism and force followers to think within a rigid ideological framework.
  • Question: What are the consequences of demands for obedience and compliance in fundamentalist religions?
    • Answer: The demand for submission and obedience encourages abuse because individual freedom and critical thinking are suppressed.
  • Question: Why do fundamentalist religions display intense proselytising zeal and suppress independent thinking in children?
    • Answer: Fundamentalist religions emphasise obedience and dogmatic teachings to discourage children from independent thinking and self-determination. This proselytising zeal is aimed at early indoctrination and thought control.
  • Question: What are the consequences of a belief in eternal damnation, and how does it affect the believer’s perception of the world?
    • Answer: The belief in eternal damnation can lead to constant fear and feelings of guilt. It impairs the quality of life and can put a considerable strain on mental health, as the believer lives in constant fear of punishment.
  • Question: Do religious communities that are authoritarian, isolationist and fear-based contribute to religious trauma syndrome?
    • Answer: Yes, such communities reinforce RTS because they use control and fear to enforce conformity and suppress individual freedom. These environments create an environment that favours traumatic experiences.
  • Question: How does a controlling religion restrict the information and views of its members?
    • Answer: Controlling religions restrict information and views of their members by blocking access to alternative opinions and critical thinking. They keep followers trapped in a closed ideological system.
  • Question: What role does an authoritarian belief system play in maintaining the leader’s control and preventing followers from reflecting on their reality?
    • Answer: An authoritarian belief system enforces absolute loyalty and obedience to the leader and the group’s teachings. It prevents followers from critically questioning their reality, strengthening the leader’s control over the group and suppressing individual autonomy.
  • Question: How does Religious Trauma Syndrome affect the personal development of people who have left a fundamentalist religious community?
    • Answer: People who leave fundamentalist religious communities experience identity crises, feelings of guilt and anxiety. Leaving the religion requires a reassessment of one’s own beliefs and values, which can lead to considerable emotional and psychological challenges.
  • Question: What is the definition of religious fundamentalism according to the Religious Fundamentalism Scale (RFS)?
    • Answer: The Religious Fundamentalism Scale (RFS) defines religious fundamentalism as a strict, dogmatic, literal interpretation of sacred scripture that does not allow for dissenting opinions and is associated with authoritarian beliefs.
  • Question: What is the relationship between religion, terrorism and brainwashing in cults?
    • Answer: Cults use brainwashing techniques to control and radicalise members. These techniques include isolation, systematic indoctrination and emotional manipulation that lead members to accept extremist views.
  • Question: How does the restriction of communication within a cult affect the ability of followers to maintain an independent identity?
    • Answer: The restriction of communication in cults leads to the isolation of members from external influences and information. It suppresses critical thinking and prevents the development of an independent identity. That, in turn, strengthens the cult’s control over its members.
  • Question: What role does an authoritarian belief system play in maintaining the leader’s control and preventing followers from reflecting on their reality?
    • Answer: An authoritarian belief system enforces absolute loyalty and obedience to the leader and the group’s teachings. That prevents followers from critically questioning their reality, strengthens the leader’s control over the group and suppresses individual autonomy.

Psychological and emotional challenges

  • Question: What are the components of openness?
    • Answer: Openness encompasses curiosity, creativity and a willingness to experience new things. Openness is less susceptible to fundamentalist beliefs because it fundamentally accepts new ideas and perspectives.
  • Question: Was there psychological manipulation in the practice of faith?
    • Answer: Yes, psychological manipulation techniques have been used in all religions at all times to make people believe. These include fuelling fear of damnation and feelings of guilt.
  • Question: How is religious indoctrination related to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (cPTBS)?
    • Answer: Religious indoctrination can lead to the development of cPTBS, as it is often accompanied by emotional abuse, fear and control. These traumatic experiences leave deep scars on the psyche of those affected.
  • Question: What are the consequences of a belief in eternal damnation, and how does it affect the believer’s perception of the world?
    • Answer: The belief in eternal damnation can lead to constant fear and feelings of guilt. It impairs the quality of life and can put a considerable strain on mental health, as the believer lives in constant fear of punishment.
  • Question: What challenges does leaving a religious community pose?
    • Answer: Leaving a religious community can be perceived as liberating and traumatic. Those affected lose social support and have to reconstruct their worldview. That causes considerable stress and isolation.
  • Question: What are the consequences of leaving a fundamentalist religious group?
    • Answer: Leaving a fundamentalist religious group can lead to considerable emotional and psychological challenges. Those affected experience isolation, identity crises and the lack of a social network.
  • Question: Why is leaving a religion experienced as a lonely and stressful life event?
    • Answer: Leaving a religion is lonely and stressful because those affected lose their familiar networks and support systems. They have to reorient themselves and develop a new identity, which is emotionally challenging.

Therapeutic support and coping strategies

  • Question: How do therapy, support groups, and organisations help those struggling with their former religious beliefs?
    • Answer: Therapy, self-help groups, and organisations offer support through self-help groups and hotlines. They help those affected critically scrutinise their religious beliefs and free themselves from harmful thoughts and feelings. They offer those affected or their relatives an important point of contact for support and counselling on questions of faith and religious trauma.
  • Question: How is RTS treated?
    • Answer: The treatment of RTS includes trauma-focused cognitive and psychodynamic behavioural therapy, group therapy, knowledge transfer and grief work. A holistic and multimodal approach that considers cognitions, affects, bodily functions, and relationships is particularly effective.
  • Question: How do therapy, self-help groups and organisations support those affected in coping with a change of faith?
    • Answer: Therapy, support groups, and organisations support those affected through counselling, support groups and educational resources. They help them to cope with the emotional and psychological challenges of a change of faith and to find a new identity.
  • Question: What emotions and life changes can result from a transitional phase of faith change?
    • Answer: A change of faith can lead to various emotions, including fear, guilt, grief and relief. Those affected often experience a reorientation phase and have to build up new social networks and identities.
  • Question: What is the primary concern of therapy, self-help groups and organisations?
    • Answer: The main purpose of therapy, support groups and organisations is to support those questioning or having left their faith. The organisation provides resources and community to help them live a full and free life.
  • Question: What topics are discussed at self-help group meetings?
    • Answer: At support group meetings, topics such as religious trauma, faith change and personal stories are discussed. These meetings provide a safe space for sharing and support among those affected.
  • Question: How do therapy, self-help groups and organisations ensure a safe space for group members?
    • Answer: Therapy, support groups and organisations ensure that meetings take place in a supportive and non-judgmental environment. That is ensured through clear guidelines and facilitation to create a safe space for all participants.
  • Question: What are the specific risks for LGBTQIA+ members of religious communities?
    • Response: LGBTQIA+ members are particularly vulnerable to RTS and cPTBS as they often try to conform their sexual orientation and gender identity to the expectations of authoritarian religious communities. This results in long-term emotional and psychological damage.
  • Question: How can social support help with recovery from RTS?
    • Answer: Group support is effective in supporting growth after RTS. Professional therapy groups, peer support groups and online forums provide important networks and support for those affected, helping to overcome isolation and promote growth.
  • Question: What role does knowledge transfer play in the treatment of RTS?
    • Answer: Knowledge sharing is crucial to educate those affected by RTS and to help them understand and process their experiences. It promotes critical thinking and the development of a healthy self-image and cognitive reorientation.
  • Question: How can knowledge transfer help heal cPTBS?
    • Answer: Knowledge is crucial to understanding and overcoming symptoms. It promotes awareness that childhood trauma is a profoundly normal reaction to profoundly abnormal situations and provides strategies to manage them. It strengthens self-efficacy and supports those affected in establishing healthier behavioural patterns.
  • Question: How do I recognise an emotional flashback?
    • Answer: An emotional flashback (trigger state) manifests through feelings of smallness, helplessness, hopelessness and shame. Further signs are increased aggressiveness of the inner critic manifested with severe self-criticism or judgement of others. An additional indication is an overwhelming emotional reaction to relatively minor triggers.
  • Question: What are the “4F” reactions, and how do they manifest themselves?
    • Answer: The “4F” reactions are fight, flight, freeze and fawn. These reactions are innate coping strategies. Traumatised children use them as a matter of necessity to deal with traumatic experiences and retain them as adults.
  • Fight: Perfectionism and projecting the inner critic onto others. Timeouts and self-reflection are essential tools for this reaction.
  • Flight: Hyperactivity and perfectionism to avoid inner pain. Knowledge transfer and mini-meditations can help to overcome this flight mechanism.
  • Freeze: Withdrawal, isolation, and dissociation are safety strategies. These sufferers often give up hope of love and relationships and seek safety in loneliness.
  • Submission (Fawn): Adaptation, avoidance of conflict, willingness to sacrifice, and craving to please to the point of self-denial to avoid rejection. This reaction attempts to create security by fulfilling the needs of others.
  • Question: How can you prune back your inner critic?
    • Answer: This includes techniques such as identifying and naming attacks of criticism, developing self-compassion and adjusting overly perfectionistic demands. These methods mitigate toxic self-criticism and promote a healthy self-image.
  • Question: What role does grief work play in the healing of cPTBS?
    • Answer: Grief work is a central part of healing from cPTBS. It allows us to recognise and grieve losses and injuries from childhood. Working through grief provides a gradual release from the past and the development of new, healthy patterns and perspectives.
  • Question: How can flashbacks be managed effectively?
    • Answer: Effective flashback management involves several steps, including recognising and naming flashbacks, mindfulness, developing self-compassion and de-escalating emotional reactions. These steps help you gain control over your reactions.
  • Question: What are typical challenges for people with cPTBS in everyday life?
    • Answer: People with cPTBS experience constant anxiety, alertness (hypervigilance) and emotional dysregulation. They often have difficulty forming healthy relationships and feeling safe. Chronic shame and the feeling of being unable to cope with everyday life tasks are also common challenges.
  • Question: Why are the effects of fundamentalist indoctrination often misunderstood or underestimated by therapists?
    • Answer: Therapists often underestimate the impact because they don’t fully understand the deep-rooted fear and shame that comes from religious indoctrination. These deep emotional scars can lead to significant psychological issues that are more complex than traditional trauma.


Each of the eight articles in this series is dedicated to a complex topic:

  1. Faith and fear: This post has explored the tension between faith and fear. Toxic beliefs can cause terrible fear, especially fear of the unknown and death.
  2. Guilt and atonement: The second article deals with sin, guilt and forgiveness. Religious teachings about guilt and atonement can create feelings of guilt and self-hatred in children and harm their psychological development.
  3. Shame and the sacred: This episode addresses the connection between shame and the idea of the sacred. Religious communities can exert additional pressure on children and reinforce feelings of shame, thus hindering the development of healthy self-esteem.
  4. Authority and autonomy: The tension between personal freedom and religious authority is examined here. Authoritarian religious structures suppress the independence of children and their ability for self-determination.
  5. Inclusion and exclusion: The fifth article examines the dynamics of belonging and rejection in religious communities. The threat of social exclusion can be very intimidating for children and can lead to isolation and dependency.
  6. Doubt and faith: This episode deals with the tension between firm faith and doubt. Children who grow up in strict religious communities often experience inner conflicts when they doubt the doctrines of religion.
  7. Healing and Growth 1/2: The first part of Healing and Growth deals with ways of overcoming childhood trauma through religion. Therapeutic approaches and support systems are presented that help those affected to deal with their traumatic experiences.
  8. Healing and growth 2/2: The second part delves deeper into the strategies for promoting autonomy and self-esteem in those affected. It becomes clear how important a holistic, multimodal approach to therapy is.

The series clearly shows how religious upbringing influences children’s lives and psychological development. While religions provide comfort and meaning to many, they can also be a source of abysmal fears and emotional wounds.

Authoritarian religions suppress individual thinking and personal freedom. The series, therefore, offered numerous insights into the interplay between beliefs, the practice of faith and faith communities and when it has harmful consequences for children, as well as therapeutic approaches and support systems.

Those affected by childhood trauma must find ways to develop autonomy and a healthy sense of self-worth. It is crucial to find a balance between the positive aspects of religious practice and the promotion of individual freedom and critical thinking.


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