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Religion and childhood trauma 01: faith and fear

Faith under the magnifying glass: religion as a cause of childhood trauma


The relationship between religion, childhood trauma, fear and faith is very complex. Religion was originally intended to calm the fear of the unknowable and uncontrollable. This fear is one of the most primal and powerful human emotions. Fear of the unknown is accompanied by fear of death or punishment for transgressing taboos. These fears bind people to religion.

Children develop a relationship with many heroes and magical beings characterised by their parents’ frame of reference and their environment. In a corresponding environment, the idea of God becomes a necessary part of the ego. Concerning childhood trauma, fear and faith, it becomes clear that religious beliefs and practices are closely linked to individual experiences and belief systems. This connection can have various effects: Comfort in crises or as a coping mechanism for traumatic events and fears in adulthood.

That is why religious belief and fear are so often closely linked and are just as frequently misused to control and bind believers. The content of faith, the practice of religion and religious institutions must be considered separately.

Religion and childhood trauma: religious teachings between consolation and damnation

With their beliefs, religions predominantly offer comfort, protection and explanations to alleviate existential fears of the unknown and death. People look to religious beliefs to answer questions about life after death and the world’s future. Beliefs are a source of stability and support in times of suffering, illness, death and injustice. A god can even be a substitute caregiver for children when human nurturing and affection are lacking or insufficient.

There are different relationships between fear and belief in various cultures and religious traditions. Some religions strive to overcome fear and attain enlightenment and peace, while others rely on the fear of higher powers to establish moral and social norms. Consequently, various religions have very different concepts of sin, punishment and salvation, characterising the relationship between fear and faith.

In any case, religion is based initially on the experience of fear of the unknown and the desire for protection from a higher power – whether in the early days of humanity or childhood. According to Bertrand Russell, religions are, therefore, mainly based on fear, be it fear of the mysterious, defeat, or death. Such fear is the starting point for a relationship with a higher power that is supposed to help us through difficulties and conflicts.

Belief in a higher power can bind fear of the unknown and death and provide comfort, protection and clarification of meaning, especially in the face of existential fears such as suffering, illness, death, poverty, misery and injustice. That applies even more to children, who need long periods of protection, support and the imparting of knowledge.

Toxic religious teachings, such as the doctrine of eternal damnation and original sin, on the other hand, awaken deep-seated fears and feelings of inadequacy. A doctrine of eternal damnation, which states that unbelievers face eternal punishment, creates a terrifying backdrop to life for anyone, especially children born into the faith. A constant fear of hell, whether as a lake of fire or impenetrable darkness, appeals to a child’s imagination and is traumatising. It will shape behaviour and beliefs and lead to obedience to religious rules coming to the fore. Even in adulthood, those affected continue to feel compelled to adhere to religious rules out of fear and a sense of obligation. They become helpless and develop low self-esteem and a distorted sense of morality. Furthermore, the doctrine of original sin in fundamentalist churches forces children to internalise a sense that they are evil and woefully inadequate. However, children who feel inherently sinful and deficient also experience self-hatred and inescapable unworthiness as adults.

Religion and childhood trauma: religious practices between spiritual participation and fear induction

Some cultures and traditions work towards overcoming fear through enlightenment and spiritual growth. This journey to overcome fear through enlightenment and spiritual growth is intended to lead to a reconstruction of personal beliefs and a sense of inner peace in various ways. This process involves unlearning dysfunctional thinking and behaviour, building a new self-awareness and taking personal responsibility for one’s life. The believer should not rely on external allies but look within and endeavour to create a positive and fulfilling life on earth for a happy rebirth.

Belief systems also contain moral laws handed down by religious founders and, therefore, have the highest authority. Moral rules act as a guiding force in shaping children’s behaviour within religious communities. However, fear of punishment for disobeying these rules, whether in the form of earthly consequences or eternal damnation, serves as a powerful tool in shaping children’s behaviour according to religious teachings and has a profound effect on children’s sense of identity. Growing up in a religious environment where disobedience is threatened with cruel punishment internalises a deep fear of deviating from religious guidelines. The fear of being excluded from the group or labelled an enemy further reinforces the feeling of dependence on the leader or the group.

Religion and childhood trauma: religious communities between security and indoctrination

Religious practices such as drama, music, rituals or dances, as well as worship and singing, play an essential role in shaping children’s concept of God. Such practices are deeply rooted in cultural traditions and convey important spiritual and cultural beliefs to the younger generation. Children often participate in these rituals from an early age, immersing them in stories and teachings about the creation of the world and the role of a higher power in shaping it. These practices instil a sense of reverence and obedience to religious teachings and a sense of importance and sacredness in children. Through repeated participation in rituals and dances, children learn to associate these actions with religious beliefs and values, strengthening their understanding of religious teachings’ authority.

However, because of the biological, psychological and social dependence of children, the threat of exclusion from a religious community has a profound impact on children’s development. When they decide to leave their faith in adulthood, they fear severe consequences and punishments imposed by their religious beliefs. In some traditions, apostasy is considered a grave sin or betrayal, resulting in social ostracism or physical harm. In the long term, this can lead to religious trauma, where those affected struggle with feelings of shame, fear and confusion related to their religious upbringing.

Religion and childhood trauma: the neurobiology of faith – how religious experiences shape children’s brains

Religious beliefs about supernatural actors such as gods or spirits could be attributed to underlying processing in the human brain. There are hypotheses derived from ethnological studies. Pascal Boyer, for example, assumes that the brain processes sensory impressions using various modules. One of these modules specialises in deducing the presence of living beings among environmental changes. The hypersensitivity of this “living being recognition module” in the brain could easily give rise to ideas of supernatural actors, such as ghosts or gods, from unclear perceptions. And suppose the human brain naturally tends to assume the ability to act with the intention behind everything. In that case, this favours the idea of supernatural beings, such as gods or spirits, as the cause of all processes in the living world.

In addition, early childhood stressors can have lasting effects on the brain’s circuits and systems.

The amygdala plays a decisive role in reaction to fear. The prefrontal cortex is involved in mood, emotional and cognitive responses. Fear-based, extreme religious indoctrination is thought to impair the proper functioning of the amygdala and the prefrontal regions of the cerebral cortex and, thus, later hinder mental adaptability and openness.

The hippocampus ensures the spatiotemporal categorisation of sensory perceptions. There is, therefore, a relationship between early stress, the hippocampus and learning and memory. The hippocampus is blocked by stress. That leads to reduced memory function.

Early stress also affects the development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which plays a crucial role in the stress response. Early stress can contribute to a long-term increase in stress response and altered activity in regions such as the hypothalamus. That maintains the dysfunction of the HPA system.

Finally, changes in neurotransmitter systems generally lead to deficits in social bonding and mood regulation following stressful experiences in childhood.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, studies suggest that extreme religious indoctrination causes trauma symptoms similar to CPTSD.

Religion and childhood trauma: cultural and family dynamics

Toxic religious doctrines are often reinforced by authoritarianism and overbearing behaviour in the family. The idea of being constantly judged and punished mercilessly by authoritarian caregivers and also monitored by an omnipotent deity must create a profound sense of helplessness and dependence on external validation in children, especially under the pressure of strict religious rules. Punishment practices, fear and guilt, therefore, have lasting effects on a child’s mental and emotional health. They are particularly damaging to self-esteem and emotional well-being. Fundamentalist beliefs discourage critical thinking and self-confidence, causing children to rely solely on external authority figures to navigate the world. The long-term consequences often include a lack of personal maturity and coping skills in dealing with challenges, especially outside the religious community. Fear that the outside world is evil and fear of being ostracised or judged for leaving the faith makes it difficult for children to feel safe and secure in their environment.

Although religious beliefs provide a sense of community, purpose and morality, fear-based indoctrination takes a psychological and emotional toll with trauma and difficulties in personal development. Fear-based education of children sets in motion a cycle of fear, guilt and anxiety that still prevents adults from leading fulfilling and authentic lives – whether inside or outside their religious community.

Religion and childhood trauma: overcoming religious trauma – help for healing

Fear and guilt, feelings of unworthiness and self-hatred are at odds with the teachings of love, compassion and forgiveness in many religious traditions. There are approaches to teaching spiritual values to children that are not based on fear, guilt or punishment to enforce obedience, such as emphasising the teachings of love, compassion and empathy in religious education. Parents and educators can create an environment that supports and encourages children to explore their faith by instilling positive values and encouraging critical thinking and open dialogue.

Adults affected by fear-based indoctrination in religious communities can access various resources and support systems to help them cope with their religious trauma syndrome (RTS).

  1. Journey Free:

Journey Free offers services such as Religious Recovery Coaching, online support groups, counselling, workshops and retreats in English that are specifically tailored to help people heal from religious trauma. On their website, they offer an overview of their services as well as resources such as books, articles, videos and a YouTube channel. (https://www.journeyfree.org)

  1. Online forums and peer support groups:

Group support has proven to be an effective treatment for healing from religious trauma. Numerous online forums and peer support groups have been established to provide a sense of community and understanding for those affected as they navigate the challenges of leaving a controlling religious community.

  1. Professional therapy groups:

Groups led by therapists can offer specialised support and guidance to those affected in dealing with the emotional and psychological effects of religious indoctrination.

  1. The Religious Trauma Institute:

The Religious Trauma Institute is dedicated to researching and developing resources on religious trauma to train therapists. It offers webinars and has a research group dedicated to religious trauma. (https://www.religioustraumainstitute.com)

  1. Books and self-help resources:

Unfortunately, there are not many specialised and self-help books on the subject. Video testimonies from sufferers and documentaries are much more common. However, Western Christian belief systems and evangelical sects dominate here. In her book “Leaving the Fold”, psychologist Marlene Winell investigated the challenges faced by former followers of Christian fundamentalism. She coined the term “religious trauma syndrome”. Her study offers valuable insights and guidance for those affected by the consequences of leaving a controlling religious environment.

Summary and outlook: Religion, childhood trauma and the need for security

The complex interweaving of religion, childhood trauma and the human search for security and meaning permeates both individual experience and collective consciousness. Religions, in their historical and cultural diversity, can provide comfort and a sense of belonging, but at the same time, are criticised for being a source of deep-rooted fears and psychological trauma, especially in childhood. This ambivalence emphasises the need to thoroughly investigate the dynamic relationships between religious beliefs and spiritual practices and their impact on children’s psychological development.

Exploring the complex relationships between religion, childhood trauma, and the search for security and meaning leads to a deeper understanding of human nature and the multiple ways in which religious experiences can shape individuals’ lives.

Support and healing resources for those who have been harmed by religious indoctrination are crucial for those affected in the struggle to realise their right to a fulfilled and authentic life.


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