Raised in an evangelical church she now describes as a “dumpster fire” of fundamentalist beliefs, Laura Anderson’s terror of hell kept her up at night as a 4-year-old. Her insomnia was less about hell itself and more about the fear of being separated from her family if Jesus came back. So she’d lie awake, picturing an image of Jesus dying on the cross, hoping it would guarantee salvation.
Decades later, long after her sleeping patterns had regulated, she suddenly suffered from severe insomnia again — this time after she’d come to reject the idea of hell.
“Because of the way I had embodied those messages about the consequences of going to hell, my body started to panic again, because I didn’t have this assurance of salvation,” Anderson explained to Religion News Service. Her fears were still ingrained in her body.
At the time, Anderson thought she was alone in experiencing a trauma response to her religious upbringing. But now, as a psychotherapist who specializes in religious trauma, she knows that’s not the case. In her new book When Religion Hurts You: Healing from Religious Trauma and the Impact of High-Control Religion, Anderson gives language for and insights about this under-researched form of trauma and invites readers to take part in the ongoing process of healing.
RNS spoke to Anderson about purity culture, why atheism isn’t a remedy for religious trauma and how to identify high-control religions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you mean when you say religious trauma is trauma?
Prior to the last five, maybe 10 years, most dialogue around religious trauma in professional spaces suggested that to heal from it, you just needed to become an atheist. And for a myriad of reasons, I disagree with that. It can turn into fundamentalism very quickly, just on the other side of the spectrum. Also, that cognitive shift to atheism doesn’t address how trauma is embodied, how those messages, practices and lifestyles live inside of us even after we believe new things.
Research and clinical interventions show us trauma is a physiological state that is happening in our bodies. It is the result of anything that’s too much, too fast, too soon, that overwhelms our ability to cope. So when we understand religious trauma as trauma, it gives us a wealth of resources and interventions. It also helps to validate the actual lived experience. Many of my clients have experienced shame and confusion over having psychological responses even after they don’t believe the same things anymore.
Understanding religious trauma helps us wrap our minds around what’s happening in our bodies and then opens the door for compassion toward yourself and healing in a deeper, more embodied way.
Why might it be important for therapists working with religious trauma not to be anti-religion?
Anti-religious messages can quickly become prescriptive and fundamentalist. To say all religion is terrible and you just have to get rid of it, or the idea that God is dumb and only for mentally weak people, is incredibly shaming and discouraging. It’s also not necessarily helpful for the healing process. My job as a therapist is not to get you to a belief that I might hold. It is to help you heal and to lean in more to who you are authentically. I think that includes religion or spiritual practices. Now I always say I’m not anti-religion, but I am anti-harm and power and control, and anti-abuse. So if you can find a religion or faith or spiritual practice that isn’t including those things, I think that’s wonderful.
What’s the difference between religious abuse and religious trauma?
Trauma is not the thing that happens to you, it’s the result of how your nervous system responds to the thing that happens to you. Trauma is very subjective. And that means no event or single doctrine is inherently traumatic. Think of a car accident. Some people might walk away from it being deeply traumatized, and other people don’t.
Abuse is the thing that happens to you. It doesn’t necessarily mean that if you’re abused, you will absolutely have trauma, though there’s a higher likelihood of it, especially if it’s repeated or inescapable, as we often see in the context of high-control religions.
It’s also important to note that even if the abuse you experienced inside religion did not result in trauma or a diagnosis such as PTSD or CPTSD, that doesn’t mean you didn’t suffer severe consequences from it. It just means that your body did not store it as trauma.
How can we identify when a religion is a high-control religion?
In the back of the book, I talk about what I call the religious power and control wheel. There’s a diagram, and you’ll see categories like isolation; minimizing, denying and blaming; spiritual abuse; economic control; defining gender and sexuality rigidly. What’s important to recognize about high-control religion is that it’s never just one thing. It’s these seemingly benign or small things that are compounded, that are consistent and persistent, and oftentimes have severe consequences attached. And then with religious trauma, if you defy the rules they set, then you are defying God. And if you’re defying God, the likelihood of eternal conscious torment, for example, is quite high.
You can also ask: What happens when somebody leaves? What happens when somebody expresses disagreement? What happens when somebody shows up as themselves in a way that might be different than how the group defines what is OK or normal? How are they treated?
What do you mean when you talk about healing as something that’s ongoing?
There is a lot of research that talks about healing as symptom reduction or alleviation. As I was doing my own research for my doctoral dissertation, I had this idea that healing from all these things that happened to me would look a particular way. And it didn’t. In fact, in many cases, it felt like I was getting further and further away, which meant my shame was increasing exponentially. So my dissertation chair told me, I just think you might have a really limited definition of healing. Through research, what I discovered is that when we allow ourselves to consider that healing doesn’t have a finish line, it allows us to be present in our day-to-day life. It let me have more compassion for myself, tune into my body and figure out what I needed.
Why do you call purity culture a form of sexual abuse?
One of the definitions of abuse is the improper use of something for its intended purpose. Purity culture targets our gender, our sexuality, our relationships and our bodies, in terms of what is allowable. It sends us messages about being disgusting, that inherent urges or desires or sensations within us are evil. It takes our sexuality and it twists it and puts rules around it for control. I’m very careful to say that I don’t consider it sexual assault because that is a physical act committed on another person. That said, the long-term impact of purity culture oftentimes shows up very similarly to how a victim of sexualized violence and assault experiences symptoms.
Why is there so little research on religious trauma?
Most research that has been done is around extreme versions of religious trauma involving cults, clergy sexual abuse, things like that. Also, a lot of research suggests religion provides a sense of identity, purpose, belonging and worth, and certainly it can. But on top of that, we have a country that believes it was founded as a Christian nation. So research on religious abuse is not necessarily easy to fund or wildly promoted.
Now, in the last decade or so, there are people starting to research it anyway. But up until 2015, 2016, there just wasn’t a lot of public discourse about it. People were experiencing things in isolation. With social media, that’s changed. And there is research currently being done. The Religious Trauma Institute, which I co-founded, has a collaborative research group. There are many people tackling religious trauma from a variety of angles. It’s just a matter of jumping through all the hoops and getting them into journals.