Religious trauma syndrome

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While some research has documented the positive impact of religious belief, the negative psychological impact has been largely ignored by researchers.[1] The term "Religious Tramuma Syndrome" was coined by Winell in 2012:

"Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. [...] the problem isn’t just physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin 2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.[2]"
"I define the term religious trauma as pervasive psychological damage resulting from religious messages, beliefs, and experiences[1]"

Religious trauma is distinct because it usually accumulates gradually through long term, repeated exposure to harmful influences. In order to meet the rigid demands of a believer's community, the believer may adopt a false self as a coping mechanism. This is often compounded by fundamentalists who attempt to live by unrealistic standards of behavior, including which emotions or thoughts are acceptable, which leads to repeated failures and damage to self esteem. Behavior is often controlled by the religion using fear of both hell and social ostracism.

Without any healthy outlet, these experiences can cause emotional, interpersonal and cognitive impairment. Intellectual endeavors can also become limited by continually attempting to avoid certain thoughts. Religious trauma can manifest in a similar way to posttraumatic stress disorder, by eventually avoiding all organized religion. A person can have difficulty or experience resistance in expressing their full range of emotions because they have been taught that thoughts and actions are not separate, e.g. believing that lustful thoughts are equivalent to rape Matthew 5:28 Bible-icon.png.

The Baylor Religion Survey, Wave III (2011) found that people who believed in an angry and judgmental god had more anxieties. [3]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Alyson M. Stone, Thou Shalt Not: Treating Religious Trauma and Spiritual Harm With Combined Therapy, Group, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Winter 2013), pp. 323-337
  2. [1]
  3. Baylor Religion Survey, Wave III. (2011, September). The values and beliefs of the American public. Waco, TX: Baylor University.

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