Meet the “exvangelicals” seeking therapy for religious trauma.
by Stephanie Russell-Kraft
THE NEW REPUBLIC - March 23, 2021
ILLUSTRATION BY EVA REDAMONT
When Ana Sharp Williamson came home from her honeymoon in the summer of 2019, she moved in with her husband and began the process of deciding which church they should go to. She didn’t want to go to her childhood church, so decided to go to his until they found the right fit. It was only 15 minutes away from their home in Independence, Missouri.
But every Sunday, Williamson had a severe panic attack five minutes from the church parking lot. “I would start to feel very upset and panicky and start crying and hyperventilating,” the 24-year-old said. “I would pull it together in the car, and we would go in and sit through the service, and I would have another breakdown when we left.” Once, after the pastor made an offhand joke about women not being able to preach, Williamson had a panic attack in the pews.
It took a little over a month for her to realize what was going on. Williamson had spent the previous year “deconstructing,” leaving behind many of the conservative evangelical beliefs she had been raised with. By the time she graduated from a theologically conservative Christian college that spring, she knew she didn’t believe most of the doctrines she had been taught. “I was just left with this question mark,” she said. “If I don’t believe this, what do I believe?”
Because of her newfound doubts about her faith, Williamson’s last year at college had been isolating, but the panic attacks were new. “My body’s response to being in evangelical spaces just suddenly changed,” she said. “That was kind of the point where I thought, ‘I have to go find a therapist.’” A few months later, she found one. Before they started, Williamson emailed to make sure the therapist had experience treating religious trauma. Thankfully, she did.
For clinicians, it is still relatively new to see religion itself as a source of trauma in people’s lives, according to Laura Anderson, a licensed therapist based in Tennessee. “Religion has been looked at as a fairly pro-social or communal factor,” she said. “There were very little resources for clinicians and survivors.”
Anderson, who also grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, started to see more clients from evangelical backgrounds during the 2016 election and its aftermath. Before the election, many of Anderson’s clients told her the trajectory of their church, including the growing support for Donald Trump, was diverging from their view of God. After Trump was elected, many young evangelicals began to leave their churches altogether. Denison University political scientist Paul A. Djupe, who has studied the impact of politics on religious affiliation, estimates that just over 20 percent of American evangelicals, or eight million people, left the church between 2016 and 2020. “It’s a pretty sizable number, and of course they’re really loud on Twitter,” Djupe said.
“We’re talking about brainwashing. Doctrines taught over and over and over with consequences that are eternal and terrifying.”
The same year Trump won, former conservative evangelical Blake Chastain created the #exvangelical Twitter hashtag, which went viral and became a loose social movement of former evangelicals speaking publicly about leaving their faith communities. “One of the most common things among everyone is they’ve experienced some sort of trauma,” says Chastain.
“It’s now no longer taboo to talk about it,” said Anderson. In 2019, she and therapist Brian Peck co-founded the Religious Trauma Institute, with the mission of developing resources for mental health practitioners to work with survivors of religious trauma.
“This is trauma, the same way trauma manifests from sexual violence or war,” said Anderson. “We’re talking about, in a way, brainwashing. Doctrines taught over and over and over with consequences that are eternal and terrifying.”
I spoke to more than a dozen former evangelicals for this story, each of them sharing unique stories of abuse and disillusionment with their church. A few asked that I keep their names confidential because they feared retaliation from family members (some of whom are involved in pro-Trump militia movements). But their stories shared one factor: despite no longer believing in hell, or purity culture, or the imminent rapture, they all struggled to overcome the toll those ideologies had taken on their minds and bodies. As evangelicals, the people I spoke to had been raised to be suspicious of therapy. Now more and more of them are turning to mental health providers to help them forge a different path.
Religion was “everything” in Ana Sharp Williamson’s childhood, she says. Her family attended a conservative evangelical church in Belton, Missouri, and her “only social life was church, youth group, and another youth group at a different church.” She was homeschooled with a conservative Christian curriculum, which taught young earth creationism and a white Christian nationalist narrative of history. “I had a textbook that framed the defeat of the Spanish Armada by England as God setting the stage for America, because if England hadn’t defeated the Spanish Armada then North America would have been colonized by Catholics and God wanted America to be Protestant,” she said.
Trump was elected while she was in college at Calvary University, a Christian school close to home. “Trump sort of forced me into a reckoning of, I don’t think that I can support him, and if he supports conservative politics, I should probably take a good hard look at those as well,” Williamson said. “My political shift made it easier to deconstruct my theology.”
Williamson had grown up believing that complementarianism (the belief men and women complement each other through distinct and separate roles) and purity culture (which demands that women remain sexless virgins until marriage) were divine ordinance. “You’re taught that your body belongs to God, then your dad, then your husband,” she said. “Your dad protects your virginity, then you get married and your dad gives you to your husband, and your body belongs to him.” (Purity culture also assumes men to be lustful and places the responsibility on women to avoid tempting them sexually—an issue spotlighted by the Atlanta mass shooting earlier this month, allegedly carried out by a member of a conservative Baptist church with a “religious mania” who claimed he had been plagued by “sexual addiction.”)
Williamson believes this worldview caused her to stay for several years in an abusive relationship with a man who pressured her to have all kinds of nonvaginal sex. Williamson didn’t want to but didn’t have a way to say it. She recalls hearing one verse from Jeremiah over and over: The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “The message was: Don’t listen to your feelings,” she said. So when her boyfriend told her, “prove to me from the Bible that it’s wrong to give head,” Williamson was at a loss: She couldn’t.
“There are jokes about doing anal for Jesus, and yeah, that’s pretty much how it was,” she told me. “I felt awful about it as we were doing those things, and after.” After seeing him, she would sit in her car and cry. “I didn’t know that wasn’t normal.”
It wasn’t just the abusive relationship that traumatized Williamson. It was the entire ideology of purity, wrapped up with her sense of identity, self-worth, and relationship to God. “I didn’t know what it meant to be a woman,” she said. “I had no concept of gender identity beyond evangelicalism.”
Religious trauma, like sexual trauma, is not new. “It’s as old as religion,” according to Religious Trauma Institute co-founder Brian Peck. Peck grew up in a conservative evangelical family and attended a K-12 Christian school. He began the process of leaving his religion more than two decades ago, when he was in his twenties. Along the way, he met other former evangelicals who were living in opposition to their former beliefs, “feeling stuck in this inflexible way that I was familiar with.”
“This led me to realizing it’s not just a cognitive problem that people experience,” said Peck, now a licensed clinical social worker based in Boise, Idaho. “A lot of the deconstruction journey is a cognitive process. It’s about reading and studying. It’s about beliefs and ideas: Are they true or not true? During that process, we often lose sight of the fact that we’re social mammals living in bodies, and the way that trauma impacts us is not just in our head, it’s in our body as well.”
In recent years, mental health practitioners have begun the work of cataloging and defining religious trauma. Many of them, like Peck and Anderson, grew up in fundamentalist or conservative religious environments.
In 1993, psychologist Marlene Winell published Leaving the Fold, a self-help book for former Christian fundamentalists deciding to forsake their religion. Winell, who refers to herself as a “recovering fundamentalist,” coined the term “religious trauma syndrome” more than a decade ago. It’s “the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination,” Winell has written.
Psychologist Darrel Ray founded the nonprofit Recovering From Religion in 2009 as a resource for people doubting or leaving their faith. In 2012, he launched the Secular Therapy Project, a database of nearly 500 vetted secular therapists who will not tell clients they just need to pray more.
“There are jokes about doing anal for Jesus, and yeah, that’s pretty much how it was.”
Ray, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family, said most formerly religious people who come to him suffer from the constraints of purity culture or a deep-seated fear of hell. He likens many of their symptoms to PTSD. “When you see a person with the same symptoms and yet they weren’t in a war, they haven’t been in a tornado, they haven’t been in a shooting, you have to dig a little deeper,” said Ray. “With many people, when you dig deeper you find it came right out of religion.”
Peck said he and Anderson want religious trauma to be considered a type of complex post-traumatic or stress disorder, “because that allows us to be taken seriously.” Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, does not yet include complex PTSD, the World Health Organization recently added the diagnosis to its International Classification of Diseases, or ICD-11. Peck and Anderson say they don’t use the term “religious trauma syndrome” because they consider it too broad.
The Religious Trauma Institute’s long-term goal is to research and develop resources on religious trauma to train other therapists. Right now, the organization is self-funded and has offered several webinars. The institute also launched a collaborative research group of 50 graduate students and researchers to study religious trauma.
Anderson and Peck are also both members of the Reclamation Collective, a network and support group for individuals dealing with religious trauma and adverse religious experiences. The collective maintains a database of therapists who say they have the training and experience to work with such people. Peck estimates that 90 percent of his current clients are dealing with some sort of religious trauma, whether they are still religious, transitioning out of or into religious affiliations, or have left religion altogether.
A major complicating factor in the treatment of religious trauma is the fact that many evangelicals are taught not to listen to or trust their bodies. Trauma lives in the body, and treating it is made all the more difficult when an individual must first regain a sense of their own bodily self.
“Evangelicalism encourages folks to exist primarily in their minds, in a world of thoughts, beliefs, and mental constructs,” said Peck. “Thought control is often viewed as the solution rather than its own source of suffering.”
Ana Sharp Williamson still carries the weight of purity culture with her today. Even though she now believes women can and should enjoy sex, she’s had trouble putting it into practice in her marriage. “I was very sex-positive,” she said, “I was all like, ‘Hey, close the orgasm gap!’ I would preach that to my friends, but it took a long time for my body and brain to actually believe that for myself.” Her therapist pushed Williamson to “explore myself and my needs, what makes me feel fulfilled, what makes me feel safe, what makes me feel motivated.”
This mind-body disconnect is common among ex-evangelical clients, according to Kathryn Keller, a Dallas-based therapist. She told me about a former Southern Baptist client who struggled with this. “I asked them about their intuition, and whether they were ever taught to listen to their gut.” The client looked surprised. “‘What? I don’t listen to myself,’ they said.”
“It’s so confusing, because the body is still giving you signals but you don’t know how to listen to it or to even listen to it,” said Keller.
Erin Dirkson, an ex-evangelical, still struggles with a fear of abandonment she developed as a result of her childhood church’s focus on the imminent rapture. “I would come home from school, the house would be empty, and I would have a panic attack,” she said. “I thought that my parents had been raptured and I had been left because I was not a good enough Christian.”
One ex-evangelical woman who asked to remain anonymous recounted a panic attack she had the first time she had sex. At that point, she had left her church and no longer believed the many tenets of purity culture she had been taught as a child. “It was a really frustrating internal conflict,” she said. “I don’t believe this anymore, so why do I feel guilty for something I don’t believe is a sin?”
“Traditionally, people thought that if I change my beliefs, this doesn’t impact me,” explained Anderson. “But trauma is a very embodied thing. If I’m engaging in behavior that I was taught to be sinful with the consequence of hell, I know I can do it, but I might have a trauma response to it.”
Many of the therapists working in this burgeoning area are former Christians themselves—and intend to stay that way. Psychologist Darrel Ray, founder of Recovering From Religion and the Secular Therapy Project, said, “It’s hard to be a good therapist. Anyone who wants to add the complication of, ‘I also believe in Jesus,’ I don’t see how you ever help anybody.”
“We fucking think religion hurts people,” he said. “I’m not saying all religions are equally bad. I’m saying all religions, especially patriarchal religions, have an overwhelming negative effect.” During our conversation, he asked me if I had been raised religious. “Lucky, lucky you,” he told me when I said I hadn’t.
Chrissy Stroop, a prominent ex-evangelical and scholar who writes frequently on the subject, told me she’s wary of this kind of anti-theism. “It’s not patient-centered,” she said. “It’s imposing something externally, and that’s not what therapists are supposed to do.” And yet, “a lot of people have found Recovering From Religion helpful because there was no other sure way to find somebody who wasn’t going to devalue the experience of being harmed by Christianity.”
Anderson and Peck stressed that the Religious Trauma Institute is not anti-theist. Peck worries a strictly secular approach to religious trauma can have unintended consequences, “that they assume secular folks are safer and OK.” A wide range of ideologies and relationships can cause trauma, whether religious or not, he said. He believes religious trauma syndrome has been co-opted by the atheist movement to discredit religion.
“We don’t want to say that religion is universally harmful and dismiss it out of hand,” Peck said.
“We would both rather have a therapist who is trauma trained and happens to be a Christian than a secular therapist who is not trauma trained,” said Anderson.
When I spoke to ex-evangelicals about their therapists’ religious identities, most said the therapist’s ability to do their job well was most important, regardless of personal beliefs. But that’s not to say the therapists’ beliefs were irrelevant.
Noah Barker, an ex-evangelical who left his conservative church as a teenager after being publicly humiliated by his Sunday school teacher, wanted to see a secular therapist for his religious trauma, but he couldn’t find one. The first therapist he visited had a Psalms verse hanging in her office. “I thought, I don’t think this is the right place for me right now,” Barker said. Barker eventually found a therapist he was comfortable with—a Christian who was willing to talk about Barker’s skepticism. “A lot of what he did, and what probably helped me the most, was just validating how fucked up what happened to me in church was,” he said.
Erin Dirkson found her therapist, a Christian, while she still considered herself to be Christian, and she chose him because he was trauma-informed. She had a good experience but often encourages other ex-evangelicals to check out the Secular Therapy Project because religious therapists might inadvertently trigger them. “They’ll say something like, ‘Oh, that wasn’t the right interpretation,’ or ‘You just grew up in a very dogmatic denomination,’” said Dirkson. “They come across as very dismissive for somebody who has decided to leave completely.”
“Survivors who go to some Christian-identified therapists who aren’t trained in religious trauma can become retraumatized,” said Kathryn Keller, the Dallas-based therapist. Keller, who identifies as a Christian, has had potential clients decline to work with her because of her faith. But she’s also had clients who chose her because they felt safer with a Christian therapist.
Keller’s evangelical background has helped her approach some religious trauma clients in a culturally sensitive way. She knows, for example, that many evangelical clients may prickle at the suggestion that they meditate because meditation is often viewed as ungodly or Satanic.
Keller also stressed that it’s important for therapists to recognize how different identities intersect with religious trauma. “Gender is a huge one,” she said. “And ethnicity, race, sexual or affectional orientation.” Clients who grew up in a white evangelical church environment will likely have different traumas than those who grew up in a Black church. LGBTQ clients, who she estimates make up 30 percent of her clients, might struggle with internalized homophobia or transphobia, or they may have been subjected to conversion therapy.
Of course, many ex-evangelicals aren’t able to find a religious trauma therapist at all. Stephanie Pizzo sought therapy to process her childhood trauma, which stemmed in large part from her abusive father and her conservative Pentecostal community. But her therapist tiptoed around any area having to do with religion, telling her instead to focus on the good parts of her faith. Pizzo has been unable to find a religion-based trauma therapist, but she follows Anderson on social media and says she has found community and support there among other ex-evangelicals. “It’s unfortunate that it’s just social media and it can’t be a community thing in person,” said Pizzo. “You know how there are AA groups and [Narcotics Anonymous] groups? I would love to have our own little groups. All of us could probably talk for hours.”
Williamson doesn’t know if her therapist is Christian, but she says she never thought to ask because the therapist is good at her job. “She’s invested in helping me find things that are spiritually fulfilling to me, whether in or out of the confines of Christianity, and that’s what I needed,” said Williamson.
Now, for the first time in years, Williamson is no longer bothered by the question of whether there is a God or what kind of Christian she should be. She doesn’t need the answers right now.
“I tried to find a version of God I could live with,” she said. “I just recently realized I don’t have to live with it.”
Stephanie Russell-Kraft is a reporter covering
the intersections of religion, culture, law, and gender.