Examples of Toxic Theology and Religious Trauma Syndrome


"My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told symbolic stories and we are now dumb enough to take them literally."

John Dominic Crossan, New Testament scholar,
historian of early Christianity, and former Catholic priest


"The most important thing I learned in seminary is this... when talking about theology, nobody knows what they're talking about."

Dr. Terri Daniel, founder, The Conference on Death, Grief and Belief

These examples illustrate how toxic theology can express itself in people's lives.
But more importantly perhaps is that these stories show
how the religious trauma and negative religious coping is informed
by the ways in which people interpret their inherited or chosen theologies



Gerald was raised in a Pentecostal church in a small southern town. He was not allowed to socialize outside the church community, nor did he have access to radio, television or secular reading material. Even Christian music and religious television programming was forbidden. Gerald was home-schooled, and for as long as he can recall, he was taught that only the people within his insulated religious community were saved, and everybody outside was going to hell, unless they could be converted. He recalls listening to sermons in church and lectures from his family about demons and burning for eternity. He now considers that community to be a religious cult.

Gerald’s younger sister was sexually abused by their grandfather and also by other male church members, as were other girls in the community, including Gerald’s mother.

When Gerald got older and it was discovered that he was gay, the community attributed it to demonic possession, and multiple exorcisms were performed. Demonic possession was the reason for any behavior that did not conform with the community’s rigid expectations.

Gerald was able to escape the church as a young adult, but at age 50, he still struggles with guilt and images of God as a punishing parent. Throughout his adult life he felt that God was punishing him for every “bad thought” he’d have, and for his “sinful behaviors.” He has struggled to establish a functional life for himself, but has been unable establish a fulfilling career or a stable intimate relationship. When a job would be lost, or a relationship ended, Gerald could not process the loss without feeling that the loss was a punishment from God.


At age 11 Lorrainna was removed from her family home after being repeatedly raped by her stepfather. She was sent to live with her grandmother, who belonged to a Jehovah’s Witness sect that ignores sexual abuse claims by relying on the requirement in Deuteronomy 19:15 that there must be at least two witnesses in order to convict someone of a crime.

Even though Lorrainna was in the foster care system and her case was managed by a social worker, the grandmother was conflicted about taking Lorrainna to therapy because the elders in her church saw it as disobedience to the law that required witnesses to the abuse. Eventually the grandmother did allow Lorrainna to see a therapist, but hid this fact from her religious community.

Melissa and Carl

Melissa and Carl were part of a Buddhist sangha in a rural community for several years. The couple lived for 30 years in a beautiful house they'd designed and built on 10 country acres that they'd landscaped and developed together.  Melissa's life revolved around the house, the gardens and the land. But after Carl's death, due to legal issues with his adult children from a previous marriage, Melissa lost the property. At 67 years old, she has no money, no assets, and nowhere to go, and moved in to a small apartment in the city with her sister. It was a devastating loss, but she didn't feel that it was appropriate to express sadness, anger or fear, because she wanted to practice the Buddhist teachings on non-attachment, which she interpreted to mean that she shouldn't grieve.

Carol Ann 

Carol Ann was removed from the family home at nine years old after having been sexually abused by family members and friends of the family. She was placed in foster care, and began receiving counseling. She had tremendous anger, but her foster parents believed that anger was sin. Whenever Carol Ann expressed her anger, she was told that the anger was coming from the devil and she must fight against it and remain composed so as not to give Satan any power.


Donna’s only child Julianna died from leukemia at age 9 when Donna was in her early 40s.  Although she was open-minded about theology and explored a variety of different spiritual paths, she found it difficult to shake the idea that Julianna’s death was her punishment for having an abortion two decades earlier. She believed that God took Julianna in exchange for the fetus she aborted.


Kate tells the heartbreaking story about how all four of her children died over a 25-year period in separate, unrelated events. Her first child died soon after birth from a heart defect. One son died in a motorcycle accident, another in the Iraq war, and a daughter died of cancer. Kate’s exact words were, “I’ve always believed that if I pleased God, nothing tragic would happen to me. But now all I can think about is to wonder what I’ve done wrong and why I’m being punished. I don’t know what I did to make God angry. If I knew what it was, I could correct it, but I don’t know, so how can I ever find peace?”


Paul was a devoted follower of the 2006 book (and movie) The Secret, and believed passionately in his ability to create his own reality by using positive thoughts to manifest what he desired. He spent many hours meditating, setting intentions, and making "vision boards" with images of the abundance he wanted to create. He even engaged in the practice of writing checks to himself in the amounts of money he hoped to acquire, and signing the checks from "the universe."  He wanted what most people want..  a happy marriage, a beautiful house, and a stable income.

When none of these things came through as expected (his wife left him and his house went into foreclosure in 2008), he berated himself for "not manifesting properly." He believed that he'd caused these losses by allowing too many negative thoughts to enter his energy field, and felt that he'd failed at his spiritual practice.


While many of the above-mentioned definitions seem to point to Christian doctrines and biblical fundamentalism, it is interesting to note that even within conservative Christian circles there are discussions about toxic theology. A page on the website for The 700 Club lists “Signs of Toxic Religion” that actually echo some of the characteristics described above, but from an exclusively Christian perspective, attributing these qualities to an infusion of “dangerous thinking.”[1] Although their list condemns those who "hold self-righteous views, refuse to embrace change, and will not associate with other believers who embrace different standards," it seems they are essentially reflecting their own intolerance, as expressed, for example, in their objection to Christians practicing yoga.

700 Club founder Pat Robertson has publicly stated that yoga is dangerous for Christians because it “tricks people into speaking in Hindu and praying to a Hindu deity.”[2] Robertson’s stance against yoga is supported by many Christian extremists, including a woman named Laurette Willis, who believes that the “New Age lifestyle” (and yoga in particular) is fraught with spiritual pitfalls.[3]

To address the growing popularity of these practices, Laurette created a program called Praise Moves as a “Christian alternative to yoga.”[4] Even though she appropriates the traditional yoga postures (but renames them after scripture passages), she believes that yoga postures are offerings to Hindu gods, which are false idols. She explains that Christians don’t avoid yoga out of fear, but out of wisdom, and out of love for those who are “not as spiritually mature as we are.”[5]

Her ideas qualify as an expression of toxic theology on multiple counts, including policies of separatism, restricted access to outside sources of information and limiting spiritual experience to merely accepting beliefs and doctrines.


[1] J. Lee Grady, “The Warning Signs of Toxic Religion,” CBN.Com - The Christian Broadcasting Network. http://www1.cbn.com/spirituallife/the-warning-signs-of-toxic-religion.
[2]  David Pakman. "Pat Robertson: Yoga Tricks People Into Speaking 'In Hindu'." YouTube. February 27, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0j2z4Y6gB8.
[3] Holly Vicente Robaina. "The Truth About Yoga." Today's Christian Woman. March 01, 2005. http://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2005/march/truth-about-yoga.html.
[4] “PraiseMoves | The Christian ALTERNATIVE to Yoga!”  https://praisemoves.com/.
[5] “PraiseMoves | The Christian ALTERNATIVE to Yoga!” https://praisemoves.com/about-praisemoves/why-a-christian-alternative-to-yoga/concerning-things-offered-to-idolsouch/

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