Toxic Theology and Religious Trauma Syndrome:
What is Toxic Theology ?
Definitions from theologians, researchers and psychologists
A healthy engagement with a spiritual dimension -- through meditation, ritual or community liturgy -- should produce a positive effect on emotional health and well-being. But for many people, childhood religious indoctrination and the image of God as a punishing father figure can be terrifying and psychologically damaging. Doctrines of salvation and atonement, while sometimes capable of offering healing and hope, are equally capable of producing guilt, fear, confusion and humiliation. When individuals feel that they are under the constant supervision of an irrational god who randomly dispenses joy or sorrow, reward or punishment, it can create lifelong feelings of powerlessness, unworthiness and enduring shame.
Researcher Janet Heimlich, in her book Breaking Their Will, explores how religion can often function as an authoritarian culture that creates terror among followers. She identifies characteristics in religious authoritarian systems that include literal interpretation of scripture as the source of absolute rule, and the threat of punishment for non-conformity. Children raised in this mindset fail to develop critical thinking skills and intellectual autonomy, and when presented with an image of God as a frightening entity, can grow up projecting their fear of God onto the world at large, perceiving everything outside the immediate religious community as dangerous evil and suspicious.
Heimlich, J. Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2011
Tarico and Winnell identify these characteristics:
. An authoritarian power hierarchy that demands obedience
. Policies of separatism
. Restricted access to outside sources of information
. A threat-based reality (hell, punishment, catastrophic end times).
. Psychological mind-control techniques that encourage isolation
Valerie Tarico and Marlene Winell, “The Sad, Twisted Truth about Conservative Christianity’s Effect on the Mind. Salon.Com, last modified November 1, 2014.
In her research on Toxic Theology as a Contributing Factor in Complicated Grief, Dr. Terri Daniel identifies these characteristics:
. Followers are held to a rigid, static system of beliefs.
. Questioning and exploration is discouraged.
. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion or disdain.
. Religious pluralism is unacceptable.
. Biblical texts are interpreted literally.
. God is seen as an authoritarian parental figure.
. A belief that God rewards piety and faithfulness.
. Behaviors/beliefs not in line with strict doctrines are punished by God.
. Natural disasters, epidemics and community tragedies are curses from God.
Daniel, T. (2019). Toxic Theology as a Contributing Factor in Complicated Mourning. Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, 73(4), 196–204.
Psychologist David G. Benner says that theology is toxic when it limits spiritual experience to merely accepting beliefs and doctrines, and when it separates us from our bodies and our emotions, which causes a separation from our humanity and from life itself.
Toxic Spirituality | Dr. David G Benner,” http://www.drdavidgbenner.ca/toxic-spirituality/.
What is Religious Trauma Syndrome?
Dr. Marlene Winnell, in her book, Leaving the Fold, describes Religious Trauma Syndrome as follows:
Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle. RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD).
Religious Trauma Syndrome has a very recognizable set of symptoms, a definitive set of causes, and a debilitating cycle of abuse:
Cognitive: Confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability & self-worth, black & white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making
Emotional: Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning
Social: Loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks
Cultural: Unfamiliarity with secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g. evolution, modern art, music)
Relational: Problems with family and friends due to religion, loss of social support system
Developmental: delayed areas of human development due to religious isolation and conformity, including critical thinking, decision-making, identity formation, emotional regulation, healthy sexuality, social skills, creativity, self-efficacy, and meaning in life
Many people leaving religion have had enough Toxic Religious Experience (TRE) to produce symptoms of complex PTSD, which is “trauma” in the more clinical sense. Like other trauma, religious trauma can produce anxiety in the form of emotional flashbacks, which can look like panic attacks, among other responses.
Related to all of these issues is the fact that authoritarian religions teach two basic and powerfully toxic messages: “You are not okay” and “You are not safe.” Recovery from religious harm involves healing from these deep assumptions, often indoctrinated from birth, and reconstructing a whole new worldview. This is a huge, multidimensional task, since religion can seem to define all of reality.
Religious harm or Toxic Religious Experience is rarely a single event, although many sufferers may focus on singular horrifying events such as watching a movie about the End Times. More often it is an accumulation of exposure to teachings (e.g. hellfire, original sin) and practices (e.g. severe corporal punishment, isolation) that create the damage.
What Might a Healthy Theology Look Like?
In his book Life After Death: The Burden of Proof, Deepak Chopra describes the difference between a society that is empowered by its spirituality vs. a society with fear-based beliefs in unworthiness, shame and sin:
- People feel they deserve punishment rather than healing
- A culture believes in the Satan myth
- Believers pay attention to that myth and give it value
- Guilt is projected outward onto demons instead of healed inside
- Wrongdoing accumulates without a means for forgiveness, atonement or purification.
- .Children are put in fear of demons and told that these demons have supernatural powers.
- People feel they deserve healing instead of punishment
- A culture is aware of how myths are made
- People are self-aware and take responsibility for their own emotions
- There is a belief in forgiveness, healing and atonement
- Outlets for negative energies are found (through therapy, sports, open dialog, healthy family dynamics, education, etc.
- Children are not conditioned to believe in demons and other supernatural enemies
- Society promotes the evolution of consciousness.
Chopra, Deepak. Life After Death: The Burden of Proof. New York: Harmony Books, 2006. , p. 75
To stay informed about our workshops, conferences and events,
please join our email list