Religious Trauma Syndrome – It’s time to recognise it

It just so happened that a day before I read Dr Marlene Winell’s article, which I borrowed the title from; I was discussing the very same issue with two of my ex-Christian friends. The other friend wrote about how he still struggles to come to terms with the loss of his Christian faith, and during the early years of his de-conversion his “struggle was dominated by anger, frustration, doubt and fear”. I also remember discussing this very same issue with another ex-Christian I know, who was adamant that any teaching of hell should be illegalized and children should not be exposed to it because of the psychological effect it may have on them. Throughout my time reading ex-Christian testimonies, one detail has always been common – they struggled to come terms with their de-conversion. Recently I wrote this article in response to ex-Christians’ relief from their struggle against de-conversion, which I now realise I should done more to qualify what I said in there, and I’m hoping to do just that with this article, while also responding to Dr Winell’s article.

Dr Winell describes RTS (Religious Trauma Syndrome) as “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. The symptoms compare most easily with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which results from experiencing or being confronted with death or serious injury which causes feelings of terror, helplessness, or horror. This can be a single event or chronic abuse of some kind. With RTS, there is chronic abuse, especially of children, plus the major trauma of leaving the fold. Like PTSD, the impact of RTS is long-lasting, with intrusive thoughts, negative emotional states, impaired social functioning, and other problems. With RTS, the trauma is two-fold. First, the actual teachings and practices of a restrictive religion can be toxic and create life-long mental damage……..Second, departing a religious fold adds enormous stress as an individual struggles with leaving what amounts to one world for another. This usually involves significant and sudden loss of social support while facing the task of reconstructing one’s life.”

Let me say that RTS is horrible, and I feel bad for people going through it. But also to highlight the fact that ex-Christians or atheists are not the only people who have to go through RTS, even though RTS is usually associated with those who have left religion altogether, i.e. atheists. As a Christian who researches the plight of Christians all over the world, I am aware that many Christians are going through RTS. Do you know that if you are born into an Orthodox Jew family and decide to convert to Christianity (become a Messianic Jew) then you can be disowned by your family and kicked out of the neighbourhood? It’s even worse if you are born in a Muslim family and convert to Christianity, because you can be killed by your own family members, in what we know as honour killings, so the family’s name cannot be shamed. So RTS definitely doesn’t only apply to atheists, but it can apply to every person who decides to change his religious status, even those who leave atheism for religion. You only have to look at the treatment that Anthony Flew got from atheists when he acknowledged Intelligent Design to know that RTS applies widely, even amongst ex-atheists. Flew who was widely declared the most intelligent atheist of the 20th century, ended up being labelled a man “in a serious state of mental decline”, and Flew himself wrote about the “extraordinary offensive” letter he received from atheists making “egregiously offensive charge” against him, only because he left atheism for theism. Even though RTS is usually presented as “nasty religious people getting back at those who leave their sect”, we have the wisdom to know that the non-religious people do exactly the same thing to those who also leave their sect.

I’m not a psychologist, but I know that there is trauma that is caused by separation, without anybody adding to the problem. I know that it’s traumatic to lose your loved ones to death without anybody mocking you for it, or that it’s traumatic to divorce from a spouse that you still love even if that spouse is supportive. This trauma, I believe, is one that we can’t blame another person for, although it’s normal for humans to do exactly the opposite. I find it odd that Dr Winell implies that we shouldn’t get involved in religion because one day we may have to leave it and it would be traumatic to do so. It’s like saying you shouldn’t be married because you might divorce one day which will get you so traumatised you’ll need therapy, or like saying you should not get too close to other people because they will one day die and you’ll be traumatised. It just doesn’t make sense!

The problem with Dr Winell is that she’s looking at this issue from a totally atheistic view, which clouds her judgement. She is taking a very sensitive issue like RTS that needs a whole lot of psychological attention than it’s getting at the moment, and she’s using it to advance atheistic agenda. If having a religion is the cause of RTS, then it means we should all strive to be atheists, right? That sounds good, until you realise that ex-atheists go through the same trauma as well, as we saw with Anthony Flew. I don’t want to come across as though I’m defending religion, because I hate religion, and religion has caused more pain and suffering in this world than anything else, but so has atheism. As such RTS should not be used to settle battles between atheists and religious people, as both religious and non-religious people suffer from RTS, so ignore Dr Winell’s statement: “Isn’t religion supposed to be helpful, or at least benign?”

Let me address ex-Christians who are going through RTS. Firstly, as a Christian I acknowledge the fact that more than 90% (I can go as far as 95%) of Christian churches are cults, regardless of their denomination, according to the biblical definition of cults which is preaching a different Gospel to the one preached by Jesus and the apostles (see Galatians 1:8). I also acknowledge the fact that all Christian denominations have biblical flaws that are clear to everybody who are not part of that particular denomination in question, yet they are denied within the denomination. Although these flaws can be apparent on minor biblical issues, hence we have different denominations in the first place. Having said that, I can assure you that there are definitely hypocrites in every Christian church in the world, with most churches having more hypocrites than authentic Christians, but you probably know all this. So it’s a mathematic fact that most ex-Christians suffering from RTS were part of a cult, and were subsequently surrounded by hypocrites during their whole time as Christians. If this is true with you, then how could you not suffer from RTS?

I used to be part of a doctrinally sound church, with minor flaws, but full of hypocrites, and I nearly lost my mind until I had the guts to leave it. So I do sympathise with ex-Christians going through RTS, and my heart bleeds whenever I read their testimonies because I know they are not lying or pretending to feel the pain. The reason why I’m not an ex-Christian like you are, even though we went through the same situation, is because I was raised by an authentic Christian, so it was easy for me to recognise a fake from that which was authentic. This is another issue that I think causes ex-Christians to suffer from RTS. Most ex-Christians were raised by parents who themselves were Christian hypocrites, or suffered from the effects of cultic behaviour from their churches. Why wouldn’t you be an ex-Christian when the only Christianity you knew was hypocritical, cultic, senseless and judgemental, yet you were still expected to go to the same church and embrace the same belief? Your anger, pain, frustration, doubt and fear are understandable, and I wish you can find peace from it all.

However, I want to tell you why I’m still a Christian when I know of the cultic, hypocritical and judgemental behaviour of Christians and their churches. I understood Jesus when He said He will “separate the sheep from the goats” (see Matthew 25:33), not now but on Judgement Day. I also understood the bible when it said people will be judged based on the Law (Ten Commandments) (see Romans 2:12). Having read this Law, (see Exodus 20) I realised that I broke it, and I will give account of myself to God, and everybody else will stand alone and give account to God. But the bible told me the good news, it said God desired righteousness (perfect obeying of the Law) that I didn’t have, but I can inherit this righteousness from Jesus as He perfectly obeyed the Law (see Romans 3:21-22). Now all I do is hold on to this Jesus’ righteousness, whether or not my church is cultic, hypocritical or judgemental. I have since realised that the matter is between me and God, and it has nothing to do with what hypocrites do.

There’s a phrase commonly used in civil law, it says “hardship is not an excuse for homicide”. I know you are suffering from RTS, but you still have a case to answer to God, and Ten Commandments will be used to determine your destiny. I plead with you to inherit Jesus’ perfect obedience of the Ten Commandments and your case against God will be dismissed.  



  1. The Turning of an Atheist, Mark Oppenheimer, New York Times Magazine, 11/4/07



1 Comment »

  1. John said

    I believed exactly what you do. Except you never know if you’re believing enough, or have accepted it enough, or if you’re truly saved, etc. It didn’t give me comfort, it freaked me out beyond belief, and I’m still dealing with it, 3 years later!

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