“God, Sometimes You Don’t Come Through”: The Presentation of Religious Trauma Syndrome Through Rock Music
– Part I –


Maggie Parker

“Audience enjoying a concert” by Yvette de Wit / Wikimedia CC0

This is the first installment of a three-part essay that explores the way in which rock musicians are using their music as a way of working through religious trauma. Through the exploration of the connection of Religious Trauma Syndrome to Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the idea is that music can be therapeutic to victims of traumatic religious experiences, just as music is a therapeutic technique used for individuals coping with PTSD. The first part provides an introduction to the piece as a whole and dives into providing the reader with background information about Religious Trauma Syndrome, a term only recently coined by a psychologist by the name of Marlene Winell. The second part explains the connection between music and religious trauma by exploring music as a form of catharsis as well as the connection between religious trauma and PTSD. This final part provides insight into what needs to be done in the future to help victims suffering through religious trauma.

Introduction

“In the case of fundamentalist beliefs, people expect that choosing to leave a childhood faith is like giving up Santa Claus—a little sad but basically a matter of growing up. But in reality, religious indoctrination can be hugely damaging, and making the break from an authoritarian kind of religion can definitely be traumatic” (BABCP). In the twenty-first century, a record number of people are having the experience of trauma related to their religious upbringing. According to a Lifeway Research Survey conducted in 2017, “66% of Americans between the ages of 23 and 30 years old said they stopped attending church on a regular basis for at least one year or more.”

Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) was a term coined by Marlene Winell in 2011. Winell is a popular educator and writer who has done psychological research on human development, and she decided to research religious trauma after her own experiences. She became a licensed psychologist and began to explore the changes that adolescents go through as they age. Most of her work revolves around personal growth and healing, as she teaches about “thriving and not surviving.” According to Winell, RTS “is the process by which individuals are unable to cope with how religion and their religious community has treated them, or the trauma of leaving one’s religious identity behind them.”

This disorder is a new concept that has arisen out of many psychologists’ work with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it is one that many psychologists are increasingly beginning to pay attention to. Though the concept is still being studied and developed, one common theme emerges: the idea that those who go through this trauma turn to music as a way of coping due to the inherent cathartic power of music. This idea can be seen through the lens of the music of certain musicians today such as Brendon Urie, Tori Amos, Lucky Daye, and Sinéad O’Connor. These artists all experienced some form of religious trauma growing up, and due to that, they are using their music and lyrics as a way to work through their experiences with religious trauma.

In the past couple of decades, the number of people turning away from the church, especially youth, is significantly increasing. According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey, the following statistics are reported:

Americans by the millions are making an exodus from their faith. The number of people who affiliate themselves with “No religion” has nearly doubled from 1990 to 2008. The 18.7 million people who fall in this gap have presumably come from mainline Protestant, Baptist, and Catholic churches, which have lost 12.7 million believers during the same timeframe.

As previously discussed, it is my belief that one of the main reasons for this pattern is Religious Trauma Syndrome (also referred to as “post-traumatic church syndrome”). As the percentage of those who identify as “none” is increasing, so too is the idea that religion is becoming more brainwashing and damaging. As I have already pointed out, RTS is one of the most unrecognized psychological disorders in the United States today. I think that one of the places where RTS is most visible is in the current world of music, as there are now many examples of rock musicians who have publicly renounced their religious upbringings because of their traumatic experiences and who now identify as non-religious.

Moving forward, I want to focus on the idea that the lyrics of certain musicians should be looked at through the lens of religious trauma. The way that these artists have created their music and its lyrics, as well as the way that they have used certain depictions in their music videos, makes the listener think about religion in a different light. My intention is to shed light on the fact that religious trauma, as unknown as it may seem, is actually presented right in front of us in music that we listen to every day. Music is a key coping mechanism for those experiencing RTS, and this proves that RTS should be taken seriously by therapists and psychologists around the world. The traumatic religious experiences of these musicians and the way that they are using their lyrics to work through said trauma should be taken as an indicator to point out the strong connection between religious trauma and the cathartic value of music.

Religious Trauma Syndrome

If one were to attempt to look up RTS in any psychological disorder handbook, they would see that it is absent. At the beginning of 2019, The New York Times published an article entitled “When Religion Leads to Trauma,” in which Richard Schiffman discusses the traumatic effect of religion. This article was one of many that first began to discuss religious trauma, something that had before been an unrecognized condition.1 More articles about religious trauma can be found at: “The sad, twisted truth about conservative Christianity’s effect on the mind,” Salon.com
“What is Religious Trauma Syndrome,” World Religion News
“The Health Effects of Leaving Religion,” The Atlantic.
In fact, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, RTS is not mentioned―religion and spirituality are simply grouped under the category “problems related to other psychosocial, personal, and environmental circumstances.”

Beginning with this NYT article, awareness began to grow about religious trauma. The article addresses the fact that is often overlooked that the church can actually be traumatic. As observed by Schiffman, “You won’t find this condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMMD), which clinicians use to make their diagnoses. But the term has been gaining currency with psychotherapists, counselors, and others who work with people who are recovering from the harmful effects of religious indoctrination.” The reality of the situation, however, is that those who come from a very restrictive religious environment are often left with PTSD-like symptoms, including anxiety, depression, and paranoia, even after they free themselves from such an environment.

The traumatic religious experiences of these musicians and the way that they are using their lyrics to work through said trauma should be taken as an indicator to point out the strong connection between religious trauma and the cathartic value of music.

In this article, Schiffman uses examples of organizations that are helping RTS victims work through their trauma. One of the pastors of the churches, Michael Walrond Jr., states, “We think of church as a place of healing and transformation, and it is, but in reality, religion has been more bruising and damaging than healing and transformative.” His church, First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, is working toward creating environments in which those who have suffered religious trauma can begin to rebuild their lives. His church piloted the H.O.P.E. program, a free psychiatric clinic for those experiencing religious trauma, which I will talk about in more detail later. Overall, the H.O.P.E. center encourages the use of self-meditation and utilizes open dialogue within church services. For the purposes of this paper, I want to focus on the definition of RTS as presented by Marlene Winell. Winell began to research and explore the idea of religious trauma after her own personal experiences with leaving her faith behind that left her with feelings of suffering, confusion, fear, guilt, and anger. Having grown up in a very conservative Christian household, Winell explains the idea that her parents were often abusive and would not let her create her own theological ideas while she lived under her parents’ roof. As a young child, Winell was raised in a household that emphasized the second coming of Jesus and the Rapture, which led Winell to be particularly stuck on the idea of life after the Rapture. Her parents emphasized that in order to be saved from the Rapture, Christian girls were to act a certain way which included dressing conservatively, not dancing, only participating in “good, clean fun,” and praying during any free time during the day.

As Winell grew older, she discovered that her beliefs did not add up with her parents’ beliefs, so she decided to begin exploring other faiths. This resulted in her being ostracized by her parents as well as her friends that she had grown up with in the church. This experience led her to publish her most well-known book in 1994, Leaving the Fold, in which she outlines her personal experience living with fundamentalist Christian parents and her traumatic experience with the transition that she went through while a teenager and into college.

In this book, Winell officially coined the term “Religious Trauma Syndrome.” Winell explains that oftentimes, RTS goes unnoticed because many people overlook the fact that turning away from one’s religion can be, in reality, a very traumatic experience. Winell states:

We have in our society an assumption that religion is for the most part benign or good for you. Therapists, like others, expect that if you stop believing, you just quit going to church, putting it in the same category as not believing in Santa Claus. Some people also consider religious beliefs childish, so you just grow out of them, simple as that. Therapists often don’t understand fundamentalism, and they even recommend spiritual practices as part of therapy. In general, people who have not survived an authoritarian fundamentalist indoctrination do not realize what a complete mind-rape it really is.

Instead of being seen as something that does not leave a feeling of trauma in individuals who have gone through such a life change, religious trauma needs to be taken as seriously as PTSD. She also gives advice on how to cope with one’s trauma, and she explains the steps to recovery. Later in 2011, she officially coined the term “Religious Trauma Syndrome” after her continued research in psychological health. Winell defines it as “the condition experienced by people who are struggling to leave an authoritarian, dogmatic religion, and coping with the damage of indoctrination . . . RTS is a function of both chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith.”

In an interview done for Journey Free, the organization started by Winell to help individuals cope with their religious trauma, Winell explains that she enjoys working with what she terms “reclaimers,” referring to individuals who have moved out of a toxic religious environment. These individuals are working to release these beliefs and reclaim their lives, in addition to redefining what religion means to them. More specifically, the group focuses on a variety of activities that they present to their patients, which encourages the patients to share their stories in order to gain confidence and rebuild their self-worth.

It is important to note that religious trauma can come in a variety of different forms. For some, it can mean being abused by their parents for not attending church. For others, it can be equated to mental abuse about ideals and beliefs that were ingrained into these individuals in some fashion. According to Exline, “Religious themes often surround trauma. Some victims suffered sexual abuse from church leaders, whereas others blamed God for allowing a loved one to die.”2https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15327582ijpr1501_2?journalCode=hjpr20 It is important to focus on the effects of religious trauma due to the fact that for many, as stated earlier, therapists will encourage the use of religion as a way of coping. However, if part of a victim’s trauma is due to religion, then this may in fact worsen their symptoms or their trauma overall. For Exline, “Asking individuals to draw on religious beliefs, or to write in a manner that includes religious themes, may lead to increased emotional arousal for some―also non-religious clients may feel pressured, misunderstood, or offended by directives to frame their experiences in a religious fashion.”3https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15327582ijpr1501_2?journalCode=hjpr20 If clients who are in therapy due to religious trauma are asked to use religion in their therapy writing, instead of therapy being a positive experience for them, it can actually turn out to be a further stressor.

Instead of being seen as something that does not leave a feeling of trauma in individuals who have gone through such a life change, religious trauma needs to be taken as seriously as PTSD.

Though it may sound like PTSD, RTS is strictly a condition caused by traumatic religious experiences. It is important to point out that RTS can take a variety of forms and can combine with other traumas. In victims who experience RTS, there may be trauma linked to other traumatic life experiences, however in the case of RTS, religion remains at the core of the victim’s trauma. Many of the symptoms of RTS are similar to those of PTSD, which is why RTS has remained largely undiagnosed. According to the British Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapies, “the symptoms compare most easily with PTSD, which results from experiencing or being confronted with death or serious injury and causing feelings of terror, helplessness, or horror.” They also state, “Like PTSD, the impact is long-lasting, with intrusive thoughts, negative emotional states, impaired social functioning, and other problems.”

RTS remains largely invisible due to the fact that there are usually pressures from friends or family to return to the repressive system that victims are attempting to escape. Instead of receiving support and sympathy from those around them, RTS survivors are often ridiculed, nagged, and neglected to a point of guilt. This in turn causes them to re-think leaving the environment that they had worked so hard to get out of, and the end result becomes that they do in fact end up returning. ♦


Maggie Parker graduated Summa Cum Laude from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia in December 2019. This fall, she will be attending Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia where she will obtain her Masters in Divinity degree with a specialization in community engagement. Her publication was inspired by her interest in the connections between psychology, religion, and popular culture.