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

Maggie Parker

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

This is the second 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 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 provided the reader with background information about Religious Trauma Syndrome, a term only recently coined by a psychologist by the name of Marlene Winell. This 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. The final part provides insight into what needs to be done in the future to help victims suffering through religious trauma.

Music and 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, Religious Trauma Syndrome 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 everyday. 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.

In Closing of the American Mind, author Allan Bloom states, “Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music … Today, a very large proportion of young people between the ages of ten and twenty live for music. It is their passion; nothing else excites them as it does; they cannot take seriously anything alien to music.” This was especially the case in the post-World War II era, as music became a place of refuge for many teens who were questioning the role of religion in their lives. The 1960s saw an increase in teenagers and young adults who desperately wanted to break away from the cultural mainstream. Music, especially rock music, became a way of expressing one’s individual culture. For many teens, music represented a rejection of dominant cultural values that they wanted to separate themselves from. J.R. Howard explains:

For much of America’s youth rock and roll would seem to remain a source of faith, hope, and refuge, and it is the first and best medium for carrying creative and powerful stories about the things that count most in their daily lives…by offering a rejection of dominant cultural values . . . rock and roll provides its audiences with the opportunity to create identities through difference. . . . [Further,] rock music nevertheless allows individual listeners to coalesce into subcultures that see themselves as somehow separate from and/or in opposition to mainstream social values. 

In an era full of fundamentalist Christianity, teens were becoming more drawn to rock music as a way of redefining their identity. It was not long before rock music was viewed as the enemy in the eyes of fundamentalist Christians. Howard comments:

Despite its gospel roots, rock and roll was quickly distanced from religion, with each side antagonistic toward the other. For their part, the teenagers who constituted the music’s intended audience began to react “against everything they perceived as aligned with the stuffy, restrictive adult world,” including the church. Rock and roll provided the soundtrack to this rebellion.

Out of this rebellion came the rise of new subcultures in which teens were redefining their identities―and in particular, their religion―based upon the music that they were listening to. Rock and roll became a way for teens to begin to recreate youth culture in a post-war era. As Robin Sylvan puts it, “Rock and roll developed distinctive stylistic articulations of this rebellious youth energy into coherent cultural expressions.” While turning away from their collective religious cultures, these teens were forming new subcultures with other fans who were dedicated and interested in the same music. Additionally, for many, listening to rock music became their new way of worshipping. As Robin Sylvan explains:

A good portion of their time was spent with other fans, listening to the music, discussing subjects related to the group, and engaging in social activities like dances where the music of their group was played, or even going to live shows, if they were fortunate enough. In short, they were spontaneously forming their own subculture devoted to a particular song or band. These subcultures had powerful . . . religious dimensions . . . because they were deifying their musical heroes and engaging in what might be described as a form of worship.

In addition, many different bands throughout the years have discussed how their music has been influenced positively or negatively by religion. For some, their music was their religion. Bands and musicians such as The Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffet, and PHISH created a new environment of followers that became the community of support that they had previously sought through religion. Even though many teens originally rebelled against those who imposed religious values upon them, they began to return to communities that gathered around shared passions, such as music.

Music presents an alternative approach for individuals who are struggling to get the help they need through traditional, cognitive-based therapy techniques.

What I want to focus on here, however, is the idea that certain musicians have utilized their music as a way of actually coping with their religious trauma, in addition to redefining their identities. Due to its similarity to PTSD, I argue that music and the artistic experience of creating it is a key coping strategy for musicians suffering through religious trauma. This is evident in the way that certain musicians write about and incorporate religion into their lyrics. In fact, many different bands and artists over the years have explained why their music depicts religious elements in these particular ways. Many of these same bands and artists have openly discussed their apparent traumatic experiences with religion.

Though there are many examples of artists who have been burned by religion, for the purposes of this paper, I want to focus on the ways in which Tori Amos, Brendon Urie, and Sinéad O’Connor have used their lyrics as a way of working through their personal experiences with religious trauma. These artists serve as the focus of this paper due to their own personal battles and the visible backlash they received from the media due to being open about their traumatic experiences with religion. For example, many criticized Sinéad O’Connor when she publicly ripped up a picture of the Pope due to religious trauma from her past. Similarly, Brendon Urie was criticized by many for using satanic imagery in his music videos, including Emperor’s New Clothes and LA Devotee, as a way of depicting his view of the modern church after how they treated him during his childhood.

The reason these artists use music as a medium for working through their trauma is due to the fact that music is a form of emotional catharsis. Music presents an alternative approach for individuals who are struggling to get the help they need through traditional, cognitive-based therapy techniques. In an article published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, Simon Faulkner explores the idea of how the use of music in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can positively impact those recovering from trauma. Faulkner argues that music, both listening to it and creating it, is a way for these victims to regain their self-confidence and focus on something other than their trauma. He states, “When introduced appropriately, clients can have immediate success playing simple, yet powerful, rhythms on the drum, and this [music] is a critical element in its usefulness as a clinical tool.” Faulkner continues by explaining the positive effects of this kind of therapy. He observes, “Introducing safe group music making can help clients to overcome the fear and hurt associated with their traumatic experience.”

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.

Faulkner also touches on the creation of a group called DRUMBEAT, which was designed as a way to meet the needs of trauma victims who were not succeeding through CBT. The purpose of the group was to use experimental therapy through rhythmic music, movement, and voice in order to meet the needs of a wider variety of trauma victims. Faulkner explains, “What began as a simple need to engage clients who would not attend my ‘talk oriented’ counseling sessions, has developed into a medium that has allowed me, and many others working in the trauma field, to work to address a range of presenting issues in a fun and effective way.” In connection to this, the inherent cathartic experience of music helps artists today to cope with the religious trauma that impacted them for years prior to their music-making.

Due to the similarities between Religious Trauma Syndrome and PTSD, music therapy should be evaluated as a solid approach to treating the trauma of victims experiencing RTS, especially since music has been proven to be effective in the treatment of trauma among victims of PTSD. In a study conducted by The British Psychological Society, group music therapy sessions were conducted with patients displaying PTSD symptoms for whom traditional CBT practices were continually proving to be unsuccessful. Patients were presented with the opportunity to listen to a variety of musical genres and create music using a variety of instruments. The therapy groups were held for ten weeks, and at the conclusion of the study, the data was collected based on the severity of PTSD symptoms displayed and the ways that the victims themselves felt about emotions, trust, and engagement.

The study found that “on average, patients reported a greater reduction at 10 weeks in symptom severity in the treatment group,” and “engagement, establishment of safety and trust, identification and expression of emotion, and capacity to tolerate particular sound qualities of instruments emerged after the treatment.” This means that music was in fact a cathartic experience for these individuals who were struggling to work through their trauma via traditional CBT practices. Therefore, it can be argued that music would prove to be an effective way to treat individuals working through RTS.

It is important to point out that music therapy is not a cure for PTSD, and it would not be a cure for RTS either. It is simply a means of identifying a problem in society where individuals are being traumatized by their religion. We see that they are turning to music as a way of “self medicating” due to its cathartic value. Since RTS is still not looked at as an actual condition according to the DSMMD, music has become a way for individuals to try to deal with their trauma on their own instead of through professional CBT practices that are often unsuccessful due to therapist’s limited knowledge of religious trauma.

Throughout this paper, it is important to raise awareness of RTS because in the future, it could be the case that when RTS is seen in the same light as PTSD as an actual disorder, then CBT practices might become more helpful. For now, those suffering through RTS are left to turn to one of the only things to help them work through their trauma: music. ♦

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.

Recommended Citation

Parker, Maggie. “‘God, Sometimes You Don’t Come Through’: The Presentation of Religious Trauma Syndrome Through Rock Music – Part II.” Canopy Forum, June 2, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/06/02/god-sometimes-you-dont-come-through-the-presentation-of-religious-trauma-syndrome-through-rock-music-part-2/