“God, Sometimes You Don’t Come Through”: The Presentation of Religious Trauma Syndrome Through Rock Music
– Part III –
This is the third 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 third part further explores the connection between religious trauma and rock music by providing a key case study of Brendon Urie and the way in which he has used his lyrics to cope with his own traumatic religious experiences. 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. The second part explained 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.
Brendon Urie, lead singer of Panic! At The Disco, is an American songwriter, singer, and musician best known for his somewhat raunchy lyrics and controversial music videos. Something that many do not know about Urie, though, is that at the root of his mental health problems stands long-running trauma with his religious past. Urie was born and raised in Utah to very conservative Mormon parents who did not allow him to express himself as he wished. He was often confined to staying at home at all hours of the day so that his parents could keep watch of him, and more often than not, he was forced to attend church services even when he was battling with himself and those around him over his own beliefs.
Urie’s experience with religious trauma has significantly contributed to the message of his music. The title of his most recent album, Pray for the Wicked, clearly alludes to a religious message. The title of this album was purposeful, as Urie wanted to use the songs on this record to describe his personal battle with RTS. It was through writing this music that Urie has been able to somewhat come to terms with the religious trauma that he experienced at a young age.
In an interview with Radio.com in June 2018, Urie explained that he purposefully included many religious elements and alluded to a lot of religious imagery in his 2018 album in his efforts to come to terms with his religious past. He explains that he grappled with the idea of the Mormon church and its ideals being ingrained in him as the “end all in which the order of things was God, Family, and then self, which for me just was not the way that I believed.” After leaving the church, Urie faced a lot of judgment from his own family and was shunned due to turning away from the system he had known his whole life.
Urie explains that the purpose of using the religious imagery in his videos and lyrics is working through the trauma of being shunned for having different beliefs than those around him, and he explains that his music has become a new religion for him and a new way of expressing his beliefs. He explains that the album has helped him to “romanticize memories about [his] traumatic childhood, instead of remembering the trauma of it all.”
In a similar interview conducted by GQ, Urie explains that he had to take a ten-year hiatus from religion in order to cope with what he had been through as a child, and it was only through returning to music that he was able to begin to work through his childhood trauma. The interviewer explains, “As a teenager, he knew two things: [h]e wanted to be a professional musician, and the Mormon faith wasn’t for him. It took a 10-year break from religion to allow him to return to it with his own set of rules. Now, he sees it as a catalyst for change.” It is through the use of his music that he is able to redefine what it meant to experience religion the way he did as a child, and it has allowed him to come to terms with the way that it affected his life.
Urie explains that his music has led to his own ability to work through the hate/malice that he created not only for himself, but also for those around him. He consistently uses the theatrical elements of his songs in order to lighten the mood of the music’s message. In this same interview, he describes the way in which his family reacted to him when he proclaimed his beliefs to them. He explains that his mom actually kicked him out of the house and told him to find his own way in the world.
Due to the newness of RTS, it is only recently that Brendon was able to understand why he felt such hate for those around him and why he felt unable to talk about religion for years. Once he was able to realize that religion was at the root of his trauma, he was then able to use his music as a way of working through that trauma. With lyrics such as, “I pray for the wicked on the weekend/ mama can I get another Amen,” and “this is Gospel for the fallen ones,” Urie is using the power of his music in order to continue to grapple with his mixed feelings and new opinions about religion. Urie states:
Now when I say “pray,” I’m not thinking of some omniscient being who is controlling stuff wearing a white beard and killing things when he wants to like we’re ants in a lab. For me, I think God is in all of us if there is a God. It’s more like talking to yourself or meditating. “Pray” is such a specific word with a stigma behind it. It means something else to me: I’m not pleading for anybody else to save me, I’m pleading for myself. Can I save myself and help others save themselves? That’s really what I want to accomplish.
In an era where there is an increase in the amount of people leaving the church, it is time to recognize that there is an underlying cause. In order for there to be a change in our society, and in order to see a return of individuals back into the church, we need to begin to deal with underlying systemic issues present within the church. RTS is one of a multitude of underlying causes for individuals turning away from the church in the twenty-first century.
As I began the research for this project, it became an interesting point to me that for individuals suffering from PTSD, religion was often a place of refuge. It becomes ironic that in a nation filled with so many individuals for whom religion is a culprit or a cause of trauma, there are equally as many individuals turning to religion for comfort. Individuals triggered by religion who cannot turn to religion for comfort must find alternative ways of positively coping with their trauma.
In order for psychologists to begin to properly diagnose and treat individuals suffering from RTS, there first needs to be a recognition that RTS is an actual disorder. In the early days of PTSD research, displaying signs and symptoms of PTSD was heavily stigmatized. The cultural aspects of understanding PTSD and those experiencing it often led to a misunderstanding about the causes and treatments for victims. It was not until 1980 that PTSD was formally recognized as a disorder “with specific symptoms that could be reliably diagnosed and was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”
In order for victims of religious trauma to receive the help they need, we must get to a place in our culture where religious trauma can be accepted as a real condition, not just a subset of PTSD. Within our culture, we need to recognize that even though there are many positive aspects of religion that can be helpful to certain individuals experiencing trauma, religion is also a root of the problem. For certain individuals, religion can in fact be a way to treat symptoms of PTSD, but for others, alternative forms of coping need to be considered in order to decrease the prevalence of individuals dealing with and living with religious trauma.
The question is this: what can lead us to a place where we can think of religious trauma in the same light as PTSD — how did we get here? — and how is it that religious beliefs continue to be less prevalent without us recognizing that there is a problem with religious trauma that is causing individuals to turn away from their belief systems?
It is important to recognize that music can be a starting point for individuals needing an alternative outlet for coping with their trauma other than religion. For those who are experiencing Religious Trauma Syndrome, it is obvious that they cannot use religion for coping. Music then becomes an important source of catharsis for victims of RTS. Music has helped victims of RTS to once again find meaning in their lives and begin to accept and cope with their trauma that was caused by religion. One of the suggested coping mechanisms suggested by Winell in her research with RTS is that of music. Music therapy has always been an important way for victims of PTSD to cope with their trauma. If RTS is in fact similar to PTSD, then it makes sense that music could be helpful for RTS victims as well.
Looking at the bigger picture, concerts can be viewed as collective group music therapy where individuals who are struggling can find purpose and connection with other fans who are as passionate as they are about the music. How do we respond to music as a type of group catharsis? For musicians who have experienced religious trauma, the music they are creating and sharing has become a cathartic experience. However, it is important to ask whether their music is solving their problems, exposing their problems, or both. If the latter is the case, and another solution needs to be discovered, then once religious trauma is recognized, other forms of counseling can be utilized in partnership with music therapy.
Once religious trauma becomes listed in the DSMDD as a real disorder, then psychologists can be trained on how to correctly treat religious trauma using traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy practices in partnership with music therapy. When this becomes the case, we can begin to move forward toward a society where all individuals can begin to be successfully treated for their trauma. ♦
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.