The Dark Side Of Religion
This is not a conversation about the existence of a divine being by whatever name you would recognize this - Allah or Krishna or God etc.. When psychologically studying religion, we often do not concern ourselves with truth claims (e.g. Does a divine being exist? Did sacred texts truly happen?) for a number of reasons, but overwhelmingly because of the confusing nature and difficultness to support or refute such claims indefinitely. This is also not a conversation about religion versus spirituality. In this particular conversation, religion will be operationalized by institutions and the religiosity, defined by attendance to a sacred place, prayer, and other related behaviors, of the people who frequent these institutions.
Which brings us to religious trauma.
Everyone’s experience with institutionalized religion is different and by no means is this account comprehensive of religious trauma or these religions. Religious caused harm seems a tad backward, right? Religion is supposed to be something that heals and has a helpful effect on people, right? In some cases, yes, but institutionalized religion can actually do quite a bit of harm.
In many institutionalized religions, there are a set of rules to be followed in order to be a part of the religion and for the promise of an afterlife. This alone starts an in-group/out-group scenario in regards to membership. Groups are not necessarily bad; human beings make them rather instinctively and when it comes to sports teams or families, they don’t seem too harmful. It is when these specific religious ingroups and outgroups start mixing morality and higher status into them, they can be dangerous. Ingroups not only alienate those not a part of the group (i.e. a certain religion), but those who are a part of the group, but don’t fit the “mold” or rules of the group. These people must hide or pretend to be something different in order to stay a part of the group. This is damaging because membership to these groups not only foster the positive social support relationships I mentioned earlier, but are also tied to identity. Many believers of religion will report it as a part of how they view themselves and their role in the world (i.e. I am a father, I am a husband, I am a Christian, I am a teacher, etc.). When two or more aspects of how you view yourself do not align, it can cause identity-based conflicts. This distressing feeling is reported often by those who are not of religious approved sexual orientations, marital status, behaviors, or socioeconomic status, to name a few.
Many fundamentalist institutionalized religions do not deem human beings as worthy; humans are doomed of immorality and wickedness. People who grow up in sacred places of worship and in religions who preach this are told from the time they are children to adults that their being will never be enough. They are inadequate. They are a being of evil. This is a life sentence - cured by some by exorcism and kept at bay by others by trying to pray enough, love enough, attend enough, repent enough. This is the foundations of religions who require its followers to be saved. Religions who preach this breed trauma; how can anyone love themselves when they believe their very nature is to always ask for forgiveness for wrongdoings they cannot help?
Good comes from a deity. Everything else comes from your failure or shortcomings. To have pride can be a very high sin in some religions. Good qualities are derived from the highest power; you are not these things on your own. Your good comes from the perfect that is your deity. This external locus of control for everything positive can leave people overwhelmed, helpless and feeling inadequate. How can self-esteem grow when you cannot contribute anything to yourself except for the bad? The guilt and shame that rises out of individuals who do not measure up to an impossible standard is crushing and traumatic.
The idea of submitting yourself wholly and unquestioningly is difficult for many people. It requires them to give up their own ideas and thoughts which can hinder intellectual development. (As children, it is extremely difficult for them to recognize the consequences of religion and that seems to be overwhelmingly when people are introduced to religion) Members of these religions see everyone in their group around them submitting to power so when one starts to question any part of the religion or their practice of religion, they can feel alienated and shameful. This is when they can begin to unlisten to their inner self and no longer value what they personally believe is moral or to make their own judgements. Religious trauma struggles to be widely talked about because many people assume religion is good for people. While some parts of the belief systems of some religions are positive, institutional religions - especially dogmatic and authoritarian religions - do not appear to provide as much good as many people believe. This trauma can be cyclical: starting with questioning your religion, then feeling shame for doing so, feeling alienated from your group, believing you are a helpless sinful being, repenting, feeling shame for what you're repenting about, etc. While symptoms of religious trauma can vary it is important to seek out help if you find yourself feeling harmed by your religion, wanting to leave a toxic following, or unsure about how to proceed after leaving. (The link below is a great starting resource) This hidden trauma is increasingly being discussed and awareness is being raised. It is important to talk about the harm to one’s mental health that can come from institutionalized religions who practice and preach these harmful messages and ideas.