“Child abuse wrapped in Jesus is still child abuse.” This observation, made by Twitter handle @SweetGeekling, sparked a debate on the influence of religious trauma when parents teach their children about their faith.
Cindy Wang Brandt, a popular podcast personality who discusses raising children in faith, expressed concern regarding the need for Christian parents to give autonomy to their children in discovering their own faith. Brandt received incredible backlash for this view, particularly from the white evangelical community. Many were angry because Brandt suggested that children require the space to develop their own values despite the belief that indoctrination is an inevitable part of growing up with faith. While this dispute may seem like a parenting style clash, it’s actually indicative of a much more sinister and pervasive problem.
According to a 2016 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, 66% of religiously unaffiliated adults agree with the statement “religion causes more problems than it solves.” Among reasons that these individuals have left religion behind, 60% percent stated they no longer believed in the religion’s teachings and 18% suffered a traumatic event.
In 2019, the number of individuals who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” increased to 17%, up from 12% in 2009 according to the Pew Research Center.
Karyna Spence, junior family and human services and intercultural studies double major, discussed the ways in which families share their faith with their children, “One class specifically touched upon biblical lessons and basis to parenting. Our professor gave points about characteristics of a family and how best to interact and parent children within family structures,” Spence said. “What I found interesting is that my professor did not refer to the verses that have enforced very patriarchal and traditional roles within families, but rather how God has called individuals to these standards of excellence and goodness and how that is heightened within family structures.”
However, Spence believes that there can be unhealthy Christian households that negatively impact a child’s faith. “The unhealthiness can come from legalism. God told us to honor and keep His word, but if His word is being used against someone to shame or belittle them into belief, then their concept of the message of God is off,” Spence said. “Also, unhealthy patterns can be rooted in fear. When children begin to ask questions and start developing their own thought process’, parents are afraid that their child is ‘backsliding’ and are unsure of what to do, so they tend to overcompensate.”
Many who claim to be without a faith allegiance have been victims of religious trauma. They have lived in households or had family members who subjected them to psychological abuse under the guise that it was leading them to salvation or moral living. The expectations of churches for their young members to go out and evangelize or else those souls would be lost to hell, or that if they did not adhere to certain worship styles, they would be damned, were common themes of religious abuse. The desperation to keep children in the fold of a religion when they seem to be going astray can lead to severe consequences, such as physical punishments, blackmail and even gaslighting. These methods leave emotional and mental scars that last well into, if not through, adulthood.
Psychiatrist Harold G. Koeing and a team of researchers at Duke University developed “religious cognitive therapy” in response to this psychological pain. In an interview with The New York Times, Koeing said, “[It uses] positive scriptures that focus on forgiveness, God’s love and divine mercy to challenge the dysfunctional thoughts that maintain trauma.”
“Jesus just gave two commandments to the faithful, to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself,” Koeing said. “If people remembered this and allowed it to guide their attitudes and actions, they might stop harming people in the name of religion.”
While it may seem that it might be possible to simply reteach doctrine to heal the wounds of those who have experienced severe religious trauma, sometimes leaving a faith community is much easier than trying to comb through the incorrect theology that someone has to replace it with something sound. It is much less emotionally jarring to simply move to something new and forget the past. Survivors of religious trauma have a very real sense of PTSD that must be dealt with in their lives moving forward.
Family therapist Laura Anderson and licensed social worker Brian Peck cofounded the Religious Trauma Institute to give help to those who have suffered, give the resources and care to heal hearts and give space to learn new truths about God. This institute teaches individuals, clergy and professionals how to actively and healthily engage with religious trauma to bring a sense of wholeness to the victim, and to equip and empower them to be able to experience God autonomously.
During a workshop on religious trauma and the nervous system, Peck described the occurrence of adverse religious experiences. “An adverse religious experience is any experience of a religious belief, practice or structure that undermines an individual’s sense of safety or autonomy or negatively impacts … their well-being,” Peck said.
Anderson shared how bringing voice to these painful memories helps individuals recover and heal. “It helps us be able to organize and understand and maybe even take some stigma and shame away from things that have happened and how our body is responding to that,” Anderson said. “Trauma … is our body’s physiological response to that adverse religious experience.”
Spence strongly believes that children must decide what they believe in order to make their family’s faith their own. “Proverbs 22:6 states, ‘Train up a child in the way they should go; Even when they are old, they will not depart from it.’ This verse tends to be misquoted in the sense that, if you raise your children in the faith, they won’t leave it. As we have seen, this is not true,” Spence said. “I believe as parents of the faith you can raise your children and point them towards Christ in all the ways possible, but ultimately they are going to decide if they also believe the same things as well, if they are given the space to do so.”
If you have suffered or feel that you may have suffered religious trauma, please know that there are caring individuals at the Student Counseling Center who would love to hear your story. The SCC can be contacted at 479.524.725 or visit their website at https://www.jbu.edu/student-counseling/.