Is my religious trauma my fault, or is it the church’s fault? Did I indoctrinate myself?
After all, I enjoyed going to church as a child, and no one forced me to go to church as an adult. No one forced me to go to a bible school, work for a ministry, or use my free time watching sermons, read the bible, or go to christian conferences. No one forced me to do the things I was so heavily involved in and believed in, it was all my choice. The pressure I felt to be a really good christian, and the love I had for Jesus was all my doing; or was it?
As I have dug deep into my beliefs and listened to a plethora of stories from both ex-christians and those still in the faith, I sometimes wonder if the effects of religious trauma was maybe my own doing and I am the one to blame; not the congregation.
What I have found most interesting is how certain messaging from the church influences people differently. How we internalize and interpret dogma from the church is subjective; it is distinctive to the individual.
My close friend (who I attended bible school with) is still a christian, and though we see eye-to-eye on many things, her experience and internalized perception of bible school is different to mine. Another example is my partner- he grew up in Catholic school and church. At a very young age he remembers being skeptical and asked questions that no one seemed to offer adequate answers to. My partner has very analytical and logical thought processes and has always been a free-thinker. I believe his mindset naturally resisted any messaging from the church that had the potential to be negatively interpreted, causing emotional turmoil. All that to say, it is important to recognize that each of us is wired uniquely affecting vulnerability to indoctrination or trauma from religious programming and teachings.
When I started to open up to people about some of the issues I was having, it got frustrating and felt really isolated at the thought that perhaps the harm and internal turmoil I felt was actually my own doing. It felt like I had caused my own problems because no one could entirely relate.
Through my journey of deconstructing I am informed to know that theology, doctrine, church, pastors, spiritual abuse and even cults are not inherently traumatizing, traumatic or cause trauma. Trauma is how our bodies and nervous systems respond to whatever it is we are being exposed to, or how our bodies respond to what happened to us.
I recently read a method that many cults deliberately use to recruit and maintain control over a congregation. The method is known as the BITE Model: Behavior Control, Information Control, Thought Control, and Emotional Control. This model describes the very tactics in which leaders use for mind control. (Source: https://freedomofmind.com/cult-mind-control/bite-model/)
And though I wouldn’t say Christianity is a cult per se, many churches and other religious affiliations use language and preach to develop people to believe and behave a certain way.
Much of what I was exposed to and internalized within my belief system was fear mongering of losing salvation, fear for others salvation, eternal damnation, and fear of the secular world. I heard many sermons promoting feelings of unworthiness; I deserved nothing because I was born a sinner. I was to not act on my own indication because my thoughts, feelings, and actions are unwise or self-centered, and I could be easily deceived. I had a narrow range of needs– some needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish. Much of the prosperity gospel I was exposed to gave false promises and manipulated people to think that if you just try harder, suffer longer, or pray more, then God will bless you and fulfill his promises. Not to mention behavior modification through purity culture, and dictating how a person associates in the world to demonstrate they are indeed a true ‘Jesus follower.’
My inherent character was just wanting to be good and obedient. I did not ask too many questions in fear of being a burden, and didn’t know that being a free-thinker was available to me. Much of my belief system gave me some sort of safety by following the rules, and allowing pastors, Christian celebrities, mentors, church leaders, and scripture to instruct me. From the start I was not taught how to trust myself, so if I trusted others and the bible, that meant that I would be ok.
As I speak to some of the messaging I internalized I ask the question again; did I do my own damage by committing to the level that I had?
The answer is no. It is not my fault.
As I consider my up-bringing and the nature of my personality, it makes sense why I have been more at risk or susceptible of spiritual abuse, religious harm, and trauma. Once this all came into focus, I could see that I wasn’t crazy, I didn’t make this all up in my head. It was real, and it was valid.
However, connecting the dots to better understand my past brought on feelings of confusion, embarrassment and shame- but it also welcomed the opportunity to work through it, heal, release, and recover.
Recovering from religion has required self-compassion and embodiment (somatic) practices. These tools were vital to move through trauma, and the effects of religious programming. The work to recover looked like giving myself the space and time to educate myself in understanding trauma, how it reappears in my body, and learn to release and move through it. When shame bubbles up, I often close my eyes, put my hand over my heart and remind myself- I didn’t know any different, my belief system was my whole reality.
It’s okay, it’s not my fault.
Dear reader, if you’re ready for more in-depth tools on your religious recovery journey- noticing unhelpful patterns, releasing shame, learning self-compassion, connecting back with your body, welcome a sense of self, etc… I would love to support you on your journey. Send me a message at email@example.com
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