I’m of two minds when it comes to the existence of a mental affliction that some psychiatrists and psychologists, like Marlene Winell and Valerie Tarico, have been banging the drum about. It’s called religious trauma syndrome (RTS).
RTS is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group.
On one level, it seems like just another made-up pathology. The latest version of the U.S. psychiatrists’ manual, the DSM5, is rife with questionable disorders and syndromes. A whole gaggle of shrinks (and the pharmaceutical companies who love them) are never shy about dreaming up new ones.
Then again, it doesn’t seem at all far-fetched that many children who grow up under an authoritarian belief system that threatens them with a horrible snuffing if they engage in bad behavior (“The wages of sin is death,” Romans 6:23) are eventually going to have problems, perhaps many years later. So, notwithstanding my skepticism about the ever-growing thicket of mental disorders, I’m fairly open-minded about RTS.
Winell is well aware of the naysayers’ reservations, and she’s ready with a counter-argument.
Saying that someone is trying to pathologize authoritarian religion is like saying someone pathologized eating disorders by naming them. Before that, they were healthy? No, before that we weren’t noticing. People were suffering, thought they were alone, and blamed themselves. Professionals had no awareness or training. This is the situation of RTS today. Authoritarian religion is already pathological, and leaving a high-control group can be traumatic. People are already suffering. They need to be recognized and helped.
She understands, too, that many people are surprised by the idea of RTS,
because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. …
But in reality, religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. The public is somewhat familiar with sexual and physical abuse in a religious context. … Bible-based religious groups that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure and use harsh parenting methods can be destructive.
But the problem isn’t just physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin 2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black-and-white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.
To be clear, much as it would please some atheists, neither Winell nor Tarico is saying that belief in God is itself evidence of a mental disorder. They are talking about specific unhealthy family and social environments that are created by strict religious edicts and the unbending, dogmatic enforcement thereof.
Religion causes trauma when it is highly controlling and prevents people from thinking for themselves and trusting their own feelings. Groups that demand obedience and conformity produce fear, not love and growth. With constant judgment of self and others, people become alienated from themselves, each other, and the world.
[image via wisegeek]
P.S. I edited this post a day after it was published, to correct the source of the quotes. Several quotes attributed to Tarico were in fact Winell’s. My apologies for the error. — T.F.