Religious Trauma: Fundamentalism in Religion and Its Effects on the Body
An Orthodox Christian speaks with a trauma therapist
The term religious trauma is often held in contempt by religious leaders; it is brushed aside or explained away as exaggeration or individual oversensitivity. Although it is true that trauma is a word that has been subject to concept creep in the last decade (see Concept Creep and Psychiatrization; The Coddling of the American Mind), Orthodox Christians would do well to acknowledge that religious trauma exists – within world religions, Christian denominations, and even within Orthodoxy itself – and can result in devastating, longterm effects.
Religious trauma most often results when a religious authority leverages positive or negative reinforcement to suppress their follower's freedom. As Orthodox Christians, we hold in tension the teachings of human freedom and spiritual obedience. However, when an authority figure moves from respecting an individual’s freedom to compelling them to act in a certain way, he moves from Orthodox obedience to spiritual abuse. Although not every case of spiritual abuse results in complex trauma, as individuals respond differently in situations of authoritarian demand, it should be noted that any constraint of another’s freedom is categorically against the Orthodox faith.
“Trauma is not the thing that happens to you but how your nervous system responds to what happens.” –Dr. Laura E. Anderson
I will define fundamentalism as a tendency toward rigid thinking that makes oversimplifications and overgeneralization thereby reducing complex issues to a binary framework in order to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
In recent years a kind of fundamentalism has crept into the Orthodox Faith. This fundamentalism not only seeks to constrain the human freedom but also God himself by tacitly invoking euthyphro’s dilemma. While some issues are open-and-shut (like God’s command, "do not murder") others are not as simple (such as what to do in dangerous cases of ectopic pregnancies). Where fundamentalism fails is in this tension – a tension that requires a faithful shrug to bear the cognitive dissonance. And it is acting on, and counseling through, this tension that constitutes compassionate pastoral care.
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Recently, I conducted an interview with Dr. Laura E. Anderson – a religious trauma therapist whose work focuses on how the body responds to real or perceived threat within the context of high control religion. You can listen to that podcast on Spotify here, on Apple Podcasts here, or watch the YouTube video here.
Postscript: although the Dr. Laura and I do not agree on everything – much like I do not agree with a number of my guests on everything – I do believe that the overall message is important. Please listen with openness.