Religious Trauma: Looking for the Exit Doors

March 5, 2020

Photo by Michael Jasmund on Unsplash

A healthy church should have porous walls and open doors.

I’ve been saying stuff like this as I consider what healthy spirituality can look like, how churches can “do better.” Because authoritarianism, coercing members to stay against their will, is not healthy religion, it’s a cult. Healthy commitment to a community freely flowing out of an individual’s agency is very different from toxic in/out group boundary marking. 

It’s why I advocate against evangelizing to a child, because children should have the opportunity to grow into faith agency, to choose for themselves how to live their own lives. 

I stand by my statements on this, but in the last couple of years, I’ve come to understand how my stance is shaped and colored by my religious trauma.

We can talk about faith deconstruction and reconstruction all day long, and I have, just look in my blog archives. But religious trauma, I’m learning, is the response our body has to toxic doctrines and adverse religious experiences. And as such, it is not so easily communicated through words because our body speaks in a different language. 

It feels, it emotes, it responds. 

It shuts down certain parts of our body functions and activates others, 

it hurts. 

Hard as it may, let me try to paint a scenario of what it was like for me the last time I was invited to church. 

It felt like someone hit me. I’ve not been physically assaulted before (as an adult) so I wouldn’t know exactly how it feels—I imagine it’s this sudden shock, not so much of physical pain, but of violation.

It felt like walls were closing in on me from all sides, and my breathing gets short and shallow, presumably because my body is trying to suck in all the air before the walls squeeze it out.

It felt like a heavy weight on my chest, making it harder to breathe in the air my body seemed to desperately need. 

It felt like I didn’t have a choice, that I HAD to go. (Please note this is completely irrational, no one was coercing me, it was a cordial invitation. But my body was sending signals to my brain that connoted otherwise.) 

I was fearful, worried, and anxious. 

On the surface, I was fine. I was cognitively aware that this was a nice invitation, that I had the autonomy to decide whether to go, that I could weigh the options and predict the outcomes and make an educated choice. I had reasonable conversations with my spouse re: whether to accept.

But my body was simultaneously screaming a very different story. 

It’s not easy admitting to being a trauma survivor because of the stigma that I’ve internalized. I want to be strong, healthy, unscathed.

But when you lay it down, pen to paper, like I have in the above few paragraphs, it’s kinda obvious, isn’t it? I suffer from religious trauma. 

If you have a near panic attack from being casually invited to church, you probably have religious trauma.

In light of this, of COURSE I’ve been writing and raising my voice at religious structures for years now, MAKE SURE YOUR DOORS ARE WIDE OPEN, because those of us with religious trauma almost always enter a church looking for the nearest exit door.

I did a mental exercise the other day. I imagined what it would be like if I went to church, and the pastor before beginning her (let’s face it, I wouldn’t go to a church unless it had a female or nonbinary or gay pastor) sermon said something like this,

“Welcome to ____ church, we’re so happy you’re here. Please know that the exit doors are here, here and here (gesturing like a flight attendant), and you are free to use them at any time during the service.” 

In the imagined scenario, my lungs fill deeply with air, and my body said okay. This is okay.

People often ask me what started my faith deconstruction, and I get that it’s an interesting story that can help others deconstruct as well. But what I need most isn’t to rehash my trauma for consumption, it is to speak softly to my body and let it heal.

And you, you deserve healing too. 

At the Parenting Forward Podcast, I am talking about parenting after religious trauma in collaboration with the Religious Trauma Institute, in a series of podcasts. If you want to listen to me tell this story in podcast form, hop on over there and subscribe. Two episodes are out, more to come.

You can also sign up to register for a FREE online course on Parenting after Religious Trauma HERE.