Most people grow up thinking religion is a good thing. But religion can hurt you. What should you do with this fact?
A Love for Amish Novels
“Do you have Beverly Lewis’s latest novel?” a customer asked me when she walked into the bookstore where I moonlighted to support my teaching habit.
“We do!” I told her. “You can have the last copy.”
“Oh, I love these books,” the customer gushed. “The way the Amish practice religion inspires me. I love reading romance novels, but I prefer the clean ones. These Amish authors know how to keep the bedroom doors closed.”
“Bonnet grippers instead of bodice rippers?” I quipped.
She laughed. “Exactly! I can get my romance fix and don’t have to worry about my grandchildren picking up a book filled with R-rated scenes.”
Reading the sweet love stories produced by the Amish sub-genre romance writers gave me a picture into a religion far different from my own. Aspects of the Amish culture bothered me, though. Children only staying in school until the eighth grade, for example. The strict gender roles didn’t appeal to my modern sensibilities, either.
But the picture the authors painted of growing up bilingual in a strong, supportive family where everyone knew their value did appeal to me. The writers made growing up and living Amish akin to discovering Nirvana.
Misty Griffin’s autobiography, Tears of the Silenced, opened my eyes to the stark reality of what can happen in a closed religious community. Her stark story of abuse, manipulation, and control shows a different side of the Amish religion.
When a religion controls every aspect of one’s life, people stop questioning what makes them uncomfortable. The results can devastate the lives of the unprotected (usually women and children).
And when we stop questioning authority, we give up our freedom of choice.
Cults, Sects, and Religion Can Hurt You
Jonestown. Heaven’s Gate. Those words bring horror to the reader’s mind. Most reasonable people agree cults have great power to harm their members. But most people wouldn’t add religious sects and Christian denominations to the list of potentially dangerous organizations.
I know I didn’t. But after reading Dr. Laura Anderson’s book, When Religion Hurts You, I have a whole new understanding of how something with great potential for good can turn into something hurtful and even harmful.
Let’s take care of the elephant first. Religion can hurt you. But not everyone will feel the same effects of religion in the same way. Webster defines religion as 1) a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. 2) The service and worship of God or the supernatural. 3) Commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance.
Our personalities, values, character, Enneagram number, and temperament (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic) determine how we react to religion. Maturity also plays a role in religion’s ability to hurt us. What scares us at one point in our lives might not scare us at another.
Dr. Anderson wrote the book as part of her doctoral program in counseling (her dissertation). She shares anecdotes about how religion hurt her as a young child, adolescent, and adult.
Before you freak out, dear reader, and stop reading this blog post because you’ve grown up believing that religion is good, think about the Spanish Inquisition. Or the Salem Witch Trials. Religion can hurt you. And depending on your personality, what hurts you may not hurt me. Or what hurts me may not hurt you.
Highly Controlling Religions and Adverse Religious Experiences
Most people who work with youth have heard of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The higher a child’s ACE score, the more likely the child will suffer from trauma. Dr. Anderson explains how ‘trauma is not the event or the thing that happened to us; rather, it is the way our bodies and nervous system respond to what happened to us.”
If four people experience the same event, their bodies will react in four different ways. The same event may only traumatize one of the four people. It might also traumatize all four of the people. We can’t predict or know with certainty what will or won’t traumatize someone.
Trauma doesn’t only happen on the battlefield. It can happen in a church, too. Dr. Anderson relates how traumatized she felt as a very young child when she first heard about Jesus dying on the cross and how those who didn’t accept Jesus would burn in hell.
I heard similar stories, but my body didn’t react in the same way; therefore, I never felt traumatized by those stories. Remember, everyone will react differently, and to believe otherwise shows a patent disregard for the Creator’s creativity.
Dr. Anderson also explains two new terms: HCRs (highly controlling religions—the Amish, for example) and AREs (adverse religious experiences). The more controlling a religion, the more likely those who belong to it will experience multiple AREs. The author also explained an important new term: complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD)
She grew up in what she calls a “strict fundamentalist, evangelical, Reformed theological background.” This HCR, combined with her unique personality, caused her body to react to incidents she experienced in a religious setting (AREs) as trauma.
Untreated over time, this trauma manifested itself in her body as CPTSD.
A Call for Change and Questions
The structures and forms of organized religion make a tidy coat rack on which to hang our beliefs. But all too often, we forget humans construct the coat racks. What looks like a coat rack in the hallway to you might seem like a shadowy monster to someone else.
If you came from a family of origin filled with chaos and drama, you might crave an orderly, cut-and-dried religion that satisfies your need for structure. Likewise, if you come from a highly organized household, you may seek a denomination with less structure and more heart.
We easily forget God didn’t invite churches or religions to come to heaven; he invited individuals. If we don’t question those who set themselves up as authorities, we do ourselves and others a disservice. We can inadvertently cause others (including our family members) to suffer from AREs.
Beware of confirmation bias when you join a religion, denomination, or any social group. You don’t have an obligation to think, act, and believe exactly like everyone else in the group. If you feel pressure to do so, you may have stumbled upon an HCR. Consider rethinking your affiliation.
As a child, I heard some doozies about sin. God didn’t want me to swim on Sabbath (but wading in water if it didn’t come up to my knees was okay). My guardian angel would stop at the doors to any theatre I entered. God didn’t want me to show even a hint of cleavage (but evidently this only applied to white people in North America). I had the power to control a man’s lust, and if a man acted on his lust, it was my fault.
As an adult, I understand how human, twisted, and silly those dictums sound. Spiritual maturity involves examining our beliefs, questioning, and changing.
Why You Should Read When Religion Hurts You
If you have deconverted, deconstructed, or have uncontrollable reactions to things that happen in churchy settings, you may want to read this book to help you sort through your religious experiences. It will validate your experiences and help you understand how we can’t control our body’s response to events that may cause trauma. We CAN learn how to process traumas in healthy ways, love ourselves, and allow ourselves the time and space to heal.
If you feel perplexed, betrayed, or angry because someone you know has deconverted, deconstructed, or refuses to go to church, you need to read this book. It will help you understand religion’s complex role in traumatizing some individuals. The book will help you look at your part in your loved one’s journey. You might consider areas where you need to change, seek forgiveness, question, or grow.
I’d love to hear from you. Did you grow up in a HCR? Or have you found yourself attracted or repelled by HCRs? How did the adults in your life define sin and its consequences? Did your body react to things your saw, heard, or learned in a way that indicates trauma?
Thank you for keeping this a safe place to engage in civil discourse as we grapple with things we may have done or had done to us that caused our bodies to react in ways that indicate trauma.
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