Harm from religious communities and individuals is not a new concept. However, recent increased attention to sexual abuse within the Protestant church and earlier public Catholic cases has drawn attention to the ways that church government and church systems can foster abuse of all sorts. Laura Anderson is primarily writing to help people recover from high-control religious communities, but there are principles here that are broader than that.
Anderson is not avoiding the term trauma (it is in the subtitle), but she is also trying to suggest that there are different levels of harm and that the response to that harm can be different. Two people can grow up and experience the same home, but one can be traumatized by practices that are not traumatizing to the other, even if the practices were applied to both. Part of the difficulty is that the word trauma has shifting meanings, so a more general “harm” can be helpful to apply to more than just legally documented abuse.
One of my takeaways from When Religion Hurts You is that high-control religious communities control as a means of protection and mission. There are evil people who are trying to control people and build their power for their own selfish purposes. But I think more often, people are attempting to help others and fulfill the church’s mission from their perspective. This happens by setting up boundaries to prevent harm, which becomes rigid rules that can themselves become harmful.
There are more than several stories of people who experienced the world and tried to protect others from the harm they experienced. My grandmother was firmly against alcohol because she grew up the child of an alcoholic. Others have sexual experiences outside of marriage (consensual or not) and then attempt to protect others by creating rules around sexuality, not to harm others but to protect them. Another common example is that people who were badly parented often do not have parenting skills by example and turn to high-control religious groups to give them tools to combat the bad parenting they experienced previously.
I am not trying to blame victims of trauma or religious harm but explain that in many cases, those who are drawn to high-control religious communities are either trying to address the harm that was done to them or trying to prevent others from the harm that they experienced by their own choices. Another way of saying this is that people can be drawn to high-control religious communities as a trauma response.
I say this because, in many cases, those who are trying to leave high-control religious communities are not very different from those who remain or those who are drawn in. However, I believe that those who heal may have a ripple effect at helping to bring about healing or at least changing patterns for future generations. (I think it is common for people to be drawn from one high-control religious community to another, religious or not.)
Laura Anderson is writing from the perspective of a person healing from religious harm and as a therapist who works with people who have had religious harm. Her story is an integral part of the book. Part of what I appreciate about her clear voice in the book is that she is attempting to moderate the tendency of pendulum reactions. There is a chapter on sexuality and purity culture. Purity culture was a pendulum response to the sexual revolution. And in some cases, people who are leaving purity culture will tend to pendulum swing again. The advice throughout the book about moving toward health in ways that avoid pendulum swings is very helpful. Although there are places where I think I would give different advice, I understand the reasoning behind her advice and understand that different perspectives will result in different advice.
I highlighted many long sections, and I do not want to have a quote-heavy review. But I do want to touch on a couple of ideas that were helpful to me. Throughout the book, there was an orientation toward health and movement, but also a moderation of expectations because healing is not so much a goal of perfection as a movement toward more health than what you have right now. Part of what Anderson is reminding us is that in high-control religious communities, there is often an orientation toward heaven and how good things will be in the future to distract from the fact that many high-control religious communities have little to offer right now. There is often an emphasis on suffering, and that can encourage living in pain instead of movement toward healing.
There is also a good discussion of what trauma is and how it is a
“subjective, perspective, and physiological response to a person, place, or things that overwhelms the nervous system’s natural capacity to cope. Practically, this means that trauma is in the eye of the beholder. What is traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another, and the body may experience trauma as a result of either real or a perceived one….This means that trauma is determined by one’s response rather than by a particular person, place, or things.” (italics in the original.)
I also appreciate that her space for the variations between harm, abuse, and trauma means that we still need to pay attention to the harm, even if it does not feel as large as someone else’s harm. That harm will generate a response:
“If our nervous system determines that we can’t fight or flee, it moves to fawning or freezing response. A person with a fawning response lives in a state of needing to please, appease or submit to avoid danger or punishment; a person with a freezing response often dissociates, becoming, small, silent, and a nonparticipant in their life. It only takes a couple of attempts at fighting or fleeing to realize that it’s safer to fawn or freeze.”
It has long been discussed that a number of saints of old seem to suffer from depression, scrupulosity, trauma, or other mental illnesses. God can work through people who are suffering and not healed. But there are also maladaptations to religious practices as Laura Winner explores. The ability to suffer in the face of harm may be just a trauma response, not a calling. Particularly in high-control religious communities, suffering and submission can be overvalued.
“Many victims believe that if they could submit more, repent more, serve more, sin less, or become a stronger believer, then life might go back to the way it was. Additionally, HCRs often teach a certain expectation of suffering, that suffering and difficulty are God’s way of testing and refining a person. When life gets difficult, it is not uncommon for members to see the difficulties as spiritually beneficial.”
There is far more in the book than what I can grapple with here. There are two final corollaries.
“I believe fundamentalism is a coping mechanism to deal with a dysregulated nervous system. As we saw in chapter 4, we know that humans thrive on what is familiar. This is why people and ideas that are different may seem dangerous and why an overactive SNS [sympathetic nervous system] triggers a fight or flight response. In those moments our nervous system is trying to figure out what will help us calm down and feel safe again. Fundamentalism helps with that: it gives specific, orderly, binary, prescriptive ways of engaging with life.”
As much as I am convinced by her point in trying to find an explanatory reason for the tendency toward highly controlled religious communities. That being said, I am even more convinced that healthy Christian communities must be marked by diversity and healthy discernment (which will sometimes result in differences of opinion). Discipleship in these communities much be concentrated on helping people to seek God’s direction for them and freedom to follow that. I am not naive enough to think that this will be easy or fully realized. But as much as Anderson is explaining, her point is that a healthy Christian community doesn’t act like the high-control fundamentalism of her history.
This is why I am committed to spiritual direction and discernment as two (fallible) tools to help us move in the right direction.
(A free PDF of the book was provided for the purpose of review.)