A new idea is doing the rounds among atheists: They claim there is something called “religious trauma syndrome.” (From here on, I will call it RTS for short.) Well, that proves “religion” is bad, does it not?
But it is wise to question what you hear, so I will ask what evidence exists for these claims.
1) Is there actually a condition named “religious trauma syndrome”?
RTS is not an accepted psychological definition. It certainly does not appear in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals). By my understanding, psychology tends to not need syndrome names like “religious trauma syndrome” or “rape trauma syndrome”, because they learn to recognize and deal with trauma, whatever the source.
Dr. Marlene Winell, who coined the term seems not to have the necessary qualifications to talk of such a syndrome.
2) Is religion actually correlated with bad mental health?
Organized religion is statistically correlated (somewhat) with better mental health, see for example here and here.
Of course, there are outliers. And bad religious practices should be called out – even if religion in general is not traumatic or bad for mental health.
3) Is the article correct about central Christian doctrines?
Winell asserts the gospel message itself leads to people believing they are worthless and deserve to die.1
With that I strongly disagree. It is a bit like saying: “little Red Riding Hood is a story where the wolf wins: He swallows a little girl and grandmother, and how could we teach such negative stories to children?” The wolf wins temporarily in the middle of the story.
The gospel says we were made as the crown of creation, in God’s image. We did wrong. But we are so precious to God, that He gave his son to save us. (Evangelical Christianity believes this was substitutionary atonement – Jesus dieing in our place. Some other Christians understand the reason somewhat differently. But Christians agree: “God thinks you are valuable enough to die for”.) If you give your life to Him, you get a new identity: You can call yourself pure. Loved. In the image of the creator. Etc.
The gospel is good news, not trauma. It is the message that God loves you and wants you with Him. That Jesus paid a high price because you are so valuable to Him.
4) Does she talk sense in her other evidence?
It is pretty hard to test her other evidence as it is mostly anecdotal, but it sounds believable. However, I do not think the anecdotes warrants all the conclusions she draws. For example:
a) Valerie Tarico’s serious eating disorder was not solved by prayer. By the nature of how Valerie thought about religion, she blamed herself for that.
But just like medicine does not cause “medical trauma syndrome” when 2 aspirins don’t take away the pain, there is no RTS when religion does not solve an eating disorder. And sometimes people blame themselves too much for not looking after their health better or not being better Christians, it does not mean lessons on healthy living or Christianianity is a bad thing in itself.
b) She tells anecdotes about people traumatized by teachings about hell and a end times movie. This sounds believable. Christians should be careful of how some things are taught. In practice, if we teach hell, it should be taught (even by fundamentalists) in context with teachings that – at the very least – hell is totally avoidable.* The Bible message is certainly that hell is avoidable, and in a much simpler way than doing a lot of good deeds. (Child Evangelism Fellowship, an organization she mentions by name in her article, never mentions hell without telling that hell is very simple to avoid, by simply accepting Jesus and believing in Him.)
c) She tells about people for whom it was traumatic to leave their religious group. That happens, but it is not religious trauma. (Similarly, there was a stage in my life when I was unhappy to leave Pretoria, but it would not be logical to blame Pretoria for my unhappiness. I was unhappy to leave Pretoria because I liked living there.)
By all means, talk against bad religious practices. Encourage people who suffered trauma to get help – this includes people whose were traumatized by bad religious messages/ experiences. I beg Christians to have empathy with that, and to be careful about the messages they give.
But do not tell me about a “Religious Trauma Syndrome”, and do not dishonestly pretend that religion is mainly traumatizing. In my opinion, Christians should not give you the time of day when you do that.
1This article does not represent my (non-fundamantalist) views on hell. For the sake of this argument, I only need to show that the view of fundamentalist Christians is usually not, and should not be, what is represented in the article on RTS.