Have you ever wondered how someone becomes radicalized—how an otherwise normal, intelligent person could become such a religious fanatic that they are willing to die for their faith? I don’t wonder, because I was that person.
My life as a head-covering, homeschooling, antifeminist, Bible-believing, fundamentalist Christian was rigid but simple. I only had to do one thing right: follow the rules.
I grew up in a home with an emotionally volatile father who also happened to be a religious zealot, so my siblings and I learned early on that there was a degree of safety in following rules. Combine a volatile religious parent with Bible teachings demanding obedience, parental respect, and the threat of eternal torture for breaking the rules, and presto! A desperate, fear-driven, earnest religious fanatic is formed.
After leaving my parents’ religious home, I married a man working his way toward the pastorate. While living on the conservative Bible college campus, I found even more rules to follow, rules that assured me I was closer to God than ever before. After ridding our home of anything worldly—magazines, music, cable TV—I got serious about maintaining a feminine biblical appearance. I grew my hair long, vowing not to cut it again, or that of our daughters. I began to cover my hair at all times so that only God and my husband could see “my glory.” Pants, shorts, makeup, and jewelry went into the trash. Only long skirts and dresses remained. When possible, I would also keep my arms covered.
There were also rules about the fabric of those skirts and dresses. Obviously, anything sheer was out of the question; but there were regulations, too, about patterns on the fabric, even the size of those patterns. It could have flowers, for example, but they could not be larger than a quarter or smaller than a nickel. These were rules I borrowed from the Holdeman Mennonite community located on the outskirts of the Bible college town. To appease me, my husband would attend services there with me and our little girls occasionally, though he did grumble about no musical instruments and the congregation being separated by gender.
My husband tried to tell me that I was becoming extreme. “You’re making your circle smaller and smaller,” he said with genuine concern. “How small will it get?” I thought he lacked holiness. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t as enthusiastic as I was now that we had the key to raising Godly offspring. All we had to do was shield them from every possible worldly influence and live holy lives.
Rules had become my comfort zone, rooted in an unhealthy and authoritarian religious childhood. My entire identity was enmeshed with my religious beliefs. There was no room for nuance, just rigid boundaries clearly marking out what was acceptable and what was unacceptable.
Beyond the fold
Fast forward ten years to a marriage that was hanging on by a thread in the wake of crushed ministry dreams and a series of calamities that threatened to destroy our family and our faith. Feeling utterly unsupported by our church in the wake of a life-threatening diagnosis for our youngest child pushed me over the edge. “I’ve bet on the wrong horse,” I thought to myself, unable to otherwise explain God’s silence in the midst of our pain.
Confused, frustrated, and sad, I gave myself permission to start exploring other religions, convinced that God must be hiding in one of them.
Not wanting to hear “God is just testing your faith,” or “You must be hiding sin in your life,” I couldn’t approach my Christian friends with my new disbelief. Not knowing anyone else who had been as devoted to Christianity as I’d been, I felt completely isolated. Where could I turn? I sat in front of the computer and willed the words to come, begging the search bar for help. But I couldn’t even formulate what was going on inside me: that my faith was dissolving, my worldview turning upside down.
Desperately missing community, I pitched my tent in the New Age camp for a few years, devouring things previously forbidden: Astrology, psychics, crystals, past-life regression, etc. I enjoyed this time of exploration and personal growth—until folks started trying to convince me that “channeling” of ancient or alien spirits was a real thing. I was horrified, feeling I’d just run from one pretend belief system to another. I decided I’d rather be alone and seeking evidence-based truth than remain in a reality-challenged community.
Finally, our marriage snapped. I divorced my husband and my religion and went back to school to become a Registered Professional Counsellor. This required inner exploration, forcing me to confront my own traumatizing beliefs and experiences from growing up in a fundamentalist home. While I lacked knowledge of religious trauma syndrome, I saw obvious parallels between my own experience of losing my deep religious faith and identity and that of former cult devotees who had managed to find their way out. We shared the painful dissolution of our worldviews and the grueling task of rebuilding our identities from the ground up.
One day I came across a video of Dr. Marlene Winell, an American psychologist with a special interest in helping people recover from what she termed “religious trauma syndrome,” or RTS. According to Dr. Winell, the losses suffered due to time spent in rigid, authoritarian belief systems can be compounded upon leaving that system. Inside fundamentalism, we lose our autonomy and have tight restrictions placed upon our thoughts, behaviors, and even our sexuality. Upon leaving those groups, we lose our community, worldview, and our very identity. These losses can impact almost every area of our life. If we were raised in fundamentalism, we might experience symptoms of RTS that align closely with complex PTSD. For those of us who continue living in cultures saturated with religion, recovery from Religious Trauma Syndrome can present a real challenge.
I immediately began reading Dr. Winell’s book Leaving the Fold: A guide for former fundamentalists and others leaving their religion. Every page resonated with my own experience. After attending retreats led by Dr. Winell, I developed the Divorcing Religion Workshop, comprised of six modules that closely resemble marital divorce and subsequent recovery. Eventually, I decided that conferences should be held exploring religious trauma, offering hope and help for survivors. In 2021, I hosted the inaugural Conference on Religious Trauma (CORT), an online event featuring experts in the field of religious trauma as well as those recovering from RTS.
Seeing the incredible need for mental health clinicians familiar with religious trauma syndrome, I turned my own private practice in that direction so that I now work exclusively with those in recovery from RTS. Dr. Winell has become a true friend and mentor in this area.
Ten years ago, I could not have imagined the beautiful, powerful life that I am living post-religion. It took work to forge a healthy secular identity and build a supportive secular community, but I am so glad I did—and you can, too. For help, reach out to a qualified secular therapist or explore the RTS recovery resources below.