Religious PTSD: Escaping Toxic Religion

Faith, my wife, is a supervisor of mental health workers so, though we live in a small town, we are continually aware of the suicides, child abuse, murder, spousal abuse, drug abuse, and all-around hellishness of peoples lives. The hard reality is that those who are mentally ill have usually experienced terrible trauma, the effects of which will consume much or all of their life. David, who is part of our community, works with those traumatized by their experience in the military. He is able to tap into a network of services for those suffering from PTSD connected to military service but his experience, like that on the national level (a veteran suicide every 65 minutes), is often a losing battle. In the past few weeks he has lost two friends to suicide. My previous work in Japan and then in the States, with Bible colleges, exposed the reality that there are many levels of mental illness that are not addressed by the usual theology and which are, in fact, aggravated by forms of the Christian faith. Various groups of former evangelicals have formed, like many of those who meet as part of Forging Ploughshares, that have been traumatized by evangelicalism.[1] People are sick and what has made them sick is usually quite obvious and very often the culprit is Christian religion.

 While it is certainly the case that religious meaning is meant to be therapeutic, Christianity often fails to address mental suffering and, instead, creates trauma which aggravates mental suffering.[2] The great exodus from evangelicalism is partly, informants and statistics indicate, because the religion can cause depression, obsessive compulsions, suicidal self-loathing, child abuse, and is giving rise to sexual abuse equal to or more pervasive than that in the general population.[3] The causes are not difficult to trace: notions of authoritarianism (male chauvinism/female subordination), perverse notions of child discipline (in the worst cases children are disciplined to death[4]), fear (e.g. fear of hell), and isolation and separation (e.g. children cut off from parents due to their choice of spouse or their sexual orientation). The misogyny and racism seem to have been made obvious in white evangelical support for Donald Trump and the recent election seems to be the catalyst for the exodus or public notice of the exodus in such groups as #exvangelical. People are sick and suffering and Christianity is aggravating the disease for many.

To put all of this in the third person, projecting the problem “out there,” may miss the shameful reality that I am personally acquainted with mental disease. I am never far from a rabbit hole of obsessive compulsion, which has motivated my particular theological focus.  It is important to begin with confession, as apart from the acknowledgement that disease grips me in a particular fashion and that I am aware of its grip, the case cannot be made as to the aetiologia of what, I would claim, is the universal human sickness and its cure. There is a force that can be named but the very process of naming it reduces one to a feeling of shame. The thing that I struggle with is banal repetition, such that if this force were personified it would make for the most insipid of persons.

What Freud calls the super-ego should not be mistaken for a healthy conscience as this creature only accuses of one or two things – endlessly repeating and through the repetition punishing its victims. It is obscene, not in some interesting diabolical way, but in its continual insistence of something lacking. As Adam Phillips has described it, “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel.”[5] If embodied this creature would appear as damaged and needing to be euthanized. To mistake this thing for the self, certainly would involve self-hatred, but this seems to miss the point that it is the self that is traumatized by this obscenity. Better the world breaks out in all-out war, better that one is obliterated, then continue to be ceaselessly tortured by this unrelenting fault-finder. Indeed, Henri Bergson describes his great relief when world war broke out and the world matched his inner suffering.

The fault is not so much a moral failing as a failure to be complete or whole or substantial. In Hamlet’s soliloquy one is torn with whether to be or not to be. Is it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of a punishing conscience or to find rest in death? As with the children’s story, “The Missing Piece,” in which a large circle, missing a pie shaped wedge, goes looking for what is missing, what keeps one rolling along is an aching search for filling in what is absent. The felt lack of being and the compulsion to attain it through endlessly running the maze of accusation is an unbearable form of life. It is death dealing, the drive to death, in Freud and Lacan’s depiction. Lacan is darker than Freud in that he acknowledges that there is no cure but only the possibility of momentary survival. The only way of filling in the missing piece is through death and then one will have achieved the perfect circle of nothingness that constituted his drive in life. Whatever the form of the taunt of this obscene superego, I am convinced it is precisely not morality but immorality and evil (a true banality).

To confuse this punishing superego with the voice of God makes of religion the greatest possible evil as division, dialectic, and antagonism constitute the religion. There is a “Missing Piece Christianity” in which the true Jesus is hidden, the real kingdom is elsewhere, the final reality transcends us, and the true self alludes us.  The entire impetus is to find the truth “behind the text” in a higher critical analysis. The Constantinian divide separates us from access to the Kingdom, the Augustinian divide with its Neo-Platonism separates reality and experience, and the Anselmian/Calvinist divide posits an ongoing separation within the self. “Oh I’m looking for my missing piece looking for my missing Jesus, the missing Kingdom, the missing self, the missing life.”  There is a gap between us and God or within God himself and every effort is expended to close the divide. This accounts for major versions of the faith but is most clearly attached to notions of total depravity, penal substitution, and depictions of life as endless struggle with sin.  Rather than the religion healing, delivering, saving, it is geared more toward condemning, devaluing, traumatizing, and ultimately consuming life in mental illness mistaken for the faith of the New Testament.

The first step in any cure will mean ridding oneself of this God so that abandoning religion, for many, is the only alternative short of suicide. But as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, atheism per se is not an answer as there are many authorities and stand-ins for the role of this perverse superego God. The lack in human life becomes the power that controls and orders life and perverse religion accentuates an already existing problem. What is ultimately lacking, as examination of Romans 7 indicates, is life itself, as giving oneself to the pursuit of life through the conscience or through the law is a kind of living death (Paul’s “law of sin and death”) on the order of the death drive. Theology often repeats the story of the missing piece and accentuates or even constitutes elements of the disease.

The key note to Freudian psychology shared with biblical Christianity is to recognize that conscience (the sinful orientation to the law) or the superego does not provide access to the truth about ourselves but obscures, deludes, and deceives in regard to self-knowledge. The guilt (Freud calls it unconscious guilt) that weighs us down and which is accentuated and formalized by perverse religion is that which obscures the truth. The law of sickness, sin, and death, functions in the unconscious (obscured by a lie) so as to produce a punishing self-consciousness.  

To imagine this deluded punishment is a necessity enacted by God and fulfilled in Christ is to reify the human disease as religion and to make of the cross the culminating point of the disease. Death as cure, punishment as divine necessity, trauma as healing, confounds the cure and the disease and it is precisely this confounded religion that is traumatizing so many. The great mental struggle is to nail this thing down, to get a handle on it and throttle it, as if it is an objective reality. The moment of supreme objectification, Jesus reduced to the objective body on the cross, is made to support a notion of salvation which takes death to be salvific. If the body of Christ is the empirical bearer of necessary punishment, Christians are made to revel in his death like those at the foot of the cross, fascinated by the torture that duplicates and satisfies their own pain. God himself is at war with himself and this somehow matches and legitimates inner suffering and turmoil. Here the cross is the sign that God himself is the origin of the human disease.

A healing faith begins by recognizing that mental suffering is addressed by the great physician. The therapeuo or therapy of Christ is precisely aimed at the experience of mental suffering. In Paul’s explanation, perverse desire gives rise to punishing suffering as the law is presumed to be a means of achieving the self and actually involves painful loss of self. The pursuit of life in the law enacts a loss in which the ‘I’ observes or sees (βλέπω) himself or his body (7.23) and finds there an alien force (another law) inducing evil works (7.20-21). Freud described it as the ambiguity between love and hate, desire and frustration. The same object gives rise to opposed feelings in which one is pitted against the self. As in Lacanian psychoanalysis the register of the imaginary (the ego) and the symbolic (the superego or law) are necessarily antagonistic as one revolves around vision (imaging) and the other around the auditory (the symbol system of language). There is no possibility of reconciliation between being and knowing, between the law of the mind and the law of the flesh. These registers are composed in opposition to the other. To imagine Christ satisfies this antagonistic law, as if this divide constitutes God himself, is to posit the sinful delusion as ultimate reality.

Authentic faith does not play into this “necessity” but exposes it as a delusion. Where this delusion arises through lack (lack of self, lack of life), the ground of faith is life in the Spirit, which has as its goal “conformity to the image” of Christ (Ro. 8.29). This image is auditory and, in Paul’s depiction, is not an object of sight (ego). So achieving his likeness is a dynamic process of hearing and obeying, of walking as he did (8.4), of setting the mind on things of the Spirit (8.5), of active submission (8.7,13), and patience (8.25). One works out this healing salvation as “the law of life in the Spirit” displaces the punishing law of sin and death.

The human tendency is to create an obstacle (an idol) that would serve to keep antagonistic desire alive.  The history of theology can be posited as a series of obstacles which have obscured an authentic Christianity. The trauma of perverse Christianity is doubly tragic in its displacement of a healing faith which eliminates the gap or divide in which we are traumatically pitted against ourselves.

“But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation”

(Ro. 10:6-10).


[1] The #exvangelical and Liturgist podcasts are hosted by several former evangelicals and focuses on evangelical trauma.

[2] Though it was not directly addressed at this year’s International Conference on Missions, from which Faith and I have just returned, Jeff Fife, the president of the conference, described his sexual abuse as a child and then his entry and traumatization in the military. The final talk of the conference was given by a hospice nurse observing that the manner in which people die, at peace or in turmoil, is indicative of the life they have lived.

[3] See my podcasts http://podcast.forgingploughshares.org/e/the-passage-beyond-complementarianism-in-restoring-the-image/, http://podcast.forgingploughshares.org/e/seromon-oppression-of-women-a-curse-of-the-fall-undone-in-christ/, and blog https://forgingploughshares.org/2019/10/17/salvation-as-freedom-from-sexual-abuse-and-oppression/

[4] In her book, Breaking Their Will, Janet Heimlich traces instances of child murder to notions of Christian discipline.

[5]Adam Phillips, “Against Self-Criticism” https://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n05/adam-phillips/against-self-criticism