Updated: Apr 26
As an overview, this entry starts with some mistakes — the mistakes of self-protection and over-correction — then wanders a meandering path past a number of probing questions and concepts:
What is Religious Trauma?
What are some of the long-term effects?
How does it manifest in communities and families?
What are the characteristics?
Is healthy community possible?
How is Spirituality different from Religion?
Let me warn you, I am a film/video nerd by trade, so what started as an audio-only podcast entry quickly blossomed into a full-scale assault on the visual field as well, replete with complimentary and tangential on-screen text and images. It can be a lot, so please feel free to ingest the information in a manner that feels most comfortable for you.
If it helps, I have decided to post TWO transcripts after the video (below). The FIRST transcript is of the onscreen text in the video. The SECOND transcript is of the spoken words. So if you just want to listen and then circle back later to scan the additional text elements here, I have made that easy.
Thanks, as always, for your time and attention. I hope you find this informative and/or helpful.
TRANSCRIPT 1: Onscreen Text Transcript
THE INSIDE OUT - Reclaiming Spirituality After Religious Trauma
It is not unusual or uncommon to over-correct or over-protect after a traumatic experience. As a result, we may sometimes deny ourselves access to good things out of an overabundance of caution.
Our conscious mind may not always agree with our unconscious mind. By updating our understanding of the terms and ideas as we have known them, sometimes we can change our thinking to allow for new ideas that unlock new possibilities. Language is powerful. Never underestimate what might be possible by simply allowing yourself to understand old ideas in new ways.
What is Religious Trauma?
“Religious trauma results from an event, series of events, relationships, or circumstances within or connected to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that is experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive and has lasting adverse effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being." (GCRR.org)
It is possible to co-experience different kinds of trauma at the same time, or have multiple traumatic experiences across time, which add complexity to the challenges of your lived experience.
When left unattended, the effects from trauma can last a lifetime, and may significantly diminish your ability to experience life to the fullest.
What are some of the long-term effects of Religious Trauma?
Religious trauma can cause difficulty in forming and maintaining intimate relationships.
Religious trauma can make it difficult to trust or feel trustworthy.
Religious trauma can make it difficult to love oneself or to feel confident in one’s own abilities.
Religious trauma can make it difficult to feel “good enough,” wanted, or valued for one’s own, essential nature.
Even in the face of living one’s best life, underlying feelings of not being good enough may persist and be difficult to eliminate entirely.
Religious trauma can cause us to believe that we are essentially bad, unwanted, or require external repair, redemption, or approval.
Religious trauma can have long-lasting negative impacts on quality of life, even long after abandoning religious beliefs.
Trauma may also result from family systems built on unhealthy models of power, coercion, and control. Hierarchies and power dynamics, though important, can lead to trauma that harms defenseless individuals, such as children.
To develop secure attachments, children need to feel seen, soothed, safe, and secure. Being seen is not just a matter of being observed; it involves feeling understood and acknowledged for who we are behind our behavior. When a child is distressed, it is an adult's responsibility to help them regulate their emotions and return to a place of comfort. Disobedient or disrupted children are not your enemy or “bad.” Usually, they are struggling with a problem they cannot solve. They need the help of a well-regulated adult to solve their problem. When providing safety to children, it is important to remember, they need to feel safe from “outsiders,” in addition to feeling safe alongside their primary caregivers. When children feel consistently seen, soothed, and safe (both with others and with their caregivers), they develop a deep feeling of security and positive self esteem. Caregiving that doesn’t consistently provide these things will often result in insecure attachments that lead children to experience significant interpersonal difficulties later in life.
Common signs of insecure attachment include:
- Difficulty in forming and maintaining intimate relationships
- Low self-esteem
- Problems with trust
- Anxiety and depression
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Difficulty with parenting
- Higher risk of mental health disorders
- Difficulty with social support
- Negative patterns of behavior
- Confusion about “why I’m this way”
Under certain religions or religious expressions, there may be a greater prevalence and/or protection of unhealthy models of parenting and interpersonal power dynamics.
Religious ideologies that expressly threaten eternal torture may cause trauma because they fundamentally target the human survival instinct and leverage it for compliance. When only given a choice between total compliance or eternal torture, ideas like “free will” are devoid of value and can cause confusion and trauma, especially in children.
Religious teachings which lack logical, cohesive thinking, yet insist upon obedience and adherence to those ideas under threat of torture or banishment can cause trauma and/or existential conflict. Being required to comply with ideas that do not make sense can diminish one’s own sense of agency by slowly chipping away at identity, dignity, and self-trust. This can lead to a profound sense of “self-loss.”
Arguments like “that’s just the way it is” or “God’s ways are not our ways” are often used to shut down critical thinking and may be used to maintain power and control over individuals or groups. Be careful. If we are created by God, then so too was our intellect. Given the amount of people and groups who would like to manipulate and control us, it is wise to use caution with anyone asking us to forfeit our good sense.
Feeling shame, fear, or doubt for asking honest questions should be viewed as a warning sign.
If someone discourages or punishes us for seeking information, it is important to proceed with caution and evaluate the situation carefully.
The BITE Model of Authoritarian Control
Steven Hassan – @CultExpert on Twitter
Characteristics of Traumatizing Religious Beliefs
Reality is unreliable.
Self-neglect is normalized.
Rejection of personal agency is normalized.
Rejection of personal worth is normalized.
Feelings of guilt, shame, inferiority, and being 'less-than' serve as the basis upon which a child's sense of self is constructed.
Future dysfunction may include:
Religious trauma is real, pervasive, and damaging.
Religious trauma can occur when a person experiences spiritual or religious beliefs or practices as abusive, harmful, or threatening, leading to emotional and/or psychological distress.
It is important to recognize and address religious trauma in order to support individuals who have experienced it and to promote healing and recovery.
That is one purpose of this episode.
While facing trauma on your own can be challenging, here are some strategies that may be helpful:
Practice self-care: This can include taking care of your physical health by eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly. It can also involve engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, such as spending time in nature, listening to music, or reading a good book.
Build a support network: Even if you are facing trauma on your own, it is important to have people in your life who you can turn to for support.
Use relaxation techniques: Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can help you manage stress and anxiety and promote feelings of calm.
Write about your experiences: Keeping a journal or writing down your thoughts and feelings about your trauma can help you process your emotions and gain a greater understanding of your experiences.
Learn about trauma: Educating yourself about the nature of trauma and its effects on the mind and body can help you feel more in control of your experiences and better equipped to manage them.
The Linnaean System of Classification
Phylum (or Division, for plants)
Rigidity of thought is a common characteristic of the trauma response and is also often observed in contexts involving coercion and control. Not surprisingly, it may also be found in certain religious expression. Choosing to re-engage with spirituality may necessitate being prepared to face disapproval or rejection from your former religious group, its members, or the religious community that surrounds them. When we discover something new, we often need to adapt or let go of what we currently consider old.
The decision to create a new path for oneself may require being willing to face feelings of loneliness, which can be surprisingly painful depending on the strength of the bond with one's previous community. To reduce the pain and duration of isolation and separation, one may choose to intentionally redefine their understanding of 'community'. I eventually had to come to terms with the church's unspoken "terms and conditions" for community.
This made me realize some key things:
What religion called community was almost entirely conditional, based mostly on sameness, proximity, accessibility, and loyalty. It didn't actually have much love or acceptance at its core. I no longer agree with that definition and have taken back the right to decide what works for me as a community and what doesn't.
With this shift, the concept of community became mine to define for myself.
The result is that now I wouldn't dare try to replace the “big-group of clones” with another one. My friends are now scattered, extremely diverse, contact is sometimes intermittent, and no one owns any kind of rights to the other. It is a cast of characters who likely wouldn't play well together in the same sandbox but work well as a tapestry within my heart and mind. Our common unity is that we ultimately care to know one another as interesting and lovable characters, not as reflections of ourselves.
Certainly, this makes the experience of community feel a lot different than gathering in large groups at regular intervals and telling one another how correct and righteous we are, but I'm done with that bland, flavorless dish anyway. Anymore, the community I experience is not as predictable or consistent. It is filled with flavors and variety that religion was never capable of achieving, and I would never dream of going back.
It is far, far better.
“I think, therefore I mediate.”
Immediacy: A state or quality of being direct, unmediated, uninterrupted, or unfiltered.
"Unmediated spirituality" can be defined as the inherent capacity of every individual to directly and authentically connect with the source of life without the need for external intermediaries or prescribed doctrines. It posits that upon emergence into consciousness, every person possesses innate faculties, such as intuition, awareness, and introspection, which enable them to establish meaningful and profound contact with the transcendent or divine, as they understand it. This concept implies that individuals have an inherent, self-sustained potential for spiritual exploration and growth, unencumbered by external dogma or authoritative structures, and can access their own unique path to connect with the source of life based on their own internal resources and experiences.
What would be the harm in trusting, without hesitation, that our very existence is exactly as it needs to be?
Has your experience of spirituality caused you to feel fear, anxiety, or panic about “getting it wrong”?
Does the comfort that comes with “knowing for sure” sufficiently establish the accuracy of a claim or the truthfulness of a belief?
Is it possible that the essence of spirituality existed prior to our arrival, and our interpretations and conceptualizations merely impose our ideas upon it?
Are you willing to face and accept the pain, discomfort, and fear that may arise from human projections in order to more-fully savor the richness of life and embrace the fullness of its experiences?
My film on trauma:
Are you struggling with inner conflict about the honesty or authenticity of your lived experience?
Are you tired of the persistent inner turmoil caused by unresolved conflicts? Are you ready to confront and decisively resolve your inner conflicts, once and for all?
You have every right to be here, just as you are.
TRANSCRIPT 2: Spoken Word Transcript
Hey, thanks for listening. Today, I am feeling compelled to kind of shine a light and talk about a mistake that I've made, which I am finally beginning to correct. Technically, the mistake that I've made is an overcorrection of self-protection, which is a common thing that people will do when healing from trauma. It's not really unusual. What happens is our self-protective responses, as well-meaning and eager and capable, quite frankly, as they are, can sometimes overshoot the mark. They can protect us too much and cause us to deny ourselves or cut ourselves off from good things out of an overabundance of caution while seeking to avoid bad things and not wanting to get hurt again like we were when we were traumatized in the first place.
Maybe an example would be you get really hurt by a person, some human hurts you in a significant way, and because you don't want that human or any human in the future to hurt you again, you isolate yourself completely. You cut yourself off from connection to people. And so we do know that being connected to people is one of the ways that we heal, as long as those connections are healthy. They promote wellness. They allow us to find what it is we're looking for. They can protect us. They can offer us all kinds of benefits, but we deny ourselves the potential of these benefits by just saying "no" to people entirely, because someone hurt us once. So that's generally what I'm talking about. But that's not the overcorrection of self-protection that I'm going to point to in this episode.
The overcorrection that I've done for, frankly, about a decade or more is I have overprotected myself from all manifestation of spirituality in response to religious trauma that I endured over a period of roughly 30 years or so — going back to the earliest days of my childhood — I was raised in religion. Now I say roughly 30 years or so, because the ending or the exit from that stage of life has not been abrupt. So it's not been like walking through a door or flipping off a light switch. Transitioning into new stages of life can take years commonly, and for me it's probably still happening even. Actually, I would say it's definitely still, definitely still happening, but I'm most of the way through the transition, if I can say that.
So I threw the baby out with the bathwater. I needed to never again let religion get its filthy hands on me and I therefore denied myself even the slightest possibility of having anything that looked like a spiritual experience. Since I walked away from religion, when I kicked religion to the curb, I also kicked spirituality to the curb. And I don't know that I put a lot of thought conscious thought into this.
That's that's another thing about trauma responses, as you know, because they're coming from this automated part of our of our brain. There isn't usually a lot of thought that goes into it. So sometimes you make these over-corrections and if you had sat and thought it through, you might not agree with that decision. But because it's not about conscious thought, the decision gets made; it's bypassed your prefrontal cortex. You didn't have an executive-level committee meeting in your brain and make these kinds of decisions. It's just automated.
So for me, as far as I was concerned, spirituality and religion were just two different kinds of mental cancer, like two sides of the same horrible coin. And during the period where I was really leaning into this overcorrection, it never really even occurred to me that there might still be something good in the world of spirituality. Like, maybe there was something worth having. Maybe there was something still worth experiencing. But the over-correction caused me to see everything as "woo woo," hocus-pocus bullshit. All of it was dangerous. Even the thought of spirituality and my trauma response was not going to let me get burned again.
You got to give it to our survival systems. They're good at what they do, right? They're good at what they do. What they're not so good at necessarily is assessing whether they're overdoing it. They're playing it safe. That's what you do when you play it safe. You minimize risk, right?
Now, before I get too far into this, I think it could be really helpful if I define what I mean when I use the term "religious trauma."
According to the Global Center for Religious Research, which you can find at GCRR.org, religious trauma is defined as "results from an event, series of events, relationships or circumstances within or connected to religious beliefs, practices or structures. That is experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive, and has lasting adverse effects on a person's physical mental or social, emotional, or spiritual well-being."
And that is a mouthful. So you might look that up. I'll put that in the show notes as well. It is a mouthful, but I do think that it encapsulates what I'm talking about when I talk about religious trauma. For me, religious indoctrination from the time that I was a child caused every problem on that list as my life played out. In fact, I feel like the list doesn't really reflect the depth of my experience. It's accurate, right? But it's just a list. There really aren't good words. There's not a really good way to convey what the lived experience of that has been like for me.
Also true for me is that the religious trauma that I was subjected to was being compounded by other kinds of trauma that were also happening to me during that same period. So "trauma stacking," and the effects of my trauma response to all of that. The religious trauma and the non-religious trauma still very much impact my life even to this day. Like, it's really big stuff for me.
So what does that look like long term effects of religious trauma reaching into adulthood. I'm 47 years old. At the time of this recording, okay? I still struggle with forming and maintaining intimate relationships. I struggle with trust. I don't trust people. And sort of, at my core, I also don't think that people should want to trust me. I have a difficult time with self-love and self-confidence. I do talk about having gained the ability to love myself, but that doesn't mean it's easy. It's still very much an uphill climb. Lots of days it can still be very difficult to feel good enough or wanted or valued for who and what I am independent of whether or not I'm measuring up to anyone's expectations. I could be knocking it out of the park, right? Doing the most good that I can think to do. I could be meeting everyone's demands. I could be, you know, living my life well, right. And I still will feel like a total loser, shit-bag. It's just these persistent feelings of not being good enough. That's a common part of my lived experience. I'll actually have people say, "Oh, my gosh, you're such a great guy. You're doing all this great stuff. You're so inspiring." I might be hamming that up a little. But, you know, when you behave in ways that make people happy, occasionally they'll tell you about that and they'll pat you on the back and compliment you. And it looks like, oh, you know, I'm made of the right stuff. But the truth is, at least some of that time the supposed goodness that people are reflecting back to me is literally my way of staying in front of a tidal wave of self-hatred or self-loathing that feels like it has the power to utterly destroy me If I slow down long enough to let it hit me.
Through religion, I was trained to believe, like really believe that I am essentially bad. "Sinful" was the word that we used. I believed that. I believed that I needed to be redeemed. I needed to be saved. That my basic nature is wickedness and depravity. That was so pervasive for me that I eventually co-opted that negative self judgment that religion poisoned me with. So even without religion in my life anymore, that repeated experience became so burned-in that it still shows up semi-frequently and I kick my own ass and I shame myself or criticize myself. I condemn myself. Another way of saying it is, I never give myself the kind of grace or love or compassion or mercy that I try to give other people. I'm just not good enough to take my own medicine. You know what I mean? Maybe you do that. I'm sure some of you listening to this are hearing what I'm saying and going like, "This dude's reading my mail."
So it's not at all uncommon for families that are devoutly religious to lack the ability to both manage conflict while also maintaining healthy relationships and those kinds of families. Things will tend to mirror the authoritative structure of God being the boss like you would see in the religious belief. So looking at the religious model of evangelical Christianity, for example, like I was raised under, God was seen as the father, the human father, a man, was considered the head of the home. And so problems are often solved by the father issuing authority not too differently from how God would. There's a lot of tough love or there's there's a potential for that. Punishments could be pretty harsh, even violent, like screaming at your kids or hitting your kids. And yes, I am also including spanking when I say "hitting your kids" because that is hitting your kids, right? It doesn't do anybody any good to not call a duck a duck. If you hit your kids and then call it "spanking" so it sounds like you're not hitting them, you're lying to yourself. You're lying to your community. You're lying to your kids, and your kids aren't stupid.
I am baffled by how often parents do things to their kids and completely forget, Children are adults in the making and they will be adults one day and they will remember a lot of the shit that you do to them. So just like keep that in mind. One of the things that I've had to learn to do to improve my own parenting is to, when I'm looking at my kids and when I'm thinking about how to deal with my kids, especially when things are not easy, is like, how would I talk to this child if this child was magically and instantly transformed into an adult? And I don't I don't necessarily think we do talk to our kids in the way that we would talk to an adult. But it's a good little quick exercise to snap me out of maybe overdoing the harshness. Like, I wouldn't scream at an adult like I may feel like I want to scream at my kid. I wouldn't bend an adult over and spank them. I wouldn't punch them. It is a good mechanism through which you can say like, "am I being over the top here?"
So anyway, parenting inside of this religious context can often be pretty harsh, but in that context it's never thought of as abuse, like how you might think of it if a drunk father or a drug using father did any of those exact same things to his kids. That would be abuse. Everybody would call it that. But when a religious father strikes his kids or yells at his kids, it's not only considered appropriate, it's thought of as being righteous. So harsh treatment of your children inside of a religious context can be seen as a virtue. And the whole time that's happening, the kids, while they're being forced to endure that, are also being expected to get on board with that, too. They're expected to agree with, "hey, we're saying this is proper. We're saying this is the way it should be." So the kids are enduring all of this. And as it's happening and they're being hurt and harmed and confused and they're scared and they're sad and they feel this separation... that whole time, you're getting them to say, "we agree that this is the way it should be. And when we grow up, we're going to be this way, too." The boys are raised to expect that they're going to have that kind of authority over their families. The girls are expected to fall in line as well. And so begins the vicious cycle, early on.
When I first started having kids, I was just repeating these behaviors. I was a yeller. I was a hitter. We spanked. I raged out and I felt very righteous in doing it. And as I healed over the years, I realized like, "Jeez, I have to stop this shit!"
This is all just a little peek at the fact that there were a lot of what I now call "perversions of thinking" that I had to work my way through when I was growing up. And it tampered with the very fabric of what should have been common sense understanding around what I consider now to be ordinary concepts. So, for example, even the ultimate model of love was twisted, was perverted. In this case, God would have been the model against which any definition of pure love — we called it Agape love — should be measured.
But again, it didn't make any sense. So, like, love could both grant you eternal life and then in an inane kind of supposed logic, was also willing to let you choose to burn in hell for eternity if, in fact, you decided that was more to your liking, God would actually let you choose that for yourself because He loved you.
Now, this is where we throw in the idea about free will. Talking about perversions of thinking, free will was always dangled in front of us as a kind of ultimate gift from God. It was proof that God loves you because he's not going to force your hand or make your decisions for you. He's going to let you make these decisions for yourself. Sounds pretty good, right? So, practically speaking, he gives you freedom to choose bliss... or freedom to choose torture, because God loves you so much, he is not going to force you to worship him. But ironically, he doesn't love you enough to give you sufficient perspective or mental wellness or protection from victimization or the vantage point needed... the perspective you need to make the right decisions for your own eternal well-being. Meanwhile, Satan, who God also created, is love's specially designed enemy, your enemy, and was given permission to test you and try to trick you into using your free will to send yourself to hell. I mean, it's just it's ludicrous.
One of my least favorite things to this day is to try to hear Christians do these mental acrobatics and rationalize all this stuff. And they can't stop doing that. They can't not do that. We're not dealing with iron or steel; it's like these ideas are Play-dough.
Now, interestingly enough, when I was a kid, I was actually smart enough to understand that no one would actually intentionally choose eternal torment by fire. And I knew that because in the world around me, the real world, no one was intentionally choosing to say, burn their hands on the stove for 5 minutes or suck on a melting hot tailpipe. Like, not even people who were strung out on drugs were that self-loathing, which had to mean that the only way anyone would likely wind up in hell is because they ultimately weren't truly convinced that it was a legitimate threat in the first place. They just didn't really believe it. It didn't make sense to them. It didn't add up. It just seemed like, "what?" You know, in which case, if they did wind up in hell, it would almost always be because they made a mistake or a bad judgment call, not because they chose hell, like, "Hell? Oh yeah, sure, I'll do that!" And so the real message, the perversion that I'm pointing to, was fundamentally that Love could grant you eternal bliss if you worshiped it or, if you make just the right quantity and quality of mistakes, Love was equally ready and willing to see you tortured. Oh, and by the way, you are welcome for the freedom to fuck that up. No problem. It's because I love you.
Dr. Steven Hassan, @cultexpert on Twitter, points to a lot of these mechanisms of coercion and control in his 'BITE Model of Authoritarian Control.' That's B.I.T.E. "B" stands for 'Behavioral Control.' Religion taught me that unconditional obedience was required in order to be pleasing to God or to the authority figures in your life, which made me, as a child, prone to being mistreated or manipulated because I wanted to please people who were in authority, including God, especially God, because I ultimately didn't want to go to hell.
So I'm biologically primed to be complicit because the body, as we all know, wants to survive. It's why we blink. It's why if you, say, by force of will, "I am never going to take another breath again. I'm done breathing. I'm done living." And then you hold your breath. Even if you're able to pull that off to the point where you pass out, as soon as you pass out your body, on its own, will start breathing again.
You're wired to survive. We're talking about trauma. I mean, we're talking about survival systems, self-protection. So we are wired to not want to go to hell or to not get hit by a bus or to not get hit by our parents, etc., etc.. And so, not just me, but any kid is prone to being mistreated or manipulated or, in the worst case scenario, to being abused, because we feel compelled to comply with anyone who can convince us of their authority. And I don't know if you know this or not but, there are some truly awful people in the world who are quite good at convincing kids and teens and adults of their authority, especially when it comes to kids and teens. Because when we're that young, we're not especially difficult to convince of much of anything, to be quite honest. So it's a really bad setup.
Back to the B.I.T.E. model... there's the "I," which is 'Information Control.' When I was growing up, the word "secular" was this blanket term we would use to describe anything and everything that was outside of our religious thought. There was this maintained differentiation between what was considered "of God" and what was considered "of the world." And you'll hear me refer to "the world" more than once in this talk. The world is everything outside of your religious views. There's no point in doing a list here. The shorter list is what's inside of your religious views.
So, after information control we get to "T," which is 'Thought Control.' We were trained to monitor our thoughts, to believe that it was actually possible to commit thought crimes or emotional crimes or fantasy crimes. Again, we would use the word "sin" here instead of crime, a sin being a crime against God. So the things that happened in your head, like inappropriate thoughts which you might willingly choose to dwell on, were considered crimes against God that had the actual potential of being damning sinful acts, even though they were entirely happening inside of your head. And don't even get me started on how that mixed with the idea of our sexuality growing up. So there's this policing of the external world, but there's this policing of the internal world to the next step.
There's "E," which is 'Emotional Control,' and that finishes out Steven Hassan's BITE Model of Authoritarian Control. Emotional control would sometimes be explicit, but a lot of the time it was implied. There was always coaching taking place on how one should feel about things. We were supposed to feel a certain way about, say, promiscuity, sex before marriage, about abortion, about cursing, about "the world." There that is again. It wasn't just thought control. There were these corresponding feelings that always seemed to go along with our thoughts. And it all needed to match up with what the group was agreeing we should be thinking and feeling. There was this acceptable range, and then there was this unacceptable range, of how a true believer should think and how they should feel.
Everything in this way, without trying to sound too melodramatic, really was a form of mind control. And the mind control was aimed at behavioral control. And behavioral control was rooted in the fear of losing your kids to the world. And of course, eventually to Satan and then to hell for eternity. But the whole thing was super unreliable. Nothing ever added up.
On the one hand, I shouldn't trust my intuition, remember, because I'm a wretch, I'm sinful, I'm not to be trusted. I'm in need of redemption. But on the other hand, if I have been saved and transformed by the "renewing of my mind" as we would say it, if I sincerely believe now that the intuition is coming from God, via the "still small voice," then I could trust it. Actually, I should trust it and was encouraged to and was rewarded when I did. So just terribly confusing.
There was more bad thinking that added up to religious trauma.
I was taught that selflessness in the form of extreme sacrifice was the ultimate good. That denial of myself was a kind of supreme virtue. I was taught to outsource my power or my sense of agency, to take on what was technically a victim mentality, although we would never have called it that, right?
I was truthfully a victim of my circumstance, my humanness, my depravity. I couldn't not be sinful. Being pure and deserving of an eternal reward was just not a thing that any human could ever achieve. Therefore, the power, the responsibility, the capacity to save me from me belonged to God alone. The ultimate outsource. Anyway, as a result of all of that junk, I became locked into these feelings of constantly having to live up to these unrealistic expectations, constantly having to prove myself, which later in life has led to bad habits, like over-giving, over-sharing, over-servicing, over-sacrificing.
For example, I might be making sacrifices for people outside of my family, but I'm not just giving out of my own personal resources, my own bucket. I might actually be tempted to sacrifice things that my kids should be getting, because I'm in this over-sacrificing mode.
These are all things that I absolutely still have to wrestle with to this day at 47 years old.
And there's more, but I'm guessing you get the idea.
So this thing that I'm calling religious trauma is not some hyper-inflated, marshmallow-cream-puff, bullshit, made up excuse that I use to call myself a victim so people will feel sorry for me. It is an absolutely legitimate, pervasive and persistent experience of what I consider to be a kind of psychological handicap that actually bleeds into the lived experience of being in my body as a grown man.
Now, I don't necessarily believe that the people who passed all of that crap down to me — and let me say very clearly here— it took a village, all right? It wasn't just one person or two people. It wasn't just in my house. Bad ideas inside of closed communities can create an echo chamber effect and a feedback loop, and it gets real loud in there to the point where you really don't stand a chance of thinking about the world in any other ways. But I don't actually think that the people who constituted my echo chamber were just bad people. I personally believe that they too were caught up in and damaged by these toxic ideas in the form of religion. So for me, this recording isn't about blaming people at all. It's about me, not them. They got enough of my time. I don't owe them my criticism.
This is about "how in the world am I supposed to feel comfortable approaching the idea of spirituality now, for my own good, after all of that?" What about me? Right? That's what this is. What about me? So I'm hoping to make it easy to see how my survival response and reaction to religious trauma was to over-correct and then flatly reject anything and everything that has looked even remotely like religion since I kicked religion to the curb, which, like I said, sadly, but not surprisingly, has included all manner of spirituality.
And so I've been faced with that dilemma, and I've been asking myself, "have I been denying myself access to something that could be truly wonderful, something that might be legitimately good inside the realm of spirituality and have I done that purely out of an unconscious need to never get screwed over again by religion?"
And I think the answer is, yes.
That's what I've been doing.
And so here lately, I've been working very hard in earnest and with lots of intentionality to allow myself to step back up to the idea, to the possibility, of a healthy experience of spirituality, without allowing my trauma response to trigger me into that fight or flight, mindless resistance that I have been stuck in since I abandoned religion, roughly ten years ago.
Talk about a wilderness experience! To be living in this promised land of ideas, to figure out how damaging and disruptive those ideas were, to become free from those ideas, but then at the same time to lock that door and never look back and go through a period of a decade or so, starving for what might be an actual side of me, my spiritual side, which is being neglected. And so where I'm at now is I don't want my trauma to deprive me of something that might actually be really good for me, just because it sits proximally close to one of the most harmful experiences of my life. Because that would mean that the trauma from my past is still actively hurting me today. And as someone who likes to think of himself as a survivor or even a thriver (on my best days), I don't like the sound of that. I don't like the practical reality of that.
In doing this work — the work of healing — the work of going back and asking myself, "did I go too far?" — that's where I'm finding out that I have really needed to come to terms with the terms... with what the hell spirituality even is to me anymore. Because after all of that religious specificity and toxicity, the word "spirituality," frankly, sounds very generic. It's sort of like the Linnaean System of Classification we see used in evolutionary science. There's this structure to the ordering of things and how they emerge in sequence from other things.
So in the Linnaean ordering, things move progressively from the 'most broad' down to the 'most specific.' So it starts with "kingdom," then "phylum" (or "division" if we're talking about plants), then "class," then "order," "family," "genus," and "species."
So in this case, maybe the term "spirituality" with its blanket-like coverage would set up at the top of that list, at number one where we see "kingdom," and maybe "religion," with all of its specificity, is closer to number six, where we find "genus." Maybe "doctrine," which is way more specific, is at seven, where we would find "species." I don't know. The point, is I have found these two ideas of "spirituality" and "religion" to be really difficult to separate because, for one, I have always believed intuitively that religion was a derivative of spirituality. And, in a sense, I actually think that it is, although I don't believe that religion must necessarily be what becomes of spirituality over time.
Another reason I found the concepts difficult to tease apart in any meaningful way is because, in my experience, religious people really love to defend their doctrine against bad-faith actors by saying that they themselves are in fact, spiritual, while the people they are being critical of are religious. "Oh, I'm not religious. I'm spiritual."
When I was growing up in religion, being a witch, for example, was thought of as evil. But it definitely was still considered to be spiritual by the people who were calling it evil. So witchcraft and demons and Satan, we put those things together as Christians. Anything that wasn't a part of our good, approved, "one true way" was necessarily part of the bad "other."
So, to the Christians I grew up around, you wouldn't even have to be talking about witches. You could be talking about Hinduism, Buddhism, Mormonism, even Catholicism in our group, which as I grew up and became friends with Catholics, it was always funny to me because Catholics were shocked to find out that Protestants didn't think Catholics were Christian, because to Catholics they accept Protestants as Christians, but not the other way around. At least that's what I was running into.
All of those faith systems were considered spiritual, but they were also thought to be wrong. They were being spiritual incorrectly. And, so, therefore maybe they were evil, because they didn't align with our various, specific beliefs. There was such a thing as being the wrong kind of spiritual. In fact, pretty much everything that I'm saying in this recording has already been chalked up as pure heresy (or apostasy, in my case, because I used to believe) to the people I used to hang with, because even I, right now, am widening the circle in search of a new place to stand with regard to my own desire to reclaim spirituality for myself.
So the old "in-crowd" for me is not happy about this. They don't like me for all the things that I'm saying. They may say, "Oh, I, I hate the sin, but I love the sinner." I'm going to have some people in my audience who hear this, and they're like, "I still like Luke. He's still an okay guy. But boy, is he lost," right?
I know this. I expect this.
Spirituality was never specific enough for us when I was a Christian and was, therefore, loaded with danger. Give me that old time religion. Religion was spirituality done right.
I think the formulation and the formalization and frankly, the corporate, group manipulation and interference with an individual's private experience of spirituality is precisely what makes religion religion.
So I hope I'm making it easy to understand why someone who has written off religion wholesale might feel best to just go ahead and lop off the whole thing at the root, up at the level of kingdom, or spirituality, just to be safe.
So it matters to me that I'm able to sort out a worthwhile understanding, an updated understanding of the concept of spirituality, of the term "spiritual."
For me, this is about how can I leave out the bathwater still but bring back the baby? And that is what I've been up to. And that's what this episode is about. And here is sort of where I'm at with that, as of now.
I think it's helpful if you can imagine if you were to go outside on a clear night and look up into the infinite blanket of stars that wraps around your entire field of view and take a moment to really try and bend your mind around the idea that you are in that moment, in that place, standing on a planet that is hurtling through the vast expanse of space and there is literally nothing between your face and the infinite expanse of the universe.
So, I get terrified when I think about the idea of floating face down on the surface of the ocean and staring below into the dark abyss, not knowing what on earth may be down there, looking back up at me, possibly wanting to eat me. But even the ocean has a bottom.
For all practical purposes, the universe is a kind of limitless ocean, and when you choose to face that, you are free-falling, in a way, at a very high rate of speed, into what may be infinity.
I'm at the point now where spirituality is precisely that unencumbered, unmanaged, uninhibited and totally unmitigated connection to the source of all that is.
We aren't just observing it, we are it.
It's a source to which we actually belong.
Standing beneath the stars, looking up, you are the source gazing back into itself.
Now, if you're of a certain religious ilk, then when I said that, that probably freaked you out or caused you to automatically and, really, probably without even having to think about it because we're programed, just to consider me to be, like, an enemy of your specific faith.
I'm nutty, I'm New age or whatever, or I'm possessed. You'll come up with some sort of unflattering opinion of me, just hearing me say that. And that's because a lot of religion, and I can speak specifically from my history with Christianity, believes that humans actually sit on top of nature as steward of nature, watching over it. Managing it. Subjugating it.
And you can certainly see the evidence of that kind of thinking in the way that specific religions and ideologies on the whole will carry themselves and behave in the world, with respect to how they manage nature, how they attempt to arbitrate morality, or police the affairs of others.
I believe that religion is what happens when any person or group of people (or even an ideology) inserts itself in between you and your own obscured connection to the source.
It's like someone stepping in and blocking your view of the stars at night.
Religion happens when a controlling force moves itself between you and The Expanse and attempts to force itself, sometimes through violence, sometimes through coercion, and sometimes through oppression or withholding or manipulation. It attempts to shoehorn its way in as a middleman who must be allowed to manage what is otherwise everyone's inalienable birthright, something we are all given, like our lives themselves, without asking for it, whether we want it or not.
We have a direct connection to the source from which we've come, and that connection does not need and is not made better by the mediation or the management of others. In fact, I think it's made worse in that way.
I am coming to believe that true spiritual experience can only be had when we remove everything that blocks our direct access to the infinite, including our own ideas about the infinite, which of course can be really hard to silence.
And that's why I think meditation can be such a meaningful practice, because it helps us exercise clearing away, not only the interference of others, but also the interference of our own mind. To let nothing, not even our own thoughts, come in and interrupt that connection. To try to remain immediate in our contact with the source, with no delay or interruption, if at all possible.
Because even when we think too much over the "what" or the "why" or the "how" of it, all those things that eventually lure us towards certainty, toward confidence, religion, doctrine, separation, otherness... it's "us vs them" and then, ultimately, isolation. This all happens when we insert separation, when we break that immediate contact, when we kill the immediacy.
My friend Brad said when we were talking about this, "I think, therefore I mediate."
And that's that's the idea.
The more you think or the more you let someone else think for you, the more you are killing the immediacy.
Immediacy means "without mediation." I think we need to let go of needing to know, of needing to understand, and to simply be one with who we are and what it is and the place and the time that we occupy.
And to stop trying to force the universe to fit inside of our tiny little minds. To instead allow it to envelop us, which it does anyway, whether we like it or not. But we can be willing participants if we can relax from needing to have all these answers, from needing to mitigate or mediate the experience.
Whereas religion would stand in your way and hold out its arms kind of like, in that, like, "Stand behind me, I've got you. I'll guide you or protect you or manage you or speak on your behalf, intercede for you."
I think level-one spirituality in its purest form will acknowledge that you already have everything that you need to experience this immediate connection for yourself, just like everyone else does. And anyone who tells you otherwise, I believe, is both resisting the truth of their own innate connection while also trying to rob you of yours.
And I think it's all because they're scared. They're scared of not knowing. Just like me, they were raised to refuse to silence their minds and they've become addicted, just like I was, to their own minds. Lust for knowing with certainty. People who are trapped in this thinking are staring into the abyss, but instead of feeling enthralled or delighted or inspired or swept away, they're scared of the possibility that something inside the belly of the void, in the depths of the source, means them harm.
Back when I believed a lot of this stuff, I would have said, "I'm not scared. I do feel delight. I do feel enthralled. I feel swept away." But I know now that the only reason I felt that way was because I was in compliance with the rules of the religion and, therefore, I felt like I was not on the chopping block and, therefore, I could experience the beauty and the glory of God and I could worship God and all of that.
But if I decided to step away from the worship, from the obedience, from the going along with the program, suddenly I'm pretty sure "that's my ass." So I don't accept feelings of delight or being swept away from someone only is able to experience those feelings if they're in compliance with religious doctrine.
What would it be to feel that way and not be scared that you could screw it up?
When we're trapped in religion, ultimately, I think we're unwilling to simply trust what we can't see or know. We're unwilling to just let go, accept our place, and enjoy the ride.
I think religion is anything that stands between the immediate connection to the source.
Oftentimes, it's a terror-driven inability to simply trust and be swept away by our predicament, and it's borne from an unwillingness to accept just how much we are not in a position to know.
So we make shit up, so we feel like we know.
I don't just want to be the guy who says, "science, science, science." I don't want that. I want to have my spirituality. But interrupting this mysterious connection by attempting to define it, by attempting to contain it, by attempting to structure it and place a system of rules around it, that is not what I'm after.
I'm done with that, and I think I'm finally starting to understand that.
In fact, the only true and worthwhile thing there ever was to begin with was already in place long before the frightened masses had even been born or been given the thousands of years within which they have conjured the religions that they've needed to satiate their fears.
To those of you who have also overcorrected, who are realizing that, "yeah, I threw out the baby with the bathwater," and maybe you've been hungry for the possibility of spirituality, but just like me, you felt like, "Dude, what kind of a fool would I be to go walking back toward that stuff? That's the stuff that hurt me!" And yet there's this feeling deep inside of you, like, "I feel like maybe I'm depriving myself of something good that's over in that direction." And you're in this war with yourself. If that's you, you're the person I made this recording for. And I have probably pissed off or hurt or offended a lot of people that I care about in doing this.
This recording, in a way, this is sort of a "coming out" for me.
My inner child chastised me the other day because I've done a good job of acknowledging the trauma that I've been through over the last ten years. So, I made this film and I've talked a lot about trauma and I've tried to extend, in whatever ways that I can, the goodness of healing and wellness to my family, my friends, my community, and even strangers. And I was so proud of myself for finally acknowledging and sort of looking at my inner child and saying, "I see you, buddy, and what happened to you wasn't good and it wasn't right. And I acknowledge that."
But the other day, the little guy in me said, "You know what? It's great. I'm thankful that you acknowledged that I was hurt and wounded and you're saying that was real. And, you know, you're calling a duck a duck, so to speak, but you're still not letting me say what I want to say because you don't want to hurt the feelings of the people who you care about but who you know aren't going to like what you want to say. How about you finish this and let me talk?"
And so I'm doing this for the faceless masses, tens of twenties of people who will hear this. [giggles] Maybe who need to hear this. And if that's you and you're thinking, "man, I might be wanting to go back toward spirituality," I would just say, think of spirituality as the art and practice of remaining as close and uninhibited as you can be to the source without trying to define it or understand it.
That's what I'm after now. I'm no longer willing to forfeit my connection because of the fear and the broken scrambling of those who would organize against the very way this vast, mysterious universe was already set up before they were lucky enough to arrive.
Is there life apart from religion? Absolutely!
Is there spirituality after religious trauma? I say, spirituality came first.
I have every right to be standing on this rock, just as confused as everyone else. I have every right to be more confused, to have less answers, to feel less confident. But is there something? If I'm being truly spiritual, I think, in a way, I have to almost be unwilling to answer that definitively.
But I will say, I am here for it.
And, for now, that is about the best I'm going to be able to do.
If any of this stuff connected to you, especially when I was talking about the religious trauma, like, what that looks like and some of the experiences of it when you're in it and some of the experience of what that looks like later in life. If any of that connected with you, I do recommend that you check out the Global Center for Religious Research, at GCRR.org.
They've got a ton of really helpful information. There's online courses about religious trauma. There's a ton of really helpful material there, including, they just recently did a pretty significant study on the effects of religious trauma. Even if it just means going and seeing like, "Hey, it's not just you, you're not the only one who feels this way, who was hurt in these ways."
And there are people that are a part of that organization who are still members of whatever faith you may be a part of. It's not like a bunch of atheists, and I don't consider myself to be an atheist. I'm agnostic. It just means I don't want to vote. I don't want to say what I think. I don't know that I even want to think. I just know that here I am and whatever it is, it is, and I'm fine with it.
I'm just going to spend my time and my energy, my resources... I'm going to spend all of that just trying to be the best version of me, this guy standing on this rock, flying through space.
And that's what I'm going to do and that's what I'm doing.
Thanks for listening. If you made it this far, wow. Wow! Cheers to you! I wish you well.