Trauma and Deconversion: Questions for Pastors and Philosophers


tear in eye

Written by Michelle Panchuk.

Michelle received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of South Carolina and will be a research fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion for the 2016-2017 academic year. In her free time she enjoys reading children’s fantasy, hiking with her husband, Yuriy, and collecting dog-sightings with her toddler, Miroslava

Content note: descriptions of religious trauma, physical abuse and mention of rape.


“Better to refuse even the truth for a time, than, by accepting into our intellectual creed that which our heart cannot receive, not seeing its real from, to introduce hesitation into our prayers, a jar into our praises, and a misery into our love. If it be the truth, we shall one day see it another thing than it appears now, and love it because we see it lovely; for all truth is lovely.” — George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons

Recently Seth Cain wrote about what pastors want from their philosopher friends. In part, it was a call for us to consider those weighty, soul-wrenching situations in which parishioners turn to God, and to their pastors, for support. It was a reminder that what people need is not always more theological or philosophical reflection, but a loving presence in time of need. I think Cain is exactly right. But while many find comfort in their faith in the midst of suffering, for others, faith itself is the source of deep pain. There are those who, as the result of religious trauma, have left their faith, doubt their faith, or try desperately to maintain a grasp on what used to be their faith. The church and the academy tend to have little to say to such people, and when we do speak, it has often with scorn or suspicion. I believe we can, indeed, we must, do better. Here I offer a first attempt at describing the problem and then suggest a few directions of inquiry that may provide us, as theologians, as pastors, as philosophers, and as Christians, better resources with which to respond to religious trauma.

By religious trauma I mean an array of negative experiences of the divine, of religious practice, of religious community, or of religious dogma that are personally transformative in ways that significantly diminish the individual’s capacity to engage in or experience these very things in the future. Religious trauma is related to the more general problem of evil, but raises a distinct set of questions that are not answered by more general responses to evil, just as such. Suffering in general can pose an obstacle to faith, but there is something unique, and uniquely problematic, about being harmed (or perceiving oneself to be harmed) by God, in the name of God, with the approval of God, or by those who claim to represent God.

Consider the following examples:

A young child is repeatedly and brutally beaten by her religious parents. She is told that since God commanded the Israelites to stone their rebellious children, anything they do to her short of that is divinely approved, and morally deserved for her childish misbehavior. They say that they must beat her because God wants them to. One night, they lock her out of the house as punishment for some misdeed. Sitting alone, bruised and bleeding, gazing at the stars, the girl has an overwhelming sense of the presence of God—a presence utterly terrifying because she perceives it to be of a being who delights in her suffering. This experience fundamentally shapes her feelings about the divine. Whatever she may come to believe about God, she cannot shake the deep revulsion she has at any attempt to address herself to God.

A young boy is raped by his priest in his church and sworn to secrecy in the name of God. Telling anyone will hurt the reputation of the church and displease God. Whatever he may come to believe about the church, the sight of a priest or even a church building continues to make him physically ill.

These are two cases of religious trauma. In both there is a sense in which it is almost irrelevant what the individuals come to believe about the experience or its evidential force with respect to the truth of their religious beliefs. The experience itself both transforms them and subjects them to affective (e.g., fear, revulsion), physical (e.g., nausea, racing heart), and other psychological (e.g., intrusive thoughts, doubts) states that partially or completely preclude them from full participation in religious life. In the former case, the woman’s attempts to worship are hindered because, though she may believe God to be worthy of her worship, her revulsion at every attempt to relate herself to God impedes the love and adoration she believes she must have. In the latter, the man’s ability to participate in religious practices, such as receiving the Eucharist from a priest, within his faith tradition is significantly hindered. If he is persuaded of the importance of these practices for his religious faith, then his experience has diminished his capacity to engage in his faith. Both individuals have been traumatized by religion, and that trauma negatively affects the further practice of their faith. Certainly, this is not the only way that harm done in the name of God may impact an individual, but this is one significant, and not at all rare, way that it does.

A common response from philosophers to descriptions of religious trauma is to dismiss them as pastoral, rather than philosophical, concerns. Since they are not problems about rationality of religious belief (at least not from the standpoint of theoretical reason) or the evidence for the truth of some religion, they fall outside of the purview of philosophy. But pastors are often equally unable to address the topic in a helpful way. They say things like, “But you KNOW that isn’t true! Why don’t you just move on/get over it/forgive/forget.”

In both cases, there appears to be a deep-seated assumption that religious faith is primarily an intellectual exercise. If you just adopt the right set of propositional attitudes, everything else (including those aspects of faith that are not merely intellectual—obedience to God, for example) falls into place. This, it seems to me, fundamentally ignores the kind of beings humans are, and the kind of thing worship is. While I do not yet have a fully developed theory of worship, worship cannot be simply the holding of the right set of propositional attitudes. Within Christianity, paradigmatic cases of worship seem to assume some level of belief, but also involve things like a committing of oneself to God, loving God, obeying God, adoring God, trusting God, and even enjoying God. If this is correct, and certain kinds of religious trauma preclude the individual’s ability to adopt the requisite states, might that inability count as a practical reason to deconvert? If so, what do we say of those who stay? Is it rational to continue considering oneself a follower of a God by whom one is repulsed?

My sense is that most philosophers and clergy want the answer to be, no, to the first question, and, yes, to the second. Some philosophers of religion suggest that any rejection of theism is the result of cognitive or moral deficiency (See for example, Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, Chapters 7 and 14 are particularly relevant). But even those who acknowledge the rationality of atheism often speak as if only intellectual doubts could possibly count as reasons against religious faith. This is not to say that survivors of religious trauma never deconvert as the result of intellectual doubts. Many do. But there are others who simply cannot find a plausible way to keep on doing those things they believe to be essential to calling themselves a religious believer. These, who deconvert as the result of trauma, are then labeled “angry,” “emotional,” “irrational,” or “hurt.” In the end, isn’t this just another insidious form of victim blaming? Isn’t this just a lazy way to reinforce the privilege of those of us lucky enough not have been deeply wounded by our faith?

There are a number of lines of theological and philosophical inquiry that I believe could offer helpful resources in unraveling these difficult questions and in extending greater empathy to survivors of religious trauma:

1.) Development of a robust theory of worship. The recent debacle over Larycia Hawkins statements have prompted some interesting work in this direction that I hope will develop beyond a desire to merely draw lines in the sand. As I mentioned above, taking seriously the affective aspects of worship might explain why someone who cannot manage to find herself in the requisite affective states might have a reason to deconvert. Conversely, attention to the ways in which loving the things that God loves (love of neighbor, kindness, mercy, etc.) is also an act of worship might explain how a survivor might have a reason to continue identifying as a religious believer, despite her inability to love God, or even address herself to God through prayer, as she currently perceives the divine being.

2.) Attention to the fact that Christians worship a God who is a survivor of religiously-motivated abuse. Jesus was put to death by religious leaders in the name of God.

3.) Consideration of the implications of communal faith. Can we say on one hand that religious community is essential for faith, and simultaneously believe that the fault rests solely on the “hurt” deserter when they leave their faith because of religious trauma?

4.) Consideration of the parallels between canonical cases of religious experience and cases of religious trauma like the one described above.

5.) Work on embodied religious experience (See, for example, the work being done by Christina Van Dyke and Robyn Dembroff. Religious folks are not brains believing in God and engaging in religious life from the comfort of their vats. They are embodied individuals, experiencing their faith as embodied beings.

6.) Exploration of the interplay between theoretical and practical reason in religious belief and religious practice.


7 thoughts on “Trauma and Deconversion: Questions for Pastors and Philosophers

  1. Brock Bahler

    Sorry for the lengthy post: I respond as one who (1) teaches philosophy of religion, (2) pursued my PhD in philosophy largely as a way of recovering from the trauma of 3.5 years of working in a megachurch, and (3) is currently doing research on embodied religious experience, so I have a lot to say in response to this great post.

    (1) It is largely only analytic philosophers who “dismiss” religious traumatic experiences because “they are not problems about rationality of religious belief.” This is one of the problems with much of analytic philosophy, in that it limits religious belief to propositional truth statements and logical theorems. Continental philosophy (e.g., phenomenology, existentialism, psychoanalysis)—but also William James’s American pragmatism and perhaps even Girard’s or C.S. Lewis’s view of myth—has many tools for taking religious trauma seriously, because it rightly recognizes that critical roles that perception, mood, historicity, and embodiment play in human subjectivity and the human condition. Our life experiences—especially the events of early childhood—have a profound impact in coloring the rest of our lives, so there’s no sense in belittling those experiences.

    When dealing with those who are survivors of religiously-motivated abuse, we need to pay attention to our histories and the histories of those we worship with. With that in mind, one solution would be to come up with creative alternative metaphors for God [e.g., for those who have had pretty crappy relationships with their fathers, perhaps dropping the God as Father metaphor is a worthwhile idea. Besides, they’re other good reasons to dropping it—or at least minimizing it—anyways]. On a pedagogical note, I’d juxtapose Plantinga’s *Warranted Christian Belief* with something like Wiesel’s *Night* or Voltaire’s *Candide*, which provide some potent warranted reasons for unbelief. One of my objectives in my philosophy of religion courses is to cultivate empathy and charitable understanding toward other viewpoints. Even if we still ultimately disagree, my religious students should (and usually do) be able to walk away appreciating Wiesel’s struggle or Sartre’s rejection of religion or Hume’s conclusion that God doesn’t care; and my atheist students should (and usually do) be able to walk away with a newfound understanding of the long history of rigorous philosophical thought in the Church.

    (2) After 3.5 years of working at a megachurch, I personally was thoroughly burnt out and burned by the church. Not only was it one of those “work yourself out for Jesus, because you can sleep in the afterlife” (said directly from the pulpit) kind of churches, it was also a pretty fundamentalist church that believed even asking questions about core doctrinal statements was a likely sign of heresy. To top it all off, in those brief years, the church underwent several(!) scandals, firings of high-level staff, and political maneuverings while I was there. Trauma is certainly a good word for what my wife and me went through.
    When we moved so I could go to grad school, one of the reasons we survived this trauma was because we found a church that was exactly the opposite, a church that was self-described as “a church for people recovering from church.” The first time I met with the senior pastor, he told me I needed to give myself the grace and time to work through my past. He took my anger and hurt seriously and never sought to minimize it. It is also a place where theological diversity is appreciated and doubt is not something to be swept under the rug, but rather, is a critical ingredient for developing authentic and vulnerable relationships. At our church we tell our stories of struggle, we share our doubts and questions with each other, and we’re more interested in weeping with those who weep than offering trite answers to the problem of suffering. You mention working on “embodied religious experience,” and one of the reasons this church has been so good for us is that it is grounded in a praxis-oriented theology. Rather than having a list of propositional doctrinal statements that might be used to determine who is in or out, we commit to follow in the way of Jesus in the practices of listening, learning, eating, encouraging, and giving. Praxis precedes theory. Our doctrine flows out of these actions. And there’s good reason to believe that this is more accurate to human experience and more what the early church believed before it was highjacked by modernity.

    (3) On the scholarly level, there’s a whole slew of thinkers I’d point you to that “work on embodied religious experience” and contest the reduction of religion to intellectualism. Again, I’d largely point you to the continental/phenomenological tradition. There are a ton of people (myself included) who brought phenomenology to bear on cognitive neuroscience to show that cognition is embodied and not merely embrained. As Merleau-Ponty put it “I am my body.” The body is not secondary to thinking but critical for thinking and my everyday attunement with the world. On this score, the church would do well to make use of the work of Dan Zahavi, Mark Rowlands, Shaun Gallagher, David Morris, and Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, among many others. Kierkegaard is obviously a good starting point for the primacy of a subjective truth over an objective truth. But I’d also look at the work of Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu who have done extensive work on habit (or “habitus”) and how rituals, everyday rhythms, communal practices, and our corporeal posture in the world are unique forms of “knowing” that are neither purely subjective nor purely objective. These thinkers provide us with a robust starting point for thinking through a theology that is grounded in embodiment and praxis rather than detached intellectualism. Indeed, it is living into these practices that change your thinking and not vice versa. I believe it was Richard Rohr who said, “We do not think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.” Someone who has done extensive work on cultivating a theology of worship grounded in Christian action is James K.A. Smith in his *Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works* (and to a lesser degree his *Who’s Afraid of Relativism?*), so I’d check that out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michelle Panchuk

      Thanks for this thorough and thoughtful response. Yeah, it is completely true that most of my critique grows out of the particular weaknesses of analytic philosophy of Religion. I am aware in a broad sense of much of the work you cited, but coming as I am from the analytic tradition, I have only just begun to turn my research in that direction. It’s a pretty steep learning curve for someone who just defended a dissertation in analytic Metaphysics and Philosophy of Religion! But I will definitely keep these resources in mind and take a look at your work.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Seth Cain

    Thanks for this excellent post. I hope to directly (and indirectly) interact with these questions and insights in my next post. No doubt religious trauma, at some point on the severity scale, has affected many within the Church, if not a majority – myself included (and numerous times over). In many ways, we need to recover our theology of suffering and the centrality of Christ as one who “suffered outside the camp (your #2 above & Hebrews 13).” My parish is presently engaging the question of the Church’s survival and even thriving, despite 3 centuries of enduring unthinkable violence and withering persecution. They were able to reconcile their suffering with a God who promised to save, deliver and heal, but who must have seemed absent, cold or weak in the face of Rome and broader humanity. And it seems they were able to do so around constant remembrance of Christ’s own broken body and spilled blood, artifacts of his affective rejection, public shaming and ridicule.

    Brock’s experience as shared in the comment above highlights the breadth of the reality at the level of American ecclesiology and what is, in my view, a replacement of the altar with the stage – an ongoing “pragmatic” compulsion to amass “nickels and noses,” leaving many in the Church’s impersonal wake. And I think that’s only part of the loss and of our misshapen efforts to care for the traumatized and encourage people to belong in some meaningful way in their hurt and even disenfranchisement without “checking all the boxes.”


    1. Michelle Panchuk

      Thanks for your response, Seth. No doubt, lots of people are affected by religious trauma. The church is made up of people, and people hurt each other often, so everyone participating in religious community will have experienced some amount of pain in a religious context. It is also true that religious trauma is a continuum. Not all religious trauma is as severe or as obvious as the examples I give here. At the same time, I don’t think we want to categorize every unpleasantness, or even every form of suffering, that one might experience within Religion as religious trauma (not that you did so), any more than we include every form of suffering outside of religion as a form of trauma. My worry about including too much in the category is two fold: 1.) We risk minimizing what survivors have endured. I might be hurt if I am repeatedly overlooked for some leadership position in the church, or if the church splits with plenty of hard feelings to go around, but that isn’t quite the same thing as being taught from childhood that God wants you to be brutally beaten or that God will send you to hell if you disclose your sexual assault to your parents. 2.) I really hope that it isn’t true that majority of religious people have been hurt in the name of God in such a way that it transforms them on this deep and fundamental level. Though it is possible that this is just wishful thinking.

      I think that developing a theology of suffering in general can go a long way toward addressing the issue, but I also want to argue that there is something unique about religious trauma as a category of suffering. Persecution is weighty, but in a very different way. Harm inflicted from the outside, by an “enemy,” almost automatically gets categorized by the victim as a wrong. She can forgive (if she does) precisely because she believes herself to have been wronged by the persecutor. But there is something uniquely damaging about harm inflicted in the name of God, especially when the victim internalizes that justification. Abuse under the guise of love and in the name of God with theological justification is different just because the victim often has no framework from which to call her experience a case of suffering wrong. It just is LOVE and GOD for this person. And it is that dynamic of abuse (which isn’t unique to religious settings) that causes the long term transformation that can so significantly impede the survivor’s ability to hold on to her faith.


      1. Seth Cain

        I appreciate the distinction you draw and point taken. Sadly, I certainly have encountered a staggering number of people who have visceral reactions to church or church leadership because they were deeply wounded by a particular teaching or tradition as Christian, steeped in soul-sucking legalism and guilt, subjected to coercive leadership, etc. God was lost or warped as a result, leaving deep pain and /or staunch aversion. And perpetrators aren’t always as willful and intentional as an abusive priest or violent parent. Sometimes they are just deeply misled, which can add layers of complexity much like you mention above. This is more definition to the continuum I’m referencing.

        The question of how people can remain faithful while having these aversions, as you mention in your post, is deeply intriguing to me. And I think this can seep into vocational ministry when church is your work and God is your boss, so to speak. It can be isolating and confusing. I’ll hope to include more on this in my post.

        In terms of a theology of suffering, I agree persecution and religious abuse are different in kind and (psychological) degree. But both will need Christ’s own suffering as a way forward if healing, not just association with faith, is to be hoped for.


      2. Michelle Panchuk

        Thanks for this reply, Seth. That all sounds, sadly, right.

        Like all of the things we are talking about, the theology of Christ’s suffering is important and has the potential to be deeply healing, but simultaneously poses a significant obstacle for many people in this position. I’ve seen certain theories of the atonement, which is closely connected to Christ’s suffering, put to destructive use. Which means that the good theology would be a balm, but perhaps a terrifying one.


  3. Seth Cain

    Since you mentioned it, I think a conversation on this blog about the Larycia Hawkins debacle could be helpful for me as a pastor trying to see through the eyes of an academic about her approach, her statements and their implications for local church worship within orthodoxy. Although I’ve had many conversations, the dust has never sufficiently settled on that matter (apart from my belief Wheaton handled it with tone-deafness and haste).


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