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.