“Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome”–An Autopsy on the Death of Religious Faith

Image Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Image Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Reba Riley’s memoir, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing describes her loss of religious faith in her early 20’s and her subsequent attempt to assemble a meaningful spiritual life for herself.

I was struck by her interview with the Religion News Service because at the time I read it, I had just finished writing my paper for the journal to be published at the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families at which my wife and I are both speaking.  Riley’s interview read like a case study of the major problem I was describing in the paper; Spiritual Ambivalence.

Perpetual Wanderers NOT Seekers

People often call Millennials afflicted with spiritual ambivalence “seekers” but that’s not entirely true.  It would be more accurate to say that they are perpetual spiritual wanderers.  The difference is that seekers want to find a spiritual home, but for the spiritually ambivalent, the idea of landing in one spiritual place is offensive, restricting, and, besides,  completely unnecessary.   Here is how Riley–who claims to have sampled 30 religions by her 30th birthday–puts it.

“I never set out to find a new religion, but rather to face my spiritual injuries and find healing, all the experiences—from Amish to Sweat Lodge to Pentecostals were not only viable; they were essential to rediscovering my faith. The journey would have been impossible without exploring many religious expressions—including, and maybe especially, Scientology. It was so foreign of an experience that it forced me to ponder questions I’d never thought to ask.”

She recounts an experience with a pastor who challenged her assertion that she was Christian.

…a few months ago a pastor was essentially cross-examining my answer to this question [ed note: of whether she was Christian]. After forty-five minutes I gently said, “Sir, it seems like you’re trying to find out if I am Christian enough for you. If you’re asking if I love Jesus, the answer is ‘yes.’ If you’re asking if I follow Jesus, the answer is ‘yes.’ If you’re asking to give me a litmus theology test, I’ll probably fail, because my theology is really quite simple, kinda like Jesus’s: Love God; Love people. Love, period.” He decided I was Christian enough, but it would’ve been okay with me if he hadn’t. 

The spiritually ambivalent like to believe that they have evolved beyond the tribalistic categories of denomination and doctrine but the research strongly suggests that what what is really going on is a deep-seated fear of spiritual commitment–a fear often rooted in the culture of divorce.

Church Trauma or Divorce Trauma?

The research of eminent psychologist of religion,  Dr. Ken Pargament (2011) shows that the kind of spiritual ambivalence Riley describes is rooted in the family; specifically, in the child’s inability to idealize his parents or other adults in authority in his life (teachers, pastors, coaches, etc).  This is often the direct spiritual consequence of divorce.  Of course, all children come to realize, at some point, that adults are fallible, and discovering this is even necessary for a healthy transition to adulthood.  But Pargament’s research shows that if this realization comes too soon or in unwelcome ways–because the adults in children’s lives have, for some reason, been experienced as not credible, unavailable, disconnected, distracted, selfish, out-of-touch, neglectful or abusive–children don’t learn whom they can reliably follow or to whom they can consistently turn for guidance–except themselves.  Ultimately, such a child’s ambivalent attitude toward parental maturity and wisdom is projected onto all institutions charged with helping people find meaning and significance.

Elizabeth Marquardt (2006; 2013) observed a similar dynamic in her groundbreaking work on the spiritual lives of children of divorce.  Even in so-called “good divorces” (i.e., low conflict divorces when the children maintain a good relationship with both parents) children are constantly moving back and forth between two–often, very different–worlds (the mother’s and the father’s).  These “worlds” never come together in any meaningful way except inside the children’s own heads.  Because of this, Marquardt asserts that the majority of adult children of divorce generally struggle with trusting anyone besides themselves to help make sense of life.


My point here is to not question Riley’s sincerity.  I respect the journey she’s on.  Rather, as a professional counselor who practices spiritually-integrated psychotherapy, it’s my to draw from the research and fill in some blanks people in Riley’s position often leave empty.  Without addressing these blindspots perpetual wanderers like Riley will never find true peace as they continue to attribute their genuine spiritual injuries to the wrong sources. Like A Christmas Carol’s  Jacob Marley, they will remain doomed to walk the earth, constantly carrying the chains that bind them and unable to commit to a spiritual home.  I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere….and weary journeys lie before me!”

It is certainly true that religious groups can be petty, nasty, discriminatory and even traumatizing.  I don’t mean to deny anything she may or may not have been through in her experiences with institutional churches.  But the one thing that professional psychologists-of-religion note is that people often misattribute the source of their spiritual wounds.  They point to X situation with pastor Y or co-religionist Z–and those things may have indeed happened and may have indeed been serious.  But what makes these church-based experiences traumatic for some but not others is that many individuals who are traumatized by these experiences have already developed spiritual feet of clay because of pre-existing family traumas that have impacted their spiritual development.  These family traumas often go as unrecognized drivers of spiritual disorders because people fail to make the connection between their relational and spiritual lives–although they are, in fact, deeply connected to and even predictive of each other.

The Plot Thickens

When I began this article I hadn’t seen Riley’s book.  But in light of the above you might imagine that after I read her interview, I said to myself, “There is no way she is not an adult child of divorce.”  I had no idea if that was true, but I did a little digging and found that, in fact, my hypothesis was correct. On page 46 of her book she shares a conversation  in which her mom asks if Riley would have remained in the church of her childhood had her mom and dad hadn’t gotten divorced. Riley states.

“That was not a question I had expected.  Their divorce when I was nineteen changed my life, certainly.  It had broken my ideas about God and family and the world but it’s impact was not a loss of faith:  My grief caused me to dig deeper into faith.  It was only later–when I realized I didn’t, I couldn’t, believe in the primary tenets of Christianity–that I walked away.  And it was the walking away from everything I knew that caused the Breaking (sic).”

Reading this statement through the lens of the available research, it’s clear that the divorce changed everything.  Even Riley admits as much although she fails to appreciate the full spiritual significance of her post-divorce spiritual trauma.  No, the divorce didn’t cause her to immediately run away from her church.  But it left her feeling like she was the only one she could trust to determine “the Truth.”  The spiritual wound caused by her parents divorce t sent her down a path that caused her to reject any spiritual truths  she couldn’t reconcile exclusively via her own personal perspective and limited life experience (and I don’t mean that perjoratively. We ALL have limited experience compared to 2000 years of revelation and human experience).  After her parents’ divorce there was no longer any authority besides herself she could trust; no single system to whom she could make herself vulnerable, besides herself.  She felt trapped by the spiritual home(earlier she states that she felt that the truth did not set her free but “trapped” her)  that lied and said it could keep her safe, and so she left because it is safer to be spiritually homeless than to set yourself for that kind of hurt ever again.

Tiny House

Of course, her parents’ divorce did not result in a loss of faith.  Riley obviously had and has a very strong faith (defined by psychologists as the innate human drive to seek meaning, significance and transcendence) but unless she is willing to address the real trauma, the trauma of her parents’ divorce resulting in an existential fear of spiritual commitment, she will be forced to perpetually deny herself any spiritual home that does not fit within the confines of her own experience–and, in the grand scheme of human experience–that is a tiny home indeed.

Family Life: Cause and Cure

The takeaway, as I have noted before,  is that family life is the largely unappreciated crucible of spirituality.  We note in our book, Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kidsall the literature says that if parents want their children to own their faith as adults, they have to experience their faith as the source of their warmth in their home.  If a faithful family lacks that warmth, then children will see faith as an empty shell that can’t deliver what it promised. And if a faithful family breaks apart, children experience faith–and the security it promises–to be a terrible, hurtful lie that must be avoided at all costs.

The flip side is that parents can do a lot–more than they often think–to positively impact their children’s faith development. Of course our children need to have a personal encounter with Christ for their faith to be authentic, but parents can do a lot to make sure that our children do not live in fear of that encounter.  We can prepare our children to open their hearts to receive Christ fully and make themselves comfortable in a warm and stable spiritual home. And we can do that by helping them experience our faith as the source of authentic comfort, warmth, and stability in our family home.  For more information on how YOU can raise children who know how to find the truth they are seeking, check out a copy of Discovering God Together:  The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids.


Comments are closed.