Religious Trauma and Addiction: Part I

Are you put out by anything religion, or questioning your beliefs? Do you see that more people close to you practice what they condemn in others? You might have religious trauma. What is this, and how do you find your way when you’ve been misled?

I maintain a firm stance that religion is not necessary to thrive, but spirituality is. I am neither against nor for organized religion, and I won’t share my religious/spiritual values in this post. My point is to neither argue for nor against it but to help you identify where you are in your journey and what may help you to recover stronger.

I often see those new in recovery present hesitant to enter support groups because they established walls against anything with the mention a God of Your Understanding. This signifies a presence of religious trauma, to me.

I don’t hold a belief that any single religion holds “the answers.” There is no one religion better than the rest. I’ve personally never met Allah, nor shook Jesus’s hand. I will never justify killing, shaming, debasing, or outcasting in the name of any religion. The “Crusades” were extermination tactics, akin to the Holocaust. These are nothing more than mass murder events.

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In fact, that is the very context of this article- abusive religious practices.

Man loves to take the word and twist it to one’s own devices. That’s not in the spirit of religion. That’s in the spirit of manipulation, power, and control.

Religion has a large positive foundation in society. However, there are many cultists out there that take these messages and turn them into impaired thinking styles and distorted core beliefs. Religious extremism is not the same thing as being extremely religious.

Religious extremism refers to the use of The Word to abuse, maim, and kill others. And, it is the root of much terror in the United States alone. From abortion clinics or synagogue bombings, home-grown terrorist groups such as white supremacists create manipulative hierarchies and rule with fear. They love to use shame, judgment, and exclusion. That, to me, is not living. That is existing in a state worse than death.

So covert, these societies remain beneath the radar for many. It’s akin to pulling fish out of the water. You don’t know it if it’s normalized in your community and you swim in it daily. I was unaware of the depth of terrorism these groups have until my 2005 trip to New York City. A dear homosexual friend of mine, Carl, and I toured the sites. He lived there and showed me around. In my 20s and ignorant of the world, I noticed the beautiful architecture of a church and commented to Carl I’d like to get a closer look. Dead-stop, Carl pulled back, affect changed immediately, and he invited me to do so alone. Carl then described the impact the Baptist religion had on him, with much-internalized homophobia and existential trauma.

I loudly verbalize my support for those of different orientations. As an autistic, heavily bullied, and shamed for my natural characteristics throughout childhood, these humans had more loving kindness and integrity than most people I knew. Such individuals exuded unconditional love and support- traits not found within 100 miles of my family of origin. In fact, my friendship with Carl began when he noticed how I isolated myself during college in teacher aide training. We joke that he adopted me. Since, he’s been a close family friend to my husband, children, and me. He’s now a doctoral-level chemist and an inspiration.

I believe it is imperative to have a spirituality of any kind, especially if you’re in recovery. That has been found to be one of the musts in numerous studies. I’ve also realized that need on my own recovery journey. Because, we as addicts, tend to make that addiction our God.

I emphasize that no matter what you find, find some wonder in the world. Spirituality is about knowing that you don’t know everything. It is seeing yourself as a part of the bigger picture. You are a piece of the puzzle. You and every other person alive have the same inherent qualities and characteristics as a human being: no better, no worse; just different.

(It is a diagnosable disorder to rigidly believe that you are better than everyone else).

So when it comes to belief in a higher power, Bill and Bob decided on the phrase “God of Your Understanding,” for a good reason. Judy R. does well to explain this in her 2009 article “A God of My Understanding.” If you look into the history of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), there is a whole host of side-line offshoots of AA that failed for one big reason- not everyone was a believer. It was made to be more inclusive of those with religions other than Christianity. The Oxford Groups failed along with several other temperance movements of the time. AA is considered to be the oldest and largest of the organizations to help folks stop alcohol use. And, its 12-Step model is used in countless self-help programs today such as with compulsive eating or smoking. However, it’s not the only one. Smart Recovery is also an excellent choice who want God no part of the picture. Based on a fact-laden model, Smart Recovery works to educate and help those in addiction to understand and change their thinking related to it.

Spirituality is an important part of recovery for most. There isn’t “one” single choice for everyone. We all have our own paths. But, for those lovely “character defects,” grandiosity is a common one found among us addicts/alcoholics. That’s one impact of having a good spiritual program. It keeps you in the right size.

Laudet, Morgen, and White (2006) discuss several points central to how spirituality enhances recovery. With social support, one is more likely to enter into and maintain sobriety. Spirituality helps people deal with stressful situations, provides structural support, connection, and belonging, and adds to the meaning. Living a life worth living is our goal as those active in 12-Step programs. Many people quit cold turkey and remain miserable. We call those dry-drunks. They exist daily, with little spirituality and growth. They still have those wonderful active characteristics that get in their own way. They can provide healthy outlets and time-occupying activities. Boredom is one of those things that can lead to relapse.

There are many other studies that have similar conclusions. But, that’s not the argument here.

Recovery can become difficult if you’ve been impacted by religious trauma.

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Religious trauma is defined as any major or minor event related to religious practices, according to Pia Mellody. As she defines,

“Includes a parent or caregiver being disrespectful of the child’s
reality, demanding to be a child’s higher power, demanding perfection,
overcontrolling, ignoring, neglecting, abandoning, or indulging a child. The parent or
major caregiver may be a religious addict, or the child may be traumatized by a
religious leader. Spiritual trauma also occurs when a parent or major caregiver does
not follow the established family rules or values as though he or she is above those
rules and values. All relational trauma is spiritual trauma because it teaches the child
to be one up or one down. “One-up or one-down” means in the better-than or less-than position in a conversation. Many parents “talk down” to their children,
especially when angry, and this would be an example of that.”

The Catholic sexual abuse scandals of decades past are just one example of a child traumatized by a spiritual leader physically.

The teachings can be weaponized, and used for power and control in overt (outright) and covert (insidious) ways. Religious trauma is a fairly well-known event. So popular, in fact, there is an institute for it, a scientific research group, countless books, and even a Wikipedia page. Different religious groups have been oppressing other faiths since 10,000 BC., give or take a few centuries.

Most of us are half good, half bad. Or, we are just human: fallible, imperfect, and capable of great things or great destruction.

We have a mix of characteristics. Those are just that- parts of us that make us human. People label these as “good” or “bad” based on their experiences and beliefs- but these definitions are not consistent across the board.

Good, or bad, the central issue remains that as long as you are respecting other people’s boundaries and not putting others in danger, you have the right to your own behaviors. However, you are not free from the consequences of those behaviors.


  1. “Crusades.” A&E Television Networks, 7 July, 2021. Accessed January 31, 2023.
  2. Johnson, Daryl. “Religious Extremism and its Relationship to Violent Conflict” Southern Poverty Law Center. 9/25/2017. Accessed 2/1/23 at:’s-name
  3. R., Judy. “A God of My Understanding.” April 2009. Grapefine.
  4. Schaeffer, K. “Alcoholics Anonymous: Original ‘Big Book’ Manuscript: 70-year-old manuscript revealed; shows Christian references toned down.” September 23, 2010.
  5. Smart Recovery. 2022:
  6. Laudet AB, Morgen K, White WL. The Role of Social Supports, Spirituality, Religiousness, Life Meaning and Affiliation with 12-Step Fellowships in Quality of Life Satisfaction Among Individuals in Recovery from Alcohol and Drug Problems. Alcohol Treat Q. 2006;24(1-2):33-73. doi: 10.1300/J020v24n01_04. PMID: 16892161; PMCID: PMC1526775.
  7. Whetstone, B. Types of Trauma. Accessed 2/1/23 from:
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