Traumatized by religion

At the AAR, Dan Barber pointed out that most of our academic circle consists of people who have been traumatized by religion and yet have refused to let go for some reason. This is not to say that we attend church — I make a point of avoiding my parents’ evangelical church, which never fails to make me feel absolutely dead inside — but we have obviously remained “engaged” with religion in our own weird way.

The holiday season often brings home this point to me in a much more visceral way than usual, as the old childhood fears and resentments have a way of resurfacing long after I thought I had put them behind me. Gifts tend to be particularly fraught for me for a variety of reasons, and in recent years I’ve started to think that my touchiness on that front stems from a certain ambivalence about what my parents “gave” me more generally, what they worked hardest at passing along to me — and that was precisely religion.

I’ve gone through times in my life when my most fervent wish was that I could get back all the time I spent in youth group, or more importantly, that I could somehow “reboot” back before the emotional programming that happened there. In the years after I graduated college, I became increasingly convinced that my evangelical upbringing had ruined my life by permanently alienating me from my own emotions and leaving me strangely empty inside.

I went through a period when I was very cynical about evangelical Christians, and I had good reason to. I distrusted the forced niceness around me, seemingly always accompanied by passive-aggressive manipulation behind the scenes, and it got to the point where I assumed that anyone who was overtly nice or friendly must have some kind of sinister agenda. I hated the guilt and shame surrounding sexuality that they pushed onto vulnerable young people — leading to an utter moral bankruptcy in evangelical discourse surrounding sex, above all on the question of homosexuality. I even went so far as to tell one of my youth pastor friends — a “hipster evangelical” type who likes a good craft beer and listens to Wilco — that by being “cool” he was basically tricking people into remaining affiliated with an organization that was hurting them and would ultimately hurt their children as well. (Good natured as he was, he of course felt that deep down, we fundamentally agreed.)

Yet the thought of simply declaring myself an atheist never seriously occurred to me. I don’t think that it’s because of my abiding appreciation for Christ’s sacrifice or my profound sense of the fallen nature of humanity. Rather, it’s the same reason that I can’t bring myself to open up one of Richard Dawkins’ anti-religious screeds — boredom. Becoming a doctrinaire atheist who dismisses anything with the whiff of religion to it would mean becoming a fundamentally boring person. My weird relationship to this religion thing, my refusal to try to simply “get rid of it,” seems to be at the base of whatever it is that keeps me interesting.

More than that, though, I reject the call of doctrinaire atheism because it would mean submitting my own experiences to a framework that would entirely falsify them. I did not experience religion as brainwashing or sheer authoritarianism. I did not experience it as something that could not stand up to any questioning or that did not attempt to be persuasive in its own way. I wound up thinking myself out of active religious commitment, but I was thinking the entire time, including when I was trying my best to live up to my religious commitment — just as I continue to think through and along with religious thinkers and materials.

I didn’t remain committed to the religion of my upbringing for so long simply because my parents were “making” me. I remained committed because I found something fascinating about it. Now I indulge that fascination in a different way — of necessity a more distanced and abstract way. I think this kind of stance is why I found Zizek so appealling toward the end of my wandering in the wilderness at Olivet. All that talk of being healed by the spear that smote you or enjoying your symptom resonated with me in a way that it took me years to think through and articulate. The same goes for Agamben’s fascination with inoperativity and the new, messianic use for the law: study or play.

There’s an important sense in which having those kinds of concepts to work with saved my life — or better, let me start redeeming my life, stopping a certain twisted machine in its tracks and scrapping it for parts.

14 thoughts on “Traumatized by religion

  1. Given the themes you sound in this post, you might particularly appreciate chapter five (the concluding chapter) of James C. Edwards’ “The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism” ( He’s an ‘atheist’ Wittgenstein scholar, who remains enamored of what religion can mean in the twenty-first century. For a taste, here’s the final line (pace Heidegger): “What should it means for us to be religious? I have answered it thus: to dwell poetically on the earth as a mortal. That the question and its proper answer might at some time be unintelligible or trivial is not the point, so far as I can see. This is our life: Should we not live it as simply and sincerely and joyfully as we can?”

  2. I recognize almost all of this. I wonder if it all appears strange and foreign to people who weren’t traumatized by religion?

    For me theology itself as an academic and abstract game became a distancing and protective shield to the trauma of religion. It gave me a way of processing everything in a language that was still permissible in my world but one that opened up a gap between myself and what I was saying. I think about Agamben’s idea that one day we will play with the law as a toy. It seems like there might be a psychological aspect to that. In the same way that religion was a brutalizing thing in my childhood, theology let me play with these same ideas as if they were toys instead of deadly weapons. It was a compulsion to repeat but as a game not as a matter of life (or afterlife) and death. I’d give quite bit to be able to rewire the parts of my psyche that were seemingly permanently wired by the evangelical church, but at this point it’s just not possible. For me Christianity is primarily a psychological something.

  3. For good measure, here’s the opening lines to the chapter: “On some philosophers religion hardly registers; on others (I am one of them) it sits like a stone. It’s a bit like having an abusive parent, I suppose. Our lives depend upon getting free of its clutches, but down the road we end up scratching around for something to take its place. If we’re not vigilant and lucky, we may even find ourselves passing on to innocent others, as in a terrible dream, some of the same pains we remember and resent. In this book I have been trying to find a way of being religious that’s still possible (or maybe the word is “decent”) for us. What would it be like to be religious without fudging our best thoughts, without repressing anything we have learned…?”

  4. Thanks for posting this. I think my religious upbringing was a mixture of positives and negatives–deeply positive and somewhat tramautizing negatives. Many of the negatives, however, are viewed retrospectively.

    At the risk of sounding like the cheerleader, could it be that those of us who had strong reactions–positive, negative, or some mixture of the two–find our way in the study of religion, broadly defined, because it teaches us to be critical about culture and lived human behavior/experience in a unique way that lets us work out our “stories”? That we can only understand theological inquiry to be autobiographical, and that the discipline accepts this to be normative, from Augustine to Altizer?

  5. I really resonate with your idea that being disinterested in religion renders one boring. I’m reminded of the other day when a friend’s friend bragged about having not watched the news for the past three months. As I thought about it, I just thought to myself, being disengaged from politics just makes you lame. Ultimately, I do think religion traumatizes many and religion remains charged with much libidinal and psychic energy. Hence, the person who on some level disavows her religions upbringing, can certainly transform that psychic energy to be invested in alternative expressions of religion or some anti-religious ideology. I find it more distasteful when individuals avoid the topic entirely because they hate conflict or disagreement or they are simply apathetic.

    Developmentally, many religious children first begin to grapple with higher-order thinking by contemplating the truths and teachings of religion. This helps explain my continued and ambivalent relationship to religion (and Christianity, in particular). It has always been a source of fascination and consideration. As I began to read academic theology, I was amazed at the elevated sophistication of theological discourse that transcended the typical high school youth group debates (e.g. could God create a stone that God could not pick up?). This is why I really appreciate Deleuze’s idea that theology is the science of nonexisting entities. Hence, theology is ultimately an intellectually creative act that can welcome freedom and speculation.

  6. It was Thanksgiving that did it for me, this time. Everyone was doing their best. Everyone was nice. The kids were playing well together. The food was good. There was good wine. Even the weather cooperated. Cold enough but clear, perfect for the after-meal round of football in which Someone Always Gets Hurt, Usually One of the Kids (although one year it was my uncle Ken, who blew his knee out). But underneath it all, that smoldering angst that has fueled so many white rock bands from so many suburbs like the one I was visiting, like a foreign dignitary, or more like a savage beast trying to understand the strange customs of these people who talk more freely of the Kardashians than of their own lives, who are Good Enough Christians Even to Be Democrats, who are A Little Better Than the Fundamentalists. These people, people who are kith and kin, people I rarely see but spend this supremely special day with, what are these people doing? What are they trying to do here, today? What charade is being acted out? Who is being served? What dark divinity is pleased by this masquerade, by this show of happiness? The next day, I would go to another dinner party, this time, of all things, with my ex-wife, a Frenchwoman, with a bunch of French expatriates, most of whom I hardly knew. Within two hours, I would have had three different totally intimate conversations about the struggles of my existence, being utterly intimate with total strangers. But that day, Thanksgiving Day, it was not until for a minute I escaped out to the front lawn, where I caught just the end of the sunset, the most Minerva-At-Twilight moment, that I felt anything like intimacy. With something anonymous, distant, and yet as close as the cold on my face, as touching as the reddish light in my eyes. And that was so many moments, growing up in yet another anonymous suburb, on yet another coast, and that was so many moments where I was alone under the power lines in the field next to the fence where the housing tract ended. So many misty late Thanksgiving afternoons where that was all I wanted, just the solace of the Sacramento Valley fog and the smell of the cold earth, the richest farmland in the world, plowed into housing developments. Inside these houses, religion. Outside these houses, theology, or poetry, or philosophy, or whatever medium takes over for the sublime intimacy that is denied us by those who want to offer us so much, so sincerely, filling in every space, disrespecting every feeling, ushering it as quickly as possible into its Appointed Place, before it can fester and become unruly and point toward some horizon from which we might return, as Deleuze put it, with bloodshot eyes.

  7. I think I’m an example of what Jeremy says in his second paragraph – my Pentecostal upbringing, for all its faults, forced me to consider a wide range of concepts that I do not think I would have come across otherwise. Certainly, no one else in my peer group was interested in questions of ethics, purpose or origins. When I dropped Christianity in university, philosophy was my new incitement to thought.

    As much as I enjoy this blog, it really is my only current contact with theology. Once God is out of the picture, I just don’t understand why “theology” does not collapse into philosophy. Or autobiography, as the case may be.

  8. I like having recourse to this line from Eric Santer’s “Freud and the Ethics of Nomotropic Desire” to account for my continuing capture/interpellation by the Judaism of my upbringing that “one is truly in a form of life not so much when one agrees with its public values, beliefs, and dogmas as when one comes to be haunted by its ghosts.”

  9. I’ve always felt as well that those who are disinterested in religion are boring, although I’ve never really articulated it that way. My criticism was turned in on myself; I blamed myself for not being ‘productive’ or ‘successful’ or ‘normal’ enough to be disinterested in philosophy like the vast majority of my peers were. While I was consumed with answering questions of purpose and origin, my peers (even in a religious setting) were primarily concerned with their next ‘life-steps’ – jobs, girlfriends, immediate relationships etc.

    I think it’s interesting that even many of my old evangelical friends I found ‘boring’ in the same way I find doctrinaire atheists boring – both live without plumbing the depths of concepts such as consciousness, paradox, origin and so on. It seemed that Christianity was fundamentally a social and emotional catalyst; it served the purpose of creating feelings of unity, purpose as individuals within a community and provided a medium for that kind of ‘orgiastic’ experience (in a Weberian sense) that is central in most religious ritual.

    This is why theology for me was life-saving in a church community that was frankly life-draining. It became essential for me wrestle with truth claims, to wrestle with God as it were, in order to maintain any trace of intellectual integrity. I think that kind of wrestling is inherently painful, and I think that’s why many people don’t engage in it; though grappling with the question of existence may be exhilarating, it is simultaneously terrifying. I think fear, ultimately, is what keeps certain individuals ‘boring’.

    I’m reminded of a bit from Chesterton’s “The Thing” that I think pertinent to this post and Jeremy’s idea that ‘theology is ultimately an intellectually creative act’:

    “…We have got to explain somehow that the great mysteries like the Blessed Trinity or the Blesed Sacrament are the starting-points for trains of thought far more stimulating, subtle and even individual, compared with which all that skeptical scratching is as thin, shallow and dusty as a nasty piece of scandalmongering in a New England village. Thus, to accept the Logos as a truth is to be in the atmosphere of the absolute, not only with St. John the Evangelist, but with Plato and all the great mystics of the world. To accept the Logos as a “text” of an “Interpolation” or a “development” or a dead word in a dead document, only used to give in rapid succession about six different dates to that document, is to be altogether on a lower plane of human life; to be squabbling and scratching for a merely negative success; even if it really were a success. To exalt the Mass is to enter into a magnificent world of metaphysical ideas, illuminating all the relations of matter and mind, of flesh and spirit, of the most impersonal abstractions as well as the most personal affections.”

  10. Very boringly, “profound sense of the fallen nature of humanity” still pretty much does it for me. Although lately I’ve been thinking that the solution is to replace us all with robots. I suspect this position is untenable (morally and emotionally, if in no other regard), but I haven’t managed to think my way out of it yet.

  11. Though I was raised Catholic, I attended Evangelical churches in high school and the first years of college, even attending an Evangelical college. In retrospect, I feel like I was preyed upon by the adults in the church.

    I was severely mentally ill (depressed and anxious, but smart enough to function and and seem relatively normal) and the doctrine meshed incredibly well with my own set of neuroses and fed into them. I believed I was depressed punishment for being a bad person in some way and Evangelical Christianity confirmed that with their teachings that I was a sinner, depraved, and incapable of changing that. The intense guilt I felt over my sin was treated as evidence of my piety by church people, who did not feel that guilt but believed they should.

    At the Evangelical college, I got sicker, stopped eating, and started cutting myself. The same depression that made some think I was super pious made others believe I was demonically possessed because it now came with deleterious attempts to cope. This insistence in my possession came from the counseling center and a psychology professor on campus, who, more than anyone on campus, should understand the full possible extent of mental illness (i.e. eating disorders and self-injury are not unheard of). They seemed to believe in mental illness only to a point, beyond which it was “demonic possession” rather than “severely mentally ill”. Ultimately, this school kicked me out in a way that made it very clear that they only wanted to be rid of me, all while insisting it was because they cared for my “whole person” rather than just my intellect and education.

    The same church that lured me in and fed my neuroses, that praised me for the magnitude of my guilt, also threw me out when those neuroses got too big for them to handle, understand, and pretend were evidence of piety.

    I, too, wish I could take back all the time I spent on church, and all the time I spent being ill. I, too, felt that the church was preying on people, whether that vulnerability was a lack of critical thinking, mental illness, or poverty. I don’t now consider myself atheist, but agnostic, because atheism smacks of the same fundamentalist, un-nuanced, closed-mindedness of Evangelical Christianity. And those “contemporary Christian” songs? I eventually concluded that to really really mean all the words to those songs, which I did, you probably have to be mentally ill or in denial.

  12. Jessa, It would seem we have a similar background. You are far from alone. Interesting.

    Adam, Thanks a lot for sharing this, and especially “…most of our academic circle consists of people who have been traumatized by religion and yet have refused to let go for some reason.”

    I have met my dearest friends by way of the above, and someone managed to learn the very most by people who have fallen prey to this very trauma. I suppose I am the slightly odd one here in that I could never call myself an Atheist, because I still believe in the ‘biblical’ Christ, and even the ‘biblical’ God (whatever the hell that means). And it’s the reason I never could witness back then, and would certainly never attempt to now. Regardless of how much I indulge in reading the writings and thoughts of these traumatized theologians, and regardless of what this trampled and confused faith I have means to me, I’ll never in a million years be capable of explaining it, defining it, or defending it. I just know that if I haven’t let it go yet, I suppose it’s very possible that I never will.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. It is funny (and encouraging) to remember others experience these difficulties, and how many of us got here in the first place.

  13. I so appreciate what you have posted, Adam, about your upbringing. I feel similarly. I became a spiritual director out of a quest to experience a loving, just God instead of living in fear of the God I was raised with. Thanks for sharing your views in this blog.

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