Conservative Christianity’s Effects on the Mind

I recently came across this fascinating article, which examines the potential harmful psychological effects of conservative Christianity:

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Of particular interest, I note the article’s outline of a new “unofficial” diagnostic category (unofficial because it is not (yet?) recognized in the Psychiatric Diagnostic Statistics Manual):  Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS):  “a new term, coined by Marlene Winell to name a recognizable set of symptoms experienced as a result of prolonged exposure to a toxic religious environment and/or the trauma of leaving the religion. It is akin to Complex PTSD, which is defined as ‘a psychological injury that results from protracted exposure to prolonged social and/or interpersonal trauma with lack or loss of control, disempowerment, and in the context of either captivity or entrapment, i.e. the lack of a viable escape route for the victim’.”

Much of what this article describes applies directly to the Christian ex-gay movement, and given the profile of that movement in the media of late, frankly I’m quite surprised the ex-gay movement isn’t mentioned at all by the two authors, Marlene Winell and Valerie Tarico. In any case, I note two things of interest for my own research both of which connect to the problem of religious “harm”:

1. The article notes, “Unlike other harm, such as physical beating or sexual abuse, [religious harm] is far from obvious to the victim, who has been taught to self-blame.” Psychological studies of efficacy and harm in the ex-gay movement support this contention. Anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and loss of control over one’s life are common forms of harm reported by former ex-gay participants; however, it is very rare for current ex-gay participants to report these harms, partly because they do not perceive their daily and constant struggle as being harmful but also because they have been taught that if they have not changed their sexuality it is because they have not worked, or prayed, hard enough. There is another component to this, however: most current ex-gay participants are “true believers” and thus cannot believe that their true beliefs are harmful even if they are. 2. But the article also claims that the harm caused by exclusive forms of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity often goes unnoticed because “Christianity is still the cultural backdrop for the indoctrination.” The implication is, and the article basically says this outright, Christianity in general (i.e., even progressive, mainstream and non-fundamentalist Christianity) is partly to blame for this harm because it camouflages fundamentalist harm under the guise of Christian respectability and the article concludes by suggesting that Christianity in general should no longer be perceived as “benign”. While I am not sure that “benign” is the right word to describe any religious system, whether liberal, conservative, or anything else, this second point is a stretch regardless and it reveals a profound anti-religious bias in the article that ultimately extends to all religion, or at least to all of Christianity, in spite of the fact the authors insist at the beginning that they focus only “on the variants of Christianity that are based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.”

It is true, a child growing up in a deeply conservative Christian home may very well recognize that the rest of society also accepts, to some degree, basic Christian principals; however, the authors themselves note that one of the harmful aspects of fundamentalist Christianity is its tendency towards isolation. Therefore the fundamentalist child will know that their form of Christianity is different from mainstream Christianity because they will have been taught to distrust other forms of Christianity. That, of course, does not lessen the harm of indoctrination, but it does not logically follow that such harm can be extended to all of Christianity because more or less “liberal” forms of Christianity cannot be held responsible for the effects of an ideology that explicitly rejects them and teaches the indoctrinated to also reject them. Furthermore, the claim itself is a logical fallacy. It is guilt by association: because “liberal” Christianity and “conservative” Christianity are both forms of Christianity, both are to blame for the excesses of one (we will leave aside, at this time, the problem of dividing Christianity up between liberal and conservative). Consider this comparison. There are and have been many extreme and damaging forms of psychology and psychiatry as well, a case in point being 20th century American psychoanalysis, which led the charge in making homosexuality a diagnostic category in the DSM up until 1973 and which fought vigorously to have it put back in the DSM right up until the early 1990s. The controversial and damaging reparative therapy of the Christian ex-gay movement is rooted in that form of psychoanalysis. Or one might consider the psychiatryic practice of giving problem patients lobotomies. By the logic of Winell and Tarico, all of psychiatry and psychology, including contemporary mainstream pro-gay psychiatry and psychology, is to blame for the excesses of 20th century America psychiatric psychoanalysis not to mention psychiatric lobotomies. If that is the case, then how could the authors disagree with this claim: the perception that psychiatry and psychology in general are helpful or benign “will need to change for treatment methods to be developed and people to get help that allows them to truly reclaim their lives.”

Actually… maybe that is true. Let me think about that some more.


Winell, Marlene, and Valerie Tarico. (2014). “The sad, twisted truth about conservative Christianity’s effect on the mind.” Salon November 1.


About Michael E. Thorn

I have just completed my PhD in Communication and Culture with a research focus in media, religion and culture.
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