By: Kristen Bates
Julian Apostata spent his childhood counting down the days until he would leave his conservative evangelical upbringing in Northern Maine. But, at 18, Apostata realized he had another four years to go before he could distance himself from that community. His parents pressed him to choose from a small list of conservative evangelical colleges. Apostata chose Liberty University, a Christian college widely known for its fundamental beliefs. That’s where the trust issues started.
“It was kind of an ‘oh shit’ situation,” said Apostata, “where this is what I’m going to be up against for the next four years.” He would have to stick it out at one of the most conservative schools in the country.
Along with a strict code of conduct, Liberty University encouraged students to tell staff members if other students violated rules. It was like “living in a state of constantly looking over your shoulder,” Apostata said. When he graduated, a therapist told him he had religious trauma syndrome – a term used for trauma associated with leaving a restrictive religion and its indoctrination.
Apostata isn’t the only one to suffer. Others who have left fundamentalist communities experience trauma, anxiety and depression. Some have been excommunicated, and relationships with family cut or strained.
Some have found hope through therapy and, recently, with new organizations tailored to help people deprogram from indoctrination. Even the term religious trauma syndrome was not introduced into the mainstream until 2011. Marlene Winell, a human development consultant in Oakland, California, came up with the term after noticing similar cases with her clients.
“It was so prevalent and needed a name,” said Winell. According to Winell, fundamentalist doctrine creates problems for cognitive and emotional development as well as decision making. This stems from individuals being taught they are inherently bad (the wages of sin is death) and not valuable as themselves.
People struggle to find meaning in their life while combating their fear of hell.
“After you leave (fundamentalism), there’s even more trauma because you lose your whole community,” said Winell, “You lose your support system.”
One symptom associated with religious trauma syndrome is the inability to trust others. Julian Apostata is a pseudonym– a name created because of Apostata’s hesitancy to believe others are trustworthy.
“That’s not exactly a healthy way to live – in a constant state of fear,” said Apostata.
Fear is used in many fundamentalist and conservative evangelical circles. Fear of God and fear of hell are the most common. Luke Emrich, ex-pastor of New Life Church in West Bend, Wisconsin, says that this fear has been preached since the Puritans stepped off the Mayflower.
To the pastor and the congregation, the Bible was more than rules: it was without error. God would speak through the pastor and tell the congregation how to live their life in service to him. Questioning the Bible was like questioning God himself. No one wanted to anger a being that holds their afterlife in his hands.
“Your whole eternity was at stake,” said Emrich. The fear of questioning and doubting leaders within the church would still remain in the conscience of those who left their fundamentalist communities.
For many raised in the church, it is the only community they know.
“Your social structure is church,” said Emrich.
Emrich was a pastor for 26 years before leaving his church. During that time, he was a part of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Part of the evangelical movement is to spread out and convert those to Christianity. Even on the National Association of Evangelicals webpage, their statement of faith says they “believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.”
“If you’re in conservative Christianity, basically 93 percent of the world is going to hell,” said Emrich.
Emrich was taught to evangelize and save since his early childhood. Every conversation with a lost soul had an underlying mission of conversion. The lost sheep must be returned to its flock or suffer eternal damnation. That made leaving the church all the more difficult for Emrich.
It took Emrich over ten years to leave conservative Christianity. He recalled during his early years of being a pastor that he took a call to offer counseling to a man. When Emrich arrived at the man’s house, the man confessed to raping his 12-year-old stepdaughter. He asked for prayer and forgiveness.
“I told him I would pray over him when he was behind bars,” said Emrich.
After the stepfather was arrested, Emrich received backlash from some in his church.
They stood against Emrich’s decision to call the police. To them, he should have “kept it in the church.” The incident helped Emrich decide to leave.
For Katharine Nakaue, a pastor’s daughter from Iowa, leaving her church proved more challenging. She grew up a Reformed Presbyterian. Her church had a primarily Calvinist background with a strong belief in predestination. God had already chosen those he wanted to take to heaven. Was she among the chosen?
“I was really scared and paranoid that I was destined to hell,” said Nakaue. She watched her thoughts, knowing that God could see and hear everything. Nakaue felt forced to pay a constant atonement for an afterlife she may or may not be a part of.
This anxiety followed her since childhood. While others in her community might have found comfort in God knowing their thoughts, Nakaue was terrified.
“In kindergarten, I had a panic attack because I thought of the word ‘butt’,” said Nakaue, “and I thought I was going to hell because God could see my thoughts and saw that I thought of a bad word.”
Nakaue’s fear gave her severe anxiety. A simple thunderstorm would cause her to panic because she thought it was the rapture and she was being left behind. As she grew older, that anxiety worsened. Nakaue was hiding a secret from her family and community. A secret that went against the teachings of conservative Christianity: she was gay.
She had known for most of her life that she was questioning her sexuality. In her church, because of its Calvinistic background, there wasn’t a place for people who were not heterosexual. Nakaue did not belong and she had to get out.
“That’s what it was like growing up.” said Nakaue, “Paranoid and afraid that someone was watching.”
Nakaue started to withdraw from her fundamentalist community her junior year of high school. When she finally stopped going to her church, Nakaue received a letter stating she had been removed from the roster. A final warning was printed on the quarter sheet of white paper: “The only way to the kingdom of heaven is through the church.”
“It was almost like they kicked me out,” said Nakaue.
Even after she left her church, the damage of her indoctrination had already been done.
Nakaue’s first few years dating the woman who is now her wife was plagued with fear of abandonment. Something as simple as forgetting to take the dog out left Nakaue in a state of panic that her wife would leave her. Any little mistake turned into a crisis. Her fear of abandonment came from her church’s subversive ways of penalizing mistakes.
“If you make one mistake, you’re out,” said Nakaue. These threats would be delivered in very passive aggressive ways. Nakaue was always on edge.
“It’s not that we hate religion,” said Nakaue, “We don’t understand how we fit in.”
Some, like Katharine Nakaue and Julian Apostata, who left their conservative Christian communities were able to integrate into the secular world successfully. Nakaue went to a public university and formed relationships with people who were outside of her conservative bubble. Apostata had outlets to the secular world like television and music.
But there are sects of conservative Christianity where isolation from the outside world is so extreme that leaving is difficult. Emma Gossett, a former Anabaptist cult member from Wisconsin, was able to escape but it took years.
At four years old, Gossett was indoctrinated into a small group in Wisconsin that followed one man’s interpretation of the Bible. Women wore head coverings and did not cut their hair. All of their dresses were sewn by hand and designed by the leader’s wife.
“It was usually dark colors,” said Gossett, “No fancy buttons, no belts, no extra embellishment.” Dull and lifeless.
When summertime came, Gossett said wearing these dresses became unbearable and hot. “Girls were not allowed to wear short-sleeves (shirts),” said Gossett.
At a young age, Gossett was outspoken and loud. Her parents would always reprimand her for going against the leader’s teachings for being prideful.
“In this kind of place, the women shut up and be quiet,” said Gossett.
This cult, referred to by themselves as The Church of Athens, had traditional conservative Christian views. Their beliefs of a literal interpretation of the Bible mirrored many evangelical sects.
Gossett was taught not to value herself because she was a woman. Women were not allowed to express their beliefs and had to be silent. Gossett had to follow her father’s orders and adhere to cult leader Bradley Bahler’s beliefs of the Bible. If they wanted to discuss their beliefs, it had to be in secret and away from the prying ears of the men who watched them.
“Women weren’t allowed to talk about spiritual topics,” said Gossett, “that was something to be left and figured out by the men.”
At around 16, Gossett realized these teachings were extreme and began to detach herself from the church. Gossett, her mother and sisters started listening to other preachers in secret and branching out from the cult they had known their whole lives. After about three years of this, their secret research was discovered, and they were kicked out of the church.
Gossett’s father didn’t know about the research. He was so indoctrinated that Gossett recalls him going to the cult leader and begging for his family to come back.
Gossett’s mom packed their van and drove to Oregon with her kids. Her father stayed behind and is still a part of the cult.
Armed with an eighth-grade homeschooled education, Gossett, then 21, was able to get a place of her own and a job. But it was difficult to integrate into society. She had no outside contact during her time at the cult.
“It was like landing on a different planet,” said Gossett.
It took years to adjust to her new life and Gossett still suffers from her experience.
“If I make even the smallest mistake, I am so hard on myself,” said Gossett, “because I am still stuck in the whole ‘right and wrong’ thing.”
Gossett says the emotional turmoil she experiences now is due to her indoctrination: to be happy meant you were sinful and doing something wrong. Only through suffering could you truly be righteous in the eyes of the cult leader.
But Gossett was able to find value in herself. She found a community of people who considered themselves “exvangelicals” through a Facebook group. This group is made up of almost a thousand members who find comfort in knowing they are not alone in their experiences.
Now, there are organizations in place to help people through the process of leaving fundamentalism. Terms like religious trauma syndrome are taken seriously and therapists who specialize in trauma work with people after they leave their conservative Christian community. It’s a process that takes a long time.
Finding a therapist who specializes in this can be daunting. Recovering from Religion, an organization started in 2009 to help people leave their fundamentalist indoctrination, has a database of 270 therapists where people can find certified therapists in their area.
Recovering from Religion also trains people who want to lead support groups in their local communities. Julian Apostata realized he wanted to create a new community in place of the one he lost when he left his church, and to provide an open space for others to talk about their trauma. Apostata went through Recovering from Religion’s training program so he could lead his own group in Portland, Maine.
The first meeting he held was in a Starbucks on July 2018. Only two people showed up. Apostata said that, since these groups are so new, not very many people make these meetings. If they do, they only stay for a few sessions and don’t come back.
“A lot of people come to one or two meetings and get what they need from it,” said Apostata.
But Apostata wants people to come regularly and create a new community for those who have left their fundamentalist background. There, people like Katharine, Luke and Emma could talk about their experiences and help each other heal.
“I’m looking for ways to create a more stable community environment out of this that goes beyond a support group so that people can continue to communicate without necessarily having to show up just every other Wednesday,” said Apostata.
For Marlene Winell, she hopes to train more therapists on how to work through these issues with those who are leaving fundamentalism. She says the most important thing is to make sure these people know they are not alone.
“What you’re going through is not you,” said Winell, “You’re not crazy.”