Religious Trauma and A Tale of Two “Isms”

I’m a Catholic. Well, sort of. I disagree with the Church on many (read: most) sociopolitical issues, but Catholicism is my spiritual inheritance, whether I like it or not.

I haven’t been to Mass in a long time, first because of the COVID-19 pandemic and then because the Church’s stance on the 2020 American presidential election just… disgusted me. It still disgusts me, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to reconcile my politics with the faith in which I was raised. It isn’t just that, though.

I’m also autistic. 

I grew up in a small New England town and attended our local parish— Mass and CCD (Catholic Sunday school) every weekend, and on Holy Days of Obligation. It’s just what we did in my family. My parents weren’t religious fanatic or anything, and they had no idea I was autistic. I cannot really fault them for it, but non-fanatical things cannot be said of our priest, and it definitely cannot be said of the kind-of/sort-of nun who was in charge of religious education.

On the subject of religion, I remain mostly ambivalent. I’m not here to tell anyone that it’s inherently good or bad, nor am I trying to speak for anyone other than myself—autistic or otherwise—but for me, my religious upbringing was traumatic, and it had devastating consequences that reverberate to this day and cause me no small amount of psychic and emotional pain. Some people find acceptance, healing, solace, etc. through their faith, including some dear friends of mine, and honestly… I envy them.

When I was very small, I believed that God loved all of His children. That’s what my mom taught me—I didn’t have to worry about eternal damnation because I was a good person—but around the time I started middle school, things changed. A new priest arrived, and he was, well, extreme. He was a real throwback, an old-school, traditional hellfire-and-brimstone style Catholic, and when he came along, God ceased to be a kind, loving father figure in the sky.

There were so many contradictions: God really did love all of His children, but for some incomprehensible reason, He allowed most of them to burn in hell for the rest of forever. Just those who displeased Him, though—you know, any kind non-Catholics were doomed because “there is no salvation outside the One True Faith.” Or, say you were a good Catholic who slept late one Sunday morning, missed Mass, and got into a fatal car crash the very next day. Yeah, that one little misstep means that you, my friend, are beyond saving.

I was beginning to learn that you were pretty much screwed no matter what you did, and while I started to question what I was being taught, I knew I was bad for daring to ask these questions. But how was it possible that I, a lowly, sinning human, could have more compassion than God Almighty? I mean, seriously—I wouldn’t let good people rot in hell for being imperfect!

I am deeply, deeply ashamed of this, but I became a raging homophobe and a militant pro-lifer. I had to be that way if I didn’t want to go to hell, right?

Right…

I said my prayers every night before bed—even the Act of Contrition, because I was such a terrible sinner—and I even began to learn Latin (if you don’t know, Latin is to Catholics what Hebrew is to Jews, or it was until the mid-20th century) because I just knew that God wouldn’t send me to the Lake of Fire if I used the language in which the Mass was intended to be said. The Reverend Father even thought I could have the makings of a religious sister.

All I knew was that I had to be perfect. No slip-ups allowed.

LGBTQ+ folks can go to heaven, I was told, but only if they live a life of celibacy. Only if they don’t give in to their “perverse” nature. Anyone who has an abortion, for any reason, has a one-way ticket to hell (I’ll never forget the plastic fetuses that were distributed to parishioners to remind us that abortion is always murder).

Animals do not have souls and therefore cannot go to heaven. If you engage in any kind of sexual activity before you are married—and non-Catholic marriages don’t count—you would never be permitted to pass the pearly gates, and sex within the sanctity of marriage absolutely must be for purposes of procreation, missionary only.

You’d better not masturbate, unless you want to make the Blessed Mother turn her head and weep. In health class at the public school, they told us that sex and masturbation are normal and healthy, and when one of my classmates informed our religious ed. instructor of this, she stared at him through her little round glasses and said, “It is. But it’s a sin.”

Like, what?

Before Easter every year, this same instructor would bring actual whips, which she would crack loudly while graphically describing the torture that Jesus endured at the hands of the Roman guards, and she had an honest-to-goodness crown of thorns—I kid you not.

The point of this was to illustrate that if Jesus could willingly suffer such a terrible fate, we spoiled children could certainly give up ice cream or video games for the somber season of Lent.

In eighth grade, we learned all about demonic possession and were told to watch The Exorcist so we would recognize the signs should the devil decide to claim us as his own. They told us we shouldn’t hang out with non-Catholic Christians, lest they taint us with their faulty theology, and that we shouldn’t attend World Youth Day in Toronto—even though the Pope himself would be there, because we’d be mingling with Protestant kids.

Instead, we should pray for them just as hard as we pray for the non-Christians of the world. Alas, the whole you’ll-go-to-heaven-as-long-as-you’re-a-good-person stuff went out the window—even an atheist (gasp!) can be a good person, and everybody knows that atheists are not walking the Path of Righteousness.

The Sunday after 9/11, our priest railed against “Hillary Clinton the Abortion Queen” and told us that the terrorist attacks were all our fault because we didn’t pray the Rosary enough. We didn’t wear hair shirts or self-flagellate like the saints of old, or like the Children of Fatima, so all those innocent people, they got what was coming to them.

When the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami took the lives of who-knows how many people, we were informed that they brought it all on themselves by their failure to convert.

Remember, I was a still a highly impressionable teenager—a teenager whose autism would go undiagnosed for another decade or so. Autistic people are notorious for taking everything literally. Not all of us do, of course, but I tend to be very literal (for instance, I don’t always understand jokes or pick up on sarcasm). So, I am an autistic person, literal enough on my own, and I was taught to take my religion literally, from Bible verses to the unforgiving missives of the Baltimore Catechism.

That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster.

For me, hell was no metaphorical concept. That priest’s interpretation of Scripture was the only interpretation, and I should never have the audacity to wonder if maybe, just maybe, my CCD teachers had it wrong. Who was I to question Church doctrine that went back a good 2000 years?

I believed on some level that God gave me a brain because he intended for me to think, but that… that was just the devil whispering in my ear, so I tried my best not to think too much.

This was all in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so I should not have been able to relate to Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes, but I did. Oh, how I understood what McCourt was talking about.

By the time I was confirmed at the age of sixteen, I had serious qualms about the things they were telling me. I just couldn’t accept it. Surely, if God exists, He loves all of us, regardless of how we choose to connect with Him (or Her, or Them, or It).

Even nonbelievers don’t deserve to burn. I was fast becoming a lapsed Catholic, and then I went off to one of those liberal institutions of indoctrination (indoctrination… how ironic): college.

I met all kinds of different people from all different walks of life—even LGBTQ+ people—and I learned what I had always suspected: they weren’t bad or wrong. Like anyone else, they just wanted to live their lives and be happy.

I took philosophy classes and studied various world religions, and I learned about many worldviews and political theories. I learned that asking questions was a good thing, which flew directly in the face of my Catholic education. Nobody told me what to think. Rather, they showed me how to think for myself—something I had never really done before.

My qualms grew ever deeper, and I stopped going to church because I straight-up could no longer buy into the things I was hearing there. I was now officially a lapsed Catholic, so I could no longer hope to attain salvation.

I knew The Way, The Truth, and The Life, but I was choosing to leave it behind, which made me a much bigger sinner than all the people in the world who didn’t know any better.

I stayed away from church for around fifteen years, but for me, Catholicism is like an inoperable brain tumor—it isn’t going anywhere, and it’s a part of me for better or for worse. After the deaths of my beloved grandparents, I began longing for the comfort of faith, for the reassurance that maybe I would someday see Grams and Gramps again, so I tried to go back.

I experimented with other religions, but I could never shake the fear that Catholicism really was the only way, so I went crawling back. I thought maybe a more “liberal ” parish was the answer to my prayers, as it were, and at first, I felt pretty good about it. Oh, I knew I didn’t fit in. Dorothy Day notwithstanding, you can’t be a leftist and a Catholic, and everybody knows it.

I tried to reason that Christ Himself was something of a revolutionary. I tried to tell myself that I was following in His footsteps with my “radical compassion” for humanity, but then came the day I sat in an un-cushioned, uncomfortable pew, staring bullets at one of the deacons as he hailed the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as “our chance to overturn Roe v. Wade (regardless of your stance on this particular issue, criminalizing abortion is not going to stop it from happening—it’s just going to stop it from happening safely).

I winced every time this particular deacon took the pulpit because it reminded me too much of my childhood in the Church. His sermons had a tendency to rub salt in my wounds. I say “wounds” because they never healed well enough to be called “scars.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Catholics received the okay to stay home from church, so I… stayed home.

And then came 2020. Election season.

I was told that I could not call myself a Catholic unless I voted for Donald Trump, the “pro-life” candidate (never mind that Trump’s every other stance goes against every good thing that Jesus Christ ever taught), and I lost my mind.

No, I lost my faith. 

That is, I lost my Catholicism. I still believe in God, or in something greater than myself, and I still yearn to see my grandparents again, but I know there is no place in the Catholic Church for the likes of me.

I’ll never fit in, no matter how hard I try. I think too much. I’ve thought about finding a religion that makes sense to me, but that old devil on my shoulder never fails to remind me that it’s pointless, that I am taking the highway to hell—unless I repent.

Logic and common sense tell me that I’m not going to go to hell because I am a good person, but that nagging devil… he never shuts his mouth.

You don’t have to be autistic to be messed up by a harsh, unbending religious education—if I asked some of my neurotypical former classmates, I’m sure they’d say the same—but for me, those two “isms” (autism and Catholicism) were/are a terrible combination. I will never outrun my fear of devils, pitchforks, and fire. I can tell myself until I’m blue in the face that, in my story, Catholicism was weaponized, that it was a form of social control and mental manipulation.

The God of my childhood is both petty and cruel (“love me perfectly, don’t ask questions, and obey all the rules unless you want to face the forever flames,”), and that doesn’t jive with me. I can’t view the Divine as evil. The way I understand it, religion and spirituality should be about peace and love. That’s the way it should be—if I attend a religious service, I want to feel uplifted, not fearful and enraged.

The saddest part of all is that, even now, I’m a spiritual seeker. I feel like I’ve been robbed of my faith, my religious and cultural heritage, but I still long to find God. I am desperate for something out there to give a really good explanation for why the world is so effed up. Why do terrible things happen? Is there any rhyme or reason to it all?

I hope so.

I hope there is a Divine Architect somewhere out there, but deep inside, I think I will always live in terror of the Puppeteer who jerks me around like a marionette.

There is no surgeon in the world who could remove this brain tumor.

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29 Responses

  1. Yep, that was an ugly experience. Fortunately my experience was only with Catholic high school, and not directly with the church. There is a thing about the religions and denominations of religions which humans have created, they are often, even usually, as inherently flawed as the humans who created them. It is real easy for inherently flawed humans to put their personal and inherently flawed spin on God and Jesus, and they frequently do, and sometimes they do so in the name of gaining and exerting power and control, which are very human desires. The honest God and Jesus remain out there to be found with a bit of looking; and, remember, Jesus is recorded as being rather less than impressed with the religious leaders of his own time and region and how they controlled and abused people.

    1. I hope someday I will be able to connect with faith, spirituality, and that honest God. Thank you so much for reading!

  2. this is my experience of evangelical christianity in rural aurtralia in the 1950s and 1960s. i was also an undiangosed atistic woman – goodness knows how i avoided an exorcism. astonishing to read your story becase you are talking about an time half a century later within catholicism. thank you so much for sharing your experience. Morgan 🙂

  3. Oh Amanda….this resonates so much. Sending love to you and to all of us who share similar experiences.

    I’m gearing up to do a Masters and PhD on spiritual abuse from an autistic perspective and would be honoured if you would consider allowing your story to be sadly, one of the many, including my own, that I write about.

      1. Honestly…the honour is mine. Spiritual Abuse is bad enough, but add in neurodiversity and the way society treats us and there is an even deeper pit of hell to negotiate.

        1. If there is anything I can do to help with your research, please don’t hesitate to reach out—amandamadrumfa@gmail.com

  4. “spiritual inheritance” is an unnecessary and enslaving concept.
    Not meaning to be hard, meaning to be liberating, by saying that. The idea of inherited religious identities gets my goat rationally.
    It is only a human group behaviour, and the character that the unthinking take on all their society’s values to belong in it, that makes religion tend to occur in hereditary and social-majority ways. Religion is opinions on factual claims. Factual claims and whether they are true has nothing to do with families and Inheritances! Everyone”s position on religion should come only from their own personal reasoning, and have nothing to do with which religion/s chanced to be in their family background.
    So your background is no logical reason to fear that a religion you have dropped is right, and you should adopt any religious or irreligious identity that your own reason works out is most likely factually right, without any reference to your background at all !

    1. I apologize for “getting your goat” with my choice of words, and I understand what you are saying, but this story is my life and experience alone—I would never claim to speak for everyone—but for me, the faith into which I was born is very much an inherited part of my identity whether I like it or not. Culturally speaking, it is something that connects me to my French Catholic family (some of whom are less screwed up about religion than I am). I am very aware that logic and reason go against what I am saying here, but in my case, that’s the point: no amount of logic or reasoning is going to eradicate the guilt and fear. Please believe me when I say I’ve spent the past decade and a half trying to move on and to adopt a religious identity that works for me. Most of the “recovering Catholics” I know will tell you that Catholic guilt is very, very real even though most of us are fully capable of rational thought. Anyway, best wishes and thank you for reading!

      1. No apology necessary Amanda. Your painful story is your truth and you are brave to share it x

    2. I respect your view on this and your use of the word ‘enslaving’ is very astute. The messages we receive from our early life onwards are extremely powerful and a Monotropic brain-wiring tends to embed them even more so. Spiritual Abuse, let’s call it what it is, from an early age for a ND person, is even more damaging than for those who are not. I am 51 now and only just recovering. Sadly, inherited trauma is a thing, irrespective of logic. We are complex beings….biopsycosocialspiritual, if you like. I am, however, not a little envious of a ND brain wiring that can operate purely logically!

  5. I truly feel for you. I had a similar experience although I’m not Catholic. I was raised a Born Again Christian and I thought my church was the right one because all of our teachings were supposedly straight from the Bible. Therefore, I took things anyone like a Sunday School teacher would say as official Christian doctrine. One even said Christians shouldn’t attend their high school proms because non Christians didn’t expect to see you there and it would hurt your testimony of Jesus. I guess I sinned big time my senior year. In short, Born Again Christianity messed up my mind more than drugs or heavy metal music ever could! So, I abandoned it although people at the church said I was corrupted by joining the marines. With them, there is always someone else to blame. In the 1990s, I became a Mormon and I was more comfortable with that faith, however, when my marriage busted up in 2000, it sent me off the rails and I no longer wanted to live by all of their rules. That brings me to my conclusion about religion. All religions have the same sales pitch, you can solve all your problems by following their rules.

    1. 51 and embracing metal again after toooooo many years of having the ‘Jesus hates rock music’ trope running through my head. Rammstein 🤘🤘🤘

      1. That was another reason why I abandoned Born Again Christianity, the rock music is devil’s music.

  6. Thanks for sharing! I’m also autistic (diagnosed with Asperger’s at a young age), and I grew up in an evangelical context. Honestly, for most of my time growing up, my faith was a positive thing for me, perhaps mostly because I didn’t really question things. But then, I think sometime around 11th grade that all changed (as was bound to happen eventually). I suffered a lot of fear and anxiety in the time that followed, but it really wasn’t directly the result of what other people were telling me. Rather, it was the result of reading the Bible and trying to make sure that all of my thoughts and actions lined up perfectly with what it said. I was afraid of losing my salvation, committing the unpardonable sin (the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”), and having to give up just about everything I enjoyed because it was unclear to me what those things had to do with being 100% committed and dedicated to God alone. In time, I also started reading stuff by certain Christian authors (most notably, John Piper) about how our religious “affections” or feelings indicated whether we were really regenerate. The problem is that there were so many aspects of God that I felt really negative about. Regarding the issue of hell, I think a lot of people are able to simply compartmentalize and not think about it very much, but to me it was always on my mind. I honestly didn’t feel a strong attraction to a God who would condemn the majority of humanity forever to hell. In addition to that, I was a Calvinist and believed that God had simply predestined some people to hell. I tried and tried to think and behave the way the Bible said I should, but I simply couldn’t. Over the past 7 or so years a lot has changed about how I think about God and the Bible. I attended two very different seminaries (one broadly evangelical, but honestly I’d say among the best evangelicalism has to offer; the other, very liberal). I still am a Christian, and I still have a lot of anxiety. But my understanding of biblical inspiration and authority is much more complex (I could go into more detail about this, but this post is already too long), and I have also come to realize that there actually IS a biblical basis for questioning God. In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses that he is going to destroy the Israelite people and start over with him. Moses protests and gives God reasons why this is a bad idea, and, amazingly, God actually relents. There are also other examples of this. I have also greatly enjoyed the writings of Walter Brueggemann who emphasizes that the “testimony” of Scripture is not one-dimensional. Israel’s “primary testimony” is qualified and challenged by its “counter-testimony” and there are, in fact, dialectical tensions embedded in the traditions we have received. I don’t know if any of that helps. But I just wanted to share.

  7. I’m sorry for the trauma you were subjected to in your Catholic upbringing and for how that trauma is making it seemingly impossible for you to have a positive and satisfying religious life today. It won’t be any consolation to you, and I’m sure you already know anyways, but I can attest to the fact that the most atheistic, secular upbringing can be horribly traumatizing, too—especially with autism in the mix. So for somewhat opposite reasons, religiously, but also somewhat similar reasons, traumatically, I also felt certain for most of my life that I could never be at home in the Christian faith. But then somehow I found a home there anyways—and it’s mostly been wonderful and not the least bit like what I imagined. Now I see that Christianity is an absurdly misrepresented religion—misrepresented by Christians. I hope the meanness and sickness of those who traumatized you won’t form your final belief about Christ.

    1. I would love to find a home in faith one day, and I’m happy that you have done so. Anyway, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  8. My husband and I attended an Apostolic Pentecostal church, which is a Pentecostal church that does not believe in the Trinity because according to their interpretation, it is not Biblical, and we felt like they cared more about us occupying pews than anything else. The one his parents go to, they basically ignore me unless they ask me where my husband is, which is most of the time he is at home due to his very introverted nature, and won’t even took the time to get to know me as me, not as my husband’s wife. It just got to the point where I told my husband that I will not set foot inside that specific church unless he is with me.

    1. I’m so sorry you’ve haven’t been welcomed in this church, and I don’t blame you one bit for not setting foot in the church. I don’t believe I will ever set foot in a Catholic church again, not after I was told that voting Republican is basically a requirement, haha. But thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment!

  9. thank you for sharing your story! I am not diagnosed autistic but ADHD, and have had a childhood of spiritual abuse at the newapostolic church. Same as you wrote: my parents were lovely and no one would suspect any religious fundamentalism when meeting them. But what I heard in sunday school, in the youth group or in the regular church services had all the absurdities that you mention (except the difference that the newapostolic version of being damned was this weird contradiction that on the one hand we were said to be the chosen people… (who would have a direct route to heaven, bypassing judgement day, because we are chosen already) yet it might be if we don’t behave correctly Jesus won’t take us with him. Tadaa… imagine a little schoolgirl coming home and not knowing where here mother is (and no… I didn’t tell her of my fears when she came back from just 5 minutes talk in the neighbors flat… I was too ashamed that I had even considered that…) Listening to the stuff for many years without daring to speak up generated a big damage – a damage in trust in life, in myself, in others… I only got out thanks to a boyfriend I had when I was 16 who was also kind of spiritual but a lot more open (he went to a very liberal catholic parish. Where I joined him for a while. After the relationship fell apart this seemed to be weird though. Becoming catholic would have seemed weird. There was no point to it, as I was not at all agreeing to their general standpoint. That is something that I think now… maybe most people (at least people who are not extreme fundamentalists) agree to all standpoints of a given faith. For neurotypical folks the dissonances that this can involve might be easier to deal with. But I assume neurodivergent people can not just ignore these dissonances. Once felt they can’t be unfelt.

    1. I don’t know what it’s like to be neurotypical, so I’m not sure how religious trauma would impact an NT person, but I definitely know that anyone can experience it, regardless of their neurotype. Because I am autistic, though, I do believe it impacted me differently. Anyway, I’m very sorry to hear that you’ve had bad experiences with religion, too, and I do appreciate your reading and taking time to comment!

      1. you are right… that was actually an assumption I made. And it is nothing more than that. Probably harmful even, as making assumptions is what we don’t want neurotypicals to make of us too. So we should also refrain from that. Thanks for pointing that out! And absolutely: religious trauma can impact any neurotype! What I also want to say is: while it is very sad that you had to experience this too it is reaffirming that there are people out there sharing similar intersections of difficulties. Being (undiagnosed) neurodivergent can make one feel like an alien in the world. Having a history of religious abuse also. And this intersection can multiply the feeling of alienation.So it feels rare and precious to discover people with (for sure not the same but) similar or related stories.

        1. Oh, no, I wasn’t trying to point anything out like that! I’m so sorry it sounded that way. No, I just meant that I don’t know what it’s like for an NT person, so I’m really not the best judge for that 😊

  10. No worries! I have a bad language day today, I guess…Feeling kind of clumsy in expressing my thoughts (english is not my native language). I didn’t mean to say that you WANTED to point this out, but what you wrote just made it clear to me that I was making an assumption…

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