Religious Trauma Part 2: Social Hierarchy

By Valerie Rice | December 22, 2020

Photo by Luis Quintero on

Welcome back to my religious trauma series, I am so happy you came! Really, I am. As previously stated, you may be fully aware that this has happened to you or just curious, but it is important to remember that this applies only to those whose religious life not only had complete control, but also warped their views of the world. Like a cult, but without calling themselves a cult. Let’s go. Not only do we get to discuss things that have confused us all our lives, we also get to adjust our paradigm to match a healthier mindset. Are you excited? I know I am! Grab your coffee,  maybe a blankie, definitely a journal, and settle down. The first subject I want to unpack here is social hierarchy. 


Every person in a religious group has a place and a function. Some are leaders, and some are followers, and some pull together functions. This is what brings church groups together as a community and draws in members. On this level, we see a healthy, thriving group of people with similar beliefs just hanging out and doing their worship thing at a potluck or whatever. No big deal. Healthy social groups of like minded people are normal. It is something we, as social mammals, tend to create regardless of the label we place on it. But sometimes it can get out of control.

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For those of you with religious trauma, you know the rigidity of your place. Leaders are not only selected by, but often talk directly to, God. They are not to be questioned. The word is close to law, and even under the guise of freedom, if you DO question a leader, you are seen as a monster, an unbeliever, sinner and outcast. Your community questions your loyalty. Now, who would care  what others think? Those who are raised in, or taught to believe, that the leadership and community are life. A reprimand from the group is equivalent to complete social isolation. Thus, members follow along and do as they are told to keep the friendly atmosphere of the community on their side, no  matter how strange the leaders are acting.

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Additionally we see the male vs. female paradigm. Men and women hold very different places within the  church community, and unfortunately, it is often the subjugation of women. Women are taught to believe that their place is domesticity, subservience, and silence, all to varying degrees. When given any amount of power, it is typically over other women or children, and never men. Men are treated as superior and powerful, with the responsibilities of all placed on their shoulders. Not only is this burden far too heavy, but it helps strip women of not only their rights, but the recognition of their abilities as well. The opportunities for men and women are vastly different, not only in the church, but in real life as well. 

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Children are often seen as precious, valuable resources and taught to know their future place at a young age. This is because children grow the membership and perpetuate the beliefs, especially if raised to follow the system. Many people who are experiencing religious trauma were raised in a religious group that controlled all aspects of their lives and were taught their place from birth, thus forever warping their perception of reality. It begins not as a matter of belief but as a matter of fact. In this way children limit themselves based on the church’s wishes and demands so that they can not only be accepted, but can avoid eternal torture after death. Again, this is not a belief, this is a fact, and children believe it to the point where anxiety and fear start early. By puberty the children are separated from each other and into their proper place to be given a whole new list of fears about themselves.


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After all this training, and worshiping, and indoctrination, people still have to interact with the rest of society. Luckily, they have usually been told that they’re the chosen ones, so they feel superior to others and avoid friendships. Or they pity their coworkers and try to indoctrinate them as well. Either way, a lasting relationship with people outside the community doesn’t hold strength for very long because the community controls who is good enough to come near the chosen ones. Unfortunately this further isolates individuals and makes it harder to function outside of the community should the person choose to leave. When seeing how others live, however, many people may realize that the teachings of the group do not coincide with external reality, and question. Questioning brings down “compassionate wrath,” or “sin” by doing something against the group rules. The wrath is simply a form of brainwashing where a trusted leader assures you that your new BFF at work is going to burn for all eternity while you are saved, but ONLY if you repent and avoid them now. 


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Okay, if this sounds like you, let’s play a game. I need you to write down everything we discussed that applies to you. Just write it down. Now let’s take a few minutes to breathe. Do you remember box breathing? Here is a review. Great, now pick up your list and next to each item you wrote down, write a new, healthier perspective. For example: If you wrote down that leaders are unquestionable, try writing down that people in leadership positions are just people. If you wrote down that women are inferior to men, correct it by saying that women are equal to men, and so on. When you are done with your list, fold it up, and put it away. Now breathe. 


It can be very difficult to confront religious indoctrination, especially with so many people embroiled in religious beliefs circulating around you. I want you to remember that the only one who experienced your life is YOU. The only one who can change your life is also YOU. And finally, the only person who has the right to dictate your life is… you guessed it … YOU! So take a deep breath, know that your confusion, anger, sadness, etc. are all valid. Until next time, Be Well!

Published by vrice2010

A mother, an author, a nerd. After many years working in the fields of mental health and developmental disabilities, graduating from the University of Phoenix, and pouring my talents into my local community, I decided to spread my wings and reach a wider audience.

2 thoughts on “Religious Trauma Part 2: Social Hierarchy

    1. You are correct. One of the hallmarks of abusive religious practices is social control. Not only do they beliefs control your actions and friends, but the community absorbs a person’s entire life. Much like domestic violence, an individual relying on social structure is unable to find support once ostracized, thereby granting even more power to the community and faith. The pressure to stay becomes a barrier, especially for those outside of power positions.

      Liked by 1 person

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