The Importance of Myth-making in Religious Trauma Recovery
Emily Hedrick is a former pastor turned religious trauma informed spirituality coach who uses neuroscience and spirituality to help people reclaim their lives from toxic religion. Find out more on her website: goingodless.com or on instagram: @goingodless
This blog section is dedicated to publishing guest posts from authors expressing different opinions and points of view about spirituality. The accent is on faith deconstruction, spiritual and church abuse, and how to build a free and healthy spirituality outside the box of religion.
As I've looked into the neuroscience of spirituality, I've become more aware of how all of our experiences are mediated through our brains. Differentiating what is real from what we perceive is quite the task.
And it may not be that useful of a task. Our brains take in all kinds of information, but the story we tell about that information is ultimately what helps us function.
In his book, Neurotheology, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg puts it this way, "Our brain has no choice but to construct myths so that we may have some type of working framework of what the world is and how to interact with it."
I think I sensed this intuitively about how religion might function for humans, and that was why I was interested in pastoring as an atheist. Being a person with influence to shape the big myths we tell about what it means to be alive in this universe is an exciting, artful task, one that intrigues me much more than trying to parse through perception and reality on a minute level so that I can be "right."
The question I continue to ask, now that I’ve left religion, is "What is useful?"
If we bring some intellectual humility to the stories we tell about what it means to be alive, we also have the opportunity to intentionally shape the myths we hold to match our values, to honestly tell our stories, to guide us to making human experience more poetic and more vibrant.
Being able to acknowledge the function of myth is an important part of religious trauma recovery. I often see people embracing nihilism after leaving religion, and that myth (yes, even nihilism is a myth) is very useful to anyone who has had their sense of purpose and meaning hijacked by a controlling religion. Meaning and purpose become threats to people who have been spiritually exploited. At first, nihilism is a great way to feel safe.
But the big looming question to consider after establishing safety is “now what?” Once safety has been achieved, what do I want to do next? Why bother with the rest of the healing process? What is waiting on the other side?
This is where nihilism, claiming no meaning or purpose at all, can get in the way of the healing process. Nihilism is more about nothing than something, so it doesn’t replace toxic religion well.
If I don’t know who I want to be, what I want to do with my life, what ethics and morals I’m intentionally striving toward, what myths I want to embrace, I will be stuck in the meaning, purpose, and morals from the religious community that traumatized me - even if my purpose is to be not that.
Establishing a personal sense of meaning and purpose, a personal set of myths, is imperative to truly leaving. It provides that sense of identity that differentiates me, my value, my safety from conforming to the previous group.
And our brains are here to help us identify what stories, values, and practices matter to us, and then weave them into the myths we depend on to be human in this world.
We will always be myth-makers. Let's create useful ones.