Virtual Colloquium: Michelle Panchuk, “The Shattered Spiritual Self: Philosophical Reflections on Religious Trauma, Worship, and Deconversion”
February 3, 2017 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 2

This week’s Virtual Colloquium paper is “The Shattered Spiritual Self” by Michelle Panchuk. Dr. Panchuk received her PhD from the University of South Carolina in 2016, and is currently a research fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion. Her previous work, some of which has been published in International Philosophical Quarterly, has focused on the relationship between classical theism and the metaphysics of universals. Currently, she is working on a monograph on the topic of religious trauma.


The Shattered Spiritual Self

Philosophical Reflections on Religious Trauma, Worship, and Deconversion

Michelle Panchuk

In this paper I argue that we should understand religious trauma as a kind of transformative experience that diminishes the individual’s capacity to engage in religious life, and that this diminished capacity is sometimes so severe that it constitutes an all-things-considered reason for the individual to deconvert, whether or not she maintains the beliefs associated with her former religion. In the first section I provide an introduction to trauma in a general sense. In the second I suggest two criteria that trauma must meet to count as religious trauma and then sketch a working definition of it. In the third section I narrow the scope of discussion to the non- cognitive effects of religious trauma and analyze two case studies relative to those effects. In the final section I argue that the non-cognitive effects of religious trauma may place worship out of reach of some survivors of religious trauma, and that this can give them an all-things-considered reason to deconvert. Even if this last argument fails to persuade the reader, I believe that this paper will successfully demonstrate that religious trauma is a kind of experience that deserves serious philosophical and theological consideration.

In its most severe forms trauma has devastating effects on the individual’s ability to function and flourish. Trauma theorists divide the effects of trauma into two categories: the epistemic/cognitive effects and the non-cognitive—emotional and physiological—effects. Examples of the former are things like believing oneself to be fundamentally unsafe in the world, while examples of the latter include intrusive memories, hyperarousal, hypervigilance, and sleep disturbances. At least two conditions must be met for an experience to count as religiously traumatic. First, the trauma must be inflicted by some aspect of the religion, and second, its effects must have a religious object. The fact that only a portion of the individuals who experience trauma more generally develop a post-traumatic disorder suggests that only a portion of those who endure a religiously traumatic experience will develop religiously significant post- traumatic distress, but there simply isn’t enough research to say exactly how common it is. It is enough for our current purposes that religious trauma exists, and as I will show below, raises philosophical questions about religious faith in those cases. Thus, I will define religious trauma as: any traumatic experience of the divine being, religious community, religious dogma, or religious practice that transforms the individual, either epistemically or non-cognitively, in such a way that her ability to participate in religious life is significantly diminished.

According to our definition, trauma is a kind of lived experience. It does not result from theoretical reasoning when someone contemplates the ontological argument and infers that it is invalid. The experience itself transforms the individual, and that transformation involves both epistemic and non-cognitive changes. Epistemically, the subject gains knowledge of what the experience is like, which would have been impossible for them to gain otherwise. Though this is knowledge gained, we may include it as an aspect of the shattered self because it does not involve propositions inferred from the experience. Personally, they may experience a range of changes in their values, preferences, and non-cognitive responses to religious life. For the most part, these results are outside of the individuals’ conscious control.

In most religions, maintaining the relevant set of propositional attitudes is not a sufficient condition for counting oneself an adherent of the religion. What is required beyond the appropriate propositional attitudes, we may call worship in a broad sense (e.g., religious rituals, proper attitudes toward the sacred and the divine, etc). However, there is another sense of ‘worship’ that is much more narrow, referring only to the attitudinal aspects of worship, so we can distinguish between the practice of worship and the attitude of worship, for the sake of simplicity. In this narrow sense, worship involves loving, adoring, revering, and desiring the divine being. Survivors of religious trauma may find themselves unable to worship according to the demands of their religion in both the broad and the narrow senses. If a survivor experiences intrusive memories while engaging in religious rituals, it may become physically and psychologically impossible for her to fulfill them. This would be an obstacle to worship in the broad sense. If, however, she experiences deep revulsion and utter terror toward the divine being, then even worship in the narrow sense may be out of reach, because the proper emotions are partially constitutive of this sense of worship. I argue that not only is the survivor of religious trauma nonculpable for these non-cognitive effects of trauma, but that in cases where they are severe enough to preclude that attitudinal state constitutive of worship, they may constitute and all-things considered reason to deconvert.


The complete paper is available here.