Spiritual abuse, a type of abuse that results from a spiritual leader, system, or indoctrinated individual’s attempts to control and/or manipulate another individual, can be difficult to recognize, and many people are entirely unaware that this type of abuse even exists.
Those who are aware of spiritual abuse may understand this concept as the oppression or domination of individuals within a particular religious organization, leading these people to follow the leaders without dissent or question. While this is one manifestation, any abuse—committed intentionally or otherwise–that occurs in a religious context and negatively impacts a person’s spirituality, effectively diminishing or breaking their spirit, can be described as spiritual abuse.
Spiritual Abuse in Intimate Relationships
Spiritual abuse may occur in relationships, though some may not recognize they are experiencing abuse. A key feeling to look for, if you believe spiritual abuse may be present in your relationship, is shame. Shame, obvious at times but less apparent at others, can be experienced in many ways, all of which are likely to lead to hurt and pain.
Spiritual abuse can be recognized in many of the following situations but is not limited to these:
Do you feel ashamed when you and your partner have different thoughts about religion? If your partner adheres to a particular religion and you feel it is not safe to challenge their ideas about religion, spiritual abuse may be present.
Have you ever been silenced by your partner when challenging a common ideology in their religion? Have they called your thoughts and opinions silly, wrong, or stupid, leading you to feel ashamed of having the audacity to think differently?
Has your partner ever forced you to attend religious gatherings?
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Have you ever been shamed or punished by a partner for not obeying a particular religious rule or set of rules?
Does your partner use scriptures, religious texts, or beliefs to justify harmful or abusive behaviors?
Does your partner insist children be raised according to a certain faith, even if you do not follow that faith?
Many churches teach that in a heterosexual relationship, the male has supremacy over the female: the man is the head; the woman is the help-meet. This was true in the church I attended in my late teen years. I, and other young women, were given multiple reasons why God had arranged it thus. “Ladies, you should be so lucky to find a man to help and support!” we were told. As much as I hoped at the time to fit into this box, I—strong, opinionated, and stubborn as I was, and still am—simply didn’t. I push back. I make decisions. I desire to be involved in all aspects of a relationship, as an equal member, not a lesser part.
My partner, another member of the church, did not support these aspects of my nature. On more than one occasion we had disagreements in which he told me, jokingly at first, to “submit,” persisting until I stopped talking. His “joke” response continued, silencing me again and again until I lost the energy and willpower to defend myself further. To avoid that word, “submit,” I forfeited my voice and my opinions.
In this way, messages from religious organizations trickle down, affecting relationships, shattering the spirits of many, often leading to religious trauma syndrome or another lasting negative impact on mental health and well-being.
Spiritual Abuse in Parent-Child Relationships
Parent-child spiritual abuse, while common, may be tricky to recognize, as the line between abuse and influence can at times be blurry one. When does the attempt to influence and shape a child’s moral outlook through religious upbringing cross the line into abuse?
I imagine many individuals, when considering the topic of spiritual abuse, think of the movie Carrie. In this film, Carrie suffers extreme physical and spiritual abuse at the hands of her mother, all in the name of God.
Spiritual abuse perpetuated by parents, not always obvious or blatant, can be seen when parents:
Encourage single-minded thinking. When parents discourage questions or shut a child down for challenging what they learn, they are teaching the child that critical thinking is not valuable.
Use exclusive language or “us vs. them” mentality when referring to those who do not adhere to the same religious group. This language serves to give children a pointed message about the organization of social relationships and can encourage both an elitist mentality or a savior complex.
Stifle a child’s interest in learning about other religious practices. This often furthers exclusive language by sending the message that others might be dangerous, evil, etc.
Force a child to participate in certain rituals such as prayer, worship, communion, bowing, group participation, repentance, public displays of adherence, etc. A child who does not wish to participate likely has a reason, and parents who ignore the child’s choices send the message that children do not have the freedom to make their own choices.
Force a child to remain in an environment where a traumatic event occurred. Children who have an extreme reaction to a religious environment typically do so for a reason. Parents may be unaware a traumatic event has taken place, but to ignore the child’s reaction instead of attempting to discover the reason for it is likely to teach the child they cannot expect to be protected from harm, even by their parents.
The parent-child dynamic of spiritual abuse should not be equated with a parent’s attempt to raise a child in a religious household. Parents who follow a particular faith may read their child stories from a religious text, explain why certain morals are important or why they hold certain beliefs, and bring their child to church events. These are not examples of abuse when they are not forced on a child.
Further, parents who encourage their child to ask questions and provide the child with explanations instead of simply saying, “Because God says so,” can help their child learn, grow, and think critically. It is often worth it for a parent to take the time to explain to a child why they chose to follow a particular faith, as this serves to introduce the child to that unique and important aspect of the parent’s life.
Abuse in Small Cults
Society as a whole has become more aware of cult practices in recent years. Cults might exist as small branches of major religions or are large organizations in their own right, and they may be difficult to recognize or define. People who have left them, however, often report abusive practices, though many share that they did not recognize these tactics as abuse until they had a chance to step away from them.
Some of the following may be questions to consider:
Am I in danger? Physical danger? Danger of a destroyed reputation?
Am I being forced to pay money in order to become spiritually enlightened?
Have I been shamed for thinking differently?
Have I been equipped with the tools to research my beliefs on my own, or are there only a chosen few individuals who are authorized to give me information?
Is there a ranking system? Am I being taught that I am somehow lesser than other individuals?
Is my individuality unappreciated or unwelcomed?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may wish to carefully consider the religious group to which you belong. It may be a good idea to seek the support of a trusted friend or family member along with professional help from a counselor, particularly one trained to provide help with spiritual and religious issues. A person should not have to worry that sharing their worries or opinions will lead to judgment or recrimination.
Abuse in Large Organizations
Spiritual abuse typically becomes more insidious as the size of the organization grows. In large organizations, however, the most common forms of abuse may be more difficult to identify.
One way of identifying whether you have been, or currently are, in a spiritually abusive relationship is to look at the leadership in your organization.
Do the leaders hold all authority?
Do they discourage free thinking or opinions about their messages?
Do they inform followers they are less valuable because of things they cannot change (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and so on)?
Do they demonize other religions and belief systems?
Do they catch you in the “loop”?
Spiritual abuse is sneaky. It hides in the fact that it is not commonly discussed and thus is often overlooked. But know that if you have experienced spiritual abuse or oppression, you are not alone, and compassionate help and support can help you overcome its effects.
The “loop” is an idea I have been developing as I continue my own spiritual exploration. Recently, the pastor giving a Christian church service I attended shared information I disagreed with. As I picked apart the message in my head, I experienced doubt about my own religious beliefs. As if the pastor had read my thoughts, he exclaimed, “And if you have doubt, that is because you are ensnared by sin.”
“Oh, that explains it,” I thought. “Now I need to do whatever he says I should to wipe out my sin, and that will ease my doubt. Wait. What?!”
This thought ran through my head as I processed what he told me. I was so quick to believe I was being manipulated by evil that my ability to think critically about his message was compromised by a loop he had created. He stated a “truth,” pinpointed doubt and critical thinking, and then he blamed it on outside forces like sin. My ability to deconstruct his message was inherently sinful, I interpreted.
Now, this was not a direct situation of spiritual abuse. That pastor was not intending to abuse his congregation. However, I can tell you that I did feel oppressed. My spirit felt crushed.
If you have felt similar oppression from this type of preaching, teaching, or reading, you may have felt abused. You may have experienced guilt, shame, or fear. Your emotional well-being may have been affected.
So what to do? How can you find an organization that affirms you and allows your spiritual self to thrive?
Look for organizations with leadership that is horizontal, not vertical. True leaders pool the voices of those they represent. They do not stifle the voices of their congregation to remain in the role of “truth holder.”
Find a community that celebrates your differences. It is oppressive to be told that because you are female, you cannot lead; because you are LGBTQ+, you cannot participate; because you are black, you belong in a black congregation. Avoid homogeneous congregations and find one that celebrates you and all aspects of your identity.
Surround yourself with people who encourage you to form and process your own opinions about spirituality and your beliefs. Avoid communities, friends, and partners who confine you to one way of thinking and silence your opinions.
Find a safe person/people to talk to and process, if necessary. This could be a counselor/therapist, friend, family member, or a support group.
Spiritual abuse is sneaky. It hides in the fact that it is not commonly discussed and thus is often overlooked. But know that if you have experienced spiritual abuse or oppression, you are not alone, and compassionate help and support can help you overcome its effects
Kinsley, M. (2013, January 17). Eyes wide shut: ‘Going Clear,’ Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/books/review/going-clear-lawrence-wrights-book-on-scientology.html
Tamm, J. (2011, April 14). What is a cult? Recognizing and avoiding unhealthy groups. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jayanti-tamm/the-c-word_2_b_848340.html