Spiritual Abuse

Portland is considered one of the most post-Christian cities in the United States, which is one of the reasons it has been such a draw for younger people seeking to escape religious environments they’ve perceived as oppressive and toxic. But this exodus has been a national trend, as well – even before the pandemic devastated religious institutions with low attendance and low rates of return once the quarantines and mask requirements were lifted.

Whatever the tradition, whether it be evangelicalism or smaller niche religious communities, many people have experienced their greatest betrayals, conflicts and traumas inside these spaces which seemed to offer connection, healing and unconditional acceptance. Part of the reason they can be so painful and disappointing is because of the tantalizing promises being made there. As with many other forms of oppression, music is a source of insight. Bad Religion, an LA punk band from the 80’s, screamed:

Hey, brother Christian with your high and mighty errand
Your actions speak so loud, I can’t hear a word you’re saying
Hey, sister Bleeding Heart with all of your compassion
Your labors soothe the hurt, but can’t assuage temptation

The “high and mighty errand” of offering the world a place of absolute belonging and mercy (the kingdom of God) runs counter to many people’s experiences of manipulation and highly conditional relationships based on beliefs and moral codes which cannot be questioned. In other words, at some point the actions of the community speak louder than the words they’re saying. The next line is an allusion to the song’s title “I Want to Conquer the World” – the offer of compassion and soothing of hurt doesn’t seem to lessen the community’s temptation to control people’s lives.

The marks of abuse can be subtle. It begins in the mind with what’s known as “cognitive dissonance” – a disconnect between two or more undeniable beliefs. On the one hand, there are those beliefs endorsed by God Himself, which cannot be denied. On the other hand there is personal experience, which also cannot be denied. When a person is in a state of cognitive dissonance for an extended period of time it can handicap the ability to exercise one’s own judgment and resist social pressure. The term “gaslighting” refers to the practice of persuading a person to doubt their own thoughts and feelings – a tactic that works especially well on those who are experiencing cognitive dissonance. Rather than doubt God (whose voice has become synonymous with the teaching and interpretation of religious leaders), one is encouraged to resolve the inner conflict by denying their own experiences. Rather than respecting displays of independence that contradict the community’s teaching and practice – or even respectfully disagreeing – the offender is shamed and called to give up their thoughts, feelings and judgments in order to belong. Over time, the inner compass of the self is eroded and unable to operate apart from the community. And this can often give rise to more grievous abuse – exploitation of labor, finances and sex along with whatever secrecy and tests of loyalty required to cover it up.

Beyond repairing the trauma of exploitation, broken relationship and the loss of self, healing from spiritual abuse involves recovering the promises of acceptance, meaning and purpose which drew us to them in the first place. With therapy, we can learn to separate the voice of God from the community and strengthen your own voice so that you can discern your own path apart from imposed guilt and toxic shame. You may or may not choose to leave your religious tradition altogether – but either way, the joy of recovery is realizing that there is a version of acceptance, meaning and purpose that refuses power and control at the same time it encourages you to be the best version of yourself.

1 thought on “Spiritual Abuse”

  1. As someone deep in the throes of therapy to navigate the emotions that come with separating myself from faith and religion, especially in relation to family who is still enveloped in it, this is a powerful message. It can be difficult to acknowledge and accept the reality of experiences on both sides of the fence, especially when so much harm was done. Working toward the goal of accepting and respecting their faith while will allowing space for my own story to be heard, acknowledged, and maybe even to instigate reflection. Love that you’re doing this work. Thank you.


Leave a Comment