By Melissa Riddle Chalos
Faith and spirituality — and the religious upbringing that built those concepts in our lives — profoundly shape how we live as adults. For many, religion is the soil in which everything else about us is grown, including:
- Our discernment of right and wrong
- How we view the world and value what’s in it
- The community and social connections we have
- Our perception of culture, identity, even sexuality
- Our sense of well-being, ability to cope, and resolve conflict
- How we dress, what we eat (or don’t eat), and the rituals and habits of our days
- Life choices like vocation and relationships
But what happens when we experience trauma or abuse from within our faith community? The ripple effects of spiritual trauma run devastatingly deep.
What happens when we experience trauma or abuse from within our faith community? The ripple effects of spiritual trauma run devastatingly deep.
What Is Religious Trauma?
So how do we define “religious trauma?” And, what is spiritual abuse? Religious trauma, also known as spiritual abuse, occurs when individuals experience emotional, psychological, or physical harm as a result of their religious beliefs, practices, or community.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH), most examples of spiritual abuse involve leaders in positions of authority inflicting abuse or trauma on congregation members, creating a toxic culture that attempts to shame or control its members. PBS News cites recent high-profile cases of religious trauma and abuse involving three of the largest religious institutions in the US: the Catholic church, and the Southern Baptist and United Methodist denominations.
In a recent study shared by the American Psychological Association (APA), of 643 self-identified “religious dones” (people who once were but no longer identify as religious), 21.9% reported religious trauma, such as the hypocrisy of the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church.
However, spiritual abuse is not limited to religious denominations, institutions, or churches. Any person can perpetrate spiritual abuse, as a means of manipulating or controlling a partner.
NVDH reports the following signs of a spiritual abuser:
- Ridiculing religious or spiritual beliefs
- Preventing you from practicing your religious or spiritual beliefs
- Using your religious or spiritual beliefs to manipulate or shame you
- Controlling the spiritual tradition in which to raise children
- Using religious texts or beliefs to minimize or justify abusive behaviors (such as physical, financial, emotional, or sexual abuse/marital rape)
What Sets Spiritual Abuse Apart?
So how does spiritual abuse or religious trauma differ from other trauma? Though symptoms are similar to other trauma disorders, religious trauma is when fear, confusion, and shame chip away at something beyond what we think or feel. Those who perpetrate spiritual abuse claim and wield the powerful and perceived ultimate authority of Scripture, the church, even the love and acceptance of God.
Abusers in toxic relationships claim to love, as they manipulate, shame, and violate. When abusers use spiritual terminology and Scripture to hold power over the victim, it is still spiritual (among other types of) abuse and can result in trauma.
Signs of religious abuse or trauma include:
- Deep feelings of guilt and shame
- Intense mood swings
- Feelings of loneliness and hopelessness
- Low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy
- Trust issues in relationships, decision-making
- Sexual repression, struggle with sexual identity
- Extreme anxiety or panic attacks
- Severe depression or suicidal ideation
- Deep-seated fear of rejection or criticism
When something as precious as faith becomes entwined with spiritual abuse, control, and manipulation, people who might otherwise find strength and courage in their faith are left holding an empty bag of air. They feel unmoored, unable to depend on the one thing in life that should bring them comfort and peace. When those who are supposed to be the most faithful not only fall from grace, but betray those they are called to serve, the soil once fertile becomes a place of desolation and despair.
In this hard, spiritually-confusing place, many of the faithful turn to alcohol or drugs to numb emotional pain — to suppress feelings of guilt, shame, and fear associated with belief — and to escape from the pressure and spiritual conflict of an abusive environment.
How to Recognize Spiritual Abuse
There are healthy congregations, and not all religious leaders, denominations, and churches abuse the power and authority they have in the lives of the faithful. But to identify spiritual abuse, you should ask yourself:
Is this a place where spiritual leaders or groups …
- Exert control over individuals’ thoughts, behaviors, and decisions?
- Isolate people from friends and family?
- Emotionally manipulate to keep people compliant or obedient?
- Use religious doctrines to threaten people with divine punishment if they do not obey or comply?
- Coerce or pressure spiritual practices against a person’s will?
- Financially pressure individuals to give large sums of money or to work without compensation for the cause or religious leader?
- Use their position of authority for sexual gain, to coerce individuals into sexual relationships?
- Censor or limit information that might aid a person’s ability to question the group’s teachings?
Recognizing spiritual abuse is crucial for safeguarding your well-being. If you answered yes to any of the above questions, the spiritual setting is suspect. Chances are, if you are feeling fearful or trapped in an environment that is supposed to be supportive and affirming, your intuition is trying to tell you that abuse may be happening.
Chances are, if you are feeling fearful or trapped in an environment that is supposed to be supportive and affirming, your intuition may be trying to tell you that abuse is happening.
A Spiritual Quest for Help
Recognizing the existence of religious trauma and seeking support or therapy is essential for those affected, as it can be a crucial step in the healing process and in reclaiming your life.
In fact, in one study published by The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, religious people who received therapy had lower rates of depression and more positive emotions like gratitude and optimism than those who did not receive it.
Here at The Meadows Texas, it is possible to recover from religious trauma syndrome. Our research-backed programs are evidence-based, utilizing time-tested and innovative techniques to help you untangle the shame, fear, and confusion that spiritual trauma has created. With religious trauma therapy, we can help you evaluate the impact of spiritual abuse in your life, develop healthy boundaries, and build positive, healthy relationships — even a healthy relationship with God if you want one.
If you would like to embark on this journey with us at The Meadows Texas, we specialize in all kind of trauma restoration. We can help you find or discover the kind of faith that comes with healing and hope. Reach out today to learn more.