Spiritual abuse involves coercion, control, or exploitation by another person in a spiritual context. It can come from a faith leader or a partner who uses spiritual or religious beliefs or doctrine to exert power over you. Spiritual abuse can involve verbal, emotional, and/or physical violence.
What Is Spiritual Abuse?
Spiritual abuse, sometimes called religious abuse or spiritual violence, is hard to define. 1
People may have been spiritually abused for years without recognizing the abuse, or they’re simply not sure where the line between “abuse” and “not abuse” is particularly when it hasn’t been physical. On the most basic level, spiritual abuse uses faith, religion, or beliefs to exert control (e.g., a cult).
One example of control in religious abuse is with purity culture, where modesty and abstinence are revered as the gold standard for spiritual sexuality. Purity culture and similar issues, such as disclosing same-sex attraction or enduring domestic violence under the guise of following scriptural demands are all forms of spiritual abuse and can lead to developing religious trauma syndrome.
Signs of Spiritual Abuse
In practice, religious abuse can look like verbal, physical, or emotional violence. It is often personalized or individualized, such that the form of spiritual violence you experience may be different from others.
“Spiritual abuse typically involves those who have spiritual or religious capital or authority using their elite and privileged position to victimize and take advantage of others,” says Professor Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP. “Examples might include clerics or pastors who suggest that congregants must give them lots of money in order to win God’s favor.”
Some signs of spiritual abuse are:2
- Using your religion’s holy book to control your choices (e.g., whether or when to have children, how to allocate your finances, etc.)
- Intimidation into conformity
- Insulting other belief systems
- Censorship from asking questions or disagreeing with the organization or leader>
- Feeling isolated or rejected from your spiritual community
- Public shaming or humiliation
- Threat of spiritual consequences for not conforming
- Sexual or physical abuse within a spiritual community
Religious Abuse In Relationships
In a romantic relationship, spiritual abuse may resemble signs of an abusive relationship with an added spiritual or religious component. You may find yourself in a pattern or cycle of abuse that feels difficult to leave, either due to your partner or the encouragement of your religious community to stay faithful to the commitment you’ve made to your partner.
When the abuse is not physical or sexual, it can be difficult to classify because emotional, mental, or religious abuse is harder to see. Spiritually abusive romantic relationships often involve the use of your religion’s holy book in order to justify the abuser’s actions or to keep you from speaking up or seeking help as a result of their abuse.
Examples of spiritual abuse in a relationship include: 3
- Using scripture to justify physical, sexual or emotional abuse
- Feeling ashamed about having different beliefs from your partner
- Being forced to attend religious gatherings
- Being punished for not adhering to strict gender roles in the relationship
- Using scripture to demand sexual acts or favors
- Sharing private matters publicly for the purpose of shaming or coercing you into submission
Spiritual Abuse In Parent-Child Relationships
When it comes to religious abuse in a parent-child relationship, signs will be similar to typically abusive parents but with a religious or spiritual component woven in. Parents often use religious holy books as moral guides for raising children, but some families use them more literally than others. Excessive physical punishment, guilt-tripping, or not allowing a child to question the parents’ religion can all fall under religious abuse.
Examples of spiritual abuse towards children by parents include:4
- Encouraging single-minded thinking in children
- Creating an “us vs them” mentality in children
- Preventing children from learning about other faiths
- Forcing children to participate in religious rituals
- Blaming children for “sinful” behaviors as opposed to using appropriate discipline measures
- Justifying use of excessive corporal punishment
- Withholding proper medical care in favor of prayer alone
- Not allowing children to express emotions in appropriate ways
Effects of Religious Abuse
All abuse leaves a lasting mark, even if you’re able to process and heal from it. Just like physical scars, spiritual abuse can leave emotional and mental scars, as well as a changed image of how you view God or another higher power, if you believe there is one at all.
Eight effects of religious abuse include:4
- Developing depression
- Developing complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Feeling lost without religion
- Losing your faith
- Experiencing inability to feel certain emotions
- Feeling betrayed by God or others
- Sexual dysfunction
- Feeling isolated from any community
How to Heal From Spiritual Abuse
Children have fewer options than adults to leave a spiritually abusive situation. Adults, however, can be aware of common abusive situations and pay attention to the words and actions of family members or faith communities in order to protect themselves and their families.
Seeking help within your faith community could be a good place to start if you’re in a religiously abusive romantic relationship; however, it could also be helpful to seek assistance outside of your faith, depending on whether they hold similar views as your abuser.
Attending therapy, faith-based counseling in particular, is a good way to begin your healing process as you leave a spiritually abusive situation. A therapist can listen without judgement and help you sort out your feelings and regain emotional and physical stability. A faith-based counselor can incorporate or leave out a faith based approach, depending on your preference. Explore an online online therapist directory to find a therapist who fits your needs.
Final Thoughts On Spiritual Violence
While religious abuse is difficult to define, live through, and overcome, it is possible. There are trained therapists who will help you escape the abuse and live a full and happy life. Recovering from religious abuse and redefining yourself is hard work, but it is rewarding.
For Further Reading
- Journey Free
- Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)
- Spiritual Abuse Resources (SAR)
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline toll-free number: (1-800-799-SAFE)