Religion and spirituality are important aspects of life for many people. As a part of this, many people choose to be a part of group gatherings with others who hold similar beliefs about religion and spirituality (i.e. church, mass, mosque, synagogue, congregation, etc.). These gatherings can provide a sense of community, connection, belonging, purpose, and spiritual connectedness. In a healthy state, many people find their experiences in these groups to be deeply enriching. However, when these groups are operating in an unhealthy state, they have great potential for wounding.
Religious trauma is so rarely talked about within the mental health field, but it is very common in our communities. So, I’m hoping to shed some light on this phenomenon. In understanding religious trauma, it’s helpful to think of religious/spiritual groups as a part of an extended family. Just like families, these groups can exhibit both healthy and dysfunctional dynamics. Leaders are often looked to for things we might look to our parents for—advice, counsel, love, and protection. We place a large amount of trust in our spiritual leaders to nurture our hearts, minds, and spirits. Also, similar to families, people form deep emotional bonds and attachments with their fellow believers. The emotional experiences of connection and disconnection, loyalty and betrayal, acceptance and rejection, understanding and shaming, empowerment and control feel similar to our experiences with these things within our families. There is opportunity for both emotional healing and deep emotional wounding within these groups. When a religious group is operating in unhealthy dynamics, the environment can become toxic for it’s members—characterized by emotional control and manipulation tactics—resulting in religious and relational trauma.
And there is another layer to add to this—spirituality. The members’ concept of a higher being, their connection to this being, and therefore their fate in not only this life but also the next can all be used in an emotional control and manipulation dynamic, adding an existential component to the experience of this trauma. Groups may push their interpretation of or twist on religious texts as the ultimate truth and insist that members fall in line with this in order to maintain their relationship with a higher being (i.e. “If you don’t agree with and live according to everything this group believes, then God will be angry with or disappointed in you and you could go to hell for eternity.”). They may also communicate subtle or overt messages that this group is the only one who knows the truth or is walking out their faith correctly, and therefore being a part of the group is the only way to truly stay connected to the higher being. As a result, individuals coming out of religious abuse often find themselves in an existential crisis. There is often a re-working of or complete abandonment of their faith. Attempts to leave the group are often very tumultuous and people may experience slandering or retaliation. It is often a very lonely, confusing, disorienting, and painful experience for people.
People who have been subjected to religious or spiritual abuse also often experience many of the same symptoms that we see in post-traumatic stress disorder. They may experience anxiety, depression, guilt/shame, panic attacks, sleep disruption, eating or substance use disorders, loss of meaning and social connection, difficulty with decision making and critical thinking, or suicidal ideation. It’s important to know the signs of religious/spiritual abuse, so that we can protect ourselves and call out manipulation and control tactics when we see them. A few of the major signs are:
1) The use of public or personal shaming as a means of control
2) Slandering of or retaliation against those who choose to leave the group or religion
3) Discouragement of questioning or critical thinking
4) Use of exclusive language (i.e. “We are the only ones truly following God.”)
5) Expectation of complete allegiance and agreement with all group beliefs
6) Abuse of power in leadership
7) Lack of accountability in leadership (Leaders may preach one thing but live another way. However, they are often surrounded by an inner circle of supporters who buffer any attempts that others make to hold the leaders accountable.)
If you’re just now realizing that you may have experienced this, please know that you are not alone. So many have walked this painful road. And also, please know that there is hope. Healing from religious trauma and spiritual abuse is possible. You might start with researching and educating yourself on how religious/spiritual abuse plays out, as well as how your group may or may not have twisted religious text to aid in their manipulation and control. You can start to re-evaluate your values and beliefs. And you can begin to form a new community (religious or not), which supports your independent self-expression, creativity, and critical thinking. You might also find a professional counselor to help you process your trauma around these experiences.