Spirituality can be defined as a person’s particular set of beliefs regarding life’s purpose, meaning, and connection. This often includes forces outside of oneself, such as a higher power. Religions provide a collective framework and community for organized spiritual practices. One does not have to be religious to be spiritual. Religion and spirituality help define people’s fundamental lifestyles and choices, but what if they are instead used to manipulate and hurt? With many spiritual and religious holidays occurring in December, when faith practices are prominent in many people’s lives, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss spiritual abuse.
What Is Spiritual Abuse?
Spiritual abuse is using a person’s religious or spiritual beliefs to cause them harm and/or control them. The term is often used synonymously with “religious abuse”, though it may be more fitting to say that spiritual abuse encompasses religious abuse. Religious abuse is tied to a particular religion, while spiritual abuse is about manipulating spiritual beliefs in general, whether or not they conform to an established religion. Though it appears to be slightly more prevalent in orthodox or fundamentalist religions, people of any faith or beliefs can be victims and perpetrators of spiritual abuse. It can occur in any type of relationship and between partners of any sexual orientation or gender identity.
Common Types of Spiritual Abuse
There are many ways an abuser can use spiritual beliefs to manipulate or hurt their victim. They typically fall into one of two categories: preventing/ridiculing spiritual practices or using faith/beliefs to justify abuse and control. Abusers may scoff at, forbid, or physically block victims from attending religious gatherings, performing rituals, or keeping to faith-based customs in daily life. This could look like not allowing victims to attend church, pray at the times they need to pray, or to follow a religious diet or dress conventions. They may belittle victims’ religious views or make fun of their beliefs or practices. On the other hand, spiritual abuse could mean forcing these things on a victim who does not believe the same, is not as strict with their practices, or forcing children in a multi-faith household to only conform to their beliefs.
Abusers may also use religious texts and tenets to validate abusive treatment. Most major world religions developed at a time when women and children were the property of men with no legal rights and thus, still have patriarchal sentiments built into their practices and scriptures. “I’ve spoken to thousands of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jehovah’s witnesses, Hindus and those of the Jewish faith who were battered,” said domestic violence advocate Julie Owens, who specializes in educating faith leaders, “In pretty much every case, the scriptures of their religion had been somehow twisted to convey they should be submissive to their husband.” Regardless of whether or not religious leaders or organizations condone or promote these beliefs, abusers can use them to coerce and control victims. Men may believe their religion says women should be obedient to their husbands in all things and use this to validate not consulting their wives in important household decisions or allowing them to hold a job or access finances, which is controlling and financially abusive. They may also justify physical abuse by indicating spiritual texts that say violence should be used to keep wives in line and remind them of their faith.
Abusers may shame or blame victims based on perceived “sins”, past or present, that “justify” their abuse as divine-sanctioned punishment or reckoning. This can also commonly manifest as verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse. Abusers may use degrading words, such as “sinner”, and tell victims they deserve this treatment because they have done something their religion regards as wrong. Domestic violence advocate Christina Voors gives this example: “Let’s say your partner finds out you had sex before marriage, and in scripture, they call those women whores. So, he’s using it as an excuse for verbal abuse. [Abusers] use religion as their justification and so, in your mind, it’s also justified.” It can be extremely difficult to recognize abuse when abusers substantiate it with the victim’s own beliefs. Alternatively, constant spiritual denigration may cause some victims to begin to question their beliefs, which could be the abuser’s goal: to ensure nothing supersedes their control or provides support to their victim.
Spiritual Abuse by a Religious Leader
The previous examples are of spiritual abuse in a domestic violence context, perpetrated by an intimate partner, spouse, family member, or cohabitant. While not strictly “domestic violence”, spiritual abuse can also sometimes come from members of a faith community outside a victim’s household, particularly religious leaders. A common manifestation of this is abuse of power by a person of religious authority. Acting and/or being seen by the congregation as the authoritative voice of God or of the religion, can make it easy for a religious leader to manipulate or exploit followers financially or sexually and to force conformation or obedience without allowing questions or disagreement. They may declare that only trained religious leaders are able to correctly interpret the teachings and so the congregation should not read the spiritual texts themselves or attempt to interpret them in any other way. Controlling religious leaders may attempt to instill a sense of obligation or a desire to curry favor with them personally, rather than the higher being or religion they represent.
A study of four churches by the International Cultic Studies Association’s Spiritual Safe Haven Network found that nearly a quarter of respondents had been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual they felt was spiritually abusive, and nearly two-thirds of those indicated said group was a mainstream or nondenominational church. This indicates that spiritual abuse by religious leaders/organizations occurs more often than may be apparent in high-profile media scandals. However, the same study found that the vast majority of respondents (an average of 82%) were “strongly affirmative” that religious organizations should provide a “safe haven where spiritual abuse victims may find understanding, support, and information on spiritual abuse resources”. So, despite the higher occurrence of spiritual abuse in mainstream religious organizations, it is not condoned by the general congregation.
Unique Barriers to Leaving/Getting Help
Some victims may believe in the religious justification of abuse, thinking it is a normal part of relationships in their community and condoned by their faith. Or they may feel their own behavior signals how a higher power reacts, and so any abuse is deserved punishment for their sin and all they need to do to stop it is to be a good and devout person, to pray, and attend religious services. They may believe that a higher power is testing them, that they need to endure the abuse to show their commitment to the faith and they will eventually be rewarded. “…There’s maybe this idea that if you’re a person of faith, you wouldn’t have these problems,” explained Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, the founding board member of the Peaceful Families Project (PFP), a national nonprofit dedicated to preventing domestic violence among Muslim families. Victims may be afraid to tell anyone, including religious leaders, about the abuse because of what their reaction might be. They may be told that this is a private matter to be dealt with on their own or just something to be endured. “Historically there’s been a lot of denial,” per Abugideiri, “[Domestic violence has] been a taboo subject, and there are many values around privacy in Muslim families, who are encouraged not to put out dirty laundry, so to speak.” This is a common refrain in many religions that makes it challenging for victims to build a support system and increase their safety.
Victims may be reminded of their religious marriage vows or encouraged to forgive any abuse based on faith doctrines. According to Owens, “Survivors often hear things like ‘Pray for him,’ ‘God hates divorce,’ ‘It’s your cross to bear,’ or ‘You need to work on your communication skills.’ The focus of the faith leader is often ‘How can we get [the abuser] some help?’” In some religions, divorce is not allowed or is looked down upon with extreme distain, no matter the circumstances. Victims may be told by their abuser, a religious leader, or others in their spiritual community that it is not an option, and they may agree, whether because of the difficulty or because of their beliefs. Leaving their abuser could result in shame, blame, notoriety, shunning, or even ostracism from their faith community. Some victims may feel that ending the abuse is not worth losing that community. Beyond their current existence, those who believe in some form of heaven, afterlife, or reincarnation may feel that going against the rules of their religion will negatively affect their eternal fate.
Recognizing & Recovering from Spiritual Abuse
Especially for those who follow strict religious teachings, it can sometimes be difficult to determine when faithful practices become spiritual abuse. The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion published a Spiritual Harm and Abuse Scale (SHAS) Clinical Screener to help people determine if they are being spiritually abused. The questionnaire was developed specifically for Christian religions, and so includes Christian terminology, but taken as general concepts, many of the statements can be useful abuse screeners for any religion or spirituality.
If an abuser is using religion to justify abuse, it may be helpful for victims to investigate the underlying truth, context, and history of their religious teachings. The abuser is likely cherry-picking selections and/or twisting religious texts to suit their purpose. For example, the same text that says wives should obey their husbands may also say husbands should love their wives. Or, as one pastor’s daughter explained, “A verse in the Old Testament reads that God says He hates divorce, but that was thousands of years ago when men owned their wives and children. By getting a ‘divorce’ at that time, a man just had to decree it and would throw a woman out of the house without anything — any protection or provisions. And that’s why God was saying He hated it.”
Or consider this from Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, “Muslim men may feel they have a responsibility to discipline [their wives] or ‘keep them in check’. But if you were to pick any Muslim off the street who has read the Qur’an and asked him what the text says about a Muslim marriage, he would cite the verse that talks about having love and mercy between your hearts.” Abugideiri says some women, too, believe that some verses of the Qur’an prove they deserve to be abused. With the Peaceful Families Project, she says, “We want to educate both women and men to look at the scripture holistically and really interpret the verses in light of the whole paradigm.” It may help survivors of any spirituality to focus on the overall general tenets of their faith rather than specific language in a sacred text. The Faith Trust Institute has answered Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about language in the Qur’an and in Jewish traditions that apply to abuse. While the details of these FAQs are specific to Muslims and Jews, they have similarities to other religions, which may also be misinterpreted or interpreted based on abusers’ limited selections.
Most spiritual communities will be supportive and not condone abuse. They may have faith-based resources to assist survivors or be able to provide spiritual guidance. If a victim’s faith organization or religious leader is not supportive, they may wish to seek out another spiritual organization within their beliefs that may be more supportive. It doesn’t mean they need to step away from their spirituality all together. Not everyone can find comfort from spiritual abuse through their faith, however, and may prefer to focus on general self-care and spend time alone or with supportive people outside of their religion. Of course, there are many resources and organizations, including DVSN, that can help survivors of any form of domestic violence, including spiritual abuse.
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