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Defining Spiritual and Religious Abuse

Last week I started to share with you a bit of what I know about spiritual abuse and spiritual trauma. I am sharing with you in anticipation of us coming together in person once again for worship and other events.

The past year has been traumatic. We have all been changed by the experience of this pandemic and all the challenges we've faced. We may not even be aware of all the ways we have changed. As we come together, it is important for us to have an understanding of trauma so that we can engage with one another with grace, empathy, and compassion.

Before we go too deep, let's clarify some terms:


Spiritual Abuse: When an indoctrinated person attempts to manipulate or control another person, using doctrine as a justification. It can happen in churches, intimate relationships, parent-child relationships, families, and friend groups... It can also be experienced as oppression or domination of individuals within a group. It includes Religious Trauma.

Spiritual Trauma: Harm done to a person's sense of self, understanding of life, system of beliefs, or experience of spirituality. This isn't always connected to an act or pattern of abuse.

Religious Abuse: A type of spiritual abuse. This term focuses on the abuse done within a particular religious community or tradition.

Religious Trauma: "The condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle." - Dr. Marlene Winell

There is a lot of overlap between these terms, and different people experience them differently. The bottom line is that if you feel afraid to be yourself, guilty for something you don't actually feel is bad, ashamed of who you are on a regular basis, or if you feel used by an individual or group, then you may be in a spiritually abusive situation.

It is crucial at all times, in all relationships, in all groups, for you to maintain your own personal relationship with Spirit/God/Divine. A strong divine connection will help you notice the tensions and conflicts between your experience of God and your experience of a person, a group, or a religion.


Over the next few weeks I'll share more about how to maintain a strong spiritual connection of your own, how to recover from spiritual trauma, and how to tell the difference between conflict and abuse.