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Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is a much under discussed subject that is sadly more prevalent in spiritual contexts, including mainstream religions, than is widely recognised. While physical forms of abuse are easy to condemn, much needs to be done to improve on recognising subtle emotional and psychological abuse.

One definition of spiritual abuse is: 'the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help and support or increased spiritual empowerment with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that spiritual empowerment.'* It is a form of power-centred abuse that occurs within a spiritual context, ie a context where there is an experience of the sacred, where someone uses their power within that framework of spiritual belief to satisfy their own needs at the expense of others.

In a God-centred environment such as a church, synagogue or mosque, spiritual abuse can consist of controlling and coercive behaviour; making pronouncements, judgments and rules 'in the name of God'; abusing the seeker emotionally, financially or sexually; giving self-serving advice and fostering self-abnegating behaviour in a way that sacrifices the seeker's integrity and their deepest and truest values.

In a non-God centred spiritual context such as in Buddhism, spiritual abuse consists of similar irresponsible abuses of power in the name of sacred practice and the person's striving for spiritual development and enlightenment.

It can also happen in contexts such as psychotherapy and spiritual direction/ accompaniment where 'soul work' is done with clients. Wherever there are spiritual seekers, and those designated to help them, the potential for spiritual abuse exists.

Below, I offer some key characteristics of spiritual abuse and describe some of the impact such abuse causes in a person's life and spiritual journey. In further articles I begin to look at how we can work with spiritual abuse in ourselves and others, and look at the underlying issue of spiritual pathology - exploring how personal, unresolved psychological and emotional issues can distort a person's faith understanding and religious practice, and how pathological spiritual communities can cluster and form round such pathology.

Spiritual abuse may involve coercion and control through some or many of the following**:

(1) Pressure to conform:

One common way in which behaviour is controlled is through the requirement of conformity. This sets expectations and rules for how individuals must behave with clear indications of what behaviour is not permitted, both in the abusive context and extending to the seekers personal life beyond the spiritual setting. To be valued within the group, and particularly to join the 'inner circle', individuals need to conform and prove their loyalty. Some of the rules are explicit; some may be more implicit and unspoken, only recognised when they are broken.

Conformity is also shown through increasing levels of commitment to the spiritual community itself, often equated to the seeker's personal commitment and loyalty to the controlling person, and is frequently a determining factor in the hierarchical position individuals have within the spiritual community. The more dedicated and conforming, particularly to the leader, the higher the position of trust and authority the person obtains. Conformity to general norms of one's spiritual path is normal, the difference here lies when the conformity becomes more about a struggle to earn favour, acceptance and approval from the group and particularly the leader:

Any lack of adherence to authority is seen as 'rebellion'. The disapproval of individuals who choose to leave the abusive context reinforces this rejection of non-conformity. Strong fear can be associated with leaving, and individuals who do leave are often made social outcasts and shunned by the rest of the community with further contact discouraged. This loss of friendship can be devastating as leaving members are likely have spent most of their available time in the community where they would now have the majority of their friendships, often having been weaned away from their extended family and friends outside of the circle. They are left frighteningly abandoned and alone, sometimes with threats of great spiritual losses that will befall them, even the wrath of God.

(2) Enforced accountability:

Often the seekers behaviour is controlled through the requirement of accountability. Individuals feel pressurised into behaving in acceptable ways by the presence of such accountability: 'In my experience, my ''accountability'' involved a hard hand. I was told I was to be ''disciplined''. I was to come under the authority of my .... leaders, and work through my issues with them. Yet, even in those early days, I remember feeling pressurised, and pushed into action.'

Sufferers can sometimes talk of having being micromanaged in every aspect of their life with a culture of checking out others to see who is living up to the rules and who isn't : 'I felt scrutinised, checked out. Every move I took seemed to be watched and judged upon.'

It is also often noted by sufferers that, whereas they were made tightly accountable, the abusive individual lacked any mode of real accountability at all, being surrounded by an inner circle of committed, non-questioning members. This was often linked to the notion of the leader's 'divine position' as being appointed by God's will or, in non-theistic contexts, by virtue of their spiritual status and achievement.

(3) Censorship : Restriction of questioning or raising issues is seen as a common element of the experience of spiritual abuse and a rule sufferers quickly learn. Those that break this rule are evaluated negatively and often identified as being the very cause of any problems they raise, which are seen to be stemming from their own emotional or spiritual problems.​ Thus, the seeker will commonly find that by raising a problem they have become the problem. The negative consequences of being seen as a trouble maker by the leader and community may result in individuals denying the abuse in the system as a method of self-protection. Seekers can fear the personal blame that will follow any questioning or disagreement and, therefore, fail to speak out, entering into self-censorship: 'I learnt to keep quiet even when I was concerned because I didn't want to be talked about badly.'

Sometimes threats can be issued: 'I was told I would be disciplined if I ever talked to anyone else about my questions,' with the suggestion that voicing concerns would be disruptive to the work God, their own spiritual development or the advancement and unity of the spiritual community : 'Keep your head down, and your mouth shut, and no-one is going to get hurt . Look on it as a case for ''keeping unity.'' '

Censorship is also exercised through controlled decision making where there may be little or no discussion over decisions, and through continued isolation from external relationships.

(4) Manipulation :

One method of manipulation is through challenging an individual's perception of reality. For example, distorting and attempting to alter the seeker's perception of a negative experience or encounter with the community in a re-telling of the incident that portrays the abusive individual in a positive manner and the victim as negative, weak or inaccurate: 'After a very late and difficult meeting I was ready to leave the church. The next day the pastor's wife invited me out for coffee and explained how the meeting hadn't been that bad and I was just tired. They had only said things to me because they loved me. I found myself doubting my own experience and wondering if I was at fault.'

The denial of individuals' perceptions of reality can be so powerful that the person can eventually decide that their version of reality was incorrect. Thus, victims' own reality testing becomes damaged resulting in confusion and self-doubt, and creating an enforced deepening of dependency on the abuser who is seen to have the needed clarity of perception.

Manipulation can also be through offering positive and altruistic explanations for controlling behaviour. Monitoring and control can be seen to be 'looking after one another's needs - you know - helping you stay on the right path.'

Another form of manipulation identified is the use of personal discredit to undermine the credibility of any individual who does not conform. Individuals who leave are slandered and those that question dropped from friendships and positions of leadership: 'We knew people would be told bad things about us, half-truths at best, people would know not to contact us so we would never be able to defend ourselves.'

(5) Requirements for secrecy and silence:

Secrecy can be used to maintain control over information and to mask the reality of situations within the spiritual community. Individuals can be warned 'not to say anything' about their own personal situations, silenced by threats of disastrous consequences, sometimes of a spiritual nature such as entering hell realms.

Those leaving abusive situations rarely speak out and feel powerless both to stop what was happening at the time or to prevent further abuse occurring to others after they have left - 'People generally leave quietly.' There is little acknowledgement of the reality of spiritual abuse within mainstream faith institutions. Therefore, these systems are powerless to tackle the issue and the victim powerless within the wider system. There is no ready understanding of the issue, methods of intervention and support, or empathy. As one person said, 'Why is this allowed to continue? Why is nothing done?...what is worse is that it will carry on - how do you let go of that?' 'The silence stops us from realising just how big this problem really is in our churches. It is really time we all woke up and smelt the coffee.' Wider lack of awareness and knowledge contributes to the continuing cycle of spiritual abuse.

(6) Misuse of sacred texts or spiritual teachings to control the person

Obviously, the use of religious scriptures itself is not abusive and followers of any particular spiritual path will want to adhere to their spiritual teachings. It becomes abusive when individuals use scripture or teachings to enforce their own desires, often twisting them to fit their own ideology and to suggest that divine power is with them. In abusive contexts scriptures and spiritual teachings are used out of context and selectively, focussing heavily on specific texts that support the abusive person's own agenda. Original meanings of texts can be distorted with the sole purpose of controlling the behaviour and thinking of community members.

(7) Requirement of obedience to the abuser with the suggestion that the abuser has a 'divine position' or special status with an authority that is distorted to the detriment of those under his or her leadership. A culture of dependency on the spiritual insight and authority of the leader develops rather than empowering individuals in their own spiritual journey. Power is exercised in ways that restrict rather than develop a seeker's freedom and autonomy in their connection with the sacred - 'People got to the point where they turned up because they believed she could tell them what God was saying and they couldn't hear it for themselves.'

Most of what I have said above carries the implicit model that abuse is perpetrated by a leader/ teacher in a community over a seeker. However, personal power can be exercised in many other relationships. Dehan & Levi (2009) studied spiritual abuse as an additional dimension of abuse experienced by a group of Havedi (ultraorthodox) Jewish wives by their husbands, where the home is an extension of the religious community. They uncovered attempts to impair women's spiritual life, spiritual self or spiritual well-being with three levels of intensity: (1) belittling her spiritual worth, beliefs or deeds, (2) preventing her from performing spiritual acts, and (3) causing her to transgress spiritual obligations or prohibitions.

Equally, it is important to acknowledge cases of leaders who have been bullied and manipulated by religious institutions or staff members.

Experiences of the sufferer

Those that have suffered some form of spiritual abuse talk of a range of experiences from a bruising to a violation of the very deepest part of their self; sometimes a losing of the self, involving their most deeply held values, integrity, beliefs and sense of direction and purpose. As the abuser often holds notions of divine authority for the sufferer, the abuser and the divine can become entangled with each other somewhere deep inside the person's abused psyche, and the person's spirituality become contaminated with the abusive experience. Such critically ruptured trust can result in deep, toxic wounds.

As the seeker is wounded spiritually, this often damages the persons relationship with God or with sacred practice, as well as their inner psychic capacity for such a relationship. The deepest consequence is that the seeker is traumatised with regard to the most central relationship of his or her life - that with God or whatever is considered to be most sacred. The trust bond between the human heart and the divine is severely damaged.

The distrust that is generated often runs very deep, is long-lasting and damaging, profoundly infecting and distorting a victim's faith in God and other people: 'I'm very cynical. I see a different side to people. I don't trust people. I just don't trust anyone anymore.'

The distrust can also affect one's notions of self and self-esteem: 'I felt isolated and couldn't trust myself, my intellect, my instincts;' 'The longer term damage is that we are reluctant to get involved with anyone or anything, we keep ourselves to ourselves.'

Some individuals, unable to separate their sacred beliefs from their abusive experience, may now also entirely distrust God or their spiritual path and may not feel able to attend any other form of spiritual community. Victims can talk of a 'theft' of their belief system that hurt them to the core.

Often, I think, we can imagine spiritual abuse in more extreme situations such as cults, but fail to see its subtle imprint in more familiar spiritual contexts. But it is sadly not uncommon for spiritual directors to hear pained stories of abused trust, judgement and pressures to conform from those in spiritual contexts. Financial manipulation is not uncommon, nor sadly, sexual exploitation. Sometimes, these come from leaders who do not fully appreciate the subtle psychological power they can have over seekers who can project undue divine authority and idealistic qualities onto them. Leaders may well also not be in touch with their own issues, and unaware of how they are distorting their understanding of their particular spiritual path because of their own deep unresolved inner psychological issues (please see my article on spiritual pathology).

Many historical spiritual writers in the Christian tradition have long recognised the importance of self-awareness and knowledge in the healthy spiritual journey, and in the 21st century we now widely understand that psychological growth and spiritual growth are intricately linked. A mature relationship with the divine demands, and is supported by, a striving for psychological wholeness. Calvin in 1536 said, 'There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self, and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.' And his contemporary from a very different theological stable, St Teresa of Avila, also emphasised in her letters of spiritual guidance: 'For never, however exalted the soul may be, is anything more fitting than self-knowledge... without it everything else goes wrong. Knowing ourselves is sometimes so important that I would not want any relaxation ever in this regard, however high you may have climbed into the heavens... let us strive to make progress in self-knowledge.' Spiritual abuse is often perpetrated by those who have failed to gain, or lost touch with, a needed level of psychological self-awareness, and in particular the shadow aspects of their psyche.

Spiritual abuse happens across religious divides. Most of the research I have quoted from here stems from research in the Christian tradition. However, below, you'll find information on very similar dynamics in Buddhist and Muslim contexts. It is not about the particular doctrines or spiritual path of any one faith system, but about specific dynamics that can emerge in our spiritual contexts that give rise to the pained experience of spiritual abuse.

In part 2 I will look at some of the ways of working with spiritual abuse where we encounter its impact in ourselves or in others. In the meantime, I list some helpful resources below:

Online Resources:

CCPAS - UK based organisation setting standards for safe-guarding in church contexts: PDF Information Leaflet on Spiritual Abuse and safeguards to create healthy spiritual communities, 2015 Article offering insights on the background to issues of spiritual abuse within Tibetan Buddhism.


*David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen, 'The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse', Bethany House Publishers, 2005 (US Based, Christian Context)

**Lisa Oakley & Kathryn Kinmond, 'Breaking the Silence on Spiritual Abuse', Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 (UK based academic research on narratives of abuse from Christians)

Matthew, Sheila & Dennis Linn, 'Healing Spiritual Abuse & Religious Addiction', Paulist Press, 1994. Mainly on what they term 'religious addiction' and some useful chapters on how distorted images of God and holy scriptures can be used abusively within the Christian tradition.

Bill Whitehouse, 'The Sufi Lighthouse: Illuminating Spiritual Abuse', Createspace, 2009. Looking at personal experience of spiritual abuse within the Sufi/ Muslim tradition.


'In the Name of Enlightenment' : sex scandal in religion. A documentary video exploring spiritual abuse in a particular organisation within Tibetan Buddhism.

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