When Dr. Laura Anderson left the church about 15 years ago, the #MeToo movement wasn’t yet a sparkle in Harvey Weinstein’s eye and there was very little language to describe adverse religious experiences. There was literature available for people leaving cults, but hardly anything related to negative religious experiences outside of the context of a cult.
Since the advent of social media and the ever-online-era, a number of therapists, researchers and confused believers have been sharing their information and experiences about spiritual abuse. Connecting online has provided a way for survivors and seekers alike to learn more about their adverse religious experiences and connect with others who have had similar experiences.
Today is the last day of the official observance of Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month. If you’re new to this topic, Reckon wanted to close out January with some resources and definitions to help survivors understand their negative experiences in religion.
Have you ever heard of scrupulosity, which is also called “religious obsessive-compulsive disorder”? If you or someone you know has ever compulsively repeated a prayer or religious ritual in order to relieve intrusive thoughts associated with sinning or violating religious rules, then you’re familiar with the symptoms of this condition, which often stems from spiritual abuse, Anderson explained.
While this term hasn’t graced the pages of the psychotherapy Bible (the DSM), the topic has become more mainstream. Mental health professionals, grassroots organizations and activists are talking about the ways religion can help, not hurt, the most vulnerable.
Scrupulosity is one of many of the outcomes of spiritual abuse, but it’s one of many responses practitioners see in their offices daily, said Anderson, who founded the Religious Trauma Institute, which exists to provide resources on spiritual abuse and religious trauma to mental health professionals. She describes these responses—the crippling feelings of shame, guilt, self-blame and fear associated with religious experiences as “religious trauma.”
“It really wasn’t until the election of Donald Trump in 2016 when there was this exodus of people leaving high-control religions that we saw people talking about spiritual abuse openly on social media,” Anderson said. “People were recognizing that the experiences that they had were not isolated to just them. As a professional, I was very encouraged. I had been out of religion for almost 10 years at that point, but I didn’t know how big the conversation was.” While trauma responses may be a little easier to identify, spiritual abusive behavior often is clouded by other common religious practices or disciplines, said Katherine Spearing, cult survivor and founder of Tears of Eden, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting survivors of spiritual abuse.
Spearing described spiritual abuse as any action that uses a spiritual/religious text or the judgment of a deity to cause shame, harm or to coerce a person into a certain behavior. This leads to a breakdown in the relationship between deity, self and others.
An example of spiritual she provided came from her own experience growing up in a fundamentalist Christian community centered around the teachings of Bill Gothard and the Christian Patriarchy movement.
Spearing, when she was in high school, began sobbing while working on a difficult math homework assignment. She had struggled with the problem, and her stress became overwhelming, leading to the emotional breakdown.
“My father came in and immediately started critiquing my character and telling me that I wasn’t trusting the Lord,” Spearing said. “Rather than acknowledging this is a difficult situation and teaching me how to regulate my emotions when I was overwhelmed, he brought God into it. He shamed me for having a human response to something that is difficult and used that emotional response to critique my character in the name of God.”
As a result, she began to hide her negative emotions to avoid future interactions that would associate her emotions with her standing with God.
Defining the problem
The problem with spiritual abuse is that it’s often invisible and appears to be part of typical religious instruction or discipline, said Anderson, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian belief system and has a degree in ministry.
Once she realized she wanted to leave her fundamentalist background, going to school was her way out.
Many survivors share their experiences under the #spiritualabuseawarenessmonth and #ChurchToo hashtags on social media.
“With a bruise on somebody’s face—you can’t deny that that abuse happened,” Anderson said. “But whenever we’re talking about other things like spiritual abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, it’s so much harder to quantify. It leaves most victims feeling like they’re crazy.”
While much of the conversation around spiritual abuse is centered around leaving communities associated with major religious institutions like Christianity, Islam and Mormonism, spiritual abuse happens in progressive Christian and even non-religious spiritual communities, she said.
Spearing thought the abuse she encountered as a child wouldn’t follow her into a more “progressive” church, but it did.
She left the Christian Patriarchy movement, which she now considers a cult, and started doing ministry work in evangelical churches. She now leads Tears of Eden, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting survivors of spiritual abuse in evangelical Christian communities.
At one point her work included consulting with pastors about addressing spiritual abuse in their churches, but Spearing said the task left her exhausted.
“They wanted to meet with me to tell me how they planned to deal with the spiritual abuse problem, to get me to rubber stamp and sign off on their plan, but they were not interested and learning from me,” she said.
Spearing blames the patriarchal structure of many Christian churches for the continued and repeated cases of spiritual abuse observed in modern-day churches.
“The culture itself, the theology itself, creates an environment for abuse to thrive. It’s, it might not be abusive on its own, but that abuse thrives because you can’t recognize it, because it feels like Christianity, right? These abusive practices are baked into these theological stances. I can’t teach them about abuse and trauma if it’s embedded into the culture and embedded into the theology.”
Creating a support network
Both women used both their own experience and the experiences of others to create resources for individuals and mental health providers to better understand spiritual abuse and religious trauma.
Religion has often been considered a prosocial factor or behavior, which is therapist-speak for behaviors that are intended to help other people, Anderson explained. But she said this logic is flawed. And she has the research to back it up.
Anderson organized a group of researchers who are doing work around religious trauma and spiritual abuse through her organization and researchers are sharing their findings with each other as they conduct their research and write about their findings.
“Religion is more than just a pro social factor and can actually be very harmful,” Anderson said. “What we’re seeing in our offices is being is being identified in empirical data.”
While this data is encouraging, it’s also heartbreaking for her, but she’s encouraged to know practitioners want resources to support their clients and clients are speaking up about their adverse religious experiences.
Most of the push for therapists to address religious trauma has come from clients, but Anderson said therapists are often eager to learn more about supporting their clients. Anderson sells resources for therapists on her website, with both free and paid resources available.
Spearing’s resources are focused on survivors and aren’t intended to be a replacement for therapy or psychiatry, but a supplement and source of community for survivors. She also hosts a weekly podcast called “Uncertain,” where she interviews experts and survivors and shares resources recovering from those experiences.
“Probably one of the most challenging things about spiritual abuse is you aren’t always aware of how it’s of how it’s impacting you, especially if it’s stuff you can cover up and hide and pretend isn’t happening. I think this happens a lot in spiritually abusive communities because it just looks like other aspects of religious practice,” Spearing said.
She has also encouraged people to post their own experiences or reshare other posts under the hashtag #spiritualabuseawarenessmonth to help spread the word about spiritual abuse and its impact.
Want to learn more about spiritual abuse and religious trauma? Check out these resources:
- “#ChurchToo” by Emily Joy Allison
- “In An Unspoken Voice” by Peter Levine
- Uncertain Podcast
- Exvangelical Podcast
Finding a therapist and other resources: