I spent a few weeks compulsively special-interesting in the topic of spiritual abuse, and am here distilling my findings thus far. I’m not an expert etc etc, and I’m using “spiritual abuse” to include religious abuse and other related belief system abuse — not to exclude non-religious settings whose practices may well match.
Point 1: You are valid. No matter what. Whether you stay in the religion/sect/practice/belief system, whether you find another, whether you swear off the topic altogether, whether you just don’t think about it, whether you do something else. Whatever religious or spiritual beliefs you do or don’t have, do or don’t end up with — your experience, and choice to name abuse (or not) is valid.
Point 2: The following is a broad net! You get to define your own experience. You don’t need a certain number of bullet points to “qualify,” and you don’t need a “bad enough” level. Plus, some of these things may have been non-abuse, or neutral, or good, or worked, for you — that’s valid too. Whether something is inherently abusive is tricky, so these are suggestions. Some of them are extra controversial, because they’re common, or because they’re reclaimable, or for some other reason. Remember, this is an intentionally broad picture.
Point 3: Most of what I found was Christian-centric, and often fundamentalist-specific. That’s also my personal experience, and this flavors my writing. This in no way means other religious or spiritual or belief systems cannot be abusive. They absolutely can. That is so valid. I may not reach the level of inclusivity I am striving for here, and for that I am sorry. I can’t promise to update or respond to everything, but you are still so, so important.
Point 4: Ritual abuse (RA) is a related but somewhat separate, more specific experience. Some keywords are child ritual abuse (CRA), satanic ritual abuse (SRA), organized abuse, and programming/mind control. Here’s a starter FAQ. Please be careful looking into this, and be considerate of its specificity, and mindful of how you use the word “cult.”
Now then, onto some possible signs/manifestations of spiritual abuse, with links:
- You need permission to have emotions, usually from your religious/system leaders or your parents (often ties into purity culture).
- Thought-action fusion: thoughts are the same as actions; they can and must be controlled, and they are signs of your true nature/character, no matter how much a thought disturbs you (this is also a hallmark of OCD/scrupulosity).
- It is a religious duty to break a child’s will, and “child abuse” is seen as an outsider plot to prevent proper righteous discipline (To Train Up a Child by the Pearls, Dare to Discipline by Dobson/Focus on the Family).
- You are worthless and evil without this religion/system, and deserve to die and be eternally tortured (this can tie into original sin, and “the wages of sin is death”).
- At the same time, because of this religion/system, you are elite, superior, exclusive, and better. You know the only truth and are the only thing of value in the world. Others are worthless.
- You must proselytize, or you are directly responsible for others’ damnation.
- You must embody your religion and cease to be a person (eg by putting on the armor of god).
- You must avoid learning anything outside these particular teachings, because it will corrupt you; you must be suspicious of everyone outside (and trust everyone inside). This is restriction of information (often including developmentally appropriate information) and instilling a fear of others (and “worldliness”), and results in making you ill-equipped to function in society.
- You cannot trust yourself, only your spiritual leaders(/parents).
- Anything that goes wrong, ever, is a sign of failing to believe hard enough or follow authority correctly.
- You must be perfect. There is no method for dealing with mistakes, because you should never make them.
- At the same time, you must confess all your wrongdoings (often publicly). If you can’t think of anything, you’re hiding it from yourself.
- You must experience altered states of consciousness or you’re not doing it right and are not a full believer. Eg, you should feel religious ecstasy, or should speak in tongues, or should be able to focus completely on prayer/communion/meditation with no interrupting thoughts whatsoever.
- You must shun and disown any non-believers, even family, even people with similar beliefs who are nonetheless not part of your elect group. You must only keep ties with your fellow group members. This isolates you, and teaches you that if you stray outside the lines, you too will be shunned and cut off from your only community.
- You must let the leaders manage your life, and remain dependent on them in order to be truly faithful.
- You must never question, much less criticize, and you must not make decisions; instead, you must accept and obey and cultivate passivity. To do otherwise is often met with accusations of stirring up strife, and distrusting the belief system.
- You must feel a fear-fueled sense of urgency, to save yourself and those around you; if you do not act in full compliance right now, you could and will be damned.
- You must find absolute purpose in this belief system. It must solve everything, and be your everything. You should find fulfillment or enjoyment in nothing else; if you do, it is a distraction and evil and you must deny it for the sake of your soul/wellbeing.
- You must serve your community and volunteer all your time to benefit it. Often this involves zero outreach or community service to non-group members.
- You must never be certain you are truly “saved,” because certainty is complacency; instead, you must repeatedly, publicly reaffirm and confess your faith and commitment to the group, and redouble your time serving.
Take care of yourself as best you can, yeah?