Shame and Silence: Recognizing Spiritual Abuse

A young person with shoulder-length hair and scarf tied around neck sits on window ledge, looking up, against background of trees and rooftops at sunsetSpiritual abuse, a type of abuse that results from a spiritual leader, system, or indoctrinated individual’s attempts to control and/or manipulate another individual, can be difficult to recognize, and many people are entirely unaware that this type of abuse even exists.

Those who are aware of spiritual abuse may understand this concept as the oppression or domination of individuals within a particular religious organization, leading these people to follow the leaders without dissent or question. While this is one manifestation, any abuse—committed intentionally or otherwise–that occurs in a religious context and negatively impacts a person’s spirituality, effectively diminishing or breaking their spirit, can be described as spiritual abuse.

Spiritual Abuse in Intimate Relationships

Spiritual abuse may occur in relationships, though some may not recognize they are experiencing abuse. A key feeling to look for, if you believe spiritual abuse may be present in your relationship, is shame. Shame, obvious at times but less apparent at others, can be experienced in many ways, all of which are likely to lead to hurt and pain.

Spiritual abuse can be recognized in many of the following situations but is not limited to these:

  • Do you feel ashamed when you and your partner have different thoughts about religion? If your partner adheres to a particular religion and you feel it is not safe to challenge their ideas about religion, spiritual abuse may be present.
  • Have you ever been silenced by your partner when challenging a common ideology in their religion? Have they called your thoughts and opinions silly, wrong, or stupid, leading you to feel ashamed of having the audacity to think differently?
  • Has your partner ever forced you to attend religious gatherings?
  • Have you ever been shamed or punished by a partner for not obeying a particular religious rule or set of rules?
  • Does your partner use scriptures, religious texts, or beliefs to justify harmful or abusive behaviors?
  • Does your partner insist children be raised according to a certain faith, even if you do not follow that faith?

Many churches teach that in a heterosexual relationship, the male has supremacy over the female: the man is the head; the woman is the help-meet. This was true in the church I attended in my late teen years. I, and other young women, were given multiple reasons why God had arranged it thus. “Ladies, you should be so lucky to find a man to help and support!” we were told. As much as I hoped at the time to fit into this box, I—strong, opinionated, and stubborn as I was, and still am—simply didn’t. I push back. I make decisions. I desire to be involved in all aspects of a relationship, as an equal member, not a lesser part.

My partner, another member of the church, did not support these aspects of my nature. On more than one occasion we had disagreements in which he told me, jokingly at first, to “submit,” persisting until I stopped talking. His “joke” response continued, silencing me again and again until I lost the energy and willpower to defend myself further. To avoid that word, “submit,” I forfeited my voice and my opinions.

In this way, messages from religious organizations trickle down, affecting relationships, shattering the spirits of many, often leading to religious trauma syndrome or another lasting negative impact on mental health and well-being.

Spiritual Abuse in Parent-Child Relationships

Parent-child spiritual abuse, while common, may be tricky to recognize, as the line between abuse and influence can at times be blurry one. When does the attempt to influence and shape a child’s moral outlook through religious upbringing cross the line into abuse?

I imagine many individuals, when considering the topic of spiritual abuse, think of the movie Carrie. In this film, Carrie suffers extreme physical and spiritual abuse at the hands of her mother, all in the name of God.

Spiritual abuse perpetuated by parents, not always obvious or blatant, can be seen when parents:

  • Encourage single-minded thinking. When parents discourage questions or shut a child down for challenging what they learn, they are teaching the child that critical thinking is not valuable.
  • Use exclusive language or “us vs. them” mentality when referring to those who do not adhere to the same religious group. This language serves to give children a pointed message about the organization of social relationships and can encourage both an elitist mentality or a savior complex.
  • Stifle a child’s interest in learning about other religious practices. This often furthers exclusive language by sending the message that others might be dangerous, evil, etc.
  • Force a child to participate in certain rituals such as prayer, worship, communion, bowing, group participation, repentance, public displays of adherence, etc. A child who does not wish to participate likely has a reason, and parents who ignore the child’s choices send the message that children do not have the freedom to make their own choices.
  • Force a child to remain in an environment where a traumatic event occurred. Children who have an extreme reaction to a religious environment typically do so for a reason. Parents may be unaware a traumatic event has taken place, but to ignore the child’s reaction instead of attempting to discover the reason for it is likely to teach the child they cannot expect to be protected from harm, even by their parents.

The parent-child dynamic of spiritual abuse should not be equated with a parent’s attempt to raise a child in a religious household. Parents who follow a particular faith may read their child stories from a religious text, explain why certain morals are important or why they hold certain beliefs, and bring their child to church events. These are not examples of abuse when they are not forced on a child.

Further, parents who encourage their child to ask questions and provide the child with explanations instead of simply saying, “Because God says so,” can help their child learn, grow, and think critically. It is often worth it for a parent to take the time to explain to a child why they chose to follow a particular faith, as this serves to introduce the child to that unique and important aspect of the parent’s life.

Abuse in Small Cults

Society as a whole has become more aware of cult practices in recent years. Cults might exist as small branches of major religions or are large organizations in their own right, and they may be difficult to recognize or define. People who have left them, however, often report abusive practices, though many share that they did not recognize these tactics as abuse until they had a chance to step away from them.

Some of the following may be questions to consider:

  • Am I in danger? Physical danger? Danger of a destroyed reputation?
  • Am I being forced to pay money in order to become spiritually enlightened?
  • Have I been shamed for thinking differently?
  • Have I been equipped with the tools to research my beliefs on my own, or are there only a chosen few individuals who are authorized to give me information?
  • Is there a ranking system? Am I being taught that I am somehow lesser than other individuals?
  • Is my individuality unappreciated or unwelcomed?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may wish to carefully consider the religious group to which you belong. It may be a good idea to seek the support of a trusted friend or family member along with professional help from a counselor, particularly one trained to provide help with spiritual and religious issues. A person should not have to worry that sharing their worries or opinions will lead to judgment or recrimination.

Abuse in Large Organizations

Spiritual abuse typically becomes more insidious as the size of the organization grows. In large organizations, however, the most common forms of abuse may be more difficult to identify.

One way of identifying whether you have been, or currently are, in a spiritually abusive relationship is to look at the leadership in your organization.

  • Do the leaders hold all authority?
  • Do they discourage free thinking or opinions about their messages?
  • Do they inform followers they are less valuable because of things they cannot change (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and so on)?
  • Do they demonize other religions and belief systems?
  • Do they catch you in the “loop”?

Spiritual abuse is sneaky. It hides in the fact that it is not commonly discussed and thus is often overlooked. But know that if you have experienced spiritual abuse or oppression, you are not alone, and compassionate help and support can help you overcome its effects.

The “loop” is an idea I have been developing as I continue my own spiritual exploration. Recently, the pastor giving a Christian church service I attended shared information I disagreed with. As I picked apart the message in my head, I experienced doubt about my own religious beliefs. As if the pastor had read my thoughts, he exclaimed, “And if you have doubt, that is because you are ensnared by sin.”

“Oh, that explains it,” I thought. “Now I need to do whatever he says I should to wipe out my sin, and that will ease my doubt. Wait. What?!”

This thought ran through my head as I processed what he told me. I was so quick to believe I was being manipulated by evil that my ability to think critically about his message was compromised by a loop he had created. He stated a “truth,” pinpointed doubt and critical thinking, and then he blamed it on outside forces like sin. My ability to deconstruct his message was inherently sinful, I interpreted.

Now, this was not a direct situation of spiritual abuse. That pastor was not intending to abuse his congregation. However, I can tell you that I did feel oppressed. My spirit felt crushed.

If you have felt similar oppression from this type of preaching, teaching, or reading, you may have felt abused. You may have experienced guilt, shame, or fear. Your emotional well-being may have been affected.

So what to do? How can you find an organization that affirms you and allows your spiritual self to thrive?

  • Look for organizations with leadership that is horizontal, not vertical. True leaders pool the voices of those they represent. They do not stifle the voices of their congregation to remain in the role of “truth holder.”
  • Find a community that celebrates your differences. It is oppressive to be told that because you are female, you cannot lead; because you are LGBTQ+, you cannot participate; because you are black, you belong in a black congregation. Avoid homogeneous congregations and find one that celebrates you and all aspects of your identity.
  • Surround yourself with people who encourage you to form and process your own opinions about spirituality and your beliefs. Avoid communities, friends, and partners who confine you to one way of thinking and silence your opinions.
  • Find a safe person/people to talk to and process, if necessary. This could be a counselor/therapist, friend, family member, or a support group.

Spiritual abuse is sneaky. It hides in the fact that it is not commonly discussed and thus is often overlooked. But know that if you have experienced spiritual abuse or oppression, you are not alone, and compassionate help and support can help you overcome its effects.


  1. Kinsley, M. (2013, January 17). Eyes wide shut: ‘Going Clear,’ Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology. The New York Times. Retrieved from
  2. Tamm, J. (2011, April 14). What is a cult? Recognizing and avoiding unhealthy groups. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mackenzi Kingdon, MA, LMHCA, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Anue Nue

    February 2nd, 2017 at 6:40 AM

    Very good article!

  • Paulina

    February 2nd, 2017 at 9:18 AM

    It is a great article but I am baffled by how someone could use something so pure and meaningful for something so evil.

  • Leigh

    February 6th, 2017 at 7:30 AM

    This probably happens more than we would even imagine especially in ultra conservative types of communities. I am not knocking them but there are going to be some societies where the man for example will use certain passages to intimidate or to let the females in society know that they are in control. I am not a believer in using religion in that way but there are some cultures for whom this is their version of normalcy.

  • lydia

    February 7th, 2017 at 4:58 PM

    why is it always those who are being abused who are made to feel ashamed

    while those who abuse rarely feel anything at all?

  • Carol

    September 5th, 2018 at 8:26 PM

    I suspect that abusers who don’t feel shame or guilt for what they’ve done may have a narcissistic trait. At least in my experience this has been so. Several abusers in my life have been described by others as being narcissistic from their own experiences with them. They tend to enjoy seeing others struggle and feel intimidated as it gives them a feeling of power over others which is what they thrive on.

  • Oliver

    August 15th, 2017 at 7:48 AM

    Spiritual abuse can be devastating. It can rob someone of a childhood, of self esteem, and the ability to sustain friendships and relationships. Worse still, it can cut a person off from a relationship with God and the divine experience of this life. I experienced spiritual abuse for many years as a child, adolescent and even through the earlier part of my adulthood. With one older brother and two younger sisters, I was the artist and musician of the family. Being ‘different’ from the siblings, with my interests and gifts, I was constantly ignored, belittled, and scapegoated by the father in the family. He was extremely pious person, a well respected doctor in the community, and he set himself up as a ‘part time preacher’ at the local Baptist church as well. ‘Ultra conservative’ is probably how many would describe him, and the family I was born into was often more like a ‘cult’ . Few knew of the way I was treated or what I lived through. My siblings had a hard time as well, though they largely lived in ‘denial’. I was singled out as some kind of family scapegoat by all of them, and eventually had to distance myself from the immediate family. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, but change can and does happen.

  • Jimi

    June 23rd, 2018 at 5:45 AM

    your life is very similar to mine….

  • Jacqueline H.

    September 8th, 2017 at 5:07 PM

    Very healing article. I am traumatized by our RC bishop who wants our First Nation Stained Glass windows out of our church. They were from Truth and Reconciliation. He told me I am anti Church.

  • Dawn

    May 12th, 2018 at 9:34 PM

    I am LDS and many think we are a cult. I would like to say I’m very happy and love the way I have been brought up. My husband of 20 years has always treated me with kindness and respect and if he didn’t he would be in big trouble :) I know my Father in Heaven loves all of his children . I’m not brainwashed. I find happiness and answers living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It truly makes me happy each day. I hope more people can just be happy for me and understand that I’m normal and so is my family. We want what’s best for everyone!

  • Jodi

    June 28th, 2018 at 3:17 PM

    I would add one more thing to look out for: Do they believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible? There is no room for questioning; in fact, there are passages that teach we cannot trust our own mind or emotions. I’m still in therapy recovering and becoming a real person. When I started, I had no thoughts of my own. All I could do was quote scripture.

  • Matthew

    November 2nd, 2018 at 11:04 AM

    This is utter nonsense. What the writer is communicating is that religion should be ego-centric…something that no authentic religion is. Islam, for example, does not operate around “horizontal” relationships. By this definition, all true religions are abusive. If you want to hold that position, fine, but at least be honest about it.

  • Beck

    January 6th, 2019 at 2:19 PM

    To be honest, pooling the voices of the people isn’t “egocentric.” To have different perspectives in a community and to respect them makes a strong community, because it encourages discussion and lessens the shame that might come with thinking differently. If the community were to come together to have an honest discussion and voice their different interpretations of the religion, it would result in stronger faith.

  • Eric

    June 10th, 2019 at 7:38 PM

    It’s important to recognize that spiritual abuse exists in all denominations and faith traditions, including the mainline liberal churches.

    In my case, my former rector, Bob, even went so far as to falsely claim in court I had threatened him, and to demonstrably lie under oath aka commit perjury. Yet the Diocese has said that perjury is not actionable unless it results in criminal conviction. Shocking and disgraceful, and evidence that one needs to be mindful of the possibility of spiritual abuse in all settings.

  • Bobbie

    December 17th, 2019 at 7:37 AM


  • Sarah m

    May 21st, 2020 at 4:28 AM

    Never knew this existed, very enlightening

  • Jack

    November 7th, 2020 at 7:28 PM

    Legalist Churches come to mind, but just a thought, how can people with great convictions and faith in God and in the King James be ok with disciples and other church members pursuing the false religions out there? It is clearly written that these cults are not of God and mislead to bring harm, I don’t see how a Bible believing church can preach the gospel and be liberal at the same time?

  • Anne

    November 24th, 2020 at 1:36 PM

    I really like your article.
    I am Christian and grew up in a family where having your own thought was a sin, where hanging out with anyone that was not “born again” was a sin .Only what my parents said , thought was right .I have been told that my only purpose in life was to get married ..anything else was useless ( as God said obviously) .I have ended up thinking that all churches were like this and gave up on my faith until God found a way to show me that He is not in all of this .Men have created religion .God is about love , acceptance and he loves us the way we are . What is important is the relationship you have with him, not the dos and don’ts .It took me more than 10 years to recover from the situation and now the more I speak about that the more I encounter people going through the same type of abuse but they are too scared to share about it as they are feeling guilty .It’s sad as I don’t think that is what God want us to be .

  • Heather

    December 30th, 2020 at 7:49 PM

    I was researching today about how extreme religion or fanaticism destroys relationships. It has become a desire for me to understand this type of abuse. Its not surprising that someone finally recognized this as abuse. Spiritual abuse and religious exploitation has been going on for thousands of years. Satan loves to use religions that have truth mixed with error to confuse and lead us down a dark path. Men have used scripture to dominate women for thousands of years. Our God given characters as men and women are beautiful and reflect the character of God. Some traits were given to Adam and some to Eve. We were equals, to halves of a coin (so to speak). Each half is alike, also different. Beautiful and so powerful when united and cooperative. Sin destroyed this perfect harmony. Sad isn’t it? Sadder still is how mankind is twisting scripture to suit the ego and pride. Men and women are guilty of this sin.
    I appreciate the comments I read today and hurt with those of you who like me were brought up in unhealthy families. I am feeling trapped myself. I need prayer and am praying for God to give me the courage and financial help I need to flee with my children from this type of situation.
    If you are like me, someone surrounded by extreme people don’t give up on God. He will never turn away from you if you seek Him truly. Dont hate religions as a whole, seek to help those who are extreme or heading that way if you can. God bless to all.

  • Anne

    March 7th, 2021 at 10:05 AM

    Hi Heather ,
    Thank you for your reply .I will not give up on God . He is helping me to find my way out of it . I am in a really good place now and I trust that it’s the beginning of the journey .

  • Joann

    April 24th, 2022 at 4:31 PM

    I think I may have experienced spiritual abuse in a church, and at home by a parent. When I came out as gay in church, I was told that homosexuality was a sin. Two Christian ladies even prayed over me hoping my homosexuality would just go away, which, of course, it didn’t. I was even shunned by my church on Facebook several years ago for sharing a post I wrote about my lesbian sex dreams and desires and was forced to take it down. A neighbor of mine and his daughter once even took me to some purity event after church where we learned that anything you do sexually outside of marriage is a sin. I felt guilty, ashamed, and even confused any time I had a sex dream or fantasy about other women. I was told that even masturbation is a sin, so I eventually learned to hate myself and my own body because I couldn’t overcome any of my so-called “sins.” And any time I tried telling anyone at my dad’s church that my dad was a narcissistic pedophile who molested me and was only pretending to be a good Christian just to impress his church friends and make my mother and I look crazy, I was quickly made to feel shunned and like I was making it all up, never getting the fact that I lived with my dad, they didn’t, and knew him better than they did. I eventually quit going to church, never went back, and stopped believing in God. I now believe in reincarnation, and my dad passed away in May of 2016, at the age of 71. It is just my mother and I now (I’m also autistic), and it feels good knowing that I am finally free, free to be myself, free to think for myself, and free to do my own thing my own way without the fear, guilt, and shame of being called a sinner and of being controlled by my dad.

  • LL

    January 4th, 2023 at 7:41 PM

    This doesn’t just happen in conservative church communities. There is a Quaker Meeting in Columbia County, NY that is known to have protected abusers of women and had incidences of abuse and harassment which were covered up. Two committee chairs at this meeting, a man (the abuser of women) and his colleague (a very jealous, female narcissist) participated in what amounted to group stalking and harassment of a single young woman who was a good member and contributed as a volunteer, etc. Leaders in this Quaker meeting were complete hypocrites who looked the other way and shunned the victim instead of dealing with the conflict in an honest, spiritual manner. There is a clique at this meeting who are very narcissistic and it is like a mutual admiration society. They allowed these two committee chairs to spread lies about this woman, while everyone pretended she was the problem. She has a chronic illness and survived child abuse only to be treated horribly and lied about by two-faced “Quakers” who care more about the image of their flawed meeting than they do about fairness, honesty and conflict resolution. She had literally done nothing wrong, and she was not the first single woman to be abused by one of these individuals. They might advertise themselves as “left” but they are extremely closed minded and provincial. They make up exaggerated fantasies about someone who had treated them all well. In fact, the woman in question had volunteered to go to one of the predatory committee chair’s home and help him carry heavy groceries because he has problems walking. She was paid back by being slandered, stalked, harassed and lied about and lied to. Then when she stopped attending, the meeting, instead of healing the problems people there had caused, simply put on an event “advertising” themselves as liberal, supportive of LGBTQ, supportive of woman. It is not true, however. There are people at this meeting who will actively do things to harm an innocent woman and then lie to frame her as a “problem.”

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