Religious abuse

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Religious abuse is abuse administered under the guise of religion, including harassment or humiliation, possibly resulting in psychological trauma. Religious abuse may also include misuse of religion for selfish, secular, or ideological ends such as the abuse of a clerical position.[1]

Psychological abuse

One specific meaning of the term religious abuse refers to psychological manipulation and harm inflicted on a person by using teachings or doctrines of that person’s religion. This is perpetrated by members of the same or similar faith, and includes the use of a position of authority within the religion over another person to inflict such harm.[2] It is most prevalently directed at children and emotionally vulnerable adults, and motivations behind such abuse vary, but can be either well-intentioned or malicious.[3]

Even well-intentioned religious abuse can have long-term psychological consequences. Causing the victim to be intensely fearful can induce that person to develop a specific phobia about the topic they were warned against, or develop a long-lasting depression. They may have an unshakable sense of shame that persists even when they have either grown up or left the religion. The person can also be manipulated into avoiding a beneficial action (such as a medical treatment) or to engage in a harmful behavior.[3]

Among congregations

In his book Religious Abuse, pastor Keith Wright describes an example of such abuse. When he was a child, his Christian Scientist mother became very ill, and eventually was convinced to seek medical treatment at an inpatient facility. Members of the Christian Scientist Church went to the treatment center and convinced her to stop treatment and leave, instead to trust prayer and Christian Scientist methods of treatment. She died shortly thereafter. While the church members may not have had any malicious intent, their interpretation of their religion's teachings to manipulate Wright's mother ultimately resulted in her death.[3]

Against children

Religiously based psychological abuse of children is a growing area of interest in the psychological and sociological community. It can take the form of using teachings to subjugate children through fear, or imposing heavy indoctrination such that the child is taught only the beliefs and/or points of view of their particular sect (or even just that of their caregivers) and all other perspectives are stifled or kept from them. The beliefs are taught as absolute truth, with no way of ever questioning them. Psychologist Jill Mytton describes this as crushing the child's chance to form a personal morality and belief system, making them utterly reliant on their religious system and/or parents. They never learn to critically reflect on information they receive. Similarly, the use of fear and a judgmental environment (such as the concept of Hell) to control the child can be traumatic.[4]

Physical abuse

Physical religious abuse often takes the form of beatings, illegal confinement/neglect, near drowning or even murder under the belief that the child is possessed by Satan or evil spirits, allegedly practicing evil sorcery or witchcraft, or has committed some kind of sin that warrants such punishment, though there is little evidence for such extreme cases.

In 2012, the United Kingdom's Department for Children, Schools and Families instituted a new action plan to investigate and address the issue of faith-based abuse after several high profile murders occurred, such as the Kristy Bamu case. Over a term of 10 years, Scotland Yard had conducted 83 abuse investigations that had faith-based elements, and feared there were even more that go unreported.[5]

Religious violence

Religious violence and extremism (also called communal violence[6]) is a term that covers all phenomena where religion, in any of its forms, is either the subject or object of individual or collective violent behaviour.[7]

Human sacrifice

Archaeology has uncovered physical evidence of child sacrifice, the ritualistic killing of children in order to please supernatural beings, at several locations.[8] Some of the best attested examples are the diverse rites which were part of the religious practices in Mesoamerica and the Inca Empire.[9][10][11] Alice Miller, Lloyd deMause, psychologist Robert Godwin and other advocates of children's rights have written about pre-Columbian sacrifice within the framework of child abuse.[12][13][14]

Plutarch (ca. 46–120 AD) mentions the practice of the Carthaginian ritual burning of small children, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus and Philo. Livy and Polybius do not. The Hebrew Bible also mentions what appears to be child sacrifice practiced at a place called the Tophet (roasting place) by the Canaanites, and by some Israelites.[15]

Throwing children to the sharks was performed in ancient Hawaii.[16]

Sacrificial victims were often infants. "The slaughtering of newborn babies may be considered a common event in many cultures" including "the Eskimos, the Polynesians, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Scandinavians, the Africans, the American Indians" and up to recent times "the Australian aboriginals".[17]

Initiation rites

Artificial deformation of the skull predates written history and dates back as far as 45,000 BCE, as evidenced by two Neanderthal skulls found in Shanidar Cave.[18] It usually began just after birth for the next couple of years until the desired shape had been reached. It may have played a key role in Egyptian and Mayan societies.[19]

In China some boys were castrated. Both penis and scrotum were cut.[20] Other ritual actions have been described by anthropologists. Géza Róheim wrote about initiation rituals performed by Australian natives in which adolescent initiates were forced to drink blood.[21] Ritual rapes, in which young virgins are raped, have been part of shamanistic practices.[22]

Modern practices

In some tribes rituals of Papua New Guinea, an elder "picks out a sharp stick of cane and sticks it deep inside the boy's nostrils until he bleeds profusely into the stream of a pool, an act greeted by loud war cries."[23] Afterwards, when boys are initiated into puberty and manhood, they are expected to perform fellatio to the elders. "Not all initiates will participate in this ceremonial homosexual activity, but in about five days later several will have to perform fellatio several times."[23]

Ritual (e.g. Satanic) murders are committed in Brazil,[24] the USA,[25] Mexico[26] (Adolfo Constanzo case), Singapore (See Toa Payoh ritual murders) and Uganda.[27]

See also List of satanic ritual abuse allegations


Ritualistic abuse may also involve children accused, and beaten, for being purported witches in some Central African areas, for example a young niece may be blamed for the illness of a relative.[28][dubious ] Other examples include Ghana, where witches were banished to refugee camps[29] and beating and isolation of child witches in Angola.[30]

Psychological explanations

A minority of academics subscribe to a school of thought named psychohistory. They attribute the abusive rituals to the psychopathological projection of the perpetrators, especially of the parents.[12][13]

This psychohistorical model makes several claims: that childrearing in tribal societies included child sacrifice or high infanticide rates, incest, body mutilation, child rape and tortures, and that such activities were culturally acceptable.[31][32]

Spiritual abuse

Spiritual abuse includes:

  • Psychological abuse and emotional abuse with the objective of unnatural domination and control of the victim for self-aggrandizing purposes by the perpetrator;
  • Physical abuse that includes physical injury, deprivation of sustenance;
  • Sexual abuse;
  • Any act by deeds or words that demean, humiliate or shame the natural worth and dignity of a person as a human being;
  • Submission to spiritual authority without any right to disagree; intimidation;
  • Unreasonable control of a person's basic right (personal autonomy) to make their own decisions (freewill, volition) on spiritual or natural matters;
  • False accusation and repeated criticism by negatively labeling a person as disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demonized, apostate, enemy of the church or a deity (a god);
  • Actions aimed at prevention from or interference with a person's practice or system faith or spirituality;
  • Isolationism, separation, disenfranchisement, or estrangement from family and friends outside the group due to cult-religious or spiritual affiliation and indigenous beliefs;
  • Exclusivity and elitism: dismissal of outsiders' criticism on the purported basis that the assessment, opinions, and criticism of the critic is invalid because he/she does not understand or rejects the unorthodox nuances of the belief system of the group or group guru; it is not uncommon for outside critics to be accused of being or being influenced by a demon;
  • Esotericism: withholding information and giving of information only to a selected few; hidden agendas and requirements revealed to members only as they successfully advance through various stages of "spiritual enlightenment," which in reality is unorthodox, unproven, indigenous doctrines, beliefs, and/or practices;[33]
  • Conformity to an unorthodox, unproven, or unnatural, and often spiritually or even naturally dangerous unconventional cult-religious view or worldview and practice;
  • Practice of spiritualism, mysticism, and/or unproven or unorthodox doctrines and theology;[34]
  • Hostility and disenfranchisement that includes shunning, relational aggression, parental alienation) or persecution;
  • Apotheosis or de facto deification of the leadership: exaltation of the primary leader(s) to a God-like status in and over the group;[35]
  • Financial exploitation and enslavement of adherents with inordinate and burdensome required financial support ("donations") to the financial needs of the group, which often includes a self-aggrandizing personal financial lifestyle of the leadership that far exceeds the median lifestyle of the group adherents.[35]


The term "spiritual abuse" was purportedly coined in the late twentieth century to refer to alleged misuse and abuse of authority by church leaders.[36] Albeit, some scholars and historians would dispute that claim, citing prior literary appearances of the term in historical religion and psychology literature. Lambert defines spiritual abuse as "a type of psychological predomination that could be rightly termed — religious enslavement."[37] He further identifies "religious enslavement" as being a product of what is termed in the Bible "witchcraft," or "sorcery."[38]


Ronald Enroth in Churches That Abuse identifies five categories:[citation needed]

  1. Authority and Power - abusive groups misuse and distort the concept of spiritual authority. Abuse arises when leaders of a group arrogate to themselves power and authority that lacks the dynamics of open accountability and the capacity to question or challenge decisions made by leaders. The shift entails moving from general respect for an office bearer to one where members loyally submit without any right to dissent.
  2. Manipulation and Control - abusive groups are characterized by social dynamics where fear, guilt, and threats are routinely used to produce unquestioning obedience, group conformity, and stringent tests of loyalty to the leaders are demonstrated before the group. Biblical concepts of the leader-disciple relationship tend to develop into a hierarchy where the leader's decisions control and usurp the disciple's right or capacity to make choices on spiritual matters or even in daily routines of what form of employment, form of diet and clothing are permitted.
  3. Elitism and Persecution - abusive groups depict themselves as unique and have a strong organizational tendency to be separate from other bodies and institutions. The social dynamism of the group involves being independent or separate, with diminishing possibilities for internal correction and reflection. Outside criticism and evaluation is dismissed as the disruptive efforts of evil people seeking to hinder or thwart.
  4. Life-style and Experience - abusive groups foster rigidity in behavior and in belief that requires unswerving conformity to the group's ideals and social mores.
  5. Dissent and Discipline - abusive groups tend to suppress any kind of internal challenges and dissent concerning decisions made by leaders. Acts of discipline may involve emotional and physical humiliation, physical violence or deprivation, acute and intense acts of punishment for dissent and disobedience.

Agnes and John Lawless argue in The Drift into Deception that there are eight characteristics of spiritual abuse, and some of these clearly overlap with Enroth's criteria. They list the eight marks of spiritual abuse as comprising:[citation needed]

  1. charisma and pride,
  2. anger and intimidation,
  3. greed and fraud,
  4. immorality,
  5. Enslaving authoritarian structure,
  6. Exclusivity,
  7. Demanding loyalty and honor,
  8. New revelation.

The author of Charismatic Captivation[39] in a post on the book's website delineates "33 Signs of Spiritual Abuse", a few of which are:

  1. Apotheosis or de facto deification of the leadership — exalting them to God-like status in and over the group, often to the extent that the leaders become a "mediator" between the people and God;
  2. Absolute authority of the leadership;
  3. Pervasive abuse and misuse of authority in personal dealings with members to coerce submission;
  4. Paranoia, inordinate egotism or narcissism, and insecurity by the leaders;
  5. Abuse, misuse, and inordinate incidence of "church discipline," particularly matters not expressly mentioned in the Bible as church discipline issues;
  6. Inordinate attention to maintaining the public "image" of the ministry and bambasting of all "critics";
  7. Constant indoctrination with a "group" or "family" mentality that impels members to exalt the corporate "life" and goals of the church-group over their personal goals, callings, objectives, and relationships;
  8. Members are psychologically traumatized, terrorized, and indoctrinated with numerous improper fears and phobias aimed at keeping them reeling in diffidence and an over-dependence or co-dependence on their leaders and the corporate group;
  9. Members are required to obtain the approval or "witness" of their leader(s) for decisions regarding personal matters;
  10. Frequent preaching from the pulpit regarding not getting out from under the "spiritual covering" of the leadership by leaving the church/group or disobeying the leaderships' dictates and demands of you;
  11. Members departing without the prior permission and blessing of the leadership leave the group under a butt of manufactured suspicion, shame, and slander;
  12. Departing and ostracized members often suffer from various psychological problems and display the classic symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Regarding these signs and symptoms of spiritual abuse, Lambert, poignantly synopsizes the problem:

"The proper role of human under-shepherds is to lead people to the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and teach them how to be His disciples, in submission to Him and His authority. Hyper-authoritarian leaders, instead, lead people to themselves, and indoctrinate them to be their followers, in total submission to them and their authority. In essence, these dominating shepherds teach they are the church-members' de facto lord, master, and savior, rather than Christ. They indoctrinate members to believe the spiritual leaders of the church themselves are the members' "spiritual covering" (a totally false and patently unbiblical concept), and any member who ever leaves the church will be "out from under" their "covering," be without any covering or what they call, "uncovered," and will experience terrible curses and other horrible consequences as a result. From the pulpit often come "horror stories" about what happened to such-and-so person or family, who were so spiritually bereft or rebellious as to leave the group without the blessings and approval of their "spiritual authority."
In these groups, the "authority" of the "shepherds" is absolute, sacrosanct, and inviolable, that is, without reprisal. Any semblance of anything other than total and unquestioning obedience to the desires and counsel of the church's leadership chain is considered rebellion and insubordination, and simply is not tolerated. Members live under the constant threat of being branded with the Scarlet Letter "R" for "Rebel," openly denounced and shamed from the (bully-)pulpit, and consequently shunned by the "covenant-community" (church) for failure to comply with the unwritten, unspoken rules and expectations established by the leadership. An oppressive performance-based approval and promotion system keeps members in constant internal turmoil and fear as they jump through all the hoops the spiritual taskmasters put before them, in an attempt to seek their leaders' approval and favor."[citation needed]

Research and examples

Flavil Yeakley's team of researchers conducted field-tests with members of the Boston Church of Christ using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In The Discipling Dilemma Yeakley reports that the members tested "showed a high level of change in psychological type scores", with a "clear pattern of convergence in a single type".[40] The same tests were conducted on five mainline denominations and with six groups that are popularly labeled as cults or manipulative sects. Yeakley's test results showed that the pattern in the Boston Church "was not found among other churches of Christ or among members of five mainline denominations, but that it was found in studies of six manipulative sects."[41] The research did not show that the Boston Church was "attracting people with a psychological need for high levels of control", but Yeakley concluded that "they are producing conformity in psychological type" which he deemed to be "unnatural, unhealthy, and dangerous."[42]

This was not a longitudinal study and relied on asking participants to answer the survey three times: once as they imagined they might answer five years prior, once as their present selves, and once as they imagined they might answer after five years of influence in the sect. The author insists that, despite this, "any significant changes in the pattern of these perceptions would indicate some kind of group pressure. A high degree of change and a convergence in a single type would be convincing proof that the Boston Church of Christ has some kind of group dynamic operating that tends to produce conformity to the group norm." However it could instead indicate a desire on the part of the respondents to change in the direction indicated. To determine actual changes in MBTI results would require a longitudinal study, since the methodology here was inherently suggestive of its conclusion. This is also amply born out in its instructions: "The instructions stated clearly that no one was telling them that their answers ought to change. The instructions said that the purpose of the study was simply to find out if there were any changes and, if so, what those changes might indicate."[43]

See also


  1. Keith Wright, Religious Abuse, Wood Lake Publishing Inc., 2001
  2. "What Religious Abuse Is About".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Wright, Keith T. (2001). Religious Abuse: A Pastor Explores the Many Ways Religion Can Hurt As Well As Heal. Kelowna, B.C: Northstone Publishing. ISBN 1-896836-47-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "YouTube - Jill Mytton Interview - Richard Dawkins". Retrieved May 26, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "BBC News - Witchcraft-based child abuse: Action plan launched". Retrieved 15 August 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Horowitz, D.L. (2000) The Deadly Ethnic Riot. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA
  7. Wellman, James; Tokuno, Kyoko (2004). "Is Religious Violence Inevitable?". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 43 (3): 291. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2004.00234.x.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Milner, Larry S. (2000). Hardness of Heart / Hardness of Life: The Stain of Human Infanticide. University Press of America.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Reinhard, Johan; Maria Stenzel (November 1999). "A 6,700 metros niños incas sacrificados quedaron congelados en el tiempo". National Geographic: 36–55.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Discovery Channel The mystery of Inca child sacrifice
  11. de Sahagún, Bernardino (1950–1982). Florentine Codex: History of the Things of New Spain, 12 books and 2 introductory volumes. Utah: University of Utah Press, translated and edited by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles Dibble.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 deMause, Lloyd (2002). The Emotional Life of Nations. NY, London: Karnak.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. 13.0 13.1 Godwin, Robert W. (2004). One cosmos under God. Minnesota: Paragon House.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Miller, Alice (1991). Breaking down the walls of silence. NY: Dutton/Penguin Books. p. 91.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Brown, Shelby (1991). Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Davies, Nigel (1981). Human Sacrifice in History and Today. NY: William Morrow & Co. p. 192.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Grotstein, James S. (2000). Who is the dreamer who dreams the dream?. NJ: The Analytic Press, Relational Perspectives Book Series Volume 19 edition. pp. 247, 242.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Trinkaus, Erik (April 1982). "Artificial Cranial Deformation in the Shanidar 1 and 5 Neandertals". Current Anthropology. 23 (2): 198–199. doi:10.1086/202808. JSTOR 2742361.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Rousselle, Aline (1983). Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 54.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Tompkins, Peter (1963). The Eunuch and the Virgin: A Study of Curious Customs. NY: Bramhall House. p. 12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Róheim, Géza (1950). Psychoanalysis and Anthropology. NY: International Universities Press. p. 76.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Nevill, Drury (1989). The Elements of Shamanism. Longmead: Element. p. 20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. 23.0 23.1 Herdt, Gilbert (2005). The Sambia: Ritual, Sexuality, and Change in Papua New Guinea (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology). Longmead: Wadsworth Publishing; 2 edition.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Todd Lewan, Satanic Cult Killings Spread Fear in Southern Brazil, The Associated Press, 26 October 1992
  25. Hamilton, Matt (2013-07-18). "Man given 25 years in mother's 'satanic' killing". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2015-11-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "Child Murders in Mexico Linked to Satanic Cult". Newsmax. Retrieved 2015-11-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "Uganda's children are being harvested for their body parts". Mail Online. Retrieved 2015-11-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. "Vejan en África a 'niños brujos'" (Press release). Reforma. 19 November 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. deMause, Lloyd (January 1982). Foundations of Psychohistory. Creative Roots Publishing. pp. 132–146. ISBN 0-940508-01-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Rascovsky, A. (1995). Filicide: The Murder, Humiliation, Mutilation, Denigration and Abandonment of Children by Parents. NJ: Aronson. p. 107.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Dr. Steven Lambert, Charismatic Captivation, Authoritarian Abuse & Psychological Enslavement in Neo-Pentecostal Churches (Real Truth Publications, 1996); adapted article available online: "Signs of Spiritual Abuse" [1]
  34. Lambert, Charismatic Captivation; adapted article available online: "Signs of Spiritual Abuse" [2]
  35. 35.0 35.1 Lambert, Charismatic Captivation; adapted article available online: "Signs of Spiritual Abuse" [3]
  36. Jeff VanVonderen: "Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to 'come underneath' and serve, build, equip and make a deity's or a god's people MORE free, misuses that authority placing themselves over a god's people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly godly purposes which are really their own."[4]
  37. Lambert, Charismatic Captivation; p. 253.
  38. 2 Chronicles 33:6; Galatians 5:20; Revelation 18:23; et al.
  39. Charismatic Captivation, by Steven Lambert
  40. Flavil Yeakley (ed.), The Discipling Dilemma (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1988), p. 39.available online
  41. Yeakley, Discipling Dilemma, p. 39.
  42. Yeakley, Discipling Dilemma, pp. 44, 46-47.
  43. Yeakley, The Discipling Dilemma, pp. 30-31.

Further reading

  • Massi, Jeri, The Lambs Workbook: Recovering from Church Abuse, Clergy Abuse, Spiritual Abuse, and the Legalism of Christian Fundamentalism (2008)
  • O'Brien, Rosaleen Church Abuse, Drugs and E.C.T. (2009)