Religious Abuse: Spotting the Signs and How to Cope

cross on top of a church

Erica Shires / Getty Images

Religious abuse, also referred to as spiritual abuse, is a type of abuse that occurs within religious or spiritual communities. This can range from a religious leader shaming a member based on their sexuality to abusing a congregation member.

Additionally, religious abuse can occur at the hands of family members, friends, and partners. For instance, a partner may prevent their spouse from practicing their own or use religious doctrine to justify their abuse against them.

No one deserves to be abused and mistreated. We often think about abuse happening in the home and romantic relationships. However, religious abuse is a common issue that is not often talked about which can result in long-lasting trauma.

When going through a hard time, people often turn to religion. For instance, it can feel comforting to rely on or speak to a higher power when you may need guidance. However, since most people are vulnerable when they're in pain, this vulnerability can be weaponized by leaders and peers alike in religious communities.

This article will define religious abuse, help you identify types and signs of this abuse, and provide information on how to get help.

Understanding Abuse and an Abuse of Power

First, let’s start with understanding what abuse is. Abuse refers to "a corrupt practice or custom," "to use or treat to injure or damage," and "to put to a wrong or improper use."

It's also important to note that any form of abuse can happen in any religious or spiritual institution. Moreover, anyone from any religion or spiritual belief system can perpetrate this abuse.

An Abuse of Power

The most common abuse in religious institutions is an abuse of power, which leads to many forms of abuse. This abuse can present as sexual, emotional, financial, physical or verbal harm.

Abuse of Power & Religious Doctrine

An abuse of power refers to actions perpetrated by someone against another person to influence or control them in some way. The perpetrator will be of higher status (i.e., older, in a higher work position) and can use their position of power to harm another person.

When it comes to religious abuse, people can view this type of abuse as "religious doctrine." Religious doctrine refers to a set of beliefs and/or practices that people belonging to a religion follow. If abuse is excused in the name of religious doctrine, it can lead people to overlook, normalize, or dismiss abuse.

What Are Examples of Religious Abuse?

There may be various forms of abuse that occurs within a religious or spiritual setting:

Signs of Religious Abuse

Spotting the signs of abuse is essential to staying safe. First, let’s explore the general indicators of an abusive relationship.

Control and Manipulation

A sign of an abusive relationship consists of subtle forms of control (this could come in the form of gaslighting). Perhaps the abusive individual has strong opinions about the people you spend time with. For instance, religious institutions that push members into spending their time in specific ways and label people who don't abide by the rules as sinners or not being people of faith.

They could get angry if you don’t tell them what you’re doing. They might even insult you based on an outfit you’re wearing. This behavior can escalate, resulting in manipulation, sexual coercion, and physical assault.

Behavior like this can escalate gradually, which makes it difficult for members to identify what is happening as abusive.

Power Dynamics Are Present

Now, let’s consider how these signs of abuse may present in a religious context. There may be members of the church who hold a lot of power, like a preacher or bishop. Power dynamics can lead to abuse such as:

  • Sexual coercion
  • Financial abuse
  • Instilling fear

This power can be abused by telling church members that they will be excommunicated unless they provide a sexual favor.

One could be pressured into constantly donating money to their religious institution. Whenever they question the reasoning, a religious leader could begin manipulating them into thinking they are failing God.

In other circumstances, someone may continually tell someone they’re disobeying God and going to Hell whenever they set boundaries.

Red Flags

Red flags to keep an eye out for include a religious leader using scripture to embarrass or shame you, touching that makes you feel uncomfortable, and insistence on generous financial donations.

Impact of Religious Abuse

All forms of abuse lead to trauma. However, when abuse occurs in a religious context, the trauma isn’t only related to the harm caused. Some may find themselves disconnected from their faith, making it impossible to use their spirituality as a coping tool.

Faith Is Shattered

In turn, this can create further despair and trauma. Abuse in a religious context can rob survivors of their well-being, relationships, and belief system.

The impact of abuse as a whole can be devastating. For example, those who experience abuse as children are more likely to develop issues with substance abuse, severe physical illnesses, and adverse mental health outcomes.

Others who experience domestic violence face similar outcomes, particularly compromised mental and physical health and decreased productivity, leading to economic insecurity. 

How to Get Help

Healing is possible. Whether you feel you may have experienced religious abuse or sense that someone you love has been victimized, below are a few helplines that you can get in contact with.

Hotlines You Can Contact

  • Child Abuse: If you are a victim of child abuse or know someone who might be, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor.
  • Domestic Violence: If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.
  • Sexual Assault: If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate.
  • LGBTQIA+: If you are seeking support for issues with coming out, relationships, bullying, self-harm, and more, contact the LGBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 for one-to-one peer support.

Additional Resources

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Consider Therapy

Trauma often follows abuse, so if you're in distress it's important to contact a licensed mental health provider.

Deconstruction in Narrative Therapy

For those who have experienced religious or spiritual abuse, it can be hard to come to terms with being harmed by a community in which you put your trust and faith.

So, to begin to heal, a process known as deconstruction (typically involved in narrative therapy) can help you address what happened to you.

Deconstruction aims to help you break down your trauma into smaller parts to address each slowly. This can alleviate overwhelm.

Affording Mental Health Treatment

If you’re concerned about your ability to afford mental health care, you still have options. Consider finding a provider through Open Path Collective, an organization that offers therapy sessions beginning at $30.

You are more than deserving of help and healing and there are many therapists who will support you in your healing journey.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Oakley L. Breaking the Silence on Spiritual Abuse. London, UKPalgrave Macmillan; 2013:7-22.

  2. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Abuse.

  3. Law Insider. Abuse of power definition.

  4. Religious doctrine.

  5. Super JT, Jacobson L. Religious abuse: implications for counseling lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. J. LGBT Issues Couns. 2011;5(3-4):180-196. doi: 10.1080/15538605.2011.632739

  6. Huecker MR, King KC, Jordan GA, Smock W. Domestic violence. Treasure Island, FL. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.

  7. Purcell BC. Spiritual abuse. Am J Hosp Palliat Care. 1998;15(4):227-231. doi: 10.1177/104990919801500409

  8. Koch D, Edstrom L. Development of the spiritual harm and abuse scale. J Sci Study Relig. 2022;61(2):476-506. doi: 10.1111/jssr.12792

  9. Petersen AC, Joseph J, Feit M, et al. Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, D.C. National Academies Press; 2014.

  10. Huecker MR, King KC, Jordan GA, Smock W. Domestic violence. Treasure Island, FL. StatPearls Publishing; 2022

  11. Heywood L, Conti J, Hay P. Paper 1: a systematic synthesis of narrative therapy treatment components for the treatment of eating disordersJ Eat Disord. 2022;10(1):137. Published 2022 Sep 8. doi:10.1186/s40337-022-00635-5

By Julia Childs Heyl, MSW
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.