April 16, 2015

Religious Abuse and Spiritual Practice for Survivors

What is Religious Abuse?

On the one hand, we might consider ourselves lucky. Local officials no longer have the authority to try us for heresy, burn us at the stake, or drown us for being witches. However, many other types of religious and spiritual abuse are still very much with us. What makes an abusive behavior spiritual or religious? Ronald Enroth in his book Churches that Abuse identifies five signs to look for:

1.       Authority and Power: Do church leaders or groups concentrate and centralize power? Might questioning or challenging views of the church be looked down on as disloyal?

2.      Manipulation and Control: Are fear, guilt, shaming and tests of loyalty used to influence the faithful? Are religious ideas, doctrines, histories, or teachings used purposefully to these ends?

3.      Elitism and Persecution: Does the religious group differentiate itself from others with exclusive claims to authority, truth, power and God’s love? Is separateness sometimes emphasized, or is a sense of being persecuted by outside groups present?  

4.      Life-style and Experience: Are strong social norms, behaviors and dress standards emphasized that both differentiate the group and manifest loyalty?  

5.      Dissent and Discipline: Do discipline processes involve shaming, humiliation or in more extreme cases violence or deprivation?  

One or a combination of these factors could lead to religious or spiritual abuse. This is not to say all charismatic or strong leadership should be characterized as abuse; or that religious doctrines, teachings, scriptures or theology are brainwashing; or even that a strong sense of group mission and identity means that you have joined a cult.

We should be cautious when drawing links of causation between religion and abuse. However, all religious people should be mindful of the sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, red flags that can lead to abusive behaviors. One way to test this might be to compare the behaviors, ideas or practices that one is encountering in a given religious context with how one might react if those same types of behaviors, ideas or practices were encountered in other situations (like a different denomination, corporation, or politician). If you find yourself making excuses for your religious leaders, giving them special exceptions, you might want to take a break, or a step back to get some perspective. If you are not sure, talk to someone about it.

Religious abuse as characterized above can sometimes lead to sexual abuse. Many people have found their trust betrayed when a religious leader they trusted abused them. It is important to remember that gender-based violence is more deeply rooted than any one religious tradition. As Catholic Priest Robert Barron suggests, while the priest-involved sex scandals are completely unacceptable, the vast majority of sexual abuse of children happens at the hands of non-celibate, non-priests.[1] And as YouTube activist Laci Green realized after leaving the Mormon Church because of what she found to be a patriarchal culture, the activist circles in which she sought refuge were just as rife with patriarchal attitudes and abusers. Sexual abuse can happen in any denomination or religion, and Christianity is certainly not alone in attention for sexual abuse scandals. Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a Japanese Zen master who helped introduce Zen to the West, and who started the Vancouver Zen Centre, was accused of repeated sexual advances and abuse of his students over some 30 years. Yoga Guru Bikram Choudhury, another spiritual leader was recently accused of similar abuses. These examples point to a broader problem with men in power who inappropriately seek sexual relationships with children, students, or mentees. Being a spiritual teacher is a great responsibility and should never be betrayed by abuse of any kind.

Beyond Abuse: Spiritual Practice for Survivors

As a religious person, I am always deeply distressed to see religious leaders perpetrate sexual or other types of abuse on others. Yes the majority of sexual abuse occurs outside of religious institutions, and perhaps the percentage of religious leaders who abuse children is not higher than the population at large; but religious and spiritual leaders should be held to a higher standard. Many of us look to religious and spiritual leaders for guidance, advice, teachings and spiritual practice. To betray that trust through any abuse is unacceptable and should be stopped immediately and punished to the full extent of the law.

However, despite the failings of imperfect people, we should not allow the damage done to impair our desire for a profound connection to the Divine (whether by that we mean the Real, the Absolute, the Cosmos, God, Goddess, the Great Mystery, the True Self, or Gaia) through spiritual practice. Peer reviewed, empirical research strongly suggests that survivors of sexual violence and/or domestic abuse heal faster and thrive better with a consistent spiritual practice or community (See ‘Resources’ for a small list). For example, of African American women who had been abused, those who had a strong spiritual practice had lower levels of depression and fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms (Watlington and Murphey 2006). Another study suggests that strong spiritual practice helped several women leave abusive relationships and to heal after leaving (Murray-Swank and Pargament 2005); (though clearly fundamentalist religion can also facilitate the opposite instinct as well). Thus to reject spirituality or even organized religion because of cases of abuse is throwing the baby out with the bath water. This being said, each survivor of abuse must discern how to approach spiritual practice on their own terms and at their own pace.

Here are just a few humble suggestions that may help survivors of sexual abuse (re)connect to spiritual practice during their healing process. Survivors need not reject the religion of their abuser, but may need to take a break from it, or atte
nd a different congregation while seeking professional counseling. Religion is made up of imperfect people, and blaming the religion for the mistakes of its adherents is not fair. Sometimes, just sitting in the back of a church can help overcome feelings of estrangement, or talking to a close non-judgmental friend within the tradition. Reading the writings of spiritual teachers, contemplatives or mystics within one’s own tradition, or related traditions can also be healing. This is true especially if one focuses on finding statements that affirm the worth of the human soul rather than sin or righteousness. Dwelling in these words can counteract the tendency to devalue oneself or to believe that because of the abuse, one is somehow less lovable, pure or worthy. If there is one common thread of the world religious, it is that of love and the beauty of the human spirit. We need not qualify for love, only open ourselves to it. Sexual abuse is an egregious affront to human dignity, and healing will take time, but spiritual practice can help one to see the Divine even in the midst of pain.

(Re)connecting to one’s body can also be an important spiritual practice. Taking a yoga class, or joining a meditation group can help one to return and reclaim the abused body, to affirm one’s value, and locate the love available to us from the Divine. Yoga is rooted in Hinduism, and shares the root with our word ‘yoke’. Yoga is about binding the body to the soul, the human to the Divine. The physical yoga that has gained popularity in the West, is only one of many ‘Yogas’ designed to guide the soul to Moksha, or liberation, the freeing of the soul from the cycle of suffering, birth and death. While one does not need to be a Hindu to practice Yoga, it is important to understand the practice’s roots in Hindu religion.

Meditation is widely employed in Hinduism but is also a central practice of some Buddhist sects, especially Zen, which is probably the most accessible sect of Buddhism for Westerners. Meditation is not about stopping the brain from thinking, or transcending reality; it is primarily a practice for being present to each moment; the now, now, now of reality that the Buddha taught would lead to enlightenment or Nirvana. When I practice meditation, I am not striving for anything other than awareness of the present moment. UBC Counseling Services offers Mindfulness classes that are a more secular form of meditation for anxiety and stress reduction. They are very helpful as well. This practice has helped me deal with my own anxieties around past experiences with abuse and violence. And as a PhD student, it helps me get out of my head and into the beautiful world that we live in, especially here in Vancouver.

While Church, religious rituals, yoga and meditation are useful, spiritual practices do not need to be connected to an organized religious group, service or class. A spiritual practice can be a simple action that brings one’s awareness to the present moment. Watching the breath, taking a long walk, finding a labyrinth to walk, people watching, hiking, art, exercise or swimming are just a few examples. Journaling, writing, poetry, singing, or some other development of talent can also be a spiritual practice. Serving others is also a spiritual practice that gets us outside of our own worlds and into the worlds of others. Every month or so, I take the bus to the downtown Eastside to have coffee with an ex-offender through the Correctional Service of Canada Community Chaplains program. Getting off campus, and outside my academic world to just listen has been a powerful experience for me. Whatever the practice, we all need to be reminded that we are lovable, that we live in a beautiful world, that we dwell in that world in a miraculous body, and that though life is full of pain and suffering, there is beauty in connecting to the Divine, the world around us, our fellow humans, our bodies and our True Selves.


·         Watlington, Christina G., and Christopher M. Murphy. “The roles of religion and spirituality among African American survivors of domestic violence.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 62.7 (2006): 837-857.

·         Murray-Swank, Nichole A., and Kenneth I. Pargament. “God, where are you?: Evaluating a spiritually-integrated intervention for sexual abuse.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 8.3 (2005): 191-203.

·         Yick, Alice G. “A metasynthesis of qualitative findings on the role of spirituality and religiosity among culturally diverse domestic violence survivors.” Qualitative Health Research 18.9 (2008): 1289-1306.

·         Senter, Karolyn Elizabeth, and Karen Caldwell. “Spirituality and the maintenance of change: A phenomenological study of women who leave abusive relationships.” Contemporary family therapy 24.4 (2002): 543-564.

·         Gillum, Tameka L., Cris M. Sullivan, and Deborah I. Bybee. “The importance of spirituality in the lives of domestic violence survivors.” Violence Against Women12.3 (2006): 240-250.

·         Schneider, Rachel Zimmer, and Kathryn M. Feltey. “”No Matter What Has Been Done Wrong Can Always Be Redone Right”: Spirituality in the Lives of Imprisoned Battered Women.” Violence against women (2009).


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