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Religious Abuse and the Traumatic Aftermath
When the Constructs of Religion are No Longer Beneficial
Just as emotional abuse affects one emotionally while physical abuse inflicts pain and bodily injury on its victim, religious abuse affects a person on a deep, unseen and—for lack of a better word—spiritually. It is the result of a leader or a system of practice that tries to control, manipulate, or dominate a person. This control is often in the form of fear. This is considered a major factor in mind control/coercive persuasion, or thought reform.
David Johnson & Jeff Van Vonderen, co-authors of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, describe the action: “It is possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine, or a way of doing things that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, disagrees, or doesn’t ‘behave’ spiritually the way you want them to. When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person’s standing as [a person of a specific religious faith]—to gratify you, your position, or beliefs while at the same time weakening or harming another—that is spiritual abuse.”
Religious abuse is most often mentioned in terms of recognizing a governmental system bent on destruction through religious control. This includes the extremist movements found particularly in the Middle East. In a report released by the Washington Post in 2012, a dark picture of religious freedom was painted of religious freedom in Iran, documenting how the government there oppresses the followers of virtually every minority of the country, restricting their religious activities, limiting their economic prospects, and imprisoning them when they tell others about their beliefs. And because it seems so far-removed from an every day experience of an individual living within the religious freedoms of the United States, religious abuse does not occur only on a global extremist level or in government dealings of oppression.
Religious Abuse Is Not Always Political
Religious abuse occurs most frequently in the church or temple where a person has attended—in many cases—since childhood. And most often it goes unlooked until a person begins to question specific practices. This person then is faced with a really challenging crossroads: Does s/he choose to put his/her head down and continue to follow the teachings of the religious organization without question? Does s/he continue to question but outside of the religious organization with like-minded individuals while still remaining a part of the religious body? Does s/he choose to leave that organization entirely, facing the potential of being disowned by family, a loss of friends, and a feeling of entire isolation? These are the same struggles faced by any individual faced with an abusive relationship, but the ramifications of it coming from a religious family are in many ways more difficult than it coming from a domestic situation.
Systemic research over four decades documents that patients of both physical and mental health who use religion to cope appear to cope better with their illnesses, and if depression develops they recover more quickly from depression because of greater adaptive capacities (Koenig, H.G. 2007). But if one’s religious beliefs are tied to a connection of spiritual abuse, that entire coping mechanism is compromised, placing that much more of a fragile state on the individual experiencing such abuse.
You Are Not Alone!
The biggest challenge on finding different ways to feel healthy and connected is to know that you are not alone. A healthy experience should produce feelings of peace and rest. If you do not feel peace and rest, and you believe it is because the ways in which a controlling message about a non-existent God has placed an undo amount of fear and judgment on you, the biggest words I have for you are: I am so, so sorry that you had to experience an absolute shaking of your foundation. And you are not alone. Recovering from Religion is a good place to start exploring your own emotional trauma in a safe and supportive way.
There is no judgment, no undo burden placed upon you to do anything but be yourself. If you feel as though your choices to leave a specific church environment is necessary but may put you at irreconcilable odds with your family, counselors and support staff with Recovering from Religion can help you find safe ways of dealing with those struggles. If you are a member of the clergy who can no longer feel as though you are an accomplice to conveying harmful messages in the name of God and the church, talk to the Clergy Project. There are many who have experienced similar trauma and can help support you through making whatever decisions you need.
Kelly McGonical, a health psychologist, recognizes the toll that stress can have on the body, especially when it encompasses familial crises. I would also posit that crises of conscience, admitting abuse, and ending abusive patterns either by leaving them entirely or finding ways to cope within an abusive system, are some of the most stressful and risky choices we can ever face. But when we look at the physical signs of stress: a pounding heart, faster breathing, etc., those stressful responses can actually be helpful. The heart pounding is preparing you for action. If you’re breathing faster, it’s no problem. It’s getting more oxygen to your brain. In other words: if we can view the stress response as helpful, we can tackle those incredibly difficult moments with more confidence. The other thing that stress does is that it releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes you crave physical contact with people you love and trust. When oxytocin is released in a stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. You are strong, confident, and capable without the destructive nature of the organized church or temple. And you are not alone.
May Your Deep and Needed Healing Begin!
It is possible to have a loving and supportive community without God or religion. There is an opportunity to feel that same deep connection to those around you, and to even generate a kind of loving family that will always be there for you without the destructive measures of a corrupt church or temple environment. Recovering from Religion provides such a place, and you are wholeheartedly welcome. Healing starts with a safe and loving system of support. May your deep and needed healing begin!
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