Saturday, September 18, 2021

Spiritual and Religious Harassment


Spiritual harassment includes but is not limited to religious harassment. Harassment includes the terms emotional abuse or psychological abuse but is generally considered a different category of offensive conduct than physical and sexual abuse.

In general, harassment refers to behavior considered offensive by the person who is the target of the behavior. The behavior may be verbal or nonverbal. The harassing actions leave the targeted person feeling disturbed, upset, demeaned, or humiliated. Harassment includes discrimination.

Harassment By Spiritual Leaders is Not Necessarily Spiritual

What makes harassment religious or spiritual is the use of religious or spiritual texts or practices to produce the distress. Any kind of harassment may be spiritual if the actions negatively impact a person's spirituality. A religious or spiritual leader may harass a person in different ways. Following are examples of harassment that are not necessarily religious or spiritual.

Words that make people of a certain gender or ethnicity feel uncomfortable based on insulting language.

Policies that result in discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, ability, or other category.

Unwanted touching, hugging, kissing or pressure for dates.

Coercive sexual advances.


If a person’s spirituality is negatively affected because a spiritual leader or a group of peers then it’s reasonable to call the actions spiritual harassment in addition to other types. For example, if a person avoids participating in meaningful religious or spiritual activities because someone is sexually harassing them then the negative effects can be additive.


Spiritual or Religious Harassment

Difficult Doctrines

Examples of spiritual or religious harassment are difficult to codify because many teachings identify various acts as right and others as sinful or wrong. Religious people are expected to give up their wrongdoing. In some religions, persistent sin or wrong doing can lead to personal ruin or eternal damnation. 

Christians are expected to give money and time. In some sects, people are taught to give a minimum of 10% of their income and encouraged to give more of their money and time. The failure to meet the expectations of a religion can lead to feeling unworthy, unloved, rejected, guilty, and ashamed. 

In my view, a healthy spirituality always provides a way of redemption. People can be forgiven, reconciled, restored—in short, no matter how much they have sinned according to their faith’s definition of sin, they may be restored to spiritual wellness. Perhaps the words of a Hebrew Psalm (46) and Welsh hymn capture the restoration, “It is well with my soul.”


When it comes to doctrines or traditional religious practices that are offensive but normative for a specific faith tradition, adults in free societies can usually practice their spirituality somewhere else. By normative I mean there is no obvious effort to single out a particular person and cause that person to be the target of offensive actions. Thus, the idea of consent is a factor in choosing to remain in a setting that leaves one feeling distressed, guilty, shamed, and so forth.

Adults must realize that children do not grant consent but may be placed in a setting that may negatively affect their spirituality and other aspects of their wellbeing. Spiritual harassment of children happens.

Examples of Spiritual or Religious Harassment

Discrimination based on amount of time or money donated

Discrimination in a secular workplace granting special privileges to one faith more than another

Defacing sacred places like a cemetery or place of worship

Defacing houses and personal spaces with symbols offensive to the person’s faith tradition

Promising spiritual blessings in exchange for time, money, or other acts

Threats of supernatural harm if a person does not perform certain acts

Pressuring victims of abuse to reconcile with their offender

Pressuring congregants to forgive and restore an abusive pastor or spiritual leader

Pressuring congregants to keep quiet about sinful and/or unlawful conduct of a spiritual leader

Pressuring people to give money or time—especially when they have little to give

Continually asking people where they were when they missed a scheduled meeting

Pressuring people in a group to support a decision because dissent is ungodly

Praying so loud that it interferes with other ongoing conversations such as in a restaurant

Persistent communication of spiritual or religious information or messages to people who do not wish to hear or receive such information

Coercing people to perform some act they consider sinful or uncomfortable based on an interpretation of a text or personal message from God

Shaming people who struggle with doubt about their faith or experience spiritual struggles

Shaming people who have a mental illness

Shaming people of the same faith for doing less than expected such as attending fewer meetings than expected or giving less time or money

Knowingly posting false information about a person’s spirituality or religion on social media in an effort to embarrass or humiliate them


Spiritual harassment includes religious harassment and is a subtype of harassment. Harassment may be verbal or nonverbal. Spiritual harassment consists of actions by spiritual leaders or other group members toward one or more people who experience considerable distress because of the unwanted actions. Spiritual harassment is usually discriminatory in that select people in a group are the targets of the harassment. Any kind of harassment in a spiritual or religious context may be considered spiritual harassment if the actions significantly negatively affect the target person’s spirituality. At some point, severe spiritual harassment may become spiritual or religious abuse. A key indicator of abuse is harm.

Related Posts

Spiritual and Religious Abuse

The Spiritual Abuse Questionnaire 

Learn more about spiritual and general wellbeing in Living Well

Learn more about Christian sexuality and morality, including abuse, in A House Divided.

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