Spiritual or religious abuse are types of abuse. Although the words harassment and abuse may be used interchangeably, in legal contexts, laws may define these words differently.
From the perspective of psychology, we may refer to harassment as a pattern of acts that leave people feeling distressed, uncomfortable, and discriminated against. In contrast, abuse refers to actions that result in harm whether that harm be overt bodily harm or psychological harm resulting in such impairments as anxiety or mood disorders including phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual disorders, psychotic disorders, impaired memory due to head trauma, and other mental disorders.
Spiritual or religious harm may include the loss of a meaningful source of coping and support in that many people draw on their faith to cope with life problems. The harm may be nuanced if the person retains their faith but loses their faith community, which is not longer a safe place—especially when the victim is blamed or viewed skeptically and members rally to support the abuser.
The terms spiritual and religious are often used interchangeably. Religious can be a narrower term referring to a specific religion like Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism. In contrast, spirituality may refer to a variety of spiritual practices like meditation that need not be tied to a specific religion or experiences like feelings of awe when experiencing nature or a sense of connectedness to God.
Spiritual or Religious and Other Forms of Abuse
Spiritual or religious abuse may occur within a sacred or secular context and may be carried out by a spiritual or religious leader or one’s peers. Spiritual or religious abuse can result in different forms of harm, which can be worsened when multiple types of abuse are combined.
A clergyperson who sexually assaults a congregant is an example of two types of abuse: sexual abuse and religious abuse. Sexual assault often results in a range of psychological symptoms, which vary in intensity and duration depending on such factors as the relationship to the abuser, and the intensity, duration, and frequency of abuse. The religious component can also vary in terms of the pre-abuse relationship between the clergyperson and the congregant (e.g., counseling, friendship) and the location of the abuse. For example, a sacred place is usually considered a sanctuary—a place where people may expect to relax, let their guard down, and feel safe.
Examples of Spiritual or Religious Abuse
Examples of spiritual or religious abuse may include using sacred texts, interpretation of sacred texts, or messages from a god or a spirit to coerce someone to do something that causes, or is likely to cause harm. Coercion may include inducing fear due to threats of eternal punishment, spiritual torment, or bodily harm in this life. Following are some examples of acts that may be classified as spiritual or religious abuse by the nature of the act or when a person is harmed by the act.
Pressure to perform sex acts
Sexual activity in an unequal power balance such as a clergyperson and a congregant
Sexual activity between an adult and a minor in a sacred place or by a religious leader in any location
Pressure to end relationships with certain people
Pressure to make donations or investments resulting in economic harm
Pressure to make commitments of time to the extent that a marriage is destroyed or employment is lost
Pressure to participate in protests where there is a risk of bodily harm
Pressure to participate in spiritual practices or activities that produce discomfort or distress
Pressure to refuse medical treatment or interventions for spiritual or religious reasons when the refusal is likely to result in illness or death
Pressure to comply with rules that interfere with a happy life like the number of children one can have or what activities are permissible
Pressure to participate in groups that use strategies known to produce distress or trauma such as so-called conversion therapies
Spiritual or Religious Abuse and Children
Children are especially vulnerable to spiritual or religious abuse because they usually trust the adults in their life. Parents and other caring adults need to ensure children are safe from abuse when in religious programs and activities. News stories and court decisions provide evidence that spiritual and religious leaders abuse children in sacred places.
Read more about Sexuality and Morality in Christian Cultures
Coping with Spiritual or Religious Abuse
It is easy to suggest leaving the organization or relationship where the abuse occurs; however, to leave an abusive setting may require external support from a trusted friend, abuse hotline worker, or psychotherapist.
In addition to general medical services for bodily harm, psychotherapy may be needed to recover from a range of symptoms or conditions such as those suggested above. In some cases, clinicians may also be members of the same faith tradition as the person who has been harmed. Also, pastoral counseling may be a viable option.
In the US, people in immediate danger can call 911.
The US National Domestic Violence Hotline link is: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/fysb/programs/family-violence-prevention-services/programs/ndvh
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Limitations of Terminology
If you need to distinguish between harassment and abuse from a legal perspective, consult the laws where you live. If you need to understand the difference in terms of the workplace, consult the policies where you work and/or applicable law. Most of us will need advice from an attorney to understand the implications of law.