On February 12, I posted a thread about spiritual abuse on Twitter, not realizing it would stir powerful reactions of various kinds. One user (who quickly unfollowed me) tweeted at me “Enough already!” and “Get counseling.” Both the presumption and the assumptions inherent in those tweets are not really worth unpacking here (but let me say that therapy is great, and shaming people for getting needed mental health care, or stigmatizing it, is abusive). Fortunately, many other Twitter users joined the discussion around the thread in ways that demonstrated the value–for survivors and wider society–in unpacking the concept of spiritual abuse, a type of abuse that is too little commented on, despite being pervasive in the experience of those who have lived any kind of religious fundamentalism. The thread started as follows:
I should say that I have not experienced sexual abuse and have limited experience of physical abuse (from exes, no one in my family or among my relatives), but I have been subjected to a lot of emotional manipulation and spiritual abuse, which I defined on Twitter as “a form of emotional abuse and manipulation that occurs in a religious environment,” adding that it often involves authority figures (but it’s key that this can extend beyond clergy to teachers, parents, and anyone a given religious ideology places in authority over anyone else). I am confident that most of the spiritual abuse I’ve experienced over the years was carried out by very well-intentioned people with no desire to hurt me, but the damaging effects are the same.
All communities devoted to authoritarian ideologies are grounded in abuse. They practice manipulation and gaslighting in order to keep people in the fold, and the ends easily come to justify the means for the defense of the values and the pursuit of the goals defined by the ideology. America’s conservative Evangelical subculture is authoritarian through and through, so it is no wonder that its hardline ideological form of Christianity gives rise to pervasive spiritual abuse. Such authoritarian cultural systems lead to individual community members perpetuating cycles of abuse even if they are essentially kind and caring individuals (many Evangelicals are). Meanwhile, the mechanisms and incentives that work through the ideologically driven community provide cover for physical and sexual abuse, making even community members who would never commit such acts complicit.
While I was composing my Twitter thread on spiritual abuse, Emily Joy came up with the hashtag #SpiritualAbuseIs, and a number of Twitter users immediately picked up on it, bravely sharing aspects of their own experiences of spiritual abuse. I think this is a very positive development for ex-Evangelical conversations and community. I’ll eat my hat if one can find an ex-Evangelical who isn’t a survivor of spiritual abuse, and yet we are unaccustomed to discussing the phenomenon. Doing so openly for those who are ready can be empowering, and, as we affirm each other and validate each other’s experiences, we may also help others still caught up in harmful situations by calling out various forms of spiritual abuse that probably often go unrecognized. Putting a name to something that has harmed us can be key to moving forward.
The reason for this blog post is to encourage further speaking out about spiritual abuse. If you are a survivor and are willing to share on social media, I encourage you to use the hashtag #SpiritualAbuseIs. My heartfelt thanks to all the strong souls who are already speaking out. Sharing can be cathartic, although of course I will not pass judgment on anyone who is not ready to take that step, as it can be emotionally taxing. As Marlene Winell has documented, religious trauma syndrome is a widespread variety of PTSD, and if you are suffering from it, there is no shame. Be good to yourself as you find your way to healing.