What Is Spiritual Abuse?

Jerry Morrison

Spiritual abuse most often refers to the psychological manipulation of a person by one holding a trusted position in a religious or spiritual tradition. The manipulation is for the benefit of the abuser or the abuser's group at the expense of the victim. The form that it takes depends on whether personal desire or organizational dogma is the underlying cause. Spiritual abuse has very real emotional, physical and financial consequences for its victims.

Spiritual abuse may occur between religious leaders and children in their congregation.
Spiritual abuse may occur between religious leaders and children in their congregation.

Cult affiliation is often cited as the most common venue for spiritual abuse, though instances can be seen in mainstream religious organizations worldwide. Strict adherence to a rigid doctrine, presided over by a charismatic or powerful leader of unquestioned authority, is indicative of an environment conducive to abuse. A genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of followers might motivate the abusive behavior. Satisfaction of selfish or pathological personal desires might also be a motivation. Spiritual abuse's victims are most often psychologically vulnerable adults and children.

Spiritual abuse can cause people to be guarded in relationships.
Spiritual abuse can cause people to be guarded in relationships.

An altruistic concern that places conformity to teachings ahead of a follower's freedom to inquire and express doubt can lead to abusive behavior. Absolute conformity to accepted teachings, as interpreted by the group's leader, might be seen as the foundation for spiritual welfare. Instruction and correction of an errant or questioning member is intended as a positive good. When the methods used for correction involve inflicting personal fear and shame, doctrinal deception, social isolation or physical punishment, then spiritual abuse exists. The welfare of the individual is being sacrificed for doctrinal purity.

Victims of spiritual abuse may suffer from depression.
Victims of spiritual abuse may suffer from depression.

People who have personality disorders or psychopathic tendencies sometimes hold positions of influence in religious bodies, just as they sometimes do in secular organizations. Such a person might be a true believer whose state of mind leads to doctrinal excess or personal glorification. Another person might see his or her own position solely as a vehicle to satisfy personal desires. People who seek to be the focus of worship might practice spiritual abuse in isolating followers socially, requiring the surrender of worldly possessions or creating doctrine to enhance their exclusive status. The misuse of a trusted position to sexually abuse or financially deceive a follower is more akin to the abuse of rank that is found in secular society.

The consequences of spiritual abuse are many and varied, ranging from the emotional to the material. Individuals and families might become impoverished. Family members might become estranged, with little hope for reconciliation. Children might grow into adults who trust neither their own nature nor the motivations of others. The lifelong ramifications of abuse are well documented.

The victims of spiritual abuse are often children and vulnerable adults.
The victims of spiritual abuse are often children and vulnerable adults.

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Discussion Comments


@burcinc-- But is that really abuse? Many followers of many spiritual beliefs follow their leadership in strict terms. I don't think we can say that they are all abused.

I think abuse occurs when people's spiritual or religious sentiments are used and when this causes some kind of harm. So for example, if a spiritual leader decides to sacrifice a child in order to cleanse the group, then that's obviously abuse. But if harm is not being done to anyone, then it cannot be called abuse.


I know of a spiritual group where this kind of abuse is taking place. The followers are basically brainwashed and do everything that the leadership tells them to do. Despite claiming to belong to a well known religion, the doctrine of the group is very different from the doctrine of this religion. But the followers don't care. It's like they have turned their minds off. They are like sheep, they just follow.


There are quite a few religious cults in the world where members are regularly abused by leadership. In some cults, member abuse one another psychologically or physically to follow the norms and rules of the group.

The sad part is that it is difficult to identify such groups where abuse is rampant because leadership is often aware that what they are doing is wrong. So they will try to keep it a secret, especially if the cult is part of a bigger, mainstream culture that has norms different than that of the cult. If members of the group only interact wit other members of the same group and if no one reports the abuse to government authorities, no one will know. So the abuse may continue for a very long time.

On the other hand, even though abuse is taking place, members of the group might be convinced that it is not abuse. They might think that these practices are normal or even desirable. So it's very difficult for governments and societies fight spiritual abuse.

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