Fort Refuge - Abuse Survivors Support Group

Religious and Ritual Abuse

It's like i'm caught in a spider web and i gotta untangle myself from it.
cuz right now the spider's eating me alive
~survivor of RA

Religious abuse can be a tricky subject to discuss because everyone defines it differently. We believe that religious abuse means using a system of beliefs to manipulate the victim and inflict harm, pain, and suffering on them. It does not involve any supernatural powers (though it's not rare for perpetrators to claim such abilities and for victims to believe them). However, it does involve a great deal of indoctrination: not only do you feel powerless to resist, but you often aren't even sure that you're being abused altogether. After all, the perpetrators claim that this is what God wants, and who are you to rebel against His will? Religious abuse is a serious trauma, recovering from it is a long and hard process, but many people are doing it successfully, there's hope.

There's a drastic difference between beliefs instilled during religious abuse and beliefs that people free from abuse have. Most religions consist of a belief in God who is generally fair and kind, just - yet reasonably forgiving, loving and caring about people, and being on good terms with him involves basic good will and common sense: no killing, no stealing, being kind to others, etc. All of us sin from time to time, it's human nature, but if we're trying to do the right thing - we can hope that God will help and protect us. This is the opposite of what perpetrators of religious abuse would tell you. They claim that God hates an overwhelming majority of humanity, most people will go to hell except for very few select ones (i.e. members of the group), and to avoid this fate one must make an extreme and ongoing effort, numerous sacrifices, and go through considerable discomfort. Healthy religious beliefs give inspiration, hope, strength, love, and comfort. Religious abuse, on the contrary, creates an atmosphere of fear, powerlessness, confusion, hatred, and shame.

Spiritually abusive groups often begin as noble (or at least harmless) organizations, offering a sense of purpose and belonging, but transform over time and end up perpetrating abuse on their own members. Which belief system they use for it varies: the leader (usually a charismatic figure, whether they genuinely believe what they say or coldly calculate it to manipulate you) might give a new spin to a mainstream religion, come up with an entirely new religion, nor not use religion at all. For example, Charles Manson was anticipating an impending apocalyptic racial war (which he referred to as "Helter-Skelter") that would somehow result in him ruling over the world. Jim Jones felt persecuted by CIA and thought that the best way around would be for a thousand of his followers to commit suicide. What matters is not what specifically the beliefs of the leader (or the group) consist of - but that they are used to inflict and justify abuse.

Abuse within a spiritually abusive group can be physical, sexual, or emotional, and each of these might or might not take a form of ritual. The victim can be a child or an adult. The perpetrator can be one individual or the whole group. Physical abuse might involve beatings, confinement, neglect, torture, mutilation, up to murder (as in witch-hunts, for example). Sexual abuse might involve child molestation (including forced "marriages" between minors and adults), rape (by an individual or a group), and various body modifications in the genital area. While some such modifications can be seen as culturally acceptable (circumcision, for example), others are regarded by general population as inappropriate and abusive, such as FGM or castration. Emotional abuse usually consists of unreasonable control and domination, denying the persons free will on their life and decisions, and often involves blackmail, threats, false accusations, public humiliation, estrangement/isolation, secrecy, shunning, and a great deal of gaslighting. There's often fraud, extortion, and various other financial crimes as well.

What makes it different from other forms of abuse is that all of the above is rationalized with religion: it's not that I raped you, it's that God needs you penetrated in order for you to qualify for heaven, and I did you a favor which you should be grateful for. The perpetrator claims to be the only one who knows exactly what God wants from you, so anything but enthusiastic compliance with even most outrageous demands means rebelling God and going to hell. The term "God" is used loosely here, to mean anything that the group worships or aims for - literally a god, aliens, communism, eternal life, defeat of worldwide Jewish conspiracy, or anything else. Religious abuse often takes the form of a ritual - a predefined sequence of events or actions performed just so, often involving supplies designated specifically for this purpose; a ceremony of sorts. So that you aren't raped once or at random, but it happens on schedule, at a specific location, while wearing outfits reserved just for this occasion, reading from a script rather than speaking spontaneously, etc. Such elaborate arrangements and regularity of abuse (along with religious indoctrination as to the reasons behind it), can make you unsure whether what's happening is or isn't OK. You sense that you don't enjoy getting raped on a weekly basis, but might very well blame yourself for feeling this way, attributing these feelings to insufficient faith, or even to being possessed by demons standing in the way of your salvation (which the leaders of the group will gladly remedy with even more rituals, till you're either "healed" or dead).

The hallmark of religious abuse is isolation: you're usually forbidden any exposure to the outside world, such as books, TV, Internet, or even exchanging hellos with a neighbor; children are often home schooled. Lack of independent sources of information makes it hard to evaluate what you're told at home, so even the oddest assertions made by the perpetrator are often accepted as indisputable facts. For example, that the Earth is flat, or that the CIA is controlled by alien reptiles. As bizarre as these statements may sound, they actually serve a clear purpose - enforcing fear of and hatred towards outsiders (including police and social services), so that you would blindly follow the leader of the group, dismissing anything that contradicts his words, viewing him as your only savior and protector from this hostile sinful world that surrounds you. Furthermore, such a leader often claims to have supernatural powers that he can use to punish you for non-compliance. Reading your mind, hypnotizing you into a zombie-like state, influencing your behavior, mood, thoughts, and physical health remotely (even across thousands of miles) - the list is endless. This arrangement gives the perpetrator absolute power over every member of the group, which allows for abuse to reach extreme degrees.

Lack of objective data about the outside world also makes it excruciatingly hard to leave the group, that's why the victims chose to undergo serious, even life-threatening abuse rather than just walk out. Aside from practicalities of life - no IDs, perceived debts or past crimes (perpetrators love to lie about the laws, so that you end up feeling like you're a criminal who will be caught and executed as soon as you leave), lack of experience in navigating outside world (such as how to go about renting an apartment, getting a job, even grocery shopping sometimes) - religious abuse greatly affects one's psyche. Many victims suffer from various fears and phobias, have grossly inaccurate or very vague ideas about the world they live in, and struggle forming their own opinions, beliefs, morals, judgments. This is especially true for children raised in such groups, as they might have never developed critical thinking skills, ability to process information and draw conclusions - or awareness that doing so is even an option. How can you be expected to call police for help, if you have never met a policeman before and were raised to believe that God will strike you for even thinking of contacting them?

Healing from religious abuse takes time and effort, but it's certainly doable. Since the main reason RA is possible is isolation - the main recovery tool is exposure. Talking to as many people as possible about their beliefs and everyday lives, reading, watching TV (including children's programs) - all of it helps greatly to rebuild a correct picture of the outside world, and to learn to navigate it. Once you straighten out the facts and realize that some of the information abusers provided you with was incorrect, you can start accepting the idea that their opinions on God, afterlife, humanity, your worth, and your life purpose might be incorrect as well: either deliberate lies to manipulate you or just their random personal opinions/delusions you don't have to agree with, because your own opinions are just as valid.

Recovery from religious abuse results in freedom to believe what makes sense to you, instead of relying on other people's views on what God wants or doesn't want. So that the topic of faith stops causing you feelings of shame, guilt, and impending doom, and instead is either neutral and irrelevant - or gives you what it's supposed to give: love, acceptance, strength, and hope.

Wherever you go, go with all your heart.
~ Confucius
This page was last updated on September 8th, 2015
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