Fort Refuge - Abuse Survivors Support Group

7 Characteristics of Spiritually Abusive Groups

Death is a million times preferable to ten more days of this life.
Jim Jones, last speech

Religion is where people often look for hope, motivation, strength, love, forgiveness, acceptance, care. It's therefore very disturbing when spiritually abusive groups use religion as a means to assume complete control over the life of each member, and, maintaining that they are acting in everyone's best interest, use this power to inflict abuse and stunt your personal growth rather than support it. Religious abuse is a serious trauma, often causing various impairments, such as fear, paranoia, dread, and feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, or general failure in regards to spirituality. It is very possible to heal from this trauma; many of us at Fort are leading successful and fairly happy lives despite having experienced it. As with any other form of abuse, the crucial first step is sorting through just what had happened, why, how it was done, and why it affected you the way it did. This page is not an attempt to bash anyone's beliefs or practices, just a list of some of the traits that seem to be commonly present in groups that practice religious abuse and usually lacking outside of them, to see whether these traits are what allows for abuse to happen.


A spiritually abusive group typically asserts that it alone is the one true religious organization, a few select (even "holy") people who will go to heaven, while the rest of the world is evil, corrupt, and will be condemned to eternal hell. This approach results in an "us vs. them" mentality, a siege mindset, where members of the group feel they are under constant attack by the entire world surrounding them. In reality, most of the world isn't aware of their existence, and is living its own life rather than constantly plotting dark schemes aimed at the demise of some relatively small group. However, the leaders of a spiritually abusive group need to create a common enemy for the congregation, to keep it united and distracted from internal grievances. Some of them create external enemies artificially - for example, Westboro Baptist Church pickets funerals with various inflammatory signs, one of them literally stating "God hates the world". Other leaders shift the focus of their congregation to internal enemies, instilling in members paranoia of each other: wolves in sheep's clothing, false prophets, possessed by devil, or some such. A spiritually abusive group is rarely at peace with the rest of the world and/or with itself, it's always someone else's fault, and this hostility is regarded as righteousness, something that God would be pleased with.


Since the world is seen as an enemy, spiritually abusive groups aim for as much separation from it as possible. Jim Jones, for example, went as far as moving his congregation to Guyanese jungle - and still forced them to commit suicide at the end, alleging that it's for their own safety. Members of spiritually abusive groups usually aren't allowed to interact with outsiders; children are often home-schooled. Science, literature, history, geography, and local laws are either considered irrelevant and aren't mentioned - or are misrepresented beyond recognition. The group is essentially held hostage, has to rely on what their leader chooses to tell them about the world they live in, and feels threatened by and avoids anything that s/he labels as "satanic" (or other similar term): Internet, TV, newspapers, books (even children's classics like Winnie The Pooh), down to clothing styles and soft drinks. The problem, however, isn't lifestyle choices - it's the absence of choice caused by lack of independent sources of information. Members of the group have no choice but to trust their leader implicitly, even when he contradicts himself, and to do exactly what he says on what they are to believe and how they are to live. This arrangement allows for various forms of abuse and other crimes: sexual abuse of children, assault and battery, extortion, fraud, even murders. Members of the group are often unaware that these things are illegal, that they are citizens of the country they live in and thus qualify for protection, that the rest of the world lives free of this, and consists of regular people just like themselves, not some dangerous monsters.

Deification of leaders

Leaders of spiritually abusive groups often claim powers they do not actually have, either as a blatant lie or as a genuine delusion. For example, Asahara (the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo group) asserted he could levitate. Such leaders might claim the ability to read minds, know the future, influence God's decisions on who will be allowed into heaven and who will not, the ability to control nature: make the sun rise every morning, cause or prevent earthquakes, heal or cause diseases, etc. There is a peculiar focus on details of their personal lives, such as what they eat, how much they sleep, what they do for leisure, etc. This reinforces the illusion of their exceptional righteousness, because their negative habits are usually left out. As a result, spiritually abusive groups often view their leaders as superior beings possessing supernatural powers, nearly (or literally) gods. The body of Vladimir Lenin, for example, was embalmed and put on display in the center of Moscow, and is still there now, receiving visitors. Many survivors of religious abuse are unsure if the leaders of the group they left years ago might still be able to read their thoughts, influence their behavior remotely, cause physical illness, death, or natural disaster. It can take years of therapy to sort through these lies.

Unclear doctrine

Isolation and deification of leaders naturally result in confusing doctrines that just don't reconcile, frequent and often contradictory revelations and prophecies (e.g. about upcoming armageddon), and constantly changing policies (often without explanation or even announcement). The group becomes so obsessed with and confused by its own burdensome scriptural interpretations, organizational policies, legalistic rules, and regulations, that its members are unable to predict just what might get them in trouble next. Anyone at any point can find themselves vilified, slandered, ridiculed (either overtly or indirectly), confronted with accusations and demands for public repentance, "disciplined" through humiliation, physical violence, or deprivation, or threatened with excommunication and resulting God's wrath. These confrontations are markedly unclear and nonspecific: you're accused of generally lacking faith, showing too much pride, hindering everyone's salvation, rising up against God or his chosen one, or even being "the agent of the adversary" - without a clear explanation of just which of your actions aren't OK and why. It's an effective emotional abuse technique called "shifting sands" - you can't win because the rules of the game constantly change and the same action results in different, even opposite consequences.

Lack of privacy

Many people seek approval, guidance, advice, opinions, and perspective on things that trouble them, from those they respect and view as an authority. In spiritually abusive groups, however, this guidance is forced on you, violating your privacy and basic right to make choices about your personal life. It's not you who seeks guidance, it's the group that decides when you "need" it. As with the leaders, the details of your daily habits and activities are exposed to the entire congregation, but the focus is the opposite: your achievements are rarely mentioned, while your shortcomings are discussed at great length, even when they concern no one, the issue is sensitive, and should have been kept confidential or at least handled discreetly. Members of such a group are encouraged to spy on each other, and it's not unusual for the whole congregation to suddenly spend hours on public outrage, righteous indignation, condemnations, and browbeating - over things that are none of anyone's business, like what you had for dinner last night, what brand of clothing you wear, or when was your last period. Ironically, the issues that you actually do want input on are often denied, hushed down, or banned from discussions, so you're forced to tolerate invasion of privacy on pretty much any matter except the one you need help with. This arrangement grossly distorts the very concept of spiritual authority, and shatters the members' confidence and self-respect.

Focus on loyalty

Since leaders of the group are perceived as the only ones who know right from wrong (or how the world works in general), loyalty to the leaders and to the group as a whole becomes the central focus, the only means of staying out of trouble, and the only thing required of the members. Being insignificant is seen a virtue, while asking questions or sticking out in any way is perceived as rebellion. The group is seen as more important than parents, children, spouses, personal beliefs and morals, or local laws. Loyalty, humility, and obedience are frequently tested in various ways; for example, you can be made to do the leader's household chores, or even tasks that are completely meaningless. If you express anything other than eager and enthusiastic compliance - you'll be disciplined or even excommunicated, and used as an example of what happens to disloyal people. It's also not rare for leaders of such groups to entrap the group members by lying about local laws. This way you believe you can't leave the group because the minute you do - you'll be caught and prosecuted for the crimes (real or imagined) that you committed. Financial slavery.

Shame & terror

Members of spiritually abusive groups are always under suspicion (or even guilty until proven innocent), constantly reminded of past sins, mistakes, and shortcomings, or even set up for failure: asked to perform an impossible task and then punished for not doing it right. Perfectly innocent situations are often interpreted with a negative slant, and everyone lives in paralyzing shame and fear of getting in trouble. Not surprisingly, this results in preoccupation with topics of death, punishment, Judgment Day, demons surrounding them and possessing people around. These topics are common not only in church, but also at work, at home, at social gatherings, at dinner table. Even kids' bedtime stories often include lengthy and graphic descriptions of how exactly one gets punished by God for their sins, dies a slow and painful death, and then burns in hell forever. Joy and marvel at the world around us, which for many people is an expression of faith and religious fulfillment, is seen as a sin by spiritually abusive groups, while acute awareness and trembling anticipation of an ever-impending doom is seen as righteousness, which further separates the group from the rest of the world.

Happiness is a choice that requires effort at times.
~ Aeschylus
This page was last updated on May 16th, 2016
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