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How Religious "Abuse" Is Hidden In Religious "Practice"

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

By: Logan Cohen - Professional Therapist & Online Life Coach

I want to start this article with the caveat that Religion can be a wonderful, beautiful, and inspiring force. As described in this article - there can be MANY personal and health benefits to maintaining Religious practices/observance in our Life. While there are many benefits to healthy and Balanced Religious practices, just like any other powerful force, it can also be used to control, manipulate, and even harm People.

Religious Abuse Creates Trauma For the Survivor That Often Requires Help From a Professional For Recovery

I have worked as a Professional Therapist in The South for many years and in fact, in one of the mainstays of the “Bible Belt” - Charlotte, North Carolina. In my clinical work, I have frequently been sought out by community members who are recovering from religious abuse and as a result, are going through an experience of religious deconversion. In this context, I am using the phrase “religious deconversion” to describe the process by which People evolve from a view of Life that is predominantly influenced by abusive Religious narratives to an understanding of Life that can involve a greater influence of their own unique personhood. This oftentimes involves a significant re-adjustment in the relationship between One's Religious views and Self Identity.

In case this deconversion process seems like some kind of “run of the mill” experience that you can just "coast right through"…let me assure you it is not. A significant transition of worldview is enough to throw most high-functioning adults into a bit of an existential dilemma, but this is more in line with the ole proverbial mindSCREW.

Since Religious Abuse Uses Theological Narratives Unfairly, Survivors Often "Internalize" The Abuse, Which Makes It More Confusing In The Recovery Process

The very fabric of a more fundamentalist religious institution is designed to deter members from leaving its ranks. Some go about this using less noticeable, more covert means. While on the other hand, some Religious groups utilize tools as extreme as threats of banishment, or even literal physical torture in order to "encourage" compliance from its followers.

Religious dogma can be so pervasive and influential to a Follower's sense of self in order to maximize compliance with institutional expectations, that it can be REALLY TRICKY to overcome these trainings. In some ways with more rigid and “cultish” religious institutions, this can even reflect a type of “deprogramming”, where an individual literally does not even trust their own emotional experiences and intuition - much like a battered partner who wants to leave their abusive partner, however is so convinced that they cannot safely make it on their own - this position is characterized by a high sense of confusion and a low sense of hope. Given these overwhelming odds, many People continue complying with the unfair and/or oppressive expectations even when they know that something isn't right.

Religious Abuse - No Matter How Confusing - Can Be Assessed Reliably

Since it can be so difficult to overcome this type of Religious and social programming, I have created this tool - the Religious Power and Control Wheel (assessment tool available in article below), to support my clients in working through this process of religious abuse. It is easy to know when you have been physically hit. There is a red mark, or a bruise, or an abrasion even worse left behind after the physical violence in order to remind you of what actually occurred. With religious abuse, it can be very disorienting when our own influence, control, and resulting integrity is wrenched away from us using some tactics that do not leave a physical mark. How do we know it's happening?

If there is one thing that we have learned in abuse and trauma research, it is that compounding experiences over time that further subvert the influence of the subjugated is AS TRAUMATIC AS ANY OTHER TYPE OF VIOLENCE OR ABUSE. Over time, Followers can even have a hard time recognizing when these factors are in play. And for those who were socialized as young children into these types of Religious Institutions, forget about it… can be a REAL CHORE to learn how to follow your own internal compass again as you find you own path – your own destiny.

Given how difficult this process has been for clients historically, I created this tool, the Religious Power and Control Wheel, to support the process of identifying where so-called “religious values” were actually subversive attempts at psychological control and even abuse geared towards eliciting subjugation and compliance among vulnerable Followers. Once we can really “drill it down” and name the experience, it is that much easier to regain personal influence over our own perspectives. From this position, we can then redevelop our worldview into a belief system that can actually meet our own fundamental integrity.

When Assessing For Religious Abuse, It Is Important to Keep These 3 Things In Mind:

1. We don’t have to call anyone, or anything – "ABUSIVE"

There can be a lot of mixed thoughts and feelings at one time when we recognize that we might be on the receiving side of these tactics. This tool is used to describe the strategies that religious institutions use in order to exert undue influence over Followers who have less influence. The presence of these experience(s) does not have to mean that “religious abuse” has taken place. Your experiences have been your own, and only you know what has happened. With this being said, my hope is that you can use this tool in order to make greater sense of your experiences and decide what they mean to YOU.

2. Don’t get overwhelmed.

If it becomes too distressing to read through multiple sections at one time or if you don’t feel safe looking at it to begin with, just take your time! You don’t have to even read through the whole Wheel at one time. This is a tool designed to make your life less complicated, so be sure you do not make anything MORE complicated while using it risk escalating religious abuse directed towards you.

3. Be Real

This is only a helpful tool if you are willing to be honest with yourself about your experiences. If you think you might not be able to objectively assess the experiences you have had, please consider approaching a trusted confidante, and preferably from outside your religious group. This might even be a time you might want to consider going to a professional counselor or therapist to discuss these experiences so that you can be sure a neutral third party who is clinically trained can “take a look under the hood” with you.

My name is Logan Cohen and I am a Professional Therapist & Life Coach with over 10 years in the field of Counseling Psychology. I am a Clinical Supervisor for the American Association of Marriage & Family Therapy, as well as the founder of New Leaf Counseling Group, LLC in Charlotte, NC. After spending tens of thousands of clinical hours with my own clients, starting a successful group practice, as well as a beautiful Family, I “picked my head up from the grindstone” to check in on childhood Friends & Loved Ones.

I painfully discovered that more than a few of my childhood Friends passed away at a young age from preventable health conditions and decided that as a Man, Husband, Father, and Friend, I could no longer stand by as People suffered in silence and self-destructed rather than ask for help. It doesn’t have to be like that and the holistic healing methods offered by the Balanced Man Plan is designed to help People “get unstuck” and break free from old patterns that are the barriers between Self & quality of Life.

The Balanced Man Plan is a therapeutic digital experience delivered through Self-Guided Coaching Plans created by a Male Therapist with the common barriers & strengths of Men in mind. The Balanced Man Plan has the goal of introducing a natural Balance back to Life so it is sustainable for the optimal Health & Well-Being of Self and Loved Ones - and ALL from the privacy and comfort of Home. If you have enjoyed what you see so far, check out our Self Guided Coaching Plans!

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