Updated: Mar 1
by: Logan Cohen - Professional Therapist & Online Life Coach
After working in a few different clinical settings over the years and running some larger mental health agencies belonging to other business owners, I finally opened up my own private practice in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2014. Relatively quickly, I noticed that I was attracting clients who were interested in working through issues of a Faith-based nature.
With this being said, I’m a Jewish Guy (reformed style - the liberal and practical variety) with the VERY identifiable last name of “Cohen” who grew up inside the city limits of Atlanta, Georgia. After living in the Atlanta area for the first 22 years of my life, I lived in the Appalachian Mountains while working with at-risk Youth in a Wilderness Therapy setting, then I went out West to Portland, Oregon for graduate school for 3 years, before FINALLY moving back to Charlotte, North Carolina to settle down and start a Family.
Got all that?
The specifics are not important, but I drew that out in order to paint a quick picture of who I am and what my presentation feels like. I’m a bit of an academic, a bit of an entrepreneur, and a bit of an “urban hippie”, if you will.
I DO NOT scream “come talk about fundamentalist Religious values with ME!”, but for some reason, I was getting sought out quite actively by community members who survived religious abuse and were essentially going through a process of deconversion. In this context, I am using the word “deconversion” to describe the process by which People evolve from a view of Life that is predominantly influenced by Religious narratives to an understanding of Life that can involve a greater influence of their own unique worldview, which oftentimes involves re-adjusting the relationship between One's Religious views and Self Identity to some degree. This can be very tricky for someone who has survived Religious Abuse, as opposed to someone whose Life has been enriched by Strong Faith.
It is common in these situations for Survivors of Religious Abuse to initially swing hard in one direction, however like a pendulum, often express a degree of curiosity about how re-involving some degree of Religion or Spirituality might look, once they have identified what they fundamentally need for themselves as Human Beings first...
I wrote this article in order to provide you with both sides of this story as a Professional Therapist, as well as a Man of Strong Faith (albeit a very progressive one) personally.
Whether you want to call it Religion, Spirituality, or Faith… the concept of theology has been alongside Humanity for longer than we have documentation.
One of the first artifacts of written documents developed by Humans was identified by archaeologists dating back to 3500 B.C. These physically held the test of time because they were written on papyrus paper, which is very tough and degrades minimally over time relative to other types of early paper. These early documents on papyrus paper included religious rituals from Egyptians left behind in tombs, as well as early Daoist teachings discovered in the Far East - each indicating their own established rituals indicative of a Strong Faith, even before Jude0-Christian Cultures.
The only reason these documents remained to be discovered by archaeologists is due to the resistant nature of the papyrus paper, however we can safely assume that before papyrus paper was developed, these ornate spiritual rituals probably developed from even Older, and more primal beginnings. The fact of the matter is that Religion has been around for a LONG time. Different versions of it have stood the test of time because there are some GREAT, PRACTICAL, and BEAUTIFUL influences of Religion. But just like anything else that can be such a source of resilience and influence, it can also be used to do great harm. The question is, HAVE WE ENCOUNTERED STRONG FAITH OR RELIGIOUS ABUSE?
There are a handful of very tangible and REAL benefits that Strong Faith can provide for us as Human Beings and in my personal and clinical experience, they tend to center around four main areas:
4 Signs of Strong Faith:
#1 Sign of Strong Faith - Teaching of the mind/body connection for self regulation → bring down cortisol and internal regulatory systems
There have been extensive studies done using "functional magnetic resonance imaging" (fMRIs) that have closely assessed the brain waves of religious practitioners of strong faith from different Religions, ranging from Nuns deep in prayer in a monastery to Tibetan Monks in a Buddhist Temple. Studies showed that the brainwaves in important areas of the brain were the SAME - areas of the brain associated with emotional arousal were in deep states of rest.
These deep resting states which take place during prayer rituals are associated with a decrease in the release of problematic inflammatory stress hormone “cortisol”, as well as increased efficiency in our digestive and immune systems, not to mention improved quality of sleep (learn more about how to improve your sleep more here). It appears that when children are taught to pray, this provides a skill-set and related health benefits commonly associated with meditation, all which are commonly embedded within institutional Religious values and lifestyle characterized by communities of Strong Faith.
#2 Sign of Strong Faith - Helpful Mythos to provide guidance and introduce helpful Structure to anxiety provoking Chaos
It’s a WILD world out there. Just about anything can happen in a split second and this can potentially threaten the very existence of ourselves and our loved ones. Animals (Humans included) have a natural and healthy aversion to the unfamiliar as a product of evolutionary adaptation to survival. When situations are unfamiliar, they are more likely they are to be threatening because we do not have a clear expectation, or “script”, for how to respond to them yet. The more familiar our environment is, the more likely we have been to have encountered it before. In these cases, this helps us have more informed idea about how to navigate the unfamiliar situation most strategically in the present and future.
Organized religions, and even some spiritual practices come with a varying degree of socially prescribed rituals - sometimes even involving whole communities that have their own unique culture and way of life. With these socially prescribed rituals comes the perception of organization in the face of Life’s randomness by those of Strong Faith. There are very clear narratives involving the expected behaviors that guide most of the aspects of Life, ranging from birth and death, to Love and discipline. Since these behavioral scripts are woven into a narrative of greater meaning for those of Strong Faith, this provides the idea that otherwise chaotic and scary events in Life can now have personal, even existential meaning, making them less scary. And to boot, oftentimes provide practical and/or resilient guides for suggested behavior and thought processes.
These factors make it easier for those of Strong Faith to take action with resolve when we face of the unknown. Or worse, grow helpless when some flat out guaranteed aspects of Life are bound to happen, such as Loss and Death.
#3 Sign of Strong Faith - Religious rituals tend to involve a sense of community, which is IMPORTANT for us as social creatures.
Us Human Beings are fundamentally social creatures and as the old proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child." If you really stop and think about it, it takes a village to do just about anything significantly influential for Human Beings.
We are relatively slow on foot and couldn’t begin to take on a full grown carnivore of our comparable weight against ANY other species, yet we are at the TOP of the food chain. How is that...you might ask? It is because a village of us can hunt as a pack and kill a lion.
Now Humans can build a factory to mass produce rifles so that now one person can walk outside and take down any animal that walks the planet on their own if they so choose. Not that this (in the LEAST) would be ethical, however it is an option for any able bodied Human and that just is NOT the case for any other species. And it would NOT be the case for us for that matter UNLESS we came with factory settings to be intensely dynamic in our social cooperation.
The Modern World is basically another planet to us by now, so it is essential to find and maintain your Tribe. A Religious congregation that supports Strong Faith can be a great place to integrate those social or, "Love and Belonging Needs", into an established Tribe.
#4 Sign of Strong Faith - Safe place for Men to be emotionally vulnerable while giving back to their community
It can be hard out there for us Men to find spaces that we can really lean into “soft skills”, while not risking looking like a "chump" and having someone take our kindness for weakness or even be scared by it. Don’t agree? Or think this is no longer the case in the Modern World?
As a Man, what do you think happens when I walk onto a playground and happen to not be visibly linked to my Child? I get the FUNKIEST looks from people that is very “Man specific”. It is viewed as so out of the ordinary for Me to be seen in that playful/soft/caretaker role, that many People look at me like I'm a weirdo!
It can be hard to find a safe and affirming place as a Man to practice compassion, cooperation, and just sitting back with less personal pressure and really allowing ourselves the chance to get to know our Fellow Hu(Man). It is easy to see why “giving back” is oftentimes such a fundamental part of our Humanity, and Religious congregations oftentimes provide their members of Strong Faith with a structured space set aside for its Members to engage in community service.
3 Warning Signs of Religious Abuse:
#1 Sign of Religious Abuse - Authority and/or control is asserted through fear or shame based tactics
Do you feel scared or ashamed when your Faith comes up? It might be because the tactics used by your congregation utilize these emotional experiences as tools to assert authority. If this is the case, you should consider whether these are emotional states that you want to have present in your Religious values, or if it is something else entirely, such as religious abuse.
Many times People of strong faith will refer to God as “Father” and I think there ends up being many ways People wrap up their expectations of God in their viewpoints on Parenthood. One of these similarities is that God is viewed (along a continuum) of authority, and certainly having more influence/power than us as Human Beings. Whether in a Family, a Business, or any other hierarchical organization (religious institutions included), the values "at the top" create a behavior precedent for the lower level members. In this type of organization, processes that play out in the upper levels of influence inevitabley trickle down to lower levels of influence.
This is why Kids don’t learn to hate their Parents when Parents behave abusively, rather Kids learn to hate themselves. religious abuse is no different in that it can literally teach us to fear ourselves or be ashamed of ourselves at a fundamental level. Is this the precedent you want to set for your Life?
#2 Sign of Religious Abuse - Restricts access to resources that creates a perceived risk to safety and security OR objectification
There needs to be a degree of deliberate flow in the way resources are made available in a community setting. If not, it would be like “Lord of the Flies” and Chaos would certainly prevail - putting basic safety and security of everybody at risk. With this being said, it should never be unfair. Us Human Beings are really good at knowing when something is fundamentally fair or not because we are programmed to function optimally with more egalitarian dynamics. Think back to the first words of a toddler. The two phrases of “NO!” and “NOT FAIR!” are incredibly popular for a reason!
This can be a REALLY tricky one, so I have also included a tool that I have created over the years called a “Religious Abuse Wheel” that is also available in this article for your reference so that you can more easily religious abuse yourself. If you can find your experience(s) in this assessment tool, then you should consider whether you religious institution is using their influence to control your thoughts, feelings, or behavior unfairly.
#3 Sign of Religious Abuse - Politics showing up on the pulpit
Religious practices associated with those of strong faith can be such a beautiful thing! On the other hand, politics have been a somewhat ugly, albeit necessary evil for us Humans. If we go back to any bloody war, or even just times that Humans can be convinced to COMPLETELY objectify their Fellow Human to the degree of violence and even death, we can usually find rhetoric associated with religious abuse . How is this possible with most Judeo-Christian Religious narratives centered round "loving thy neighbor"?!? Where we can find a mixture of politics and religion, we can expect to experience a fundamental lack of respect for not only Others' Humanity, but also that of Ourselves.
In fact, this combination has been SO DANGEROUS that one of the most famous American Forefathers Thomas Jefferson himself literally spoke to the importance of “Separation between Church and State”. I think Thomas Jefferson was onto something and even he knew of the trappings of Religious Abuse.
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!