People Who’ve Experienced Religious Abuse Are Sharing Their Stories, and This Needs to Be Talked About Way More Often

BuzzFeed [New York NY]

October 27, 2021

By Amatullah Shaw

Abuse isn’t always physical.

Note: Some responses depict sexual abuse from partners and family members.

Spiritual or religious abuse is a form of abuse where intimate partners, congregants of places of worship, or family members use religion to justify their abusive behavior. Examples of that include preventing someone from worshipping the way they want to, using religious text to rationalize their hurtful actions, or even forcing someone to practice a certain way.

It isn’t a form of abuse that’s often talked about, so I asked the BuzzFeed Community to share their stories, and this is what they said:

1. “[Spiritual abuse is] being told your whole life something is wrong with you, to grow up and realize none of it was true. I always question people’s intentions when talking to me who are still in the church I grew up in because they often times are just trying to gain me back into the community. That is the saddest part. Losing a community and identity that was my whole life, but feeling like I don’t get the space to grieve it because of how unhealthy it was.”

“It took me years to figure out who I actually am outside of who I was told I was supposed to be, and years after that to be comfortable sharing that with others because queer people are not affirmed, and I knew it would mean letting go of important relationships to gain more authentic ones.”


2. “ANY QUESTIONS can be seen as a ‘lack of faith’ or ‘the devil having a foothold in your life.’ If you don’t think something makes sense or have questions about another perspective, you better keep them to yourself. Typically my questions to my parents or others were met with yelling or spanking.”


3. “[Spiritual abuse] makes you think that everything bad that happens to you is your fault and that those bad things wouldn’t have happened if you had been more devout. I have managed to rid myself of these thoughts, but it has led a friend of mine to blame her miscarriage on herself due to the lapse of faith she had at the time.”


4. “I was in a relationship with an agnostic who grew up in a similar Christian background as me. He constantly would recommend books or articles because he felt I wasn’t ‘thinking well’ about my beliefs, [and] my theology didn’t line up with his intellectual understanding of what it meant to be Christian. It took years for me to overcome the insecurity I have around theology and understanding Scripture because of the ways he controlled what I consumed in the spiritual world.”

“I gave him too much power, but he also rocked my faith to its core, almost intentionally. We broke up because our ideas about faith didn’t align, but the damage was done. I have decided not to date outside of my faith simply because I know I am liable to give in to people I love despite my strongly held convictions.”


5. “I had a boyfriend break up with me because I left my job at a church. He said he couldn’t be with someone who wasn’t serious about their faith. I told him I needed time to figure out what I believed in and I needed a little grace during that time, but he said he couldn’t help me through that. After a lot of reflection, I know that is likely an excuse, but I haven’t been able to trust anyone claiming to be Christian, and I stopped going to church because he made me feel like I didn’t belong there.”

“Shortly after he broke up with me, he married my ‘best friend.’ They tried to use God as their reason, and that they prayed about it a bunch so they knew they had to marry each other, and that all the hurt on my end was a part of God’s plan. I don’t know that they actually believe that, and sometimes I think they just convinced themselves and others those things so that they could sleep at night.”


6. “My ex-boyfriend abused me in every way you could think possible and even ways in which I had never considered before. I was raised as a Muslim, but since moving away from home, I developed my own sense of religious identity. My ex knew I was more spiritual than religious. There’s a great amount of controversy regarding Islamic gender roles in the Western world, and the religion is incorrectly perceived as being inherently sexist.”

“Even though he knew I was no longer practicing, he would tell me that I should be accustomed to the idea of him being with other women because of polygamy being accepted in Islam. He would also tell me that it was his right to oppress me as the man and as the head of the household according to the Qur’an. We didn’t have a household, I lived on my own, and he was a proudly self-proclaimed atheist. He asked me what the point of me praying was if I had a demon inside of me. In times of great distress, usually after a long session of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, I would pray to anyone that was listening, to which his response was no one cared about me but him, especially not God.”


7. “About a year into living together, he started praying more and reading the Bible again. Three years in, he proposed and then came to me with scripture, explaining why we shouldn’t get legally married, so we had a commitment ceremony instead. I observed God’s feasts, including Sabbath, to the best of my ability, but never felt like I was required to do anything. He was VERY strict about how we observed, wanting it to be EXACTLY as the Bible described.”

“He truly believed God wanted to kill him if he didn’t follow His laws (however he didn’t follow all of the laws, and always had a reason why via scripture if someone asked). After a few years, he came to me and said God was leading him to have multiple wives and cheated on me a week later, and he legally married the girl that same year. That was it for me. When packing up his stuff, I came across something in his writing that said, ‘Men don’t cheat; they have concubines,’ that was dated before he proposed. I was VERY confused about religion after all of that. After therapy and a lot of self-reflection, I feel more clear than ever.”


8. “I was raised an independent fundamental Bible-believing Baptist. I was married in 1987, and my husband divorced me in 1992. I could not continue teaching in a Christian school because divorce was a big no-no. I was homeless for a while. My mother went to her grave never speaking to me. My mother said my dad had committed the unpardonable sin, whatever that is.”

“We were raised on Jack Van Impe and the Book of Revelation. Now, I can’t listen to anything about revelation, I don’t like preachers, and I don’t go to church today because of mobility issues. I consider this lifestyle a cult and emotional abuse.”


9. “I was told by my priest that the reason my loser ex-husband was cheating on me (in MY house, in MY bed) was because I wasn’t ‘a good Catholic wife.’ Meaning I wasn’t forgiving enough, or submissive enough, or something. MY fault he couldn’t keep a job, knocked up [someone] in our marriage bed, and spent all of my savings. I got two divorces that year…one from the loser ex, and one from Holy Mother Church.”


10. “I have experienced spiritual abuse in both whole-church and personal relationships. Spiritual abuse has been one of the hardest types of abuse for me to ‘undo,’ as it impacts every facet of my worldview and self-view. I dated someone in college who was abusive emotionally, mentally, and sexually. After we broke up, he ‘became a Christian again,’ and the spiritual abuse started. The worst instance was when he told me my depression and pain, which I later understood were a direct result of his abuse, were because I was possessed by a demon.”

“He then tried to cast that demon out over instant message and twisted some scripture around it. It has made it difficult to trust any scripture, difficult to trust God, and difficult to believe my pain is anything but my fault. I wish survivors (myself included) could know and feel how much spiritual abuse angers God, and that it’s right and good to be angry about it. I wish they knew that not all (or even most) people in the church are abusive; much of my healing has come from positive relationships, many within the church.”


11. “I had people in my church tell me my epilepsy was a result of sin/lacking devotion. Instead of, I dunno, a traumatic injury. Then when I got diagnosed with a chronic pain condition and couldn’t work, I had a friend’s father take me aside and warn me not to be a financial burden on my parents, quoting the Bible verse that states, ‘A man that does not work shall not eat.’ Fifteen years later, I’m still obsessed with the cost of everything I need and look for ways to contribute to justify my existence.”


12. “One of the teachers of a religious class my parents encouraged me to attend told us that because procreative acts were the only real sex acts in the Catholic Church, the man is the only person who needs to ‘finish,’ and the only partner that needs to consent.”

“He used this to justify that same-sex partners couldn’t be valid in the eyes of God (no precious, cisgender, heterosexual babies to raise), and that women were no more than vessels for marriage and childrearing, whether that came from sexual abuse or consensual sex. I was 17, a virgin, and had never felt more small. My family would never say or believe any of that, but I don’t have the heart to tell them that I don’t even believe in what they believe in anymore. I still wonder how many men view me as a hole for a baby to pop out of.”


13. “When I was younger, my mother placed me in a Christian afterschool program at the church across the road from my school, since it was all she could afford. But I was an atheist (still am), so I never participated in prayer. Because of that, one day this huge kid started beating me until my nose bled. They lied to my mother, saying I instigated the fight (I didn’t), and that I was suspended for three days with no option for her to be refunded for those days. That was one of many instances.”

“I didn’t want to participate in prayer or read the Bible, and each time, so many ‘good Christians’ looked the other way while I was physically and verbally bullied by other people around me. And each time, it was covered up, with every staff member saying I instigated it. They’d pull the staff on duty at the time that saw the fights into the administrator’s office, I assume, to discuss their story so it was always the same and made me look like the liar. To this very day, I can’t talk to most people because I’m scared I will, once again, be gaslit, called a liar, and abused.”


14. “I grew up Mormon, aka LDS, which was full of abuse. Some of the worst was when I was 15 and gave a detailed account of a ‘sexual transgression’ to my Bishop (he was a 40-year-old man, and this all took place behind closed doors) as well as when I went to Girls Camp when I was 12 (basically a week-long Bible camp run by the church). I got so sick and my stomach hurt so bad that I couldn’t walk, and the leaders refused to let me leave because I ‘needed to use my faith and testimony to get through camp.'”

15. And finally, “My dad sexually abused me [when I was 9] and used religion to keep me quiet. He said things like, ‘If God forgave me, then you’re supposed to forgive me too.’ ‘What WE did was a sin.’ ‘You tempted me.’ My church REALLY pushed purity culture, and I was terrified of revealing how ‘damaged’ I was. I resigned myself to having a life without marriage and a family because I was impure.”

“I didn’t deserve anything. It took me until my 20s to understand the abuse I endured wasn’t my fault. When I came forward and told the police what my dad did, the church sided with my dad. ‘If God can forgive him, you should too.’ In the end, he’s in prison, and I’m free. I have no regrets.”


Note: Responses have been edited for length/clarity.