7 Signs You're in an Abusive Relationship With Your Religion

Updated on December 4, 2019
Andrew Bennett Collins profile image

Andrew has been an Okie for 30 plus years. He has spent the majority of that time complaining about things.

When you're part of a religious organization, it is going to be assumed that you give part of yourself to that organization. It is completely reasonable and acceptable to make sacrifices and spend time with any number of religious groups. Sometimes, however, your devotion to organizations can become unhealthy. Sometimes the group itself uses the devotion of its followers to its own gain, at the expense of those followers.

We need to look at our relationships with faith groups like we would romantic relationships. If certain behaviors or activities between a spouse and their partner are considered unhealthy, then it should hold true that those same behaviors in the context of religion are also unhealthy. Even more pressing is that the unhealthy relationship between the faith and its congregants could have dire consequences. In the mind of the follower, heaven, hell, and the entire fate of the world can be controlled by the religion—making an inherently unhealthy situation with a potentially fatal balance of power.

This sort of one-sided relationship with faith is not solely happening in the more extreme cases we hear about on the news. Whenever we think of instances of religious abuse our mind can wander to things such as Jonestown or Heaven's Gate, where the followers of the religion ended up dead. But often the abuse can be more insidious and subtle than that. There are countless mainstream religious organizations that operate as we speak that use abuse in order to coerce submission from their congregants. Religions, I might add, that remain tax-exempt while they do these things.

It is also important to note that very rarely do bad actors start this sort of manipulation from the beginning. Very often a better side of the faith is shown at first to newer members. Then, after time, the true nature of the organization can become known. It is important that you recognize the signs of a religion going too far or taking too much from you.

Rather than spend this time calling out specific organizations or debating theology, we can go over the hallmarks of abuse and let you decided if the organization you belong to fits the bill or not.

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1. The religion discourages you from reading outside sources.

Most faiths have cannon or scripture that they believe to be divinely inspired or from the mouth of God. Less talked about, however, is the information the faith does not want you to have. If at any point in time, the church advises you against doing your own research, you have a problem. If any theological understanding of the world is threatened by a simple Google search, then it doesn't hold weight. Often, groups will refer to researching this outside information as a lack of faith or a breach of trust in an attempt to dissuade the potential reader.

Again, the principle still stands that any understanding of the universe should be able to withstand basic outside research. When you buy a car you would research various cars before making a purchase. How much more than should we research and carefully think about organizations whose teachings will determine our life day to day.

Let's now compare this to a relationship with another person. If you were spending time with someone and they actively tried to keep you from knowing things about them or their past that would raise a red flag. If they were to scold you and threaten to leave you after you had asked any questions about them, you would find that odd and concerning. We need to apply that same logic to our faith.

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2. It controls your relationship with your family.

No positive and healthy understanding of any sort of divinity should include ignoring one's own family. This should be a stopping point in your exploration of any particular religion. The family bond is a sacred one and our time with our loved ones isn't promised. Everyone you love and hold dear in your family will die someday. As sad as that sounds it brings home the point that no man-made understanding of faith should hold you back from spending what little time we have with the ones we love.

This abuse in this instance isn't just about costing you time with your family. It can also include forcing you to stop associating with your own family or to not fully accept them as your own because of their decisions.

If you had a boyfriend/girlfriend and that person wanted you to stop spending time with your mother and father, or even your children, you would probably and rightly find that absurd. So too should you in your religion. Regardless of the choices anyone in your family may have made, it should be your decision and yours alone as to what kind of relationship you have with them. You needn't seek the approval of a religious organization to be with the ones you love.

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3. The religion doesn't allow for privacy.

Every human has a fundamental right to do and say as they please in the privacy of their own home and on their own time. If any organization is prying into your personal life and then making the details of that life known, that is a giant red flag. Often it can be in the form of feigned concern. A fellow congregant may offer his or her concern in order to get more details from you. You may later notice those details have arrived with someone you never told who is now talking to you about them. It is important you understand this behavior is always unacceptable and never called for. It is abusive and manipulative.

If you had a significant other that went through your personal accounts and took note of everything you said and did that would be a problem. That would represent a clearly inappropriate and unhealthy understanding on their part of your fundamental right to privacy. Also, if that person divulged those details to others, it would be an even greater breach of trust. So too is this behavior in the context of religion.

4. The faith demands ideological purity.

It is absolutely well within the norm for a religion to have certain dogmas and theology. It is also within the norm for that organization to expect you to follow those teachings. Where this gets tricky is when faith demands you see things outside the scope of religion, as they do. And when the group threatens retribution in any form for an understanding of anything that differs from theirs.

An example would be if your church had a ban on drinking alcohol. It would be fine if they did not allow you to have alcohol at a wedding that was on their property. That is their property they can do with it as they please. If you had a wedding that was not on church property however and they still advised you that you were not allowed to serve alcohol that is where we are venturing into a category of manipulation and control. Also, an additional red flag would be if they were to find out you had alcohol at the wedding and had repercussions for you.

Just the same, let's imagine a scenario where your significant other decided they wanted to be totally in charge of your actions even outside of your time together and in ways that did not affect the relationship. If your partner had expectations of fidelity that would be well within the realm of normal. However, if they had expectations of how you were going to speak, who you were going to speak to, what you were going to consume, what days of the week you were to do certain things, that would seem excessive and controlling.

5. It demands control of your finances.

Wanting to donate to a religious organization is understandable. In a healthy relationship with a religion, it is reasonable to want to give back to the organization that you are taking part in. It is not normal however for a religious institution to demand that you give a certain amount or have a certain frequency with which you give. You have made all the money you have to potentially give to the church; therefore, it should be your business to decide what you give, and when and how much.

Also, it is worth thinking about the financial well being of your family in the future when you consider leaving your funds after you die to your church. Does your church have a good record of using funds others have given? Would your family have an immediate financial need if you passed? You have to be in charge of your own money. Then and only then can the donations you make be free of manipulation and control and only then can they be made in good faith.

Similarly, if your partner demanded a certain percentage of your income and then proceeded to tell you it wasn't any business of yours how they spent it or what they did with it, you should have a problem with that. Likewise, you should hold your religious organization to the same standard.

6. It puts you in dangerous situations.

Any system of belief that puts you in physical danger needs to be thought about thoroughly. Whether it be through the prohibition of an activity such as receiving blood or getting a vaccination, or the promotion of an activity such as improper fasting or any other danger, it should go without saying that you should always do what is best for your well-being regardless of what any religious organization says.

If your wife/husband demanded you abstain from participating in a medical procedure that would save your life you would rightfully tell them it is not their decision. Your life is your own and belongs to no one else.

7. They want you to keep their secrets.

Countless times in the news, we have heard stories of churches being rocked by sexual abuse allegations. Often these allegations involve a cover-up by congregants to try and protect the reputation of those accused. Whatever is illegal and immoral outside the realm of a church is likewise within the church. If any authority figure asks you to keep any behavior to yourself to spare the reputation of the organization, that should speak volumes of their true intention.

Likewise, if a church has specified teaching that they are asking you to remain silent about that is a red flag. Any church should be immediately upfront about their beliefs and dogma. "Secret theology" intended only for certain members of the congregation is a bad sign and is usually intended to control its congregants.

If your partner were to abuse someone or hurt someone in any way, it should never be expected of you to lie on their behalf. Just like with the church, we should never be asked to keep our mouths shut in regards to any criminal or immoral activity.

It is possible to have a healthy and beneficial relationship with your church.

Churches and religious organizations can provide a great deal of good in our world. They have the capacity for numerous charitable activities and personal fulfillment. They can offer community and provide their congregants with a sense of purpose. Countless thousands have benefited from their involvement in faith. It is important, however, that we look out for the signs of control and abuse.

Just as no relationship is perfect, no church is perfect. We have to look at each one individually and make our decisions realizing we are the only ones in control of what we do, where we attend, what we give and so on. If you experience any of the above-mentioned methods of control it is important that you are honest with yourself. It isn't easy to think about things you have been taught to believe and have been taught are morally correct with a critical eye. It is crucial, however, for your faith and well-being that you do so.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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