Recently I sat with a client in my practice who shared that she grew up in a fundamentalist church in which she was told that suffering was the way to experience God. Her life experience included physical and sexual abuse. Her child-mind internalized that God and pain were intertwined and now in her 50’s, she is re-creating that relationship with a new perspective.

Over the years, I have encountered others who suffered at the hands and words of rigid religious dogma and doctrine that was used as a control, rather than connection with a loving and compassionate deity.  What some might consider standard operating procedure in their way of worship could easily be seen as terrorizing and abusive. Words that shame, cause fear, have anyone believing that they will fall out of God’s loving embrace would fall into that category. At the extreme end of the spectrum are acts of sexual abuse and other ritual enactments.

I grew up in Conservative (not political) Judaism which is the middle ground between Orthodox and Reform. Nowhere in the teachings, I heard in our synagogue or home was there a hellfire and brimstone aspect. The closest thing was the liturgy of Yom Kippur in which we prayed to be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet new year. It had me wondering about all the people who died in any given year. Had they done something wrong? I later came to accept that life happens. People get sick, experience loss and some die. People who do good, die. People who do ill, live. Where’s the justice in that? Some things simply are. As I was growing up, I heard about those who bought into the idea that unless adherents believed as they did, they were sinners who were eternally damned. Imagine being told that as a child…the nightmares that might ensue.

While writing about this concept on Facebook, friends offered their perspectives:

“This is why I strayed from Catholicism. I didn’t believe that a “loving” God would let such a thing happen…… Worshipping nature is much better for me.”

“I think that what you are talking about is plain old ordinary abuse. Real connection with any mainstream religion is lacking in such cases.”

“I wouldn’t call it spiritual abuse I’d call it religious abuse we create our own heaven and we create our own Hill and children generally have help from their parents… when I was little my mother told me that if I got caught in the rain I would catch my death of pneumonia… as a young woman I did almost catch my death of pneumonia…. until one of my messages from God so to speak saw her speaking those words to me… and luckily for me I got it I now go in the rain all the time… I haven’t had pneumonia in 30-40 years.”

” My thoughts are that teaching damnation … is spiritual abuse.”

“My definition of religion has always been Love, or so it should be. I found that the definition of that word is almost impossible. I tend to think of it as of the spirit, the human spirit. By believing in a power of sorts is greater than we are is comforting and anything that takes one’s breath away is spiritual. I have watched over the years, people thrust their idea of God down the throats of those who waver. Who are we to tell people what to believe. Certainly, we can give suggestions but hammering what we believe, home, is not one of them. Being a history buff, I see that the majority of wars occurred through religion. Regarding the life of Jesus, we can see he was the direct opposite of what is happening in the world now and would be horrified were he to return now to see what has been done in his name. The Inquisition, for example, WW2, the Crusades. I could go on and on with that one. I do not have a specific religion. Like you Edie, I was ordained at the New Seminary in New York City where our motto is IN ADDITION TO RATHER THAN INSTEAD OF. Some of the most generous, loving, caring, courageous individuals I have had the honour of knowing over the years, have no religion but they personify how it could be if others would recognise their contributions to those in need. The three of my quartet who have left this planet were such people. A truly loving example of freedom of thought was a mentor who was a Dominican nun. Sister Mary Daniel. She showed courage during the frightening years in Cuba where she was sent to help bring people to the States. (just a sudden thought of how she would feel with the immigrant situation today). She was a devout Catholic and when I was struggling in life, took me to her heart and helped me. I remember being in the chapel with her and saying that I didn’t know what to believe, that I was torn between faith, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism. I was very distraught. So she said ‘Jesus’s mother was a Jew so you have two of them right there’. She never judged, never tried to change my mind but gave such supportive love that she herself renewed my faith. So I am Interfaith which means to me, freedom of thought and expression. I love that story of going to the beach and putting sand in both hands with one hand holding it as tightly as possible and the sand flows through the fingers. the other hand remains open and the sand lies still.”

“…but true love and friendship
will draw you together
far better than roarin’ the horrors of Hell!”
—The Parish of Dunkeld

“Threatening a child with eternal torment if they do not conform is spiritual abuse. It is the textbook definition of spiritual abuse.”
“Great topic! I find this well asked. If I thought due to prophecies that my family needed to prepare and build a bunker to keep everyone safe, while that might be an expression of fear it is still loving is it not? Similarly, if a person believes in hell, is it not very loving to do whatever you can to protect from it however you need? Love is expressed by the giver in their way, isn’t it? If not most teenagers would cry a lack of love from every house rule.”


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