How Religious & Spiritual Beliefs Can Be Used To Groom Us To Tolerate (Or Perpetrate) Abuse
Nobody could easily see how badly the little boy in the middle pew in the fundamentalist Christian church had been beaten because his father always made sure it was the boy’s hind-quarters that bore the bruises, cuts, and oozing welts, safely hidden beneath overalls. The fact that he squirmed on the hard wooden pew was written off as boyish restlessness, rather than actual pain. His checked out, glazed eyes were assumed by church members to be the boredom of a child who hasn’t fully submitted to the radiance of God, rather than dissociation.
Had anyone found out how frequently the boy endured the beatings, it’s hard to say whether anyone would have intervened to protect him. After all, his fellow church members believed that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. And since children are property anyway, why would they be entitled to basic human rights, like being treated with dignity and being protected from child cruelty?
Were that boy to dare to protest the abuse, fundamentalist religious teachings would have been used to silence him. But that wouldn’t be necessary, because he was already too indoctrinated to express any anger or allow it to fuel any legitimate protest. After all, anger, many churches teach, is an “unspiritual” emotion that needs to be banished and replaced with compliant sweetness, or even gratitude for the opportunity to be broken down in the name of Jesus. The boy had been told repeatedly that his headstrong, rebellious will needed to be broken, so he could be free from the essential human wickedness of Original Sin and filled with the goodness and purity of the Holy Spirit instead.
If the boy had dared to risk telling anyone, he might very well have been told that it’s a sin to speak lies about your parents, who should always be honored and obeyed. If he stood his ground and insisted he wasn’t lying, he most likely would have been beaten even harder and told that he better not tell anyone, ever again, or his father would make sure he could never sit down on that wooden pew again. He would have been reminded to take Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior and ask to be saved so he wouldn’t have to endure eternal hellfire for lying about his father’s beatings.
If he went to the pastor to ask for help, the pastor might have reached out to the parents, who would have probably lied and said they didn’t beat him. And if they did admit to the beatings because the boy had showed his bruises to the pastor, they might have insisted that their boy was a bad seed whose will was just too strong. They would have justified the beatings as part of their effort to break his strong will and make him an obedient lamb of God.
The pastor might then have returned to the boy to remind him to honor and obey his parents, no matter what they asked him to do. Had he been just a bit luckier and found a pastor with more empathy, the pastor might have offered pastoral counseling meant to help the boy turn the other cheek and forgive his father if he lost his temper from time to time, since perpetrators of abuse are not to be held accountable; they are to be granted the gift of mercy and forgiveness, at least if you’re a good Christian.
That boy would have grown up not knowing he had basic human rights, being clueless about boundaries, lacking the skill set needed to protect himself from other abusive people, and normalizing sociopathy, rather than boundarying against and avoiding sociopathic individuals when they entered his life.
It’s not just fundamentalist religions that groom people to tolerate abuse. At the local New Age spiritual center, a woman is routinely verbally abused by her husband, who belittles her, shouts at her, calls her a whore, and insists she must be cheating on him, even though she’s not. Although he doesn’t hit her, he crosses all her other boundaries, revealing her secrets to near strangers and humiliating her in public, forcing himself on her sexually when he’s in the mood, breaking into her email and reading her text messages because he’s so paranoid that she’s cheating, and insisting she put her steady income into his solo bank account, not their joint one, leaving her with no access to money on her own, even though she earns more than he does. He won’t let her take the children to the pediatrician, and because he believes in natural healing, he refused to let her vaccinate the kids.
She has thought about leaving him, but when she told the New Age coach her husband hired to try to keep her in line, she was told that she needs to take responsibility for why she’s manifesting this behavior in her husband, since it always takes two to tango. She was told she must learn to take responsibility for everything that happens to her, without blaming anyone else, since according to the law of attraction, you manifest everything that happens to you- both positive and negative.
The New Ager’s wife was counseled to love her husband unconditionally, think positively, and “get her vibe up,” so she will stop manifesting her husband’s behavior. She was advised to forgive him for any mistakes he might have made and entrain him into her own higher, most enlightened energy field, so his vibe would rise too.
When he started tracking her on her phone and stalking where she went 24/7, she tried to leave her phone behind. But he insisted she have it on her always, allegedly so he could protect her. When she found out he had taken all of the money she had deposited into his solo bank account to invest it in an investment that turned out to be worthless, her New Age counselor told her that she must be indulging in limiting beliefs and negative thinking, if she’s not attracting abundance and growing her nest egg.
When he had an affair, she insisted he give up his mistress if he wanted to stay married to her, and he blamed her for being controlling and insisted she just surrender to what is and accept the reality of his love for his mistress, rather than fighting reality. He assured her that polyamory is a more spiritual form of sexuality than monogamy, since it doesn’t claim to possess anyone and doesn’t indulge lower emotions like jealousy. He assured her that if she came to feel “compersion,” the feeling of happiness you might get when you see your partner blissfully euphoric with another lover, then she would understand why polyamory is such an elevated way of relating, compared to the baseness and unenlightened boredom of monogamy.
When she finally decided to leave him, his New Age friends staged an intervention, promising to forgive her momentary lapse of generosity of spirit, as long as she returned to love and gentleness and stopped being so harshly judgmental with her husband. When they deposited her back into the house, her husband love bombed her and showered her with flowers and gifts, just before going out to see his other lover and chastising her for not being far enough along in her spiritual development to feel the compersion his lover feels for him when he goes home to his wife.
The fundamentalist Christian boy and the New Ager’s wife share in common being victimized by perpetrators of abuse who use religion and New Age spirituality to let the abuser off the hook and blame the victim. The ways this is accomplished might be different, but the goal is the same- to protect the rights of abusers and silence the protests of their victims.
Why would anyone ever use religion or spirituality to justify abuse and silence victims who protest? Well, given the number of colonizing Christians who felt entitled to steal land and commit genocides in order to succeed in hostile takeovers of innocent natives in the name of spirituality, it would make sense to develop and prostelatize a belief system that lets murderers and thieves off the hook of accountability and rewards the abusers, while blaming the victims.
Why would New Agers do the same? Because the roots of many New Age belief systems fueled the rise of Aryan supremacy and eugenics in Nazi Germany, allowing sociopaths to take over the country and use their spiritual beliefs to justify their murderous quest for racial and spiritual superiority. So just like the Christian colonizers, it would make sense to indoctrinate followers into a belief system that rewards criminally abusive people and oppresses the innocent.
Does this mean all churchgoers and New Agers are violent abusers, cheaters, or perpetrators of genocide? Of course not. Just like with any belief systems, there are those who hold such beliefs loosely and there are those who are dogmatic, hook, line, and sinker. There are those who use spiritual beliefs to oppress people and those who just enjoy the spiritual community or the practices that come with it but pay little mind to the belief systems.
If someone has healthy parental instincts, those protective instincts may very well override any religious teachings that could promote and excuse child abuse. And if someone really loves their spouse, those loving, empathic feelings may prevent them from distorting spiritual beliefs to control, exploit, or justify abuse of a spouse.
If, however, someone is under the coercive control of a malignant narcissist or sociopath who uses parents and spouses as middle men who help the leader wield complete power, the brainwashing by the abusive leader may be stronger than any loving, protective instincts. The leader’s beliefs may then be used to justify expecting people in the congregation to override their morality in order to be obedient to a spiritual leader or belief system, even if it causes cognitive dissonance, because some part of them knows what they’re doing is wrong.
Likewise, if someone already has narcissistic or sociopathic tendencies, belief systems such as these can be used to justify abusive behaviors that the individual may already be inclined towards, such as lying, infidelity, physical or sexual abuse, financial exploitation, or other unethical criminal behaviors.
The point I’m making is that the kind of religious or spiritual bypassing I’m highlighting in these two examples based on real people I know is built into the systemic fabric of many religious and New Age belief systems. These beliefs can then be used by authoritarian leaders and other people in positions of power- not just culty spiritual leaders, but also their middle men- authoritative parents, controlling spouses, abusive bosses, and others in the community who hold the hierarchical and abusive power structure in place. With all that unchecked power, churchgoers and New Agers in positions of relative power are free to abuse those with less power and ruthlessly grab for power, wealth, fame, sex, and total domination. They can then use their belief systems to justify the behavior, shamelessly letting themselves off the hook, and relocating blame towards the relatively powerless victims.
Religious and spiritual beliefs that discourage people with less power from confronting their abusers anchor the systemic abuse into place. Because conflict avoidance and unfettered compliance is built into the belief systems and spiritualized, because emotions are valanced, anger is demonized, and protesting mistreatment is discouraged, because toxic positivity silences dissent and shames victims, because keeping sweet, smiling, people pleasing, and accommodating authority figures is rewarded by those with power, the systems carry on, unchecked.
Such systems are based on hierarchical power structures built upon the idea that some people matter more than others, and those who matter more can behave as badly as they like. But the hierarchy is built upon an immoral lie.
We have to be willing to call out the ethics breaches and take firm stands for equal human rights for all children, women, and men, breaking down hierarchies falsely imposed by social status, race, sex, religion, and other ways people are falsely placed into hierarchical power structures. Our spiritual beliefs and the behaviors they engender simply must allow for honor, dignity, and equal human rights for all- or we need to reform them into something more loving, life-giving, generative, and fair.
Want to help stop the harm caused by spiritual bypassing? Be part of the solution by exploring spirituality without bypassing in Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 2.0.