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Spiritual Abuse & Religious Cults

Spiritual abuse (also called religious abuse) refers to the use of beliefs to manipulate, control, or harm an individual or group.


Such abuse can take many forms, including physical, emotional, sexual, financial, and psychological abuse.

This type of abuse can occur within a religious organization, a family or personal relationship, or even in small settings where intimacy and trust are shared.


Any situation where one person uses religious beliefs to dominate or exploit the other constitutes spiritual abuse.

How To Recognize Religious Abuse

There are many ways in which spiritual abuse can occur. For instance, it may be perpetrated by a spiritual authority or leader (such as clergy), or by laypeople within a religious community (such as shunning engaged by a local church body).

It is not limited to any one religion or expression of faith.

Spiritual abuse often involves a power imbalance, where the spiritual abuser uses their position of authority within a religious group to control or exploit others. This can include but is not limited to:

  • Pressuring individuals to conform to certain beliefs or practices

  • Manipulating through fear or guilt

  • Using spiritual beliefs to justify abusive behavior


Spiritual abusers can be particularly insidious because the situation is often framed as a spiritual or moral issue. This can make it difficult for the victim to recognize their spiritually abusive situation or seek help, as they may fear being labeled as rebellious, heretical, or subject to other kinds of emotional manipulation.

For instance, a victim may live in fear of god's word and feel they must stay committed to a certain religion for salvation, and such fear is used by their spiritual leaders to make them engage in behaviors they would otherwise not consent to.

Understanding all of this, it's important to recognize the signs of spiritual abuse and seek help.

Some common indicators of spiritual abuse include:

  • Pressure to conform to certain beliefs or practices

  • Use of fear, guilt, or shame to manipulate behavior

  • Isolation from friends, family, or other support systems

  • Control over personal decisions, such as what to wear or whom to associate with

  • Physical, emotional, sexual, or financial abuse

  • Forced participation in rituals or activities that are harmful or degrading


If you or someone you know is experiencing some of the signs of spiritual abuse, it is important to seek help and support.

Remember that you are not alone and that it is never acceptable for someone to use their spiritual beliefs to justify abuse or control.

What is Religious Trauma?

As mentioned above, religious trauma is the result of spiritual abuse.


Dr. Marlene Winell, author of Leaving the Fold, coined the term “religious trauma syndrome,” defining it as “the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination.” 

For many who leave abusive religious groups, they're left to deal with multi-faceted trauma that can impact their day-to-day. While it's possible to lead an ordinary life post-cult, awareness and compassion for victims is vital. 

For a deeper dive into some of the topics surrounding religious trauma, we recommend checking out PLC's YouTube channel.

I've Been Abused By a Spiritual Leader. Does That Mean I'm In a Cult?

Cults and coercive control are often related to spiritual abuse, as they both involve the exploitation and manipulation of an individual's beliefs and values for the benefit of the group or leader.

That said, religious abuse is not limited to cults.


Otherwise healthy churches and faith groups can exert control and manipulate people using the tactics of a spiritual abuser.


This may seem contradictory on the surface, but it boils down to the difference between a "cult" and "coercive control" as concepts.

Cults are often characterized by their use of manipulative techniques to recruit and retain members, as well as their strict control over members' thoughts, behaviors, and relationships. Cults may also exploit members' spiritual beliefs and practices for the benefit of the group, using them as a means of manipulating and controlling members.

Coercive control, on the other hand, is a pattern of manipulation and control used by one person to dominate and exploit another. It can involve a range of tactics, including the use of religion as a means of control. Like cults, coercive control can exploit an individual's spiritual beliefs and practices as a means of manipulation and control.

The key takeaway here is that all cults use coercive control, but not all coercive control constitutes a "cult".


It's largely left up to the victim and cultural perceptions to decide whether a group is indeed a cult.

Both cults and coercive control can have serious consequences for the physical and mental well-being of those who are subjected to them.


If you are in a situation that involves cult-like control or coercive control, it is important to seek help and support from trusted friends, family members, or professionals.

Help For the Spiritually Abused

Victims of religious abuse may suffer from a range of physical and emotional effects, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, and difficulty trusting others. In severe cases, religious abuse can lead to serious physical injury or even death.

If you are experiencing spiritual abuse, it is important to seek help and support. This can include talking to a trusted friend or family member, seeking counseling or therapy, or contacting a domestic violence or abuse hotline.

It is never okay for someone to abuse or mistreat you, and there are resources available to help you.

For those who are able, recovery can also involve reaching out to a cult mediation professional or support group.

Services from People Leave Cults

People Leave Cults offers a variety of services to help both cult survivors and the families/friends of cult-involved people. 

We invite you to explore whichever offering fits your needs at the links below. 

Talk to us!


Everyone's situation is unique.


If you are interested in resources, curious about intervention, or want to help spread cult awareness, get in touch!

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