In my previous posts I looked at the topic of religious junkies, those with an addiction to the beliefs and practices of a particular religious mindset. Many are often harmless, if a little difficult to take at times, that is as long as we manage to set up our own metaphysical and psychic boundaries. Some, however take on the role of spiritual abuser and in this new series of posts I wish to examine the potentially darker side of religious involvement.
Spiritual abuse is the control of others in the guise of a religious or spiritual cause. God is the official cover story for what is often no more than one damaged ego, consistently damaging that of another. Such abuse can find its home in any religious setting, although normally it is in the more zealous groups where the worst cases of spiritual abuse occurs.
So how do we end up getting spiritually abused?
Well there are two routes into such a destructive environment.
1) We can be born into an abusive religious family and its involvement with an abusive group.
This is a tricky situation to handle as we cannot really make a break for freedom until we legally hit our adult years. It is a most destructive psycho-spiritual game, often accompanied by other forms of abuse, either emotional, mental, physical and sometimes even sexual. Due to the complexities of this dysfunctional family dynamic I wish to leave it to another series in the not too distant future. There I will attempt to give it the full attention that it most certainly deserves.
2) We can join a religious movement in our search for Divine Love.
It is this scenario that I wish to unpack in this little post.
All of us sense a great hole within that just cries out to be filled. Created I believe by the traumatic withdrawal of unconditional love during infancy or early childhood, this painful void lies buried in our lower unconscious, directing our conscious search for life’s meaning. Let’s face it; just as none of us willingly sign up for an abusive marriage so none of us enrol for a course of spiritual abuse. Rather, we attach ourselves to a belief system and its accompanying community, one that appears to fill the psycho-social hole within. In other words our journey into abuse often starts as ‘Good News’; the beginning of a new life and a deeply felt sense of joy and fulfillment.
Such a joining usually revolves around a psycho-spiritual experience that in many cases can be a genuine encounter with Divine Love. It often takes an unexpected contact like this to hot-wire us out of our inherited mind-set and world view. Such a dramatic and often unexpected shift in our consciousness is commonly referred to as a conversion experience. On their own such conversions are usually a highly desirable aspect of human growth and maturity; the sense of connection with ‘Other’ that ensues releases a new level of psychic energy and indeed authentic love.
So when do the problems start?
Well, to be frank, I believe that we open ourselves to the possibility of spiritual abuse once we join a religious group centred around a common belief or metanarrative. Unless such a group is completely off the wall, none of us run straight bang into blatant abuse or control. Indeed, following our psycho-spiritual encounter with ‘Other’, we now see our new religious family through the new rose-tinted specs of belief change. We’re generally welcomed into such groups with open arms as a tremendous sense of new-found camaraderie and unity flows freely through the collective arteries of the body of believers.
Our search for meaning and wholeness appears to be over. We have found God and His local HQ. Group love now flows freely from the fountain of common belief and purpose. It appears that all we have to do is turn up and the new certainty will carry us through life into both our individual and group destiny.
So where do things generally go wrong?
Well, may I suggest that within our fragmented psyche, lies a skewed desire centre – one that zeros in on the apparent wholeness and Being of another. As we find our feet in our new religious home this subliminal centre begins to kick into life, latching onto the levels of desire transmitted by fellow members. It doesn’t take long to hook up with the most powerful desire transmitter within our new-found family. The very nature of the group determines that this particular role is usually to be found in the leader(s) or direction setter of our new band of brothers and sisters .
If the community is of a more institutional flavour, such a role generally tends to fall in the one holding the ‘office’ of priest, pastor, elder, bishop etc. In such a scenario we generally desire their connection with the Divine as channelled through the rites and rituals of the group. In buying into such a package it’s usually the disciplines and historic beliefs of the religious system that can eventually get inside the damaged psyche and potentially wreak havoc. Our loyalty to such an institutional take on faith subtly takes over from the original Divine connection, instigated at conversion. We now see it as our duty to support the institution, in our attempt to keep ourselves in the historic faith of our forefathers. The seeds of spiritual abuse are now well and truly sown, albeit in a guise that appears to maintain individual freedom.
If our faith group is a more independent and radical expression of faith, e.g. a 21st attempt at discovering an Early Church model, then the dangers are much more apparent and often not as subtle as in its institutional cousin. Such groups are often built around a charismatic leader or teacher who has a unique, or certainly rare take on the religious life. The vision and drive of the group tend to emanate from the high psychic energy of such leaders, those who carry the faithful along on their spiritual backs.
For the new convert such a dynamic man or woman of God models the ideal to which they now aspire. The desire of the new member to be godly has now found its target, the one to imitate in its search for further wholeness and integration. In like manner, the often flawed and damaged front man/woman of the community finds their desire needs fulfilled in the subtle adulation of their followers. The need to be seen often lies at the heart of a gifted religious and somewhat visionary leader.
As both parties settle down to the unconscious psychic exchange of desire needs, a religious game gets under way that can and usually does prove disastrous in the long run. The model-follower dynamic is set in motion, one that will eventually erupt as repression, one that opens the door to spiritual control and abuse.
But more of that in my next post.
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