So. Spiritual abuse. I take a deep breath before plunging into this one.
The definition of “abuse” is misuse, especially with the effect or intention of harm. For example – physical abuse is the misuse of strength. Strength is not a bad thing in itself; it can be used to protect, defend, build, help, and serve, but in the case of abuse it is meant to inflict pain and to control another person. Verbal abuse is the misuse of words. Words by themselves are not bad; they can be used to reveal, to bond, to encourage, to inspire, to illuminate, to make clear, to edify, etc. In the case of abuse, words are used to demean, punish, control, and inflict pain on another person. Emotional abuse is the misuse of the emotional bond between two people. Normally, and optimally, bonding is a gift, an enrichment of life, satisfying and fulfilling, the food and water of our social and emotional lives. In cases of emotional abuse, the emotional bond, and the threat of its removal or withholding, is used to punish, manipulate, and control people. So it goes with all kinds of abuse, including spiritual abuse.
Whereas spirituality, or your framework for the Big Questions, is meant to widen and deepen your life, set you free from the unhealthy patterns of your family and society, help you mourn your losses and mark your major transitions appropriately, and offer you meaning, spiritual abuse is the misuse of these systems of belief to control, manipulate, punish, and exclude other people.
Spiritual abuse has slippery definitions. There are those who attempt to confine it to particular systems of belief, like the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, or as I once heard Chris Stedman refer to them, the “totalitarian religions.” I get what he was saying, and I believe that the structures for abuse are more immediately in place in these religious systems, but I myself have experienced spiritual abuse in an atheist context, and a friend of mine has experienced it in a yoga context. I really do not believe that there is a system of belief or spiritual practice that is immune from the dynamic.
But it does cause problems of definition, because you can’t just say “the misuse of God’s name and interpretation of His authority to punish, control, and exclude people,” although that certainly does happen, and certainly does qualify as spiritual abuse. But it excludes atheists, yogis, buddhists, and others who do not subscribe to a monotheistic, authoritative God, but who are still vulnerable to spiritual abuse.
So I guess my working definition would be any situation in which there is an appeal to a higher authority that is used to demean, control, punish, or exclude a person. The higher authority can be God, or it can be Reason, or a particular human leader, or it can be a certain prescribed set of practices. The thing that makes it spiritual abuse is that the higher authority is taken to be flawless, and the person or community appealing to the higher authority is taken to be the nearly-flawless mouthpiece of this perfect authority, and any deviance that you show from their interpretation of spiritual or intellectual perfection is grounds for you to be demeaned, excluded, punished, controlled, etc.
These spokespeople for the higher authority may admit to very minor flaws. For example, a small group leader at a church might confess to not spending as much time in the Word as he feels he ought, but he would never confess to doubting the validity or consistency of scripture, beating his wife, harboring gay fantasies, or whatever else is considered across the line of acceptability. And if, God forbid, you confess to something across the line, or are caught engaging in something unsanctioned, there will be strong efforts by the leader and the community to demean, discount, discipline, sanction, control, and/or exclude you, and it will be done in the name of love, in the name of God, out of concern for your spiritual well-being. In my case, the (atheist) abuser in question would give lip service to being a flawed human, but in practice, any opinion that deviated from his was “irrational,” wrong, threatening, “primitive,” “uncivilized,” and/or just did not adhere to the rigors of Reason (a standard which he alone, apparently, was able to navigate). And if you weren’t going to be governed by the laws of Reason, then you were no better than an animal; human trash, excluded from the ranks of “real” people, deserving of “tough love” (discipline, exclusion) so that you could learn just how wrong you had been.
The common thread here, from my vantage point, is the fundie pre-occupation with being Right. It comes back to that idea that the Whole Truth is singular, obvious, and small enough for a single person to perceive in its entirety. There is no room for dissent or debate, no allowance for the possibility of partial and incomplete truths, different paths around the truth – people who evolve into different ideas or have contrary experiences are dismissed as “fallen” in some way; they are immediately perceived as “less-than” or infected, and so everything they say is suspect. So people in these systems (and when I say “systems” I mean things as small as a family or marriage unit and as large as a major religious sect) find themselves in a catch-22. They can continue to toe the party line in order to gain the respect of their peers, but they lose themselves. Or they can be honest (truthful) about their perceptions and experiences, knowing that they will immediately be treated as a second-class citizen (best case scenario) or an outright devil/traitor/threat (worst case scenario), and be kicked out entirely.
You can find a lot more on spiritual abuse in other places. These are all specific to Christianity, where it is rampant: