Religious Abuse: How to See

For those of you that follow religious news, Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Mormon polygamist sect in Texas, was convicted of two counts of sexual assault on a child.

As Huffington Post contributor Danielle Tumminio says,”… there is another aspect to the Warren Jeffs trial that I find particularly disturbing, one which has not received much media attention, overshadowed as it has been by Jeffs’s horrendous sexual exploitations. That issue is the way in which Jeffs manipulated power — specifically religious power — in order to harm those entrusted to his care. One might term this kind of mistreatment religious abuse. Religious abuse, as Jack Watts explains it, is “the mistreatment of a person by someone in a position of spiritual authority, resulting in the diminishing of that person’s sense of well-being and growth — both spiritually and emotionally” (Recovering from Religious Abuse, 2). Religious abuse occurs when individuals in positions of religious authority use their power to manipulate those entrusted to their care. It involves degrading people, harming them, and preventing them from growing into the potential God intended for them.”

Why does this matter to us?

As pagans, we usually look at this as a monotheism problem.

We are free thinkers, we tell ourselves, we could never be brainwashed into believing such nonsense.

We don’t have a set religious authority, no one can tell us what to do.

We vote with our feet, if we don’t like the way a group is being run, we just move on.

And yet, religious abuse has happened, is happening, and will happen in the pagan community. Because there are assholes in every religion. And we don’t have a central leadership/governing body as a check or balance to the truly evil.

We also let bad people practice because we are so paranoid about “adversely affecting our karma” or we believe that “people choose the lessons they learn, so if they have a bad experience, they chose it” or we don’t want to “stir up drama” or “feed the trolls”; so a new person entering the larger pagan community doesn’t know that person X has a group he’s turned into his own private harem, or person Y has turned her group into her own private bank, or person Z has turned his group into his own private racist enclave.

People like this prey on our sense of independence, lack of accountability, and general belief in the goodness of our fellow humans.

Many times when someone becomes pagan, they either lose or restrict the support system they grew up with or constructed as an adult. As a result, their first pagan support system is the first pagan group they join. And if they join the wrong one, they can be scarred for life.

So here are some signs to look for if you have gotten involved with a group and something just doesn’t seem right.

1Unchecked Authoritarian Leadership

The leader has all the answers, and no one questions the leader.The leader is fiercely independent and refuses to be part of a structure of accountability. The leader operates as a one man or one woman spiritual show.

If you do question the leader, he or she lashes out at you in violent and inappropriate ways, including but not limited to: diatribes; questioning your faith, conviction or connection to deity; calling you a “persecutor”; physical confrontations and violence; sexual or emotional manipulation; shunning. If you withdraw your question, or concede to his or her authority, he or she responds with overt and inappropriate gestures of affection, using your relief in not being on the outs anymore to more tightly bind you to him or her.

2 Imbalanced Group Life

People have the need to belong, the need to be affirmed, to be accepted and to be part of a family. In an unbalanced group, it is not unusual for the leader to assume the role of a surrogate parent or, because we have a different view of sex than monotheisms do, a sexual partner. The leader fosters an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and otherwise, by focusing on the isolation of being a pagan, the dangers of the mundane world to pagans, and the dangers of the unseen world to the unlearned or unwary. He or she creates the impression that you just aren’t going to find your way through the metaphysical maze without the lessons the leader is teaching. The leader then comes up with  firm directives that are often fleshed out in a demanding lifestyle rigidity that is controlling and abusive.  Is the leader telling you what you can and can not eat? Wear? How to exercise? What books you can’t read?

3 Conscious Threats Of Dismissal

Have your questions prompted the leader to threaten you with removal from the group?

4 Deliberate Disruption Of Personal Relationships

This is one of the most heartbreaking consequences of religious abuse in the pagan community. The leader separates you from the relationships that you managed to salvage when you became a pagan. People I know have suffered divorce, alienation from their children and other family members because the leader had deemed their relationships spiritually polluting, too mundane, destructive or dangerous to the group. Has the leader told you who you can date? That your family is “holding you back”?

5. Withdrawal And Isolation From The “Outside”

The leader consciously tries to limit imput and contact with thoughts and ideas outside of the group. Your group doesn’t collaborate with other pagan groups; you are not allowed to practice with any other groups; outside speakers and guests are denied access to your group; other pagan groups are ridiculed, denounced or belittled.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to get out.

Your mileage will most certainly vary.

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