Religious Refugees: 10 signs of a toxic Spiritual Environment

People are beginning to leave toxic spiritual environments as a result of feeling judged, shamed, mistreated, demeaned or even abused.  I call these folks religious refugees.  It can feel lonely and scary to leave a toxic community.  Even though there might be deep pain there, they may provide your only sense of community.  Here are some signs of a toxic spiritual environment.

1).  Shaving your legs is a big “hairy deal.”

No matter what your personal taste is, you may have been taught to fear and hate your body.  Many overly controlling religious communities teach children and members that normal human development like getting your period or developing body hair is something to be ashamed of. Some even get messages that their bodies are downright disgusting and something to be ashamed of.  Perhaps you were even taught that your body didn’t even belong to you, but to the men in your life or to God.

2).   Children are too innocent for their own good.

In an effort to “protect” them, children are often not taught realities about sex and the world we live in to be able to protect themselves.  This can often set them up to be victimized.

3).  Church leaders can do no wrong.

Toxic religious environments have leaders that control almost all aspects of the community.  Their mistakes and misdeeds are either kept secret or elaborately justified by blaming other people.   Leaders are also overly glorified and idolized.

4).  Keeping you scared is a good thing.

Fear is seen as a sign of being pious.  It is more important for group members to conform and keep in line than it is for them to feel encouraged and accepted.

5).  Questions are not encouraged and doubt is seen as a disease.

Many religious communities are scared that doubt will spread the same way small pox does. Belonging is conditioned upon obedience.  A healthy religious community will welcome decent and questions as a normal part of spiritual and human growth. Toxic or abusive religious communities leave little room for question or input from church members.

6).   They have more cliques than the average high school.

They define some people as inherently spiritually better or superior to others.  Men may be considered superior to women, heterosexuals are regarded as superior to gay people, people from other religions are feared and despised. This keeps members dependent on the hierarchy of the group for information, acceptance and perspective.  Even more dangerous, it can groom people to be future victims of abuse and even worse, in toxic religious environments abuse is often justified through religious doctrine.

7).  They have severe allergic reaction to hearing opinions differing from their own.

If other people disagree with their doctrine, they are automatically seen as attacking and threatening.  This makes it impossible to create effective dialogue and learn with and from people outside the group.

8).  They make us feel good by providing a sense of absolute certainty.

They give us exact guidelines and rules to follow so that we know we are good, blessed and “saved.” The problem is this type of black and white thinking can trick our brains to be in a perpetual state of fear that we will make a mistake that will ultimately separate us from the group or from God. We never learn critical and nuanced thinking for ourselves.

9).   It’s easy to be shunned and humiliated.

The use of isolation from the group is used as a way of controlling behavior.  Often times, the fear of being cut off from the community or rejected by God if you stray from their teaching plays on our natural human needs for belonging.  Because the need for acceptance and belonging is a core human need, continued exposure to this type of control can result in ongoing shame and depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide or suicidal action.

10).    We learn to hate ourselves not love ourselves.

Toxic religious environments create a fear-based way of looking at the world limits our ability to find authentic joy and control our own destiny.

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