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was I the victim of religious abuse

Was I a victim of religious abuse?

by Matt Pappas

That may sound like an odd question, at least it does to me. I say that because I was raised in the church, so for me to sit here and have a realization that religion may have been used in an abusive manner, is a tough pill to swallow. Religious Abuse? Me?…Quite possibly yes.

This post may very well be quite controversial, but honestly it’s been something that’s been on my mind a lot these last few months. I’m going to try and be as objective and non-judgmental as positive. In other words, I want to realistically look at the possibility of how religion was used in my upbringing. If it was abusive, then so be it; but if not then perhaps I’m wrong but it’s better to work this through and know as best I can one way or the other.

Am I model church going type of person? The answer would be, probably not if you don’t really know me. Then again, the model church going person isn’t as clear cut as it was back in the day.

I can curse like a sailor, I can have a negative outlook on life at times, and I really can’t stand the typical “Jesus band aid” that is so often used. I don’t care for statements like the following:

“This is what God wants you to deal with right now”.  “It’s God’s will that you are going through this or that right now”.

I was raised that when I did something wrong and my mom would punish me or lecture me, it was always “I’m not making you feel bad, God is”.  “This isn’t me giving you a guilty conscience, it’s God”.

Now honestly, does God want to scold me? Does he want me to feel like dirt? Does he want me to feel “this” big?  I’m not suggesting that he approves of everything I’ve done, but is he not a loving God, full of forgiveness? Seems contradictory to me to think otherwise.

I’m fully aware that if I did something wrong, I should be punished for it as a kid. I know there are consequences for my actions, both then and now. I get it. However, if she was going to punish me as a kid then just do it, but why does it always have to be that God is upset with me? That she is doing what God is telling her to do?

It’s how the message is presented that has affected me in ways I never realized.  I never thought of myself as a victim of religious abuse.  If the Bible is used as a weapon; to make me feel like the worst person ever, that feels like abuse to me. The Bible is supposed to be a book of encouragement, to be an instrument of teaching. It contains life lessons, commandments, and a message of hope, but when someone twists that around, it creates a ton of confusion.

What’s really true now and what’s not? How much of my guilty conscience is really God vs just…wait for it…my mother?

My dad never invalidated me as a kid, he never made me feel like I was doomed and that I should be scared of God like my mom has. They both share the same belief, but his way of presenting it was as an encourager, not an invalidating, debilitating weapon of doom.

I was sent to a private school my whole life, went to church every time the doors were open. Prayed before every meal, before and after every trip, etc.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned, but for someone like me who heard one message in church and then a different tone of the same message at home, it just didn’t add up.

I still struggle today with more questions than I ever had before.

Growing up it was basically, “this is how it is, no ifs, ands, or buts.  Do this, think this way, act this way, don’t talk like that.” It felt like I was not able to have a mind of my own.  The religious part of my life was already set in stone. If I dared to question anything, I was in the wrong.

I wouldn’t dare try to interpret what I was taught in any other manner than the way it was presented.

I get that as parents we are to impart wisdom and instructions to our kids. However, where I differ is that once you offer and/or supply that wisdom it’s up to the individual to make up their own mind. Forcing something, anything (not just religion) down somebody’s throat 24/7 increases the possibility of rebellion. That’s the path that I chose for a long time.

Some other basic “truths” I was raised on were things like:

  • If you were gay, you had no place in the church at all.
  • You should not hang around people who are not church goers and don’t act as church goers do. You should witness to them, invite them to church, but being friends with them was not recommended.
  • You should not get divorced, period.
  • Treat others as you would want to be treated. (Which is correct, except when that “truth” is up for interpretation based on how someone looks or acts.)

God spent much of his time on earth with those who others wanted nothing to do with. He didn’t hate or mistreat anyone. He came to save us all, not purposefully alienate anyone.

I’m not here to bash Christianity or any other type of religion, that’s not my intent at all. I consider myself a Christian and I know that I’m going to heaven one day. I fully believe that once you ask God into your heart, he is with you forever. He will never leave you nor forsake you.

However, this topic of religious abuse is fairly new to me and it’s been raising a ton of questions and making me think. It’s not a bad thing to dive into the depths of your mind and re-examine what you were taught, as long as you keep an open mind. Which is what I’m doing.

Was I a victim of religious abuse? I think in some ways yes, I was.

I am fully capable of making up my own mind, I just have to be OK with what I come up with and how it applies to me.



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Don July 13, 2016 - 10:28 am

I’m kind of reluctant to comment here because while I don’t try to put down anyone that goes to church, It no longer has a place in my life. I’m a spiritual person, but not in the church sense of the word. Most of what I now believe in is shunned by most strict going church people.

Church and religion and God were used as weapons against me. I was raped and molested because they were doing since God told them to and that’s how he showed his love. I was taught to hate (okay, avoid – stick my nose up at – not tolerate) anyone that didn’t go to this narrow minded church like I did. Being gay (although I didn’t put things together at the time) was the same as being a rapist.

I saw one thing preached in church on Sunday and then the minute the service was over, it was like everyone forgot what was just said. It didn’t matter. I see this far too often and of course trying to say anything about it, there’s the excuse of “we’re forgiven, not perfect”. I realize that, but I’ve seen far too much hide behind those words.

I’ve seen my family members pray to God for forgiveness which means that they don’t accept responsibility for what they did and its like it didn’t happen. The church accepts them with open arms and I’m the one that is brainwashed and crazy. Yet, they just went back and kept doing the same things over and over… repeat forgiveness, do the same action again.

Church and God were meant as tools to make us toe the perfect line. I’ll never forget my two brothers getting into a fight when my parents were out for an evening. My brother called the minister and then left a note for my parents to read after they got home (and we were asleep). I remember being woke up and whipped for something I didn’t do – I just happened to live in the same house.

There were many things I endured. I’ve written about some of them on my own blog but its a subject that haunts me and brings about great anxiety and anger for me.

I have some close friends who are Christians that I love dearly and they love me. We don’t always see eye to eye on all things, but we respect each other enough to be okay with this.

I no longer see this old grey bearded white dude up in the sky ready to smite me down into a lake of fire with lightening bolts because I screw up. I gave up on that. I’ve already lived through hell in my life… don’t think I have to worry about going to this place anymore. I know some believe in that, but I no longer do. The rape, daily molestation, physical torture… they were my hell.

Anyway, I hope I’ve not said too much. This is how I view the world now. I can no longer accept all that stuff I was taught. It doesn’t fit in my life or my world.

Matt July 13, 2016 - 10:48 am

Don, I always, always, value and appreciate your thoughts man. You are my friend and that will never change. You can always say what’s on your mind.

This part stuck out from your comment – I saw one thing preached in church on Sunday and then the minute the service was over, it was like everyone forgot what was just said.

My experience was more like, this is what was said in church..now let’s go home see how bad I can make you feel about it. Just ugh.

Don July 13, 2016 - 11:22 am

I had some of that too Matt… but it just felt that what was taught/learned in church was for use against you, rather than what they followed. I see that so commonly today in our society and world. I’m not even sure people are conscious enough that they do this.

Kami July 13, 2016 - 12:38 pm

I believe you’ve brought up a very important subject, Matt. It was brave and vulnerable of you to share this. A part of me feels saddened that we must muster up so much bravery to talk about these real and valid issues that need to be talked about.

I have seen and experienced this happening within the church and Christian communities and it grieves me so much. In some circles it seems that “staying in line” becomes more valuable than actually knowing God at his very core – his love, his compassion, his truth.

So quickly it seems we forget the accounts we have of Jesus among other people – His kindness, gentleness, friendship. How he lived his life echoed how he felt people needed to be treated. He wasn’t critical, demeaning or exclusive. He was friend to any and people were drawn to him. I want to be more like that.

I, too, don’t handle the Christianese phrases well – at all. So many of them are more harmful than helpful and add burden to the pain. I don’t think people necessarily mean it to be negative or painful. It may just come from the awkward struggle of not knowing what to say or being uncomfortable with “the messy” of life. But we can do better. We can learn how to be considerate and compassionate and shed those unhelpful phrases in place of words of comfort.

Thank you for bringing this subject to light. If any of what I said doesn’t make sense or you have a question, please ask! Brain’s a little foggier this morning so it may not have come out right! Well done on this post.

jaklumen July 13, 2016 - 10:32 pm

Hey Matt.

Let me assure you that there’s no controversy with me, even though I’m an active church-going man.
I don’t know if I told you I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints– what people informally call “the Mormon Church”, but, I’m not bothered. Truly. I’ve grappled with some of these issues myself, and let me tell you, I have company in my family. My father-in-law died the day before this last Father’s day. I was the only one in Cimmy’s immediate family that could dedicate his grave per the rites of our church; Cimmy’s brothers could not. My youngest sister went through the temple recently, but my other two younger sisters will have nothing to do with church anymore.

Now I’m guessing you were raised on the Protestant side of things- not that it matters much to your issue at hand. I have a Catholic friend who is semi-observant, but sometimes goes to a non-denominational Protestant church with her husband (who is actively participating). I have friends of a few different religious stripes that have been through similar circumstances. I can’t judge any of them poorly. They are my brothers and sisters-in-arms that have lived trauma as I have, some of it very much religious. I mean, were you in when Bobbi and Athena talked about this? There’s some fellow survivors in the chat that I’m 100% certain get you, really, totally. I have my reasons for continuing to go to church, but I very much get why friends and family of mine don’t. I’d be cutting my nose off to spite my face trying to pretend I didn’t. And I don’t go for the holier-than-thou types. I go to contribute to the community, just like why I go to the chats- sort of. It’s part of my relationship with the divine, but… it just doesn’t feel right to me to dictate how anyone should live. I’m not worried that my salvation will be less or God, the universe, or the Tao will smack me with indignation, bad fortune, or whatever, if I didn’t “behoove” enough to “warn my neighbor”. Good grief, I hate it when some Christians wrest that scripture to mean “It behooveth every dude to be a naggy jerk”.

Mert July 15, 2016 - 12:02 am

When I was a little girl I heard too many sermons about the lake of fire and too few about how God is Love.
So, when I was raped and thought it was my fault as a child, I figured God turned away from me for being so bad. I was alienated from Him for 20 years until I broke through the dissociative amnesia and learned that a crime had been committed against me. I sought God and He was there, waiting and accepting.
I swam across that lake of fire and don’t want to hear of it or visit it ever again. I was afraid of God when I needed him most because I was led to believe that He was all judgement when He clearly states that He is Love.
I could go on about how the effect that thinking I was a lost cause in God’s eyes had on my young life. It wasn’t pretty. But I was beautiful and loved, yet felt like a worm.
Decades later I am learning the simple lessons of God’s love. I know now that it is more powerful than anything in the universe, thankfully!
Was I a victim of religious abuse? Um, yeah. But I will overcome that too and look forward to my heavenly father’s embrace.

Joy Richardson July 30, 2016 - 5:23 pm

This post is one I cherish, and I treasure all the comments it received from both sides of this issue. I have been religiously abused, I prefer the term spiritually abused, before. My first trauma was Satanic Ritual Abuse while I was growing up in Asia. Muslim Spiritists who believed in Animism and worshipped evil spirits abducted me and did things to me that I shouldn’t go in to detail about because it is too horrific and could trigger a reader. They took me because my father was a Christian and they wanted to punish him and declare war on Jesus Christ. And then I had people from my own religion abuse me in one incident where I was forced to be exorcised because the Christian community thought that my Dissociative Identity Disorder was actually a matter of being possessed. So I have experienced spiritual abuse in two very different ways. What I’m going through now is something you mentioned briefly…my family refuses to support me getting a divorce because it is a sin. I am a proud believer in the love of Christ despite all this and my relationship with Him is the most important thing in my life. I have learned over the years, and am still learning, how narrow-minded people can be when it comes to their religious beliefs and they, like your mother, used God’s name to exert their own will. I believe God is angry with people like that. I know God loves me and I love Him, too, just like you know God loves you and you love him. This post warms my heart and I am so glad you have not let the religious abuse make you bitter.

BNW July 30, 2016 - 6:42 pm

I’m a Christian and I go to church. However, it absolutely breaks my heart to see how some people use God and the Bible. My grandpa was a pastor and he was one of the most hateful, abusive people I have ever met. This is a really important post and thanks for sharing your story.

Dawn H September 27, 2016 - 6:54 pm

Rock and Roll, Matt. There is no controversy. The fact that we were raised to never question the authority …. to never question my abuser…. to obey without question… Without a doubt, they use this ultimate authority to abuse. Thank you so much for this post.


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