Betrayed by the Divine and Overlooked by Scholarship

An Inquiry into Spiritual Abuse and Religious Trauma


  • Lillian Bisantz University of Colorado at Boulder



religious trauma, spiritual abuse, historical trauma, historical unresolved grief, clergy sexual abuse, healing


Terminology to describe the experience and effects of abuse in religious and spiritual settings has only begun to surface in the last three decades. Though terms like “spiritual abuse,” “spiritual violence,” “religious abuse,” “spiritual harm,” “religious trauma,” and “religious harm” may reference similar types of injury, the terms were born out of different fields, and for different purposes. This thesis argues that the terms “spiritual abuse” and “religious trauma” are being narrowly used and defined by individuals in the psychology and counseling fields to equip practitioners with concrete definitions and tools to support clients who have suffered abuses in religious and spiritual settings. The definitions of spiritual abuse and religious trauma are grounded in Protestant communities and traditions even though the definitions have a general scope. This finding is contrasted by the field of religious studies which uses the term “religious abuse” to describe abuse specific to a particular religious community rather than attempting to assimilate abuse in all religious and spiritual communities. This thesis also argues that there is a lack of attention to and inclusion of the experience of Indigenous and Native American communities in discussions of spiritual abuse and religious trauma even though the concepts of historical trauma and historical unresolved grief were created to describe the intergenerational injury of colonialism and cultural genocide in the United States, which often came in the form of spiritual oppression and genocide at the hands of various Christian denominations supported by the United States government. Given this historical context, it is argued that some of the current suggestions for healing from spiritual abuse and religious trauma (i.e., entheogenic practices and the appropriation of traditionally Indigenous practices) could create a double injury for Native communities whose spiritual abuse and religious trauma have not been recognized. Additionally, many of the suggestions for healing are based in individualistic and Western-oriented value systems of productivity rather than communal or structural healing.

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How to Cite

Bisantz, L. (2023). Betrayed by the Divine and Overlooked by Scholarship: An Inquiry into Spiritual Abuse and Religious Trauma. University of Colorado Honors Journal, 161–164.



Social Science