An individual's spiritual life is perhaps their most vulnerable and sacred experience on this Earth. It is in our moments of worship that we encounter our highest sentiments of passion. And in our moments of reverence that we acknowledge our deepest feelings of connection.
Many people have found comfort, faith, and community in religious gatherings and teachings. The winding journey of life can feel daunting and lonely for any person. And through the centuries, humans have sought the peace and connection offered through religion and spiritual guidance. These groups offer a source of strength and purpose to their followers who eventually make them their home.
When this home is violated, voided, or destroyed, the pain and loss are immeasurable. No replacement will cause the wounds to vanish. But in addition to the emotional turmoil, many also face the real-life consequences of leaving an adverse religious environment. Financial devastation, loss of employment, loss of housing, verbal and physical harassment, lack of education, estrangement from family and friends, and so much more often accompany an already life-altering moment. In most cases, victims are given no choice but to make these sacrifices in order to escape to freedom.
Leaving an abusive spiritual home is not always fleeing away into the night, though this has been many survivor's stories. Instead, it is more often a slow and painful loss that continues to expand and intensify with time. The suffocation and loneliness of isolation slowly tear at the heart. Fear and insecurity at navigating a new world become overwhelming. Managing depression, anxiety, mental, and physical health are often new concepts for mot survivors.
There is little understanding or knowledge around spiritual and religious abuse in our world today. Which means there are few resources for those trying to rebuild their lives. As one individual so poignantly put it, "it feels like being a refugee in your own land". It is because of this that we launched an initiative to educate and advocate on the effects of adverse spiritual environments. As well as to provide support and services to victims in need.
We are The Vashti Initiative. And we envision an informed world that recognizes spiritual and religious abuse; opening safe avenues of healing to survivors.
Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one's connection with one's faith and faith community. It is often diagnosed as, or compared to, PTSD or Complex PTSD (C-PTSD).
*RTS has not yet been given an official diagnosis by the DSM-5
Physical violence manifests in a multitude of ways in abusive religious settings. Some of the lengthy list of offense are as follows; assault, forced restraint, hitting & kicking, slapping & punching, aggressive child discipline, kidnapping or institutionalizing followers, imprisonment of followers, intimidation with threats or weapons, starvation or deprivation of basic needs, and many other forms of physical aggression. Each group is different and not every group that implements forms of physical violence will use all of the tactics stated above. But not matter the degree, there are many studies to suggest the long term effects of any physical abuse, especially on children. These effect range from mental health struggles, physical and psychological disabilities, behavioral impacts, and long lasting societal consequences.
Many survivors report being strongly discouraged or prohibited from accessing an accredited or standardized education. This limits victims ability to pursue higher education from mainstream institutions and often leaves survivors academically years or decades behind their peers. This neglect also reduces an individuals ability to earn and sustain a livable wage, especially in their early years after exiting. In our 2020 report on the Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement, 49% of respondents struggled to pursue higher education after leaving their environment and 26% struggled to find any kind of employment. Similar experiences have been expressed by those leaving the Fundamental Latter Day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology, Orthodox Judaism, and many smaller religious based groups.
Financial Coercion is the manipulation or control of another individuals ability to fully acquire or maintain sustainable, financial resources. This is done through the unethical and inequitable solicitation or demand for money. While it is acceptable for churches and organization to raise funds for their work, pressuring or forcing congregants to give beyond their means is an abusive practice. Accepting large donations that leave the donor without a home, savings, or other means of support is unethical and an abuse of spiritual authority. Religious leaders who fund their own lavish lifestyles by taking from those with a meager income and promising "future rewards" in an afterlife, are preying on their followers beliefs. Embezzlement, fraud, and Ponzi/pyramid schemes are illegal practices that have been found in many abusive religious groups and have often been committed or perpetuated by spiritual leaders.
Sexual oppression in spiritual settings is the restraint, control, or burden placed on followers which limits or abuses their right to sexual exploration, expression, or identity. This can include the repression found in purity and virginity culture, as well as, the forced sexual exposure placed on children in other religious environments. Sexual oppression also includes a leader or groups fixation on followers sexuality or expression, and abuse may include attempts to convert or change a persons sexual identity. Imposed polygamy, child marriages, and forced arranged marriages are also examples of abuse as they take away the individuals choice in these matters.
Emotional abuse is the habitual pattern of behavior in which the perpetrator insults, humiliates, degrades, and generally instills fear into another person in order to control them. It is extremely common in adverse spiritual environments for individuals to have their spiritual beliefs wielded as a weapon against them. Demeaning, shaming, and threatening language is often mixed in with group specific insults (i.e. gentile, infidel, worldly, suppressive, heathen, goy, etc). Anger, outbursts, and ultimatums happen suddenly, and unexpectedly forcing followers to constantly be on high alert.
It is common to see labor trafficking and other forms of labor abuse in adverse spiritual environments. Victims have reported high expectations and work demands with little to no compensation. Some employed in abusive spiritual settings have reported being forced to work outside their contract hours and threatened with heavenly, or eternal repercussions if they did not comply. Other groups have forced hard manual labor onto followers as a punishment or in an attempt to coerce compliance and obedience. There are also survivors who report harassment at their place of employment by their former church/religious home, threatening their job security.
Shunning is the persistent avoidance or rejection of someone. In abusive spiritual environments, it is most often used as a way to punish those who do not follow the group or leader's teachings. Isolation is often promoted as separation from the wicked outside world and many individuals are born into their group, or spend decades in their religious home. They are limited from developing close, outside contacts or accessing other resources. Shunning and threats of expulsion become powerful tools to keep individuals in line, or to punish those who decide to leave the group.
Autonomy is the right and ability to govern ones body and actions. Including, having moral independence that is free from religious or spiritual coercion. Unfortunately, many individuals in adverse spiritual environments lose their autonomy over time. This loss adds to the confusion and frustration of starting over as former followers have to re-learn how to make their own decisions. Many have been conditioned to believe they are unsuited to make their own choices and become overwhelmed by their new reality. It takes time and healing for survivors to begin to trust their own instincts and abilities again.
The best gift you can give The Vashti Initiative and the survivors that we serve is your time. We are seeking volunteers of all backgrounds across the United States. As a virtual non-profit, we can offer unique opportunities to volunteer. Visit the Volunteer page to learn more!