“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion; hence many are called, but few are chosen.” – Joseph Smith, 19-century charismatic religious leader

Religious abuse occurs when someone uses religious beliefs to hurt, scare, or control another person.

Abusers and manipulators come from all walks of life and from all cultures, but religious abusers are especially fascinating. How can people convince themselves that they are choosing the right, even doing God’s will, to abuse and hurt another?

Religious Abuse and Covert Narcissism

There are aspects of religious control and submission that tantalize people from all geographic areas and that exist in major and minor world religions. The popularity of recent TV dramas such as Unorthodox, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Waco attest to the appetite for depictions of religious abuse.

It is not the type of faith, but how it is used, that creates a situation of religious abuse. Religious abuse has been documented in all major world religions in equal numbers. Catholics have taken a media beating as multiple child abuse charges made their way through the court system in recent years. Research shows, however, that Catholics don’t have a higher chance of sexual abuse within their faith community than anyone else.

Roughly 10% of respondents in a large 2017 survey reported either receiving or knowing someone who received unwanted sexual advances from a leader in their faith community. This statistic was the same for the major religions surveyed: Catholic, White Evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim.

Sexual abuse signals the possibility of a perpetrator with narcissistic traits or a narcissistic personality disorder. Sexual and physical abuse would fall under the category of malignant narcissism. Covert narcissism, less calculating and cruel, is arguably even more common than malignant narcissism. Is there a connection between covert narcissism and religious abuse? How would a covert narcissist in a religious setting be identified? Do religious communities foster covert narcissism or does covert narcissism exist in equals numbers outside of religious communities?

One client described the following situation:

I mentioned to my husband that I was in favor of a euthanasia bill that was up for a vote in our area. My husband became agitated. “Don’t you know the Church is against that bill?” “It’s absolutely clear in the Church literature.” “Haven’t you read the Bible?” “Have you told anyone else what you think?” “Murder is the biggest sin there is, and you think our society should condone it?”

Of course, none of these questions was asked with the intent of hearing my answer, but with the intent of communicating to me that my opinion was putting me on the wrong side of God. My husband wasn’t okay with having me on the wrong side of God; he was angry about it. At that moment, he seemed convinced that he understood God’s stance on this issue. My opinions didn’t matter at all.

One such instance is offensive and off-putting; a pattern of such behavior is religious abuse. Whether it’s your spouse, your parent, a sibling, or a religious leader acting as God’s spokesperson and the dispenser of God’s goodwill, such behavior needs to be recognized for what it is: religious manipulation.

A close relationship with a covert narcissist has been likened to death by a thousand cuts. It’s usually very hard for the partner of a covert narcissist to fully explain the misery and toxicity of the relationship. Describing one or two such instances doesn’t make the relationship sound as poisonous and draining as it feels to the partner. It’s when a relationship is full of such instances, when the manipulator feels entitled to get their way over and over again, that a relationship becomes toxic. It’s the pattern, not the instance.

The covert narcissist in the above situation would probably have the tact and sense of political correctness not to respond in such a way in a newspaper interview or even in discussions with other members of the faith community. They might have a sense of how to act more respectfully, giving space for the other person to have their own thoughts, even asking questions. But covert narcissists thrive in private relationships where the respect breaks down and where the covert narcissist acts more domineering that they would in public.

Whether the topic of discussion is what to wear, how to vote, how many kids to have, what books to censure, or LGBTQ+ issues, religious abusers use their beliefs about God to pressure and shame people around them. They are so sure that their views are correct and so unable to imagine the world from other perspectives, that they justify coercion, authoritarianism, and even violence.

Religious authority might bring out the worst in a person with narcissistic tendencies, but it is not a logical conclusion that religions cause narcissistic behavior. Covert narcissism doesn’t necessarily thrive within religious environments any more than it thrives in any other hierarchical systems such as schools, universities, businesses, and families.

Religions provide compelling narratives around humility, service, and kindness, which bring out the best in many people and which provide real incentive to avoid or overcome covert narcissism. Religious teachings can serve to “turn off” narcissism inside a person just as well as religious teachings can turn it [narcissism] on in someone else.

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