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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

How Do Authoritarian Leaders Cause Religious Trauma?

When we become trapped in abusive religious systems disguised as spiritual communities, it is almost impossible to recognize how our lives are being controlled. It is often equally difficult to leave. Why is this?

For the readers who have been following this blog series on Religious Trauma (RT), it is likely that some—or all— of the following questions have surfaced. These are tough questions that need some context.

  • Why, as an adult, am I staying or did I stay in harmful or abusive religious communities?

  • Why did my parents (or me as a parent) not recognize how the religious teachings were harming children?

  • Why did I follow teachings even when my gut told me not to?

I do not excuse any abuse or harm done to children in the name of religion. I also understand the dynamics of power that control people in authoritarian religious settings. Stanley Milgram did the pivotal research in understanding the influence of power as it relates to how individuals, under the direction of authority figures, often follow directives they would not otherwise choose.

To summarize Milgram's research: In the experiment, volunteers (ordinary people who received minimal pay to participate) were directed by authority figures to administer electric shocks at increasing levels to people who gave incorrect answers to questions. 79% continued to raise the shock levels even when the person--who they could hear but not see--cried out in pain. These individuals were acting and not actually harmed, but the person pushing the button did not know this. (Further Information)

As uncomfortable as this research may feel, it demonstrates how humans are wired for obedience. Authoritarian leaders use this human trait (which is often necessary for survival) to build their power base. The abuse of authority and power is often the root cause of religious trauma.

Power or control-focused religious leaders have stood on the authority of the church and/or the Bible and directed generations to follow their teachings—and until recently, most did. Did these leaders believe in what they were telling people to do? Most often, yes. Did they abuse the trust placed in them? Far too often. At the very least, they did not listen to dissenting voices.

Next week, we will discuss how to unwind ourselves and our families from abusive uses of power. For now, it is necessary to understand what the abuse of authority looks like in religious settings.

With permission, I have included David Ruybalid’s insights on this topic. (You can find David on Instagram and Facebook.) This information, along with an understanding of the power wielded by authoritarian leaders, provides a thorough look at why people become trapped in harmful religious settings—and why the children who become trapped with them are now, as adults, headed to therapy in droves seeking help for what they may not realize is Religious Trauma.

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