What is religious abuse?

If you experience abuse in the name of your religion it is called religious abuse. Brainwashing and scare tactics are often used to keep you thinking according to what the group’s doctrines preach.

Religious abuse is often a behavioural pattern that is repeated. Often emotional abuse is inflicted at the same time, sometimes even physical abuse or sexual abuse.

Examples of religious abuse are if someone:

  • Uses their spiritual position of power to control, oppress or coerce you.
  • Pressures you to follow the group’s rules so that you as an individual have a limited ability to protest.
  • Uses religious or spiritual practices to justify abuse or blame you for abuse.
  • Forces you to raise your children according to a religion you don’t agree with.
  • Forces you to participate in religious or spiritual ceremonies that you don’t want to participate in.
  • Humiliates you or shuts you out for not having the same beliefs as they do.
  • Forbids you from practising your religion or spirituality.
  • Forbids you or your children from receiving medical help because of religion.

Having a religion can fulfil a certain need for purpose, security, and community. Therefore, it can be very traumatic when religion is used as an instrument of abuse, for example if you are cast out or your relatives are forbidden from speaking to you. The abuse can lead to disconnection from yourself, other people, and the rest of the world. People who leave a religious or spiritual group often experience depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress afterwards. Therefore, it is important to get help.

Who inflicts religious abuse?

Religious abuse can occur within religious congregations or in spiritual practices. The abuse can also occur in any sort of relationship. Those who inflict religious abuse can be:

  • Spiritual or religious leaders.
  • Fellow members of a religious group.
  • A romantic partner or ex partner.
  • A parent or other family member.
  • An adult child.
  • Others who you live with or interact with frequently.

None of these people have the right to stop you from practising your religion or force you to follow their religion.

Get help

It can be difficult to recognize such situations and get out of them. It can involve leaving your family or your only friends. If you want assistance, contact abuse support centres for free: Bjarkarhlíð in Reykjavík, Bjarmahlíð in Akureyri or Sigurhæðir in Selfoss. Keep in mind that abuse is never acceptable and it is possible to get out of such situations.

Everyone, both adults and children, can also talk to someone for free at 1717 (Red Cross helpline).

Available support

See all support


The Red Cross Helpline 1717 is a phone service and webchat for those who need someone to talk to in confidentiality. They are open 24 hours, and it's free to call.


Bjarkarhlíð is a center for people who have experienced abuse. There you get all the support and counseling you need in one place. All assistance is on your terms.

Setustofa hjá Bjarkarhlíð. Hér má sjá þrjá hægindastóla. Tveir eru nær og milli þeirra borð með lampa. Einn er fjær, með borð við hlið sér og hillur þar sem meðal annars er kaffikanna, bollar og nokkur tímarit. Ein planta og standlampi eru við hlið hillunnar.

Bjarmahlíð in Akureyri

Bjarmahlíð is a center for people who have experienced abuse. There you get all the support and counseling you need in one place. All assistance is on your terms.

Honor-based abuse

Honor-based abuse is when someone, usually a close relative, inflicts abuse on you to protect the honor of the family. When honor is set above your human rights, that is abuse.

Manneska situr á hnjánum á gólfinu. Hún er leið á svip, með lokuð augun og höfuðið lítur niður til jarðar.