How Many Americans Have Been Abused By Religion?

On Feb. 1, the Huffington Post published an article I wrote about my new book, Recovering from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to Spiritual Freedom, published by Simon & Schuster. Because the article was located in the religion section, I didn't anticipate much of a response -- but I couldn't have been more mistaken. The response was overwhelming, with many of the respondents indicating how deeply they had been injured by their personal religious experience. Many were very angry, while others were clearly hurt. As I read each comment, I was moved by many.

I was particularly intrigued by one comment that questioned an assumption I had stated in my premise. In the opening paragraph, I wrote, "Millions have experienced religious abuse." The person's comment questioned the validity of my sweeping generalization, which is a valid criticism. It should be questioned and deserves a response.

Although there is no empirical data that measures the "walking wounded" of Christendom clearly, a resent study by the Barna Group comes close. I believe it will help validate my assertion.

Based on past studies of those who avoid Christian churches, one of the driving forces behind such behavior is the painful experiences endured within the local church context. In fact, one Barna study among un-churched adults shows that nearly four out of every 10 non-churchgoing Americans (37 percent) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.

This group, who were once churchgoers, have distanced themselves so far from religion that they are now considered un-churched people. The next obvious question is this: How large is the number of un-churched people in America? Again, Barna helps answer the question. According to the research, when dependent children are added to the group, the number of un-churched reaches nearly 100 million. That's nearly one in every three Americans. Of that group, 37 percent have had negative religious experiences.

While not all negative experiences rise to the level of spiritual abuse, all abused people are a subset of the larger group, which is nearly 40 million people. That equates to every man, woman and child in the state of California or slightly more than the entire population of Canada. Regardless of how one looks at it, this is a large sections of the population.

Exactly how large the subset of those who have been abused by their religious experience has yet to be determined. The existing data only provides a general answer. More research is obviously needed to answer the question completely. Now that the issue has been raised, I suspect some enterprising graduate student will do the survey research required to answer the question precisely. It would be a great subject for a doctoral dissertation. Regardless, the problem is staggering in its enormity because nearly 40 million people have been so turned off by their "negative experience" that they are now defined as un-churched.

Despite this, the problem isn't even a blip on the radar for most of the religious establishment, who refuse to acknowledge it as real. For them, once someone leaves the church after a "negative experience," that person is quickly forgotten in the never-ending quest to evangelize the lost. In essence, they keep their front yard spotless, while completely disregarding the mess in their backyard, hoping that nobody will call attention to it, which I now have.

The concept of leaving the 99 who are safe to go after the one who is lost is a noble biblical concept, but it doesn't translate into action -- not in institutionalized Christianity. To make matters worse, the "one that is lost" equates to nearly 12 percent of the entire population, which makes the problem extremely large.

The initial response to "Recovering from Religious Abuse" is a good illustration of how massive the problem of denial is among religious leaders. The Huffington Post, recognizing the problem, ran my article twice -- not once, twice. LifeWay, the largest Christian bookstore chain in America, by way of contrast, not only doesn't stock the book in any of its 130 stores, it doesn't even have the book in its computer system. To them, the problem isn't an issue worth their trouble. The same is true of Mardels, another large Christian bookstore chain, while Barnes & Noble has had the forethought to stock the book nationwide.

Pretending that the problem of religious abuse is minor will not make it go away. Secular organizations recognize this and are willing to address it. The religious establishment, however, is in such massive denial that they refuse to do anything to help the millions they have wounded, choosing instead to focus their efforts on the lost. It's a strategy that has traditionally worked for them but, like the Catholic Church, which finally addressed the problem of pedophile priests, the time of reckoning is at hand.