Spiritual bypassing and religious abuse: The Reason Why Everyone Needs to Be Trauma-Informed

“Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called to fill in the gaps that science did not understand.”

~ Dan Brown, Angels and Demons, pg.43

Alan John Miller, is the cult leader of a group called Divine Truth. He convinces his disciples that he is the reincarnation of Jesus; that’s right, this charismatic Australian believes he is the big Christ man himself. From the authoritative stance of being the Son of God, Miller gives advice to his followers that inevitably leads them into forsaking their family and friends. Coercive and controlling behaviour like this is common amongst cult leaders, but from watching the investigative documentary (see link below) it occurred to me that much of Miller’s manipulation would be ineffective if victims or potential victims understood the basic principles of trauma. 

About three minutes into the 7NEWS documentary, we see footage of Miller addressing a hall full of Christians who are searching for answers to some of life’s difficulties. Miller tells them that addictions are standing in the way of their relationship with God and that by speaking his truth he can heal their emotional wounds. A few seconds later we see a white board which illustrates his approach.

Source: 7NEWS Spotlight. (2121). The Messiah: meet the Australian man who says he’s Jesus and his followers | 7NEWS Spotlight. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0-ustkfE9w

The journalist aptly points out that Miller, or Jesus as he prefers to be called, is speaking New Age pop-psychology. The notion that addictions have some spiritual cause, moreover, that one can overcome “sinful” or “evil” temptations through the mysteries of a “Holy Spirit” has little grounding in light of contemporary neuroscience. I am very open to the notion that there is a metaphysical world that our ordinary senses cannot identify. However, I am equally open to the notion that there are things in our physical world that once appeared to be supernatural can but now be scientifically explained, hence, “gurus” who could once get away with spreading misinformation cannot do so as easily. 

There is an expanding school of thought that addictions, and most mental health conditions, are caused by trauma. Gabor Maté (author of The Realm of Hungry Ghosts) and Bessel Van der Kolk (author of The Body Keeps the Score) are in my top five favourite researchers who actively work to educate society about the link between trauma, addictions and mental health issues. 

At the core of understanding trauma and how it affects thoughts, emotions, and behaviour is the vagus nerve. This all important nerve begins at the base of the brain and runs down the spine. It branches off throughout the body and is the major highway for sending signals to and from the brain and throughout the body. Burnt your finger on the stove? It is through nerves in your fingers that link to the vagus nerve that pain signals are sent to your brain. Commonly, the signal sent back will be to remove your finger from the heat source. All this can happen in an instant. You may also apply learned behaviour, like placing your finger in cool water to stop the burning process. Alternatively, you may scream, call for help, or become confused and not know what to do. Neurologically, the difference between a calm or heightened reaction is how much access to cognitive functions you have. When presented with threatening situations, the nervous system directs all its energy into survival, hence digestion stops, heart rate increases, and energy is pulled away from non-essential higher order cognitive processes, thus thinking is affected. 

Several factors contribute to how a person reacts to trauma, namely, how, when and why the trauma occurred. Reactions are also heavily dependant upon prior life experiences. If one has had experiences of nurture and support then their reactions are more likely to be calm and measured. Alternatively, if one has been raised in an environment where crying in pain from being burnt is not acceptable (sadly, this happens), emotions like fear can overwrite other reactions. A person’s survival instincts generally fall into the categories of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. 

Now imagine you’ve been hurt emotionally. If one knows strategies that will elevate the pain through healthy behaviours (like going for a walk, meditating, or seeking therapy) then cognitive functions may prevail. But what if these things aren’t known? What if crying for help does not work? Unfortunately, many people, especially young children, find themselves in this position. When emotional pain is unaddressed, the person’s vagus nerve still sends signals that there is a problem, however, when the desire for relief is not addressed, it gets stored in the body. That is where addictions emerged. 

Maté defines an addiction as any behaviour that provides temporary relief but causes harm in the long run. Aside from the obvious harmful addictions of drugs, smoking, alcohol, and some sexual activities, a person could develop an addiction to seemingly less harmful activities like shopping or excessive exercise. From Van der Kolk’s work, the message is clear; trauma stays in the body till issues are addressed. Breaking the cycle of trauma responses is hard, especially if the nervous system’s pattern of adverse responses was set in childhood. Essentially, children who grow up in abusive environments can become accustomed to anxiety states being normalised, therefore, it can feel strange when their body is learning how to relax without the use of addictions. Adopting one addiction for another can be an endless cycle till healing takes place at a nervous system level.

Ultimately, healing requires soothing the nervous system which, in turn, means working with the vagus nerve because it’s a major component of our anatomy that links the brain with all other parts of the body. There are many approaches that can be used to achieve this; no one size that suits all. Breathing exercises, trauma-informed yoga, art therapy, psychotherapy, journal writing, are a few examples of what some people find useful. Miller does not use any of these. 

In the spirit of new aged psycho babble, the documentary shows Miller encouraging people to enter into a state of anxiety, that is, a state in which their nervous system is activated. He achieves this by requesting they find trauma in their family history (not a difficult request). At the 4:30 min mark there is a difficult to watch scene in which Miller asks a person to “connect” with their childhood rage of being oppressed by their mother. We see the man shaking and trembling as he recalls his past. Miller stands by, almost excited by the emotional pain he’s elicited. He offers no emotional support, comfort, or suggestions for how the man can emotionally or cognitively process the event. Due to the absence of addressing trauma at the nervous system level, the exercise can be perceived as re-traumatising and, in turn, it places Miller in a position of power over his followers. One could even suggest that they shift their addictive behaviours from drugs, shopping, or whatever, onto being addicted to his approval. 

To add complexity to the situation, there is almost value in Miller’s approach to childhood trauma, that is, when the man trembles while recalling a time in his childhood where he felt unsupported, it is reminiscent of Peter Levine’s work (another of my fave psychologists). Levine has done extensive research on the role of the nervous system and anxiety, and he reports that shaking is an effective means of releasing stored energy from past trauma. However, Levine’s work is an evidence-based psychotherapeutic practice that incorporates psychoeducation. Moreover, Levine is not a cult leader who tries to get people to commit to his total control. In contrast, when Miller evokes activation of the nervous system he is not doing so in a therapeutic manner. Miller does not explain the body-mind connection through autonomical functions, rather, he explains things in terms of his interpretation of the Christian Bible. After all, he is the messiah, Jesus, right!?! 

Given that Miller may by successfully activating the vagus nerve through his techniques, it is understandable that some people find relief and therefore attribute this to Miller having some divine qualities. However, Miller’s full process of deliverance from addictions stops short of being effective therapy. There is no directed resolve of stored emotions, just the instruction of feeling them, which is not enough. Triggered but unresolved trauma energy can do more harm than good. Essentially, I see the situation as being one in which a lack of understanding of how the brain and body functions in response to trauma is being used to manipulate people into giving up money, dreams, and relationships, moreover, doing so fulfils Miller’s self-declared grandiosity. Given Miller’s narcissistic tendencies, I am highly sceptical of his overall approaches being in line with evidence-based therapy. Research about people who have been in cults, suggests they are more traumatised by the leaders’ control and manipulation than anything they experienced prior to joining. 


Abuse tendencies that are promoted through religious ideologies is being recognised as such a significant issue that the term spiritual bypassing has been coined. This refers to spiritual explanations that dismiss or belittle real trauma. For example, “it was the will of God” or “what doesn’t kill you makes us stronger” or to just “let things go”. Such directives are more likely to encourage dissociation than healing. Dissociation (distancing oneself from reality) can feel euphoric, therefore, spiritual practices that encourage it may appear (at surface level) to be “real”, however, dissociation is actually a serious mental health concern.

"To many people, spirituality becomes a sort of crutch used as a way of standing back up again in the face of life’s turmoil – and sometimes this is necessary. We all need support at some time or another in our lives. But the problem comes when spirituality is used as a drug for which we become dependent on in order to bypass the darker elements of our lives."

~ Aletheia Luna, What Is Spiritual Bypassing? (Beware of These 10 Types)

Miller’s approach to Christianity blends half truths about psychology with his personal narrative of Jesus. It is a classic example of partial-truths being more dangerous than outright lies. 

"In any given psychiatric hospital at any given time, there are probably several Jesus Christs. A colleague once told me of a group psychotherapy situation at a state hospital in which there were three Jesus' in the same group."

~ Alan Gettis, The Jesus Delusion: A Theoretical and Phenomenological Look

Contrary to stereotypes of destructive cult leaders, they do not necessarily have adverse mental health conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar. In the case of Miller, it appears he has some sort of basic delusion disorder (I cannot give an official diagnosis). The narrative he’s created is not very original; believing oneself to a Messiah is common. Mental health clinics around the world do not have a shortage of people who believe they are Jesus. Unsurprisingly, western countries are more likely to see people who believe they are Christ, while in other locations, individuals with delusional disorders may believe they are another grandiose personality like the Buddha, or a Scandinavian God, or whatever is a significant religious influence in their culture. 

Besides the potential for narcissism and delusional disorder, Miller demonstrates sound cognitive functions. Thus, there is some need to re-evaluate stereotypes of cult leaders. Further, in line with the school of thought that suggests that most mental health issues have a basis in trauma, one may ask what is Miller’s trauma? Perhaps if he received adequate support for whatever this was he would not be in the current situation of re-traumatising others? 

In conclusion, any religious ideology that makes claims about healing trauma warrants scrutiny. Within Australia, the issue of cult leaders, spiritual advisors, and some personal coaches, presenting misleading psychological advice often goes unrecognised. While Freedom of Religion is important, it is equally important to recognise when self-proclaimed leaders are using pseudoscience psychology that leads to spiritual bypassing and religious abuse. Continued education of trauma may save a lot of people from becoming victims of “Messiah’s” who do more harm than good.

References

7NEWS Spotlight. (2121). The Messiah: meet the Australian man who says he’s Jesus and his followers | 7NEWS Spotlight. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0-ustkfE9w

Aletheia Luna. (2021, February 2). What Is Spiritual Bypassing? (Beware of These 10 Types) ⋆ LonerWolf. LonerWolf. https://lonerwolf.com/what-is-spiritual-bypassing/

Brown, J. (2019). Grounded Spirituality. Enrealment Press.

Cox, C. (2019, February 25). Types of Delusions. WebMD; WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/delusions-types

Dan Brown Quote: “Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called to fill in the gaps that science did not underst…” (n.d.). Quotefancy.com. Retrieved July 2, 2021, from https://quotefancy.com/quote/1018478/Dan-Brown-Since-the-beginning-of-time-spirituality-and-religion-have-been-called-to-fill

Gabor Maté. (2018). In the realm of hungry ghosts close encounters with addiction. London Vermilion.

Gettis, A. (1987). The Jesus Delusion: A Theoretical and Phenomenological Look. Journal of Religion and Health, 26(2), 131–136. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27505915

Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger – healing trauma : the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. North Atlantic Books.

Rosen, S. (2014). Cults: A natural disaster — Looking at cult involvement through a trauma lens. International Journal of Cultic Studies, 5, 12–29.

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score : brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

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