I'm an Outpatient Psychotherapist and I've been working in the field of mental health for about twenty years. In college, I volunteered and worked at a domestic violence shelter for around two to three years. I learned a lot working at the shelter with women and their children. One of the things the staff there showed me was something called The Power and Control Wheel.
The Power and Control Wheel was developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota and is used to educate people about common behaviors and tactics abusers use to maintain power and control over those they abuse. Based on my own personal experience of working with people in different settings in this field, I would say this model does a good job of describing what abusers do. The model is based on the premise that the abuser is a man and the abused is a woman, which is most often the case, but not always. Here is an image of The Power and Control Wheel:
I have used this model in therapy with women who were in abusive relationships and most found it very helpful to see a description of their experiences laid out visually in front of them.
It was some time after I had come to rest comfortably in my Atheism, that I saw this model in a new light. It seemed to occur in a moment of insight that this model not only described how abusers maintain power and control over their partner, but how certain religions maintain control over their followers. While what I'm about to discuss applies to many, if not all religions, I'll mainly use the example of Christianity for the purposes of this article. This is because it is the religion most of my readers will be familiar with. Clearly, the same analogies could be made to Islam, Judaism and others. This article will address each part of the eight pieces of this pie graph to demonstrate the similarities:
1. Using COERCION and THREATS - making and/or threatening to do something to hurt her, threatening to leave her, threatening to commit suicide, threatening to report her to welfare, making her drop charges, and making her do illegal things.
This is applicable to Christianity in many ways. First, there is the threat that if you do not do what god tells you to do, then you will be sent to hell to be horrifically tortured forever. Actually, I cannot imagine a greater threat that a human abuser could give to someone they abuse, though perhaps the fact that an abuser could follow through with their threats immediately makes their threats more imminent and therefore are perceived as immediately serious. This threat by Christianity creates great fear in many or perhaps most believers and I think is one of the main reasons why people are afraid to think certain thoughts or even question their beliefs. The seriousness of this threat clearly trumps all human threats listed in this piece of the graph, which says something about the abuser.
2. Using INTIMIDATION - making her afraid by using looks, actions, and gestures; smashing things; destroying her property; abusing pets; and displaying weapons.
Of course, the Bible is rife with examples of god threatening and intimidating not only individual people, but entire civilizations who did not do what it told them to do, so I'll start by looking at how the Christian god was intimidating itself. The Bible is replete with verses about how important it is to "fear" god. Now I know that many Christians make excuses for that word, saying "fear" really means "respect", but if that were true, then why not use the word "respect"? Clearly, it is through threats and intimidation that believers come to fear god and for good reason. The god of the Bible, in most instances, follows through on it's threats and intimidating words and actions, such as drowning the entire world except for one family and two of every creature (which, of course, would have led to worldwide incest of EVERY living creature). Now that's incest and destruction of property on a truly epic scale.
Since the Christian god is allegedly all powerful, it needs no weapons to be intimidating. Of course, what could be a more intimidating display of power than turning a staff into a snake or some other magical act? A god which is all knowing is also intimidating because of the power differential. As for abusing animals, I do not recall god abusing pets in an effort to be intimidating, but the god in the Bible was certainly a big fan of animal sacrifices, or of having animals killed to glorify it.
Historically, there are many large scale instances of Christians being intimidating to people who didn't do what they wanted, such as the Inquisition and the Crusades. The intimidation took the form of "follow us" or "believe what we believe or else". Today, intimidation by Christians in America does happen to different groups, such as homosexuals and Atheists, while not as widespread or violent as in the past. Yet, a poll by Newsweek magazine in March 2007 showed that 62% of Americans would refuse to vote for any Presidential candidate who was an Atheist. This would make any candidate who was an Atheist feel intimidated about being honest.
3. Using EMOTIONAL ABUSE - putting her down, maing her feel bad about herself, calling her names, making her think she's crazy, playing mind games, humiliating her, and making her feel guilty.
There are so many examples of emotional abuse from Christianity that a list of examples could be a book in and of itself. The whole concept of being a "sinner" unworthy of god's love is emotionally abusive and tears down a person's self esteem and self concept. Many Christians consider the song, "Amazing Grace" to be a beautiful song, but the lyrics, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me" are perfect examples of emotional abuse, especially because followers are made to recite such statements over and over again in services. This is how brainwashing works. Tell someone something about themselves and have them verbally repeat it over and over again and in time, the person comes to believe it. The whole premise of Christianity is that humans are unworthy sinners who need to repeatedly ask god for forgiveness. We have all heard of the installation of "Catholic guilt" into children, but other denominations do the same thing. Often believers are made to feel guilty about their thoughts and feelings which come involuntarily, such as being told that sexual thoughts towards other are sinful. Thoughts do not necessarily lead to action when we employ our willpower. This guilt-inducing, pathologizing of normal thoughts is abusive.
4. Using ISOLATION - controlling what she does, who she sees, what she reads, where she goes, limiting her outside involvement, and using jealousy to justify actions.
I see this piece as a core part of what veritably all religions and denominations do to encourage people to maintain theistic beliefs. There are veritably countless examples of this. One is the stigma and discrimination which is widely taught by religious institutions that people should have towards Atheism and Atheists. Again, the March 2007 poll written about previously is an excellent example of this. But this is not only relevant on the national stage, but in local politics, such as the election of school board members, who would be open and honest about their Atheism.
Another way to isolate believers is creating and maintaining the cultural belief that it is rude and insensitive to speak against or question religion and religious beliefs. This is an attempt control and stop any conversation and valid questioning from even starting. The more that people, especially Atheists, agree to live by this manipulative censorship, the more isolation occurs.
Religions attempt to control what people read. This was true in the recent past with book burnings or attempts to ban books. More recent examples are Catholic leaders telling people not to read the book The Da Vinci Code, Muslims calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, and the fundamentalist Christian response to Harry Potter. Limiting what people read limits knowledge and thought. The less the abused learn and think, the more power the abuser has.
I see very few religious leaders encouraging an honest and open search for truth among their followers. No more evidence of this is needed than in going to a Christian church and looking in its library. There you will not find books by Susan Jacoby, Sam Harris, or Richard Dawkins, which discuss many important religious topics.
5. MINIMIZING, DENYING and BLAMING - making light of the abuse and not taking her concerns about it seriously, saying the abuse didn't happen, shifting responsibility for abusive behavior, saying she caused it.
This is another piece of the wheel where religion and domestic abuse match almost identically. Here, religion minimizes the extremely abusive actions of the Christian god and places the blame on people. In Christianity, believers are taught god is perfect and moral in everyway and yet religious leaders minimize the barbarism commited by god in the Bible, such as killing every living thing on the planet in a flood, sending people to be horrifically tortured FOREVER in hell for finite rule violations, animal sacrifices, human sacrifice, sending groups of people to commit genocide, condoning slavery, giving parents permission to kill their children for misbehavior, telling people to kill homosexuals, etc. All these things and much more are not only minimized, but are called righteous acts. Abusers do this as well. They tell the people they abuse that the person deserves it. "You made me do it" is the abusive and childish response. In psychology, this is called "crazy making", meaning that the abused accepts that they deserve the abuse, as they are trash, unworthy, or in Christianity, "sinful". Let me make this clear: NO ONE DESERVES TO BE ABUSED EVER, BY EITHER ANOTHER PERSON OR A GOD. But religious leaders will tell their followers that the people deserve it. That is a load of crap. We don't teach kids that inflicting harm on others is okay. We tell them that there are alternatives to hitting or harming others. There are alternatives to violence. In the same way, god had and has alternatives to violence as well. The blame for the violence and abuse should be on the abuser.
6. Using CHILDREN - making her feel guilty about the children, using the children to relay messages.
There are many ways religion can use children to manipulate followers. One is by convincing parents that only religion and church can effectively teach children morality and that people have to take their children to church if they are to grow up as responsible and good adults. Adults who do not take their children to church can be made to feel guilty or that they are doing something wrong. This teaching stems from the myth that Atheists cannot be moral people. Atheists can be and are just as moral as religious people can be and are.
Children are also used by starting religious indocrination at an early age, especially before the ability to think critically is developed. The religious ritual of baptism encourages parents to get their children in the doors in their infancy. Children are helpless at this age and cannot accurately assess and think about what they are learning. This combined with the other pieces of The Power and Control Wheel make it extremely difficult for people as they grow to step back, think clearly, and see what they are in and what they have been taught.
Abusers also use children to relay messages for threatening purposes and to create confusion. The Christian god does no different. Effective communication takes place best when the messages are direct and clear. Using a book ridden with contradictions and ambiguities is not a good way to communicate messages of the highest importance. Clearly, with thousands of Christian denominations, confusion exists. Any moral and reasonable god would make direct efforts to clarify the understandable confusion. The fact that the god does not directly and unambiguously clarify things is evidence against the existence of such a god.
Abuse disempowers people. I wish parents would instead be empowered to believe that they can be effective and sufficient teachers of morality themselves, so they can raise their children with strong ethics and values, without the abusive teachings of religion. This can and does happen. Regardless of his political and religious beliefs, most people think our current President is a good, kind, caring, and compassionate person. He makes time for his family despite the demands of his job. He is a good father and a good husband. He has only been married once. His mother was a nontheist. Atheists can be and are good parents.
7. Using MALE PRIVILEGE - treating her like a servant, making all the big decisions, acting like the master of the castle, being the one to define men's and women's roles.
These things are exactly the way followers are taught to think of themselves and the Christian god. The Bible is filled with people asking how they may follow or be a servant to god. This mindset prevents people from thinking themselves and empowering themselves. It also prevents, or at best delays, the healthy evolution of morality, leading people to hold on to ancient immoral codes, such as slavery and persecution of homosexuals.
With a god who makes all the rules and calls all the shots, there is no cooperation with the Christian god whatsoever. I can think of no better example of this than the valid and understandable human request for the god to clearly and unambiguously demonstrate its existence and to clarify it's expectations, the latter of which is an essential part of any good and healthy relationship. To not do so is stubborn, selfish, and mentally abusive. It is immoral not to help someone who genuinely asks for help, when the help you can offer takes little to no effort and would make an enormous positive difference for the person.
Also related to this piece is the fact that the church has also taught people that men are superior to women, which is immoral and harmful. These religious teachings have actually been used to condone the subservience and abuse of women. Women have been devalued in the past by keeping them limited to the home, which has stunted our growth as a species, as we have only recently been able to benefit from the skills, abilities, talents, and potential of women in professional settings.
Even to this very day, women struggle to overcome their devaluation by religion, such as rules asserting that only men could serve as priests in a church. However this is changing, but not because of god. It is changing because humans are changing it. Human morality evolves and changes for the better over time, leading to increases in freedom and human rights. To continue our moral evolution, we need to discard the immoral and abusive teachings of the past, just as we did with slavery, which the Christian god condones in the Bible.
8. ECONOMIC ABUSE - preventing her from getting or keeping a job, making her ask for money, giving her an allowence, taking her money, not letting her know or have access to family income.
Perhaps the most blatant form of economic abuse in Christianity is leaders using guilt to pressure followers to give money to the church or the leaders themselves. We can look to the past for good examples, such as papal indulgences, but there are many contemporary examples as well. In Christianity, the Catholic church and popular evangelical leaders have incredibly vast financial assets, which they spent on lavish churches and ceremonial trinkets, instead of caring for people. I wonder what scientific advances in medicine would be achieved if instead of giving money to churches, people gave their money to medical research. I have no doubt that we humans could much sooner make the blind see and the deaf hear on a worldwide scale.
In closing, it is important to know that abuse thrives in silence and isolation. This is why I am so proud of so many people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Susan Jacoby, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, for their courage to stand up and point out that not only does the Emperor have no clothes, but that the emperor is abusive. Domestic violence used to be something that people didn't talk about and with silence came passive acceptance. Time, in concert with the positive evolution of morality by humans, have changed that and those abused domestically have so many resources and can get so much more validation than they used to. Now it is time for Atheists to stand up and speak out against the injustices and abusiveness of religious teachings, as it is only though doing so that the abuse will end. We can leave the abuser and continue to evolve our morality for the better without having to hold on to ancient superstitious beliefs and values which we know are no longer valid or moral.
Here is a link to the organization which created The Power and Control Wheel for domestic abuse:
Also, here is the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which receives calls 24 hours a day from all 50 states: 1 800 799 SAFE (7233). If by reading this article, you come to think that the relationship you are in or have been in previously has aspects of abuse described in The Power and Control Wheel, please call the number for help.