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Book Review of Understanding Religious Abuse and Recovery

Author: Patrick J. Knapp

Reviewed by Gary F. Zeolla


       Understanding Religious Abuse and Recovery: Discovering Essential Principles for Hope and Healing is a new book by Patrick J. Knapp. It is available in paperback, hardback, and Kindle eBook formats from Amazon. It is 218 pages total in the hardcopy versions and 173 pages in the Kindle edition. All quotes and page numbers from this book in this review are from the Kindle edition.

      I first met Pat Knapp when I was living in Denver, CO while attending Denver Seminary in 1988-90. At that time Pat had only recently come out of an abusive religious group, having been in one from 1970-85. He also was attending Denver Seminary, but with a full-time job and a wife and four children, he could only attend part-time. That is why he did not graduate until 2000 with a master’s degree in philosophy of religion, the same degree I had been working towards, so we had many of the same professors.

      Pat later earned his PhD in pastoral psychology in 2019. This book is adapted from Pat’s doctoral dissertation. As such, it is somewhat technical and not real easy reading, but it is not too difficult either.

      The first part of this book overviews various opinions on why people join cults or abusive religious groups. Those varying opinions then lead to different approaches as to how to help people to leave such groups and then how best to help them to recover from the emotional, psychological, and spiritual trauma caused by having been involved in such a group.


Pat defines religious abuse as follows (quoting himself from an earlier publication):

      By religious or spiritual abuse, I mean: actions or beliefs that damage pervert or hinder one’s understanding of and relationship with God. It is fundamental to our nature that we are created in God’s image and designed to get our meaning from Him. The spiritual abuser encourages one to replace God by something or someone as the source of ultimate personal fulfillment. This misrepresents what it means to be made in the image of God. It strikes at the very core of who we are (pp. 15-16).


      Pat then overviews both Christian and secular approaches to helping people leave and recover from abusive groups, with many examples of those who advocate each approach. As such, this book is more for the counselor or other professional looking to understand how to best help such people than the former members themselves. Although, the latter would probably benefit from this book, in that it could help them to understand the various approaches and decide which would be personally most beneficial.

      In this book, Pat overviews the “four fundamental theoretical perspectives on religious abuse and recovery:” They are:

      ... a mind-control, victimization approach; a deliberative or Conversionist conceptualization...; a psychosocial, needs-based understanding, and finally, a dynamic-systems approach. These four perspectives include adherents who self-identify as both religious and as primarily secular. I summarize relevant literature and clearly organize the varying opinions (p. 19, Kindle Edition).


      I would probably fall in the Conversionist approach, with its emphasis on the false theology taught in the cult or abusive religious group and the need for members to recognize the faulty nature of this theology as part of how to leave the group and then to learn correct theology as part of their recovery. Pat gives Walter Martin and Hank Hanegraaff (of “The Bible Answer Man”) as early examples of notable figures who advocate such an approach.

      However, Pat explains that such an approach ignores the emotional and felt psychological needs (for love and companionship) aspects of cultic involvement and recovery. But then the more common psychosocial/ needs-based understanding puts an emphasis on the emotions and psychological needs, while ignoring the theological component. It is clear Pat believes recognizing intellectual, emotional, and psychological needs aspects of cultic involvement are important.

      Pat begins with an overview of religious abuse described in the Bible. The prophets in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament in particular decried the religious abuse seen in their times. Jesus’ condemnations of religious abuse can be seen in His many condemnations of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They used their positions of religious power to cheat people out of money and to keep them in religious bondage, by making legalistic rules that no one could possibly follow but which the people were told they must follow to be right with God.

      This is the same pattern seen in the leaders of abusive religious groups today. It enables them to keep their flock under their control. And that loss of control over one’s own life is part of what religious abusive entails. It leaves people in a childlike state, as Pat details in this book. Learning how to take control of one’s own life, while trusting in a God who saves not by rules but by grace is part of what is needed to fully recover from being so abused.

       In the end, Pat recommends his own approach, which he calls SECURE. “The purpose of the SECURE approach is both to avoid the limitations of other perspectives while retaining their strengths, and to provide an improved context for understanding religious abuse and recovery” (p. 101). He then explains what each letter in the acronym means in short then in detail.

    Pat then uses another acronym, “ASCRIBED, as a mnemonic device to briefly identify eight core recovery needs” (p. 114). He again explains what each letter in the acronym means in short then in detail and applies them to the recovery process.

      Finally, Pat lists and explains “A Seven-Stage Process of Recovery” (p. 124). He then reviews all of this material in a more academic manner, with further elaboration of each point of each acronym and how they relate to the various approaches previously covered.

      Pat concludes the book with a series of appendixes, a Glossary, a subject index, and lists of helpful resources for studies in religious abuse and recovery. Among these resources is my Darkness to Light website. But note, he gives the old URL of www.DTL.org. It is now https://www.Zeolla.org/Christian/. But no matter, since, as noted in my 30th Anniversary article, the old URL redirects to the new one.

      Overall, this is a good book for those wishing to understand religious abuse, for those working with survivors of religious abuse, and for the survivors themselves. But given its academic nature, it can get a bit tedious at times, but it is worth the effort for the important information contained in it.

      Again, Pat Knapp’s book Understanding Religious Abuse and Recovery is available from Amazon.


Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

The above book review first appeared in Darkness to Light newsletter.
It was posted on this website July 1, 2021.

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