Within the philosophy of existentialism, there is a notion called “being-for-others.” This is not the same as supporting or helping others; being-for-others entails that you live for the approval of people other than yourself as opposed to seeking after what is good in spite of what others think (at least, this is a Christian take on the notion). Being-for-others so powerfully captures the nature of abuse that it is difficult to describe it any other way: abuse consists of one person attempting to inflict being-for-others onto someone else.
The man beating his wife wishes that she would exist according to his will instead of her own, that her individualism would disappear and that she would live for him — she would be-for-him. The abuser seeks to treat other people as extensions of his/her own being rather than treat them as individuals with whom he/she cooperates. With a little bit of a critical eye, you can be quick to identify this sort of intent.
Abuse is almost always going to try to hide or justify itself, and to do so, it will put up barriers between you and it. The primary but least obvious of these will be attempts at emotional control, because there always exists a level of plausible deniability. Without any concrete results, like the bruises from a man who beats his wife, the abuser can deny everything and pretend nothing is wrong. This makes emotional manipulation especially dangerous, because the one who identifies it as such can very easily come across as paranoid or overly-critical.
To identify it, always be wary of emotionally charged segments of speeches and sermons, of shock imagery, and of leading questions. For example, the bloody pictures of aborted fetuses on pro-life propaganda (and I should mention that I am generally pro-life) only serve to obfuscate the real debate over abortion and stem cell research, which — unless you’re Peter Singer — generally focuses on the first trimester. Looking at an aborted baby is shocking, but so is looking at someone whose chest is open while undergoing surgery. There is no argumentative weight here; they’re just trying to get you to agree with them by associating shock and disgust with a particular viewpoint. Well, I find surgery of any kind disgusting, but I would rather we keep our surgeons.
You may also have heard someone say, “What happens when we…?” You can fill in the ellipsis with “allow gays to marry” or “abandon a historical reading of the Old Testament” or any one of the many evangelical hot-button issues, because I guarantee you that there is someone out there trying to manipulate you into all standing behind all of them. There are a few major problems with such leading questions. First, they are the definition of begging the question: they implicitly suggest that some hidden premise is true without attempting to justify it. “What happens when we allow gays to marry?” implies that allowing them to marry would spell some horrible doom for the nation without actually providing evidence of this. Rhetorical questions are fine, so long as the speaker supports the conclusions he intends for you to draw.
Lastly, watch for emotions out of sync with the content. For example, if a person is entirely bent out of shape over a minor point of scripture, such as accepting a literal 7-day (168 hour) creation period, you should step back before you start clapping and shouting, “Amen!” While it has grown into a contentious issue, is it really worth all that emotion? The answer is probably not.
Now it is an emotional issue when people abandon their friends or their children over differences in belief (which has happened to me and to numerous other people), so you will have to bear with the conviction with which I speak when I talk about subjects like these. If differences in belief are causing you to treat a fellow human poorly, you are an abusive person. If anyone you know is doing this, call them out on this and stop obeying their authority until they change. You may also want to reevaluate any ideas they espouse.
These three principles are far from the exhaustive list of how to identify abuse, but always remember that the goal of an abusive authority is to inflict being-for-others onto those who follow it. If you can learn to identify this for itself instead of through identifying one of the behaviors listed above, then you will find yourself, as the name of this blog might suggest, a more discerning Christian.
Also, be sure to check out part 2 of this series, which covers more direct forms of religious abuse.