Psychological Issues of Former Members of Restrictive Religious
Groups Jim Moyers, MA, MFT
(While this article was originally written for psychotherapists
working with ex-fundamentalists, it should be helpful for anyone who
has been involved with a restrictive religious group.
Restrictive religious groups, characterized by rigid beliefs,
authoritarian structure, rejection of mainstream culture, and a
tendency to isolate their members from outside influences that might
lead to questions about the group's teachings, come in many forms
from fringe cults to well established churches. While the experience
of individuals involved with so-called cults that clearly deviate
from established religious practice has been extensively discussed
in both popular and professional literature, there is relatively
little recognition of the similar issues presented by those
affiliated with more restrictive forms of mainstream religion such
as can be found in Christian fundamentalism.
There are many people who find membership in such groups to be a
positive experience. This article is not so much concerned with them
as it is with those who, often after a great deal of inner turmoil,
leave such groups. Many, especially those who had been intensely
involved with their religion, experience what has been called the
"shattered faith syndrome" (Yao, 1987). Having lost faith in what
was once a primary source of meaning and guidance, the former
believer is apt to feel lost and overwhelmed. Estrangement from the
community of believers - the focus of social life for most members
of restrictive religious groups- compounds the former member's
isolation and despair.
The psychological effect of membership in a restrictive religious
group often persists long after the outward severing of ties. There
may be a chronic sense of dissatisfaction coupled with difficulty in
finding new sources of meaning and direction. Formermembers are apt
to distrust their own judgment, and may feel despair in their
inability to recapture the certainty that they once experienced in
unquestioningly accepting the group's teachings. Fundamentalist
groups tend to view pride in oneself as sinful. This is internalized
as the persistently negative self image that is apparent in many
ex-believers. Sexual inhibitions, compulsions, frustration, and
guilt are liable to linger on long after negative beliefs about sex
have been consciously rejected. Having been taught to regard every
impulse as potentially evil, the former group member may have little
tolerance for spontaneity and lack the means for genuine
self-expression. Conditioned distrust of the world outside the
community of believers coupled with the experience of disillusionment
with teachings that once seemed infallible can present serious
obstacles to joining any group or making lasting commitments.
Issues Of the Former Member in Psychotherapy
Ex-members of restrictive religious groups rarely come into therapy
with their religious past as the presenting issue. They are of
course subject to the same pathogenic factors as everyone else: such
a background is not an all-inclusive explanation for every problem a
former member may present. But as the work of therapy proceeds,
unresolved conflicts involving past beliefs sometimes become
Religious conflicts should always be approached from a carefully
neutral position. The therapist must walk a fine line between the
traditional psychoanalytic bias against religion as pathological on
one hand and naivet about the potential of some religious systems
for undermining a healthy sense of self on the other. Even though
the client may claim to have rejected her or his former beliefs, the
therapist should remain neutral. Emphasizing negative aspects of a
once strongly held way of being in the world may trigger defense of
something with which the client is still unconsciously identified.
Criticism of past beliefs may be misconstrued as criticism of the
client for having believed them. There may be shame in having once
accepted as true things that now seem untenable.
The former member should be encouraged to look at the positive as
well as negative aspects of having belonged to a restrictive
religious group. It is often helpful to approach the involvement as
a developmental stage that was important, in ways both good and bad,
in shaping the individual's life. As with any other developmental
stage, the restrictive belief system was eventually outgrown. But
unlike most other life stages, there is rarely a readily apparent
next stage for the former believer to move on to. This is especially
true with groups that actively discourage awareness of other systems
of thought and lifestyles. Group members may know nothing about
other religions, the humanities, or modern critical thought.
Education in schools operated by the group, where all ideas are
filtered through the shared belief system, tends to increase social
and cultural isolation. Thus the former member may be unaware of
alternative approaches to spiritual and existential questions.
Support for spiritual and philosophical explorations, in contrast to
the limits set by the former belief system, will help validate the
client's capacity for independent thought.
Without the unequivocal pronouncements that once guided them, former
members of restrictive groups are apt to feel lost and confused. In
any transition, there is a naturally occuring period of time between
the collapse of old beliefs and their replacement by a new set of
guiding principles. Kuhn's (1970) account of the disorientation that
occurs when a scientific viewpoint once thought to be definitive
fails to fit emergent facts can be applied to the similar confusion
that comes with shifts in religious belief. Bridge's (1980) concept
of an "empty" middle phase in transitions is also helpful in
normalizing the ex-believer's sense of confusion and inner emptiness
as a natural part of the process of moving beyond outmoded views
about self and the world.
The tenets of a restrictive religious group serve as the primary
source of meaning and self definition for its members. In departing
from them, the former believer loses what may well have been the
central focus of her or his life. As with any loss, there is an
associated grief process which, however, often goes unrecognized.
Acknowledging losses as well as gains in leaving the group, and
normalizing the depression the ex-member may feel as a natural
response to the loss can go a long way towards helping him or her
move through the necessary grief process.
Ex-believers often feel doubly misunderstood and isolated. Family
and friends who remain in the group are likely to have little
tolerance for the views of anyone who has rejected their beliefs.
People who do not share the same background are not likely to
understand the intense and long lasting effects of having once
belonged to a restrictive religion. Often the connection between
current life difficulties and past religious experience is not
apparent even to the former member.
Fundamentalist doctrines emphasize human imperfection, maintaining
that there is no possibility for doing good without the assistance
of divine grace. Along with the loss of idealized images about the
group and its leaders, the disillusioned believer also loses what
was believed to be the only hope of salvation. Self esteem based
upon association with the group and its "sure truths," is seriously
impacted when one no longer belongs to the group. I have found
Jung's (1965) concept of the self as an inner, transcendent source
of healing and wholeness that is often projected onto institutions
and their leaders useful in helping people reclaim aspects of
themselves that they may have given away to the group. In addition,
Jung's psychological awareness of spirituality and account of his
own struggle with religious beliefs can be very helpful for
individuals seeking a new way to understand their religious
In therapy as well as in other relationships, the projections
formerly carried by the group and its leaders are likely to appear
in the form of idealization or devaluation, with the two processes
sometimes alternating. Ex-believers may need to test a relationship
to see if they are at risk for another painful betrayal. Therapeutic
process often revolves around reclamation of the personal authority
once given over to the group, and now perhaps projected onto
significant others as well as the therapist.
The former believer may be very adept at unconsciously meeting the
perceived expectations of others. Denial, repression, splitting, and
a false sense of self are often well developed defense mechanisms.
The black and white thinking expressed in such conflicting pairs of
opposites as God vs. devil, church vs. world, sin vs. righteousness,
leads to repression of anything that might possibly be construed as
unacceptable. Constant self monitoring and rigid self control, along
with confession of every sin in prayer, may have been regarded as
the only means for avoiding divine condemnation. In the literalism
characteristic of fundamentalism, an "evil" thought or feeling is
considered just as sinful as an evil act. Impulses and feelings may
be believed to be demonic in origin. The former group member is
likely to need frequent reminders that there is nothing inherently
evil about negative feelings, and the fact of their existence does
not mean that they will be acted out.
Strongly held beliefs greatly complicate family dynamics when not
all family members share those beliefs. Unlike former members of
"cults" whose families likely opposed their group membership,
individuals who leave fundamentalism often leave family members
behind. People who have left religious groups to which their
families still belong will need support in coping with the anger,
pain, and grief of being misunderstood and judged. They will also
need assistance in maintaining a personal philosophy that clashes
with the deeply held beliefs of family members. Family interactions
can become dominated by the well meant attempts of the "faithful" to
persuade their "lost loved one" to return to "the Truth."
Conversely, the former believer's desire to win family and friends
over to his or her condemnation of the group is often as strong as
the desire of those who still belong to bring her or him back into
Dysfunctional family patterns are sometimes hidden behind the
idealized image of the religiously affiliated family, an image that
is apt to fail when faith in the church is lost. The discovery of
pathology in one's family presents yet another challenge to
previously held beliefs. Adolescents from families belonging to
restrictive religious groups often rebel through gross violations of
the strict moral codes that have been prescribed for them. Sexual
acting out, running away, and substance abuse may represent attempts
to establish autonomy in the face of overbearing parental and
religious authority. Divorce and bitter child custody disputes,
based in black and white conflicts over transcendent values, often
occur when one spouse leaves a restrictive religious group while the
other remains. While not all groups go so far as to prohibit contact
with those who leave, a former member is unlikely to be well
regarded by the faithful. Conclusion Psychological issues of former
members of restrictive religious are unique in the degree to which
they involve past religious belief and experience. It is important
to remember that what may seem to be eccentric ideas and practices
are likely to have been very important in shaping the former
believer's life. In addition to the usual goals of psychotherapy,
former members may need assistance in exploring lingering religious
conflicts, as well as support in seeking sources of meaning and
guidance more congruent with current beliefs and lifestyle.
Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions. Reading, Mass. Jung, C.G. (1965).
Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Random House. Kuhn, T.S.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press. Yao, R. (1987).
Addiction and the Fundamentalist Experience. New York:
Earlier versions of this article appeared in Psychotherapy, The
California Therapist, and Cultic Studies Journal.
(c)1999 James C. Moyers
^^THE MOST DANGEROUS LIE IS THAT WHICH MOST CLOSELY RESEMBLES THE TRUTH^^
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