Psychological Issues of Former Members of Restrict

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    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.

    Shattered Faith

    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
    apparent.

    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
    experience.

    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
    the fold.

    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.

    References

    Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions. Reading, Mass. Jung, C.G. (1965).

    Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Random House. Kuhn, T.S.
    (1970).

    The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of
    Chicago Press. Yao, R. (1987).

    Addiction and the Fundamentalist Experience. New York:
    Fundamentalists Anonymous.

    Earlier versions of this article appeared in Psychotherapy, The
    California Therapist, and Cultic Studies Journal.

    (c)1999 James C. Moyers
    < http://home.earthlink.net/~jcmmsm/Groups/index.html>;

    --
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    ^^THE MOST DANGEROUS LIE IS THAT WHICH MOST CLOSELY RESEMBLES THE TRUTH^^
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    I'd much rather go through life with questions I cannot answer
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    "Truth is always strong, no matter how weak it looks; and
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    JanG

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