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Psychological Aspects of Involvement With Restrictive Religious Groups

Jim Moyers, MA, MFT

A Note to Believers

In this and other pages on this site it is not my intention to attack any religious organization or the beliefs of anyone who is satisfied with her or his current religious experience.  My aim as a psychotherapist with an interest in the psychology of religion is rather to reach people who, like myself, have for whatever reason found their former beliefs inadequate.  My own experience of shattered faith would have been much less difficult had I known that others had gone through something similar.  It is my hope that sharing what I have learned will help make things a little easier for others who have also left a "fold" that could no longer contain them.

While this article was originally written for psychotherapists working with ex-fundamentalists, it should be helpful for anyone who has been involved with a controlling religious group.

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

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Restrictive religious groups, characterized by rigid beliefs, authoritarian structure, rejection of mainstream culture, and isolation from outside influences that might lead to questions about the group's teachings, come in many forms, from small fringe cults to well established churches. While the  experience of individuals involved with so-called cults that deviate from orthodox religious belief and practice has been  extensively discussed in popular and professional literature, there is far less recognition of the fact that similar issues are often associated with conservative  forms of mainstream religion. 

Psychotherapists and other helping professionals often fail to recognize the long-term impact of past involvement with such groups.  While much of what follows is based on the experience of former members of Christian fundamentalist groups, there are parallels with restrictive forms of religion in a great many traditions.  People involved in secular groups that revolve around charismatic leaders and idealistic endeavors may also experience similar issues.

Shattered Faith

There are many people who find membership in restrictive groups to be a positive experience.  I am not here so much concerned with them as I am 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 as well as basic assumptions about reality, the former believer may feel lost and overwhelmed. 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.  Estrangement  from the community of believers - the focus of social life within many such groups - compounds the sense of isolation and despair that often comes with the loss of faith.

The psychological effect of membership in a restrictive religious group can persist long after the outward severing of ties.  Ex-members may experience a chronic sense of dissatisfaction coupled with difficulties in finding new sources of meaning and direction.  Authoritarian groups undermine trust in one’s own judgment, and the former member may have a great deal of difficulty in knowing how to regard his/her experience of reality when it is no longer defined and regulated by the group’s teachings.  Many feel a sense of despair in being unable to recapture the certainty that came with unquestioning faith in "sure and certain" dogma. 

Fundamentalist doctrines often emphasize human imperfection, maintaining that there is no possibility for human goodness apart from divine grace without which there is no hope of salvation and escape from eternal damnation.  Belief that pride in oneself is sinful may be internalized as a persistently negative self image.  Sexual inhibitions, compulsions, frustrations, and guilt can linger long after prescribed prohibitions have been rejected.  Less obviously sexual compulsions, alcohol and substance abuse, and other self-destructive behaviors may have their basis in reactive defiance of old prohibitions which continue to unconsciously live on long after old beliefs have been consciously rejected.  (Such forbidden behaviors, usually as carefully guarded secrets, are present in the lives of many professed believers - see the reference to the defenses of splitting and denial below).  Having been taught to regard every impulse as potentially evil, the former believer may have limited capacity for spontaneity and lack viable 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 a serious obstacle to involvement with groups and lasting commitments.

Psychological After Effects of Group Membership

Members of restrictive religious groups are of course subject to the same psychopathogenic factors as everyone else; a history of group involvement is not an all-inclusive explanation for any and all psychological problems.  But, the past being prologue to the present, current problems, even when not obviously connected, may well have some relation to having been a member of a high demand group.   The experience of losing one's faith can be quite traumatic, although the trauma may be far from readily apparent.  In addition, being a member of a restrictive religious group can in itself be traumatic (Winell).  Often the connection between  current life difficulties and past religious experience will not be apparent even to the former member. 

Would be helpers should always approach religious conflicts from a carefully neutral position.  There is a fine line between bias against religion as inherently pathological and naiveté about the potential of rigid religious systems for undermining a healthy sense of self.  Even though a former member may claim to have rejected her or his former beliefs, it is important to remain neutral when offering support.  Emphasizing negative aspects of a once strongly held way of being in the world may trigger defense of something with which the ex-believer is still unconsciously identified.  Criticism of past beliefs can be misconstrued as criticism of the individual for having believed them. Many former members have a lingering sense of shame in  having once accepted as absolute truth something that is now completely untenable.

The former member should be encouraged to look at the positive as well  as negative aspects of her/his experience in the restrictive group.  It can be helpful to think of past involvement as a developmental stage that was important, in ways both good and bad, in shaping one's life.  As with any other developmental stage, the restrictive belief system was eventually  outgrown.  But unlike most other life stages, there is rarely an obvious next stage for the former believer to transition into.  This is especially true with groups that actively discourage awareness of other systems of thought and lifestyle.  People deeply embedded in fundamentalist culture typically have little acquaintance with other religions, the humanities, or modern critical thought.  Education in schools operated by such groups, where all ideas are filtered through a closed often eccentric belief system, further increases social and cultural isolation. Thus the former member may be totally unaware of alternative approaches to spiritual and existential  issues.  Support for spiritual and philosophical exploration outside the old boundaries can be vitally important.

Without the unequivocal pronouncements that once guided them, former members of authoritarian groups may feel lost and confused.  With any transition, there is a naturally occurring period of time between the collapse of the old and the establishment of a new set of guiding principles.  Kuhn's (1970) classic account of the disorientation that occurs when a scientific viewpoint once thought to be definitive fails to fit emergent facts can be usefully applied to the similar confusion that happens with a shift in religious belief when an old set of beliefs proves inadequate to newly discovered facts about oneself and the world.  The idea of an "empty" middle phase in the process of moving from an old way of being to something new, but not yet fully developed (Bridges) can be 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 typically serve as the primary source of meaning and self definition for members.  In departing from them, the former believer loses what was very likely a (if not the) central organizing principle of her or his life.  As with any loss, there is an associated grief process which, however, often goes unrecognized.  Naming the losses as well as the gains that occurred in leaving the group can go a long way towards helping someone move into and through a necessary grief  process.  The depression many ex-members feel is a normal and understandable response to a very real loss. 

Ex-believers may feel doubly misunderstood and isolated.  Family and friends who remain in the group, even when not overtly rejecting a former member, are likely to have limited tolerance for the views of someone who has repudiated beliefs that they continue to hold sacred.  In addition, people who do not share the same background may find it difficult to understand the intense and long lasting effect of having been a member of such a group.  "I was a member of x group/church" is often heard as analogous to saying one once believed in Santa Claus.  Many helping professionals, including psychotherapists, tend to naive when it comes to religion.  In addition the tradition of tolerance for religious belief can be a barrier to understanding the all too real negative effects of religion in the lives of at least some people.

Along with the shattering of idealized images about the group and its leaders, the disillusioned believer loses something that was once regarded as absolute truth beyond question.  Beliefs continue living on in the unconscious despite determined intentions to leave them far behind.  Years after I had left the apocalyptic church in which I grew up, I would sometimes be startled to find myself regarding news headlines as "signs of the end," wondering what I would do if prophecies which I supposedly no longer believed seemed to be fulfilled.  I once knew a man who as a teenager was briefly involved with an extreme Calvinistic group.  While he no longer believed in the hellfire and damnation that were staples of the group's teaching, he continued to feel the need for what he termed "hell insurance." 

Self esteem based upon being part of an elite group which is privy to "sure truth" is seriously impacted when one no longer is a member of the group whose teachings now seem to be anything but true.  The former believer may also feel foolish in having "been taken in."  I have found C. G. 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 were given away to a religious group.  Jung's recognition of spirituality as an inherent psychological function along with his account of his own struggle with religious beliefs can be very helpful for individuals seeking a new way to understand their religious  experience.

In relationships the projections formerly carried by the group and its leaders are likely to reappear in the  form of idealization and/or devaluation.  Ex-believers may test a relationship to see if they are at risk for another painful betrayal.  In psychotherapy, the process of recovery often involves reclamation of the personal authority once given over to the group, and now perhaps projected onto significant others as well as the therapist.  Having been well trained in meeting demands that s/he conform to group expectations, the former believer may be very adept at unconsciously meeting the perceived expectations of others. 

Denial, repression, splitting,  and a false self presentation are often well developed defense mechanisms.  The black and white thinking expressed in such conflicting pairs of opposites as God vs. devil, believers vs. "worldly" non-believers, sin vs. righteousness,  etc.  results in repression of aspects of oneself that are construed as unacceptable. Constant self monitoring and rigid self control, along with confession of every sin in prayer, are regarded by many fundamentalists as the only means for escaping divine condemnation. In the literalism characteristic of fundamentalist thought, an "evil" thought or feeling may be regarded just as sinful as an evil act.  Impulses and feelings may be regarded as demonic in origin.  (This in part explains the higher than average incidence of sexual abuse in conservative religious communities as well as the tendency to "forgive and forget" that has too often been the response). This is also the case in some Eastern  traditions where the goal is transcendence of the illusionary material  realm with its beguiling desires and sensations.  The former believer is likely to need frequent reminders that there is nothing inherently evil about fantasies and feelings, and the mere 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 new religion "cults" whose families likely opposed their religious involvement, individuals who leave church based groups often also leave family members behind.  Ex-believers may need support in coping with the anger, pain, and grief of being misunderstood and condemned by family and friends.  They will also need assistance in developing and maintaining a personal philosophy that likely clashes with deeply held beliefs of family members.  Family interactions sometimes become dominated by well meant attempts  of the "faithful" to persuade their "lost loved one" to return to "the  fold."  Conversely, the former believer's desire to win family and friends over to his or her negative view of the group is often as strong as the  desire of those who continue as members to bring her or him “back to the truth.”  All of which make family relationships difficult.

Dysfunctional family patterns may be hidden behind the idealized image of the religiously affiliated family, an image that is apt to fail when faith in the church or group is lost. The discovery of serious 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 in very religious families can represent fumbling 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.

Conclusion

Psychological issues of former members of restrictive religious are often 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, even bizarre 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 along with support in seeking sources of meaning and social interaction 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.

Winell, Marlene (accessed 4/15).  Religious Trauma Syndrome

Yao, R. (1987).  Addiction and the Fundamentalist Experience.  New York: Fundamentalists Anonymous (this group seems to no longer exist).

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©2009 James C. Moyers

May be reproduced with author & source cited


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