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.
"Sectarianism (claims to be) always right and displays no tolerance, picking and fomenting quarrels for the holist of reasons in order to set itself up in the place of religion and brand anyone who thinks differently as a lost sheep, if nothing worse. But have human beings the right to totalitarian claims? This claim, certainly, is so morally dangerous that we would do better to leave its fulfillment to Almighty God rather than presume to be little gods ourselves at the expense of our fellow-men."
C. G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, par. 448
Religion is fraught with controversy. One religion's absolute truth is utter falsehood to another. Innovators and reformers are viewed with suspicion by the guardians of orthodoxy, while those who claim to have received new light or recovered forgotten truth view the religious establishment as overly dogmatic, oppressive, and corrupt. Of such are schisms and religious wars made.
From a historical standpoint it is apparent that many, if not all, orthodox religions were once themselves heterodox. Christianity, for instance began as a Jewish sect that, over the course of a few hundred years, grew far beyond its humble origins to become the established religion of the late Roman Empire. We tend to forget this amidst ominous warnings about "cults," an imprecise term that popularly serves to denote groups that deviate from orthodox norms.
However, as anyone who has paid much attention to the news over the last several decades knows, there are groups that abuse, and too often destroy people in the name of religious and spiritual truth. While such groups are often religious in nature, there are also many instances of abusive secular and political groups. There is good reason to be cautious when dealing with any movement, religious or not, that revolves around the personality of a charismatic, idealized leader, claims to possess a special "truth," and cuts members off from contact with the outside world. It has been repeatedly, sometimes tragically, demonstrated that isolation from the cross-fertilizing and moderating effects of the larger society tends to result in derangement of some degree in groups as well as individuals.
Here is an excellent comparision of healthy and destructive religious groups:
"A healthy religious group has central shared experiences of worship, reverence, and community service. The healthy spiritual leader shares leadership with group members. The healthy religious group gives positive support for life-long, loving connection, communication and support for, and from, the family of origin. A healthy religious leader promotes respect and support for the sanctity, fidelity, and self-respecting boundaries of couples' freely chosen marital and sexual commitments.
The healthy religious congregation embraces projects that contribute to the betterment of the community at large and not just their group. Monies raised over and above staff salaries and building expenses are used for projects to help the community or society.
Destructive cults concentrate a large percentage of their efforts on recruiting new members and controlling the financial, social, familial, sexual, and agressive lives of their members - "For their own good." These cults promote isolation from the ferment of ideas abounding in the broader society and culture. They actively seek to alienate all their members from potential moderating influences found in healthy families, communities, and churches of origin. The cult group itself is often inserted as a member's new, and by implication, "superior family." The destructive cult leader becomes a Father/Mother/God/Prophet his or her self. Fund raising is a high priority."
Peter A. Olsson, "Group Death Myths and Terror Cult Groups," The Journal of Psychohistory, 34 (3), Winter 2007
But there are many shades of gray between what are generally regarded as respectable religious organizations and the extreme groups that people tend to associate with the term "cult." Is there really a clear, objectively definable line between groups that take advantage of the human impulse towards transcendence and socially acceptable religious practice? Early Christianity, which was viewed with alarm by the orthodoxy of the time, was centered around the personality of its founder who was regarded as divine, claimed to be the only true religion, and urged believers to radically separate themselves from the world in which they lived. Similar traits can also be found to varying degrees in modern established conservative religions of all types. While I have reservations about the concept of "mind control" used by many anti-cult activists, any teaching that urges the suspension of individual judgment and critical thought in favor of its own "truth" pronouncements makes me uneasy. It is difficult to deny the fact that most conservative religions do this to some degree.
People are very deeply affected, in positive as well as negative ways, by intense involvement in any tightly constructed belief system. Some find membership in such groups to be very meaningful and personally rewarding. There is a great deal of comfort in "knowing" that one has access to sure truth. Where a skeptic might see denial of reality, the believer is apt to experience a deeply felt faith which, I believe, deserves to be respected as such. I have no interest in trying to undermine anyone's faith, no mater how much it may differ from my own.
But there are other people who, like myself in my experience as a former Seventh-day Adventist, at some point find it impossible to continue their involvement with a group or church that may have at one time seemed to be the epitome of spiritual truth. Some seemingly simply walk away with never a backwards glance. Others, often having been among the most devout believers, appear to be forever marked by the failure of a set of beliefs that once represented absolute truth. The shattering of their faith continues to haunt them long after the time of its collapse. Such was my experience for a long while after the realization that beliefs that I had regarded as true beyond any possible shadow of a doubt no longer matched my experience of the world and my place in it. While those beliefs and practices are far removed from what my life is now, the fact remains that they had a major role, for both good and bad, in shaping who I am. As a psychotherapist I am very much aware of the long term effects of such a “de-conversion” and have a special interest in helping people who have gone through some type of “shattered faith experience.”
One of the most effective ways of dealing with a difficult loss is sharing with others who have had a similar experience. But people who leave a restrictive religious group are often very isolated by the nature of their experience. Family members and friends still involved with the group are not likely to be supportive, and ex-members may have few social contacts who are not members of the group. Even when there are connections to friends and family outside the group, people with no comparable experience may have little understanding of the difficulties involved in leaving a restrictive group or the degree to which group membership can continue to have an impact long past the time of leaving. Even professional helpers such as psychotherapists and clergy often fail to grasp the significance of group membership and the process of leaving. It can be a very lonely experience.
But the internet now makes it possible to connect with people all over the world who share a similar experience, and there is a tremendous amount of information available there for former members of all sorts of religious groups. The links on my Internet Resources for Former Members of Restrictive Religious Groups page are only a small sampling. Many sites have a place for discussion and sharing experiences as well as links to similar sites.
Original Material & Photographs ©2009 James C. Moyers
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