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 cultic 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 an idealized leader, claims 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.
But 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, claimed to be the only true religion, and urged believers to radically separate themselves from the world in which they lived. These 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 makes me uneasy. And it is also 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 mine.
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 an 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 painfully haunt them long after the time of its collapse. Such was my experience long 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 my life now, the fact remains of their major role, for 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 psychotherapists and clergy may not 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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