Psychological Issues of Former

Members of Restrictive Religious



By: Andries Krugers Dagneaux

From: Sai Baba - Anti Christ? Quick Topic Discussion Board, message 1339:

Date: 08-04-2001 04:17 PM ET (US)

Dear all,

May be this is interesting. Clearly not all is applicable to ex-devotees of SSB but quite a lot is Imo.

Kind regards,

Andries K.D.

Psychological Issues of Former Members of Restrictive Religious Groups

By: 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 attendance 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. Former members 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 genuineself-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 naivete 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 aswell 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 occurring 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.


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