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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 isolation 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 orthodox religious practice has been  extensively discussed in both popular and professional literature, there has been relatively little recognition of the fact that similar issues are associated with conservative forms of mainstream religion.  While much of what follows is based on the experience of former members of Christian fundamentalist groups, there are parallels with restrictive groups from all traditions.

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, the former believer feels lost and overwhelmed. While not all groups go so far as to prohibit contact with those who leave, the 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- can compound the former member's isolation and despair.

The psychological effects of membership in a restrictive religious group often persist long after the outward severing of ties.  Many ex-members experience a chronic sense of dissatisfaction coupled with difficulties in finding new sources of meaning and direction.  Authoritarian groups encourage the distrust of one’s own judgment.  Many former members despair in being unable to recapture the certainty that came with unquestioning acceptance of the group's teachings.  Fundamentalist doctrines emphasize human imperfection, maintaining that there is no possibility for doing good without the assistance of divine grace which alone renders an individual acceptable to God. Belief that pride in oneself is sinful is often internalized as a persistently negative self image. Sexual inhibitions, compulsions, frustration, and guilt tend to linger 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 capacity 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.

Psychological Issues Of the Former Member

Former members of restrictive religious groups are of course subject to the same pathogenic factors as everyone else:  such a background is not an all-inclusive explanation for every psychological problem someone who once belonged to such a group may experience.  But, the past being prologue to the present, current problems may well have some connection with membership in the now repudiated group.

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

A former member should be encouraged to look at the positive as well as negative aspects of having belonged to a restrictive religious group. It may be helpful to think of the 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 former belief system was eventually outgrown. But unlike most other life stages, there is rarely an obvious next stage for the former believer. This is especially true with groups that actively discourage awareness of other systems of thought and lifestyle.  Fundamentalists typically know little about other religions, the humanities, or modern critical thought. Education in schools operated by many such groups, where all ideas are filtered through a closed-in belief system, further increases social and cultural isolation. Thus the former member may be totally 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, can help validate the capacity for independent thought.

Without the unequivocal pronouncements that once guided them, former members of authoritarian 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 also be applied to the similar confusion that comes with a shift in religious belief. Bridge's (1980) concept of an "empty" middle phase in transitions can also 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 its members. In departing from them, the former believer loses what was probably the central organizing principle of her or his life. As with any loss, there is an associated grief process which, however, often goes unrecognized.  Acknowledging the losses as well as the gains that occurred in leaving the group can go a long way towards helping him or her move through the necessary grief process.  The depression the ex-member feels can be normalized as a natural and understandable response to a very real loss.

Ex-believers often feel doubly misunderstood and isolated. Family and friends who remain in the group, even when they are not outright rejecting, are not likely to have much tolerance for the views of someone who has repudiated their beliefs. People who  do not share the same background may have difficulty understand the intense and long lasting effects of having been a member of a restrictive religion. Often the connection between current life difficulties and past religious experience is not apparent even to the former member.

Along with the shattering of idealized images about the group and its leaders, the disillusioned believer also experiences the loss of something that was represented as 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 may have given away to the group. In addition, Jung's psychological awareness of spirituality and autobiographical account of his own struggle with religious beliefs can be very helpful for individuals seeking a new way to understand religious experience.

In psychotherapy as well as other relationships, the projections formerly carried by the group and its leaders are likely to appear 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. 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 self presentation are often well developed defense mechanisms. The black and white thinking expressed in such conflicting pairs of opposites as God vs. devil, group of believers vs. world, sin vs. righteousness, etc.  results in 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 are regarded by fundamentalists as the only means of avoiding divine condemnation. In the literalism characteristic of fundamentalist thought, an "evil" thought or feeling is considered to be just as sinful as an evil act. Impulses and feelings of any kind may be regarded as demonic in origin.  This also occurs in some Eastern traditions in which the emphasis is placed on transcending the material realm with its beguiling desires and sensations.  The former believer 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 involvement, individuals who leave church based groups often leave family members behind, and may need support in coping with the anger, pain, and grief of being misunderstood and judged by family and friends. They will also need assistance in maintaining a personal philosophy that clashes with deeply held beliefs of family members.  Family interactions sometimes 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 may be 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 their inept 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.


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 material appeared in Psychotherapy, The California Therapist, and Cultic Studies Journal.

©1999 James C. Moyers.  May be copied and distributed with source and author credited. The article was originally published at