Religious groups and processes of disengagement: Knowledge status, experience and assistance needs.

Skoglund, A., Sveinall, A. T., Paulsen, M., & Lien, I. L. (2008). Religiøse grupper og bruddprosesser: Kunnskapsstatus, erfaringer og hjelpebehov [Religious groups and processes of disengagement: Knowledge status, experience and assistance needs.] Norwegian only. Oslo: Nasjonalt kunnskapssenter om vold og traumatisk stress. (Rapport 3/2008).


This study is commissioned by the Ministry of Children and Equality. The work began at NKVTS in February 2007 and was finished in July 2008. The aim has been to present literature on religious groups and identify the needs of former members for frontline services and suggest further research.

The report «Religious groups and processes of disengagement» consists of two parts. Part I) a research report, and part II)  an experience based report. The research report has two parts: A) a  review and discussion of the national and international literature on faith groups, and B)  an empirical study with qualitative interviews with 16 former members of Christian faith groups, a focus group interview, a minor questionnaire and interview with representatives from four municipalities.  Part two is an experience based report on the work of the Institutt for Sjelesorg (Institute of Spiritual Counselling) with former members of religious groups.

Part 1A: Literature review
Across several fields of study there is now a judicious use of the term «sect». Many European countries have produced reports – «sect reports» − on faith groups. The first reports were relatively unaffected by the term, but the latest country/national reports have criticized its loose and indiscriminate use.

Recruitment: Brainwashing and manipulation
The brainwashing theory relies on a negative construal of «sect», derived originally from analyses of indoctrination methods favoured by the Communist regime in China. Later on, the theory was used to explain how faith groups recruited members. Several scholars have questioned the validity of this explanatory model, not least in connection with what is termed the «sect controversy». Many people join faith groups of their own free will, and many leave as well. Having said that, some faith groups do attempt to present themselves in an idyllic light. Allegations of manipulation and swindle, idealisation and demonization refer in particular to the spaces between self- presentation’s backstage and front-stage. Some groups use methods known as «flirty fishing» and «love bombing». The Swedish national report recommends banning improper methods of persuasion (utilbørlig påvirkning) aimed at getting people to join and stop them leaving once they are members.

Some religious groups, especially in the US, have abused members physically. There is no evidence today, according to the literature, to back the claim that children in these groups are more at risk of physical and sexual abuse than other children. There is, however, some evidence that certain groups in Norway as well as in other countries during the 70s and 80s may have abused the children physically and sexually. Since violations of this nature tend to attract penetrating media attention, the groups appear to have modified their approach to raising and educating the children.

As the study shows, young, well-educated people are more likely to join and to leave organised religious groups. People who leave one religious fellowship tend to join another. Several anti-sect groups are active in the US today, and there is considerable enmity and ill-feeling between defectors and remaining members.

In our literature review many topics are discussed. The literature demonstrates that the process of disengagement leads to emotional and social consequences and can be compared to a divorce with its feelings of inferiority, guilt, loneliness and depression. The earliest phase will be the most traumatic. During the separation process, the leaver may go through several forms of loss, depending on their capacity for or opportunity to maintain good relations with family and friends inside the cult. For former members with no previous contact with mainstream society, and who haven’t acquired the social codes, what social and cultural capital they bring out with them will often have little value, leaving them with a sense of alienation.

Moral panic and transference
Moral panic is also addressed in the literature. Several studies show that abuse perpetrated by one group makes people afraid that other groups will do the same, groups with no connection at all with the first one. Another problem concerns the tendency to generalise abuse to all members of a group. This is a transference of mistrust and expectation of extreme events from individual to group, and from one group to another. It occurs for instance when the media draw sweeping parallels between The Family (Children of God) and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Abuse perpetrated by one religious cult is presented as something one should expect from other groups, but without any substantiation of the claim’s veracity.

Isolation and outside contact
The literature, as we note in the report, includes studies of the walls religious groups sometimes erect between themselves and the outside world. Debates on cults frequently feature allegations to the effect that members have no right or opportunity to leave. The literature shows, by contrast, that the controversial faith groups have a high drop-out rate, and there is little evidence of forcible restraint. Separation can be a difficult time for the leaver who needs to acclimatise him or herself to new surroundings and may need help and support.

Recommendations of the national «cult» reports
Several reports recommend setting up centres of expertise. The French and Belgian report authors would like to see closer surveillance and control of cults. Several countries have centres/institutions already which study/develop expertise on faith communities.

The authors of the German report would like to see the neo-religious therapy market controlled by tightening consumer protection legislation. They also want the Scientology Church monitored. In the Swedish report, the authors recommend a law against improper methods of persuasion to prevent people from being manipulated to join cults and deprogrammed out again.

Several reports recommend information strategies to tell the public where help is available. Every report points to the need to strengthen qualifications in the field within the health and social services. Reconciliation measures for divided families are also mentioned.

Dialogue strategies are suggested as a means of defusing hostilities between cults and mainstream society, and to prevent marginalisation.

White collar crime and swindle are problems mentioned in the earlier reports, which suggest several ways of improving control of faith community finances.

A control system to monitor education at home and tighter control of private schools are also recommended. As far as children and adolescents are concerned, all of the countries admit to inadequate research commitments.

Part 1B: Empirical material
The interview data support the hypothesis that disengagement is comparable to leaving a marriage. It is often followed by depressions and a need to readjust. In some cases religion may lend a helping hand, but it can also have the opposite effect. When a leaver is neither condemned nor totally excluded, the outlook is generally good. The deepest problems occur if the person loses his/her entire social network and feels condemned by both the religious group and by God. Some are afraid of ending up in hell. Interviews with leavers show that they seek help in several quarters. Psychologists, many feel, do not understand them, though some nevertheless are grateful for whatever help was given. Many looked to join other faith communities. Several spiritual counsellors were contacted, and many were happy with their treatment.

Those with a history of abuse at home had the greatest problems. People struggling with sexual orientation or whose parents were members of the community leadership were also prone to serious problems. The same applies to people who had lived a particularly sheltered life in isolation from mainstream society, and who lacked the social codes required to get by. Their problems were of a practical and knowledge-related nature. Some faith groups like to maintain tight control over who marries whom, and urge members to choose a spouse within the community. Falling in love with outsiders will frequently lead to a desire to abandon the group.

There are examples both in Norway and in the US that relations between former members and their old faith groups can be hostile. When we did our focus group interviews, however, former members expressed a strong sense of empathy with and loyalty to the members of the group they had left. Most had also retained their Christian faith.

Frontline services in several municipalities appear to have downgraded their commitment to «the cult issue» in recent years. In small municipalities it seems, relations with the various denominations and congregations are both more transparent and better than in larger municipalities. Defectors from religious groups do not make up a pre-defined clientele category. Religious affiliation and membership of religious groups are not included in special needs assessments. Several municipalities are trying to maintain a dialogue with the religious groups. Informants for their part want to see the services better prepared and qualified to deal with issues do to with faith communities, and with disengagement or defection in general. Psychologists and therapists need to learn more about the role of religion to the individual.

Steps worth considering
The final chapter sets out several ideas on ways forward. They include compiling a register of people and centres where former members can find help and support. We recommend capacity building in the frontline services. Psychologists and therapists generally need to learn more about religion and exit-related issues. There is also a need for information on non-Christian groups. We recommend setting up a multi-disciplinary centre to gather and collate information on religious groups and their activities and monitor members’ rights in light of a human rights perspective.

There is a latent conflict between the secular and religious field. The state supports religious and secular organisations, but relatively little is known about the impact of this support. 

Information should be readily available on services qualified to deal with existential questions. Such services are provided by qualified philosophers as well, but are not widely integrated in the public health and social services. One should consider family counselling to families experiencing processes of disengagement

Part 2: Experience based report on the Institute of Spiritual Counselling (Institutt for Sjelesorg)
The Institute of Spiritual Counselling has more than ten years’ experience of working in the field of sects and cults. The institute has assembled and organised the records of 63 clients that came to the institute for help and support. We include the experience based report with two aims in mind, first to learn about the type of problems facing former members and second how the various therapeutic approaches used at the institute work in practice. 

The report’s author uses «sect» in its broader, colloquial sense, and feels justified using it to designate groups that violate fundamental humanitarian principles such as respect and equality. It is also associated with leadership structure. Organisations in which an authoritarian leader uses religion as a vehicle to expand his power over the congregation and defends his actions by reference to matters spiritual and divine providence, such organisations can be called sects or sect-like. Other variables include secrecy, secret information, rigid standards of conformity.

The report describes various aspects of joining a group, being a member and leaving it again. Examples are given of entry processes in which the candidates were subjected to manipulation. The affiliation phase is divided into seven stages involving ideological reorientation and manipulation. Other features include what is termed environmental control, i.e., control of the individual’s opportunities to maintain contact with the outside world, and a form of manipulation known as «love bombing».

The individual’s experience of life in the community is described as hovering between ideals and realities within an unhealthy authority structure where unwarranted promises proliferate, where loyalty to the faith is rewarded with good health and success. And as they frequently fail to materialise a sense of being let down prevails as well. On the other hand, some people seem to enjoy life under such structural constraints.

The «aquarium effect» posits the erection of high barriers between insiders and outsiders. Many children live in isolation within the group, lacking «permission» to join other children in normal childhood activities like sports, going to birthday parties of children on the outside.

There are three main exit procedures. Some leave of their own free will. Some are excluded. And some leave voluntarily after therapy or counselling.

The report mentions several types of reaction to disengagement including depression, heightened aggression and mourning or sadness. Many find it hard to deal with the loneliness. They have lost friends and acquaintances, but also ideology and someone who’s in overall charge of things. Some develop a fear of the group they have left. But there are positive reactions in discovering a new form of freedom as well.

To help former members deal with their problems the institute devised its own therapeutic approaches, described in the report. They tend to build around conversation therapy for individuals and groups. The experience based report concludes by looking back and looking ahead and proposing new approaches of relevance to the institute’s work.