Cultic Studies Journal, 1994, Volume 11, Number 2, pages 189-199
Psychological Issues of Former Fundamentalists
James C. Moyers, M.A., M.F.C.C.
Psychological problems of former fundamentalists often involve their past religious beliefs and practices. Recovery will involve careful examination of the way in which their religious history affects their current life. An understanding of the basic tenets and practices of fundamentalism is helpful for the professional who treats such individuals.
Most psychotherapists have not been trained to deal with religious issues, and often fail to recognize the importance of religious experience in the lives of their clients. This is particularly likely to be the case when the client is a former member of a religious group with beliefs and practices that diverge from cultural norms. Since the client is no longer associated with the group, the lingering effects of group membership can be easily overlooked or mistakenly attributed to something else. While the experience of individuals involved with cults has been extensively discussed in both popular and professional literature, it is only starting to be recognized that the psychological aftereffects of having been a fundamentalist Christian are very similar.
Unlike the typical former member of a cult, ex-fundamentalists are likely to have been born into the religion which they left in adolescence or young adulthood. While there are trained exit counselors available for those who leave cults, similar help is not likely to be offered to former fundamentalists. The importance of their unique religious history in relation to subsequent problems is likely to be minimized by former believers as well as the professionals to whom they turn for help.
It is not my intention here to debate the merits of fundamentalist Christianity or to try to describe the wide range of experience associated with fundamentalism. Many fundamentalists, as is also true of many members of groups which have been labeled cultic, feel that their beliefs and practices are a very positive aspect of their life which they have no desire to change. I am not so much concerned with their experience as I am with that of those individuals who, often after a great deal of anguish and inner struggle, feel the need to leave fundamentalism.
Characteristics of Fundamentalism
Saying just what fundamentalism is and is not is almost as difficult as trying to arrive at a definition of “cult” that everyone can agree upon. Strictly defined, fundamentalism is a conservative Protestant movement which adheres to the doctrines outlined in a series of pamphlets, The Fundamentals, published between 1910 and 1915. A distinction is often made between fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity, with the latter being less conservative and authoritarian. In this paper, however, I am using the term fundamentalism in its broadest sense to describe a certain way of viewing the world and humanity’s place in it.
Fundamentalist churches range from small, cultic groups centered around eccentric leaders, beliefs, and practices, to huge internationally established and respected denominations. Fundamentalist traits can also be found in conservative elements within churches generally regarded as liberal. The believer’s experience may be primarily intellectual in stressing indepth Bible study or focused on ecstatic ASpiritfilled” emotional states. Despite the apparent diversity, there is a common thread of belief running through the fundamentalist community.
Christian fundamentalism is above all else founded upon an abiding belief in the Bible as the inerrant word of God. Human nature is regarded as inherently flawed as a result of the entrance of sin into what was originally God’s perfect creation. God and the devil, as well as innumerable angels and demons, are believed to be objective and personalized beings engaged in an ongoing battle for the possession of each and every human soul. Only through a personal “born again” experience of divine grace can one hope to escape the clutches of the devil. The life of the believer is marked by piety, zeal for evangelism, and adherence to a strict moral code. The Second Coming of Christ, which will bring about the end of the wicked secular world and the establishment of the Kingdom of God, is considered to be imminent as evidenced in the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy.
Although specific beliefs and practices, along with the Biblical interpretations on which they are based, vary greatly from group to group, fundamentalism in its essence is more an outlook on life than it is a set of doctrines. Fundamentalist religion consistently maintains an attitude of militant opposition to secular culture and liberal theology as well as to scientific and historical views which challenge literal Biblical interpretation. The world outside the church is regarded as evil. Fundamentalists tend to form tightly knit, closed communities to protect their “traditional values” against those of “the world.” All questions, personal and political as well as religious, are likely to be referred to the authority of the Bible as interpreted by church leaders.
The Shattered Faith Syndrome
Many fundamentalists are quite content with their beliefs and way of life. It is not unusual for families to continue to be fundamentalists over the course of several generations, with family life centered around the church. But for some, often young people coming into adulthood, questions about who they are lead to unanswerable questions about what they have learned to regard as truth beyond all questioning. Many, especially those who had been intensely involved with their religion, experience what has been called the “shattered faith syndrome.”
Having lost faith in what had been their primary source of life meaning and guidance, former believers may well feel lost and overwhelmed, alone and adrift in a world they no longer understand. Estrangement from the church community–for many fundamentalists the focus of their social life–as a result of their shattered faith may further add to former fundamentalists’ sense of isolation and despair. While some former fundamentalists may be at risk for involvement with cults, the experience of having lost faith often produces a generalized distrust of groups and suspicion of all systems of belief.
The psychological effects of having left fundamentalism often persist long after the time of one’s actual departure. Many former fundamentalists experience chronic dissatisfaction and difficulty in finding direction for their lives. They may have a chronic distrust of their own feelings and judgment. At times they may despair in their inability to recapture the certainty that accompanied their former belief that their lives were divinely ordered and led. The fundamentalist belief that pride in oneself is sinful often leaves behind a persistently negative self-image. Long after fundamentalist condemnations of nonmarital sex have been consciously rejected, sexual inhibitions, compulsions, frustrations, and guilt may persist. Having been conditioned to carefully screen every impulse as potentially sinful, exbelievers may rarely be able to be spontaneous and often lack the means for genuine selfexpression. A programmed distrust of “the world,” in combination with the disillusionment of having found the church unable to meet their needs, may make it difficult for former fundamentalists to feel a part of any group or make commitments.
Apart from my personal experience as an exfundamentalist, most of my knowledge of the psychology of former fundamentalists comes from what I have observed in working with such individuals in psychotherapy. In addition to my personal bias, it may be that my view is skewed as a result of its basis in people who were disturbed enough by the course of their lives to seek out professional help.
Former fundamentalists are unlikely to come into therapy with their religious past as a presenting issue. They are, of course, subject to the same pathogenic factors as everyone else; a fundamentalist background is by no means an allinclusive explanation for each and every dysfunction a former fundamentalist may present. But, as the work of therapy proceeds, unresolved conflicts involving the client’s religious past often become apparent when there is an awareness of such a possibility.
Psychological conflicts involving religion should always be approached from a position of neutrality. The therapist needs to walk a fine line between the traditional psychotherapeutic bias against religious experience as pathological and a naïveté about the ways in which religion can sometimes undermine the development of a healthy sense of self.
Even when individuals claim to have rejected their former beliefs, one needs to be careful in discussing them. An emphasis on the negative aspects of fundamentalism may trigger a defense of a way of life with which the exbeliever is still unconsciously identified. There may be a strong, even overwhelming sense of shame in having held beliefs which now seem completely untenable. Criticism of fundamentalism may stimulate the shame and be experienced as criticism of the past involvement.
It is important to consider the positive as well as the negative aspects of having been a fundamentalist. It can be helpful to outline the involvement with fundamentalism as a developmental stage which has been important, in ways both good and bad, in making the exbelievers who they are. As with other developmental stages, fundamentalism was eventually outgrown. But, unlike most developmental processes, there is rarely an apparent next stage for former fundamentalists to move into, leaving them seemingly adrift with no guidebook or map.
Fundamentalism tends to discourage awareness of other religions (even other forms of Christianity), the humanities, and modern critical thought. Education in church schools often furthers cultural and social isolation. Former fundamentalists may be unaware of other approaches to spiritual and existential questions. Referral to books on psychology and religion, as well as readings in comparative religion can be very helpful.
Unresolved questions about specific doctrines or scriptural interpretations, as well as general philosophical questions, may arise as former fundamentalists struggle to find a new way of viewing life. Support for such questioning, in contrast to the limits set by fundamentalism, validates the legitimacy of the questions and the individual’s capacity for independent thought. I have often found that my primary therapeutic role with clients who are former fundamentalists is to provide support and encouragement as they search for an alternative to the fundamentalist philosophy. Since it is the process of the search rather than its details which is of primary importance, it is usually enough to support and respect the need for spiritual and philosophical exploration, even when it leads into territory with which the therapist is unfamiliar.
Without the unequivocal pronouncements which once guided their lives, former fundamentalists are apt to feel lost and confused. Regardless of the type of belief system, there is typically a period of time between the collapse of old beliefs and their replacement by a new set of guiding principles. I have known a number of individuals who, as young adults, left fundamentalism to spend several years in a sort of wandering search for a new sense of meaning and direction to replace the one they had lost. Kuhn’s account of the disorientation that occurs when a scientific viewpoint once believed to be definitive fails to fit emerging facts can be applied to the similar confusion that occurs with shifts in religious paradigms. Bridge’s concept of an empty middle phase as a normal part of all transitions is also helpful in normalizing former believers’ experience of confusion and inner emptiness as a natural part of moving beyond their former view of self and the world.
Fundamentalist tenets form the believer’s primary source of meaning and self definition. In leaving their religion, former fundamentalists leave behind what has been the central focus of their lives. As with any loss there is an associated grief process which, however, may not be recognized as such. Acknowledgment of what has been lost and recognition of the depression that is a normal part of such a loss can go a long way toward helping individuals move more quickly and productively through the grief process.
Former fundamentalists may feel doubly misunderstood and isolated. Friends and family members who remain in the church may have little tolerance for the experience of those who have “fallen away from the Truth.” Others, who do not share the fundamentalist background, are unlikely to understand the intense and longlasting effects of having been a fundamentalist. Former believers may not readily make a connection between current life difficulties and past religious experience.
Fundamentalist doctrines emphasize human imperfection, declaring that there is no possibility for doing good without the assistance of divine grace. After receiving such grace in the “born-again” or “Spirit-filled” experience, individuals maintain an ongoing connection with it through involvement with the church. When believers’ idealized image of the church and its leaders fails, they lose what had been the only hope for redemption of their essentially worthless selves. Individual self-esteem, which had been maintained through association with the church and its teachings, will be seriously damaged by such a loss. I have found Carl Jung’s concept of the Self as an inner, transcendent source of healing and wholeness which may be projected onto institutions and their leaders to be very helpful in understanding this process. Much of the recovery process involves reclaiming personal authority that had been given over to fundamentalism.
Former fundamentalists may be very adept at meeting the perceived expectations of others. The black-and-white thinking characterized by viewing life in terms of opposites–for example, God vs. Devil, church vs. world, sin vs. righteousness–tends to result in the repression of anything which might be regarded in the least way as unacceptable. In the literalness of the fundamentalist mindset, an “evil” thought is just as sinful as an actual act. Impulses or feelings that cannot be attributed to the workings of God are likely to be regarded as demonic in origin. Constant selfmonitoring and rigid self-control, along with confession in prayer of every sin, are necessary to avoid divine condemnation. Denial, repression, and splitting, as well as the development of a false or asif self, are prominent defense mechanisms which continue to function long after the conscious rejection of fundamentalist precepts.
It is necessary to work gently and slowly in helping former fundamentalists uncover long-denied emotions. They are likely to need continual reassurance that there is nothing inherently evil in having negative feelings, and that recognition of the fact of their existence does not mean that such feelings will be acted upon. Confrontational techniques may only add to these individuals’ sense of failure, guilt, and shame when they are unable to respond to what are perceived as demands for emotional expression.
Strongly held fundamentalist beliefs can greatly complicate family dynamics when not all family members share those beliefs. While departure from a cult often reunites families, exiting from fundamentalism may in effect be a separation from family as well. Former fundamentalists may feel anger, pain, and grief in being misunderstood and judged negatively by family members who continue to be involved with the church. Such individuals will need support in maintaining a personal outlook that clashes with their families’ deeply held faith. Family interactions may become dominated by the wellmeant attempts of the Afaithful” to persuade their Alost loved one” to return to “the Truth.” The exbelievers’ desire to win family and friends over to their condemnation of fundamentalism is often as strong as the desire of those still in the church to Abring the lost sheep back into the fold.” The realization that luring believers away from their faith is no more justifiable than is the attempt to reconvert someone who has left is often a major turning point in the former fundamentalist’s recovery.
Dysfunctional family patterns are sometimes hidden behind an idealized image of the church-affiliated family. Such an image is likely to fail with the loss of faith in the church. Discovery of pathology in a former fundamentalist’s family will represent yet another challenge to previous beliefs. Adolescents from fundamentalist families often rebel by violating the strict moral codes upheld by their parents. Sexual acting out, running away, and substance abuse may represent a young person’s dysfunctional attempt to assert autonomy against the overbearing authority of parents and church. Divorce and bitter child custody disputes rooted in black-and-white conflicts over transcendent values often follow the separation of one spouse from fundamentalism while the other remains. Some groups actively discourage contact with anyone who leaves the church, effectively cutting off the former believer from family members who stay in the church.
The psychological issues presented by former fundamentalists are unique primarily in the degree to which they involve the client’s religious background. As when working with someone who has left a cult, a professional working with former fundamentalists must be prepared to be openminded in dealing with what may seem to be unusual, perhaps even bizarre beliefs and practices, while bearing in mind that such beliefs and practices were once one of the most important influences in the client’s life.
In addition to the usual goals of psychotherapy, the former fundamentalist will also need assistance in understanding how his or her religious past affects current functioning, resolving lingering religious conflicts, and seeking sources of meaning more congruent with current beliefs and lifestyle.
1. A.E. Bergin, APsychotherapy and Religious Values,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 48 (1980), pp. 95B105. E.P. Shafranske & R.R. Gorsuch, AFactors Associated With the Perception of Spirituality in Psychotherapy,” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16 (1984), pp. 231B241.
2. J.C. Moyers, AReligious Issues In the Psychotherapy of Former Fundamentalists,” Psychotherapy, 27,1 (Spring, 1990), pp. 42B45. Marlene Winell, Leaving the Fold: A Guide For Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1993). While some may object to a comparison between cults and such an established element in American religion as fundamentalism, Winell’s outline (pp. 15B25) of the psychological issues that afflict former fundamentalists is very similar to Margaret Singer’s description of the characteristics of former cult members (M.T. Singer, with J. Lalich, Cults in Our Midst [San Francisco: JosseyBass, 1995], pp. 299B327). The respectversusabuse model developed by Michael Langone (“Psychological Abuse,” Cultic Studies Journal, 9, 2 , pp. 206B218) focuses on violation of four aspects of personhood (mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity) as key factors in psychological abuse. Such violations are readily apparent in fundamentalism: fundamentalists tend to discourage independent thinking about the key tenets of their beliefs; making decisions about one’s personal life independent of church guidelines is condemned; the fundamentalist is encouraged to find his or her primary identity through group membership; frequent references to the worthless state of the individual (in the words of a hymn: “such a worm as I”) apart from the divine grace mediated by the church does little to support healthy selfesteem. While the questions in the Group Psychological Abuse Scale developed by Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice (“The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A Measure of the Varieties of Cultic Abuse,” Cultic Studies Journal, 11,1 , pp. 68B117) would have to be slightly adjusted to fit the specific beliefs and practices of fundamentalist Christians (for example, changing “The group believes or implies its leader is divine” to “leader(s) has(have) special understanding of scriptures or a special connection to God”), the former fundamentalists with whom I have had contact would identify the scales of compliance, exploitation, mind control, and anxious dependence as characteristic of their former churches. See Winell, especially the “Manipulations Checklist” on pp. 85B86. As is true of groups holding nontraditional beliefs, fundamentalist groups range from the very abusive through the relatively benign to those which are clearly not abusive. The problems stem not so much from the beliefs themselves as the rigidity with which they are held and imposed on group members.
3. G. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).
4. G. Marsden, “Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity,” in Mircea Eliade (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1987), Vol. 5, pp. 191B197. C.B. Strozier, Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).
5. R. Yao, Addiction and the Fundamentalist Experience (New York: Fundamentalists Anonymous, 1987).
6. J.S. Gordon, “The Cult Phenomenon and the Psychotherapeutic Response,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 11 , pp. 603B615.
7. Winell (pp. 278B297) gives an extensive reading list as well as recommending other resources. Her book is an excellent resource for both former fundamentalists and professionals, and could be easily adapted for use in cult exit counseling.
8. T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd ed.) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970).
9. W. Bridges, Transitions (Reading, MA: AddisonWesley, 1980).
10. I usually recommend Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Random House, 1965), as more accessible than his other more specialized writings.
James C. Moyers, a licensed marriage, family, and child counselor, is an individual and couples therapist in private practice in Berkeley, California. In addition to a graduate degree in transpersonal counseling psychology, he did undergraduate work in religious studies. A former SeventhDay Adventist, he is very interested in the development of heterodox religion as well as the relation of psychology and spirituality.