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Dispelling the Myths

by Dr. Paul R. Martin, Director of Wellspring

 For over seven years Jennifer was a successful missionary with a well-respected mission organization. Still a faithful servant of God’s Word she returned to the States and joined what seemed to be a good evangelical church. Gradually she and the rest of the church were drawn under the spell of their dynamic pastor. Over time she began to believe and practice things that previously would have been morally unthinkable to her. Although she claimed to be happy, inwardly she was filled with anxiety, guilt, and fear. And yet, no amount of persuasion could convince her that her group was in error.

It literally took a miracle for Jennifer to see the errors of her church’s distorted teaching on relationships and spiritual growth. Although much better, she is now into her second year of therapy with a Christian counselor. It will likely take some time still to sort through what this so-called “church” did to her and other members of that congregation.

Randy, a sophomore at a major mid-western university, and a truly converted Christian, sought a fellowship that was “on fire for the Lord.” After finding the “perfect church” Randy was quite happy and content for a time. Then he fell in love with one of the women in the church. There was only one problem – his church forbade dating. Before Randy knew it, his casual and circumspect encounters with this girl – viewed by the elders as disobedience and faction – resulted in his excommunication. The experience so stunned him that his life was never the same. Randy respected the elders and so he accepted as true the charges of faction and of having a wicked heart. Although he tried to make amends with the church, he never seemed able to satisfy the elders.

For some ten years Randy remained an outcast, even believing he was an outcast from God. Any attempt to work or return to school was short-lived. He was haunted by feelings of rejection. In desperation, his parents sought many forms of help. Even some of the finest psychiatrists in the country found it difficult to reverse the damage done. As a middle-aged man, Randy still struggles with confusion, despair, occupational uncertainty, and dating difficulties.

Michael was a preacher’s kid, raised in a fine evangelical home. He attended a Christian high school and college. Being well-adjusted, bright, and energetic, he had a deep yearning to know God and serve him fully. He joined a group that aimed to reach the world for Christ in one generation. Michael became a leader in the group, but slowly became aware of personal hypocrisy in the national leader, as well as a growing spirit of elitism. Methods became more important than the message.

Somehow Michael could never do enough to please the leader. While in the group he often eighteen hours a day in Bible study, evangelism, teaching, and counseling, but could not quell the lingering thoughts that he had a “lukewarm spirit” or that he was not totally “sold out for the Lord.” Finally he left the group, but took a lot of the group’s mind set with him. It took years to overcome his guilt about living a less radical lifestyle and not striving to reach the world every minute of the day. He could have used professional help, but he didn’t know he needed it. He may have resisted such help even if it was offered, blaming himself for his emotional and spiritual tailspin. His eventual healing came through two means: 1) talking to others who had been disillusioned similarly in such groups, had left them, and were going on with their lives; and 2) rediscovering the gospel of God’s unconditional grace.

Surprisingly, Jennifer and Randy displayed the same symptoms of disillusionment, depression, confusion, and despair as many of the young people who had once been captive to the well-known cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unification Church (“Moonies”), and The Way International.

Yet how could this be? These two people were professing Christians, involved in so-called Christian groups. Unfortunately, there are so many cases like these that pastors and counselors (including myself, a licensed psychologist) have seen that the problem simply cannot be ignored. In my own case, I was slow to face and recognize the problem because – like many others – I accepted some erroneous assumptions concerning cultic phenomena. These assumptions effectively created a sense of denial in me concerning these hurting people. In this article, I shall elaborate on these widely accepted myths concerning cultic involvement.

Myth #1
Ex-Cult Members Do Not Have Psychological Problems. Their Problems Are Wholly Spiritual.
This myth is similar to an error commonly committed by proponents of the “health and wealth” gospel – if one is faithful and obedient God will shower one with material, physical, and spiritual blessings. Thus, any problems in one’s life are assumed to be due to disobedience, insufficient faith, or lack of faithfulness. Many former cult members continue to believe this myth themselves long after their departure from the group.

Although often believed by both Christians and ex-cultists, myth #1 has no basis in reality. As a result of extensive research with some 3,000 ex-cultists, Dr. Margaret Singer observed significant instances of depression, loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem, over-dependence, confusion, inability to concentrate, somatic complaints, and, at times, psychosis.[1] In addition to Singer’s authoritative research, there are many articles and books that describe the psychological distress of ex-cultists. (Many of these findings will be referred to in the body of this article.)

My own experience verifies the findings of Dr. Singer. Lori (a girl I treated after she left an aberrational church group) presents a typical example of the over-dependence and insecurity of a former cultist. She asked me: “Is it okay to have cold cereal for breakfast?” “Can I listen to the radio?” It was as though Lori was a little child needing approval and guidance for her every move. Her response to receiving permission to have cold cereal and listen to the radio seemed almost more joyful than the wonder and excitement of young children on Christmas morning.

Debbie, another former client, was a typical example of someone suffering from depression. Leaving her athletically oriented group was like death to her soul. The two most precious things in her life were now gone – the group and her athletic outlet. Her loss was clearly evident in his expressionless face. Her life at that point was just a matter of going through the motions of living. Gradually Debbie began to see that athletics were not “sinful” after all. The more she saw the possibility of life outside the cult, the more life returned to her soul and began to radiate from her face. However, it wasn’t easy helping Debbie as she was like a wounded animal – afraid if someone came to close. It took a lot of compassionate care before she was able to trust again.

Mental health professionals also propagate the first part of myth #1. While not endorsing cult membership, Dr. Saul Levine, department head of psychiatry at Sunnybrook Medical Center in Toronto, asserts that the experience can be “therapeutic” and that “a reassuring majority have not been damaged.”[2]

Though I do not totally doubt the accuracy of Levine’s findings, I am troubled that he wrote his material after (and in spite of) the horrors of Jonestown. He makes no reference to the countless tales of woe related by thousands of former cult members.

A large part of the difference between Levine’s findings and those of researchers who recognize problems among ex-cultists could be due to the populations sampled. Levine studied people who were generally in cultic groups for short periods and who volunteered to be interviewed. As opposed to this, it is doubtful whether some members of “utopian” or separatist cults would volunteer to talk to a psychiatrist if they were having real doubts about the group. The members’ fear and guilt – as well as distrust of the psychiatric profession – would perhaps be too great an obstacle. Additionally, Levine admitted that even his sample of cultists experienced “severe emotional upheaval in the first few months” after returning home.[3]

Researchers who report problems usually have dealt with people who have left on their own were counseled to leave, have been deprogrammed, and who help. In such cases the problems were real and the hurt very apparent. Researchers, however, have not settled the issue of what percentage of people in these groups suffer psychological harm. Nor have they shown what personality types will be detrimentally affected by cultic involvement.

Levine also contends that the “damage” incurred by cult involvement may be due to the traumatic deprogramming process itself. However, in my own research on ex-cult members I found no statistical difference between those who were involuntarily extricated from cults and those who left via voluntary means. In fact, the mean score on the clinical scales for the voluntary group was actually higher.

Concerning the spiritual problems experienced by cultists, it is true that these are often present in addition to the emotional distress. These spiritual problems, however, generally originate with the group’s unbiblical teachings rather than having their source in the individual’s own relationship with God. It has been my experience that almost all former members of religious cults or extremist sects (including those which claim to be evangelical) are confused about such things as the grace of God, the nature of God, submission to authority, and self-denial. It is noteworthy that groups with widely varying doctrinal stances – from the Hare Krishnas to Jehovah’s Witnesses – uniformly distort God’s grace and character.

Myth #2
Ex-cult members do have psychological disorders. But these people have come from clearly non-Christian cults.
Myth #2 is really assuming one of two things. First, it may assume that genuine Christians never have psychological problems. However, many well-known Christian theologians and psychologists are on record as stating that true Christians do suffer psychologically. The late Dr. Francis A Schaeffer, for example, wrote:

Let us be clear about this. All men since the fall have had some psychological problems. It is utter nonsense, a romanticism that has nothing to do with biblical Christianity, to say that a Christian never has psychological problems. All men have psychological problems. They differ in degree, and they differ in kind, but since the fall all need rest).