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Spiritual Harm in New Religions

Cultic Studies Review Vol. 2, No. 1, 2003, 30-37

Spiritual Harm in New Religions: Reflections on Interviews with Former Members of NRMs

Phillip Charles Lucas, Ph.D.

Stetson University

Abstract

The issue of spiritual harm in NRMs is undernoticed and should be explored in greater depth by researchers and therapists. Interviews with former members of new religious movements indicate that, for many, powerful spiritual experiences were prime motivations for joining and remaining in their particular communities. But sometimes members of such communities may experience harm as a result of abuses of spiritual authority by group leaders, disagreements over the frequency, intensity, and efficacy of specific practices and rituals. and cessation of perceived spiritual experiences. This spiritual harm can lead to disaffiliaton from a spiritual community and can result in identity confusion and an inability to trust, especially persons in positions of religious or spiritual authority.

I want to begin this paper by stating that I am an historian and sociologist of religion, not a psychologist, or a minister, or a law enforcement officer, or legal scholar. So my primary interest in new religions revolves around five foci:

  • understanding processes of change and development in NRMs;
  • elucidating the ways NRM members create sustainable world views and religious systems and how they refine and elaborate those systems in response to intra-group and extra-group factors;
  • analyzing issues of leadership and charisma;
  • investigating the relationships between new religions and the legal and judicial powers of the state; and
  • discerning what new religions tell us about the tensions and problems facing the larger society.

Unlike many professionals associated with AFF, my work is not primarily therapeutically or theologically driven. Rather, my primary task is to understand and interpret how the world looks to a NRM member, and to communicate this understanding to academic colleagues and to the general public in a critical, yet non-hostile manner. Hopefully, these efforts have scholarly value for students of religion and help foster open dialogue and harmonious relations between new religious communities and larger social institutions.

I respect people’s right to choose their own religious pathways, even when I may not agree with that choice.  At the same time I am aware that pathways exist that have proven to be detrimental to believers’ physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Therefore the issue of harm in NRMs looms in the shadows of all research I do into specific groups. And I respect the intentions of those who seek to provide healing and protection for victims of abuse in religious organizations of all kinds, whether it be in the Roman Catholic Church, a Fundamentalist Bible community, or a new religious movement. I also respect and support the efforts of law enforcement agencies to ascertain legal wrongdoing in religious groups when it occurs and to bring perpetrators of illegal actions to justice. The issue of harm in religious movements has become even more significant in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, since it is clear that the perpetrators of these attacks were acting, at least in part, from religious motives.

Spiritual Harm in NRMs

With this preface, I wanted to address a dimension of harm that is often overlooked by social scientists and other scholars of religion—the issue of spiritual harm. To begin, I need to define what I mean by “spiritual.”  This term has to do with a person’s experience of relationship to a transcendent reality, however conceived.  Finding and maintaining such a relationship often provides the believer with important rewards:

  1. a sense of purpose in life;
  2. an identity that is connected to the larger web of life around us;
  3. a code of ethics that is rooted in a transcendent order;
  4. a faith in the inherent meaningfulness of personal and social existence; and
  5. methods of transcending personal limitations and realizing the individual’s highest potential as a human being.

As a historian and a social scientist, I neither affirm nor deny the ontological reality of a spiritual order that transcends our common mundane experience. For the sake of my research, I maintain a position of agnosticism and neutrality with regard to the truth claims of those I study. What I do affirm is that for many participants in religious communities, a spiritual dimension or reality is part of everyday experience, one might even say the most important part of everyday experience, and thus it is appropriate to look at reported spiritual experiences and the spiritual ramifications of participation in religious communities. Whether or not we as scholars believe in a spiritual dimension, such a dimension matters to those we are studying and trying to understand, and therefore we need to make it part of our analyses.

My research activities have brought me into contact with many religious communities, but much of my attention has focused on two New Age movements, Church Universal and Triumphant and the Holy Order of MANS. Both of these groups came out of the theosophical/Rosicrucian traditions and both rose to prominence during the 1960s and 1970s. I have done extensive interviews with members and former members of these groups, and I have been struck by what they told me concerning spiritual issues. Almost without exception, informants spoke of powerful, compelling, and life-changing spiritual experiences that occurred within the context of community life. These experiences ran the gamut of visions, voices, meditative states, and transcendent experiences in prayer and worship. For many members, this experiential contact with a spiritual reality occurred for the first time while they were in the community, and they understandably conflated their spiritual experiences with the group they had joined, and in particular with the group's spiritual leaders.

For many of my informants, powerful spiritual experiences provided them with one of their primary motivations for joining and remaining with their particular community. This is not to say that other aspects of community life were unimportant in their decision to remain a member—for example, the chance to serve humanity, a sense of belonging to a loving, supportive family, and the opportunity to acquire new job skills or a leadership position—but simply to acknowledge the powerful draw of perceived spiritual experiences for members of these groups.

So where does spiritual harm enter the picture? Scholars who study religious communities are familiar with the reasons that people disaffiliate—abuses of power by leaders, sexual abuse, disillusionment with community life, perceived inconsistencies in doctrine and practice, mental and emotional exhaustion, and feelings of stifled self-expression being the most common. But what is often not mentioned are the spiritual reasons people give for leaving these movements.  Three of the most frequent of these reasons, in my research, are:

  1. A cessation of perceived spiritual experiences. For a number of respondents, disillusionment with the group coincided with a drying up of the member's daily spiritual life and a crippling sense of alienation from both the group and the spiritual world. These respondents reported that the group's daily rituals and practices no longer provided an experience of connection with a spiritual reality. Consequently, they became disillusioned with the group and its leaders and left.
  2. An abuse of spiritual authority by group leaders. Respondents reported feeling manipulated by leaders who wanted the member to do something for them, and who threatened to withhold spiritual rewards—i.e., initiations, blessings, healings—if the person refused. Other respondents reported feeling shunned by their teacher and thus deprived of his or her spiritual presence. For believers who perceive their teacher to be their conduit to the spiritual realm, this can be a particularly traumatic experience.
  3. Disagreements over the frequency, intensity, and efficacy of specific practices and rituals. This took place in the Holy Order of MANS when the group began to transmogrify from a New Age school of spiritual initiation into an Eastern Orthodox Christian sect. During this transformation, the order's esoteric practices and rituals were gradually jettisoned and replaced by Orthodox liturgies and prayers. For members who no longer experienced the same spiritual states as they had previously, this motivated them to leave the group.[1] In CUT, some members felt that the group's signature practice of decreeing—uttering rapid affirmations in a ritual setting—was decreasing in intensity and importance as a more corporate model of leadership took over during the mid 1990s. For many of these members, this was evidence the group had lost its way and motivation to leave the church.

Whatever their reasons for leaving, I was struck by how often respondents reported experiencing a spiritual crisis when they dissociated themselves from their community. This time of crisis showcases the kinds of spiritual harm that can occur when people leave NRMs. The dimensions of this harm are subtle and complex, involving identity confusion and loss of trust.

Identity Confusion

Many respondents had built their post-conversion identities on the empirical foundation of spiritual experiences that took place while they were in the group. When they disaffiliated, respondents began to question the spiritual authenticity of their entire group experience. This included questioning doctrines, spiritual practices, and the spiritual status and true intentions of teachers in the group. But most importantly, it included questioning the validity of their own spiritual experiences while members. Ex-members from both HOOM and CUT report ongoing distress because they have come to question the authenticity of the most powerful and fundamental spiritual experiences they had while group members. Was it all a hallucination, they ask? Were they spiritually deceived? Were these experiences a satanic delusion? One former HOOM member put it this way, when discussing her past spiritual experiences in the group:

So you see why I feel totally confused about this.  To me, those were actual personal spiritual experiences, communications between myself and God.  They seemed to be connected to the Order in my mind.  Maybe I was misinterpreting.  Maybe my saying that is a way to keep those experiences intact so I don't have to say they were “illusions.” Because if those were illusions, then there is no such thing as spirituality or spiritual experience in my mind.  They were too wonderful, deep and cosmic to put aside.  So what am I supposed to do with them?  If I take the mature, experienced, realistic frame of mind and say they were delusional, wishful thinking, then I must put aside any spiritual experience I have (if any) for the rest of my life.  If they weren't delusional, then what were they?  So, you see, this is the mystery that stays with me concerning the Order.[2] 

Two significant issues are at stake here. The first is a stable, meaningful, and functional sense of personal identity. When a person comes to doubt profound spiritual experiences they have had in the past, the entire edifice of personal identity constructed on these experiences can begin to fracture and implode. This can lead to a pervasive sense of meaninglessness, self-doubt, confusion, and disintegration. The ex-member’s hard bought sense of existence in a benevolent universe can be threatened. In extreme cases this process of disillusionment can lead to dysfunctional behaviors and even institutionalization.[3]

The second significant thing at stake is a person’s perceived capacity and openness to spiritual experience of any kind. When ex-members conclude that profound spiritual experiences in their past—experiences that were treasured and that provided a sense of spiritual well being for months or even years—were false or counterfeit in some way, they may simply conclude that the entire realm of spirituality is a grand delusion that mature people leave behind the same way a child leaves behind belief in Santa Claus. Thus, the person closes the door to life's spiritual dimension and the rewards that engagement with this dimension offers.

Trust and Spiritual Authority

Another dimension of spiritual harm can be the inability to trust again, particularly to trust persons in positions of religious or spiritual authority. For those seriously engaged in a life of spiritual unfoldment, this can be a crippling development. It can close a person off from authentic guidance, leaving a person spiritually impoverished or incapable of further spiritual progress. In other cases, a person may come to view all religious activity with a cynical eye and all forms of altruistic service to the community as a con game in which some unscrupulous leader is taking advantage of trusting disciples. It may make it especially difficult for a person to embrace a shared code of ethics with other members of society. Surely these are harmful developments for both persons and societies.

Conclusion

Since this is a provisional foray into the question of spiritual harm in NRMs, I wanted to conclude with two final observations. First, I have only suggested some of the many forms spiritual harm can take. But I hope my comments have persuaded the reader that this is a serious issue that warrants greater attention and study. Second, these instances of spiritual harm occur not only in new religious movements. They also occur when Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priests and bishops sexually abuse minors and then cover up this wrongdoing. They occur when this abuse takes place in mainstream seminaries, youth camps, and religious orders. They occur when televangelists and Pentecostal preachers abuse their spiritual authority and defraud their followers. They occur in any environment where sincere religious seekers are victimized or deluded by unscrupulous teachers and spiritual authorities. To single out NRMs for condemnation and to give mainstream religious bodies a pass when spiritual harm occurs within their ranks is a form of religious bigotry.

This material was originally prepared for a presentation at AFF’s annual conference, June 14-15, 2002, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Orlando (FL) Airport.

Phillip C. Lucas is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Stetson University and the founding editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. The journal is the leading academic publication in the field of new religions. Lucas is the author of The Odyssey of a New Religion: The Holy Order of MANS from New Age to Orthodoxy (Indiana University Press, 1995); Prime Time Religion: An Encyclopedia of Religious Broadcasting (with J. Gordon Melton and Jon R. Stone, Oryx Press, 1997); and Cassadaga: The South's Oldest Spiritualist Community (with John Guthrie, Jr. and Gary Monroe, University Press of Florida, 2000). He has published numerous articles in academic journals and edited books on the topic of new religions.

[1] See Phillip Charles Lucas, The Odyssey of a New Religion: The Holy Order of MANS from New Age to Orthodoxy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995).

[2] G. Kramer, Email Correspondence with Author, May 28, 2002.

[3] As an aside I would say that such a development is not always catastrophic, for identity crises of this kind can also lead to the birth of a stronger sense of self that is shorn of delusion, spiritual glamour, and naivete.