I am sure that somewhere among my posts are some observations on the need of every human being to belong to a human group. This theme has recently become of greater interest to me as I delve into the realm of social psychology and social rejection. My focus today is to suggest quite simply that some churches and abusive groups have exploited this need to belong in their followers. Having offered individuals a home to satisfy their belonging needs, particularly when they are young, the cultic group then is able to hold on to them for a considerable period through continuing to exploit these same belonging needs. The ability to move on from, or leave, the group when the individual perhaps starts to encounter abusive and exploitative behaviour from the leaders, is achieved only with great difficulty. It is because this member has become so thoroughly entwined with the group through the need to belong that separation is achieved only at the expense of knowing real trauma and distress.
The need to belong, as the social psychological textbooks tell us, goes back to the time in human evolution when survival depended on the ability of groups to gather food and defend themselves from rival bands who might be competing for the same food supplies. From a psychological point of view the human infant has to make secure bonds with a caring adult in order to physically survive. We call this bond ‘attachment’ and many books have been written to describe how this process works and how failures to obtain attachments can result in severe dysfunction in the emergence of the adult. The psychologist Winnicott beautifully sums up this idea of attachment when he said something to the effect that there is no such thing as a baby. There is only a baby in close emotional and physical proximity to the caring adult, usually the mother.
Many young people grow up with unfinished business with the family. No parent ever get things totally right in offering exactly the right amount of care that is needed by their off-spring. Some parents give too much and some too little in the way of parental care. Most children, thankfully, have sufficient ‘good-enough’ care for them to be able to move to adulthood without serious problems. But even if parents are near perfect in rearing their children, few young people do not experience pangs of worry and concern as to whether they can indeed go it alone in the journey towards maturity. The picture that comes to mind is the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. For a few moments the butterfly, even though perfectly formed, has to dry itself in the sun so that its wings will function properly. So the young person may have several months of uncertainty as to whether he is a child or an adult. That time is one of uncertainty and vulnerability.
Every young person has to pass through the transition from being dependent on parental figures and peer groups to the independence of adulthood. This period of ‘wobble’ may happen at any time between the ages of 16 and 25. It is a bit like a car changing gear. It may be a smooth transition or we may hear the gears grinding horribly as they struggle to go at the new speed. But the need to affiliate or bond is strong and powerful right through the process. The object of dependency is constantly changing. In younger teenagers the need to belong is focussed on membership of gangs or strong peer groups. Many churches are important places for young people to gather in what is hopefully a healthy environment while they are exploring the loosening of parental and home ties on the way to a new adult identity. The cultic or high-demand church that appeals to the almost adult of 18+, is however working in a different way. They use the need to bond or belong as a way of drawing the young person deep into the group. This is done so that the individual will want to give away their financial and emotional soul for this reassurance of ‘belonging’ and being on a journey to salvation beyond the grave. The ‘conversion’ process, however it is done, will hook deeply into the psyche of the individual so that he/she feels an overwhelming sense of safety in the new package of belief and belonging that is being offered. The depth of conversion, is, in my thinking, proportionate to the degree of vulnerability being experienced by the young person as they are moving from one stage of their lives, that of dependence, to independence. The cultic institution, however, in practice stops that process from being completed. The young person swaps one sort of dependency, parents, peer groups etc., for another, that of depending on the cultic group and its leaders.
The model I am offering for the vulnerability of young people entering extreme churches or cultic groups, also explains why many find it so hard to leave. As long as they are in the group, their belonging needs are being satisfied in much the same way that a child ‘belongs’ to his or her parents. It is when they leave through expulsion or unhappiness that they discover that the growing up process, the movement to independence, has never been completed. They cannot, to use the butterfly analogy, fly on their own. The task of supporting such people who have recently left high demand groups and churches is hard precisely because the task of growing up has been left incomplete or short-circuited. The group has taken away something extremely precious from the former member. It has deprived that member of the context and setting in which to grow up and mature. By latching on to the common human need to belong, it has betrayed that member, for the time being, of the chance to escape the dependencies of youth for all the possibilities of mature adult living and awareness.