In my last post, I found that, in my enthusiasm for explaining the dynamics of narcissism, I was taking up too many words for me to describe very much about the pain of religious abuse. This post is to take the discussion on a further stage. The easiest way to start to explain a bit more about what people tell me about the experience of abuse in a religious context, is for us to imagine this scenario. The experience I want us to imagine is that of a child who has parents who constantly humiliate her and never let her stand on her own two feet with words of encouragement and support. From a rational point of view, the right decision might be for that child simply to walk away from the source of harm and find another environment in which to which to try and flourish. In practice, as we all know, this is not possible, because children are biologically and psychologically bound to the individuals who brought them into the world. The bonds that hold children to parents are in fact so strong that they continue inside us all even after the parents have died. When Winnicott said that ‘there is no such thing as a baby’, he was talking about these decisive invisible cords that that tie us, willingly or not, to other people. While most of us eventually physically leave our parents to live a different kind of life within marriage, the ‘ghost’ of both parents continues to live inside us as long as we live.
This enmeshment with others, in this case our parents, is a point of vulnerability for every individual. When the process of bonding with parents has, in fact, been ‘good-enough’, it can help direct us to pursue other relationships of a wholesome and sustaining kind throughout our lives. Nevertheless the tie with our parents is rarely completed without leaving some ragged painful edges. A particular period of vulnerability is the young person going off to college or leaving home in their late teens. One part in him revels in the new independence but another part misses the emotional support that home had provided. As many parents know, the entire teenage period can be a fraught rehearsal for this time of independence and the process is seldom experienced without some pain on both sides. A typical young person living away from home for the first time will oscillate between self-congratulation on being ‘grown-up’ and a sense of home-sickness and feeling abandoned.
It is no coincidence that recruitment to cults and extreme religious groups typically takes place among young people in their late teens and early twenties. I am sure that I have drawn attention to the fact that recruitment to these groups may have a lot to do with the way that this age-group is coping with their sense of bereavement and loss at leaving home. The new group offers to them a sense of family, of belonging and above the opportunity of ‘adopting’ a new parent in the person of a religious leader. It is my observation that countless young people are attracted to religious groups because they have the opportunity to be re-parented by an apparently benign father-figure in the form of the religious leader. There is nothing remotely unusual or even unhealthy about this dynamic in itself. The dynamic, however, can become extremely unhealthy if the leader, himself exploits the relationship or simply has no insight into what can go wrong. We all know about the phenomena of ‘groupies’ who surround pop-stars and are frequently exploited by them. Similar dynamics can be observed in many religious groups, particularly where the leader possesses facets of narcissism which I described in the last post. While sexual exploitation of religious followers may be rare, the dangers of linking young adults who are developmentally vulnerable with narcissistically inclined leaders, is a dangerous mix.
The dynamic that holds a young person in thrall to a religious group, whether a church or a cult, will not normally create emotional distress as long as the young person remains in the group. The biggest danger is that, while they are in the group, the process of emotional development involved in growing up is put on hold. By reverting to the safety of the family unit through the group, the typical cult member will not be working through the emotional task of separating from their family of origin which is part of the preparation for adult independence. Most however eventually emerge from the group and continue with the task of growing up. The worst that can be said of such individuals is that their process of maturity was delayed. Thus they survive unscathed and take their place as mature adults after their period of emotionally ‘treading water’ within some group or other.
A minority of young people are deeply damaged by their passage through a religious group. Some never emerge properly. Their need for attachment has become permanently focused on the leader or guru and his teaching, so that they cannot imagine life without this prop. At an emotional level they have remained a child, totally dependent on the ‘parent’. When this happens, the process of disentangling from these kinds of bonds is never achieved without enormous amounts of pain and emotional distress. The group has created in the follower a dependency on itself every bit as lethal as an addiction to hard drugs. The literature on drugs offers an explanation of the way that dependency is never just physical but it extends to the brain so that addiction is psychological, emotional and mental.
The ‘survivors’ of cultic groups are sometimes deeply distressed damaged people. Their desire to trust others and to attach themselves to an ideal has been ruthlessly taken advantage of or exploited in some way. It would not be untrue to see that religion generally appeals to the child part of our personalities. We could never understand Jesus’ words about faith and trust unless we had learnt these qualities as children. But it is these same ‘child-like’ qualities that are also the key to our vulnerability and open us up to be being exploited in a variety of ways. Those who do in fact exploit this child part of their followers are power abusers of the worst kind. They should remember the words of Jesus about taking advantage of children and the way that millstones were used to place such abusers into the depths of the sea.