Divine Disenchantment: Deconverting from New Religions


Divine Disenchantment

… the higher-status "siblings") who represent a separate sphere of authority apart from the charismatic leader. As such, these high-status devotees, the initiators of Divine Light Mission, the Vajra directors among the Buddhist sects, and the church elders in the charismatic groups, act to separate the leader from the lower-level devotees and to create a social distance by which the charismatic founder is removed from the more mundane aspects of community life. The challenges to authority that arise within the religious family are thus directed at those who occupy an intermediary position between the followers and the charismatic figure.

The higher-level devotees derive their authority from a seniority system in which specially selected disciples with ties closest to the leader, like the older siblings within a family, are accorded the deference of a privileged class of followers. Within the religious communities, the subordinate level of leadership is responsible for maintaining obedience to rules and regulations and for controlling access to the spiritual leader. The first stages of disillusionment are thus characterized by conflicts which develop around issues of status and the regulation of social and spiritual behavior. With the growth and expansion of religious movements, these conflicts are intensified, as the case studies suggest, by the changes in the structure of community life that result in the bureaucratization of the religious organization. Table 2 indicates the four most significant areas of dissatisfaction reported by the devotees. As this table indicates, control over the regulation of social life is by far the greatest source of disillusionment and that realm of commitment where challenges to the normative structure of the religious family emerge first.

The Regulation of Social Life

Seventy-five percent of the devotees reported that their feelings of dissatisfaction with the group were initiated by restraints that had been placed on the conduct of their social lives within the movement. Those aspects of group affiliation which became most objectionable focused on the regulation of intimate relationships (73%) and regimentation of lifestyle (35%).

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table2 (41K)

Intimate Relationships

Control over the intimate relationships within the groups, the largest category of dissatisfaction, took a number of different forms including demands for celibacy and the regulation of sexual relations among married and nonmarried couples. Four married couples, two who were affiliated with the Hare Krishna sect and two who were premies in Divine Light Mission, reported that they began to feel resentment and anxiety over the limitations that the religious group placed on their expression of love and intimacy within their marriages. As traditional Hindu-based groups, both of these organizations had laws regarding sexual practices, often limiting sexual relations to one or two times a month. Adherence to such laws was expected of good devotees, and the religious hierarchy admonished those converts who did not follow the laws strictly with regard to their sexual lives. The result was a tension-producing situation for those initiates who had sought and found love through relationships within the community and then felt deprived of that love because of the demands of commitment. As one devotee described this tension:

Each day there was a certain type of pressure to feel pure. Just a certain type of pressure we would feel that we could never quite do our best. Never be the perfect devotee because we were married. And we were supposed to somehow give up any type of desire for anything in the world that had to

Divine Disenchantment

With the Bahais, I was attracted to what it could offer spiritually. In a general way I was attracted to what it stood for, to what it wanted to occur in the world. I wanted some answers and I wanted a father kind of image - what you expect to get from God and religion. … If you have a connection with a God it is a concept that works for a lot of people. It can help you develop emotionally and spiritually andiron can get yourself together. A lot of people don't have that. They don't have anything that helps them get together.

In my case I had to leave, to give up that connection with the Bahais. The way the faith is set down, it is supposed to work beautifully. It could work but it doesn't. It is the people. In the Bahais there is this council system that operates to solve problems and I had difficulty keeping the laws that the Bahai faith set down. You present a problem and it is pretty cut and dry how they deal with it, advising you what to do according to the scriptures. I was having this relationship with this woman, another Bahai in Newport. She was married and her husband had been away for a year. When he got back, we approached the council. They told her and her husband to remarry in the Bahai faith - the council told her to go back to her husband. I was left with nothing. People are in real pain and suffering and they did not have the answers. They only caused more suffering.

I think that they have something very important. I still believe in the faith. It had been some security for me and I probably could have stayed and grown in the faith. It took the about six months to leave, but I just couldn't live the way they wanted me to.

Regimentation of Lifestyle

While restrictions on marriage and intimacy pose one set of social problems within the movements, other regulatory practices create additional sources of strain. In this regard, challenges to the normative structure of the religious community embrace a wide variety of regulations that are imposed in varying degrees throughout the different religious settings. These include objections to prohibitions on dance, music, food, dress, and sexual relations. Nearly 35 percent of the respondents indicated frustration with the rules and the harsh system of regulation which chastised those who could not keep the laws faithfully and to the letter. Although anger was primarily directed at the hierarchy for making difficult and unrealistic demands on the devotees, a certain amount of anger

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was turned inward as devotees also blamed themselves for a lack of discipline and commitment. As one devotee expressed his dilemma:

My whole involvement with the group became a lie. I began to lose any regard at all for what I was supposed to be doing. They had laws for everything. You are supposed to make certain motions when you pray. I would say it was ridiculous and I wouldn't do it. I was doing drugs when I got involved and you are not supposed to do that. I was also drinking. I was living my life the way I wanted to and getting from the faith some measure of security so that I could continue my life that way. But it was like a double life. There were two different worlds I traveled in. One was a crazy and insane world and the other was the faith. It was a gradual process. I just realized it was ridiculous to continue my association with the group.

Another follower of Maharaj Ji spoke of her difficulty with the rigors of ashram life:

After about a year, I missed my old life. I missed thinking that I would ever be a mother. That's the ashram. When you live in the ashram you live by the ashram rules. Basically the houses are male and female. Those living in the ashram do not have sex or drugs, not even coffee. There is no meat or fish. You know you're like a monk, a nun. And if you break the rules, they know. Toward the end it got crazy. We'd find boys in the closets when we came home at night and I would sneak out and gorge myself and get drunk with my brother. But I felt a lot of pressure. I was an ashram coordinator and I couldn't take the pressure. But I couldn't leave either. It took me at least six months to move away.

Overall, the conflicts over the regulation of social life become the first expression of dissatisfaction with the religious movement. These conflicts are often intensified by the demands of spiritual practice and religious adherence which contribute to the restrictions placed on devotees and which increase the mounting tension over the dilemma of autonomy versus group commitment. Thus, 50 percent of the devotees reported that disillusionment with the power structure extended beyond the area of control over social life and into the religious aspects of commitment as well.

Divine Disenchantment

Regulation of Spiritual Life

With respect to the spiritual demands of commitment, respondents reported two major areas of dissatisfaction. These were the time commitments required of followers and conflicts which developed over ideological differences in the exercise of religious discipline and the interpretation of scriptures and teachings.

Conflicts over Time Commitment

Thirty-nine percent of the respondents indicated that separation from the religious group became increasingly desirable as the demands of spiritual practice interfered with other aspects of their life, including work, family, and school. Most often devotees would describe these conflicts in terms of the pressures they felt to be "perfect disciples," an ideal established by the religious hierarchy that could only be achieved through a program of total devotion. Such a program involved daily meditation and lectures in the groups based on Eastern spiritual disciplines and daily Bible study and tri-weekly prayer meetings in the charismatic Christian groups. Typically, salvation and spiritual rewards were made contingent upon fulfilling certain levels of religious practice that were administered and controlled by the higher-status devotees. Absence from prayer meetings or meditative practice were noted by the leadership and followers would he chastised for their lack of discipline, devotion to the charismatic leader, and love of God. In Divine Light Mission, for example, the goals of marriage and family were seen as somewhat mutually exclusive to the goals of total devotion. Here, a female devotee describes the conflict this created for her:

After a while it just got to be so intense that I couldn't handle it. You know the families were breaking up. I felt like my family was breaking up. I couldn't handle it even though I felt like this is what has to happen. I kept talking to the initiator about it because I kept asking him. I said I really want to dedicate my life, I am supposed to. I want to do that but I am married and he just kept saying then you can't be a perfect devotee, you

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can't dedicate your life. I felt guilty but I also felt like this marriage was real. I felt like my marriage and my children came from God and I couldn't just give them up.

The anxiety described by this follower was also expressed by other devotees, who increasingly felt as if they had to make a choice between continued religious commitment and commitment to other significant aspects of their lives. The emotional demands of each, as manifested in expenditures of time and energy, fostered a sense of inadequacy among group members. The difficulties posed by the conflicting demands engendered a diverse set of responses including disdain for the bureaucracy and a personal sense of failure. A Buddhist devotee of seven years explains her feelings in this way.

The problem was the organizational aspect of the group. People in charge of this and that and so on. It was just too bureaucratic. I don't like it when someone says you have to sit so many hours a week, and I want it written down in this little book that I will check every week. I rebel against that type of authority no matter how much sense it makes. When I first joined it wasn't that way. There were no meditation instructors, no one overseeing your practice. As it got bigger there was a hierarchy and groups that were guards and groups that served at court and groups for business and groups for dance. And I never do well in that type of organization… . But my reasons for leaving also have to do with my sense of commitment. I really see it as my inability to make that commitment. What I do sort of regret in myself is that I am not very well disciplined. I just can't make that commitment to practice all the time as much as I know that there is nothing like practice. I do sort of wish that I had the ability to make a solid gesture, instead of being so wishy washy about it. Maybe that will happen in another time in my life.

At times the demands of religious practice took the form of threats and severe group pressure on those members who were acting independently of the movement.