Divine Disenchantment: Deconverting from New Religions


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… According to Weber, charisma stems from "devotion to the extraordinary and unheard of, to what is strange to all rule and tradition and which therefore is viewed as divine. It is devotion born of distress and enthusiasm" (Gerth & Mills, 1946:249). In the charismatic religious groups, the connection to the divine is an especially powerful source of bonding in that the leader has both a symbolic value in his direct link to God and a physical manifestation in the ongoing interpersonal dynamic that exists between follower and spiritual mentor. As such, the unconscious process of merging is heightened by the personalized nature of religious commitment.

Among the religious devotees, the leaders were either considered deities themselves, like Guru Maharaj Ji, or were assumed to have godlike qualities which brought them closer to an understanding of reality beyond the material world of everyday life. As one Tibetan Buddhist devotee expressed this feeling, "I suppose I thought Rinpoche was like God, something more than human because he had powers that were supposedly godly. And he could always accomplish anything he wanted to accomplish." Others expressed similar sentiments such as "Maharaj Ji is the Lord to be on this planet" or "the pastor had a direct connection with God and as his emissary spoke for God on earth."

In order to understand the significance of the divine and transcendent attributes of charisma, it is necessary to consider once again the world of total meaning that religious affiliation offers. From a functional perspective, this affiliation provides a structure to one's life which is manifested not only in rules and regulations but in a theology that gives meaning to the concepts of salvation, immortality, and the nature of human experience. As the leader comes to represent the attainment of this spiritual ideal, he is endowed with a quality of otherworldliness which is desired by the religious disciple. Thus conversion contains the elements of a spiritual quest that has as its goal the resolution of ultimate life issues through a connection to the divine in the person of the charismatic leader.

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placed yourself where I am no longer your guru, which is something he would say, a direct quote from his lectures.

He talked of people who leave and he said I have tried to bring them back but they reached a point where they had placed themselves where I am no longer their guru, their god. They are lost and they don't have me anymore and that's it. And he said all of this to me. And I asked him, I told him I would do anything he wanted if only he would take me back and I wanted to come with him and it was like the last chance so to speak. He said, yes, there is something you can do. You can acknowledge that I am the one true lord of the universe and all the other things, all the spiritual things, political stuff and school that I had been doing, none of that mattered. It was totally useless and I had to give it up.

And at that time there was a part of me that felt, yes, I would say anything and I sort of flashed back to when I first joined and the point of the whole thing was that you'd say anything. They say are you willing to give up your life for the lord? And you say, yes, and to a large extent I pledged myself to things I didn't absolutely believe at the time. But I did so for the promise of the cookies, the blissful experience. And there was part of me that would have done it again, said what he wanted even though I wasn't 100% sure. I wanted to be with him, to go to heaven, to experience his love. But another part of me said, no. In this vision, he said good-bye and they all floated off into heaven and I tried to follow them and I couldn't and I was left feeling very desolate and then I came back, so to speak, to normal consciousness and I was extremely depressed.

As this devotee retold his experience, he spoke of the cruelty of the vision and the cruelty of a god who would leave him behind, suffering in loneliness.

Because of the emotional nature of charismatic bonding, separation from the leader requires a change in consciousness on the part of the devotee which develops out of emerging doubts concerning the leader's godliness and unconditional love. For those followers who are in close proximity to the leader, the difficulty of maintaining the ideal is often greater as the more privileged disciples have the opportunity to witness the leader under stress or in moments of vulnerability. Here a devotee describes the contradictions as he perceived them:

The festivals sometimes made me sick. I think the other premies felt this way also. The Maharaj Ji, sitting in his picture frame on the window

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sill, the person in the picture frame can be anything you want him to be. Perfect, he is perfect. He is the lord, the guru. When you actually see him in person, he is not so perfect and it brings a lot of confusion. I used to do security at the Divine Light Mission and I was behind the scenes. And I would see him sometimes behind the scenes and it was very disturbing. I am not discounting that the guru was human but the actions I saw were not the actions of a Realized Being that he was supposed to be. Not one of the compassionate, loving fatherly figure.

At the festivals I would watch him sit in his chair, ready to receive the premies who would come to kiss his feet. He wasn't ready for the followers to kiss him. He was very nervous. He couldn't stop moving. He didn't recognize any of us. He didn't say hello or how are you. He was not very peaceful. He was very freaked out in a way. And he was yelling at the others, even shaking some of them. It was very weird you know. And then a few minutes later he was sitting up on the stage. I saw premies practicing the knowledge that he was teaching and they would say it was okay that he was so nervous. But I actually saw him being nervous and it is not what I think a godly figure would be in that situation.

But I don't want to discount that he might be someone who is in touch with a higher energy. That could be his personality, his make-up, the way he deals with his physical life. I'm not saying, well, see that, he is not divine. It just doesn't seem right to me to experience that.

The reaction of this devotee to the stress exhibited by the guru under pressure speaks to the continual conflict that converts experience in trying to discern what is true, what is real, and what are justifiable actions of the spiritual leader. As proof of divinity is often judged against the behavior of the spiritual teacher, the religious organization may seek to limit glimpses into the private moments of the leader's life that could lead to doubt about his godliness. This is a significant point in understanding the dynamic of charismatic bonding. While it is the personal environment of religious movements which allows for the development of strong affective bonds between the devotee and the leader, this familial closeness also provides an environment in which to observe and witness the behavior of the spiritual teacher and, as in the case of the Divine Light follower, to obtain a view of "God" which is both disappointing and disheartening.

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… Abusive practices within the Eastern-based groups generally took on a different meaning, as physical and psychological punishment were tied to the act of surrender and a test of commitment. In these circumstances, followers would be judged according to their willingness to endure pain and humiliation for the leader. Thus, Divine Light followers spoke of times when the guru would kick a groveling devotee or force liquids down a person's throat for the purpose of proving that he or she would do anything for the lord. In the following example of a small Buddhist community, a female devotee described her disillusionment with the guru as the result of a public incident that left her feeling confused and unsure of the kind of demands that complete surrender entailed. …

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… While physical abuse was experienced by 31 percent of the devotees in the study, representing a fairly even distribution among Christian and Eastern-based groups, psychological abuse was reported by 60 percent of the religious converts who described incidents involving verbal attacks that left the follower feeling inferior and with little self-esteem. As one devotee described the process, "it was an assault on our consciousness."

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… But now I believe he is deceiving people - taking away their ability to live as human beings and believe you are going to be reincarnated. A basic premise of Buddhism is that control is knowledge. If you can control yourself that's wisdom. There is a definite desire on the part of [the guru] to keep Buddhism going through the control over his disciples. It is a cult you know. They turned Buddhism into a cult. Everybody gets fat when [the guru] gets fat. Everyone drinks when [the guru] drinks. I go into a thousand dining rooms and they all have carpets that are just alike and they imitate him without thinking. And I don't believe he even practices Buddhism anymore. I don't think he really meditates. I think that some of the original things are just not there any more.

For this devotee, separation from the guru resulted from a spiritual reappraisal of his godliness that accompanied a breakdown in the personal dynamic between disciple and teacher. In becoming aware of the behavior of other converts, Seth recognized aspects of idolatry that he found both false and objectionable. More specifically, Seth saw the futility of sacrificing one's self so completely to another who may only be deceiving his followers. In effect, as the sense of deception deepens, the disaffected devotees see themselves as reflection of those who are still committed and in these mirror images they see the contradictions that a continued belief in the leader cannot dispel.

Among the more obvious contradictions are the lifestyles to which the leaders become accustomed as their power and influence grow. Especially in the Eastern-based groups, the guru represents a person who has transcended the profane and mundane aspects of life and yet once in the United States, the connection to materialism seems to transform what had been a more pure and spiritual movement in the East. Here this

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change is discussed by a Divine Light devotee who left the group after a twelve-year commitment:

They told us that Maharaj Ji was bringing peace to this planet, but living in this age required airplanes and luxury hotels, the finest food in the world for the Lord, the finest clothing and everything which developed into thousands and thousands of people who were working their butts off, seven days a week. I sometimes feel in the beginning he was really sincere. When I first saw him he was really sincere. But I think a lot of it just came from being corrupted by the lifestyle. Even his personality decayed.

The luxury and indulgence that often characterizes the life of the religious leader is rarely enough in itself to create a crisis in faith. This reality, like the reality of abuse, contributes to a growing sense of disillusionment which is continually challenged by the desire to deny wrongdoing or culpability on the part of the charismatic leader. As one devotee explained, "Even after I knew, I just couldn't accept it all. I wanted to believe there was a reason he was doing what he was doing, that it was part of God's plan. But deep down inside I had to question what was going on and I had to face that maybe he was not god, maybe I was alone."

The fear of being alone, of losing what is potentially the most gratifying relationship of all, is a cause of continued dependence on the charismatic relationship. Even as the attributes of idealism and godliness are stripped away, the desire for continued connection and identification is not forsaken in a strong and passionate bid for autonomy. Rather, as the cases indicate, the process of severing the emotional bond is met with a psychological resistance to separation and rarely is total deconversion achieved without external reinforcement, either from loved ones, other former devotees, or new religious teachers to whom identification can be transferred. …

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… As internalized fear sustains the bond to the leader, devotees engage in risk-taking behaviors which challenge the omnipotent power of his authority. One male respondent began by violating a simple food taboo. When there was no apparent retribution, he risked another violation of the religious law and still nothing happened that he could attribute to God's wrath. Slowly, over time, he resumed a life that was not controlled by fear of sin and God, and thus he could entertain a freedom of choice that had not been possible while in the movement nor in the months immediately following his departure.

The actions and experiences of other disaffected devotees seem to play an equally important role in reconstructing a social reality that is not

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based on fear and dependence on the charismatic leader. One young woman described the reinforcement she found in witnessing the "fate" of others who had dared to leave:

It's like when these people had left, I was just sort of waiting for when their doom would come. And it didn't come. Years later they still weren't doomed. And I went and talked to this one man. He was really nice and he told me that he thought the church was a cult. He said they don't accept you for what you are, you have to conform to their image and if you don't fit in, you have to make yourself fit in. And this man said he never felt better since he left and he was considered one of the worst sinners in the church. And God hadn't struck him down. As a matter of fact he was doing pretty well. He hadn't been hit by lightning and his kids weren't dead or anything. So I figured it was all right for me too.

As this account suggests, validation and encouragement from former devotees offers an important source of support in the transition phase of disaffection. This support is especially effective in validating feelings of doubt about the spiritual leader and in confirming perceptions of reality which question his claim to godliness. Deprogrammers are well aware of the effect that such reinforcement has on devotees who are wavering over their commitment. It is, in fact, common practice to employ former converts as deprogramming agents. Two persons who participated in this study were deprogrammed by an organized anti-cult network, although they returned to the movements afterward. In both cases, the converts described their deprogrammers as former devotees who had since "seen the light"; and it was their testimony that was most convincing:

There was one thing that really struck me at the time of the deprogramming. The one deprogrammer from the Divine Light Mission. Supposedly she was director of the Canada Mission in the early '70s when the Maharaj Ji first came. Then it attracted a lot of druggies because Maharaj Ji was offering this psychedelic experience and yet it was organic. That is interesting enough how it is presented. You can get high without drugs and see the light without drugs. Well, anyway there are all these people coming together in the Mission, a lot of weird people and a lot of straight people. Maharaj Ji was in Canada for a program and another pre-

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mie in the States hung himself in one of the ashrams. This deprogrammer who had been co-director of the ashram called Maharaj Ji and told him a brother just killed himself. "Maharaj Ji," she said, "a lot of premies are freaked out. You know what's going on?" And his response, in a very detached way was, "It's okay, just meditate; it's okay, don't worry about it." The way she described the situation, I could see how he would do that because actually I don't know if he is capable of anything else. He might go up on a stage in a very interesting outfit and say, "I'm God," but when it comes to dealing with people on a practical basis, it has to be dealt with eventually. You can't run away forever. That struck me and it made an impact because what I saw of Maharaj Ji, what I heard from this other premie, I could see how that would be possible.

Various other respondents, including members of Divine Light Mission, Hare Krishna, and a number of charismatic Christian groups, affirmed the important influence of former group members with regard to separation from the religious leader. While their influence was not in any way comparable to a coerced deprogramming situation, the converts reported many long hours of discussions with each other, recalling incidents of abuse and disappointment and assuring one another that they were doing the right thing in leaving. A former Hare Krishna devotee spoke directly to this issue:

My wife and I talked it over all the time. At first every day and then every week. We would keep talking about what happened to us and we had friends close by who quit with us and we would talk with them too. We had a support group and all of us were going through the same thing - just total anxiety when we left.

A large part of the anxiety over separation derives from the dislocating effects of leaving a world of total meaning and the protection and security of the omnipotent father. At this stage of the disaffection process, devotees experience a competing set of needs as the desire for autonomy conflicts with the longing to reestablish bonds with the charismatic leader. As feelings of anger and resentment also begin to surface at this time, such feelings help the devotee to disengage from the guilt and fears that continue to confuse ego boundaries and thus prevent total separation.

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Anger in the Aftermath of Disaffection

The importance of anger in the disaffection process raises the question of controversial findings in the study of post-involvement attitudes and reactions. Both Levine (1984) and Wright (1984) minimize the significance of anger among religious converts who have left alternative movements, preferring to focus on what they have determined is the more common response to past commitment, that is, the overall feeling among followers that they do not regret their experience and in fact have become "wiser" because of their commitment.

In Wright's survey of post-involvement attitudes among 45 former devotees, only 7 percent reported feelings of anger while 67 percent believed that they were wiser for the experience. In the study presented here, the findings show some major differences. In this research, 55 percent of the respondents discussed feelings of anger and resentment immediately following their disaffection, but of these devotees, 90 percent reported that over time their anger dissipated and they were later able to assess their involvement with the group from a more positive perspective. The following excerpt from an interview with a Divine Light follower illustrates this shift in attitude:

Sometimes I feel what an incredible waste and then other times I feel there was a real benefit to my being in. There are some things that I learned which are very beneficial. I was really bitter for a while and the counselor told me that I needed to go through my anger, through the hate. I've come through it. Basically what I feel is that there were a lot of emotions that were subdued all those years so that when they come up it is really an intense feeling. When I felt those things before, even last year, I would immediately do Holy Name or something to try to keep it down. In a lot of ways there is a lot of readjusting but it's also very exciting. I have a friend who is a former premie and he says every once in a while he has a soft spot for Maharaj Ji. I don't feel that way. I don't have a hard spot. I don't hate him so much any more.

The anger expressed by this devotee reflects what many others also felt, an intense rage in the months immediately following their separation.

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… A focus on family and marital relationships provided another source of reconnection. In this regard, the emotional fulfillment once associated with the leader was sought through the relationship to a spouse, lover, or child. In comparatively few cases, and these were among the younger devotees, parents and siblings were the source of redirected needs fulfillment. More commonly, converts who had married or had established love relationships while still a follower turned to these relationships to cope with the feelings of loss associated with the charismatic leader. Here a former Divine Light disciple describes the birth of his child soon after he left the movement:

I saw my child being born, that incredible love, that power taking a human form. I started looking at that reality. This power was real, the spirit, whatever I was worshipping became real at that moment and I didn't have to put it on Maharaj Ji. This was real life and real power.

Other followers spoke of that same sense of reality and tangibility as they transferred their devotion and love to spouse or child, the persons in their lives who were constant, who reciprocated their feelings, and whose relationship was not based on a promise of unconditional spiritual love, but on a day-to-day experience of emotional involvement and response.

The return to the nuclear family is thus one response to deconversion among disaffected devotees who were as yet unwilling to relinquish the family ideal. In an interesting reaction to disillusionment with the religious communities and their patriarchal leaders, converts sought refuge in the creation of their own family structures in an attempt to once again live out the idealism associated with middle-class American life. The return to the nuclear family on the part of religious devotees was facilitated by the emergence of the conservative political and social cli-

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mate which has characterized the 1980s. As a greater emphasis has been placed on traditional family values and the importance of religion, converts to new religious movements discovered that the ideals for which they had joined these groups were now compatible with the restructuring of familial norms in the outside world. Thus, in their transition to a secular life the former devotees could take their place alongside others of their generation whose lives now reflected the desire for stability and security within the circumscribed world of the primary family.

Yet what distinguished the religious converts from others of their generation was the desire to retain both spiritual and familial ideals through the continued commitment to a religious path. The final setting in which social roots were established after disaffection was a new religious movement. The tendency toward reconversion has been discussed in the previous chapter with respect to the importance of seeking out a replacement for the loss of the charismatic leader and the primal object of love that he represents. In this continual search for the convergence of love and spirituality, converts appear to be engaged in a developmental process as described by Robert Balch and David Taylor (1978), wherein the goals of ideological and spiritual growth are valued in themselves as the individual is engaged in a process of spiritual seeking, remaining open to new ideas and alternatives. A significant shift, however, appears to take place after disaffection as former converts seek out new religious associations that allow for a greater separation between the attainment of family goals and the fulfillment of spiritual objectives.

Although the quest for spirituality does not seem to be lost among disaffected devotees, the desire to sacrifice one's self so completely for the goal of spiritual knowledge is reevaluated in light of past experience. Among the 40 respondents who participated in the study, not one spoke of atheism in response to their disillusionment, and few expressed an interest in returning to mainstream religion which, according to the majority of respondents, had previously failed to meet their spiritual needs. The evidence strongly suggests that those who choose a spiritual path in life will stay on that path, even if it is hurtful, troubling, and disappointing. The desire for spirituality and religious meaning is not easily extinguished; the death of one god leads to the search for another.

Bloomington and Indianapolis
©1989 by Janet Liebman Jacobs
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