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High-Intensity Faith

Many people (usually Mormons) have asked me why I focus on Mormonism so much, in my criticism of religion.  The best and most comprehensive answer is that most of the people that I love are Mormon.  If most of my friends and family were Baptists, I would probably criticize Baptists the most.  If they were Scientologists, I would criticize them the most.  I want to encourage people to think critically about their own beliefs, to examine which of their beliefs are true and which are false, to discard the false ones and to retain the true ones.  And now I thank heartily a good friend of my fianc√©'s for the work she has done.  Her dissertation has helped me personally understand my own feelings much better, and I believe it will be of much help to me in the future.

I have been criticized for not being scientific enough on this blog.  I will make the disclosure that this blog has never been meant to be a scientific approach to anything.  It is nothing more or less than my own thoughts and feelings.  I present facts as often as I feel the need to, and I do my best to keep what I say either in the realm of my own opinion (in cases where fact cannot dictate) or to known fact.  However, I am also very willing to oblige the requests of any of my readers--or at least to give serious consideration to those requests--and this post is one in which I will attempt to be more scientific than I usually am.

Cyndi Matthews has been studying psychology, behavior, and counseling since the 1980s.  She has received four different degrees in those areas, most recently a PhD in Counselor Education in August of this year.  Her dissertation for this degree was entitled "Second Generation Adult Former Cult Group Members' Recovery Experiences: Implications for Counseling" (this link is to the full PDF version of the dissertation, and is shared with permission).  She has told me that in the near future, this dissertation will be available through Proquest.  As part of the research for this dissertation, she interviewed people who were formerly members of cults, who had been born into the cult and were raised in it through their childhood.  She has also told me that she welcomed comments or questions that anyone might have, so feel free to contact her directly (her email is listed on her CV linked above).

Near the beginning of the paper, in the definitions section, she says that the terms "cult" and "high intensity faith group" will be used interchangeably, both meaning "an ideological
organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding a high level of commitment".  I actually found this to be a very good thing because I know that many of my Mormon friends will be affronted at the use of the word "cult" to describe their religion.  However, most Mormons that I know would not be offended if one were to tell them that their faith is of high intensity.  And yet it conveys (to me, anyway) the same meaning.  I think it's quite appropriate to call the LDS church a "high intensity faith group".  In her dissertation, Cyndi is careful to avoid calling any particular organization a "cult", since that word is generally associated with a negative connotation.  The use of the word "cult" in the paper is merely because that is the word most commonly used and most familiar to people researching the topic.

In the "Statement of the Problem" section of the dissertation, she states
Those individuals born and raised in cultic groups may experience significantly higher levels of physical and psychological abuse than those not raised in cults (Kendall, 2006). Children born and raised in cults may be more susceptible to abuse and neglect from malevolent leaders and emotionally volatile parents and may end up lacking appropriate attachment to significant caregivers (Furnari, 2005; Goldberg, 2006; Rochford, 1999; Schwartz & Kaslow, 2001).

Individuals raised in high intensity faith groups develop and form their personalities while in these groups. Because they do not have a former personality to draw upon once leaving the group, second generation former members may experience different forms of anxiety, stress, and problematic behavior once they have left their group than first generation members. In light of the differences between first generation and second generation former cult group members, it stands to reason that different and distinct issues may arise for second generation former members as they leave the group and subsequently enter counseling.
The reason why I was so excited to read this dissertation is that it helped me understand myself better.  From the second paragraph,  "Because they do not have a former personality to draw upon once leaving the group, second generation former members may experience different forms of anxiety, stress, and problematic behavior...".  I never really noticed this until I read it in this paper.  But, when I look back at what I was going through last year, I see that it is indeed the case.  In fact, I wrote about things along those lines in this post and this one--likely others as well, but my memory's not perfect.  I really did feel like once my Mormonism was shed, there was nothing left.  I had no definition, no identity, outside of being a Mormon.  Fortunately, I've always known that I love math and it has given me an identity and an anchor to hold on to, and I have found that I am happier when I am hard at work with my math research.

Another indication that I really felt like I had no identity outside of Mormonism actually happened about a year before I left the Mormon church.  One time, I was in an interview with my bishop.  He knew that I was looking at pornography and masturbating (he didn't know I was gay at the time).  We had been working together for some time.  In fact, I had talked to every bishop I had since I was 13 years old.  Different bishops had different approaches.  Some were more lenient than others.  This particular bishop was rather strict.  In this one particular interview, he suggested that I might need to be excommunicated because I was unable to live according to the standards of the church.  I was devastated.  I was shocked.  I didn't know what to do, what to think, how to react.  For the first time since my teenage years, I actually contemplated suicide.  I couldn't imagine life as a non-member of the church.  It seemed utterly hopeless and abysmal to me.  On my way driving home from this interview, I actually thought about colliding with another vehicle on the interstate on purpose.  And this was just at the prospect of being excommunicated.  I hadn't been.  I was merely anticipating.  Fortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), I never was excommunicated.  And a few months after this occasion was when I delivered my letter of resignation to my bishop.

Another interesting fact is that I formally resigned from the church in April of 2011, but I attended church all the way up until near the end of July.  I felt like I still belonged there.  I felt like part of me would forever be there, and I still feel that way.  I felt like a child still connected via umbilical cord to its mother.  But, I also noticed that once I shed my Mormon beliefs, I was bare.  I didn't know what to think.  I didn't know what to believe.  I didn't know whom I could trust.  I felt like I had to start all over.

It is an extremely in-depth study (over 300 pages of discussion about the results).  She covers 12 themes:

  1. Patriarchy and Gender Roles
  2. Decision Making
  3. Obedience to Authority
  4. Group Support and Relationships
  5. Relationship with Parents
  6. Religiosity and Spirituality
  7. Abuse
  8. Outside Influences: School, Job, and Therapy
  9. Sense of Identity
  10. Emotional Consequences of Life in the Cult
  11. Fear and Courage
  12. Long Process of change
As I said, it is a long dissertation, so I have not read all of it, but I have read through much of it, and I was astonished by what I read.  First, I must say that based on some of the things that I read in this paper, I must admit that there are groups out there that are far worse than the LDS church.  In fact, I would say that the LDS church is probably one of the most mild of them.  What surprised me was how similar these people's experiences were to each other and to me.  Many of the statements she quoted in the paper were things that I could actually picture myself saying.  
Participants reported that in the cult, children were expected to obey their parents unconditionally. In the cult parents were the authority figures, with the father being the leader and the mother being the helpmeet to the father. The mother was also the caretaker of and caregiver for the children. Participants reported that children were punished if they did not obey the rules of the cult or the rules of the family. (p 108)
I was astonished by this finding simply because I thought that the gender roles of father=authority figure, mother=caregiver were specific to Mormonism, but it is common among many groups.  It is a recurring theme.  Next is a quote from one of the participants, talking about her interactions with her parents and what pushed her to leave her cult.
I think that breaking point came when I was on the phone with my dad . . . my father had rifled through my purse and found birth control . . . my mother had found cigarettes . . . I asked him, “Are you saying that you would like me . . . if I quit smoking, if I quit watching ‘R’ rated movies, if I quit taking birth control, never touched another drop of alcohol, and dressed in modest clothing.” And he was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” . . . I hung up the phone . . . There is no way this man is ever going to love me. He doesn’t love me.  (p 111)
I am lucky in that my parents still "like" me.  They still talk to me.  I am welcome in their home, even with Conrad.  They are good to me.  But, when I hear something like this participant said about her parents, I can't help but think about what Elder Oaks said about how Mormon parents should treat their gay children because it exhibits this kind of conditional love of "You're only welcome in our life if you do what we want you to do."
Yes, come, but don’t expect to stay overnight. Don’t expect to be a lengthy house guest. Don’t expect us to take you out and introduce you to our friends, or to deal with you in a public situation that would imply our approval of your “partnership.”
Fortunately, my parents have not taken this approach, nor have Conrad's.  They have been good to us.  But I know that there are many other Mormon families that are like the one described in the quote above.  I don't know that that particular participant was a former Mormon, but she very well could have been, considering that list of things her parents didn't want her to be doing.

Anyway, I do recommend that you look through this dissertation--whether you're a former church or cult member or whether you're currently in a religion or cult.  I think it would be insightful for you to see how your experience compares with those of people who have gone through the transition out of a cult.  You may be astonished by some of the similarities.  You may be grateful for some of the differences.  

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