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Post-cult trauma or post-cult syndrome is a disputed term related to the consequences of leaving a cult. Some scholars in the field, including those critical of the anti-cult movement, acknowledge that abandoning a cult can be traumatic for some former members. Others assert that traumas are more likely caused by deprogramming, not by voluntary leavetaking, or dispute the assertion that leavetaking is traumatic.

The term was first used by Margaret Thaler Singer[How to reference and link to summary or text] to describe what she believed are the intense emotional problems that some members of cults and new religious movements experience upon disaffection and disaffiliation. (Singer 1979)


  • Paul Martin, the director of a recovery center victims of cultic abuse wrote, in the book Recovery from Cults, that "The ex-cultist has been traumatized, deceived, conned, used and often emotionally, physically, sexually, and mentally abused while serving the group and/or the leader. Like other trauma victims (for example, of criminal acts, rape, and serious illness), former cultists often reexperience the painful memories of their group involvement."[1]
  • The Report of the "Swedish Government's Commission on New Religious Movements" (1998) that researches the subject, describes that the great majority of members new religious movements derive positive experiences from their subscription to ideas or doctrines which corresponds to their personal needs, and that withdrawal from these movements is usually quite undramatic, these persons leaving feeling enriched by a predominantly positive experience. Althought the report describes that there is a small number of withdrawals that require support (100 out of +50,000 people), the reports did not recommend any special resources be established for their rehabilitation, as these cases are very few. .[2]
  • Margaret Singer, one of the most notable proponents of the brainwashing theories, noted that ex-cult members that she treated had severe emotional problems as described in her article Coming Out of the Cults.21 22 75% of the ex-cult members were deprogrammed and some scholars like David G. Bromley suggest that the emotional problems of the ex-cultists that she treated were not due to their involvement in cults but that they had a post-traumatic stress disorder due to the deprogramming sessions that they underwent. On the other hand, in a controversial survey done on former cult members by anti-cult popular authors Conway and Siegelman (neither of whom had a degree in psychology), those deprogrammed (voluntarily and involuntarily) reported a third less, and in many cases only half as many post-cult effects like depression, disorientation or sleep problems than those who were not deprogrammed. Also those deprogrammed reported markedly shorter recovery times than the walk-aways. 23
  • According to Hadden and Bromley, proponents of the brainwashing model, such as Singer and others, lack empirical evidence to support their theory of brainwashing. They also affirm that there is lack of empirical support for alleged consequences of having been a member of a cult or sect, and that their accounts of what happens to ex-members is contradicted by substantial empirical evidence, such as the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs do leave, most short of two years, and the overwhelming proportion of people leave of their own volition. They refer to a survey conducted by Stuart A. Wright in 1987, about people who voluntarily left new religions, showing that the majority of all defectors or ex-members (67%) look back on their experience as something that made them wiser for the experience, rather than feeling angry, duped or showing other ill effects.14
  • According to F. Derks and Jan van der Lans, a Dutch professor in the psychology of religion at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, there is no uniform post-cult trauma, but psychological and social problems upon resignation are not rare and their character and intensity are greatly dependent on the personal history, on the traits of the person, and on the reasons for and way of resignation. 6
  • Gordon Melton, quoting studies by Lewis Carter and David G. Bromley, argues that the onus of pathology experienced by former members of new religions movements shifted from these groups to the coercive activities of the anti-cult movement. As a result of this study, the treatment (coerced or voluntary) of former members as people in need of psychological assistance largely ceased. These studies also claim that a lack of any widespread need for psychological help by former members of new religions has in itself become the strongest evidence refuting early sweeping condemnations of new religions as causes of psychological trauma.6,7,8 In a 1997 interview with Time Magazine Melton, asserts that anti-cult figures give too much credibility to the horror stories forwarded by "hostile" former cult members, which he says is "like trying to get a picture of marriage from someone who has gone through a bad divorce".
  • Marc Galanter, in a study of 237 members of the Unification Church, found that they had had a significantly higher degree of neurotic distress before conversion when compared to a control group, suggesting that symptoms of psychopathology had not been caused by cult involvement; 30% of these had sought professional help for emotional problems before conversion. Galanter further states that the process of joining, being a member, and leaving a new religious group is best described not as a matter of personal pathology but of social adaptation. For example, experiences that in a secular setting might be considered pathological are, within some religious setting may be considered normal. While psychological categories were created to discuss dysfunctional behavior by an individual, the behavior of group members must be seen in light of group norms, meaning that what may be considered disturbed behavior in a secular setting may be perfectly functional and normal within a group context. On the basis of his analysis, Galanter suggested that reduced significance should be given to the abnormal behavior reported among ex-members. He also suggested an alternative means of understanding otherwise inexplicable behavior in members and ex-members without considering them as suffering from psychopathology.13.
  • According to a book by Barker (1989) about new religious movements for the general public, the biggest worry about possible harm concerns the relatively few dedicated followers of a new religious movement (NRM). Barker also mentions that some former members may not take new initatives for quite a long time after disaffiliation from the NRM. This generally does not concern the many superficial, or short-lived, or peripheral supporters of a NRM. She also wrote that ex-members who feel betrayed may have a problem trusting people. Membership in a cult usually does not last forever: 90% or more of cult members ultimately leave their group 2,4
  • Psychiatrists David Hofffman and Paul Hamburg of the Harvard Medical School wrote in their article Psychotherapy of Cult members about their own psychiatric treatment of former members that the re-entry of former members into ordinary life is a difficult experience and compare the situation of former members to those of former hostages, prisoners, exiles, soldiers, or those emerging from divorce or death of a spouse. 19
  • According to David V. Barret (who is related with the government subsidized institute INFORM, founded by Eileen Barker and based in London), in many cases the problems do not happen while in a cult, but when leaving a cult, which can be difficult for some members and may include a lot of trauma. Reasons for this trauma may include conditioning by the religious movement, avoidance of uncertainties about life and its meaning, having had powerful religious experiences, love for the founder of the religion, emotional investment, fear of losing salvation, bonding with other members, anticipation of the realization that time, money and efforts donated to the group were a waste, and the new freedom with its corresponding responsibilities, especially for people who lived in a community. Those reasons may prevent a member from leaving even if the member realizes that some things in the NRM are wrong.
  • Len Oakes, a psychologist who was himself a member of a spriritual community writes in his book Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities in which he proposes his thesis about cult leader's distinctiveness: psychopathology based on narcissistic personality, characterized by grandiosity, manipulativeness, a need for control of others and inner congruence, near-paranormal empathy, confidence, memory, autonomy, detachment, and islands of social and personal insight." He writes that [...]there is great trauma associated with leaving, even for the successful follower. He has invested his deepest hopes in the leader, and leaving is like another leaving of home. [...]There is a tremendous culture shock of reentry to the outside world, and many leavers enter therapy. Not even wealth and renewed contact with one’s family of origin can insulate against this. And most of all, that sense of purpose--the sense of being engaged in something vital and important--is gone. A new direction will appear, but it takes much longer than is comfortable.'"18
  • According to the Dutch religious scholar Reender Kranenborg who specialized in new religious movements and Hinduism, in some religious groups, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, members have all their social contacts within the group, which makes disaffection and disaffiliation very traumatic. 5
  • A study by Cheryl R. Taslimi in 1991 about former members of the Shiloh Community, a fundamentalist Jesus community, indicated that the former members experienced no ill effects of past membership, had integrated well on return to the larger community, and did not differ from the general population on a symptom checklist to assess psychological pathologies.15
  • The magazine India Today wrote that former followers of the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba who became disaffected after reports about sexual abuse by the guru reported that losing faith "is a devastating experience that transports them from promised moksha to a private hell. A disillusionment that has three stages: denial, grief and outrage." [3]
  • Joel Kramer and Diana Alstadt wrote that disillusionment in a guru may lead to a generalized form of cynicism. [4]
  • Lonnie D. Kliever, a professor of Religious Studies at the Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas writes in his article about The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements that he was requested by the Church of Scientology to give his opinion about apostasy. He further writes in the article that

The clear majority of those who leave of their own free will speak positively of certain aspects of their past experience. While readily acknowledging the ways a given religious movement failed to meet their personal expectations and spiritual needs, many voluntary defectors have found ways of salvaging some redeeming values from their previous religious associations and activities. But there are some voluntary apostates from new religious movements who leave deeply embittered and harshly critical of their former religious associations and activities. Their dynamics of separation from a once-loved religious group is analogous to an embittered marital separation and divorce. [...] Long-term and heavily involved members of new religious movements who over time become disenchanted with their religion often throw all of the blame on their former religious associations and activities. [...] They magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals. They even will tell incredible falsehoods to harm their former religion."20

  • In an article published in 1986, Lucy DuPertuis, chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Guam who assisted James Downton with his book about the Divine Light Mission,[5] asserts that many of the people that left the Divine Light Mission "... drifted away not in disillusionment but in fulfillment." DuPertuis was acknowledged by Downton as follower reading and providing criticism of early drafts of his book.16

See also


  1. Paul R. Martin Ph. D., the director of an American recovery center for ex-cultists wrote in Chapter 10 of Recovery from Cults, "Post-Cult Recovery: Assessment Rehabilitation":

    "In attempting to understand what has happened to the ex-cultist, it is often helpful to employ the victim, or trauma, model. According to this model, victimization and the resultant distress are due to the shattering of three basic assumptions held about the world and the self. These assumptions are: "the belief in personal invulnerability, the perception of the world as meaningful, and the perception of oneself as positive" (Janoff-Bulma, 1985, p. 15). The ex-cultist has been traumatized, deceived, conned, used and often emotionally, physically, sexually, and mentally abused while serving the group and/or the leader. Like other trauma victims (for example, of criminal acts, rape, and serious illness), former cultists often reexperience the painful memories of their group involvement. They also lose interest in the outside world, feel detached from society, and may show limited emotions (Janoff-Bulman, 1985, pp.16,17)."Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse, Michael Langone, editor ISBN 0-393-31321-2 , Ch. 10.

  2. Report of the Swedish Government's Commission on New Religious Movements (1998), 1.6 The need for support (Swedish),English translation
    The great majority of members of the new religious movements derive positive experience from their membership. They have subscribed to an idea or doctrine which corresponds to their personal needs. Membership is of limited duration in most cases. After two years the majority have left the movement. This withdrawal is usually quite undramatic, and the persons withdrawing feel enriched by a predominantly positive experience.[...]The Commission does not recommend that special resources be established for the rehabilitation of withdraws. The cases are too few in number and the problem picture too manifold for this: each individual can be expected to need help from several different care providers or facilitators.
  3. A God Accused India Today December 04, 2000 (cover story)By Vijay Jung Thapa with Lavina Melwani and Syed Zubair Ahmed
    "What happens when faith shatters? For the former devotees of Sathya Sai Baba, it's as if in an instant they have lost their god forever. It is a devastating experience that transports them from promised moksha to a private hell. A disillusionment that has three stages-denial, grief and outrage. In the end the anger, they say, pervades everything."
  4. Kramer, Joel and Diana Alstad The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power North Atlantic Books (April 1993) ISBN 1-883319-00-5
  5. Downton, James V. Sacred journeys: The conversion of young Americans to Divine Light Mission,(1979) Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-04198-5

Additional sources

  1. Barker, E. (1989) New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, London, HMSO
  2. Barrett, D. V. The New Believers - A survey of sects, cults and alternative religions 2001 UK, Cassell & Co.
  3. Hadden, Jeffrey K. SOC 257: New Religious Movements Lectures, University of Virginia, Department of Sociology.
  4. Hadden, J and Bromley, D eds. (1993), The Handbook of Cults and Sects in America. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, Inc., pp. 75-97.
  5. Kranenborg, Reender Dr. (Dutch language) Sekten ... gevaarlijk of niet?/Cults... dangerous or not? published in the magazine Religieuze bewegingen in Nederland/Religious movements in the Netherlands nr. 31 Sekten II by the Free university Amsterdam (1996) ISSN 0169-7374 ISBN 90-5383-426-5
  6. F. Derks and professor Jan van der Lans (Dutch language) Post-cult-syndroom; feit of fictie?/Post-cult syndrome: fact or fiction?. published in the magazine Religieuze bewegingen in Nederland/Religious movemements in the Netherlands nr. 6 pages 58-75 published by the Free university Amsterdam (1983)
  7. Kramer, Joel, and Diana Alstad The guru papers: masks of authoritarian power ISBN 1-883319-00-5
  8. Martin, Paul R. Ph. D. Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse Edited by Michael D. Langone, Chapter 10 by , Ph. D. Post-Cult Recovery: Assessment, ISBN 0-393-31321-2 published by the American Family Foundation
  9. Melton, Gordon J., Brainwashing and the Cults: The Rise and Fall of a Theory, 1999.
  10. Bromley, David G. (Ed.) The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religiuos Movements
  11. Carter, Lewis, F. Lewis, Carriers of Tales: On Assessing Credibility of Apostate and Other Outsider Accounts of Religious Practices Westport, CT, Praeger Publishers, 1998. ISBN 0-275-95508-7
  12. Bromley, David G., A Tale of two theories: Brainwashing and conversion as competing political narratives. Published in Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins (eds.), Misunderstanding Cults. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001, pp. 318-348.
  13. Galanter, Mark et al., The "Moonies": A Psychological Study of Conversion and Membership in a Contemporary Religious Sect, 136 AM. J. PSYCHIATRY pp. 165-170 (Feb. 1979)
  14. Oakes, Len Dr. Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities (1997) excerpts Syracuse University Press; ISBN 0-8156-2700-9
  15. Wright, Stuart A. (1987) Leaving cults: The Dynamics of Defection (Monograph No. 7) Washington DC: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, p. 87.
  16. Taslimi, Cheryl R., Hood Ralph W. and Watson P.J. (1991) Assessment of Former Members of Shiloh: The Adjective Check List 17 Years Later, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30, pp. 306-11.
  17. Dupertuis, Lucy (1986) How people recognize charisma: the case of darshan in Radhasoami and Divine Light Mission. Sociological Analysis, 47, Page 111-124. University of Guam available online
  18. Oakes, Len, (1997) Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities, Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press ISBN 0-8156-2700-9
  19. Hoffman, David, M.D. and Paul Hamburg, M.D. Psychotherapy of cult members , article that appeared in the book edited by Marc Galanter M.D. (1989) Cults and new religious movements: a report of the committee on psychiatry and religion of the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc. ISBN 0-89042-212-5 (368 pp.)
  20. Kliever, Lonnie Dr. The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements
  21. Singer, Margaret Thaler, "Coming out of the cults" Psychology Today, 1979 (Excerpt)
  22. Singer, Margaret Thaler: "Post-cult After Effects", 1979
  23. Ross, Rick, Ethical Standards


By others

  • Galanter, Marc M.D.(Editor) (1989) Cults and new religious movements: a report of the committee on psychiatry and religion of the American Psychiatric Association ISBN 0-89042-212-5
  • Langone, Michael (Editor): Recovery from Cults, 1993, ISBN 0-393-31321-2
  • Lewis, James R. and Bromley, David G. , The Cult Withdrawal Syndrome: A Case of Misattribution of Cause? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26, 4 (1987) pp. 508-522.

Personal testimonies

  • Tobias, Madeleine Landau & Janja Lalich Captive hearts, captive minds: Freedom and recovery from cults and abusive relationships 1994 ISBN 0-89793-144-0 (soft cover)
  • Braak, André van der, Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru (ex-Andrew Cohen after 11 years), Monkfish Book Publishing (2003), ISBN 0-9726357-1-8
  • Hassan, Steven Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves, 2000. ISBN 0-9670688-0-0.
  • "I lost the desire to live" article by Bettina Vilmun, translated from the Danish daily national newspaper B.T. (tabloid) (January 312002)
  • ‘The truth will prevail...’ a Sai-devotee’s struggle for disenchantment by Matthijs van der Meer originally published in Spiegelbeeld October issue 2000 under the Dutch language title "Sai Baba & de waarheid het verhaal van een bevochten ontgoocheling"

External links

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