I believe people should have the right to follow that which they believe in. Freedom to belong to any group that one chooses to is a requirement for sound mental health. To have freedom of thought, to have a religion, or change it if one wants, is recognised as a universal human right.
However, many people discover that the issue is not when they belong to a group or religion (although there are many issues with belonging to a cult), but when they leave. It is at this point that a person may find themselves up against extreme forms of emotional and psychological abuse, with shunning being a core experience.
If a person is born into a group or religion, there may come a time in their life when they question. This will generally happen during adulthood and when a person’s neurological development enables them to begin this questioning process. They might question the ideology of the religion or the group. They might question the practices. They might question the behaviours. They may question a great many things. For some people, even this questioning process is extremely scary, without going even further and actually denouncing their religion or group.
Freedom of thought is seen as another core tenant of universal human rights, yet this is not a universal experience. Many people going through this questioning process, find it almost impossible to ask the questions they desire to the group that they belong to. This can especially include family members or the leadership of the group/religion.
If a person reaches the point where they want to denounce their religion or group and leave, things can start to get really messy. Apostasy, which is the abandonment and renunciation of religious or political belief or principle can have severe consequences. If a person actually speaks out publically, therefore asserting their right to free speech and expression, the consequences for some can be very severe.
There are many groups known to shun a person if they exit the group/religion. It is a common experience. Shunning is the practice where a person that leaves is rejected completely by the people still within the group/religion. No relationship to loved ones still part of said group/religion can be continued. It can be extremely traumatising. Shunning can also happen when a person does something the group or religion does not agree with.
Our relational bonds nourish us as human beings. Without connection, people can experience significant mental health problems. How is a person to cope when they assert their right to think and believe differently to their family of origin, or to a group they may have joined as an adult, if they experience shunning?
There are several recognised reasons that shunning exists. Firstly, shunning is seen as punitive and corrective. Those shunning may genuinely believe that they are stopping a person who is leaving from making bad choices. Secondly, shunning provides leadership with control of members still part of the group/religion. If a person has reached a point of questioning so strong that they decide to denounce and leave, leadership can experience tremendous fear that this person might influence those still belonging. Ultimately it is a form of control.
It should not be the case that questioning or leaving a religion/group, or doing something that is not in alignment with the group’s ideals, would bring about this experience. Love, true and genuine, would never shun. True connection is much deeper than what a person believes and thinks, or what religion and group they belong to. Authentic connection is created through genuine care, compassion and love for a person. Family bonds are some of the strongest a person will ever experience, yet for many leaving their family’s religion can mean they get to experience this form of emotional abuse. I find this extremely heart rendering.
Although this blog is dedicated to cult experience, exit and recovery, it is also dedicated to ‘parental alienation’. Parental alienation is becoming increasingly common in a society where the separation of biological parents is becoming increasingly common. I would like to suggest that many children exposed to parental alienation experience many similar processes to those that have been a member of a cult. Amy Baker, a psychologist dedicated to the issue of parental alienation, has written about this phenomena. I believe children that have experienced this form of abuse, and that choose to question the ideology that is held within their family of origin, open themselves up to shunning. The alienating parent will struggle immensely to allow questioning and dissent from the rhetoric they hold as reality. Children, experiencing alienation, are also forced to ‘shun’ the parent they are alienated from.
Shunning, without a doubt, can be horrendously difficult. However, one needs to balance a need for freedom of thought, expression and speech, with the very genuine need for connection. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer.
If you are experiencing any form of shunning from leaving a group or religion that you were once part of, or you are being shunned for other reasons, know that you are not alone. I recommend professional help if the grief is extreme. My own experience has led me down this path, and I can honestly say that without the help from two prominent professionals I would not be where I am today. However, it is vitally critical to work with people that understand. Working with anyone that does not understand cults or parental alienation can do more harm than it can help.
Shunning is a form of deep emotional and psychological abuse. If the ‘religion’ or group you belong to uses this as a tactic be very aware that you might be part of a cult or sect that is abusive. Seek professional help, from those that understand, and stay strong!
As a final note, it can be very helpful for people leaving a cult to have nothing more to do with the group. This is a very different dynamic than ‘shunning’ and needs to be honoured. People can be exceptionally vulnerable to the coercive tactics cults use when a person is leaving and questioning. To reject abuse is part of the healing journey a person might need to employ to protect themselves. Shunning is a technique used for utterly different reasons and becoming aware of its destructive impact can be an important part of recovery.