New Religious Movements and Mental Health
(Read this article in Norwegian and German)
As psychologists we ask the question: What do we really know about membership in New Religious Movements and mental health? A number of psychotherapists and clinicians with extensive experience in relation to members and ex-members have taken up this specific issue (Singer, 1979; Lavik 1985; Bergman 1992; Ulland, 1995; Sveinall, 2000; Nylund, 2004). In 1998 a document was published by the Swedish State’s Official Documents where this was one of many issues that was discussed. In 1999 to augment this work a special project connected to “Save the Children” was concerned itself with what happens to young people who choose to leave a rather isolated religious group (Berger, 2001; Egge, 2005), and where emphasis was on the” Rights of the Child” stating the right to health and treatment and protection against infringement as well as the right to free thinking, religious freedom and the right to free speech. These elements were also dominant in the so-called Knutby case in Sweden (Clemetsen, 2004; Fragell, 2004; Lundgren, 2004; Nylund, 2004; Stanghelle; Robert, 2005).
However this still continues to be a field in which our general knowledge is limited as well as possible treatment. Repstad (1994) maintains that to delve into religious movements is similar to studying ”in a minefield” , and he is pessimistic concerning the possibilities of empirical studies providing answers to the questions of what is fact and what is fiction in these groups. Larsen (1995) also states that this is a complicated field of study, but at the same time, we, as psychologists, ought to view this as an intellectual challenge. Borgen (2003, p. 991) states in Journal of the Norwegian Psychological Association about the psychology of religion the following:”To be a dissenter or defector from closed or authoritarian sects is a long and painful process. In addition treatment therapists are still searching for effective methods to treat these problems.”
This article is therefore meant to be a contribution to both scholars and clinicians so as to enable them to further understand the connection between membership and former membership in New Religious Movements and mental health. I will attempt to elucidate the many ways to define New Religious Movements, personal witnesses, and the actual methodology to learn about these things as well as the possibilities and limitation these informants and methods present.
The study of New Religious Movements reveals complex and challenging relationships which both intellectually and emotionally can present difficulties in trying to be objective, both as a scientist and a clinician. The analytic objectivity which is the basis for all humanistic and social science cannot negate the fact that personal motives in the observer will have the potentiality of coloring the scientific process; should that be the object of study, approach to the phenomenon and not the least the interpretation and presentation of the finished product, a situation with which I am familiar.
From my own point of view I find it important and necessary to be conscious and open in relation to my own personal and academic position. My personal interest in New Religious Movements is closely tied to my own experience in such groups (The Charismatic Movement and The Navigators) in the seventies when I was a psychology student and a few years later. In my role as an active participant I also had the opportunity to assess these phenomena from the inside and become acquainted with the use of language and symbolism which is used in such settings.
As a professional I became curious about a number of things:
- Is it true that New Religious Movements can be the cause of mental illness, and/or that "unstable" people are more attracted to such environments than others?
- If the possibility exists that groups like this can cause mental problems, does it have anything to do with the fact that these groups are religious, or is it more a question of destructive aspects which in principle can be found in any group with a similar structure?
- How can one best understand the negative experiences certain ex- members expound?
- How should we react to the more or less biased viewpoints presented through popular literature and the mass media?
This experience forms the basis for my thoughts and conclusions that I wish to contribute to here. At the same time I find it necessary to seriously question that which I was previously “taught”. With this kind of background it must be kept in mind that the possibility exists for me as a professional to be influenced by subconscious thoughts showing reticence towards sending out warning towards these new religious groups, thereby losing objectivity.
The discrepancies which exist between the New Religious Movements and the more established part of society can be understood from various standpoints: The theological perspectives that spout learned deviation. From a religious standpoint there has been criticism against Christian inspired New Religious Movements (Anker-Goli, 1950; Hoekma, 1972; Martin, 1980). Greater psychological knowledge within this group has also put greater focus on certain learned dogmas that may cause mental disturbance, for example that a Doomsday focus can cause anxiety, that hostility towards non-members can cause loneliness, that demonizing can cause a paranoid and psychotic state of mind, and that the demand for subservience and absolute obedience can lead to an lack of egostrengh.
A sociological/anthropological perspective on the studies of New Religious Movements will have a starting point in this as a cultural phenomenon. Beckford (1985) sees New Religious Movements as sub cultures that find their basis in classic religious, political and humanistic trends with the intention of obtaining legitimacy and power in society and that they are to be considered as marginal sub cultures that are more or less in conflict with society in general.
Rothstein (2001) states that New Religious Movements differ from other religious congregations in the respect that they often represent a minority, they select elements from traditional religion and reinterpret these in their own way, and they set idealistic goals that are way out of proportion to social and political reality. Mikaelsen (2005) states that these groups arise and develop, by suggesting that such groups exist so that a system can survive with its iconoclastic ideas in a world that doesn’t adhere to such ideas.
It is also possible that the distinctive features in New Religious Movements can also be found in the culture they claim to be an alternative to. An example of this may be that one reacts towards society’s egocentric aspects by presenting an alternative that, oddly enough, has a strong emphasis on the same thing. Another relevant point is to look at the establishing of such groups as a form of reaction from a thesis-antithesis point of view, legitimacing through naturalizing, how such groups sell themselves, the inner dynamics that exist, their economic and social structure, the similarity and differences between becoming a member in any group, versus religious groups and more specifically religious congregations, legitimacing through way symbolic and non-symbolic power, the way ideas are created and institutionalized and presented as accepted norms and traditions, and the way power and authority in such groups are established, for example how dominance in such congregations is legitimized when someone is identified as representing God’s authority.
The way non-symbolic violence is legetimated has been described by Brekke (2004): Great expectations of a coming war for the overturn of the world’s order with the victory resulting in order and harmony (millenarism) creates an expectation that man has a role in this apocalyptic scenario and has the obligation to take part on the right side to hasten this happening. Such “holy wars” have, according to Brekke, left bloody footprints throughout the history of mankind. One can further study the mechanisms that are in connection with the group’s need to hold onto its distinctive features and identity, for example, in relation to the rituals used in the process of becoming a full member (Gennap, 1960; Melton& Moore, 1982).
It can also be observed what happens between groups and the surroundings and how this influences the group, for example, what happens when the movement draws up lines between ”us" and "the others“ or when the society outside creates limits between “we" and "them”, and how external reactions effects the solidarity and the power structure within the group (Brekke, 2004), and various forms of compensations that may be used in a group that is too unstable to maintain its identity and vision, and therefore must resort to other alternatives.
One can also observe how such “alternatives “are interpreted by the surroundings. For example: Outsiders might consider the greater demands for conformity, unanimity and subjugation as a destructive atmosphere with both thought and emotional control. Other issues can be what characterizes leaders and followers in such groups.
And further: What are the personal characteristics of those who are easily lead into such movements? What are the factors involved with those who are not easily lead down the same path? What factors are relevant when one decides to leave such a group? Is there a difference between members, or ex-members, who have been recruited into the movement versus those who have been born into it? Is there any real difference between groups that are administered by people with a “pious conviction” of their legitimacy and groups that are controlled by individuals who are convinced that the revelation they experienced is only a theological myth and the whole situation is in reality a strategy to acquire symbolic and /or economic power? These are questions that are also pertinent for our experts.
For psychologists mental health is a natural to focus. Here are some examples which illustrate the problems we face:
- Are there specific kinds of mental distress which are more dominant with the congregations and ex-members of new religious groups, than in the population in general? What about for example dissociative disturbances? According to DSM-111-R (1987) mental disorders are discussed in relation to indoctrination of religious sects as an example of non-spesified dissociative disturbance (Otttoson 1993; 1997).
- Are there any significant differences between members and ex-members who have been recruited into the group and those who were “born into” it?
- Have they fewer or more psychological problems than the population at large?
- If they have any mental suffering - why? Is this due to selecting persons disposed in this direction, for example, persons who have a greater need to be dominated by and bound to a person in authority? Or is it the case that the non-conformist group with their message can cause mental problems? Should that be the case: What aspects of their platform can cause mental illness? Or should we consider the fact that certain groups attract certain people with mental weaknesses, that is to say is it a kind of matching between supply and demand? If this so, what is it that matches? Can it be possible that someone wishes to take advantage of human weakness for their own benefit by using bait that is attractive to this type of individual? Or does it mean that something is being offered that satisfies the human psyche in ways that others cannot satisfy?
- What is it that paradoxically causes a member to avoid leaving a group or choose to come back to a group that has obvious destructive traits, even when confirmed by its own members?
- Many of these groups represent not only a religious alternative, but also another form of social compatibility, often with a direct challenge to existing society. Has the thought occurred to us that perhaps there is something to be learned from these congregations? What about stable family relationships (Werner & Smith, 1982 discussed in Sommerschild & Grøholt, 1989) and other healthful factors (Antonovsky, 1979)?
This is where psychology with its knowledge about object relation theory, ego concept, narcissistic needs, defense mechanisms, cognitive functions, socialization processes, social integration, reciliance factors, salutogenesis and positive psychology have a lot to offer. But at the same time: This so-called “psychological competence“ is a part of the created theories and observations we are all exposed to in reference to a western individualistic, humanistic and democratic conception of mankind. In contact with people from other cultures, partly people from our own culture, such rules and regulations have their limitations, for example regarding the importance for a person to build his own identity on being part of the group or not. In the same way we must not forget that an individual who from our point of view is being controlled, infringed upon, and/or manipulated, can at the same time be “happy, but ignorant” about the status one is in, and question ourselves about the right to change this state of mind.
STUDIES OF NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS
There have been a number of studies among Christian inspired groups that have stressed that to be a member or ex-member of New Religious Movements can be mentally troubling:
- Swartling and Swartling (1991) interviewed a group of 43 former members of "Word Of Life" bible school in Sweden. They found anxiety, feeling of guilt and emotional disturbance were prevalent, almost half the number had symptoms of mental disturbances, and that every fourth member had attempted suicide after the termination of membership.
- Fosheim and Aarnes (1997) concluded, on the basis of interviews with 20 ex-members from charismatic groups in Norway and Sweden that the majority of them had various difficulties such as depression, feeling grief, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating, and that sect and cult influence could be a part of the answer.
- Weishaupt and Stensland (1997) studied a group of 20 female ex-members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, to which degree they no and then experienced group control, authoritarian attitudes and emotional stress. As a control group 16 women from another religious group were asked to evaluate the degree of group control at the present time. The conclusion was that ex-members felt that they had less authoritarian viewpoints and fewer emotional stress symptoms at the present time than they had had as members, and that they as members has felt a greater degree of control than the control group at the present time. All the differences were statistically significant (p<.001).
- Hassan (2000) refers to a study by Yeakly, Norton, Vinzant & Done (1988) that was used by Meyer- Briggs personality test interviews of 800 members from The Boston Church of Christ (in Norway:” Kristi Forsamling”). The study showed that the members had greater personality variation before membership than after, and that they “pulled together“ to be more like the sect’s leader. Parallel interviews of members from other comparable and well established churches (The Roman Catholic Church, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians), showed no similar tendency. Hassan states that such studies seem to prove that certain religious groups can exert relatively strong influence on their members, this having consequences for their mental health.
- In their book “Psychosocial treatment of psychosis“ (Borchrevink and others, 1999) refer to a project at the State Center for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (chap. 2 - When reality becomes unreal – about stress and vulnerability in psychotic youth):
There is a far greater occurrence in our material of families with a vacillating attitude towards life. That may concern philosophic, religious or personal views that constantly lead to conflict between parents, or between the family and society at large (for example school rules). This kind of interaction can strengthen an adolescent’s delusions “. The following are specifically mentioned in connection with this train of thought: Christian congregations, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, fundamentalist Christian congregations, Smith’s Friends, and the anthroposophist Steiner School movement. To continue: Continual indecision can be disturbing and foment psychosis, especially in families where basic life attitudes are closely related to the parents need for strong support.”
Studies conducted of ex-members not spesifically being related to Christian inspired groups point to the fact that they also can have their share of difficulties:
- Goski (1994) carried out a study of 150 assumed to be former sect members, where 80 (53%) replied, and 74 admitted having left a religious sect. These 74 persons were characterized by as follows: 84% felt that they were spiritually raped, "used ", betrayed and had lost their ”innocence”, 71% regretted the time they had lost due to their membership, 69 % had lost a meaning/purpose with life, and 68% had turned generally negative to religion.
- Conway & Siegelman (1995) did a comparison between ex-members and veterans from the Vietnam War. There were 400 ex-members from 48 different sects, and the most common symptoms were: Depression 75%, loneliness 68%, anger 68%, disorientation 66%, humiliation 59%, guilt 59%, had nightmares 48%, suicidal and destructive tendencies 35%.
- Langone (1990) ascertained in his study of 308 ex-members that over ¾ of all members evaluating their membership stated that they felt it was either harmful or extremely harmful and they described many if the same symptoms as in the study by Conway & Siegelman.
- Nishida & Kuroda (2003) carried out an empirical study of 157 former members of “destructive cults“ and found the following leading factors: A tendency to depression and anxiety, feeling of inferiority, a sense of loss, problems with friends and socializing, family problems, “floating”, fear of sexual contact, emotional instability, tendency toward psychosomatic discomfort and denial of past membership, and anger toward the group. They also found that depression and anxiety, psychosomatic disorders and hiding from the passed bacame less after they had left the group and received treatment, while, at the same time, the feeling of inferiority and anger towards the group increased.
According to Pignotti (2000) the following symptoms, according to clinicians in the USA with long experience to ex-members, considered to be the most dominant: Depression, panicky states, fear, phobias, anxiety, nightmares, ”flashbacks”, loneliness, guilt, shame, sorrow, a feeling of loss, as well as a frustration and a sense of having been betrayed. Further studies refer to Singer 1979, Goldberg & Goldberg 1982, Hassan 1988, Goldberg 1993, Martin 1993, Tobias & Lalich 1994, Singer 1995 and Hassan 2000.
Martin states that various forms of abuse are quite usual. Tobias & Lalich also discuss a conference for ex-members where 40% of the women chose a workshop where the topic was sexual abuse of women in sects. How great the extent of mental problems for former members really is, remains somewhat unclear. A general survey (1994) of the actual studies shows great variation (Sveinall, 2000). Hutchinson states that as many as 2/3 of ex-members have long lasting emotional difficulties, while Wright (1987) says that the media make the problem greater than it is. Galanter (1978, 1990) states on the basis of a study of members of the Unitfication Church that the mental problems that were found were related to the time before they became members and that Membership had a positive effect on them.
A number of studies suggest that former members of meditation inspired movements mentally had a better life (Murphy & Donovan, 1988), while others claim the opposite (Otis, 1985). In general there are many who maintain that membership in new religious congregations have experienced a new and better life.
As far as mental health for members of what Langone (1993) calls “cults ,“with reference to a number of studies, states the following or in another way is stressed:
- Recruiting has a tendency to occur in phases of ones life where one is in a period of change or in other ways experiences stress.
- About 2/3 of those who became members were well adjusted people at the beginning.
- Members are no different than the population at large as far as mental problems are concerned.
- The majority of those who became members eventually left the group.
- Ex-members have greater mental problems than the population in general. Langone questions what can cause so many people who in the initial phase experience difficulty, but due to their membership experience well being, oddly enough decide to leave and end up with greater mental problems? He thinks that this is connected to the fact that many members have a “pseudo identity“ which is not obvious until they become ex-members and that ex-members prefer the pain they now have instead of the “happiness“ they previously felt. In other words: They prefer the pain of following their new insight instead of living a lie ("a painful truth is better than a pleasant lie"). Or to put in a different way: “I would rather totter on a solid foundation than stand firm on a weak one.”
So far the psychological studies of mental health in relation to New Religious Movements have had low priority in Norway as well as in our neighboring country Sweden. (The Swedish State’s Official Report, 1998). There can be many explanations for this: (1) In our society we have an ideology that religious freedom is a personal and private issue. (2) The group of scholars (theologists, sociologists and anthropologists) who, so far, due to their relevant background have studied members and ex-members have focused on other matters than their mental health. (3) Frequent and unrestricted use of negative terminology can have resulted in this field of study being considered less serious for psychologists. (4) A lower priority can also be connected to the fact that Norwegian psychologists previously showed little interest in studying religious phenomena in general (Larsen, 1995), a trend that seems to have done an about face (Borgen, 2003).
An important reason also can be, as previously stated, the many methodical challenges that scholars encounter when they wish to objectively learn about the relationship between New Religious Movements and mental health. We therefore now shall take a look at the possibilities and limitations seeking such information. The focus here will be on the possibilities and limitations while gathering information from informants and using diverse methods.
The sources of relevant information naturally point to active members at the core. They often express that they are better adjusted mentally than non-members and that this is closely connected to what their congregation stands for. Since they are on the inside looking out they must be the best ones to judge how the movement is experienced. Rothstein (1991) maintains that in order to understand different types of groups, this must be done from the inside and out from their own personal experience.
Jenkins (2002, pg. 126) puts it this way: “ This means that an anthropologist’s ideas of “what is going on” must, at the very least, be forged in a process of dialogue with the local people whose social universe is being studied. What they think is going on must be taken seriously; it is the baseline from which we proceed.” Andreassen (1994) refers to an outpatient clinic for mental health for children and adolescents who, on their own, made contact with representatives from Jehovah’s Witnesses, and informed that they had received useful and informative information. In Aalborg in Denmark the so-called Dialogue Center there has also been an effort to get in touch with various congregations.
On the other hand: There can be a difference between what they say and what they actually do. It cannot be taken for granted that those who present themselves as representatives for a group really are what they say they are.
Certain new religious groups may have an inner structure that makes it hard for members to talk about, or even make them unaware of their actual situation (Weishaup & Stensland, 1997). West (1990, pg.137) states that “cults are able to operate successfully because at any given time most of their members are either not yet aware that they are being exploited, or cannot express such awareness because of or uncertainty, shame, or fear." Many new religious groups also have a missionary profile. This can lead to an idealization and a wish to appear exemplary to the outside world.
Mental problems can be minimized or denied because this can have consequences for the creditability to the outside world. Likewise members can have a problem being believed, as long as it is their own, or the group’s, interest to present the problems of an ex-member as more problematical than they really are. There are also examples where new religious congregations have asked their members not to relate what “really” goes on the “inside”, or under such circumstances justify keeping the truth, or parts of it, to themselves due to the fact that “as God’s chosen ones“ this is the most praiseworthy.
Members might have a personal interest in expounding life as an ex-member as negative, due to their own need for justification and therefore “paint the picture black”. But they also can have good reason for doing this: It is common that ex-members return, telling about the difficult life is outside the movement, thereby confirming what they were warned might happen if they left the movement. Sveinall (2000) says that the loneliness as a result of leaving can be a major reason for coming back to the fold.
It should be common knowledge that ex-members claim they were part of a closed sect, that outwardly, and in the beginning, seemed caring, trusting and dependable, but in reality proved to be an “iron hand in a silk glove”. Certain ex-members feel that it is their obligation to expose this sect. That is: Take away its legitimacy and influence. There is literature written by ex-members where they give concrete examples of their negative experience and have critical comment to the congregations’ teachings. Some examples are Velten (2002) who criticizes Smith’s Friends and Henriksen (2004) who finds fault with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
There are also examples of people who over an extended period of time have had important positions, but who later distance themselves from what they were involved in (Franz 1983, 1991), and try to document this by pointing to the extensive documentation they had available to them as former leaders. There are also ex-members from for example The Moon Group (Hassan,2000) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (Bergnman, 1992) who later, from a psychological standpoint, have presented criticism of the organizations they once were members of. The reliability of these statements from ex-members has often been criticized by representatives from the new religious congregations (for example Furuli, Groenwald, & Nerdrum, 2001) saying that they are guilty of gross exaggeration. They have also been criticized by scholars (Bromley & Shupe, 1981). The critique has most often been due to bias, for example stating that ex-members can have a personal interest in showing the status of members as more negative than it really was. This may, of course, be a point well taken, but that doesn’t mean that all negative and critical comments from ex-members are irrelevant.
And besides: When an ex-member with a critical eye decides to break away from a group due to one’s convictions despite internal group pressure, it would certainly suggest that the individual is reflective and confident, and definitely worth listening to.
A limitation to the information from ex-members can be when their selective memory can distort earlier experiences (Magnussen & Overskeid, 2003). Faulty memories can be contagious (Meade & Roediger, 2002). This may mean that ex-members who have a lot of contact with each other, and discuss their former experiences, can create and develop myths by influencing each other on a false basis by mutual agreeing on their interpretations (“don’t you also think so?”), as a contrast to ex-members who don’t have the same close contact.
Ex-members can also have a need for simplifying experiences which initially were complicated and complex. Some like to stress "the good old days", while others emphasize the negative aspects. The need for cognitive harmony (Festinger, Riecken & Schachtrt, 1956) can also be the reason why memory changes in order to create agreement between one’s memory, feelings, meanings, impressions and knowledge in general. However memories, or the interpretation of them, can also be improved as an “after-thought “, by for example gaining greater understanding for the relationship between membership and personal difficulties ("now I begin to understand how really damaging this was for me"), or the opposite become more moderate and less stringent in one’s evaluation ("but I did have some good experience and enjoyment!").
Quite a lot can happen with greater reflection and we see examples of this from other contexts. Bernt Hagtvet (2006) points out that the radical student politicians during the seventies were in the so-called "Potemkin Trap" when they visited the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and didn’t become aware of what was really happening there. This was also confirmed by a central member of the group (Steigan, 2003) who said, "I didn’t understand it then, but I certainly have for the last 20 years”. Anders Svenneby made this comment in the newspaper “Dagbladet“ 07.23.03: “We can’t even excuse ourselves by saying that we didn’t know better; information was available, but we preferred to see it as reactionary propaganda”.
Limitations on information from ex-members can also be related to subconscious selective reporting or because of a feeling of shame due to what one was involved in, or because one just lacks the energy to put things into words. Here we can find a parallel to the so-called investigations that were carried out here in Norway (Dyregrov & Heltne, 2005) where it was stated that "closer to 80 % couldn’t bare to tell everything to the commission” (pg. 691).
Therefore, when an ex-member “recalls” over a period of time it isn’t just a question of real happenings, but also an interaction between selective choices, memories, the interpretation of these, change of focus, attitude modifications and the influence from other people. But again: This doesn’t give us, as psychologists, reason to negate information from ex-members, quite the opposite, to meet them with respect and an open mind. Our knowledge of possible faulty sources, as are here described, will also be of assistance to us and our informants. Even if the information in some cases isn’t quite reliable, it can give us clues as to where the emphasis should be when doing research on New Religious Movements.
ANTI SECT ORGANIZATIONS
There are a number of organizations and individuals who have put on themselves the responsibility to inform about the difficulties in new religious groups. Hadden (2002) chose to put these into two categories: One of the groups has a doctrinarian focus and has traditionally directed their criticism towards groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Christian Scientists. The most well known of these organizations is the Christian Research Institute, Watchman Fellowship and Spiritual Counterfeits Project. Though these institutions have a focus on doctrine, they can supplement with valuable material concerning background information, especially about how members in different dissenter groups think and provide a fuller background about how unlike theological views form the basis for their practice.
The other group has its roots in the growth of non-conformist groups during the sixties, with a focus on warning the population in general against destructive elements that existed, for example brain washing, and with debriefing and kidnapping of members as a counter reaction. The grounds for this focus and this practice was to draw a parallel from dissenter groups brain washing strategies which according to Hunter (1956) were used in China as a part of their indoctrination program. These views have become more modified over time.
Today we rather speak about different forms and degrees of social influence that one group use to manipulate its members, techniques that we find in areas where persons or groups have the intent to influence, here it is used in a more intense way (Clark, Langone, Schecter, & Daly, 1981; Zimbardo 1997; Hassan, 2000). An exponent for this standpoint is Margaret Singer and her theory is “Systematic Manipulation of Social and Psychological Influence” whose clinical practice so far has not been confirmed empirically. In the USA the previously mentioned AFF is the most well known, while in Europe there is a similar organization: Fédération Européne des Centres de Recherche et d’Information sur le Sectarisme (Fecris). These organizations can provide valuable background material, but one must keep in mind that it is the destructive elements that are emphasized.
It has also been shown that within the group of former adherents from new religious congregations form a special kind of sub culture where “there is still a monkey on my back“. They have left a congregation with a charismatic leader, and a common goal, enemy and code, and instead established an anti sect organization with the same principles. So now the religious movement, and all others who won’t fight against it, have become the new enemies (Malka, 1997; Saliba, 2003). The credibility of information from such a group is less relevant, while at the same time their very existence in itself is an interesting and important subject.
On the strength of their own professional competence, especially the ability to reflect and understand learning strategies in addition to cognition, psychologists and other professional experts the potential to help a client to gain a deeper understanding of the situation than was the case at the starting point. They also have the possibility of stating something about the kind of difficulties the individual experiences and the most likely reasons for them. There is further reason for them to listen to ex-members from the same local congregation who, independent of each other, express similar experiences.
A specific example of this was from Asker, where one of the chief physicians at Blakstad Hospital, Asbjørn Korsvoll, in the newspaper gave a warning about a local new religious group. Under the title “Warns against a congregation“ (Budstikka, 09.19.05) where he says the following “Problems begin when they decide to leave the group. When they have been members in such a parish, being exposed to what must almost be considered brain washing, the result is that one loses the concept of one’s own identity. There is no support from the sect in this transitional phase. Quite the opposite. There is total expulsion”.
The background for this criticism was the referral of a patient who released him from his professional secrecy, as well as several other patients with similar experience. The day after the same newspaper had the headline “It is easy to abuse power“, by a psychiatric nurse, Brith Dybing (Budstikka, 09.20.05) which directed the same criticism towards the same group. She refers not only to her own professional practice, but also to her knowledge of one of the leaders of the group, the group’s organizational contacts and how the group had developed over time.
Without commenting further on this specific case, I feel it must be the therapist’s right, and definitely obligation, to inform both the public and other professionals about the negative sides of certain religious groups when considering this from a prevetive mental hygiene perspective. As psychologists perhaps we have to take steps to justify such a action judicially and in accordance with our ethics within our professional specialty.
But those offering treatment also have their limitations. In contact with members and ex-members the starting point is a variety of mental distress. This group is therefore not representative as far as making definite statements about mental illness. Therapists can also lack the necessary knowledge about the particular congregation or possess incorrect or misleading facts about it. It may be the case where they lack the knowledge of what the different religious groups stand for, due to not having had the opportunity to learn about them, or perhaps due to, on grounds of principle chose to keep a distance so as not to judge in beforehand. It can be a challenge to understand when active members paint a cloud with a silver lining and an when an ex-member goes in quite another direction. It can also be a bit of a mystery to understand what happens to a person in a totalitarian society over a short period of time, who seems to be a completely altered individual.
A parallel example to this is the so-called Stockholm syndrome (Ottoson, 1997).
Some specialists prefer to minimize the religious group’s influence and explain the rapid changes elsewhere by for example saying that “the potential for these changes were latent the whole time “(Singer, 1979; Bergman, 1992). Zimbardo & Ebbeson (1970) and Hassan (2000) mean that professionals in the USA point the wrong finger by thinking that the explanation for human deviation lies within us and not in our surroundings. On the other hand Saliba (2000) states that certain books (for example the book by Conway & Siegelman, (1995) have inspired many experts in the USA to focus too much on the circumstances surrounding the New Religious Movements as something that can happen quickly and with external pressure, and too little on the experience before membership, and, not the least, the individual’s ability to make independent choices. The important factor here is to have an open mind for many possibilities, for example genetic disposition and other assumptions about the individual, experiences before membership and influence / manipulation from the group, and thate these factors in combination can be the basis for the rapid change in relation to membership.
Experts can also lack knowledge about what makes certain individuals susceptible to recruitment than others. Hassan (2000) states that persons are more impressionable when they
- show an interest in magic or predicted happenings,
- due to their own insecurity are very busy trying to make other people satisfied,
- have a feeling of inferiority,
- are curious about hypnosis and techniques for conscious change,
- have learning disabilities,
- have a weakness for alcohol or drugs,
- have repressed sexual problems, or
- have unresolved traumas.
Hassan states that it is essential to differentiate between the motives for membership. He makes a distinction between those who seek an intellectual challenge, those who seek an emotional experience, those who see this as a meaningful job, and those who see this as the chance to feel God’s presence. Councilors can also lack knowledge about the reactions of ex-members, resulting in hasty conclusions concerning the causes. An example of this is “floating “ where ex-members for a period of time can “float” between perceptions of existence until one “lands“ and on a new perceptive basis – a phenomenon discussed by Hassan (1988) and Singer (1995), and which Hutchinson (1994) states that counselors sometimes interpret as psychosis. Members can also avoid informing about, or discussing their period as members, what the movement stood for, or their real motive for joining the group. The reason for this can be a reluctance to putting their religious community in a negative light. It can also mean holding back something that they feel people outside the movement wouldn’t understand or would find ridiculous.
One basic reason for membership may be the following: “One day I will be judged by God by what I have done with the revelations He has given me through this religious community. Should it be that I have not been obedient toward the organization, I will go to hell!”
For ex-members the situation can be just the opposite, for example that the therapist, devoid of relevant facts, just accepts the negative views of the ex-member, and doesn’t help the client to find other possible reasons for his mental difficulties, thereby setting the organization "free".
In addition to limited or fragmentary knowledge, a professional’s own stereotyped and latent thoughts and emotions concerning religious questions can influence the ability to think objectively and down to earth about others religious experiences (Bergersen, 1995). On the whole one’s own position is very important both personally, socially, academically, religiously, and culturally, in short everything that can play a part.
To illustrate this, Ulland (1995) states that varying theoretical starting points can explain why scholars have such different conclusions concerning the negative influence of sect membership, for example that some maintain that new religious communities through their activity provide the basis for a new type of mental illness (Delgado, 1997), while others view the attachment to sects as a conscious and necessary detachment from parental control and a healthy sidestep in ones psychological development. (Levine, 1984).
There can also be varied interpretation in the sphere of religious elitism (as I have chosen to define it). Can it be that all who think this way should be considered psychotic (or that they have psychotic traits) with reference to “insanity“, or should a professional psychologist tread carefully because as psychologists we can’t say much as far as “religious reality“ is concerned. One can also be subjective to fieldblindness (Malterud, 2003) in one only sees the information that confirms opinions already formed. In this way one can skip over new information that might be relevant.
Andersen (1994) states that those who work in the public treatment system have a particular obligtion to meet members and ex-members in an unbiased way, and not being biased by ones own culture and generelal attitude. Such situations can arise when a therapist meeting a “deeply religious” member can find fault with the client from the starting point, simply because he is "deeply religious". Some examples her might be a client who is very concerned with “winning the world for God”, who interprets the Bible literally, who think that the religious perspective is tantamount in everyday life or that one is completely subservient to one’s mate, or a charismatic leader or a detailed set of rules about how to live, who seeks an identity through membership in a group rather than defining one’s own identity (Hjertnes, Lindstrøm & Sam), who chooses to be celibate, are convinced of having “special spiritual gifts“, or state that God answers one’s prayers or speaks directly to oneself.
That professionals can have varied opinions as to where the limit goes as far as judging persons as psychotic in New Religious Movements can be illustrated by the following: In connection with the so-called Knutby case the Swedish Economic and Social Committee chose six experts who were to evaluate the behavior of Sara Svensson as psychotic or not. Five experts said yes, but the sixth (Göran Källberg) was of another opinion. He meant that even though her religious faith had serious consequences it was not equivalent to psychosis. Quite the opposite he meant that her actions were conscious and planned due to her deep rooted feeling of not losing contact with God, and that this kind of “passionate belief” can in many ways be compared to falling in love.” Both demand a total involvement that can cause drastic results” (Kindbom, 2005).
Zinnbauer & Parament (2000) assert that “those councilors who intend to work with religious and spiritual clients should require training, experience, and information about different religious and spiritual traditions and beliefs” (pg. 167).
But real competence here does not only concern itself with a good deal of hopefully objective knowledge of specific religious communities.
Of no less importance is it to understand the methodical approach one must use to reveal the mechanisms controlling the peoples motives and intentions to (1) initiate, organize and control such movements, (2) partake in this fellowship, as well as (3) adhere to organized trains of thought that require renouncing one’s intellectual and emotional autonomy.
One way to avoid the pitfalls connected to information from members, ex-members and councilors can be to obtain objective information starting with empirical studies of groups for example by using questionnaires and psychological group testing. Empirical studies of this kind have both advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side the meet the same standard of judging, these tests are easy to administer, they provide qualified data and the data can be related to standard norms. On the negative side questionnaires group testing can be retrospective and therefor possibly uncertain, it focus on self reporting which means that answers can reflect psychological variables giving imprecise answers, and that they don’t pick up subtle information, for example ambivalent answers, thereby making it unsertain if one is actually measuring the right thing.
Empirical studies can provide a basis for objective evaluation and have the possibility to clear up what are myths and what is reality. And difficulties with generalizations can be reduced by the use of meta analysis. But one drawback in relation to New Religious Movements is that there is ambiguity about how the phenomenon should be defined, so generalizing becomes difficult as long as there is no objective categorization of the various groups. Langone (1993) draws a parallel to the research that was done on mental illness when there were no clear diagnostic criteria. The classical discussion of quantity versus quality information "in bottom" is now considered outdated. Today both approaches can give valuable information in scientific forums (Malterud, 2003; Olweus, 2005).
Historically, New Religious Movements have be reluctant, or unwilling, to participate in empirical studies. Two exceptions to the rule have been a study done by Beckford (1995) of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the earlier mentioned one by Yeakly and others, (1998).The study by Beckford was a sociological study, but contains a good deal of valuable information for psychologists by, among other things, finding out what attracts one to become a member in such an organization and what characterizes the culture that members are invited into (for example that basic beliefs to a great degree were based on common sense, logic and reasoning.) Beckford himself had an open and positive relationship with the congregation, he was even permitted to take spot tests and the number of members was quite large (180 persons). Studies done by the group itself is of course an alternative (Furuli et al, 2001), but this presupposes that the group selected is based on random choice.
To carry out a study of ex-members is no easy task: If one requests interested subjects to apply, one can risk getting a group of ex-members with a biased overrepresentation of mental disturbances. Besides: The number of ex-members from new religious groups isn’t very large (Langone, 1993). Here is the math: Let's suppose there are 5 million people in Norway, and 5000 of these are ex-members belonging to a specific group. This means that only 1 out of 1000 people are ex-members. So if we want a representative group of individuals, we need to contact no less than 50,000 people! A way to handle this might be to take part in greater national surveys including a population of 10,000 or more, buying one’s way in with additional questions.
Another alternative can be to have access to a number of members in a specific geographic area. In return one must keep in mind that there can be great variations within the same religious movement.
Another possible solution is international surveys since many New Religious Movements are integrated both nationally and internationally (Wilson, 1990; Rudine, 2002). However regardless of the fact that one starts with “chosen groups”, volunteers, local groups or survey groups, the possibility exists for reticence or holding back information due to the fact that the informant denies or minimizes present or former membership (Langone, 1993).
A limitation with empirical studies is that all observation is from the outside looking in, with focus on certain elements not easily measured, which means it is questionable if one gets the total perspective of these “special“ sub cultures. The alternative is to meet the participant directly and employ different forms of individual and group interviews, for example structured interviews, semi structured interviews, qualitative personality interviews, narrative and anonymous responses (Kvale, 2001).
There are also possibilities of maintaining the advantages of empirical studies if only using standardized tests and structured interviews. However the direct contact can provide valuable additional information. But during such an interview the general principles of openness and objectivity, avoid leading questions, discretion and awareness of ethical dilemmas are of the utmost importance.
A thorough knowledge of the subject matter is also important, as this can form the basis for meaningful exchanges and the ability to find out which subjects one should delve into further. In this connection it is essential to keep in mind what may cause one to state a special hypothesis, if one is predisposed, or is there a hidden agenda with the interview, for example is there a concealed wish to get the informant to “think differently“.
In contact with the interview object it is of importance to keep in mind that the individual may have been instructed to consider those outside the group with skepticism or animosity, that those conducting interviews are a part of what the congregation from the beginning have a negative attitude towards, or that the interviewer will lool at the informant as a snitch. Therefore, being honest and stating what the theories and themes are, and how this is to be presented, will be of the greatest importance. There may also be ethical dilemmas when questions are asked which are meant to be objective but perceived as strange or threatening to the person being questioned.
The use of focus groups (Malterud, 2003) is relevant if we wish to obtain further knowledge about experiences, attitudes or viewpoints in a group where a number of individuals interact. This is a timesaving and rational way to obtain quality data and also provide for the different members to clarify and explain their own and other members meanings. But for new religious groups with strong pressure to conformity such a method can have its limitations in respect to finding out what the real meanings are.
Interviewers should also be aware of subconscious emotional reactions between both parts can occur.
An example of this may be when one avoids following a train of thought because it seems in some way threatening. Hunt (1989) further states that transference and countertransference are also relevant in relationships during fieldwork.
Transference can also cause the informant to show a reaction from earlier experiences, for example negative experience with persons in authority, while the opposite can result in the interviewer interpreting the informant’s reluctance to give information as “opposition “ with the reason being experience with similar “previous informants.”
While interviewing ex-members one must tread carefully when meeting those with a traumatic background. Studies carried out in Norway of State Orphanages caused Dyregrov & Heltne (2005) to comment that “reactivating old memories is the greatest danger when starting these investigations” (pg. 690). This stresses how important it is that the interviewer has the necessary competence or this type of work and that one is aware of the ethical issue how deeply can one delve into another person’s psyche who may be vulnerable and have traumas.
Since an interview is also a form of communication, it must be kept in mind that there are stress factors that may result in a collapse in communicating, for example: Have I managed to find out what I wish to know? Has the person being interviewed managed to really communicate with me? Do we use the same words in the same way, or do we mean different things? What is being told to me nonverbally? Do I myself give out non verbal signals that may hinder good communication? What is the total reaction to this interview? And so on.
It is also possible that an informant not having an open relationship to the leader of the group, chose to play down one's problem, because the informant is not sure whether information will be passed on to the leader, or not.
One way of getting closer to members than through empirical studies or interviews is to be an observer. In such field studies one is free to choose a variety of roles, depending upon personal involvement (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1996). One extreme is to be an active part (Andersen, 1993) the point being to observe “from the inside “. This makes it possible to observe what is said, what is ment and what is done, and if these coincide, all of which can be of interest to the observer.
As a participating part one must avoid two pitfalls: One is meeting the group with a blue eyed attitude, or letting oneself be impressed and blinded by observation, and thus not see those traits that can or have the potential to create difficulties for its members. Attempting to understand its members from the inside can also be an illusion when members in the community for one or another reason feel trapped. The following example from Patton (1990, pg. 208) illustrates this:
Inmate: What are you here for, man?
Evaluator: I’m here for a while to find out what it’s like to be in prison.
Inmate: What do you mean—to find out what it’s like?
Evaluator: I’m here so that I can experience prison from the inside instead of just studying what it’s like from out here.
Inmate: You got to be jerkin’ me off, man. Experience from the inside..? Shit, man you can go home when you decide you’ve had enough, can’t you?
Inmate: Then you ain’t never gonna know what it’s like from the inside.
Would there be any point in becoming an active member? Hardly. When one goes in personally and becomes an active member, with all the consequences of belonging, the fellowship, the communal dependence, and so on, one renounces the necessary distance and possibility of keeping an objective and scientific attitude. As a scientist one will never be able to partake in a community with 100% (for example in relation to dependence) as the ordinary members. A possible solution to this dilemma is a field survey where one can maintain the scientific identity and distance, but at the same time be a part of group activities, be a good conversationalist and play a role that is relevant to the particular traits and expectations of the group (Ringnes, 1997; Thagaard, 2003).
In this manner it is possible to achieve an acceptance and in this way get the information and insight into situations that as a scientist would otherwise have been very difficult. In this area psychologists can have much to learn from anthropology where over a period of over 100 years have worked with inclusion in the group and developed an understanding of both the analysis and emotional and intellectual contact with those who are the object of study.
Another problem with group observation is openness. To be completely honest about one’s intentions and motives can, when meeting a group interested in giving a favorable impression, cause them not to be authentic enough (Douglas, 1976). On the other hand hiding one’s intentions is rather dishonest, (Shils, 1959). Hidden observation can be detrimental to the informant, who might feel the observer like an actor on a stage and thus betrayed, which means difficulty with further cooperation (Thagaard, 2003). The American Sociological Association (Lipson, 1994) therefore considered such observation to be unethical. However, Thagaard (2003, pg. 72) says the following: “An alternative perspective, which is far less used, points out that hidden observation can be defended in specific situations to find out certain things.” According to Thagaard (2003, pg. 73) Repstad (1987) stated that hidden observation can be defended when studying elite groups when they conceal information and assume that the expert’s involvement is disturbing for their own activity.
In this connection it is possible that this is an effective method when studying a group that intentionally wishes to give a good impression outwardly, that also wishes to control the kind of information that comes out, or knows that parts of their activity would be difficult to defend from the standpoint of “human rights”. At the same time the observer has the great moral responsibility not to use information that is detrimental to the informants, by focusing on discretion and anonymity when data are presented.
Another way of gathering relevant information of New Religious Movements is to read their publications, in an attempt to understand them from their side of the fence. There can be great disparity between different movements as far as making their publications available to the public. Some prefer to give information orally and have internal publications and maintain a low profile to the outside world, while others put a lot of weight on giving information about what they stand for. A good example of the latter is Jehovah’s Witnesses. So in order to better understand what they stand for, I choosed to read their entire publication of the “Watch Tower“ and “Wake Up” from 1997 to 2000.
When reading such publications one must be aware of being captivated by one’s own predisposition after having read negative comments in advance. One must also keep in mind that the way the culture of membership is presented doesn’t necessarily coincide with how it really is, but rather can be a presentation of how the leader thinks it is, or wants it to be. Further it is also true that various groups can change their way of thinking over time which can have consequences for the mental problems for members and ex-members. And the mental situation for members can be related to earlier doctrine as much as to recent teachings.
One can also learn about new religious communities in regard to what others on the outside have said about them. It is necessary to decide if what one reads is what members and ex-members thinks about themselves, what those outside the congregation mean or what emphasis an expert would put on things, and in summation what is fact and what is fiction. Some of this literature has a critical eye.
A concrete example is "The Faith Movement", which during the last 20 years has had huge success on a world basis but met with a lot of criticism both in English speaking countries (Hunt,1987; Masters,1988; Hanegraff 1993; Hill, Fenwick, Forbes & Noakes,1997), in Sweden (Reichmann,1990; Swarling & Swarling, 1993) and in Norway (Wilting,2003). Much criticism has been directed towards authoritarian leadership, demonizing, evoking emotional reactions with psychotic content, negating spiritual needs, psychical manipulation and mental suffering, as well as derogatory comments about other religious groups. In relation to doctrine the greatest criticism has been directed towards the question of God’s position in the universe (lack of teocentrisity) as well and the questions of morals and ethics, their viewpoint on the gift of grace, revelations, unction, and the position of apostles.
Regardless of which informants and methods one uses, the main question will always be: Do we uncover the real mechanisms that give us the understanding how such groups are established and why people join them? It is well worth remembering the fact that a cultural way of expression simlpy is a tool, and doesn’t actually tell us very much about the contents or the intentions which lay behind.
The uses of systematic techniques of influence can, but don’t necessarily mean, that they act or manipulate or conduct themselves due to an hidden agenda. There are to be found so many individuals so impressed with their own thoughts that, they perhaps without really understanding the extent of their actions, and because of their legitimate position of power, do what they can to recruit members into their organization, if necessary using the principle that the end justifies the means, since they are working for a good cause. However, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions, and good intentions are small comfort for people who suffer mental difficulties due to the as a consequence of uncritical goals.
TRIANGULATION AND DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
In the USA today there is an ongoing debate about the question of to which degree New Religious Movements can have a negative influence on their members, and an effort to find a compromise in understanding this issue (Zablocki & Robbins, 2001; Langone, 2005). These conflicting viewpoints are probably closely associated with special interest groups and scholars who have different focus in their evaluation of New Religious Movements. Some focus on the theological aspects, some the cultural and social elements, some on the mental aspects, some on what we can learn from them, and some on the assumed negative and problematical aspects.
One sided perspectives are in any case counterproductive. One way to progress for psychology and other related sciences is using the so-called method of triangulation (Patton,1990; Malterud 2003; Thagaard, 2003), which means using different sources, methods and competent insight to “zoom “ in to a common focus, and through confirmation or rejection strengthen or dismiss the validity of varying temporary conclusions. An example of this can be when a group of psychologists on the basis of common experience present a hypothesis stating that there can be a specific connection between what a specific congregation stands for and the mental problems found in the ir members and ex-members. This hypothesis can be affirmed or denied by analyzing what the congregation stands for, describe this in theological, psychological, sociological and anthropological terminology, analyze unlike expectations in the congregation that is evident in their scripture and from their representatives, obtain information from members and ex-members, and/or carry out empirical studies focusing on the type and extent of mental problems among the members and ex-members. If all, or most of this type of information points in a certain direction, it will be possible to give an evaluation of a possible conclusion, which will be a valuable tool for clinical practice and further empirical studies within the different academic fields.
An illustration of triangulation is the formerly mentioned congregation in Asker where a chief physician and a psychiatric nurse with both similar and dissimilar starting points confirmed each other. Triangulation can also be extended to other scientific groups, where representatives work together with members/ex-members with different skills and theoretical and personal viewpoints, are able to work together, for example through different consensus conferences, workshops, debates, and fruitful discussions on an interdisciplinary basis.
An example of this from Norway and an attempt at triangulation was a conference held in Oslo 12.11.01 for "Save The Children" (Go On Project) with a number of experts. Here both scholars and representatives from the various religious groups presented their viewpoints. Another example is conducting seminars for the professionals, psychologists, theologians and other relevant persons who can share their experience with each other, as has been done at The Institute for Spiritual Counseling since 1997.
Interdisciplinary cooperation is highly recommended by Saliba (2003, pg. vii) who states: ”examining the new religions from different academic perspectives is a necessary preliminary step for understanding their presence in our age and for drafting an effective response to their influence.”
A concrete example that shows the necessity of such cooperation is the following: Theologists can use their knowledge to present hypothesis concerning questions that can be pathological, but their knowledge of psychopathology is limited. Psychologists on the other hand have little knowledge about religious dogma, but they have a lot of knowledge about what can be pathological. Together these competent experts may arrive at precise evaluations concerning the relationship between theology and psychopathology.
Another example is the unlike approach of sociologists and psychologists. Repstad (1994) states that sociologists may have a tendency to overidentify with the members and neglect the authoritarian traits, and that psychologists tend to pathologize the members. Perhaps the situation is as Bromlet, Hadden & Hammond (1987) stated (according to Repstad) that psychologists to a greater degree than sociologists view the personality as a permanent, stable factor and that sociologists aren’t so surprised when they see rapid changes of attitude as a result of role change and context.
The path to claims and assumtions is often short. They road to understanding can be much longer. To really learn about this phenomenon requires time, openness, cooperation and an awareness of one’s own position, both professionally and personally, as well as the ability to be corrected and be able to look at the same problem from different perspectives. A parallel to this is the criticism that was directed towards the Norwegian Embassy in Germany/by cultural attaché John Meyer who said that the project The White Busses gives Norwegian youth the wrong impression of Germany, since this project focuses on a small and destructive and only historically relevant side of the German society (NRK’s internet 06.11.05). The point being is that through this kind of project one can create unnecessary prejudice towards a whole nation. But the point is well taken that Norwegian youth has a very superficial understanding of our European history and should become aware of the destructive sides too.
In relation to New Religious Movements psychologists and other experts (sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, politicians, doctors, lawyers, theologists, social workers, etc.) should try to understand this phenomenon from the inside and the outside, have the perspective both on the pathological as well as well as the positive sides, avoid preconceptions, show humility in relation to new and unknown aspects, develop the skill to objectively see cause and effect, and through triangulation or other form of cross knowledge acquire new and relevant information.
Such knowledge can for example concern itself with a better understanding of the social mechanisms that pertain to politics, organization, academic knowledge, economy, culture and theology which exist within these congregations and how such mechanisms influence the mental state of those involved.
It can also be related to how much good this phenomenon is, or isn’t for our cultural picture as a whole. Viewed from a moral/ethical point of view we can discuss whether such elite religious groups through their “revelations “ give our society something positive in the way of perceiving reality, or that such congregations contribute something negative due to the fact that they use their authoritarian way of thinking as a strategy to legitimate their power through their unique knowledge.
One can also discuss the moral philosophic dilemma if one has the right, or obligation to warn people against certain religious groups, or to try to influence members to leave, while at the same time following the same principles that one has criticized these groups for following (ref: using war to defend people’s right to freedom or to kill someone in order to protect oneself from violence).
When focusing on mental well-being or other aspects of New Religious Movements, triangulation is useful for psychologists as well as other scholars and can contribute to a constructive response to our own society, for example by opposing common negative attitudes that we find in myths and stereotypes, or - the opposite - create an awareness of potentially problematical phenomena.
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