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How Religious Shunning Ruins Lives


The following article appeared on " Psychology Today" few days ago and is based on research from Fern Schumer Chapman.


KEY POINTS

  • Religious shunning is a social death penalty that results in long-term detrimental effects on mental health.

  • The brain registers exclusion as physical pain that cuts deeper and lasts longer than bodily injury.

  • Ostracism instigates actions to recover thwarted needs of belonging, self‐esteem, and a meaningful existence.

  • Over one million disfellowshipped (shunned) Jehovah's Witnesses are alive today—10 percent of active members.

A former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Josh Caswell Sr., reached out to me after reading one of my posts about estrangement. He asked that I explore the policy practiced in some religions of shunning.

In religious communities, shunning means cutting ties with members—even family—who don’t explicitly follow religious beliefs and the leaders’ demands or who wish to break with their religion. Religious shunning is a form of estrangement and emotional abuse.

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Shunning is widely practiced among certain religions—including the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Scientology, the Amish, and Orthodox Judaism—to control the conduct of its members. A silent form of bullying and rejection, the practice—more common among cult-like denominations—ensures that the identity of a collective group does not tolerate individual thinking.

The Watchtower, the official Jehovah’s Witnesses magazine, reports that 1 in every 100 Jehovah's Witnesses is “disfellowshipped” each year—a total of more than 80,000. Of these, fully two-thirds will not be reinstated. This means that more than 1 million disfellowshipped Jehovah's Witnesses are alive today who are being shunned—more than 10 percent of the number of active Jehovah's Witnesses.

One man's personal journey after shunning

“I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness in Massachusetts,” says Caswell, 45, who now lives in Arizona and works as a diagnostics specialist for Pep Boys auto services.

“In my 20s,” he says, “I ‘faded out’ of religion. I felt it was too restrictive and didn’t allow me to be a human being. The cost was losing all my family and friends.”

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That’s a high price to pay for being human. Recent studies show that shunning has a long-term, detrimental effect on mental health, job possibilities, and life satisfaction. Intense loneliness and a feeling of loss of control over one’s life are common after leaving. The culture of informing on other members inside the Jehovah's Witnesses also leads to a continued sense of distrust and suspicion long after leaving.

“The religion teaches that if someone decides to leave the religion,” explains Caswell, “the entire congregation—including family members—shuns that person by not talking to them and avoiding them as much as possible. My family has shunned me for over 25 years. I know first-hand that the result is devastating.”

Research has shown that shunned individuals often experience feelings of depression, helplessness, hopelessness, low self-esteem, suicide ideation, and self-harming behaviors. That’s certainly what happened to Caswell.

“I was very smart in school. I was taking 11th-grade subjects when I was in 9th grade. I had a full scholarship to MIT, but I wasn’t able to go to college because that’s not something they believe in. Why waste your time going to college when the end of the world is just around the corner? I was forced to give up that educational opportunity.”

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Caswell says that pursuing any career was discouraged because religious leaders preferred that potential husbands devote their time to the church, as elders in the congregation, or as pioneers who preach some 90 hours a month. To protect these priorities, he was allowed to date only within the congregation.

At 17, Caswell left the religion. He says his father, an elder in the congregation, had raped six of his eight sisters. The church said it would handle the abuse internally, but his father was disfellowshipped for only a month before being reinstated. He believes his mother orchestrated the sexual abuse.

“I honored my parents when I was living with them,” he says. “But I was never happy. So I set forth to find out who I was.”

By the time Caswell was 20, everyone in the congregation, including three sisters, had stopped communicating with him. In abandoning his religion, Caswell left a safe “bubble”—but he knew nothing of the outside world. Consequently, he went from one extreme to another, following a dangerous path on which he drank to excess and used crystal meth. Eventually, he became suicidal and ended up living in his car.

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For the last 19 years, he has been clean. However, he has had no relationship with his mother or other family members for decades. His father passed away years ago; they were estranged at the time of his death.

Studies on ostracism

Humans have a primal need for social support. Without a sense of belonging—a feeling of emotional safety and context—people come to fear that their very lives are at risk. They lose the ability to trust and connect with others, instead becoming consumed by the task of surviving alone.

Shunning, therefore, is like a social death penalty—and studies prove this point. Exclusion has been found to cause pain that cuts deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury, according to Dr. Kipling D. Williams, a distinguished professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University who is noted for his unique studies of ostracism.

When someone is shunned—even by a stranger, even only briefly—Dr. Williams has found that they experience a strong and harmful reaction, activating the same area of the brain that registers physical pain. The crucial difference between physical and psychic injury is that physical damage heals, while social injuries linger. In his studies of more than 5,000 people, Dr. Williams used a computer game to show how just two or three minutes of ostracism can produce ongoing negative feelings.

“Our studies indicate that the initial reaction to ostracism is pain,” he explains, “which is similarly felt by all individuals regardless of personality or social/situational factors. Ostracism then instigates actions aimed at recovering thwarted needs of belonging, self‐esteem, control and meaningful existence.”

Caswell, who asked me to use his real name because he wants his voice heard, says that religious leaders know full well the profound psychological impact of shunning. “That’s exactly why they do it,” he says. “Shunning is not love; it’s how Jehovah’s Witnesses discipline members. It’s a form of punishment.”

References

Williams, Kipling D., NidaView, Steve (2014) Ostracism and Public Policy, Sage Journals, Volume 1, Issue 1, https://doi.org/10.1177/237273221454975

Harper, Janice (2011) A Reason (and Season) to Stop Shunning, HuffPost, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-reason-and-season-to-st_b_1146103

Luther, Rosie (2022) What Happens to Those Who Exit Jehovah's Witnesses: An Investigation of the Impact of Shunning, National Library of Medicine, PubMed.

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