Leaving a Cult or Religion: Comparing 1st and 2nd Generation “Ex’s”

Image for post
Image for post

I was born into a fundamentalist Christian family. I attended church for the first time as an infant, about 2 weeks old, held on my mother’s lap during the service. From then on, I was always in church: Sunday morning and evening services, Wednesday night youth group, and church events on many other nights of the week. As an adult, I went into the ministry, with the aim of becoming a pastor or a Bible college teacher. I attended Bible college, did two Master’s degrees at a seminary, and then finally completed my PhD in biblical studies and homiletics (preaching). In between all of the academics, I pastored a church in Portland, OR, for 12 years; after that, we moved to the UK for my doctoral work, whereupon I taught at a Bible college for another 8 years.

After leaving pastoral ministry, however, I started having my doubts about the faith in which I’d not only been raised, but served as a pastor and teacher to many hundreds of people. As I deconstructed my faith, I finally made the decision about 10 years ago first of all to leave the church, and then a few years later, my Christian faith entirely. Along with many other thousands — if not tens of thousands — of ex-evangelicals, I sort of figured that was the aim of the whole thing: deconstruct, get out, and move on with life sans religion.

But it was my study of cult psychology a few years ago that began to open my eyes to the reality that the deconstruction/reconstruction saga is far more complicated than I’d first imagined. Reading Dr Jay Lifton’s important work on the psychology of mind control — Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism — led me into an entirely new region of thought and work. In other words, as ex-Scientologist Jon Atack expresses it, I started learning how to “unpick the conditioning.”

First of all, after leaving your cult or religion behind, it’s important to ask the question: exactly how were we controlled, manipulated, indoctrinated, duped or even, in some cases, lied to by those authority figures to whom we looked for guidance and direction in our religion? Investigating the answers to those sorts of questions is critical to disempower the various psychological tactics and coercive mind control techniques that may have been used on us.

Second — the focus of this article — involves understanding the key differences between what are termed “first-generation” and “second-generation” members of religious groups or cults. These helpful categories can help firstly to orient you, and secondly perhaps will set you on a path toward the recovery and reconstruction of your identity.

In this case, I am focusing specifically on comparing/contrasting the differences between the following two groups:

In the case of both groups, whether you identify as 1 or 2, I believe that the truly important aspect is this: to focus on your efforts at reconstruction, following the oftentimes difficult decision to leave your cult or religion, and the deconstruction of your former belief system.

Keep in mind also that these two categories are useful ones for simpler classification. In reality, there are cults and controlling religions that have been around long enough that there are 3rd, 4th, 5th generations, etc., born into them. I only use these two in order to distinguish between those born in versus those who joined at some point in their lives. Like anything, there’s a lot more nuance to the discussion.

Comparing 1st- and 2nd-Generation

Roughly speaking (in generalities obviously), one of the major differences between the two groups is this: whether or not you experienced the formation of a “cult/church identity” while you were actually in the religion or cult in question.

In other words, there’s a major contrast between those of us who grew up in religion/cults as opposed to those who entered it later in life. The primary difference is this: for the most part, those of us born into it simply accepted what we were taught as absolutely true from day 1, and therefore really never had the chance to form a “pre-religion/cult identity” at all. Growing up in the milieu of the cult or religion, therefore, our identity was essentially formed by the religion itself, our parents’ beliefs and training, Christian school experiences, cult teaching/indoctrination, etc.

By contrast, those who entered the cult or religion at some point later in life had a pre-religion identity; but then, as their time in the cult/religion extended into months or years, a curious phenomenon tends to happen: they begin to form a “cult identity” or “religious identity.” Primarily, this has to do with more of a sociological drive — it’s done in order to fit into the group, or to ease experience of cognitive dissonance, etc. This phenomenon is what psychiatrist and cult expert Dr Robert Lifton calls “doubling” — the formation of essentially what becomes “a second self.”


In addition to speaking of it in his work Thought Reform, Lifton also comments on this phenomenon in his 1981 article, “Cult Formation.” Technically part of Lifton’s “milieu control” category (the context of the religion or cult that leaders seek to establish in order to manipulate and control followers), this is something that takes place within the religious/cult context: the doubling of one’s personality. In his article, Lifton explains how it works when he states: “Intense milieu control can contribute to a dramatic change of identity which I call doubling: the formation of a second self which lives side by side with the former one, often for a considerable time. When the milieu control is lifted, elements of the earlier self may be reasserted.” In his concluding sentence, I believe that Lifton is describing the process of reconstruction — the re-establishment or recovery of one’s original or authentic self after leaving the group.

I believe that the concept of doubling is a great way to describe the process that takes place in the midst of a very controlling or totalistic environment. It may provide a helpful description, for example, as to why so many SS soldiers in Nazi Germany were able to commit mass murder or unspeakable atrocities in concentration camps during the day, and then return home to their families to act as loving parents and husbands. One could describe these two identities as in “The Auschwitz self” — the bad self; and the “husband/father self” — the original, authentic, or good self. Doubling is also a very handy way to quell the cognitive dissonance one feels when troubling doubts begin to arise about what you’re being told is true.

Lifton is careful to point out that doubling is not the same as a split or multiple personality disorder (MPD); it’s more about socialization, the effort to “fit in” with the group and avoid ostracization. On this point, Dr G.A. Bradshaw, in an article in Psychology Today entitled “15 Minutes of Shame,” comments that Lifton “called the mechanism that maintains conflicting ethical worlds of existence, ‘doubling.’ Doubling falls within the same category as dissociation, splitting, and numbing that are mental methods to have your cake and eat it too…Split-world living is accomplished by creating two functioning, interdependent wholes within our self.

These twin selves are independent, yet connected…With doubling, the two selves live like conjoined twins in their respective environments, neatly housed in the same person. An individual can claim to be an artist seeking to enlighten humanity on one hand, while at the same time committing atrocities in the name of said art, with no sense of ethical or perceptual incongruity. Doubling permits us to imagine one thing, do another ethically thing in conflict, then regard the diametrically opposing concepts and actions as related and congruent.”

1st-Generation Experiences

For those 1st-generation folks who entered into a cult or controlling religion at some point in their lives and then left it, their experiences are very different to 2nd-generation people, for the reasons stated above. Unlike those born in, they actually had a “pre-cult identity” prior to joining. During their time in the group, oftentimes they may have experienced the “doubling” Lifton describes, in an effort at socialization within the group. Like an actor who puts on a mask to play a role onstage, those who “double” become adept at transforming themselves into something (and someone) other than what and who they truly are.

Once they leave the cult or religion, however, the challenge is to go back and recover their original, pre-cult or pre-religious identity they had formed prior to joining the group, once the milieu control exercised by the cult/religion is lifted.

Their original, authentic identity may have been intentionally suppressed during their time in the group and labeled as “evil” or unworthy. In his book Combating Cult Mind Control, Steven Hassan states that during his time in the Moonies cult, he experienced the phenomenon of doubling. As time went on, he says, the new cult identity “completely suppressed the real me.” He explains the psychology behind it by stating: “In these groups, basic respect for the individual is secondary to the leader’s whims and ideology. People are manipulated and coerced to think, feel, and behave in a single ‘right way.’ Individuals become totally dependent on the group and lose the ability to act or think on their own.”

Oftentimes, after leaving it behind, and looking back on their experiences with increasing objectivity, many of the 2nd-generation people are rightly angry. Why? They begin to realize to their horror that they were duped, controlled, abused, indoctrinated and manipulated by the leader or those in the group. Kept in a state of permanent juvenility by the cult, upon leaving many seek to “recover their lost adolescence” later in life. They will often get into all sorts of “rebellious teenage behavior” in an attempt to live out that part of their life they weren’t allowed to experience due to the restrictive rules, codes and strictures of their religious context.

This type of activity is what psychiatrists, cult experts and sociologists refer to as regression: the attempt to regain one’s lost adolescence. On this phenomenon, Atack comments: “When a first generation member lets go, they often seem to regress to age twelve, because that is the age that any cult (including Consumerism) likes to keep its members. A twelve-year-old still believes that the parent is a hero and is still compliant to direction. Many former members shift into adolescent dissent when they leave a cult. So the message boards are full of furious, inconsiderate former members, determined to rebel against anyone who disagrees with their new fixed opinions.”

Examples of this “rebellious activity” include the following behaviors: men growing out their hair/beards for the first time; women cutting off their long hair (if the cult commanded them to keep it long); eating of foods that the religion forbade; drinking to excess, or possibly even becoming an alcoholic; drug experimentation; getting a tattoo, piercings or other body modifications; going a bit over the top in terms of sexual exploration/sexual activity; ranting on social media or message boards with angry posts about their former religious experience; attempting to expose publicly the abuses of their cult/religion; angrily confronting their parents, leaders or current friends still in the religion/cult; doing the “angry atheist/angry theist” thing, etc.

The danger of course is that at any point, one can get stuck in unhealthy, toxic and destructive patterns. This can prove to be just as damaging to oneself as it is to those around them. However, if they successfully work through this phase and deal with their anger, then they often feel like they can begin to understand and recover their “authentic self” or pre-cult identity.

For the 1st-generation ex-cultist, then, the journey is about working through their anger and other related issues, and ultimately rediscovering — and reconstructing — the identity they started to develop prior to joining the group.

2nd-Generation Experiences

Generally speaking, those of us 2nd-generation folks that were born into it don’t tend to exhibit the same doubling phenomenon as 1st-generation cultists may have, for the reasons listed above. As stated, all we knew from the beginning were the cult/religion’s dogmas, and therefore this milieu meant that the religious identity was our only identity. For many, it’s harder to leave it all behind because it’s the only world we ever knew, however dysfunctional it may have been. But following the difficult decision to walk away from it all, we now face the immense challenge of creating our identity from scratch — one that has little or nothing to do with our “original” religious one.

Psychologically, what happens when second-generation cultists start to “wake up” and begin questioning the dogma they were raised to believe was entirely true? What takes place when they start to deconstruct and finally make the difficult decision to leave the cult or religion in which they were born and raised? Remember, in the main we didn’t have a pre-religion identity; so what are we supposed to do?

Atack points out in this regard that “Second-generation members may have to discover adolescence, rather than return to it. They may not have had a care-giver of any sort during childhood, and they may have suffered severe abuse in groups like the Twelve Tribes or the Children of God. They may have difficulty forming relationships, because they have not been taught how. This leads to the province of attachment theory. As cult members have often been phobically shielded from any development in the human sciences, it makes it especially difficult for them to consider well-established notions in psychology, and attachment is a very important one.”

If, for example, a 2nd-generation member suffered abuse at the hands of a cult leader or member, or didn’t have a responsible caregiver, then clearly these will present challenges that are critically important to work through. In terms of developing relationships, those raised inside the confines of a controlling cult or religion knew little or nothing outside of that, and have to learn how to relate to people in the “real world.” This is even more the case for those who were taught that the outside world was filled with evil, sinful people ruled by demonic powers bent on destroying their religion’s way of life. Upon leaving, they are shocked to find that not every person out there is a Satan-worshiping drug addict, prostitute, alcoholic, or homicidal maniac!

Thus, for the 2nd-generation person, it’s more about discovering one’s authentic identity, and learning how to relate to others in a non-religious context “outside the bubble.” It’s also about working through the sense of anger and betrayal that those who raised us, and taught us the “truth” may have either been intentionally lying to us, or simply didn’t do their due diligence.

In addition, it often involves dealing with the specter of having to confront family members, friends, or trusted authority figures who taught us the doctrines and dogmas of the group or religion that we’ve now rejected as false. There’s also the aspect of dealing with sexual, psychological or spiritual abuses that may have occurred within the milieu of the religion, as well as various issues involving one’s religious trauma syndrome, anxiety, depression and PTSD.

Ultimately, then, for the 2nd-generation person, their journey is primarily about the discovery of, and building, their authentic identity denied them by their religious background. It’s also about learning how to love others authentically and without conditions; how to enjoy relationships, and have healthy relationships with others free of conditions; learning how to move forward and live a new life in a “world without God” as it were; and how to coexist peacefully within society at large, free from the constraints of having to deal with the constant anxiety of saving others, or the world.


Whether you identify as a 1st- or 2nd-generation ex-cult or ex-religious person, there are many challenges associated with both the deconstruction and the reconstruction aspects of your life, moving forward. Both sets of people must deal with feelings of anger and betrayal at the loss of identity, time, money, etc. that they experienced while a part of their religious group. Most likely, all of us still have friends or family members still involved in the religion we’ve left, and that brings up a whole host of challenges to be worked through also.

Others will have to work through the various abuses they may have suffered at the hands of cult or religious leaders, be they sexual, psychological, or spiritual — or all three. Therapy and counseling have proven to be hugely helpful for many who still struggle with these sorts of issues from their past, such as religious trauma syndrome, anxiety, hell-induced PTSD, religious scrupulosity, and depression.

In terms of the recovery and reconstruction of one’s identity, what I’ve found helpful involves the further exploration of these categories I’ve briefly described above. Once you begin to orient yourself as a 1st- or 2nd-generation person, the journey toward recovery becomes a bit more clear. Furthermore, knowing that there are many tens of thousands — if not millions — out there who had similar lived experiences to yours is hugely empowering. Joining online support groups who left the specific cult or religion of which you were a part can be very helpful in this regard.

Sharing the experiences of others, and hearing their stories, gives us the language to be able to describe our own experiences — and helps us to learn how to recover aspects of our lives and identities that we thought were forever lost.

Contact Information

Follow me on Twitter @MindShift2018

Subscribe to the MindShift Podcast on iTunes, PodBean, Stitcher, or Spotify!

Written by

I’m an ex-evangelical speaking out about the dangers posed by the Christian Right, dominion theology, and Christian nationalism. Host of the MindShift podcast.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store