The Italian scholar tells “Bitter Winter” that research conducted among members of six groups debunks the myth that affiliation always derives from mental manipulation.
by Massimo Introvigne
For over thirty years, Raffaella Di Marzio has been involved in researching, studying, and lecturing about minority religions and new religious movements, both in Italy and internationally. She is engaged in teaching and continuing education in the areas of psychology of religious conversion and deconversion, group psychology, and sociology of deviance applied to the use of the “cult” stigmatizing label by the media and anti-cult movements.
She has co-authored and updated three encyclopedic projects, including the “Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy,” in cooperation with CESNUR, and is a member of the scientific committees of two academic journals. Di Marzio is also the director of the Center for the Study of Freedom of Religion, Belief, and Conscience (LIREC), which works to promote and defend the right to freedom of religion or belief, and is engaged in a constant and critical dialogue with Italian and international institutions.
She is the author of four books and numerous essays and articles, and a lecturer in two Master’s Degree programs, at the Adventist University of Florence and the University of Bari. “Bitter Winter” discusses with Di Marzio her latest book, “Scelta e abbandono di una comunità spirituale. Percorsi di cambiamento e sviluppo personale” (Choosing and Abandoning a Spiritual Community: Paths of Change and Personal Development, Sesto San Giovanni: Mimesis, 2023).
If you wanted to indicate a founding idea of your new book, how would you summarize it?
The book is about psychological research on the phenomenon of affiliation to and disaffiliation from new religious movements, very often labeled as “cults.” I believe that psychological research, if it meets the criteria of scientific methodology, can identify what factors are at play, and to what extent the choice to join, remain in, or leave a new religious movement may contribute (or not) to promote the individual’s personal and social development. The perspective of my work, that of the psychology of religion, is aimed at identifying both liberating and limiting elements of growth and free choice in religion.
Why did you write this book?
Because I have been involved in the study of this phenomenon for many years. I have tried with this work to offer a useful contribution to the debate on the degree of freedom that a person exercises when she decides to join or leave a new religious movement. To counter the position of those who consider every form of proselytizing as a form of mental manipulation and every conversion to a minority religious group as the result of psychological abuse, it is important to always argue on the basis of data collected in the field and relevant scientific literature, rather than of personal prejudices.
My interpretive hypothesis, which argues for the voluntary and free nature of the decision to join a movement or leave it, is supported by data. It confirms my critical stance toward those theories that see individuals as entirely “passive” in the face of the charismatic power of others or of pressures that would limit their freedom to leave.
What are the main themes covered in the book?
The book is basically a psychological reflection on the complex phenomenon of affiliation to and disaffiliation from new religious movements. It starts with a critical and synoptic examination of interviews with twenty-four people affiliated to and disaffiliated from six different movements. Through the data collected, I was able to capture some of the determinants of religious choice: individual psychological dynamisms, social processes, and relational dynamics between members and ex-members, emphasizing the transformative potential of these experiences.
Are there some themes in your book that you feel are under-researched?
I believe that an original aspect of this work is the choice to interview people disaffiliated from their respective movements who, in most cases, remained on good terms with the members and the leaders of the groups. They testify that they also received many benefits both during their affiliation and afterwards. The time in which they attended the movement left positive fruits in their lives, which matured in the period that followed. Even the stories of those who were not satisfied with what they experienced in the movement do not necessarily show attitudes of hostility or revenge. Another area that has been little explored by research in this area is the relational dynamics between members and former members. They are discussed in the second chapter of the book, which is also based on interviews.
How is the text structured?
The text is divided into two parts, devoted to affiliation to and disaffiliation from new religious movements. The first part explains the theoretical and methodological foundations that I believe are essential for understanding the approach I have chosen. The second part is devoted to exposing the methodology and results obtained in the investigation.
Which religious movements were involved in your research?
I interviewed twenty-four adults or young adults, both male and female, to understand the meaning they attribute to their experience, based on their autobiographical narratives. The subjects are affiliated with and/or disaffiliated from these six movements: Soka Gakkai, Damanhur, the Church of Scientology, ISKCON (Hare Krishna), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Archeosophical Association.
In summary, what conclusions did you reach after reviewing your data?
A synoptic examination of the interviews revealed, despite the diversity of the groups considered, some common elements. They seem to confirm the findings of a large body of research in the field of psychology. In particular, the data collected were interpreted in light of the multidisciplinary model developed for the study of the affiliation/disaffiliation process, by Lewis Rambo, and of other contributions and insights, including in the sociological field by David Bromley, yourself [Massimo Introvigne], and others.
What is the target audience for your book?
I have in mind a broad audience, starting with all those who are personally, culturally, and socially interested in deepening their scientific understanding of this complex phenomenon. It involves issues related to personal and family dynamics triggered by the change in religious choice, family and social conflicts, and, more generally, human rights and personal and corporate freedom. The audience potentially interested in the book includes first and foremost professionals engaged in psychological counseling. An understanding of the phenomenon in relation to the treatment of all forms of psychological distress and mediation in cases of family and social conflict is essential for them. But I hope the book would also interest teachers, legal experts, and government officials.