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Disengaging from the Church Universal and Triumphant

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Disengaging from the Church Universal and Triumphant

Some Strategies for Dialogue with Disenchanted Members
Rick Berchiolli

Converts to the Church Universal and Triumphant, or CUT, face the troubling prospect of having to erase a former identity and to embrace a new, untested lifestyle. Not only will the newcomer invest a large amount of personal time and resources into building the kingdom of Elizabeth Clare Prophet, but he embarks on a journey of redefining the fundamental building blocks of social existence. Former values are recast by the church as meaningless, family and friends are labeled as spiritual ciphers, and previous conceptions of reality are attributed to ignorance and sin.

"In essence, the process of disengagement is '... the repudiation of one’s identity, belief-system, and social support structure, and the concomitant reconstruction of the same apart from one’s previous group or movement.' "

This scenario is grim, but the process of radically re-ordering the way a church member perceives reality, such as occurs within the CUT, introduces at the same time a number of challenges to the member's new belief system. As converts move toward deeper levels of commitment to the church, many experience the pull that social scientists refer to as "mental disengagement," or a re-evaluation of the claims the church makes on the lives of its followers. What sets off this process of mental separation, or disengagement? And what, if anything, can outsiders do to facilitate the steps of mental disengagement that might lead a church member toward eventual physical separation from the CUT? These are the questions I address in the following pages, first by tracing the historical growth of the CUT, then by revealing the underlying principles used by the CUT to maintain high levels of commitment, and finally by suggesting ways in which these commitment-fostering techniques might be reversed.

Birth of the CUT: Early Social and Religious Influences

The two main religious traditions that influenced the CUT's development both found expression in the religious turbulence of nineteenth century America.1 The first of these, the New Thought movement, was spearheaded by figures such as Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, who integrated the mystical practice of mesmeric (hypnotic) healings in the fight against disease.2 New Thought groups believed that the human mind provided a source of power that could control elements in the material world, including sickness and other afflictions. To this belief they added the practice of "affirmations," or manipulating spoken words to directly influence events in the present.3

The second religious category to influence the CUT was the Psychic and New Age family of religions. This movement arose from opposition to the secular truth claims of the nineteenth century scientific community. In response to a world that was fast becoming demythologized, proponents of Psychic groups sought a link with the supernatural through the associated practices of Spiritualism. Perhaps the most significant group to arise from this movement was Theosophy, which mixed psychic and Eastern beliefs and acknowledged a hierarchy of divine beings known as spiritual masters.

While Theosophy extended its influence overseas to England and the Continent, it provided the basis in this country for the I AM movement, founded by Guy Ballard during the 1930s. Ballard borrowed a number of principle characters from the Theosophical hierarchy of spiritual masters, but placed at the head of this pantheon his own Saint Germain. Ballard also included in his synthesis of Theosophical tenets an emphasis on American nationalism (which coincided with the civic ebb of post-Depression America), the accelerated use of affirmations, and the symbolic use of complex light and color motifs. Ballard’s movement lost momentum shortly after his death in 1939 when, under the leadership of his wife Edna, the I AM leadership was indicted on federal mail fraud charges.

The decline of the I AM movement led to a number of splinter groups that adapted the major elements of Ballard’s religion. The Bridge to Freedom, one of the more prominent splinters, kept the hierarchy of spiritual masters originally used by Theosophy but changed its name to the Great White Brotherhood.4 The Lighthouse of Freedom, another important I AM splinter, developed and began offering classes of Ascended Master Instruction, which included teachings that described Jesus’ adolescent spiritual pilgrimages to India.

Yet a third I AM splinter group, and one which marks the genesis of the modern-day CUT, appeared in 1958 under the name Summit Lighthouse. This group was formed by Mark L. Prophet, who at the time was a member of the Washington, D.C. branch of the Lighthouse of Freedom. Prophet had been strongly influenced by his involvement with earlier I AM splinters (he had also been a member of the Bridge to Freedom), and borrowed a number of themes from these groups. For example, Prophet offered religious instruction under the rubric of Summit Lighthouse’s "Keepers of the Flame Fraternity," patterned after the Bridge to Freedom’s "Transmission Flame" classes. Prophet also kept the Great White Brotherhood of ascended masters, but placed at the head of this hierarchy the god El Morya.

In the early days of Summit Lighthouse, Prophet travelled extensively throughout the East Coast, expounding along the way his peculiar brand of ascended master teaching to various university and religious groups. On one such engagement, at Boston University in 1961, Prophet met and became enamored with a young coed by the name of Elizabeth Ytreberg, the wife of a Norwegian-born lawyer. Prophet, himself married and the father of five children, soon left his family behind and convinced Elizabeth to become his partner. Within months the newly estranged couple was married, and they began focusing their energy on co-leading their small but dynamic religious movement.

Throughout the mid-sixties Summit Lighthouse continued its marked expansion. In 1966 the group relocated from the East Coast to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where it began publishing its weekly newsletter Pearls of Wisdom. Summit Lighthouse next turned its efforts to religious education, and in 1971 opened its first teaching center, Summit University, in Santa Barbara, California. The rapid growth of the movement was seriously threatened, though, when disaster struck in 1973. It was this year that Mark Prophet died of a stroke, leaving the reins of the burgeoning group in the hands of his wife Elizabeth.

In the months after Prophet’s death the future of Summit Lighthouse remained uncertain. A series of organizational moves, though, resulted in the group emerging stronger than ever. Under Elizabeth’s leadership the church incorporated in 1974 as the Church Universal and Triumphant (a name traditionally associated with the Roman Catholic church), and Summit Lighthouse became the publishing branch of the movement. In 1976 the CUT moved its headquarters to California, first leasing what was then a Nazarene college in Pasadena, and later purchasing St. Thomas Aquinas College near Malibu. The Malibu property was renamed Camelot and served as the hub of all church activity until 1986, when the CUT purchased and relocated to Malcolm Forbes’ 33,000 acre ranch in southern Montana. Renamed the Royal Teton Ranch, the Montana property continues to serve as official church headquarters.

The Problem of Defining and Maintaining Reality

Looked upon from the outside, the CUT is a complex maze of beliefs. Words such as "eclectic" and "syncretic" describe its intricate theology, but fail to bring us any closer to understanding the meaning the church holds for its members. Simply put, the CUT, like any significant system of meaning, serves as a point of reference from which members define and make sense of the world. This concept is captured in the succinct phrase of the sociologist W.I. Thomas, who observed that "if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." We shall soon discover the relevance of this aphorism, for the success or failure of the CUT hierarchy lies in its ability to construct (or, following Thomas, define) a convincing view of the world and to shelter its members from alternate and competing views of reality.

Sociologists refer to this process of protecting members from competing belief systems as group boundary, or reality maintenance (Berger and Luchmann, 1966). This involves creating a protected setting, or "plausibility structure," that reinforces subjective reality and repels the constant threat of doubt. Reality in this case is considered subjective since it is the result of filtering ultimate beliefs through individual attitudes and values. The world thus constructed is "true" for the CUT member and provides the meaning necessary to make sense out of life.

Reality maintenance is accomplished by the CUT through the twin defense mechanisms of "nihilation" and "legitimation." Both of these corrective processes operate on the assumption that the former social identity of members must be eliminated or redefined and the new subjective reality must be actively sustained. Another way of viewing this is to see it as the complementary dismantling of a member’s former life and the subsequent reconstruction of a meaningful existence (Berger and Luchmann, 1966: 152 ff; McHugh, 1966: 356f).

Nihilation, the first mechanism in the process, involves the systematic efforts by the church to neutralize the influence of competing allegiances. One of the ways nihilation is accomplished is through the disruption of a member’s routinization, the sequence of daily tasks that provide our social world with a sense of cohesion and order. A good example of this occurs in the CUT teaching centers, where emersion in the sacred church ritual of decreeing, or prayer chanting, succeeds in disrupting normal sleeping habits and in regulating mental activity. Here residents typically rise at 4:30 a.m. five days a week for twenty minutes of private decreeing, and then join other members for mandatory decree sessions lasting up to two hours. Members also attend as many as seven mandatory worship services each week (some lasting as long as five hours). For three nights a week, all residents attend an additional two-hour decree session. Decree tapes are continuously played in the center between services, and penalties are levied for anyone missing a scheduled session.

In a different social context, and one that requires a more regimented daily routine, we can observe further examples of the nihilation process at work in the CUT. Summit University, a twelve-week on-site program of concentrated church teaching, is regarded as a privileged experience for aspiring "chelas" (CUT disciples). In order to register for a term at the university, prospective students are required to submit a "clearance" letter. This is a confessional statement listing previous sexual experiences, current sources of mental or physical trauma, and any actual or potential enemies (i.e., those who may actively oppose the student’s spiritual goals). Once the statement is completed, it purportedly is burned by church officials, who claim that the smoke of the petition is carried by angels before God, who then releases each petitioner from the effects of the confessed sin. What is important for our purpose is to note the attempt by the church to transfer a member’s recollection of former experiences and relationships from consciousness to oblivion. In a sense, the clearance letter symbolically wipes clean the slate of a former existence.

Legitimation, the second step toward reality maintenance, involves the process of confirming to church members that the goals and beliefs of the CUT are the only valid means of spiritual fulfillment. The church accomplishes this by redefining for members the past, present, and future in terms of the CUT’s exclusive claim to spiritual truth (see Berger and Luchmann, 1966: 158 for the importance of redefining personal biography). An example of this is found in the Order of the Sons and Daughters of Dominion, a secret fraternity of devoted CUT followers. The Vows of the Dominion Order affirm that the mental faculties of free will and reason are evil and perverting influences. Note the second Vow, which states:

I shall surrender the human intellect, the human ego, and the human will and strive daily for the replacing of these three usurpers of the dominion of the spirit with the God consciousness, the Christ consciousness, and the soul consciousness . . .

This illustrates how the church attempts to redefine basic stabilizing functions of personality (in this case, the normal corrective processes of intellect, will, and ego) in terms of spiritual maladjustment.

Through the process of legitimation members learn to see themselves as operating in the realm of the sacred, while former activities and relationships are grounded in a material world tainted with evil. Belief systems that implicitly challenge the CUT are neutralized by identifying them with sin and ignorance. The world increasingly becomes compartmentalized into truth and error, good and evil, reality and non-reality. Notice, for example, some of the official claims of the church which have the effect of legitimating the CUT’s skewed slant on reality:

  • church members are told they can rid themselves of karma (the residual effects of past sin) and hasten the process of spiritual enlightenment by recruiting new members to the church;
  • members are encouraged to resist efforts by former friends and family who might oppose the CUT; the church claims that those who oppose the CUT are often sent by ascended masters to "test" a convert's faithfulness;
  • members may overcome the power of sin, disease, and death by absorbing the truth claims found in CUT teachings;
  • members are taught that they have a direct influence in controlling the outcome of world history by decreeing and performing "sacred labor" on behalf of the church;
  • church members are encouraged to approach the long-term spiritual goal of realizing one's own divinity by worshipping Elizabeth Clare Prophet, who is elevated as the archetype of enlightened humanity.

These and other similar claims demonstrate how the church accomplishes its temporal goals by redefining life exclusively in spiritual terms.

Links to Other Worlds: the Resiliency of Values

Up to this point I have reviewed some of the social dynamics of the CUT used to provide members with a stable religious identity (or, in the language of social scientists, a stable plausibility structure). I also noted how the CUT attempts to maintain its subjective worldview through nihilation and legitimation. I should note, however, that the CUT pays a price for exacting high levels of commitment on the part of its members. Church members regularly encounter competing claims that contradict the tenets of the CUT worldview. The resulting internal tension, which follows from interaction with competing systems of meaning, is identified by social psychologists as cognitive dissonance, or "non-fitting relations among cognitions" (Festinger, 1957: 3).

A cognition (or unit of thought) that is dissonant is one that does not fit into our cognitive map of reality and motivates us to (1) eliminate the source of dissonance or (2) achieve homeostasis, or mental equilibrium, by insulating our views with additional consonant beliefs. The source of dissonance may be any piece of information about our beliefs, values, or behavior that contradicts our present convictions. Thus, managing dissonance becomes a matter of altering our conceptions of reality and aligning them with our present system of meaning or of redefining or reinterpreting competing realities. As noted earlier, both techniques are at play in the CUT’s efforts to maintain the boundaries of their subjective world.

Though the church as a whole strives to project a sense of cohesion, it should be noted that public compliance on the part of individual members is no guarantee of internal agreement. This is especially true when conformity is regulated by the church via the promise of reward or the threat of punishment. In these cases the private world of the individual member may lag far behind his or her assent to a set of truth propositions (Festinger, 1956: 85). It is especially possible for a particular belief to be in conformity with the ideology of the CUT while the member's values remain torn between the goals of the church and the deep-seated attitudes formed in a previous social existence. Thus, while the church as a whole may present the appearance of a monolithic structure united in goals and beliefs, the lingering, resilient attitudes of a former social identity supply an essential link between the church member and a system of meaning outside the boundaries of the CUT.

The deep-seated goals and attitudes that prevailed before conversion to the CUT, and the potential for these values to compete with a member’s present convictions, provide outsiders with a strategic avenue for communicating with CUT disciples. In light of this residual attachment to former values, how might an outsider reactivate traces of a former social identity without being apprehended as a threat to the group’s security? One way is to introduce functional substitutes, or cross-culturally relevant formats for expressing meaning that are at home in either of two social worlds (Hiebert, 1989: 41f). Functional substitutes must be perceived by members as non-threatening to the church’s beliefs yet persuasive enough to provide a means for the satisfactory expression of goals free from the world of the CUT. For our purposes the significance of functional substitutes is that they detach goals and value expressions from the previously exclusive domain of the CUT, and provide the member with the potential for personal fulfillment and meaningfulness in a social existence that had erstwhile been labeled by the church as "non-reality."

The Process of Disengagement

We may now begin to draw together our analysis of the social dynamics of the CUT and apply them to a model of disengagement. In essence, the process of disengagement is ". . . the repudiation of one’s identity, belief-system, and social support structure, and the concomitant reconstruction of the same apart from one’s previous group or movement" (Wright, 1987: 3-4). In presenting the following model I take as axiomatic the assumption that sustaining high commitment levels to the CUT is a tenuous affair, and that church members are exposed daily to conditions that could potentially activate the disengagement process. Though the following model is not intended to be equally effective with all church members (who will vary in their internal degree of commitment to the CUT), it should prove especially relevant for those who are at some stage of re-evaluating their allegiance to the church hierarchy. It should also be kept in mind that this model is purposively non-confrontational (as opposed to methods such as forced-exit strategies), and should be taken in whole as such.

Though disengagement may be thought of in terms of one’s physical separation from the church, the process itself begins with a mental separation, or distancing, from the stated goals and direction of the CUT. This mental separation is often precipitated by a preliminary "breaking," or "triggering" event (see Wright, 1987; Galanter, 1983) and is similar to the emotional separation that normally precedes the breakup of a marriage (Thompson and Spanier, 1983). It is therefore possible that the church member may present the facade of fulfillment and accord with the church, especially in the presence of other members, while experiencing serious internal doubts over the future of his or her involvement.

Ordinary disconfirming events normally are routinely diffused, and rarely challenge the authority of the church’s leadership. For a triggering event to successfully initiate the disengagement process it must resist the reality maintenance techniques designed to manage dissonance. An example of an event that could potentially trigger the disengagement process would be the rapid decline or removal of the sense of urgency surrounding the church’s moral obligation to humanity. For example, the CUT’s divine mandate to protect America from the personified evil of communism helps to endow church members with a certain prophetic status. In the event that communism proved to be a negligible threat to America’s integrity, this aspect of the CUT’s mission would have to be significantly redefined. In the ensuing reshuffling of the church’s mission, the group’s plausibility structure would be vulnerable to competing systems of meaning. It should be added, though, that for the diffused sense of urgency to effectively threaten the church’s integrity (and hence trigger disengagement) it must be subject to empirical falsification (Festinger, 1957: 179; Wright, 1987: 43). This means that irrefutable historical or other objective evidence must be available to confirm the authenticity of the triggering event.

Assuming that a member has encountered a triggering event, an outsider must be prepared to appeal to the member’s former set of goals and values, which linger internally long after he or she professes allegiance to the CUT. To be effective, two steps are necessary at this point. First, the latent goals, talents, or skills of the member must be identified and reaffirmed. (Of course, outsiders who are family members or close friends will be in the best position to identify these values.) Secondly, alternative goals and aspirations that are cross-culturally relevant (i.e., functional substitutes) should be introduced at every available opportunity, and they should be addressed in terms aligned with the broader objectives of the CUT.

Let’s take as an example the church member whose educational background is grounded in science or medicine. A dialogue that might enhance such a member's internal disengagement could note the widespread pain, suffering, and hunger in the world, and then point out how the member in question could make an impact in the world by applying his or her talents toward alleviating such misery. Since the noted problem (in this case, human suffering) is also acknowledged by the CUT, the solution (involvement in humanitarian projects) provides the member with an opportunity to exercise his talents in an alternate social context, thus helping to redefine as viable what has been labeled by the CUT as non-real.

Another way of viewing the mental separation of disengagement is as a type of role passage, where one system of social support is exchanged for another. Studies on the emergent passage of nuns into secular roles provide a specific application of general disengagement theory. San Giovanni (1978: 9f), for example, notes that the actual passage from one role to another involves three separate phases. First, the actor, or group member, mentally relinquishes her present role following a triggering event. Second, the member enters a transitional phase facilitated by an awareness of options and by the actor’s self-perceived ability to survive in the new role. Finally, the role passage culminates in the acquisition of new roles. This final step is, of course, contingent on the availability of alternatives and the degree to which these alternatives provide the actor with a means of expressing significant values and attitudes.

When a CUT member considering disengagement is confronted with potentially viable alternatives, she begins the process of evaluating both present circumstances and future options (see Skonovd, 1983: 99f). Similar to the wilderness explorer who depends on maps and navigational aids to successfully chart unknown expanses, the defecting CUT member requires the assurance of viable options that will enable him or her to survive away from the shelter of the former plausibility structure. Even knowledge of the existence of a socially viable environ (e.g., a local Christian community) will weaken the elitist claims projected by the CUT hierarchy.5

Earlier we spoke of the steps taken by the CUT to prevent the disruption of its plausibility structure. These steps provide us with techniques that can be used to effectively penetrate the very structure they were meant to protect. For example, an outsider must attempt to penetrate the world of the CUT with tacit and innocuous elements of the former social identity of the member in question. These might include gifts of former favorite music tapes or records, favorite novels read while in school, tickets to a play or opera, or any concrete reminder of a former existence. The goal of such tactics is to breach the insulation of the subjective world of the church member and provide her with viable links to a former and, hence, alternate reality.

The support offered by outsiders in providing church members with information is perhaps the single most effective contribution one can make to the disengagement process. A practical example of supplying information might be to provide the member with biographies or novels that promote role models who are considered exemplary by the CUT. It is important in this regard to introduce models who are benign (i.e., not seen as antagonistic toward the mission of the church) and who represent ideals of both the CUT and a viable, alternate plausibility structure. Figures such as Mother Theresa (for her humanitarian efforts), Martin Luther King, Jr. (for his efforts toward racial and social justice), and John F. Kennedy (for his commitment to democracy) are all potential choices. The introduction of such figures as exemplary role models (a further example of a functional substitute) assists disengagement to the degree that the protagonist (in this case Mother Theresa, King, or Kennedy) is identified as accomplishing his or her life goals in a social context labeled by the church as evil and unredeemed.

The strength of the CUT’s network of social support will, under normal circumstances, compensate and correct for disconfirming, or contradictory, sources of information. Therefore any efforts contributing to disengagement will be more effective if the member can be attracted away from familiar surroundings. This might be accomplished by inviting the member on a day trip to an orphanage or to an afternoon of humanitarian community service. These types of activities reflect goals similar to those stated by the church, but allow members to pursue such goals in a decidedly non-CUT context. It is important to select non-sectarian formats for these activities, for they pose no implicit threat to the church’s mission. Such settings additionally provide a benign environment in which alternative social existences may be promoted.

The CUT member mentally separating from the group will encounter significant doubts and guilt at each perceived obstacle. There are therefore a number of steps an outsider may use to minimize the self-perceived difficulty of each barrier. It is important, at any and every opportunity, to bolster a member’s confidence in his or her ability to successfully sustain an autonomous lifestyle. The subjective world of the CUT places members in the position of depending on the church and Elizabeth Clare Prophet for true fulfillment in life; consequently, a member who separates from the group risks falling back into a nebulous void of meaninglessness. Simple skills and activities that are rooted in an alternate existence (such as job-hunting skills, community service, and social networking) should be encouraged and supported. This reaffirmation of a member's potential in effect "lowers a drawbridge" over barriers that separate the world of the CUT from mainstream society.

Another significant mental barrier in the disengagement process is the life-long vow of commitment made to the ideals of the CUT. The consequent guilt over revocation of this commitment must somehow be diffused. This could be accomplished by suggesting analogous contexts worthy of life-long commitment which parallel specific goals of the church (e.g., social justice or American patriotism). A lifelong commitment to achieving spiritual truth and justice, for example, within the structure of the CUT, can be redefined as a lifelong commitment to similar goals albeit in a different form (i.e. in a non-CUT setting). Consequently, the member’s horizon of viable social alternatives is broadened while the the elitist claims of the CUT are diminished. Toward this end, regional or national networks of ex-CUT members who are living successful and fulfilling lives can prove highly effective in reducing the guilt and concerns experienced during the various phases of disengagement, and stand as an empirical reminder that there is indeed life after the CUT.

The emotional difficulties that follow the member who is mentally separating from the church reflect the degree of group cohesion and identity with the church’s goals that commitment to the CUT produces. Disengagement poignantly recalls the rewards of group membership and the cost of disaffiliation at every step (Galanter, 1983). Any and all alternatives, previously defined by the group as non-reality, must be redefined as in fact possessing categories of meaning analogous to those within the CUT. As outsiders attempt to facilitate this redefinition, they must note that lingering traces of CUT ideology will follow the member into his new role, easing the transition from the familiarity of the old meaning system into the uncertainty and ambiguity of the new. Thus in order to facilitate disengagement from the CUT, the outside family member or friend must show tolerance to these residual traces of ideology. Full commitment to the CUT was not accomplished overnight; a reversal of this commitment is an equally lengthy, and arduous, process.

A final area that should be addressed by outsiders wishing to assist the disengagement process relates to the important social dynamic of conflict resolution. By analogy, the intensity of the marriage relationship requires ongoing communication skills, replete with mutual disclosure of feelings and perceived shortcomings in the relationship itself. This serves as a safety release valve, venting the inevitable frustrations encountered in daily married life. The CUT has capped this vital outlet and replaced it with the vicarious practice of channeling personal frustrations toward various personified sources of evil (e.g., organized religion, modernity, communism, etc.). Within the structure of the church conventional vehicles for conflict resolution may have been removed, but the innate need on the part of individuals for releasing stored-up conflict remains. This oversight of the CUT represents a weak link in the chain of reality maintenance, and should be taken advantage of by encouraging normal conflict resolution as we have occasion to dialogue with church members and by making ourselves available as partners in this critical practice of dialogue.

Some Concluding Thoughts

In the above paragraphs I have explored the church’s efforts to control a member's perception of reality, and along the way I have examined a number of social forces at work. These forces serve as a backdrop against which, ideally, the exit process can be better understood. Only as we grow in knowledge and awareness of the church member’s individual plight will we be able to reach out to her with the empathy necessary to facilitate first mental, then physical separation, and ultimately reintegration into a social existence free of coercion and manipulation.


1. These are two of the nineteen distinct American religious traditions identified in the taxonomy of Gordon Melton.

2. Modern-day followers of this tradition include Christian Scientists and proponents of the Health and Wealth movement.

3. The CUT ritual of decreeing can be traced to the older psychic practice of "affirmations"; also note the title of the major CUT publication, The Power of the Spoken Word.

4. The Great White Brotherhood would later became the title of a major CUT publication.

5. It should be noted that while awareness of viable plausibility structures outside the context of the CUT is a necessary step in the disengagement process, an alternative religious ideology alone is rarely sufficient to wrest the committed member from her allegiance to the CUT.


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