Chapter 20: Both Outside and Inside: 'Ex-Members' of New Religions and Spiritualities and the Maintenance of Community and Identity on the Internet
Carole M. Cusack [+]
University of Sydney
Early scholarly studies of conversion and apostasy in new religious movements (NRMs) tended to draw clear boundaries between the pre- and post-conversion identity of those involved, and to presume that apostasy, ‘leaving the fold’, and de-conversion (all fairly clumsy terms for the experience of no longer belonging) were similarly unproblematic. Like much of the scholarship on NRMs, this model was drawn from studies of Christianity, yet never took on the theological weight that ‘conversion’ possessed in that context. Since the 1990s the study of conversion and apostasy has become more methodologically nuanced, and it has increasingly become clear that identifying who is an ‘insider’ and who is an ‘outsider’ is not only difficult, but often impossible, given that individuals and communities typically inhabit multiple roles and realities. This chapter considers two online communities of ‘ex-members’ with extensive web presences about the groups to which they once belonged. These are Kerista Commune (www.kerista.com) and the School of Economic Science Forums (www.ses-forums.org). It is argued that the people who constitute these communities are ‘ex-members’ in only one, strict, sense. Kerista disbanded in 1991, thus it is no longer possible to be a member; the Kerista Commune site is a place where members post memories and honour deceased members, with the aim of healing those who were injured by the group and of continuing mutually sustaining friendships between those who are at peace with the group. In stark contrast, the SES Forums site is largely populated by ex-members who perceive that they were harmed by the School of Economic Science (a Gurdjieff splinter group incorporating Vedantin teaching) which continues to exist. Although the mood and tone of the two online communities differs, the common theme encountered is that when people physically ‘leave’ new religions and spiritualities, they often remain deeply engaged with the group’s issues, and thus to identify as an ex-member and to find community with other ex-members is an almost infallible sign of being both inside and outside the group, paradoxically belonging without belonging.