Life After Social Death: Leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses, Identity Transition and Recovery

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It is well documented that religiosity is linked with positive indicators of well-being, but less research has examined the psychosocial impacts of leaving “high-control” religions. Theoretically situated in recovery and desistance literature underpinned by the social identity approach, the current study examined cross-sectionally the extent to which ‘disfellowshipped’ former Jehovah’s Witnesses’ experiences of ostracism and post-exit identification with others are associated with diminished psychological well-being and identity transition success. It also examined the extent to which the type of exit (forced vs. voluntary) and prior religious commitment shaped these outcomes. The authors recruited 554 adults (62% female; M age = 37.26, SD age = 12.82) via online social support networks for former Jehovah’s Witnesses. Path analysis tested the mediating and moderating functions of exit method (forced vs. voluntary), commitment level during membership, and post-exit group identification with groups on outcomes of identity transition, recovery identity, self-esteem, and well-being. Results indicate that individuals who voluntarily left the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported more ostracism than those who were disfellowshipped (forced out) and that a higher level of prior religious commitment was associated with post-religious identity transition success and diminished self-esteem. Findings further suggest that distinct aspects of respondents’ social identity were related differentially to outcomes in partial support of the theoretical framework. Future research and theory development efforts are deemed necessary to better understand the etiology of how exiting high-control religions impacts psychosocial outcomes.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberPASP-D-20-00056
Pages (from-to)1-32
Number of pages32
JournalPastoral Psychology
Early online date15 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - 17 Dec 2020


  • Identity
  • Jehovah’s witnesses
  • Ostracism
  • Religious exit
  • Self-esteem
  • Well-being


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