It is well known that extremist religious groups recruit their members at a very young age. Take the Taliban for example or the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka. The possibilities of an impressionable young adult are enormous! It is thus not really surprising to hear of young suicide bombers or others risking their lives in fierce battle front lines. Youth are usually not yet attached to life and they feel they have nothing to lose; particularly if they are insulated from their families as is often the case.
One might naturally object that these are simply extreme examples and frequently have to do with highly disfigured religious notions. Yet, there are still many instances in this day and age where religion is given, almost imposed, in too large doses in childhood/adolescence. What immediately comes to mind are religious groups which cater for the young, particularly those which can lead to a religious vocation in adulthood. I have heard many stories of people who have attended church schools, vocational meetings, Muzew, etc who were in some way encouraged too much to stay on (to put it mildly). More extremely, I have also come to know of a vocational recruiter who would tell a youth he barely knew that God is calling him, or of another who would say that leaving a particular institution is the work of the devil!
While not discrediting the good of the many youth groups we have in Malta, the effects of a religious overdose could be dire. Naturally, the effect depends on the person who underwent the experience: on one end of the spectrum you have those who couldn’t care less and like water on a duck, the effects simply slide off. Then you have those who have left the religious group relatively early but they either remember the frustrating feeling of always being pushed ahead against their will or they may have felt guilt for a number of years. Then you have those who left late, maybe in their twenties, in their thirties, or even later, who feel somewhat short changed for giving away all their youth for a cause without really understanding what they were giving up at the time.
I, for one, fall under the latter category. I was a Muzew member till I was 20 but had been super committed since I was thirteen. Few can really understand what this means, but in the rest of the article I will attempt to answer some of the pertinent questions which I am sometimes asked:
- What did it mean to be committed to Muzew?
For me it meant attending daily in the evenings including Saturdays and a whole day on Sundays, adding up to around 35 hours a week. Each day I would teach two classes of doctrine and then attend a formative session for instructors. It also included a significant list of rules, which (just to list a few examples) included a set of daily prayers, a daily fast, wearing a badge, and not wearing shorts.
- Why didn’t you leave before? Nobody was holding you.
Leaving a group such as Muzew after spending there virtually all your life is no mean feat. Muzew provided friends, activities all year long, a way of life, an identity, even a vocabulary! When you are insulated (since young age) in such a group of a few hundred people you can no longer really make sense of the world outside. You sort of see it through a weird pair of spectacles. Leaving means that you have to leave a life which you understand and enter a world you find strange, if not hostile.
- But after all you were happy in Muzew
Yes, it is true that I was generally happy in Muzew; possibly much happier than other adolescents who are facing all sorts of emotional turmoil to which I was oblivious while focusing on a calendar full of religious activities. However, being happy is not enough for me – at the end of my life I wish to feel that I have lived fully.
- How did you come about to leave Muzew?
It is a long story and didn’t happen overnight. However, the culmination of it happened when I lived with a number of non-Muzew people for a month and I realised that I had whole aspects of my life which were severely under developed for my age.
- Whom do you blame for the whole ordeal?
Actually I blame nobody and admit that I had a set of predispositions which made Muzew seem perfect for me. I feel at peace about the whole experience and have accepted it as a defining part of my life. Still, it makes me sad to think that the mistakes done in my regard might be reoccurring.
- What are the mistakes you are referring to?
I think that encouraging a high level of commitment from an adolescent is inappropriate. Mind you, these mistakes do not happen only in the context of religion but also when adolescent focus too much on their studies or a relationship with boyfriend/girlfriend.
- So what are you suggesting?
I think that adolescents should be encouraged to opening up, exploring different experiences, travelling the world, etc. This has to come primarily from parents but also from people involved in youth groups. Furthermore, institutions which continue to insist on expecting high commitment levels at young age would do well to provide structures which facilitate or at least monitor the departure of their members.
I am sure that my experience is shared by many others but somehow I have heard very few people talk about it. I sincerely wish well to anyone going through such a change in his/her life and would gladly extend a helping hand to anyone needing it. Finally, anyone wishing to share a similar experience please feel free to write in the comments below or contact me personally. (where all correspondence will be in confidence)