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Shraga Fisherman
Orot Israel College

Based on Herbert’s (1987) theory of ego identity development and
on interviews of hundreds of Israeli religious male adolescents and
young adults who were raised and educated in religious society and
later left the fold, this article presents a model of development of
religious identity. Three levels of religious identity development—
healthy, unhealthy, and dangerous—are described. In healthy de-
velopment, adolescents abandon childish faith, confront and
deliberate about their doubts, and consolidate a mature and per-
sonal spiritual identity. Unhealthy development, which may occur if
doubts are not accepted and dealt with, is seen in four forms:
sloganeering, diffuse spiritual identity, moratorium, and emphasis
on ritual and behavioral aspects of religion. These, in turn, may lead
to dangerous developments: (1) joining a cult or enslaving oneself
to a charismatic leader; (2) joining a group of formerly religious peers;
(3) group delinquency (theft or vandalism) or group use of alcohol
or drugs; (4) alienation and antireligious attitudes; (5) inconsistency
or “being religious at heart”; (6) solitary use of alcohol or drugs,
possibly leading to addiction. Methods of preventing and correct-
ing unhealthy and dangerous developments are presented and dis-

Consolidation of ego identity is the central and most important task of

adolescence (Erikson 1968). It is affected by the previous stages of
the child’s development and, to a greater extent, influences later life.
According to Marcia (1980), adolescents who have consolidated
their identities in a healthy manner do not guarantee themselves per-
manent identity contents, but are ensured an effective process of deal-
ing with later questions of identity. Erikson (1968) also did not see the
resolution of identity conflicts as final or total. In his opinion, resolu-
tion of such conflicts climax during adolescence; however, a person
may return to tackle identity-related issues at later ages.

Religious Education Vol. 97 No. 1 Winter 2002


Relying on Erikson, Marcia (1966, 1980, 1986) emphasized two

major components of identity: (1) a sense of identity crisis, and (2)
vocational and ideological commitment. Identity crisis refers to re-
thinking, sorting, experiencing and deliberating about a variety of so-
cial roles and future plans, especially in the areas of vocational choice
and personal philosophy. In Marcia’s opinion, commitment arising from
crisis is related to individuals’ willingness to invest in their choices
and their ability to select a profession and a worldview. In line with
these two components, a typological foursome is created as follows:
identity achievement, foreclosure, moratorium, and diffuse identity.


Erikson (1968) saw religious identity as a source of support and

integration for various parts of the ego identity. Several researchers
investigated ideological commitment in a religious context. Hood,
Riahinejad, and White (1986) found no relationships between reli-
gious commitment and ego identity. In contrast, others found that the
two are related (Archer 1982; Fulton-Aubyn 1997; Markstrom and
Smith 1996; Philipchalk and Sifft 1985; Schenkel and Marcia 1972;
Schluderman, Schluderman, and Huynh 1997; St. Clair and Day 1979).
Ideological commitment includes many factors, such as political,
social, economic, and moral ideologies, and so on. Religious ideology
seems central to adolescents’ ideological commitment, especially that
of the religious adolescent.
A pilot study (Fisherman 1992) of Israeli male adolescents found
a significant positive correlation between spiritual identity1 and most
of the dimensions of ego identity, and between spiritual identity and a
total ego identity score. Hundreds of interviews with male adoles-
cents enrolled in the state-religious school system, including hundreds
of interviews with adolescents who, though brought up religiously,
have abandoned religious practice, produced solid evidence of intense
engagement with matters of faith and of the centrality of faith in the
identity of presently and formerly religious adolescents.
Additional support for these findings appear in Herman’s (1980)
study, which indicates that ninety-eight percent of Israeli religious
high school students stated that religion plays an important, or very
Precisely because the term “religious identity” has been used in many ways,
including some which focus primarily on group affiliation or superficial behavior, I
prefer the term “spiritual identity” to specifically designate identification with a system
of beliefs.

important, part in their lives.


The model below, which portrays the development of spiritual

identity, is based on Herbert’s (1987) expansion of Marcia’s theory of
ego identity development. The model aims to describe the develop-
ment of religious faith as a central component of the religious identity
of male adolescents raised in religious (“Jewish Modern Orthodox,”
“Religious Zionist”)2 homes and educated in Israel’s state-religious
school system. Three levels of religious identity development—healthy,
unhealthy, and dangerous—are presented. It is worth noting that the
terms “healthy,” “unhealthy,” and “dangerous” are relative not absolute.
What one person views as unhealthy development may be considered
salutary by another. On the other hand, there is relatively great agree-
ment that some developmental directions, such as regression, are dan-
gerous. This will be discussed in greater detail further on. The model
has been validated by 623 interviews with adolescents and with young
adults raised and educated in religious society, who later left the fold.
The model may also be used to assess the state of specific reli-
gious teenagers, in order to help them choose among the norms preva-
lent in religious society.

Healthy Development
Healthy spiritual development is the transition from childish faith
to deliberation (critical examination of creeds), and from deliberation
to adult faith.
Childish faith, though natural, is incomplete. Children, depen-
dent on their parents for satisfaction of their physical and psychologi-
cal needs, imitate the parents’ religious behavior.3 Prior to adolescence,

“Modern Orthodox” or “religious Zionist” are terms that refer to Jews who
accept the 613 commandments as binding and as God-given. Concurrently, they
dress in modern (but modest) clothing and partake fully in modern professional and
political pursuits and are ideologically committed to the State of Israel.
In this context, Beit-Halakhmi’s (1991) formulations accurately describe
individuals in the stage of childish faith. Children born to religious families and
educated in religious schools acquire “labels” which become part of their assigned
identity. At a relatively early stage, they learn that they belong to religious society;
this affiliation, however, is childish. Later, this affiliation becomes real and obligating.
During adolescence, the religious teenager is expected to reexamine this affiliation
by raising doubts about it.

youngsters’ abstract thinking is limited, and their beliefs therefore have

concrete aspects. For example, they may believe that the creator has a
body and lives in heaven. Teachers and parents use developmental
principles to educate their child to religiosity. Hall (1997), who devel-
oped the “gift method,” asserted that religious education begins with
the child receiving some easily understood component of religion; it
then progresses to a more complex understanding, which, optimally,
is based on discussions.
In adolescence, a person’s central point of reference shifts from
parents to the peer-group. When his peer-group (because its mem-
bers’ abstract and moral thinking has developed) is driven to think
about, contemplate, and cast doubt upon childish beliefs, the indi-
vidual is swept along.
He deliberates about matters of faith and examines his beliefs
(and the declarations of his parents and teachers) in the harsh light of
his understanding and experiences. He is unwilling to accept slogans
blindly and prefers to consolidate his own spiritual identity, in a way
that will let him feel that his parents’ and teachers’ influence on this
identity is as small as possible.
Casting doubt is connected both to intellectual (as indicated above)
and emotional factors. Adolescents feel that they are not interested in
obeying parents and teachers; they seek autonomy. When they sense
that the autonomy that they can get in behavioral matters (religious
commandments and proscriptions) is extremely limited, they are driven
to behaviors that express rebellion stemming from a “spiritual war of
Sometimes, an adolescent will experiment with behaviors that are
outside accepted norms, in order to find out whether he wants to adopt
these behaviors as part of his personality and identity. On occasion,
these behaviors may occur in a social setting (at a party or excursion);
afterwards, the teenager may experience cognitive dissonance and
tension. The contradiction between his behavior and beliefs put both
his behavior and beliefs to the test.
These deliberations and, worse yet, experiments, are perceived
by parents and teachers as negative and as inhibiting the develop-
ment of faith, but may well be necessary to crystallization of adult
It is important that educators and parents the positive develop-
mental direction embodied in the raising of doubts, a process essen-
tial to consolidation of spiritual identity. Similarly, Heft (1989) argued

that personal theological competence is essential in dealing with dis-

senting ideas in the classroom. Some support for encouraging doubt
and reexamining authority may also be seen in Alexander’s (1997) sug-
gestion that Rabbinical training should be founded on reengagement
in moral authority in education. This idea was expanded by Noddings
(1997), who proposed dialogue between believers and nonbelievers,
for joint exploration of shared doubts. In his opinion, such dialogue
would augment believers’ faith. Poole (1996) added that educators
should expose adolescents to myriad views, as widened horizons fa-
cilitate later decisions about religious directions.
If a searching adolescent finds his own answers,4 these may help
him achieve adult faith characterized by psychological strength. The
youth will believe and behave according to religious norms, because
he has freely and thoughtfully committed himself to them, and not
because of external pressure. He will use introspective processes to
reach self-awareness, to scrutinize his beliefs and to clarify his posi-
tions, which will then become essential and immanent parts of his
The definition of consolidated spiritual identity also includes
people who, after much thought, have decided that their faith differs
from the one in which they were raised. Their belief profiles are very
different from what their parents and educators expected. Because
this state was reached after extensive deliberation, these individuals
possess a relatively consolidated spiritual identity, and their develop-
ment should be viewed as psychologically and educationally positive.

Unhealthy Religious Development

The transition from childish faith to deliberation does not neces-
sarily occur. Many adolescents who are not encouraged to raise doubts
and questions, are driven from childish faith toward one of four routes:
(1) slogans, (2) diffuse spiritual identity, (3) moratorium, (4) emphasis
on behavioral and ritual aspects of religion.

Slogans. Decisions about religious matters that have been reached

without deliberation are expressed in declarations and slogans, such
as, “My Rabbi never errs.” Sloganeering teenagers can quote answers
The phrase “his own answers” does not refer to adolescents’ original or intuitive
solutions, but rather to ideas they can obtain from adults (not necessarily parents or
teachers) or books and which, after examination, they find personally satisfying.

to many questions, but do not believe their own words. This is not to
say that they have decided not to accept these answers, but rather that
these answers have not really been processed by heart or mind.
Frequently, such an adolescent has many answers to a single ques-
tion but is unable to say which answer is most appealing. Although he
can quote arguments, he does not succeed in persuading himself or
others. Because questions make him anxious, he rejects friends who
raise them.
For some, doubts lead to deliberation, which in turn leads to in-
tensive study and introspection, and from there to consolidation of
adult religious faith; for others, doubts seen as unhealthy can stimu-
late flight from the issues, which may bring about dangerous develop-
Adolescents in the slogan phase require special educational at-
tention. Educators must focus their efforts in two directions: preven-
tion and attention to adolescents who have already entered this stage.
Preventive measures include, first, avoidance of teaching slogan use.
Teenagers’ questions, doubts, and deliberations are very important to
the development of their spiritual identities. They should be encour-
aged to ask, and answers should not be aphorisms or admonitions to
“believe, don’t think.” We need to stop seeing every doubter as an
apostate and every questioner as a heretic. The teacher must not issue
rulings or commands or force ideas on the group; rather, the teacher
should emphasize free choice and that many questions have a variety
of answers. Furthermore, changing one’s mind is permissible; there is
no need to fixate on one stance throughout a discussion.

Diffuse spiritual identity. A second unsalutary developmental tran-

sition is from childish faith to diffuse spiritual identity, which is char-
acterized by confusion and bewilderment. This is unhealthy because
it is contrary to the expectation that the adolescent will strive to con-
solidate his spiritual identity.
An adolescent whose spiritual identity is diffuse does not want to
engage in consolidation of that identity. Often, he will fear discussion
of his beliefs (or of his beliefs’ unfoundedness), lest he be forced to
deliberate. Adolescents in moratorium intend to consolidate their spiri-
tual identities and sometimes the break they have taken is used to
examine their faith. In contrast, adolescents with diffuse spiritual identi-
ties do not attempt consolidation and are unbothered by their diffusion.
One-on-one or small-group conversations may return these teen-

agers to the path of healthy development. Discussions that steer to-

ward the importance of meaningfulness, the significance of consoli-
dating identity (including spiritual identity), and the importance of an
identity in his future may bring the adolescent to the higher road of
doubt and deliberation. These conversations should stress that, al-
though we believe in a certain way of life and want adolescents to
choose it, any decision will be helpful in identity consolidation. Put
differently, from a psychological point of view, even a decision to con-
solidate a nonreligious identity is preferable to having a diffuse spiri-
tual identity.

Moratorium. Adolescents in moratorium have taken “time out”

from consolidating their spiritual identities. In general, they have not
given up on this task. Often, they are afraid to give up; instead, they
flee this worry and “take a break.”
These teenagers differ from those with diffuse spiritual identities
whose faith (or rather, whose nonconsolidation of faith) does not con-
cern them. Most adolescents in moratorium are aware that they are
taking a break, are bothered by it, and note that, in the future, they
will have to resume dealing with religious issues.
Adolescents in moratorium differ from their deliberating coun-
terparts. The teenager who is ruminating and casting doubt on cer-
tain creeds is actively dealing with religion. He is investing a lot of
energy in this quest and is sometimes provocative in expressing his
opinions; however, this flagrancy demonstrates the importance of his
deliberations. Teenagers in moratorium are on vacation from delib-
eration as well.
If the moratorium is a stage or state in which an adolescent delib-
erates and reexamines faith by raising doubts and experimentation, it
can be viewed in a positive light; but if it is merely a time out and not
a catalyst for thought and deliberation, it is an unhealthy develop-
ment that may delay the adolescent’s examination of his beliefs and
consolidation of his identity.
Many religious adolescents in moratorium use this time for ex-
perimentation, and these experiments usually are much more extreme
than those of deliberators. Deliberators try out partial transgressions,
expression of provocative positions, and so on. In contrast, those in
moratorium try out a different life. Some of them experience life among
the nonreligious, exaggerating the permissiveness which, they believe,
characterizes nonreligious society.

The most effective way to help adolescents in moratorium is to

persuade them to choose deliberation over “vacation.” Greater open-
ness to questions about religion and a certain tolerance for the “gen-
tler” behaviors of moratorium may prevent the choice of, or getting
stuck in, moratorium.
In general, it is possible to discriminate between consent (which
is sometimes forbidden) and acquiescence, and to differentiate be-
tween external behaviors (such as long hair and clothing styles) that
make parents uncomfortable and acts that contravene Jewish law.
Careful scrutiny of adolescent behavior, true attention to words and
questions, and open lines of communication can forestall moratorium.
Prevention is usually possible and is always easier than correction.

Emphasis on Behavior and on Ritual Aspects

The confused adolescent who does not search for answers or de-
liberate may emphasize external and ritual aspects of religious behav-
ior, holding onto them as if his life depended on it. Not having given
them much thought, he does not define his beliefs; instead, he stresses
the ritual elements, which give him a sense of security. His beliefs
thus undefined, he is not accountable and does not discriminate be-
tween ideas connected to fundamentals of faith and superstitions that
are sometimes linked to rituals or to behaviors which are not neces-
sarily related to religious faith. It is worth remembering that Ortho-
dox Jewish education includes behavioral dicta; sometimes, however,
overemphasis of behavioral aspects or education that focuses solely
on behavior can impair spiritual growth (Benson 1997).
To bystanders (parents or teachers), this teenager, who fulfills all
the commandments, appears to have a solid religious faith; but his
observance is not even mindless habit, but rather ritualistic/ceremo-
nial/folklorist 5 behavior which makes it possible for him to have a sense
of belonging to a social group,6 even though he has not yet decided
whether to adopt that group’s beliefs and ideals.
Because this adolescent does not subject his beliefs to scrutiny, he
is vulnerable to both external and internal factors, the former being
friends expressing doubts or behaving irreligiously, and the latter be-

Examples of folklorist behavior are eating gefilte fish on the Sabbath or
masquerading on Purim. Both, though widespread customs, are not required by
Jewish law.
For elaboration, see Beit-Halakhmi (1991).

ing motivational forces nudging him toward maturity and to the be-
ginning of the journey to investigation and consolidation of his be-
liefs. When he feels bewildered, he is likely to move toward deliberation
and doubts. From there, he can proceed in a positive direction (adult
faith) or a negative one (declarations and slogans) leading to jeopardy.
A teenager in this situation despairs of finding his own faith. Fre-
quently, this despair stems from his education; sometimes it is con-
nected to failed attempts to consolidate that faith. In the first instance,
the youth’s upbringing opposed criticism, doubts, and deliberation.
Education stressing only behavioral aspects can lead adolescents to
conclude that Judaism is a mere collection of rules, lacking any philo-
sophical depth. A teenager engrossed in resolving an identity conflict,
including a quest for meaning in his life, may feel that Judaism is too
shallow to provide answers. He may find himself trapped in a duality,
in which, on the one hand, he is committed to religious behavior and
fears punishment if he strays (“The sky will fall.” “I will be struck by
lightning.” “I will burn in hell.”), and, on the other hand, he does not
believe that religion will supply the answers to the existential ques-
tions disturbing him.
The conviction that he will not find philosophical profundity in
his religion may alienate the adolescent from Judaism. Alienation,
though easily preventable, is very difficult to change. It is tied to a
feeling of not-belonging. In addition, people zealously seek a system
of beliefs to hold onto in order to obtain some sense of unity and
belonging, even if the belief system is superficial. Indeed, supersti-
tions are superficial, but many people cling to them to avoid feeling
alienation. Alienation is the obverse of the sense of belonging that
Erikson (1968) saw as highly essential to adolescent mental health.
This point is critical not only to comprehending adolescent be-
havior, but also to treatment and prevention of despair. Treatment of
despair requires understanding of its sources. An essential dimension
of ego identity is sincerity and genuineness (Tzuriel 1984). This di-
mension is extremely important to adolescents, who are very sensitive
to discrepancies within their educators or themselves. It is by no means
unusual to find a teenager who refuses to be taught by someone whom
he perceives as hypocritical. He wants to believe that he himself is
consistent, and will sometimes be willing to pay a price, or be pun-
ished, for this constancy. In addition, he is aware of, and sensitive to,
various gaps in his personality.
Religious adolescents are taught to be scrupulous in their reli-

gious behavior and often internalize this value (Tzuriel 1984). How-
ever, some of them cannot overcome the stage of doubt. Their up-
bringing prevents them from confronting these doubts. Their parents
or educators let some of them know that doubts should not be pon-
dered and that deliberation about religious matters is superfluous or
forbidden. The message is: “Recite and obey; do not challenge.” This
discrepancy between religious behavior and belief impairs the sense
of sincerity and authenticity and threatens the adolescent’s consolida-
tion of ego identity. To diminish this gap, the adolescent chooses to
separate these two aspects of his religiosity. He gives up on consoli-
dating his faith and devotes himself to “religious” behavior stemming
from behavior rooted in folklore or superstition. This separation al-
lows him to avoid dealing with his own religiosity; he feels exempt
from defining and consolidating his religious identity (which would
include dimensions of both behavior and faith).
This situation must be dealt with by stressing the importance of
contemplating and discussing faith. The teenager’s parents continue
to require that he act according to religious behavioral norms, and his
teachers demand that he enlarge his Jewish knowledge (usually in the
realm of Jewish law). Thus, his erudition increases without a parallel
rise in his faith. Information about religious matters can help, and it is
certainly important to learn about faith, but progress in consolidation
of spiritual identity is achieved by clarification and confrontation among
knowledge and attitudes. Facing doubts head on, within one’s peer
group (in class, in youth movement activities, or in special seminars),
deliberation in discussion groups, and examination of faith through
the lens of scholarship are effective methods of strengthening faith
and reducing the discrepancy between the two parts of religious iden-
tity and the dimensions of ego identity.
This can be done directly, using questions and doubts raised by
the adolescents themselves, or indirectly (see also Poole [1996],
Noddings [1997] and, to some degree, Alexander [1997]). Dialogues
or stories can be read aloud or staged, to depict doubts and issues.
Frequently, roundabout methods are more effective because they
seemingly deal with “someone else’s problems.” Adolescents are less
hesitant to discuss doubts disguised as the feelings and musings of a
literary protagonist. An open and penetrating discussion of the
protagonist’s questions and presentation of diverse positions should
be encouraged. This route legitimizes doubts without worrying the
participants about self-exposure. Further on, adolescents can be en-

couraged to move from third-person to first-person expression. Dis-

cussion (especially when projective) also facilitates hearing one’s peers’
solutions to similar questions and the ways in which they dealt with
their doubts.


As mentioned, adolescents moving out of the slogan phase may

choose to regress rather than cope. There are three ways to flee from
confronting one’s doubts: (1) joining a cult or enslaving oneself to a char-
ismatic leader; (2) joining a group of formerly religious peers; or (3) group
delinquency (theft or vandalism) or group use of alcohol or drugs.

Joining a Cult or Enslaving Oneself

to a Charismatic Leader
A teenager who becomes part of a cult abandons his beliefs in
favor of those of the group. The group gives him security and a sense
of belonging. He does not have to find his own answers because the
group or its leader has them in great supply for him to adopt whole-
sale. He need not think twice; sometimes, he is even forbidden to
think or to voice doubts. No wonder joining a cult is categorized as a
dangerous development!
Sometimes, the groups are led by charismatic leaders who know
how to identify adolescents (or adults) who are evading their own
doubts; they offer old-new answers and slogans and provide brilliant
and mysterious proofs of their knowledge, piety or holiness, thus se-
ducing disciples into their nets. “With us,” they promise, “you will
find joy, truth and Paradise-in-the-hereafter; others are mistaken and
It is important to note that not all groups, and not all charismatic
leaders, are harmful; nevertheless, the very fact of self-enslavement is
Teenagers who join a cult do so to avoid confronting thoughts and
questions that shake up their spiritual identities and, with it, their ego
identities. However, they don’t see it that way, and do not agree that
they have enslaved themselves. They do not define themselves as be-
ing in a cult and willingly indentured. Because the groups are more
solid and unofficial, and rarely notorious cults such as Hare Krishna
and the like, the members do not feel enslaved or cultist.

What makes a cult a cult is the degree to which it pressures its

members to shun critical and challenging thinking (Truzzi 1970). Truzzi
(1972) notes that absolute commitment is demanded from cult mem-
bers; the cult is the sole determiner of their lifestyle and cognitive
framework. Members lose their autonomy, becoming completely de-
pendent and inseparable from the cult. Adolescents who choose to
join cults are unwilling to look within themselves to understand and
confront their motives for joining the cult and refusing to cope with
doubts. Furthermore, it is hard to penetrate a group bound tightly
around a leader. Many questions are interpreted as threats to the lead-
ership or to the members. There is tension between the fact of cult
membership and the openness required in discussion or interviews.
Precisely for that reason, that the most effective way to deal with
an adolescent who has joined a cult is to isolate him from it. Because
the group protects him from confronting doubts and (what it calls)
errors, removing and isolating him from the group makes him avail-
able for dialogue. Because the cults involved are not illegal and do not
physically imprison their members, this removal ought to be easy, but
sometimes is not. The member clings to the group’s principles and
fears that if he leaves, even temporarily, he will be harmed. To some
degree, he is right, because the aim is to get him to leave perma-
nently. We therefore have to outsmart him, by ourselves resorting to
charisma. A friend or relative (but not an authoritarian one) who can
meet the teenager and attempt to understand his world may be able
to help him. At this point, we should not try to convince him of any-
thing. Should he believe that someone is trying to influence him, he
will most likely play the porcupine—pulling in his head and readying
his quills. A parent or someone with social status will be perceived as
threatening. A good friend is far more likely to succeed. The declared
purpose of the discussion must be understanding, not removal from
the cult. As a first step in making contact and building trust, a casual,
friendly conversation is best.
In the second stage, the adolescent should be exposed to the philo-
sophical vacuity of the group’s life and to the fact that it has been
forced (or has forced itself) not to deliberate, not to choose, not to
decide. He should become aware that the members have, to a great
extent, deprived themselves of free choice in matters of faith and opin-
ion. Freedom of choice is a human attribute and is a basic principle of
Jewish philosophy.
Once cult-affiliated teenagers have become conscious of their

motives for joining and their negative aspects, the hollowness of their
slogans can be brought to light. This should return the youths to de-
liberation, which is the portal to consolidation of spiritual identity.
The process can be described as moving in a direction opposite from
the previous deterioration. Because the slide had been from childish
faith to slogans to cult-joining, the rescue proceeds from cult-leaving
to awareness of slogan-vacuity to deliberation.

Joining a Group of Formerly Religious Peers

Another form of flight involves combining forces with other for-
merly religious peers. Such groups contravene norms of religious be-
havior more extremely than nonreligious society and have the
characteristics of a subculture. They have their own rules and social
stratifications. They pass the time very demonstratively, blatantly chal-
lenging parents and educators. The members have similar backgrounds
and exhibit mutual solidarity. They struggle against their parents; some-
times, the parents do not understand them, reject them, and cause
them to leave home. In such cases, the teenagers reside in nonreli-
gious society, thus openly declaring (to themselves and to others) that
they are no longer religious. These groups do not enslave in the man-
ner of cults. Individuals are not required to self-efface and obey; the
group’s goal is to give members support and help them find ways to
enjoy themselves.
They do not deliberate whether or not to be religious and do not
decide to leave religion. They become nonreligious due to an uncon-
scious process—which is why this development is dangerous. Some
live with their parents and preserve a status quo of a shared life with
external religious symbols; others leave, renting lodgings elsewhere.
Those who opt to join a subculture do so for two reasons: (1) The
group is protective. Its members feel they are not the only ones who
cannot find a place within religious society—other teenagers share
their predicament; (2) the adolescent is afraid of losing “belongingness.”
Being in frequent conflict with his parents, he joins similarly afflicted
peers, to reacquire a sense of belonging. If his parents and yeshiva
ostracize him, the group will be the only place where he belongs, and
he will hang on to it for dear life. However, if his parents accept him
and show their affection, an avenue out of the subculture, in the fu-
ture, will be easier.
As with youths who join cults, the best way to deal with those in

subcultures is isolation from the group. Adolescents in a subculture

are not concerned with ideology. Very few behavioral limitations are
imposed because the “glue” binding the members is opposition to and
disagreement with commitments and limits. Their resistance to con-
versation with friends is therefore relatively slight. I do not propose
approaching the entire group or even a few together. Such an ap-
proach invites jeering and sarcasm, effective tools in resistance to
change. The discussion must not be forced on anyone, and should not
include moralizing, frightening, or sloganeering. One should attempt
to expose the motivations for joining this subculture, which are some-
times overt (and thus, easily revealed) and sometimes unconscious.
When an adolescent becomes aware of possible motives for joining a
subculture, he can choose whether he wants to continue this mem-
bership or to seek his own path. In such discussions, it is not a good
idea to disparage the group’s behavior. Because the youth has not yet
decided whether to leave the group, there is a risk of arousing his
antagonism. It is important to try to help him see his own motives.

Group Use of Alcohol or Drugs and Delinquency

A third escape route from the slogan phase is alcohol or drug use
or delinquency (property theft or vandalism). This is characterized by
group drug use, drinking with friends in pubs, and group delinquency
in which theft occurs for “the thrill of it,” the stolen goods being inci-
dental. The group nature of these adventures differentiates between
these adolescents and other drug users and criminals. The group spurs
its members to smoking and drinking, and protects them.
The crimes against property are not committed to acquire things
or to get money for drugs. The adolescent commits these crimes as
part of the group’s adventurism. Similarly, abuse of drugs (usually mild
ones) and alcohol are not regressive behaviors, but adventurous ones.
For many religious adolescents, merely entering a pub is a great esca-
pade. A teenager regressing from the slogan stage may try out mild
group delinquency to keep busy. Although he may then interpret this
occupation as the content of his life, he soon discovers that it is not
content, but merely behavior that keeps the group together and en-
sures its mutual protectiveness. If we succeed in making him aware
that, even in his own opinion, this behavior is not his life’s content,
and that he is engaging in this behavior to preserve both the group
and his place within it, there is a chance that he will agree to forsake
the group and its non-normative activities.


An adolescent is likely to regress from stressing ritual aspects to

hopelessness regarding his chances of finding his personal credo.
Bafflement characterizes the teenager who emphasized behavior that
seemed, to him, religious, and set great store by superstitions and
rituals. Sensing his own bewilderment, he may adopt searching be-
havior or regress to the feeling that he is simply unable to find his own
path. In the past, he had not thought or deliberated about his beliefs;
now, having begun to vacillate, he is aware of confusion which sur-
rounds all of his beliefs. He feels that finding satisfactory ideals is
beyond his ability, and may therefore choose one of three avenues: (1)
alienation and antireligious attitudes, (2) inconsistency or “being reli-
gious at heart,” or (3) the use of alcohol or drugs.

Alienation and Antireligious Attitudes

An adolescent who in the past was confused and did not find a
personal path may become an adult alienated from religion and from
religious society. Sometimes, the alienation initially will be a response
to the religious establishment, religious politicians, or Rabbinical in-
stitutions. Later, it will be directed at his own educators and, eventu-
ally, at religious people in general.
Generally, alienation is the result of untreated anger. Defined as a
feeling of distancing from the goals and norms of one’s family, com-
munity, and society, alienation also includes feelings of lack of con-
trol. Rogers (1951) contends that alienated people are insecure, cynical,
defensive, joyless, and self-rejecting.
Sometimes, the alienated person jeers at religious people and ex-
presses revulsion at them and religion; he may even hate them. For
him, alienation is a refuge from the search for answers. Sarcastic hu-
mor helps him to avoid deliberation and thought, thus perpetuating
his confusion.
As an adult, he will be horrified if his children want to be reli-
gious. He will not offer them a religious or traditional education, will
object to observance of folklorist customs, will object to his wife’s light-
ing Sabbath candles, and will be annoyed when kindergartens or
schools emphasize the religious nature of holidays. In general, he will
avoid any situation or behavior that might spur friends or neighbors to
raise questions concerning his religious identity. Frequently, family or
friends who know that he was formerly religious assume that he will

agree to behave, at least superficially, according to external norms—

for example, by wearing a skullcap on certain occasions. However,
because this sort of behavior can confront him with identity issues,
and because he has despaired of consolidating his identity, he will
sometimes avoid exposing himself and will not agree, even for the
sake of politeness, to behave according to religious norms.
We should pay less attention to the blatancy with which he ex-
presses his antireligious attitudes and emphasize our understanding
that he reached his present position through despair. We should try to
converse with him and reflect7 how hopeless he feels about finding a
personal credo. Moralizing, frightening, and assurances of the heav-
enly joy and absolute goodness of religious life are all ineffective. To
him, “religious life” equals “religious behavior”—which he has already
tried and found ungratifying. We must attempt to make him aware of
his sense of hopelessness, at the same time trying to increase his will-
ingness to search.
Hopelessness, like depression, saps energy, whereas anger aug-
ments it. An angry teenager sometimes channels his energy into
nonnormative behaviors, whereas despairing ones lack energy. Thus
depleted, the adolescent will neither deliberate nor search. A discus-
sion that shows him his own disheartenment and its roots may in-
crease his anger at his upbringing, but may concomitantly release
energy for the quest for answers on which he was unable to embark
(or prevented from) at an earlier stage of his development.
In this context, it is worth noting that many adolescents in this
state express great anger at the religious establishment. Often, their
fury is directed at their Rabbi-teachers or principals, and sometimes
at religious politicians and leaders. For the present purposes, it does
not matter whether this ire is justified or not. The subjective sense of
anger increases energy, which can then be channeled toward coping
with doubts. During discussion, it is possible to differentiate between
the establishment (the object of wrath) and “real” leaders, between
opportunistic politicians and positive educators and leaders.

Another form of regression is inconsistent behavior. An adoles-
cent who regresses from emphasizing religious behavior and supersti-
It is important to stress that we should reflect and not attempt to convince. An
adolescent who thinks we are trying to convince him will “close down” and will not
reveal his thoughts even to himself.

tions may become an adult who is unwilling to ask questions, to raise

doubts, and to confront them. This kind of adult chooses a path that
seems to him to be a compromise between religious life, which he
views as extreme and fanatic, and nonreligious life, which he sees as
unrestrained and vapid.
Such a person decides to adhere to a number of behavioral norms
and to reject others. He does not delve into the motives for his behav-
ior, nor cope with others’ questions about it. He declares: “I am reli-
gious in my heart.” When he finds it hard to behave according to the
norms he has chosen, he “bends the rules,” adapting his behavior to
circumstances. Because no consolidation of spiritual identity occurs,
this development is classified as dangerous.
His spiritual identity is not consolidated and he is unable to stand
firm in the face of temptations or difficulties. In religious company,
he is likely to conform to religious norms; in other situations, he will
behave according to norms prevalent there.
The inconsistent adolescent may appear at peace with himself,
but he has not consolidated his spiritual identity. This seems to be the
crack that can undermine his confidence in the route he has selected.
If, in conversation with him, we succeed in conveying the importance
of mature faith and of the fact that religious behavior can be defined
as such only if guided by faith, we will expose him to the emptiness of
his present path. From this point, the way upward, to deliberation
and finding a personal credo, is clear.

Use of Alcohol or Drugs

A third mode of regression from confusion and hopelessness is
the use of alcohol or drugs. (Regarding the relationship between reli-
giosity and substance abuse, see Dowd [1997] and Miller and Russo
[1995].) This behavior is similar to that of adolescents with diffuse
identities, who feel there is no purpose to their lives. This regression
is different from the chemical use seen in teenagers with foreclosed
identities. Adolescents in regression from foreclosure drink and some-
times use drugs in company, whereas those who regress from confu-
sion and despair do so in solitude. It is hopelessness that drives them
to drink, in the mistaken belief that chemicals will give them the deci-
siveness and happiness that life has not.
Because this resembles all the regressive behaviors of individuals
who, for whatever reasons, have sunk into despair, it should be treated
accordingly. Certain character traits are typically found in people who

choose regressive behavior; indeed, regressors sometimes become

addicted to various substances or behaviors. Some, weaned from drugs,
later develop addictions to alcohol, caffeine, work, and the like. Even
if an adolescent (or adult) has not become physiologically addicted to
drugs, it is more important to treat his emotional addiction and the
personality problems that led him to drugs than to deal with consoli-
dation of his identity. In general, we will find that regressive behavior
characterizes his responses to challenges or difficulties, and that many
dimensions of his ego identity are not consolidated. Frequently, these
teenagers require long-term and in-depth professional therapy.

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