Cults are a complex phenomenon. When does a religion turn into a cult?
How much choice do we have in joining these toxic organizations or is
everything determined from cause and effect? This is a topic that excites such
debate, as can be seen in Misunderstanding Cults edited by
Zablocki and Robbins, but debate is needed. There are undeniable stresses
that ex-cult members describe in their stories, but there are also personal
deficits and susceptibilities that are exploited by these cult leaders. Cult
behaviour can exist in governments, corporations, political groups, religions,
psychology clinics, self-help groups and families. When people are emotionally
invested in one organization or another, the need to defend arises in them, which
clouds the problem. Because there is so much backlash from Cultists themselves
who need to defend their own religion or belief system, I've decided to focus more
on the phenomenology of Cults, instead of doing a diatribe about one particular
cult or another. This way the debate between agency and determinism can be
dealt with personally. By seeing how YOU are affected, because if negative
relationships concern you, then you can make up your own mind based on how
badly or well off you are after you complete a social transaction with a
particular group. The controversial anti-cultist Margaret
Thaler Singer wrote in Cults in our midst that...
This is the correct strategy for
me. In the end we are the ones that decide where we invest our time, money
and emotions. Does it really matter if a cult is religious or secular? If the
results are the same, then no.
Where the controversy lies is Margaret's insistence in finding a brainwashing
method where cult leaders are able to control people against their will.
As can be read in Cults by James R. Lewis, he lays out the history of this
intellectual conflict. Margaret was an expert witness in court cases involving
cults, because of her expertise with soldiers dealing with thought-reform in
Korea in the 1950s. But her role as an expert for courts ended when the
American Psychological Association couldn't find enough scientific rigor to
backup her claims. It's possible to go too far one way or another, because there
are clear patterns of manipulation that leaders use, but there are also personal
attitudes that make victims a perfect target. "It takes two to tango" as the
saying goes. There are many weaknesses that victims have, but the most
overlooked one is that of the natural search we all have, which is to believe
there is a greater happiness somewhere else than where we are.
When people realize they are victimized, they have trouble letting go of their
belief that they found this better happiness. The fear in having to let go
of an emotional investment and start all over again
is a big reason that there is resistance to change. Margaret says that...
The term, lure, that Margaret uses is a good one. It brings up images of fishing
and applying bait to a hook.
We have limited, or deterministic environments, but in most cases we can
choose in those environments among at least two choices or more. As Albert
Bandura pointed out in Self-efficacy, the environment acts on us but we are
also a part of the environment and can act on it. To act as if the environment
is the only place where there's agency creates too much dualism between the
human and the environment. Even if we have limited choices throughout our
upbringing, the desire to try something new is partially a choice
and the brain's natural deterministic tendency to seek novelty, which can propel a person
to add new experiences to their life for comparison. As people age, they've tried a
lot of things and fell down some holes in the wrong direction. Many will have
discovered what activities make them most happy and engaged
because they had experiences to compare. Ultimately the seeking of new
experiences, and the cherishing of favourite ones, is an ebb and flow that
adds variety to life coming from both the deterministic and agency
perspectives. Does our brain feel bored with old experiences? Does the brain feel
excited by encountering new experiences? When people have a variety of
experiences, can people resist novelties that are suspicious and return to safer
experiences? Without bad experiences it may not be easy to detect suspicious
behaviour. Agency and determinism are intertwined and any brainwashing science
must advance with this understanding. Science has to progress into DNA
differences between people and their emotional content when they make choices.
If some people have a desperate desire to connect with others and other people
can resist more easily, science would have to explain that. Why do people
tolerate human rights abuses in a cult, and why do some resist it? Why do some
people escape cults and others remain all of their lives?
Certainly there are influences that groups can act with on an agent, but
agents also have weaknesses and beliefs that respond in the wrong way.
By outlining the predictable methods, hopefully the reader can
detect suspicious activity faster so they can avoid exploitation in any
For Margaret Singer, cults don't happen only to "weak and silly
people." She says that..
Her research indicated...
Margaret also describes people who are young and looking for quick solutions to
problems, and the elderly who are recently widowed and lonely. Some older
persons also feel the urgency to find a spiritual meaning for their lives as
death approaches. The most important vulnerability is in modern life itself.
It's not only the youth that are confused. Canadian Professor Stephen Kent
talks of a cult he has studied that had in its attendance...
If there's a thread that
groups all these people together in these examples, it is a population of
people looking for purpose and meaning in their lives and can't find it in
conventional ways. Economic destruction, technological complexity, broken
relationships, loneliness, victimization, addictions, conflict, fear
and isolation, lead to so many types of people to become primed for joining a
cult. Margaret says that...
Since cults need money, they focus on people who already have enough resources.
The main way to get money is via donations and selling courses. Cults...
These courses teach how to...
This is a selfish element to self-development, but not all people want
to be rich and master the world.
Margaret looks at the power hierarchy
not even as a pyramid, but an inverted T ┴ where the cult leader receives the
vast majority of the rewards. One can easily make fun of the symbol.
it's shaped like a prick so cultists are pricks and they screw you.
It's shaped like a prick, so cultists are pricks
As people are primed by a sense of lack, depression and even personality
disorders, their lack distorts their perception with hunger and yearning.
Perception is coloured by emotion. Like putting on glasses with a tinted colour,
the vision desperately searches for THE answer.
historical events that increased the power of cults including, the fall of
Rome, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, European
colonization, the aftermath of World War II in Japan,
the 1960's rebellion in the West, and the breakup of Communist regimes.
Whether it's people on streets with signs, well dressed people standing
next to sidewalk recruitment displays or people selling get rich quick schemes,
they are offering you the answers to life. Once a possible recruit has engaged
with a cult recruiter the problem is how to keep the momentum going until the
recruit makes big commitments that are hard to get out of. How to keep people in
cults and to have them continue giving money, time, and free labour requires a lot
of misdirection as you can expect. Victims must be unaware that they are
being duped. Many recruits who lost all their money and property, only became
aware of their trap after they became dependent on the cult. Recruiters with no
money left have to work for the cult by becoming recruiters themselves. This
pattern recycles over and over again. Old cults fall only to have new ones pop up
with a different mission. People who are aware of these tactics escape, and avoid
them, but adults still ignorant of cults and younger generations with less
experience, become the new targets. It's important to know these tactics because
they can be used in any legal organization. How you get caught is
believing in the front the cults use to disguise themselves their clothing their
acting, their lifestyles, and their promises of happiness. This includes, in
my experience with a door-to-door religion
I shall not name, pimping out women to use sex to gain followers. The first step
is to find a place to recruit people. Cults need a front so that people are
unaware of their secret agenda to exploit people. Sidewalk displays are
obvious to many people, but they still work. Many cult members try to
develop successful careers to recruit people who admire them and treat them as
role models. Another area is finding a big-tent mainstream religious group to
target people who are disappointed with their religion and are open to join a
sect or a cult. For non-religious types, a secular approach is to teach courses and
rent out locations in the city. Courses include teaching public speaking,
learning English as a second language, getting rich quickly with vague business
ideas, learning how to buy and sell risky investments, and many other skills. As
people are up-sold more courses, they eventually meet the more embedded cult
members. Like with George Orwell's 1984, Cults in our Midst shows the power of
language. Language can harbour a premise with a worldview. If you adopt the
language, without vetting the premise, you adopt the worldview. By wanting to
imitate senior role models in the organization to bolster self-esteem, the
new recruit starts to speak like them and view the world in the same way.
Limiting the language allowed begins to limit the thought process. This can be
found even in normal society when political correctness covers up facts.
Many recruits already have a compromised sense of self.
They have shame, low self-esteem, and low self-efficacy. This can continue and
deepen further by creating an environment of fear, powerlessness, and
dependency. This is done with social conditioning. In Cults: Faith, Healing, and
Coercion by Marc Galanter, he explains this relationship.
That was a neat description
of intermittent reinforcement, where positive rewards are loaded at the
beginning of the relationship which becomes a lure to make victims
tolerate ever more abusive behaviour with the promise that the positive rewards
will return. The bond is furthered with confessions. By giving personal
information about indiscretions, no matter now small and trifling, it's used
against the person to make them feel even more inferior and dependent on the
new system to bring the recruit out of wretchedness. This is precisely how an
authority figure can be put inside of your mind, just like a parent. The mind
self-polices and represses healthy defense mechanisms, critical thinking, and
normal human desires. This can be seen in my review of Daniel Paul Schreber and
the book Soul Murder. This kind of conditioning helps to foster Stockholm
Syndrome where victims identify with the abuser, because the abuser has personal
information they can blackmail the victim with. Leaders also create a lot of
paranoia. They look omnipresent and have other
recruits who can stalk for them. For many victims, the only person who can relieve
the stress is the leader who can choose to relax these threats, so they choose to
support them in their activities in order to gain relief. Once the "bad self"
is exposed for the pathetic, disgusting, perverted,
incapable wretch that he or she is, then the only group that can help them is the
cult. Purchasing ever more expensive courses, because each course is never
enough, leads to financial dependence. Slave labour for little or no pay prevent
escape from those who have no money left or job. All the prior conditioning
forces isolation from family, friends and normal jobs. The courses themselves also create
lots of damage because the person is now so dependent on the leaders that the
feeling of teaching and learning on one's own is replaced with a learned
helplessness and codependency. Any decisions made on one's
own feel risky and require validation from the cult to develop confidence. The
irony is that, like with tarot cards, the answers that people find in these
courses are actually self-created. We fill in the gaps, including filling in
the empathy the leader is missing. The courses themselves are so general and
lack details, they are next to useless. In an article I read on a Canadian
Christian cult, one follower describes her leader's speeches. "
That snap is explained by Stephen Kent.
One can find better information
at a library for free than what are found in so many of these courses. Instead of
self-development, it's more like regression where one can only survive
and make decisions with permission from the group. The independent mind is gone.
Then when there are needs for self-protection, the victim falls back
and tolerates weakening themselves to prop up the group's activities. Marc says...
Cults gain more power over the agency of others by
learning from feedback. As members come and go, certain tactics will seem to be
more effective than others and can be repeated. One of the typical tactics is
to focus only on positive feedback within the group, and to minimize focus
on negative feedback. This includes scandals within the organization that
are kept secret from newer and more skeptical members. Remember, the cult
leader is in it for the goodies that all psychopaths and narcissists want.
They want consumption, easy sex, sadism, and the pleasure of duping people. They are
constantly bored and need stimulus. Eventually you have layers of people who
are more "in the know" than others, controlling the morale of the group. This
dance continues as negative feedback about the outside world is emphasized
as well as positive feedback related to being part of this significant group.
Good results for the cult lead to members applying self-censorship of
negative feedback so that they can independently recruit others from the
rest of the world and persuade them to stay using their own zeal. As individuals
move up the hierarchy, some naturally don't believe in the system, but only
what they can gain from it. Others continue believing all the way up
the leadership and can be counted on by the cult leader to follow their orders,
no matter how insane.
Margaret talks at the end of her book about what happens to victims who
escape. Ex-cultists often aid counsellors by showing escapees a new way
of living without the cult. Providing evidence of the leader's vices and
misdeeds provides sobering realizations and a counter to all the conditioning
and idol worshiping. Many have relationships that need mending and
defensiveness over being manipulated by a cult has to be let go of. The
conditioned trance-like states that were sustained for so long can continue for
years, but they fade over time. In a safe environment, thoughts about what the
leader will say or do if you exercise your freedom, that caused so many
stressful thoughts about the future, fade away when there's no cult to reinforce
them. Relief! The big consequence of being in a cult for so long is that people
didn't develop themselves during that time with the real skills that they needed.
When they leave a cult, they have a lot of re-skilling to do. The real self-development.
New technologies and methods used in the workplace have to be adopted.
Some employers are understanding and others are not.
It's not easy to explain gaps in your resume in an interview by saying that
you worked for a cult for 11 years. Honesty and communicating lessons that
were learned, is the only way to gain back trust from others in the outside
world. Dating also becomes difficult for the same reason. Is the ex-cultist
trustworthy? Are they mentally ill? More hits to the self-esteem happen, but the
lesson is learned because a free life can now be compared to the cult life.
There's no confusion on which is life is better. The victim learns to see where
they gave their power away and takes on all those responsibilities themselves.
The reward is learning to enjoy one's own company, trust one's own
decision making skills, and to benefit from those choices. It's real feedback
that is not filtered through the distorted mind of a personality
disordered cult leader. The best way to deprogram from my point of view is to
look at the world as a place full of promises. Sometimes the actual product or
experience surpasses the promises, which is fantastic. Much more often promises
fail. Ask the question: "Does the promise point to a place, person or thing that
gives you more mental peace and nourishing love?" The answer will be NO in
most situations. Eventually you go back to your old hobbies that you used to enjoy.
Relationships are realistic and based on skills, and in fact you find that you
only go into Flow states when you are engaging in activities where you have skill.
Developing skills at the beginning is the stressful setup, but enjoying the
skills afterwards is the payoff. When you realize that you control more of your
happiness than people promising you something, you'll never want to give that
power away again. The healthy feeling is being a person that enjoys doing things
themselves. People are always looking for projects to relieve boredom. Why give
decisions and credit to other people when you can do it yourself?
Ex-cultists now become outsiders. Cult leaders often have derogatory terms for
their "enemies" and it's all based on how the mind can objectify people. Followers
are essentially uses and tools to gratify the leader. Their care is only
based on how useful you are to them. Since that's all that's important for
the leader then that's all they'll remember of you. I'm reminded of a meme I
saw that someone posted on Facebook to describe how Narcissists see you. It
It replaces the word LOVE with USE.
Senior members in the cult are not in an envious
position. They are still draining their limited life span with parasites. The game
for the cult leaders is to get enough money so that they can enjoy their
lavish lifestyles long enough to retire to a warm climate and fade into
anonymity. Victims often think of Karma and all the bad things that will happen
to those people, but this is also an illusion. Our happiness cannot be
dependent on what happens to them. Many will meet Karma and others will not. One
thing is for sure. The cult leader knows what they are and because of that they
can't trust anyone else. Their life is chasing higher mental states making them
addicted to externalities. As these people age, they will have to suffer
withdrawal symptoms every time they have to give something up as they move closer
to natural death. The worst legacy they leave behind is an illusory template of
happiness that new generations will imitate.