quote from an essay:
"In a sense, cults create a transcendent experience that “stops time” for the follower who feels the aura of a final answer to life’s questions. Thereby, “the original exploratory impulse” that got them there freezes. All that remains is to deflect criticism and doubt and to stay in orbit around the perceived savior or guru."
The more constricted the orbit, the more potential for harm due to the absolute devotion invested in a controversial person, idea or object.
Cult. 1. A system of religious worship and ritual. 2. A religion or sect considered extremist or false. 3.a. Obsessive devotion to a person or principle; b. The object of such devotion. (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1994)
Although this site concentrates on the second and third definitions, we will not ignore the primary one as they all work to define one social activity. For more about cult and its meaning, see the section below under Religion.
Brainwashing. Intensive, forcible indoctrination aimed at replacing a person's basic convictions with an alternative set of fixed beliefs. (The American Heritage Dictionary , 1994).
The history of how we acquired this term brainwashing is a study in itself. Briefly,writer Edward Hunter coined “brainwashing”in 1951 in an article about American prisoners of war who were forcibly indoctrinated by North Koreans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainwashing. Hunter derived it from a Chinese term (Hsi [or Xi] Nao), literally translated as "wash brain" but properly translated as “thought reform.” Thought reform for the larger, sacred cause of the group agenda was (is) a good thing in Communist China. And it was not always forcible or intense. As follow-up on the prisoners of war showed, forcible "brainwashing" is not as effective as thought reform through systematic indoctrination based on rapport and psychological manipulation rather than physical force. The goal in both approaches is to "recruit" and take control of a person. Once the "gun" was removed from the heads of the supposedly brainwashed American POWs, nearly all reverted to their previous personality and beliefs in short order. All they needed was to return to their familiar social environments and cultures.
Thought Reform. Not in my dictionaries. Robert J. Lifton defined this concept in his now classic study published in 1961, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism in which he described eight themes that characterize brainwashing.
His work was based partly on interviews he conducted with Chinese affected by communism. Margaret T. Singer, Ph.D.(1921-2003) defined six conditions for thought reform in her book Cults in Our Midst (1995).
Both of these authors observed that a charismatic leader with immoderate ideals is most effective in maintaining devotion through an attractive, high demand system. Steve Hassan , a student of both authors and mind control, proposed in his book Releasing the Bonds a 4 part model for a thought reform environment: Behavior, Information, Thought and Emotional controls.
As John Marks concludes in his penetrating book 'The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control,' brainwashing works most effectively when it mimics religious conversion, something that cannot be forced through imprisonment, drugs, or physical torture. A PERSON HAS TO BELIEVE THAT THEY ARE MAKING AN INFORMED CHOICE even if that choice is influenced by spurious authority, false evidence, irrational drug experience, or group pressure.
Thought control 1.The practice by a totalitarian government as attempting (as by propaganda) to prevent subversive and other undesirable ideas from being received and competing in the minds of the people with the official ideology and policies. 2. The use of a group or institution of authoritarian techniques similar in nature and purpose to governmental thought control. (Webster's Third International Dictionary)
Mind Control. Also not in my dictionaries. However it is a popular expression that swings several ways:
1. I control my thoughts. There can be some denial of influence here.
2. Someone or something invades or controls my thought processes.
3. Group influence determines how I control my thoughts.
4. I conform my thought to beliefs defined by a group or a guru.
The following helps put what we have covered so far into context:
Socially problematic cultic characteristics include combined behaviors such as:
1. Compliance with a group
2. Dependence on a leader
3. Avoiding dissent
4. Devaluing outsiders
(for more on these characteristics, see Them and Us by Arthur J. Deikman (2003). The more extreme these behaviors, the more potential for abuse in any group activity or relationship.
In general Cult activity refers to any devotional or ritualistic attention to a person, doctrine or object. Most religions have cult activity, or a cult, that is central to devotional activity.
Cult in perspective: Christianity in its various forms has the cult of devotion to Jesus Christ. (btw, I'm a practicing Catholic). Catholics have the cult of the Eucharist during which they receive the "body and blood" of Jesus. In ancient Judaism they had the cult of the Ark of the Covenant. Some Asian religions have the cult of ancestor worship. Vampires of legend practice the cult of drinking blood. Northwest Native Americans have the cult of totem animals. I have many books with cult in the title that do not focus on destructive groups, for example, The Japanese Cult of Tranquility by Karlfried Durckheim (1991), The Plato Cult by David Stove (1991), and Cult of the Cat by Patricia Dale-Green (1980).
Labeling something a cult tells us little or nothing about the morality or ethics of the person or group that supports such cult activity. You must answer the question: What kind of cult are you talking about and what do they do?
If cult participants follow the four patterns suggested by Deikman above, they become vulnerable to thought reform and mind control .
Thought reform occurs when the psychological environment of someone is manipulated to engineer and sustain a change in personality, goals, and attitudes that conform with a group agenda. Mind control occurs when the participant in a thought reform environment has internalized the suggestions and adopted the behaviors to the point where the recruit "polices" his or her thoughts and actions according to stated agendas. If there are hidden agendas the deception can undermine a group member’s ability to question or criticize. If the group member is privy to the hidden agenda, the "secret" controls their loyalty and ability to communicate with outsiders who do not deserve to know secrets because they have not yet been initiated.
Sometimes these secrets are so guarded that rejection of them or revealing them to undeserving hordes or undeserving persons is punishable. 2500 years ago the cult of Pythagoras is an example of the elite, initiatic sect that punished "traitors" with threat of death. Modern Mormonism, Scientology and Masonic movements have similar, guarded secrets. They would argue that it their right to keep secrets as they are "sacred." Many gangs that operate like cults institute such vows, and we can also find evidence of scret oathsin the history of the Mafia or Casa Nostra. Punishment can be overt as in harassment, lawsuit, assault or even homicide. It can also come in less tangible forms like the suggestion (phobia indoctrination) of returning karma, of hell, of mental and physical illness, of demon possession, of accident and other "deserved" misfortune.
In summary, the more intense or closed the influence/thought reform/brainwashing the more likely a person will suffer psychological closure, thus making of them a more effective or deployable agent of the group agenda. Exiting the cult thereafter has powerful implications as one's new identity, life investment, and group relationships are a high price to pay for rejecting the group. Walking away ain't so easy.
Next we can learn from different disciplines.
Sociology and cult
Most basic courses in sociology offer only a brief mention of the cult problem. For example, in one "quick study" outline I have it states under Religion/Varieties: 3. Sects and Cults, a. Contrary to dominant society, b. Little formal training of leadership, often based on charismatic qualities of person, c. Members enter sect through adult conversions . Typically a course might spend one class or part of a class on cults and sects. Sociology does not use a medical approach, therefore it is not in the business of diagnosis and treatment. This does not mean that sociology ignores the harm some cults inflict, but it does tend to argue for the rights of minorities and marginal religion putting it at odds with anti-cult crusaders who seek to remedy harm. Nor is sociology bereft of information. On the contrary the controversial behaviors associated with closed cult systems are studied throughout sociology if by other names.
Consider these dozen papers among 46 included in Down to Earth Sociology, Eighth Edition edited by James M. Henslin, 1995:
Life among violent people: "Doing Fieldwork Among the Yanomano" by Napoleon A. Chagnon.
Subtle conformance to internalized culture : "The Sounds of Silence" by Edward T. Hall, Mildred R. Hall.
The power of groups: "If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, Would You? Probably" by Philip Meyer. (This is about the important Stanley Milgram experiments that demonstrate that you and I could easily have been obedient Nazis.)
Building a nourishing social structure : "Communal Life-Styles for the Elderly" by Arlie Hochschild.
And under a section titled Deviance and Social Control:
Keeping people in their place: "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari" by Richard Borshay Lee.
Effects of labels: "The Saints and the Roughnecks" by William Chambliss.
The deviance of social control: "The Pathology of Imprisonment" by Philip Zimbardo (who is well known for his excellent contributions to understanding cult behaviors).
Wealth and Power : "The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats" by G. William Domhoff.
The final solution : "Genocide in Cambodia " by Eric Markusen.
When cultures collide : "The Amazon's Savvy Indians" by Marlise Simons.
Managing social change: "Social Change Among the Amish" by Jerry Savells.
Struggling for identity: "Searching for Roots in a Changing World" by Richard Rodriguez.
Nowhere in Henslin's book is the word "cult" mentioned, yet the text is rich with information about varieties of group behavior, undue influence, and ritual effects. To understand cult behavior one can and should seek outside books specifically about cults without ignoring the latter. In other words, do not merely rely on a Google search under "cult."
Debate over brainwashing as a legitimate social engineering phenomenon .
Best illustrated in Misunderstanding Cults edited by Benjamin Zablocki, Ph.D. (2001). Read especially "brainwashing controversy" and Methodological Fallacies in Anthony's Critique of Exit Cost Analysis re Dick Anthony, Ph.D.
Religion and cult
Ah, here's the rub! Nowhere is cult more confused or stereotyped than when we associate it only with religious beliefs or mental health (see Psychiatry below). Consider the following five stereotypes: 1. A cult is anyone else's religion. 2. Anyone who believes differently than me is brainwashed. 3. Cult members practice witchcraft and Satanism, cast spells and work magic through demons. 4. Cult members must be crazy. 5. All religions are cults.
Here we will consider stereotype 1.A cult is anyone else's religion.
Stereotypes form when words or images convey simplistic conceptions or opinions. Words have a way of migrating into new meaning territory over time, from neutral and descriptive to pejorative and ugly, to parody or stereotype and to descriptive of something new or a neologism. Gay is an obvious example. Bad, cool, hip, the bomb, have all taken turns to mean appreciated, beautiful or I approve.
Symbols migrate in meaning also. What do you think when you see a swastika?
For thousands of years in the Indian (Hindu) and Tibetan cultures it meant and still means good luck and prosperity. The symbol appears worldwide as decoration on ancient structures from Greece to China to Central America.
The symbol has many meanings, all positive and dynamic. Less than a century ago the Nazis appropriated it for its same dynamic attributes, but they also radicalized the swastika into an evil symbol in the eyes of the world, especially among Jews, gypsies or Roma and homosexuals.
Cult has gone through a similar change. I have a Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary that I received in 1970, a mere 33 years ago. Compare this definition with the 1994 Heritage one above: cult : 1. formal religious veneration: worship. 2. a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also, its body of adherents. 3. a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator. 4. great and faddish devotion; also, its object or adherents. In the press journalists still use the term in several, appropriate ways: A celebrity has a cult following, a movie has reached cult status, the perpetrator appears to belong to a religious cult, or the Catholic Church approves the cult (veneration) of a new saint. Some scholars of religion who concentrate on the new religious movements came to hate the label. By the early 1970s influential Evangelical Christians and some anti-cultists began to use the term liberally as a pejorative, alleging that a cult or deviant sect was either satanically influenced or utilized brainwashing techniques or both.
Specifically, The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin greatly impacted Christian thinking about new and different religious groups when it was first published in 1965 (many new editions to 2003). His standard definition for cult was a religious one that measured other religions by their adherence to his peculiar interpretation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I say peculiar not because I think him way off-base in his apologetics, but because his standard works only for Evangelicals. These Christians feel threatened by the cults on a spiritual warfare basis and believe demons operate in their milieu. Many believe that the rise in cults heralds the end-times when Satan has his way with us. In any case, Martin's book catapulted cult into "c" word status. Critics of the new movements adopted the term. Labeling a group as a cult became tantamount to saying "they are evil."
Even more than Evangelicals, Jews were the other religious or cultural group to react heavily to the modern cult phenomena. By the early to mid 1970s Jewish groups set up cult clinics to help counsel families of or reeducate the comparatively high number of young Jews recruited into Bible-based and Eastern guru-based movements as well as controversial mass therapy and self-transformational groups. Their dedicated research and work continues to be instrumental in educating not only their own people but also sectarian and non-sectarian groups about the cult problem. Cult as a spurious or abusive devotional system now dominates public religious discourse obscuring the more appropriate academic use of the term.
Of course, the entire cult awareness movement including groups run by Evangelicals, Jews and secular organizations like International Cultic Studies Association (former American Family Foundation) all have matured over time and made adjustments and improvements without losing their original intent. Nevertheless, as the ICSA website admits, we seem to be stuck with cult to define deviant, abusive or destructive groups that manipulate devotees. Much the same we are stuck with the deprogramming and brainwashing labels to the chagrin of nearly everyone in the field.
In sum, the religious approach to this area is more concerned with beliefs and doctrines than they are about deviant behaviors.
Psychiatry, mental illness and cult
Stereotype 2. Anyone who thinks differently than me is brainwashed.
The absurdity of the 2 statement should be obvious. I've been employed by an emergency psychiatric hospital (currently as a crisis intake caseworker) since 1998. Patients, especially those with acute symptoms of schizophrenia or mania have stated some version of #2 to me, but it usually comes out, "I'm not mentally ill, you are (or "the doctor is")" or, "All you are going to do is drug me and brainwash me with the way you want me to be." Cult members I've interviewed or exit counseled have their own versions: "How do you know you're not brainwashed by science, your schools, your government, your family or your religion? Yes, I'm brainwashed--I'm cleansed of all the lies I used to believe. I have a right to believe and think what I want. You have your way of looking at things and I have mine---both are true because everyone has their own truth."
Psychiatry is interested in maintaining mental health and in diagnosing and treating illness that adversely affects behavior and thought processes. Cult activity affects behavior and thought processes, and it often claims to improve spiritual as well as mental health. However, it presents increasingly adverse to outsiders when cult activity utilizes thought reform and authoritarianism, and when the probability of harm to insiders increases when authoritarianism reigns. So how can we tell the difference between unusual beliefs and delusions? Between unethical behavior and dharma, devotion or patriotism? I can tell you there is a difference, but it is not immediately apparent in all cases. Read on.
Stereotype 3. Cult members practice witchcraft and Satanism, cast spells and work magic through demons.
It is not unusual for cult experts to receive inquiries either from or about mentally ill people that confuse mind control, cult activity and even demon possession with an active mental illness. In my case, most of these odd inquiries are from or about people with paranoia, delusions, or hallucinations. I have worked with students or devotees of Satanism--demons and occult energy were never the core issue with them as the abuse they experienced was very real, not metaphysical. Some told stories of being deceived, illicit drug abuse, petty theft, and sexual assault. Most complained of narcissistic leaders and manipulation-- fairly typical stuff for ex-cult members. The intrusive metaphysical stuff and demons often disappear once the ex-member grasps and dispenses with the effects of phobia, magical thinking, suggestion, autosuggestion (hypnosis) and extraordinary stage magic. In other words, they lose naiveté through education.
There is quite a difference working with the mentally ill and the average cult member in exit counseling. Mentally ill people do not reality test very well when assessing information that sheds light on their group, doctrines or leader's history. A delusional person may pathologically hold onto conspiracy theories, false beliefs and use thought stopping or blocking ideation to resist discursive dialogue. A common phobia among these types is that some agency secretly imbedded a "mind control chip" into their skull or another body part. In one case, I talked a mentally ill man I knew well [15 year earlier he was my roommate in college] out of using a steak knife to dig the "government chip" out of his forehead--he already had a nasty laceration from a butter knife he used the day before. Schizophrenic types can invent elaborate schemes that can seem intelligently contrived--I have pages and pages of email from one such young man who thought a cult in the government was trying to control and kill him. Nothing I could say to encourage him to get help worked, so I eventually gave up. They are not merely stubborn.
The key to understanding this confusion psychiatry calls reality testing. To quote from one of the very best layman's guides to the Diagnostic Systems Manual-IV, Your Mental Health by doctors Allen Frances and Michael First (1998): "A fundamental aspect of normal mental functioning is the ability to distinguish between thoughts and perceptions that originate within our minds versus the stimuli that come from the outside world. This ongoing process is called "reality testing." Most of us maintain a fairly strong grasp on reality, except when we dream at night or if we take a psychedelic drug. In contrast, someone suffering from psychosis has lost the ability to distinguish fact from fantasy, reality from imagination, and internal fears from actual threats" (303). In common jargon we say the person must be mad, crazy, out of their mind or psycho.
Stereotype 4. Cult members must be crazy.
Cult members almost never are crazy, nor have they broken with reality in a pathological way. Cults led by grandiose, paranoid or narcissistic leaders tend to abandon, reject or dismiss mentally ill cult members. I've been to many mental hospitals over the years to try to exit counsel rejected cult members who continue to believe and infuse the cult jargon into other disordered thoughts. The successful cult member is one who can live in an intense world of overvalued, even bizarre rituals and ideas (my leader communicates with the dead, angels or flying saucer masters, and he can levitate and I will too someday), yet reality test fairly well in careers, chores and day to day affairs. Unsuccessful cult members either leave on their own (most do) because they either cannot live with the high demands (give me all your money and reject your family and their values), or they research and methodically apply doubt to (reality test) the doctrine, the leader's history, and the group's effectiveness. The rejected are either too intense or disobedient for the fringe sect to tolerate. Remember, most cults hold a high if misguided or bizarre standard of behavior and thought, often resulting in a closed system with "black and white" dominating their palettes. Destructive cult leaders tend to blame the victim-- they say members get crazy when they refuse to obey the doctrine or they practice the rituals improperly.
Cult leaders often have what psychiatry calls Axis II disorders or personality disorders with anti-social personality and narcissism on top of the list, in my view (I refer to the group therapy work of W. R. Bion). Common to these leaders are mood disorders or swings, but they rarely reach pathological criteria so they are not ill in a clinical sense (Axis I disorders). In a word they are charismatic types whether they present as extroverts with hypo manic features or introverts with schizoid (withdrawn or paranoid) features. They tend to either be strong managers or have influence over authoritarian managers who run the group and protect, even help isolate the leader (In the relatively small Emin group, most members or cells have never met the leader).
Psychiatry has basically ignored the cult phenomenon as it falls under other academic disciplines, primarily Social Psychology. This is not to say that some psychiatrists have not had valuable things to say. Louis Jolyn West, M.D. comes to mind immediately. He was a fascinating, brilliant man who I got to know personally, one who the Scientology group regarded as a most evil force--that group hates psychiatry with a passion.
Skeptics and cult
Stereotype 5. All religions are cults
Although cynical atheists might make such a comment, thecareful skeptic will find the statement ludicrous. Equally ludicrous is to say all cults are religions. Cultists who direct devotional activity toward politicians, entertainers, a sport, a totem animal, a scientific principle, a rock or an idea do not regard the object of their devotion as the universal Source or high God. As we stated above, most religions include a cult activity if not many, but that does not define them as only a cult. Most established religions are organizations that include a variety of social dynamics: democratic elections, schools that also teach secular subjects that comply with cultural standards, accommodations for the handicapped, etc. In other words, these established groups may be parochial, but their participation in the cultural milieu is not all that eccentric, elitist or abusive.
Skeptical societies and research by scientists regarding paranormal claims and events are valuable resources for exit counselors who deconstruct cult activity for their clients. Cult leaders commonly make outlandish claims or appear to have paranormal powers like telepathy, bi-location, spirit contact, mental healing, teleportation, and so on. Saddam Hussein, the deposed Iraqi dictator, reportedly has a magical stone imbedded in his shoulder, and his devotees believe this keeps him from getting killed. This ridiculous amulet has a powerful grip on believers' behavior.
True skepticism is an equal opportunity reaper, thus all religions with miraculous claims are under that microscope. Sophisticated religions, like the Catholic Church, no longer ignore or suppress science but work with it. This does not mean that the Church is always happy with what science delivers or exposes. It is important in our age to distinguish the aesthetics of religion from scientifically plausible reality. Catholics agree that there is no evidence to test that a wafer of bread changes into the body and blood of Christ during a mass. It is an article of faith.
Cults often refuse to acknowledge good science. Without providing evidence today's Raelian movement out of
has publicly claimed to have cloned human beings, for example. No independent science reviewer has ever seen these babies let alone examined the evidence. On the negative claim side, some groups assert that all the moon landings were hoaxes contrived by the governments as landing on the moon is impossible.
Narcissism and the seeker
Jay Rosen is a professor of journalism and mass communication at NYU. He wrote this piece for the Skeptical Inquirer, 1989 summer issue:
CONSUMER CULTURE AND THE NEW AGE
[The new age movement and the consumer culture are nearly identical. Both promise complete and total transformation, but only if you buy the right product or learn the right technique]
Following are excerpts:
“Because it has so many different dimensions to it, the New Age movement invites a number of different interpretations. I here discuss certain parallels between the New Age movement and what I will call the “consumer culture”. I do not claim that this is the right way to look at the New Age, only that it is a useful way.
American business underwent a significant change around the turn of the century. Starting about 1870 or so, the problem of production started to share time with a new problem—consumption. The producers of goods began to realize that unless they also created a market for their goods, the rapidly increasing rate of production would not bring bigger profits. To manufacture products was not enough, they had to manufacture consumers as well….
Business also had to manufacture fears. People had to be taught, for example, that their bodies would betray them in social situations unless they used the proper mouthwash or soap. Industry therefore acquired an interest in anxiety. The more kinds of anxiety it could produce, the more it could peddle as products. In producing anxiety, the makers of products had a lot of help…forces more powerful than advertising were bearing down on individuals, uprooting traditional ways of life, and creating what Emile Durkheim called anomie….
Life insurance advertising that plays upon a breadwinner’s fear of an early death is a blatant example of perpetuating an anxiety. [he also includes “perfect body” advertisements, ads that use models impossible for any of us to replicate, thus creating body anxieties that we cure by buying the right car, whiskey or lipstick]
….One of the key words in the New Age movement is transformation…. For the underlying conceit in New Age thought is that you can change the world by changing yourself, that the material conditions of your life—including, of course, the laws of physics—can be altered by a new therapy, the right guru, or an enlightened outlook.
…. Both [consumer culture and the New Age} favor a particular personality type—the narcissist. Narcissism is frequently misunderstood as excessive egotism. In fact, what distinguishes the narcissist is not the strength of their egos, but their weak sense of self, their thin attachment to any tradition or community, their inability to form lasting relationships, or to take comfort from the past. In a word, narcissists are uprooted persons. They are prone to exalted fantasies of fame and power because these help to firm up a chronically weak sense of self…
Narcissists are also the ideal New Age converts, first because they are preoccupied with finding a “true” –that is stable—self, and second because they are likely to be seduced by the grandiose fantasies so common in New Age thought…
Despite its strong rhetoric of equality, a lot of the New Age movement is structured like a pyramid, with a few people at the top getting rich and famous and a broad base of believers and spenders below…
The promise to empower that comes from the guru, the channeler, the seminar leader, the inspirational author, the person running the scam, is contradicted by the obvious fact that the one promising others power is always at the center of attention…
[You can find a longer, complete version of this essay in: Not Necessarily the New Age, ed. Robert Basil, Prometheus books, 1988].
a good, illustrated lecture on how anyone can be taken in by a manipulative group (even you!):
What is a cult?
My defintion is in this article:
This following essay is my stab at a hypothetical set of four themes that define how cult behavior becomes harmful: