Joe Szimhart answers interview questions from student doing a paper on cults: 2016
1.How did you become an expert in the field?
My expertise came from personal study after defecting from a large New Age cult often called Summit Lighthouse in 1980. I began helping people out of cults in 1980 and first worked professionally as an interventionist in 1985. I have many published papers and have lectured for cult and new religions conferences dozens of times, including for the Association for Sociology of Religion and for International Cultic Studies Association.
2. What makes someone join a cult?
No one joins a bad cult: If you are talking about a deceptive, manipulative group, then new recruits think they are getting into something for self-improvement, personal salvation, and to help the world. The recruit adapts to abusive leaders that control behavior and thoughts by reframing the experience as necessary to accomplish a goal, like a soldier in the trenches. Only after defection can someone fully realize that they were in a bad cult.
3. How many cults exist?
No one can count the number of cults as most are very small and under the news radar. I have uncovered dozens that none of my colleagues ever heard about over the years. My best guess is that there are thousands at any one time in America with maybe hundreds of larger, better known, bad cult-like groups.
4. Is mind control or brainwashing real when it comes to cults or is it more social conditioning?
There is no agreed upon legal or scientific definition of brainwashing, but social conditioning covers most of what people call brainwashing. We can say that totalist cults tend to use more extreme forms of social conditioning employing a transcendent attraction as bait, then applying exclusive authoritarian leadership. Authoritarian leaders guide followers into a tight orbit of devotion and behaviors creating a “them and us” radical social division. Brainwashing works primarily through establishing severe exit perils like going to hell, being reborn into a bad life, or losing everything you have gained while in the cult. The most extreme cults like street gangs, Mafia, and radical Islam will even take your life if you defect. Even old Freemason groups asked their new recruits to take an oath of accepting death before they dared to defect. The ancient cult surrounding Pythagoras exercised the death oath.
5. Why do people change when they join cults?
Studies show that the self will adapt to the primary social group and self often adjusts to the personality of the group to feel the same.
6. Do cults harm society?
Harmful cults harm society, and the extent to which the cult has extreme behaviors, the more possibility for harm. For example, Bernie Madoff created a kind of financial cult, attracting wealthy investors and manipulating the system he created for his own benefit. He kept people believing (brainwashing) that they could lose millions (exit peril) if they did not stay the course (orbiting) in his investments (transcendent attraction). Yet, the Ponzi scheme Madoff created harmed an enormous amount of people.
7. What resources does someone have if they want to leave a cult?
In her book Brainwashing: The Science of Though Control, neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor (2004) argues that the brain works best when we employ “stop and think” strategies to avoid scams, manipulation, etc. But our brain’s executive function can be and is easily bypassed by appeals to emotion and ideals, which is what cults do. We have to train ourselves to be skeptics. No one is a born skeptic. Usually, cult members will defect when they stop and think about how things are not adding up. It may take years for an actual break, but the Internet is a start, but daring to speak with an ex-member or two is the best way. At times, families will hire a professional like myself to try to talk to them.
8. How does a cult affect family?
Once someone in a cult accepts the “them and us” divide, families are generally cut off especially if a family member tries to criticize the cult.
9. What is the most interesting concept about a cult?
Cult behavior has driven human social evolution since the dawn of human communication through symbols and rituals. A cult exists at the core of every religion. For example, Catholics have the cult of the Eucharist, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs have the cult of the holy book, Buddhists have the cult of the no-self, and Hindus have thousands of cults to “care” for their gods. Ancient Romans called their religion Cultus Deorum or “caring for the gods.”
10. Are all cults bad?
No. A cult that is guided by a sane social system with checks and balances can be good.
You have my permission to quote this interview. The questions are typical of most young students doing short papers about cults.