Monday, August 15, 2011

who wants to join a cult? (Part I)

You know that thing when you open up the church bulletin after Sunday Mass and there's a plug for a new cult?  "Come and join our cult-group!  We pray a lot, we lie even more, AND you're guaranteed to become a mental health case after a short couple of years!"
Yeah, me neither. 
If only obsessive-compulsive narcissists would introduce themselves as such right from the start, it would save the rest of us a lot of trouble.  "Hi, I'm crazy and really really power hungry and I would love to manipulate you and a bunch of other people and then ruin some lives!"   Is that really asking too much?  At the very least, it would give everyone a chance to make a decision based on all the facts and then walk away laughing and not crying.
Unfortunately, this is what is more likely to happen:  say it's June, on a Sunday.  In the church bulletin there is a notice advertising "free summer reading" and promoting the publications of a certain Christian group.  There is even a local group that had begun to meet on the church grounds to discuss the book and to pray.  You are familiar with this group and know enough that you have been keeping your distance, and then enough more to know that others probably might want to, as well.  But then you find out that the local pastor is really into these publications and is spreading the word far and wide.  There's even a rumor that the local bishop has endorsed the materials.
If you hear about all of this on a Sunday in June, and if, a long time ago, you happen to have joined up with a similar group that was "just for prayer" and that one turned out to be a big huge mess, then you might do what I did.  I walked over to the display table to have a closer look and try to figure out why in the world someone thought it was a good idea.  There was a woman who was very obviously excited to share about the changes in her life that had occurred since she came across this new literature.  So instead of pretending I had a real interest in the books, I decided to be frank.  I told her about the online search I had conducted on the group and its leader and that I had come across some troubling allegations.  She seemed a little confused, but not at all defensive and replied that she had heard nothing the least bit negative about the movement, and in fact, the parish priest had been the one to introduce her to the books. 

 "They have changed my life!  I feel closer to God than ever!  Anyway, there is nothing in these books that isn't already in the Bible.  So how can it be bad?" 
Well, yes, that would be why.  Four reasons, right there.  Thanks for helping me make my case. 
Back in my college days, I joined a prayer group too.  It sounded good and harmless (how could prayer be bad?) and I told my friends who expressed reservations that I would keep my eyes wide open to look for warning signals.  They said that the group seemed "cult-like" and that the leader seemed "strange."  And I said, Thanks but I will be on the watch for anything suspicious.  Maybe that made them feel better and maybe it didn't, I don't know, but at the time it gave me a feeling of security.  As long as I could remain objective, keep my mind and eyes wide open, I wouldn't be "taken in," right? 
Turns out, that's the whole brainwashing deal; it happens without you realizing it.  Doh. 
Besides, what is suspicious?  What exactly was I supposed to be looking for?  I made a huge mistake in thinking that I didn't have to do any homework.  I didn't even research "signs of a cult" until months and months later.  By then, I was in very, very deep.  Looking back, though, the signs were already there.  (If you have to justify going to a prayer group, the problem is probably not the prayer, but the group so it makes no sense to sit around throwing arguments back and forth about the legitimacy of different kinds of prayer.)   
So what kinds of groups should we avoid from the get-go?  What traits in a leader are evident red flags?  Well, I've got all the answers so read on. 
Okay, that was a joke.  The truth is, I only wish that my experience in a high-pressure—and extremely dysfunctional—group had provided some failsafe technique for identifying similar groups or scary and dangerous leaders.  In reality, no two groups or leaders are exactly alike and manipulation is often very subtle.  New leaders learn from the mistakes of past ones and, if they're any good, they'll avoid the obvious pitfalls.  But I still believe that this is exactly where cult experts and cult survivors have a lot to contribute to the conversation.  Of course not all religious groups that are a little wacky are cults, and not all alleged visionaries are narcissistic or abusive (even the false ones), but those of us with some experience of how cults get started, then fuel themselves, and then eventually implode (because eventually, they all do) might just have an idea of what signs to look for.  

Manipulators are out to create a climate--an atmosphere where the pressure is understood without being explicit; no one has to even say anything at all because the expectations are clear to the members.  They know what's going on even if an outsider doesn't; the problem is that they're okay with it.  In fact, they think the mission and practices of the group are great!  These signs are perhaps easier to spot if you've seen it up close, because early on, before things really get started, those signs will already be there, only they'll be quieter and harder to pinpoint.
Probably one of the very first things to be on guard against is over-enthusiasm.  If the group is young, their leader unknown but prominent and a hotshot within the group and if there is already a sizable following, that makes it a little fishy already.  In his book Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini advises people to be suspicious if, very shortly after becoming acquainted with someone, you feel a closer bond than you probably should.  For example, if, only fifteen minutes after meeting a salesperson, you are ready to purchase the product they are promoting, that ought to be a red flag right there.  You don't have to be able to pinpoint their tactics, he clarifies, but be assured that they are somehow calculating a response from you.  In some way, they have been able to exert a degree of power over your thinking without you noticing it.  Perhaps your enthusiasm about being associated with someone so "exciting" or "special" has caused you to ignore your better judgment.
So let's start a list. 

#1 is get online.  Google the group, the leader.  What have former members said about the group?  If anyone has every linked this group with the word "cult," you should probably go ahead and google that, too, because chances are, you'll be surprised at how many shapes and forms cults and cult-like groups will take.  No one joins up for a cult.  No one decides to join a group because the group philosophy is dangerous and crazy.  They are not thinking that down the road they might want to poison themselves and their families.  Obviously.  Cults are groups that start out as good causes, and then go wrong.  We sign up to improve the environment, or to better society, to deepen our personal spirituality, or to improve ourselves and increase our happiness.  It all has to sound good from the outset, or no one would even take a second look, right? 
That's #2 and #3, then: Do not expect that to find anything obviously wrong within a successful group (that you suspect might be cult-like).  You may or may not.  If they have survived for a few years, or even a few decades, and if they are still recruiting, then they are probably good at what they do.  It will be subtle and it will probably sound really, really good.  And then, #3 is to realize that high-pressure groups and cult-like groups evolve.  They start out one way, and end up another.  (My personal opinion, however, is that in hindsight, we can always look back and see signs from the very beginning, some of them very obvious though they may be couched in gushing and over-religious language.)
Here are some more things to watch out for but will be harder to gauge as a non-member (this information is not usually shared explicitly by the highest levels of the hierarchy and it will take even members awhile to recognize patterns)
4. There is usually a single person at the top who calls the shots; this person is never wrong and should never be challenged.  They are secretive about themselves and like to maintain an aura of mystery about their past and their personal life.  This doesn't mean that they won't laugh at their own expense at times (if only to prove that they aren't "one of those Crazy Power Hungry Cult Leaders Who Can't Take A Joke, ha ha!").  But beware if you cross that line; there is always an understanding among members that the leader will get the last say and should never be criticized.
5. There is pressure, whether stated outright or not, whether subtle or overt.  Members are progressively cut off (psychologically or physically or financially) from their support networks of friends and family or colleagues and the group begins to take center-stage.  Or, stated differently, members will become so personally invested in the group, they cannot function independently anymore.   Simultaneously, nothing they do can ever be good enough for the group/leader.
6. There is an atmosphere of exclusivism/elitism: everyone within the group is superior (or in the Right) and everyone else is inferior (just plain wrong, lazy or possibly evil).  If you really want to get things done, or if you really want to be sure to get to heaven (or whatever), you know what to do: everything the leader/group says to do, of course!
7. In a high-pressure group, there is never a legitimate reason to leave. 
8. There is a defensive or paranoid attitude toward people on the outside: "they can't handle the truth; they're just upset because we're showing them up for how unholy/lazy/selfish they are" or "See?  We're not crazy or boring or uptight.  If we were, would we play frisbee once a year, huh? Huh?"
9.  As good at the manipulation game as a leader might be, there will be some troubling patterns that have emerged or that are beginning to emerge.  Like:
 – they have begun to solicit money/sex/some other currency, whether subtly or overtly. 
– there is a change in the teaching/theology or message.  Over time, to retain the members, the doctrine of the group will morph and the focus will change from recruitment of new members, to the retention of the ones they have.   Here's an example: once a climate of control has been established and members are trying hard to fit in or to comply with the expectations of the group, a leader can "back off" and appear to be more lenient and gracious in what they say because an undercurrent of inadequacy is always there anyway, as far as members are concerned.  If leaders talk about generosity or gentleness or kindness then their followers might just become convinced that they are kind and generous and gentle.
(to be continued...Part II, click here)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, nayhee! (I posted something from "Anne" on Steve Gershom's blog.) I am not involved in the group, I've just read a few of the books. The pledge to become a "lay apostle" seems a little weird to me, for sure. I don't know if it's a cult, and I'm not going to get involved with it, but I do know that God has used those words to speak to me....but then again, He uses Scripture to do that way more often. I hope that me posting that doesn't cause someone else to get involved with it if it is a cult, so thanks again for posting after me, and thanks for caring!