Saturday, August 20, 2011

who wants to join a cult? (part II)

You may have noticed that in the preceding post I did not address the issue of theological/doctrinal error within abusive and high-control religious groups.*   There are several reasons for that:

1.  First of all, because groups vary.  In some, there is some very obvious distortions of faith concepts and outsiders can clearly pinpoint them, even if a member has bought into the belief system.  But when a group is still in the recruiting phase, there may not be.  Or it may be so understated that it would be hard to prove. 

2. Secondly, because convincing people that there is serious error is usually not an effective way to steer them away from potentially harmful groups.  Their mind is becoming more and more confused and the leader(s) like it that way.  Besides, there are all kinds of minor theological disagreements out there so perhaps this is just one of them? (thinks the brainwashed member...)
It is much easier to spot other kinds of dysfunctions—unhealthy group dynamics, an overbearing or all-knowing leader, the absence of the usual (and healthy) disagreements and compromises among members, and other tell-tale pattern of  thought control programs.  It is often sufficient to focus on the social psychology of a movement or group, to try to make a decision about whether to join up or, alternatively, to run for the hills.  "How cult leaders and other clever operators get people to do their bidding seems arcane and mysterious to most persons, but I find there is nothing esoteric about it at all," writes cult experet Margaret T. Singer.  "There are no secret drugs or potions.  It is just words and group pressures, put together in packaged forms." 
Words, you say?  So for a literature-based cult, this ought to be pretty simple, then?   Maybe so.
Still, when you have a controlling leader who is geographically removed from his/her followers, the dynamic is not going to be exactly the same as it has traditionally been with other high-pressure groups of its kind.  It can't be; if you are trying to influence people from afar (or in some way to acquire some power over them), a leader will necessarily have to be more cautious and more cunning in their methods because small mistakes will show more easily.  On the other hand, the agenda will be "packed into" those reading materials for maximum effectiveness.  The Internet makes such groups possible because of instantaneous flow of information, but perhaps they will be less successful because of it. 
There is no way to predict exactly what will happen next with this particular group, but, based on what other swindlers and egomaniac leaders have done in the past, we can make some educated guesses.  Besides, if the agenda is to control people, there should already be evidence available in the written materials.  The hierarchy needs certain conditions in order to function effectively, and it would be working toward certain goals (if it is indeed a cult or high pressure group).  In Part I, we listed some of the the methods that cults use to create an environment of change and control (to shape the personalities of members into their most agreeable and non-resistant form).  Singer believes all the tactics of thought reform are encompassed within this list of three:
1.  they destabilize a person's sense of self: they create a person who has lost confidence and independence through a slow and imperceptible (though well coordinated) program.  They have undermined their consciousness of reality, their belief system and beaten down their defense mechanisms.  Again, not by force because words, suggestions and environment are usually enough. 
2. they get a person to reinterpret their own life history and accept a new version of reality and causality
3.  they develop a person's dependence on the organization and transform them into a deployable agent
From what I could tell in the small group I attended in June, this group is still somewhat in the early phases of development.  It all seems very harmless because there are (seemingly) no specific demands on members and besides, they are "volunteering" their time in recruiting others!  No one told them to do anything, right?  And it's not like the leaders are breathing down their neck because, they are thousands of miles away!
At that meeting, as these (very devout and well-intentioned people) studied the materials and discussed the content, I remember that several people present agreed (in response to an encouragement to "say Yes to God more willingly and frequently") that they did indeed need to do that and to be less fearful.  In itself, this is not a scary statement from a Catholic as we all admire the Virgin Mary's unquestioning "Fiat" to the Angel.  The problem was that these very sincere Catholics had already accepted that the message of these texts was divine in origin.  They no longer questioned the messenger's words—they had already made up their minds to believe that they were the words of Jesus Himself.  The parish priest directed them to a book, a bishop has given his Okay, and that was enough. 
This is, in my view, one of the real dangers of groups like these—the fact that everything seems so innocent and pure and harmless.  The people I met who are taking these materials seriously all seemed to be sweet, well-meaning and trusting.  They just want to understand God and their faith better.  But they were not waiting for a final verdict from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the content of the book was unquestioned.
Brainwashing is a loaded word and I hate to use it because it conjures up the extremes: the Mason family and David Koresh and all that.  This is what is really scary about it: brainwashing starts as soon as someone has accepted someone else's authority over their thinking.  In the case of an alleged visionary—who is speaking the words of Jesus or Mary, after all—it's all over.  Anything "Jesus" wants them to do, they'll do.  That's how cults get started, when people stop asking questions.  

In Cialdini's book on the mechanics of influence, he used salespeople as an example, but in my experience, it applies to church people, too.  Not the woman in the church narthex, that's not what I mean.  I mean the leader of this group, the person who is claiming some extra special spiritual knowledge and encouraging others (like the narthex woman) to flock to them for guidance.  That's one of the warning signs that stood out from our brief conversation: the promise of an extra special anything.  The question ought to be, Why, if there is nothing substantially different from Sacred Scripture, should I bother with someone's books or ideas about a supernatural revelation they claim to have had?
There is a Church document from 1978, the NORMS OF THE SACRED CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH ON THE MANNER OF PROCEEDING IN JUDGING ALLEGED APPARITIONS AND REVELATIONS" that speaks directly to this issue (it has been translated into English at this website):
"4. In uncertain cases that make little difference to the good of the Church, let the competent ecclesiastical Authority abstain from any judgment and direct action (it may even happen that, with the passage of time, the event said to be supernatural may fall into oblivion); nonetheless he should not leave off vigilance, so that if necessary, he can intervene promptly and prudently."
As I understand it, when a priest or bishop grants an Imprimatur, it doesn't necessarily mean that a private revelation has been authenticated.  It simply means that there is nothing in the published materials that has been found to contradict established doctrine.  There's a big difference.  In fact, that was pointed out in #2 on that same list:
2. If the faithful are legitimately requesting it (that is, in communion with the Pastors and not driven by a sectarian spirit), the competent ecclesiastical Authority can intervene, to permit and promote some forms of veneration and devotion, if, according to the Criteria as noted above, there is no obstacle to them. Nevertheless, there should be caution lest the faithful take this manner of acting as an approval on the part of the Church for the supernatural character of the event (cf. Prefatory note, under c).

How could it be bad when the fruit is good?  The woman in the narthex asked.  What harm can it do? 
Plenty.  Have you ever been betrayed by someone you trusted about the deepest matters of your faith or life?  Have you ever suffered through the anguish of not knowing who, if anyone, to trust ever again.  Have you ever lost your ability to trust yourself?  Well, I'll tell you: it's awful, and dark.  Most of us can't handle that sort of messing with our minds.  It is easy to become confused, and depressed, maybe suicidal.  It's that serious.  
In the meantime, I think we should do the same thing that Robert Cialdini advised in his example of the salesperson: just sleep on it.  Keep praying the way you always have, move on with your life and ignore the "new stuff" for, oh, a good decade or so.  Belief in private revelation is not mandated by the church and it usually takes awhile to authenticate a revelation (remember St. Faustina?).  So just relax, we'll know if it's legitimate soon enough and do you really want to take the risk, just to be able to brag that you "knew [of this movement] when"?

Go from the gut and steer clear of groups that seem too good to be true because they most likely are.  Ignore it because it will probably fade away on its own anyway and just disappear into the mist.  The same people who are good at manipulating can also be really good at hiding the traces of their misdeeds; they might just disappear after awhile and (hopefully) move to some island far, far away.

Maybe you're getting depressed just reading about this, but I try not to get too discouraged about the whole business.  Sooner or later, if the group is in fact a cult, it will start to show.  Members will realize it and some of them will walk away.  Sooner or later, the desire for power or money will eventually override the leader's sense of self-preservation.  They will make mistakes and their real agenda will peek through.  They will become less cautious and their real motives will start to show.  They will not realize it, or they won't care (once again: think, Warren Jeffs).  Pastors who are really in it for the money get busted by the IRS all the time.  Or whatever, that's just an example.  At this point, it will no longer be a matter of convincing new recruits to join, but of helping current members get out.
On the other hand, though, the deceit might just be outright and in the open all along.  A monthly urgent message from God about how members of the group need to work harder, pray more and sacrifice more of their time and money—all passed along by a messenger who won't reveal their real name or anything about their past?  Well, that's so obvious, it just might work.
* I am focusing on religious cults in this series because that's what I know about, but there are many, many different kinds: commercial or political ones, cults that offer techniques in self-improvement or enlightenment, cults based on outer-space phenomena, psychological cults, etc. 

1 comment:

  1. i worry sometimes i want to start a cult. these are my worst impulses. really.

    your writing is strong.